The Famous .44 Colt Original
By Mike Hudson
It is a funny looking cartridge. Stubby. The 215 grain, heel-based, round nose bullet sits mostly inside the fat case, which contains 21 grains of coarse black powder. It’s known today as the .44 Colt Original and its history is as colorful as that of the Old West itself. The only guns ever designed to fire it, the Richards and Richards-Mason conversions of the 1860 Colt Army, went out of production about 130 years ago after only 11,100 were manufactured.
It is known as the Original in order to distinguish it from the .44 Colt rounds being produced today for use in the replica Colt conversion guns imported from Italy over the past decade. These imports use the same .429" diameter bullet as the .44 Special and Magnum cartridges, while the Original uses a nominal .451" bullet with a heel diameter of .429". The grooved and lubed heel-base sits inside the cartridge casing, much like a modern .22 LR rimfire round. Unfortunately, the .44 Colt Original is not interchangeable with any modern cartridge.
Propelled by 21 grains of black powder, the 215 grain bullets leave the barrel at something like 750 fps, with a muzzle energy of around 208 ft. lbs. While not a powerhouse like the contemporary .45 Colt cartridge, it was still effective as a defensive round at normal handgun ranges.
Of all the six-guns I’ve ever owned, and there has been a passel of them over the past 40 years, the best balanced, naturally pointing and generally delightful has been the Second Model Richards Conversion .44 Colt I picked up a few months back for what I considered a bargain price. Based on the 1860 Colt Army percussion revolver, the Richards and Richards-Mason conversions were popular in the American West during the 1870's, even after Colt introduced the famous Single Action Army in 1873. Not only were the converted percussion guns less expensive than a new SAA, they were more available. Much of the early production of the new SAA model went directly into government arsenals.
I do not understand why Colt chose to go with the Navy grip rather than the Army grip on the SAA. I don’t have big hands, but for a gun of that weight, the Army grip seems entirely more manageable and comfortable to me. The example I acquired had originally been manufactured as a percussion gun in 1869. Whether it was sent back by its owner for conversion or had lain unsold at the Colt factory prior to the metallic cartridge alteration will remain a matter of speculation.
From the standpoint of a collector, the old gun had a few problems, which was probably why I was able to get it so inexpensively. For one thing, the barrel had been cut back to 5-1/2” a long time ago, a common alteration for those who didn’t need the eight-inch barrel preferred by the cavalry. So common was this modification that collectors now look at long-barreled specimens suspiciously, in order to make sure the tube has not been “stretched” by adding a barrel section from another 1860 Army to restore the gun to its original appearance. A Richards conversion .44 taken off the outlaw Cole Younger after the disastrous James-Younger gang raid in Northfield, Minnesota, had its barrel similarly bobbed.
The gun I bought had also been cleaned at one point, and now has the smooth grey look to the iron generally shunned by serious collectors. I have never understood this particular prejudice but am entirely in favor of it, as it leaves many fine examples of classic firearms available at reduced prices for me to shoot.
On the plus side, the bore was very good, and there was no pitting anywhere inside or out, indicating that the metal itself was probably in good shape.
A problem for the modern shooter of these fine old six-guns is finding ammunition. Original .44 Colt rounds are also collector’s items and a packet of 12 issued during the frontier era by the Frankfort Arsenal can set you back $1,000. Clearly, those are not for shooting.
I began searching for someone to supply the ammo. My usual sources for oddball rounds, Stars & Stripes and Buffalo Arms, could not help me. I later found I could use Starline brass and found a company that had the correct bullet molds, but I held out hope there was an easier way. Finally, I happened on Bernold Nelson, who runs a one-man shop up in northern Wisconsin, GAD Custom Ammunition. He specializes in short runs of exotic and obsolete pistol, rifle and shotgun ammo, has been in business for 45 years and can pretty much make up whatever you want.
Interestingly, Bernold told me, although few guns were made to fire it, the .44 Colt Original was loaded by the big ammo companies almost to the start of World War II. Apparently, many of the old conversions wound up on the used gun market around the turn of the 20th Century, and were in great demand south of the border for use in the Mexican Revolution that dragged on intermittently between 1910 and 1929. Indeed, many early conversions are found today sporting old, aftermarket ivory grips carved with the Mexican eagle design. As I said, the Colt .44 conversions were real warhorses, in use for well over a half-century under some of the roughest conditions imaginable.
If I can find a way to get around it, I do not use black powder in my guns. It is filthy and cleanup is a chore. I have a Colt 1878 Frontier DA made in 1889 that does just fine with smokeless .45 Long Colt rounds loaded to cowboy action pressures. However, these Colt conversions were designed for black powder pressures and it is the only way to go. Even so, I asked Bernold to go easy on the loads.
The low, German silver front sight, familiar to anyone who’s handled one of the replica 1860 Armys turned out by the various Italian makers over the past half century, takes some getting used to. In conjunction with the hammer notch rear sight, it was meant to have a point blank range out to 50 yards. At seven yards, the gun shoots horrifically high.
Still, with practice and by focusing solely on the front sight rather than trying to align it with the rear, a paper plate at 50 feet can be hit with regularity by holding just a little low. Remember, these guns were made as man killers, not for target matches or small game hunting. There’s a certain satisfaction derived from taking a gun that probably has not been fired in more than 70 years out to let her show you what she can do. The acrid smell and billowing white cloud made by the black powder are like the icing on a cake.
Copyright 2010 by Mike Hudson. All rights reserved.