The Hobby Gunsmith

June Feature-

1858 Remington Conversion

Last month we showed a one-day cartridge conversion of a 51 Navy revolver using the Kirst Cartridge Konverter.  The project generated a fair amount of mail so we decided to do another one-day cartridge conversion.  This month we are converting a 58 Remington percussion revolver using the Kirst five-shot .45 Long Colt safety cylinder and the Kirst cartridge extractor.

   The 1858 Remington revolver first saw service during the Civil War.  It was a .44 caliber percussion revolver with a distinctive look created by the reinforced loading arm directly under the barrel.  The Remington design lends itself well to being converted because of its top strap that connects the recoil shield to the front frame.  This makes it an "O" type frame, which is similar to the later Colts and is much stronger than the Colt revolvers of the same time period.  Our Remington style .44-caliber revolver is made by Pietta of Italy and shot well with .452 inch diameter balls, so the 452 diameter bullet of the .45 Long Colt cartridge should perform well.  We have converted similar guns using the shorter .45 ACP cylinders and know how well that cartridge performs with a soft lead bullet.

The Pietta 1858 Remington style revolver before we began work at noon.

   The Kirst Safety Cylinder was a bit controversial in the cowboy action shooting world when it was first released nearly a year ago.  Most cowboy action sanctioning bodies require one chamber of the revolver remain unloaded so the hammer can rest on the empty chamber to prevent an accidental discharge.  Although the Kirst Safety Cylinder has five chambers, it is technically a six shot cylinder because the star is designed to index to six separate positions. 

The Kirst cylinder showing the safety chamber at the top.  The cylinder fully indexes on the safety chamber during normal operation, making it a six shooter without the sixth shot.

   The sixth position can be thought of as a blank cylinder for lowering the hammer in a safe position with no cartridge under the hammer.  This is different than percussion cylinders that include a safety notch between the percussion caps, because the Kirst Safety Cylinder indexes on the special safety chamber.  Cowboy action shooting rules do not require all chambers to be the same caliber so I think of the Kirst safety cylinder as being a .45 Long Colt with a single .22 caliber chamber they didn't drill because it isn't to be used for a cartridge.

   The Hobby Gunsmith acquired one of the new safety cylinders along with a prototype backing plate with a loading gate.  We also acquired in one of the Kirst ejector assemblies that replaces the revolver's cylinder pin.  By replacing the cylinder pan with the Kirst ejector assembly, we have a complete conversion that can be converted in one day and shot the next.  Follow along as we convert this Pietta made 1858 Remington percussion revolver into a .45 Long Colt cartridge conversion revolver.

The Pietta 1858 Remington style revolver with the Kirst parts being checked for initial fit.

   The first step in converting our revolver to shoot cartridges is to verify the gun is not loaded.  Check the percussion cylinder to make sure there are no caps on any of the nipples.  After verifying the gun is not loaded, we will test fit the parts to make sure they are correct.  We began this process by removing the percussion cylinder and the loading lever. 

   The loading lever is removed using a gunsmith screwdriver to remove the small screw from the left side of the frame just under the barrel.  This is the pivot screw for the loading lever and doubles as a retaining screw for the cylinder pin.  The loading lever can be slid forward out of the frame after removing the screw.  With the loading lever removed, the cylinder pin can be slid forward and out of the frame.  Be careful the percussion cylinder does not fall to the floor.  The gun may need to be put in half cock position to remove the cylinder.

   Reverse this process to install the new Kirst cylinder into the frame.  This is done by slipping the backing plate over the rear the cylinder and sliding the cylinder into the frame.  Instead of using the original cylinder pin to retain the cylinder, we will slide the Kirst ejector assembly into the cylinder pin hole with the ejector positioned on the right side of the frame. 

   If you have difficulties installing the new cylinder make sure that the firing pin on the backing plate is on top and that the flat sides of the backing plate are sliding into the frame.  I found it is possible to install the backing plate upside-down with some kits, but it should not be a problem if we remember to keep the loading gate on the proper side of the gun. Reinstall the loading lever and its retaining screw, but be aware that the loading lever will not close correctly unless the extractor rod is turned so it points away from the barrel.  This completes the installation of the Kirst for the initial trial fit.

   Check to see that the cylinder can be turned easily without binding.  Making sure that the cylinder is not loaded, cock hammer to verify that the cylinder is being rotated correctly, and feel free to dry fire the gun.  Make sure the ejector assembly is not interfering with the movement of cylinder.  This may require you to slide the ejector rod forward to prevent it from working its way into one of the chambers and preventing the cylinder from turning.  When the conversion is complete, the ejector rod will be retained between the barrel and the loading arm, but this cannot be done until we grind or file the notch in the loading arm.

   After verifying that everything fits, it is time to mark the recoil shield where metal must be ground away for loading cartridges.  I find the easiest way to do this is to use a strip of duct tape to outline the area to be removed.  This can be done by opening the loading gate and running tape from the edge of the loading port in the backing plate back to the rear the recoil shield.  This can be seen in the photographs where I use black duct tape to outline the area to be ground away.  Some people use light color masking tape or gray duct tape, but I find the black duct tape to be sufficient and that's what I had in the shop.

The frame draped with duct tape revealing only the area where metal is to be removed.

   I removed the cylinder and laid the backing plate into place with the loading gate open.  This allowed me to see the area on the inside of the recoil shield known as the standing breech.  I used a sharp carbide scribe to outline the area that needs to be cut away in the standing breech.  This will be used later as a guide for how deep to make our cut.

   With duct tape as a guide for grinding away metal, disassemble the firearm down to the last parts.  When taking a gun apart I like to keep all the parts together in little plastic tray.  One excellent source of these trays is to go to Taco Bell and purchase one of their Fiesta Taco Salads.  It comes in a black styrene tray that can be taken home and used for loose parts.

   Remove the loading lever retaining screw and slide the loading lever out the front of the frame.  Remove the Kirst ejector assembly and cylinder pin, and remove the cylinder and backing plate. Remove the grip screw and remove the wood grip panels.  Remove the mainspring tensioning screw and slip the mainspring out one side of its retaining slot.  Remove the small screw in front of the brass trigger guard assembly and remove the trigger guard.  Remove the cylinder-locking bolt and trigger spring screw, and remove the spring.  Remove the trigger and cylinder bolt pivot screw from the left side of the frame.  This is a small screw just forward of the hammer pivot screw.  Remove the trigger and the cylinder locking bolt assembly out through the bottom of the frame.  Remove the hammer pivot screw from the left side of the frame and push the hammer down toward the bottom of the frame to expose the hand pivot screw.  Using a very small gunsmith screwdriver, remove the hand pivot screw and slide the hand out the bottom of the frame.  Remove the hammer through the top of the frame.  Your Remington revolver is now completely disassembled.

   There are three ways to grind the loading Port in the recoil shield: use a milling machine, use round rattail files, or use a rotary grinder.  Although we have used a milling machine and files in past projects, will be using a rotary grinder for this project.  One problem with using a rotary grinder is the potential that the bit may slip or run away and damage other parts of the frame.  To minimize this, we always brace the hand holding the grinder in a way to minimize this risk. 

   We will also use duct tape to cover all areas of frame that are exposed to damage by a runaway tool.  To emphasize the danger of damaging the outside finish of the revolver frame, we photographed our project gun and forgot to put the protective tape back before returning to grinding.  Our tool did run away and left a series of tooth marks down the right side of frame.  It can happen to anyone.

   We will be grinding with a Carbide grinding bit in a hobby-grinding tool.  One problem with using a Carbide grinding bit is that it creates extremely sharp little chips that seem to find a way into the skin and are very painful.  We will be using a larger die grinder, which produces even larger and sharper chips.  Do not let this discourage you from using a Carbide grinding bit as we will show you a way to avoid getting the slivers into your skin.

   We clamped the revolver frame to a board we spread across an open garbage can.  This will allow us to use the grinder with one hand while leaving the other hand free to hold a hose.  We used a shop vacuum with the hose connected to the outlet so we could blow air over our grinder and blow the chips away from us.  This worked very well and we picked up only one or two chips in our skin this time.  We also wore latex gloves and found those to be helpful in preventing the chips from lodging between the tools and the skin.  We were careful to use a face shield and safety glasses while using the grinder.

   With the frame clamped to the board and air blowing the chips away, we began carefully grinding away the excess metal from the recoil shield.  We worked slowly and braced our hand so the tool was under firm control.  We did not press hard on the tool and just let the rotary grinder do its own work.  We were careful to not let the tool speed slow as we worked.  We kept the tool moving back and forth to prevent tool chatter.  Chatter is caused by the tool going down into a groove and vibrating back and forth across the slot.  Keeping the slot wider allows the tool to move back and forth while producing a clean cut.

The frame after cutting and ready to test-fit the clearance of cartridges.

   We spent about an hour or so removing metal from the recoil shield.  We stopped periodically in check our work for depth.  This requires removing the frame from the board periodically so we can compare the depth of our cut to the line we scribed in the standing breech.  We worked slowly and carefully.  I emphasize the need to move the bit back and forth in a U shape as we ground metal out to the lines that denote the edges of the port.  We were careful to hold the axis of the grinding tool parallel to the centerline of the cylinder pin so our loading port did not become angled.

The port is tested with an empty cartridge.

   After we finished grinding and shaping the loading port in the recoil shield, we removed the duct tape, cleaned the frame using unscented mineral spirits to remove grinding chips, and tested the Kirst cylinder in the frame.  We had worked slowly and carefully so the loading port very closely matched the contour of the loading gate.  We then used an empty 45-cartridge case to see if it could be loaded through the loading port and into the cylinder.  It required a few more attempts to grind and fit before the cartridge slide freely through the port.  This is an artistic endeavor because we want to be able to remove enough material to allow the cartridge to slide freely into the chamber, but not cut away so much metal as to weaken the frame.  We worked slowly and carefully at this stage because it easy to go too far. 

   Once we had the recoil shield cut to allow loading through the port, we reassembled the revolver enough to be able to trial fit the extractor assembly.  We did this by installing the cylinder and backing plate, and the extractor assembly.  We reinstalled the loading arm of the revolver and with the loading arm down, we pulled the extractor rod forward and rotated it until the flat side of the extractor handle is just touching the underside of the barrel.

   We checked to make sure the extractor rod was loose, but not protruding out of the housing toward an open cylinder.  When we were satisfied that we had a good position for the extractor rod, we moved the loading arm into place and marked each side of the rod on the top of the loading arm.  This became our guide for grinding a notch in the top of the loading arm to retain the extractor rod in the ideal position.

   We removed the loading arm and clamped it to our grinding board.  We ground away the notch that is illustrated in the photo.  We made an initial cut that was very light and reassembled the revolver to make sure that we were cutting in the exact desired position. 

   It took several attempts to get it just perfect and we were fortunate the final cut removed all evidence of our previous attempts.  This finished the initial grinding needed to prepare our conversion.

   We removed all the parts from the revolver again so that we could clean up any irregularities in the grinding we had done. We installed a half-inch diameter fine grit sanding drum in our rotary grinder and used very light pressure to clean any irregularities in the loading port.  This left us with very clean work, and we were tempted to not polish these cuts.

   We used the half-inch diameter sanding drum with 400 grit sandpaper to move in an out of the loading port to continue polishing away any previous grinding or standing marks left by the rotary tool.  We used unscented mineral spirits and continued working until we had a polished and clean loading port.  We slightly beveled the area between the loading Port and the Kirst backing plate to prevent cartridges from hanging up while being extracted.  This is very slight and does not have to be done, but it improves the ability to extract cartridges at the unloading table.

   After polishing our work, we installed a small rotary buffing tool into the hobby grinder.  We used emery-buffing compound to buff our loading port to a mirror finish.  We used gun scrubber solvent to remove buffing compound and expose the bare metal in the loading port and the notch we cut in the loading arm.  This was the final preparation before using cold blue solution.

The frame is ready to be cold-blued.

   We used Birchwood-Casey cold blue solution to blue the bare metal.  We applied the solution as per the instructions and let it set for about one minute before wiping with a towel.  We then buffed the darkened metal with 0000 steel wool.  We repeated in the bluing process three more times until we could see we were making no further progress.  We completely cleaned the gun with unscented mineral spirits to remove any grinding chips, compounds, or oils from the parts.  We then reassembled the gun in the reverse order in which we disassembled it earlier in the project.

The Birchwood-Casey cold blue solution in place on the recently polished steel.

   One change we made in our project gun was to install a lighter hammer spring from Lee's Gunsmithing.  We had used a Lee Spring Kit in our Rossi 92 Puma rifle and were satisfied with the quality of their products.  We contacted Lee's Gunsmithing and they modified a mainspring for our project gun.  We installed the spring, which significantly smoothed the action, but the spring is too light to be used for percussion shooting.

   With the gun completely clean, assembled, and oiled, we were able to open the loading gate and effortlessly load it like any other single action revolver.  Total time on this project was about four hours of work.

The completed conversion at around four in the afternoon as we photograph the results.

   It should be kept in mind that although the Kirst cylinder is made much stronger than the original Pietta cylinder, this revolver frame is designed for the low pressures and stresses of blackpowder loads.  I seem to recall that the original Pietta instruction manual recommended a load of only about 20 grains of blackpowder in front of a much lighter bullet than we will be using.  We will not take this gun to the range because we have done several other 45 caliber conversions in the past, but this is our first with the 45 Long Colt cartridge.  Past conversions have used the 45 ACP cartridge which has similar ballistics and performance to this firearm.

A close-up photo showing the gun being loaded with the loading gate in the open position.  This new kit really makes the old Remington come alive for shooting.

   We will be using very light smokeless load in our revolver.  Our preferred load the will probably be about 3.4 grains of Hodgdon's Titegroup powder and a160 grain soft lead bullet.  We feel this will provide reasonable performance for cowboy action shooting without putting unnecessary stress on the frame. 

The complete conversion showing the cartridge being extracted using the Kirst extractor.  Note that the loading arm is down so the extractor rod could be used.

   In if we were going to use this gun in a blackpowder category, we would load it with approximately 10 grains of American Pioneer Powder and the same 60 grain soft lead bullet.  We would also use a filler material such as calk back or rod to fill any airspace in the cartridge.  Each shooter, however, should develop their own load for this gun, but keep in mind this is not a forged steel frame made from carefully hardened materials.

   This particular gun and will be heading to a cowboy action match in about three weeks to see how it performs.  We are sure, based on our experience with Kirst products, that we will have no problems.  We feel this is a very worthwhile project and may use this gun as one of our main match pistols.  We will probably be shooting in the gunfighter category with this gun in one hand and a .45 Colt 1875 Remington in the other.

   The Gated Remington is available in small quantities and is available
through Kirst distributors, however most of them don't have inventory yet. The distributor can contact Walt Kirst so he can can drop ship the part directly to the customer. Retail for the Gated Konverter Assembly (K-Ring & Cylinder) is
$299.95; K-Ring with gate (only) is $233.95 and Cylinder (only) $135.95.

   There is a full production run of K-Rings and Gates due at the end of June so availability should be up to speed shortly after this article appears.

Makers of fine Cartridge Conversion kits for:

  • Remington New Army

  • 1851 and 1861 Colt

  • Ruger Old Army