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An 1898 Colt Bisley Flat Top in .44 Special

Discussion in 'Handguns: Revolvers' started by dakotaTex, Dec 15, 2016.

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  1. Driftwood Johnson

    Driftwood Johnson Member

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    Howdy Again

    An excellent question.

    I have said this a bunch of times. It is not just the raw pressure amplitude, it is also the duration of the spike that is also important. Most modern Smokeless powders have burn rates that produce a much sharper pressure spike than Black Powder does. Think of it as towing a car with a rope. Start slow and steady and you will probably be able to get the other car moving. Start off with a jerk and the rope will probably break. Not an exact correlation, but think of the old steel as not able to take as much of a sharp increase in pressure as modern steel can.

    Yes, some guys have done some pretty serious pressure studies with currently available powders that will pretty much duplicate the pressure curve of Black Powder, not just the amplitude but the duration. None of the typical powders used for handgun loads meet those criteria. No, I do not know which powders will, but I know there are some out there. Lacking that knowledge, lacking pressure testing equipment, and not wanting to experiment with my own antique revolvers, I personally choose to only shoot Black Powder loads in my old guns, and will not risk them with any modern Smokeless powders.

    Part of the reluctance of many shooters to use Black Powder in old guns is the perception that it is difficult to clean the fouling, and that it must be done immediately to prevent the gun turning into a pile of rust. Pardon my exaggeration, but neither of these assumptions are necessarily true.

    There is another point that is worth making. I am not reluctant to shoot mild Smokeless loads in my antique Winchesters. A rifle has thicker chamber walls and thicker barrel walls than any revolver. And some of them such as the Winchester Model 1892 have a very strong locking mechanism. So while I was comfortable shooting 44-40 loaded with a mild charge of Unique in an old Winchester, I am not willing to use that same load in an antique Colt, which is probably made of iron, not steel, and has very thin chamber walls.
     
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  2. Malamute

    Malamute Member

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    ...and before anyone says it, Trailboss is NOT an appropriate low pressure, gentle pressure curve black powder replacement.
     
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  3. Jim Watson

    Jim Watson Member

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    I've heard the theories.
    The one that Smokeless pressure spikes beat up BP revolvers, especially topbreaks and the one that progressive Smokeless delivers high pressure down the way where a BP shotgun barrel wall is thin. Contradictory?

    Oh, well, I chickened out and sold my guns older than 1907 to collectors.


    Trail Boss is a regular pistol powder except for its low bulk density suited to stout guns in BP chamberings. Often misused in BPCR.

    Seems like the boffins could come up with a modern version of RSQ. (See Sharpe)
     
  4. CraigC
    • Contributing Member

    CraigC Member

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    Yes, those are definitely not original Colt colors.
     
  5. BSA1

    BSA1 member

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    “One thing that really stands out in the pictures is how bright the colors of the caseharding are on the frame. For some reason I would expect the caseharding to have faded and turned more to gray on a 100+ year old gun.

    Perhaps Driftwood or some Colt collector can comment on the caseharding.”


    “The OP states in his first post that the gun has been refinished.”


    That is the reason for my question although I did not word it better.

    I thought original caseharding is a heat treating process. I have read that one of the risks of trying to recasehard the frame is warping it. I have also read that it takes a lot of knowledge and skill to do it right (such as done by Turnbull)and not very many gunsmiths / companies will even attempt to do it.

    Hence the reason for my surprise.

    Can someone enlighten me as to the process and problems with recaseharding the frame?
     
  6. dakotaTex

    dakotaTex Member

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    (snipped so I can answer the questions inline..)
    Driftwood, thank you for all that info on the cartridges. I must say I have learned a lot about .44 cartidges in the last week. I have come to the conclusion that the cylinder is original to the gun since I can find what looks like the last 3 digits of the matching serial etched into the rear of the cylinder. The barrel is a different story though, it does have the correct (Bisley) markings but the rifling is very sharp. If anything has been replaced, it is likely the barrel. I can't find any evidence of an old stamping under the 'special' marking, so it may be from a later model Bisley.

    The timing appears to be good as is lockup. There is clear evidence of both wear and of perhaps a bit of over polishing. The gun would have been refinished prior to my dad purchasing it in 1974. It was owned by a friend of his who purchased it in 1960-62.

    I have not slugged the barrel but I have never slugged a revolver barrel. It makes be a bit nervous since I've only ever barrels from the breech side. So slugging a revolver will not hurt the blueing on the crown? I'm not sure I'll be able to get to it before Christmas but I may try it.

    I appreciate the time you've put into to your posts, thanks again.


    dakotaTex
     
  7. dakotaTex

    dakotaTex Member

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    (snipped)
    Jim, good point. I am sure that there are smokeless powder loads that may be safe to shoot in a BP firearm. But of course they would have to be hand loads. While once upon a time I reloaded, I currently do not have the time to do so. So I'm limited to commercial loads. Based on that I think I will stick only to BP at this time.


    dakotaTex
     
  8. dakotaTex

    dakotaTex Member

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    snipped for brevity
    The firearm was likely refinished before my dad's friend purchased it, so it would have been done before 1960 or so. My dad bought it in 1974 and I know he did not refinish it so it was certainly done before then. If it was done prior to 1960 I'm sure casehardening wasn't the somewhat lost art it is today. Sadly even the refinish has some pitting here and there so I do suspect it was done long ago. Based on the amount of polishing on some areas I think it must have been in pretty rough shape before it was refinished. But the end result, especially with those grips, is quite striking. Plus I can shoot it without fear of destroying it's value.


    dakotaTex
     
  9. Driftwood Johnson

    Driftwood Johnson Member

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    Well, that's where the mystery is. According to Kuhnhuasen, the Bisley model was never chambered for 44 Special. Bisley Flat Top production ceased in 1913, the same same year Colt first chambered the Single Action Army for 44-40. And the standard Bisley model, with fixed sights, ceased production in 1915, but again, no 44-40 Bisleys were produced. So to me, the barrel marked Bisley Model and 44 Special is a bit of a mystery.
     
  10. dakotaTex

    dakotaTex Member

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    Ah, I see your point about the barrel. I don't know when Colt marked guns with an & showed they had been refinished in house. I suppose at that time they could have replaced the barrel with a custom one. Or more likely when it was refinished the old 44-40 was polished off and it was re-stamped. The only other Colt .44 special I have is a 1980 Sheriff model which is not very useful for comparison.

    I do have several early Colts in 44-40 though and I checked the fit of a .44 special cartridge in a couple of their cylinders. There seemed to be about the same amount of play (considerable) as in the cylinder from the Bisley. (I did not have my calipers handy to measure the openings.) To me that confirms the cylinder started life as a 44-40 and was bored out. Of course the .44 special would not seat in the 44-40 cylinders.

    I guess I will slug the barrel before I shoot it. I assume the soft lead will not harm the blueing or the crown?

    Man, a lot of thought just to shoot a gun! I appreciate all the help.


    dakotaTex.
     
  11. Driftwood Johnson

    Driftwood Johnson Member

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    If the cylinder started life as a 44-40, there would be no reason to bore it out for 44-40. You cannot take a 44-40 cylinder and rechamber it to 44 Special unless you fit some sort of inserts into it. The chambers of the 44-40 are too wide at the base for the 44 Special cartridge. Don't you have any 44-40 rounds laying around to check the fit? You might try some A-Zoom 44-40 snap caps for fit, but I did that the other night and although the 44-40 snap caps would not chamber in most of my 44 Special revolvers, they did barely chamber in one or two, because of minor variations in the dimensions of the chambers.




    Just for the fun of it, here is my handy dandy guide to how I slug a barrel.


    Slugging a Barrel

    There are lots of ways to slug a barrel. Here's how I do it.

    First off you need to come up with a slug. I have used all sorts of things to slug barrels. Ideally, your slug should be just a few thousandths larger in diameter than the grooves you are slugging. If it is too big, you spend a lot of effort driving it into the muzzle in the first place. I have used soft cast bullets, hard cast bullets, soft lead round balls, whatever I have laying around that is just a tad larger than the bore I am trying to measure. I have even taken a 44 caliber soft lead round ball and hammered it down to a rough bullet shape in order to slug a 30 caliber rifle. Some folks also use lead fishing sinkers, if you can still buy them where you live.

    When I slug a rifle I lay the gun down on a soft towel on my bench. Or else I support it in a felt lined rifle rack. I do not jam it in place so it does not move. I allow it to slide slightly with each hammer blow, hence the soft towel or felt to protect the finish. I used to slug bores completely dry, but lately I have taken to running a patch dampened with Ballistol down the bore. You don't have to soak the bore. Frankly, I don't think it makes much difference if the bore is lubricated or not, I've done it both ways and don't really see much difference.

    Whenever possible, I will slug a bore from the chamber end. However with revolvers and most lever guns it can only be done from the muzzle end. I start with a short rod, only around 8 or 10 inches long. It is much easier to control a short rod when you are whacking it than trying to whack the end of a 3 foot long rod while still trying to hold onto the gun. I grasp the muzzle in my left hand, and jam the slug into the muzzle so it holds still. I also hold the rod in place with my left hand, leaving my right hand free to use the hammer. I place the end of the short rod on the center of the slug to get it started, grasping both the muzzle and the rod in my fist. I like to use brass rods. Some prefer wood, but I find wood splinters and shatters. I start with a brass rod about 10 inches long. I have a few lengths. 5/16" diameter brass will work for everything from 38 (.357) on up to 45.

    Most any hammer will do, I have a nice 8 ounce ball peen hammer that works well.

    The key here is to not hit the muzzle with your hammer. I start with the short rod. Getting the slug completely into the bore is the hardest part. Once it gets into the bore, it moves more easily. Don't be scared, I have never gotten a slug stuck in a barrel. Just be careful. I change the short rod to a longer rod long before my hammer gets anywhere near the muzzle so I don't risk striking the barrel. I change over to a 3 foot rod to run the slug all the way out the bore of a rifle. I keep a soft cloth by the chamber, so the slug will fall out onto the cloth without marring it.

    With a revolver I stand the gun up with the barrel horizontal and the butt resting on the towel on the bench. The procedure is the same. I grasp the muzzle and the rod with my left hand, I jam the slug into the bore, and I control the rod with my left fist. The right hand is for the hammer. A 12 inch long 5/16" rod usually works for all my revolvers.

    A few facts about slugging a barrel. The slug only measures the narrowest diameter of the rifling. If there is excessive wear near the chamber, like with some old rifles, the slug will slide along easily through the worn part, it has already taken the shape of the narrowest part of the bore. With a new gun, this should not be a concern. However with an old gun, it can give you a feel for if there is wear in the bore.

    The slug must completely fill the rifling grooves. If the slug did not completely fill the grooves, any measurement you take off of it is meaningless. When your slug emerges, look for lengthwise drag marks on it. You should see these marks on both the low spots on the slug, corresponding to the lands of the rifling, and the high spots, corresponding to the grooves. If you don't have drag marks on the high spots, you may not have completely filled the rifling grooves, and any measurements taken from the slug are not as useful.

    I hear a lot of guys say you have to measure a slug with a micrometer so you can measure it right down to the .0001 level. Frankly, I think a standard caliper is fine for measuring a slug. Measuring down to .001 is fine, particularly on a dial caliper, where you can interpolate what the dial is telling you between the tick marks. A digital caliper will round off to the nearest .0005, so you may not get as accurate a measurement. But using a micrometer that measures down to .0001 on a soft lead slug is overkill, in This Cowboy's Humble Opinion. Just the act of closing the tool on the slug will deform the lead a couple of tenths, killing the usefulness of the accuracy of the micrometer.

    Obviously, you want to measure across the high spots of the slug, to get your groove depth diameter. This is simple if the rifling has an even number of grooves, so that you are measuring across the diameter of the slug. Some barrels though, like many S&W revolvers have 5 grooves. It is very difficult to get an accurate measurement on a slug run through a barrel with an odd number of grooves with a caliper or a micrometer. If you try to add the depth of one side of the rifling, there will usually be some error involved. It ain't impossible, but it is tough.

    Slugging a bore is really very simple, I have made it sound complicated. It usually only takes me about 5 minutes to set up to slug a bore, and about 5 minutes to run the slug all the way through. The key is finding a suitable slug just a little bit oversized, and don't whack the barrel!
     
  12. dakotaTex

    dakotaTex Member

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    Thanks for the instructions and tips. I'm pretty sure I have a soft piece of lead that I can use on hand already, otherwise I can buy lead sinkers here in Texas. I will likely practice first on one of my SAA's that is not in as great a shape so I have some experience before I try it on my Bisley. I'll try and remember to report back here as it won't be until after the first of the year before I get a chance to try it out.


    dakotaTex
     
  13. Slamfire

    Slamfire Member

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    Let me make my standard comments about early `1900's metallurgy. The steels of the era were plain carbon steels. Today identical materials are used on rail road spikes and cheap rebar, because they are so low grade and cheap. No one in their right mind would use plain carbon steels for barrels, cylinders, or locking mechanisms, unless they wanted to be sued. Plain carbon steels were commonly used on parts prior to WW2, but metallurgy in the 1920's and 30's advanced so quickly that by the time you get to WW2 it is obvious that plain carbon steels are only a good choice if cost is the number one criteria and the loads are not high or safety critical.



    The American metallurgist Edgar Bain, http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/bain-edgar-c.pdf in 1932 published conclusive experiments on carbons steels. Bain heat treated identical plain carbon steel coupons under identical conditions and examined the coupons afterwards for hardness depth. The black chemical etching, which I assume is the unhardened steel, show that plain carbon steels have erratic hardening depths, given that all else is equal. These steels were called in WW2 era text books as “shallow hardening”. This was meant not as praise but as a pejorative. As is shown on the right of the diagram, the hardness of these coupons varies by depth. This is not good as consistent hardening provides consistent material properties. It is undesirable to create parts some of which will be hard through and through but others soft below the surface even though the heating processes are the same for all parts. But use plain carbon steels, and you will create such inconsistent parts, just by the nature of the material.





    [​IMG]







    Therefore, you would expect even properly forged, properly heat treated plain carbon steel parts to vary considerable in hardness depth, which then affects the properties of the end part.



    Yield is an extremely important material property, for above yield, the part deforms. Once a steel part yields it is no longer safe to use. What happens after yield is unpredictable, often it takes less load to cause more deformation, ultimate load is the load it takes to break the part. In this early 1920’s chart, for the same essential heat treatment, the nickel alloy steel always has a higher yield, a significantly higher yield in all cases, than the plain carbon steel.





    Nickel steel versus plain carbon steel



    [​IMG]





    What is not shown in these charts is a material property called toughness. For a device, such as a revolver frame, which is going to be subjected to impact loading, toughness is a highly desirable property, and a cylinder, which expands each round. Toughness is directly related to fatigue lifetime, which is the number of loading cycles to failure. Assuming the yield is sufficient for the load, the tougher material will have a longer service life. Alloy steels have a greater toughness than plain carbon steels. Alloy steels take more energy to shear, Charpy impact tests are a direct predictor of a steel’s fatigue lifetime. It is a revelation to see just how shear energy decreases with temperature, and at low temperature, alloy steels take several times the energy to shear as do plain carbon steels.



    I don’t know if anyone reading this understands vacuum tube technology, late vacuum tube technology was much better than early vacuum tube technology, and no vacuum tube technology meant process controls depended on sight, taste, touch, and smell. You can assume that prior to 1920 all firearms are pre vacuum tube technology. Human sensory perceptions have their limits and processes governed by them are not going to be very exact or repeatable. You see this in every evaluation of the steels of the period. This is an excellent example of what I find when someone reports a technical analysis of WW1 era steels:


    Rolling Block strenght

    http://castboolits.gunloads.com/showthread.php?52526-Rolling-Block-strenght/page2





    Therefore, the material in old guns will vary in composition and quality, just based on the technology of the era. We know that the plain carbon steels of the era vary considerably in properties after heat treatment, and that the service life of the part will always be less to one made out of a good alloy steel. We also know the steels of the period were inferior in material properties to the exact same compositions made today, just due to the process controls of the period. You don't know how many rounds the cylinder, barrel and frame have been subjected to, and you don't know if previous owners were copying Elmer Keith loads, which are totally unsuitable for pre WW1 revolvers. Whatever fatique life these parts might have had, if someone loaded their 44 Specials rounds to 44 Magnum pressures, which was a fad prior to the 44 Magnum, you just don't know how many more load cycles the parts will take before failure.



    I would recommend that you load blackpowder in that old revolver. Blackpowder is very low pressure in comparison to smokeless propellants and this is all to the good when deciding to shoot a revolver of unknown history and vintage.
     
  14. smkummer

    smkummer Member

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    It appears typically when colt marked its revolvers just 44, it was chamber for 44-40. The early New Service revolvers from 1898 were marked as such. I believe you have a reworked second generation barrel installed on your bisley that has had the front sight changed to the original style that was on your gun. It may have also had the bisley markings remarked over removed single action army markings. Colts bore dimensions were the same for both 44-40 and 44 special on post war guns. Meaning a .427 grove diameter. Colt SAA's changed from iron to steel in the late 1880's. I don't know if when they announced in 1900 that their guns were approved for smokeless powder if additional changes were made. I am a member of the coltforum.com and your gun shown over there would get lots of attention. I have an original 1875 Remington revolver chambered in 44-40 of which I am shooting low pressure smokeless reloads in the 7-8000 psi range. I have seen original Colt repair literature from the 1950s where Colt would change a customers cylinder and then state the firearm was OK for modern ammunition.
     
  15. dakotaTex

    dakotaTex Member

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    More great info from both posts. The metallurgy stuff is pretty fascinating. I've read up on some of it but it's interesting to read how it applies to Colts. I'm also a member of Coltforum but haven't posted there in several years. I'll give it a shot and see what happens.

    Thanks again all for the great info and especially the thought, time, and energy put into many the posts.


    dakotaTex
     
  16. Driftwood Johnson

    Driftwood Johnson Member

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    Slamfire:

    Thanks for your comments. Much of what you say bears out what Jerry Kuhnhausen says in his book, The Colt Single Action Revolvers, A Shop Manual, Volumes 1&2 that I referred to earlier.

    I am taking the liberty here to quote what he has to say on the subject of the materials used for Colt Single Action Army frames and cylinders.


    Page 70, Frame Material Notes:

    "(1) Early black powder model SAA frames up to about s/n 96,000 (SAA frames manufactured through about mid 1883) were made of malleable iron. (2) Intermediate SAA frames between approx. s/n 96,000 and 180,000 (SAA frames manufactured from about mid 1883 through mid 1898) vary but were apparently made of transitional materials generally similar to modern low-medium carbon steels. The lowest carbon content found in intermediate s/n SAA frames tested to date is approx. .0155, indicating the possibility that early formulations of 1015-1018 or higher carbon type steels may have been used in many frames of this era. (3) Although there are exceptions, frames manufactured after s/n 180,000 appear to have been made from medium range carbon steels. The lowest carbon content found in the after s/n 180,000 frames tested was approx. .0213, possibly indicating that 1020-1027, or slightly higher, carbon, or similar, steels may have been used in these frames."


    Page 71, Cylinder Material notes:

    "(1) 1st Generation SAA cylinder material changes began to occur at about the same time that SAA frames were being metallurgically updated. Cylinders prior to approx. s/n 96,000 were made from materials generally resembling high grade malleable iron. Original cylinders from approx. s/n 96,000 to about 180,000 were made from transitional low/medium carbon type steels. These cylinders and their parent frames were not factory guaranteed for smokeless powder cartridges. Cylinders after frame s/n 180,000 (about mid 1898) began to be made from medium carbon type steels. Later versions of these cylinders were better and more uniformly heat treated. SAA Revolvers with cylinders of this final type were factory guaranteed in 1900 for standard factory load smokeless powder cartridges. (2) 1st Generation .357 Magnum cylinders were made from fine grain, high tensile strength ordinance quality steel. These cylinder blanks, identified by a 5 pointed star on the front, turn up on other caliber SAA’s made during, and after, 1935."



    Kuhnhausen has forgotten more than I will ever know about Colt Single Action Army revolvers. This information is the most detailed information I have come across as to the actual materials used in making old SAA revolvers. Note he states categorically that it was not until 1900 that the factory felt confident guaranteeing the SAA for Smokeless Powder cartridges, because of better heat treating processes for the steel being used at that time.

    Just for reference, the serial numbers for SAA revolvers produced in 1900 ran from 192,001 to 203,000. Kuhnhausen states this in a chart of serial number ranges by date on page 9.
     
  17. dakotaTex

    dakotaTex Member

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    Hmmm, very interesting information. From my collection around the years in discussion:

    1898 Bisley #178829 in .44 special
    1898 Colt SAA #18001X in 38 WCF
    1899 Colt SAA #18650X in 45 LC

    So I have a couple of SAA's in the transitional period to smokeless powders that *might* survive smokeless, and might not. The next SAA's after 1899 I have are from 1903 which are clearly all OK to shoot with smokeless.

    Boy, I had no idea getting out that Bisley would lead to such a great learning experience.


    dakotaTex
     
  18. PotatoJudge

    PotatoJudge Member

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    Dakota, you might want to think about calling Alan Harton down in Houston about the gun. He may have something to add as he's a SAA guru and killer gunsmith. Were the gun mine I'd consider sending it to him first for a general going through and analysis before firing it. Realistically, that gun is worth having him restore it to factory original condition given what a FT Bisley is worth and the fact that it's already been refinished. But I also get the sentimental value of keeping the gun as your dad had it.

    Would there be a problem having a later smokeless first generation cylinder fitted to be used for firing, and keep the original cylinder with the gun but not using it?
     
  19. mavracer

    mavracer Member

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    Many thanks for that this has been a very enjoyable thread
     
  20. dakotaTex

    dakotaTex Member

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    I don't have any problem replacing the cylinder with another later 1st gen version. My interest in shooting this one is twofold, the sentimental value of the gun and the fact that it's the only .44 special I have that I want to shoot. I don't mind using black powder ammo but obviously using smokeless would give me a few more options. Looking on GB right now lots of .45 LC 1st gen cylinders but no .44 specials. If I could get a replacement cylinder at a reasonable cost I'd be happy with that option.

    Having someone knowledgeable about Colt SAA's from a mechanical perspective check it over is a good idea. Give me some comfort before I start shooting it.

    Thanks for the suggestion.


    dakotaTex
     
  21. Driftwood Johnson

    Driftwood Johnson Member

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    Howdy Again

    Cylinders do not necessarily drop in and fit properly without some fitting. I actually have a refinished Bisley Model fitted with a 2nd Gen cylinder and barrel (not 1st Gen), chambered for 44 Special. I knew the cylinder and barrel were not original when I bought it, somebody had already made the switch, probably when they refinished the gun. My point is, if you buy another cylinder, some fitting may or may not be required to get it to function properly. And the fitting may or may not require some alteration to the gun itself, not just the cylinder. And if the gun needs to be modified for the new cylinder, the old cylinder may or may not still function properly. A lot of ifs.
     
  22. Frank V

    Frank V Member

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    Both Mike Venturino & John Taffin have written Colt warranted the SAA for smokeless powder at serial # 192,000. I have read that was in 1900.
    The .44 Special was actually produced with black powder very early in it's production. That didn't last long but I've read it was brought out in black powder.
    I am a huge fan of the .44 Special & one time researched whether it'd be legal to use in black powder cartridge matches. My research revealed it would be.
     
  23. dakotaTex

    dakotaTex Member

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    snipped for brevity
    Update: I finally got some 44-40 snap caps and they fit easily into the chambers of the Bisley, which it sounds like they should not base on your experience. And my measurements of .468 for the cylinder openings are very close to the .469 shown in your cartridge dimension drawing. Looks like the last thing I need to do is slug the barrel. But for now it sure seems like it is a 44-40 with a modified cylinder to accept longer .44 special cartridges.

    dakotaTex
     
  24. CraigC
    • Contributing Member

    CraigC Member

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    The .44-40 is longer than the .44Spl. It sounds like you have a .44Spl barrel and a .44-40 cylinder. Which is not a problem at all.
     
  25. dakotaTex

    dakotaTex Member

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    So as long as I stick with a black powder load I should be fine with 44-40 ammo? I looked at Buffalo Arms and they have it available. There is an outfit called Powder River Cartridge (http://www.powderrivercartridge.com/44-40-ammo-p/4440-50.htm) that also has 44-40 but no where on their site does it say if they are smokeless or black powder. I've emailed them about it but maybe somebody here knows. They use Starline brass which from what I recall is good brass for reloading. Any other sources please let me know. At some point I may start reloading for it if I shoot it enough.

    Thanks,


    Tony
     
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