Competitor Smith and Wesson had bought the rights to a patent for bored-through cylinders that allowed the use of fixed (what we would think of as “regular”) ammunition. The pistol market was about to change in a big way, and Colt found itself on the wrong side of the power curve.*
Colt needed to offer a cartridge version, but they had to avoid infringing on the patent - the solution was a crazy front-loading cartridge named for its creator, F. Alexander Thuer. It was a metallic cartridge that loaded from the front of the gun, just like then-standard paper cartridges did. A special cylinder was required which contained a firing pin and an ejector - once the gun was fired empties were ejected out the front. It was kind of a nifty idea, but it was far from ideal.
Today there is no true Thuer conversion; they remain a historical oddity and they were so cumbersome to load and shoot that few would be interested in having a reproduction, so the reproduction market has focused on the slightly later cartridge conversions.
Until now. Gary Barnes, a gunsmith in TX who specializes in cartridge conversions of the old percussion revolvers, developed what he terms a “Modern Thuer.”
Gone is the front-loading metallic cartridge that relies on an unreliable friction fit to stay loaded. Still there is the loading ring with the tab. Gary uses a rimless cartridge (45 in my case) that loads from the rear through a simple cut in the recoil shield - no formal loading gate. He also modifies the original percussion loading lever so that it pops right out to use as an ejector rather than attaching an ejector rod as was done on later conversions. This creates a weapon that very closely imitates the look of a historical Thuer conversion while deftly avoiding all the untenable features of its actual design. Pretty ingenious, really.
I love the Colt 1860 Army. It is, in my opinion, the finest revolver produced. Ever. It’s small and handy, but powerful. It has horrible sights, but makes up for that by having the best balance and most natural pointing of any other revolver before or since. It is an elegant weapon, for a more civilized time (okay, that may be a stretch).
The downside of a percussion revolver is the percussion ignition system. You must load loose powder into each chamber, then a ball, then grease it for lubrication, and finally cap each nipple. If all goes well it takes a few minutes to reload . . . if all doesn’t go well you get misfires. You can load paper cartridges to speed things up, and this helps quite a bit, but it’s still a somewhat tedious process. After twenty years with my Colt, I found myself not shooting it so much because of the hassle. So I sent it off to Gary Barnes. Here’s what I got:
The Good, The Bad, & The Upshot
The good thing about this conversion is that it works! It’s easy and pretty user-friendly; you load your cartridges, switch the conversion ring to “fire” and away you go. Once fired, you flick the conversion ring to the other side, dismount the loading lever and use it to dislodge the fired cases.
This conversion is unique in that it maintains the overall lines and beauty of the original 1860 Army Colt and retains fidelity to the image of the original Thuer conversions without all the additional hassle of their peculiar loading system.
For SASS and NCOWS shooters, this is a super cool option because it’s NCOWS approved for its historical authenticity.
There are only a couple of downsides to this conversion system - the first and most important is its ammunition. Because it uses a rimless 45 Colt, users must grind down cases before they can load them (or ask Gary to supply some brass!). Now, grinding the rim off of 45 Colt cases is an inconvenient project, but that’s not all - because what it means in the long run is that you can no longer use your fancy Lee or Dillon press to reload your ammo - the shell holders won’t grip your cases anymore!
You’re back to the old Lee Loader. Now I used one of these as my primary reloader for literally years, and it’s not a big stinkin’ deal, but man, it is a tedious process. Is it more tedious than making paper cartridges for a percussion revolver? I think not . . . but it’s close. The saving grace here is that a tediously loaded brass cartridge is still more reliable on the range than a tediously loaded paper cartridge and percussion cap.
If I had my druthers, I’d prefer to see this chambered in a more standardized rimless cartridge so that one could reload on a press rather than using the Lee Loader. But I see why Barnes chose not to do it this way; using a standard modern rimless cartridge lowers the historical authenticity and could impede its acceptance among NCOWS and SASS shooters, who are likely his primary client pool. Also, only the largest, like the 45 Winchester Magnum, would hold the volume of black powder to equal the original 44 Colt loads, and this brass is neither “frontier” nor commonly available. Neither of which would please many of the clientele Gary serves.
The upshot is that Gary Barnes has hit upon a brilliant new way to convert a percussion revolver to shoot cartridges that gives shooters a very authentic and historic looking weapon that closely imitates the original Thuer conversions without any of their liabilities in design. Should you be in the market for such a conversion, drop Gary a line at his website http://cartridgeconversion.com/
*This is sort of funny, because Rollin White offered his idea to Colt in 1867, but Sam Colt turned it down.