Colt, like all the other manufacturers in the US, was prevented from making cartridge revolvers by the Rollin white patent, which finally expired in 1869. This left them limited to their percussion revolvers, the 1849, 1851, 1860, and 1862 models in particular. These were phenomenally popular guns, but quickly becoming obsolete in the face of the new cartridge technology. Colt would introduce the Peacemaker in 1873, but in that brief gap between the patent expiration and their new purpose-built cartridge revolver they needed something to put on the market.
The answer was a series of cartridge conversions – guns which could fire the new cartridges but could be built from the large existing stockpiles of percussion revolver components. The first such gun was the Thuer conversion, followed by the much better Richards conversion, and finally the simplified Richards-Mason conversion (in addition to the purpose-built Open Top).
These conversion were offered form the Colt factory on all the major models of percussion revolver, with the small pocket guns the most popular. Because Colt had a large supply of existing parts and could sell these guns cheaper than their other new designs, the conversions would remain available and selling through the 1870s.
The Richards conversion is distinctive for having a barrel-mounted rear sight, as well as a remarkably modern floating firing pin.
All that’s missing now is a spring-loaded ejector for tossing hot casings at bad guys trying to get me while I’m reloading…
This is a First Model Richards conversion. Production ran from 1871 to 1878 (to use up stocks of percussion parts), with S/N from #1 to #8700. The Richards-Mason conversion Colts were in the #5800 through #7900 bracket in that S/N group. Other Richards conversions may be found in the percussion S/N series from as early as #167,000 to as late as #200614.
Some very early Richards first models have 12 cylinder stops. The idea was to get around the “five beans in the wheel” problem by allowing the hammer to rest between two chambers with the cylinder stop pawl holding the cylinder locked in that position. Unfortunately, with wear the cylinder could slip past the pawl, leaving a live round under the hammer. Also, the “extra” cylinder stops were over the thinnest part of the chamber wall, ans with time tended to break through.
Early Richards with or without 12-stop cylinders had a square-ended ejector rod. Later ones had a rounded end, as on this one.
The last four digits of the S/N should be on the bottom of the barrel assembly just aft of the lower “slot” of the former rammer channel, and be repeated right next to it on the bottom lug of the ejector assembly that fills the slot.
The Second Model conversion reverts to the “notch on hammer nose” rear sight, and has a fixed firing pin riveted into the percussion hammer. This arrangement was continued on the Richards-Mason conversion introduced in late 1872. Simply put, it was cheaper to make.
This revolver’s barrel retains the “bullet cut” in the rammer channel, indicating that it was either assembled from percussion parts or converted from an originally “cap and ball” revolver. Later new production conversions delete the bullet cut, and are known as “flat front” models in collector argot. Cimarron makes reproductions of this version today;
And here are the relevant patents, first the Richards;
And second the Mason;
Mason’s patent was purely concerned with an “improved”, simpler and cheaper to machine ejector rod/barrel setup.
In 1881 Mason would patent a swingout cylinder with simultaneous ejection as we know it today;
But the punch line is that he had previously patented a similar system while working for Remington in 1866 before coming to Colt. Remington actually used it on some of their special-order conversion revolvers from then until the late 1870s.
It worked very much like that later seen on Charter Arms revolvers; pulling the cylinder base pin forward released the cylinder to swing out to the left on its arbor. One experimental version of the French revolver Model d’Ordonnance 1892, aka the M92 “Lebel” 8mm, used a similar setup. It was known as the “’92 a’pompe” to French officers and collectors alike.
What I found interesting about the Rollin White patent fights was that Colt did not claim rights to it as he purportedly did his work while employed by Colt, actually “taking rejected Parts” to make his first bored through cylinders. Additionally, the .44 and other LeFaucheux pinfire revolvers with its bored through cylinder actually predated White’s patent and was actually a functional design while White’s would not work as patented. The fact that the Justice hearing the case brought up by White v Eli Whitney et al, was prejudiced against the Whitney’s attorney makes me question that man’s integrity in his ruling in favor of White
White wanted to make the deal with Colt he actually made with Smith and Wesson- Colt would get exclusive rights to make revolvers with bored through cylinders, White would get a royalty on each one and defend the patent in court. Samuel Colt rejected it because his legal staff were aware of the 1843 French LeFaucheux patent (which by reciprocity with France held in the U.S. as well), and thus concluded it wasn’t defensible.
The fact that the patent was granted and defended in court repeatedly by White tells me (speaking as someone who is somewhat familiar with tort law) that there was either a very sloppy job done by the patent office (a patent search should have ended in rejection of White’s patent application), or some serious dirty work involved to obtain the patent (meaning, S&W made some major payoffs, had “friends in high places”, or both).
BTW, White was noted for his “patent applications”. Mostly consisting of finding foreign patents, rewriting them, and trying to patent them in his name here in the States. Then trying to sue the actual patentees overseas for infringement of “his” patents. He was more of a confidence trickster than anything else.
As for his proposed revolver, it was essentially a modification of the Colt side-hammer Elisha K. Root solid frame, with a bored through cylinder for loading linen cartridges from the rear via a hopper-type feed to the left of the hammer. The idea apparently being to obtain a level of sustained rapid fire. Which makes very little sense in a handgun anyway. (If you want to lay down a base of fire, your first step is called “get a repeating rifle”.)
Of course, a bored through cylinder firing consumable linen cartridges would have no form of breech seal at all, unless there was something like the Sharps expanding seal ring in the breech face. (Which was already patented- by one Christian Sharps.) So White’s original proposal was not only impractical, it would have been dangerous to the operator, which was another reason Samuel Colt rejected it.
Check the Gun Collector’s Digest, Vol. 1 (Digest Books, 1974). The article “Odd-Ball Percussions” includes a photo of White’s original wooden patent model, and an explanation of how he thought it would work.
Now I’m tempted to stab White in the back with a saw back bayonet. And which nincompoop let that patent troll loose on the market?
I have a replica Remington New Model Army. Was this done to that inherently stronger frame?
Ian, do you suppose you can record a video on the introduction and proliferation of cartridge revolvers in Europe? You’ve covered the Rolin White patent and several contemporary patent-dodging designs (pinfire revolvers and the 4-chambered American revolver come to mind), but I’m really curious about the proliferation of centerfire cartridge revolvers beyond America. When did Europeans first start producing centerfire revolvers? Did the Rolin White patent prevent European centerfire revolvers from entering commerce until 1871 as in America? Were American centerfire revolvers popular in Europe? (I know about the Imperial Russian contracts for S&W break top revolvers, but what about the rest of Europe?) Even beyond that, to what extent did centerfire revolvers see use in Asia? (particularly China and Japan?)