5.8 Wolf on Conversions

Chapter 5 – Centaure Conversions the Next Level of the Evolution?

5.8 Wolf on Conversions






















Wolf on Conversions

Rambling of an Old Cow Puncher

Pistols that Tamed the West and Added Spice to Modern Western Movies

The Transition Period in Historical Perspective

Converting a Colt 1860 Army C&B Revolver to Breech Loading is a Simple Affair

Flat Sales of Revolvers at Colt Firearms after the Civil War

Three Options for Modern Colt 1860 Army Conversions




Rambling of an Old Cowpuncher


What the heck is a Conversion? I frankly confess my interest in guns of the American frontier was triggered by watching Cowboy and Indian movies. I got hooked during the middle of the 1960s. It took a couple of years until I realized that the good old Colt Single Action Army Model of 1873 was not the only revolver carried around in the American West. When Spaghetti Western hit the market in earnest during the early 1970s Terence Hill carried his Colt 1851 percussion Navy on a gun belt cram-full with cartridges in NOBODY whereas Clint Eastwood cleaned the bored-through chamber of his 1851 Navy and loaded her with cartridges in the 1966 blockbuster THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY.  

So, some of my heroes preferred percussion revolvers over SAAs but carried cartridge belts around, whereas others took C&B revolver look-alikes fed with cartridges from the breech side to the final show-down?!

Somewhat puzzled I invested in books like THE BOOK OF COLT FIREARMS by Sutherland and Wilson to learn more about this evolution of front stuffers to breechloaders. Having finally seen the light, I am pleased that quite a few of the newer cowboy movies pay closer attention to the historical correctness of equipment but also the guns toted by the actors.


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5.8.1_1 Tom Selleck’s Colts carried in Westerns (from top): Richards (R1) conversion from LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER, Open Top from CROSSFIRE TRAIL (picture courtesy Mike Beliveau, Etter, PA, U.S.A.)


New life was instilled into this scheme during the late 1990s when Italian replica makers Armi san Marco (ASM) and Uberti commenced marketing their perceptions of Colt 1860 Army Richards, Richards-Masons (RM), even Thuer conversions or 1871/72 Open Tops (OTs). Initially I handled my then new ASM 1851 and 1860 Richards or Uberti OT and RM after the turn of the century pretty much enthused. But this has quickly changed to a more pragmatic attitude once I had the opportunity to compare the conversions of the replica industry side by side to originals. Eventually, I could get hold of my copy of R. Bruce McDowell’s conversionistas’ bible A STUDY OF COLT CONVERSIONS AND OTHER PERCUSSION REVOLVERS. That was the time I finally decided to have some of my Centaures custom converted to shoot cartridges by the great European conversion artist Karl Nedbal of Vösendorf in Austria.

You will have noted that conversions in general and those of the Colt 1860 Army are a subject close to my heart. However, and in some fairness, I will address it from different angles. A caveat is in order here. This is going to be a personal and very subjective page with a few drops of semi-scientific window-dressing. So, shake well before swallowing. It will lead you to the Belgian Centaure C&B pistols and their conversions.



Pistols that Tamed the West and Added Spice to Modern Western Movies


Contrary to what most Hollywood or Italy’s Cinecittà Western movies want to make us believe the good old Colt Single Action Army was not the handgun that tamed the Wild, Wild West. Provided it was big bore revolvers at all. Because from after the end of the Civil War through the 1880s it was the big bore percussion revolvers and their conversions. They were the pistols commonly carried in the U.S. West and Southwest. Back then the Army got priority delivery of the SAA for years after its launch in 1873. In addition, the “plough handle” as the SAAs were called by some was way too expensive for the poor cowpunchers.

The story of these conversions is confusing and seems to be contradictory often. Well maintained originals are rare today. Still the interest of collectors and cowboy shooters in these old working guns is growing slowly but constantly.


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5.8.2_1 Custom replication in .45 Colt cal. of a historical 5-shot 2-part drop-in conversion cylinder for a modern Santa Barbara Remington New Model 1863 Army: Remember Clint Eastwood’s Remmie in PALE RIDER, neither did it have a loading channel in the recoil shield nor an ejector


Even on these eastern banks of the Big Pond you will hear names of a few talented U.S. conversion artists once you scratch the surface of this subject some. These gentleman discovered this emerging niche market, began making quality conversions in small numbers for display, shooting or both from around the 1980s. More smiths have joined their ranks to this day on both sides of the Atlantic. When Colt Army or Navy conversions were to be custom altered early the project pistols these smiths started working on were mostly 2nd or 3rd generation Colts. Italian or Spanish replicas were used, however, when their clients wanted a Remington Army or Navy conversion. From the late 1990s the replica industry entered this market with its own perception of conversions as well.

It is the time now to take a fresh look at the story of these conversions back then and today.

When it comes to the historical correctness of guns used in movies, collectors and shooters alike can be a sensitive breed. Horse operas (aka Westerns) are no exception here. It does not come as a surprise then that conversion aficionados showed their appreciation to a few U.S. cowboy movies featured on the big screen or TV during the last decades simply because the heroes or their opponents did not tote the good old SAA; but, S&W Schofields or Remington 1875 Armies. Only a few were using period correct Colt, Starr or Remington conversions. Below is my personal top list of “Conversion Movies”.

# Do you remember Clint ”the Preacher“ Eastwood 1985 in PALE RIDER? Do you recall this cool scene during the final show-down when he changed the empty cylinder of his Remington New Model 1863 Army Armory Conversion for a loaded one? Incidentally, his pistol was altered for use with blanks at Stembridge Gun Rentals in Glendale/CA.

# 1997 Tom ”Paul Cable“ Selleck’s received this nicely engraved Colt 1860 Army Richards I Conversion pictured above (top pistol) with ivory grips as a gift from his movie wife and gunsmith in LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER. Four years later in 2001 as Rave Covington in CROSSFIRE TRAIL he carried a Colt 1871/72 Open Top (bottom pistol). Although the OT looks like a conversion, it was developed back then as a breech-loader. Both these Colt conversions were executed by U.S. conversion artist Kenny Howell.

# Also Viggo “Everett Hitch“ Mortensen, Ed ”Virgil Cole’s“ Harris’s side kick in the 2008 movie  APPALOOSA had a hankering for a Colt Open Top. The prop master did not issue a custom-made piece but a regular Uberti replica only.

# Likewise poor rancher Christian ”Dan Evans“ Bale and his son Logan ”William Evans” Lerman had to do with a regular off the rack Uberti. They made good use of this beaten, traditionally finished Colt 1851 Navy Richards-Mason Conversion in the 2007 remake of 3:10 TO YUMA against the bad boys of Russel ”Ben Wade“ Crowe’s gang.

5.8.2_2 Original Colt Navy 1851 Richards-Mason conversion with nickel finish (picture courtesy Collectors Firearms, Houston, TX, U.S.A.)


Other movies prominently featuring Colt conversions are e.g. Clint ”Josey Wales“ Eastwood with a Colt 1861 Navy Richards-Mason Conversion in the opening scene, or Chief “Lone Watie” Dan George with an original Colt 1860 Army Richards Conversion in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES from 1976, or Robert ”Augustus McGrea“ Duvall with his Colt 1847 Walker Long Cylinder Conversion in my all-time favourite cult mini-series LONESOME DOVE from 1988.


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5.8.2_3 Armi san Marco Colt 1847 Walker custom Long Cylinder Conversion on display 2012 at The Wittliffs Collections, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, U.S.A.


Thank you, Hollywood, for your responsiveness to the requests of us conversion aficionados. You did well. But do it again and more often in the future, please, like you did a few years back in 2011 in COWBOYS & ALIENS. We like to see more Westerns with historically correct armament even if you add a couple of aliens for good measure.

Where does this growing interest in conversions come from? Is this a fading fashion or a solid trend line? Possibly due to more historically correct guns in recent westerns? Have markets for more traditional fields of gun collecting like Handguns of the U.S. Civil War, Evolution of C&B Revolvers or simply Colt Single Action Armies dried up?  Or, have they possibly become too boring? Have the prices for original percussion revolvers or 1st generation Colt SAAs gone through the roof to the point where these guns are no longer affordable for us collectors on average income and, hence, the switch to conversions and their replicas as well?


Probably a little bit of everything and the desire to own a pistol that is different with lots of historical flair. And that is what these pistols of the transition period from percussion front stuffers to breechloading metallic cartridge guns offer a lot of and with some to spare. 

As we know most of these conversions from the 1870s saw a lot of action. Only a few only well-maintained originals have survived. Hence, the way out of this dilemma or “escape route” considered by many collectors was and still is a closer look at the conversions available from the replica industry. But there is another burning question to be addressed: ”How about the dimensional correctness of the conversions available today from the replica industry and from the few conversion artists in the U.S.A. and Europe?“


5.8.2_4 Armory and field conversions of the 19th century (top down): Two Remington Armies, Remington Navy, Starr SA Army conversion



The Transition Period in Historical Perspective


Who made the conversions back during the days? They could be had standardized from the original manufacturers like Colt or Remington, or as smaller sized, semi-standardized conversion programs through the armouries of the military. But, more often they were the jobs of gunsmiths or small gun shops on the frontier and south of the border. Under the motto the customer is always right at least one old Colt 1836 Texas Paterson was converted to shoot metallic cartridges back then. Let’s take a helicopter’s view at this transitional period while wearing the hat of the Colt company CEO right after the Civil War.


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5.8.3_1 Nedbal replication of .41 cal. Colt 1836 Texas Paterson conversion



Converting a Colt 1860 Army C&B Revolver to BreechLoading is a Simple Affair


Turn down the nipple section of the percussion cylinder but maintain the ratchets. Bore-through the cylinder for the .44 caliber cartridge of your choice, install a conversion ring, with a loading gate if you wish, modify the percussion hammer with a firing pin to ignite the cartridge type of your choice like rimfire (RF), centerfire (CF) or even pinfire and you are ready to go. Fitting an ejector for convenience would be nice to have, too. That was the basic principle of a conversion after the Civil War.


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5.8.4_1 Evolution of Colt 1860 Army cylinders exemplified by side views of Centaure cylinders (from left): Percussion, Thuer, Long Cylinder Conversion, Richards/Richards-Mason


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5.8.4_2 Evolution of Colt 1860 Army cylinders exemplified by breech views of Centaure cylinders (from left): Percussion, Thuer, Long Cylinder Conversion, Richards/Richards-Mason



Flat Sales of Revolvers at Colt Firearms after the Civil War


Technically and tactically percussion guns were obsolete by the end of the Civil War in 1865. The future belonged to standard metal cartridges no matter if they were for rifles, shotguns or revolvers or pistols. They functioned much more reliable due to positive ignition, were less affected by humidity, too. Also reloading was faster, the risk of overcharges (!) was low according to practical experience with European and U.S. systems. However, the high prices of these modern cartridge guns and their ammunition compared to percussion guns prevented their fast and wide distribution in the United States and particularly their western and southwestern frontier. Add to the pricing issue short supplies of centrefire-cartridges and you get the idea.

The Colt factory had to address several peculiar issues before they could legally market competitive breechloading revolvers. Its management just did not expect this dramatic stop of their booming percussion revolver business after the Civil War. On the other hand, only a few customers required or could afford to buy an Army conversion pistol or even a more modern breech loader for big bore cartridges from Hartford. What had happened?