Until I was a grown man, I never made the acquaintance of a fulltime, professional gunsmith. There was precious little cash floating around the Dust Bowl, and those craftsmen who wanted their share of it turned to the more basic trades – like plumbing and pulling teeth. Gun repair was done at home.
If you lost the odd-sized screw that joined the grips of your old Colt Frontier, you tied ‘em back in place with a strip of wet cowhide, maybe with the hair still on it. A few hours of Texas sunshine baked this lashup so dry and tight that it had to be sliced off when you finally came by a new screw. If the shooter were handy with a file and knew a bit about tempering metal, he could replace locking bolt and hand springs on his single action, shaping a hunk of hacksaw blade or whatever else was handy. Lost front sight blades were replaced with cut-down dimes, and if the top of your trigger broke off you just threw it away and used the Colt as a slip gun. Crude as they were, these expedients kept the old guns shooting in the absence of a trained gun doctor.
Parts are generally cheap and easy to come by today, and most gun stores have someone on hand who can handle the simpler jobs. But real revolver smiths are nearly as scarce as they were in the old days. Most gunsmiths specialize, and to a sixgunner it would seem that they all are either devoted to stock-making, custom rifle tinkering, or the manufacture of padlock keys. We are blessed with the services of a double handful of excellent pistolsmiths in this country, but even they spend the preponderance of their working hours trying to figure out ways to make the 1911 .45 auto shoot tighter groups. And these aces stay so busy that it entails a long wait, indeed, to get a bit of custom surgery performed on your pet cylinder gun.
While I’m not much of a do it yourself type – preferring to get professional attention for my prized revolvers – there are several simple jobs that I customarily perform on newly acquired sixguns that add much tot heir shooting qualities, cost little or nothing, and can be accomplished by anyone with a little patience and a few common tools.
Take the Colt double action in its modern form. From the big New Service model of 1898 down through the jazzy little Diamondback that appeared in 1966, the guts of the Colt DA have remained pretty much unchanged. Like all revolvers that leave our factories, the Colt could stand a bit of smoothing up. Wanting to be sure that their products won’t be blamed for any misfires that might occur, the Hartford folks utilize a mainspring that is guaranteed to throw the hammer hard enough to ignite the toughest primer. This makes sense.
It also makes sense, finding yourself with a Colt that has a double action trigger pull so stout that you need iron pills to help you start it on its way, to see if it can’t be eased a bit and still be reliable. This is an easy exercise.
Remove the grips, then the cylinder and side plate fro your Colt DA. The cylinder easily slips forward, contained by its crane assembly, after the single screw on the right side of the frame, forward of the trigger, is backed out. To take sideplate from the left side of the revolver, remove the two screws that retain it, then tap the bare straps of the grip frame with a plastic hammer or wooden dowel until it loosens and may be easily lifted away with the fingers. Never attempt to pry the side-plate up or you will burr its delicately fitted edges.
This is as far as you need dismantle your Colt. Before you lies the V shaped mainspring, butted into a shelf in the lower part of the grip frame, its upper arm yoked into the hammer, the lower limb fitted into the hand. All that needs doing to lighten this spring is to bend a slight rafter, or inverted V, into its upper half. It is a simple matter to insert a small steel rod, such as a punch or screwdriver shaft, between the arms of the spring and then to bring the hammer to full cock. The resulting tiny bend will do wonders in easing the tension of the spring, and single action pull, as well as double action, is usually improved.
Diameter of the rod used varies with individual springs. Start with one about 1/16” in thickness. If the bend it causes is not sufficient, gradually increase the diameter of the rod used until the results you want are obtained. Too much bending will result in a spring so weak as to cause poor ignition or misfires, and you can, of course, use a rod so thick as to break the spring. A ¼” rod is the largest I have ever found necessary to produce good results on large frame Colt double actions, and it would be too much for the daintier models, such as the Detective Special.
If your bent spring has been overly weakened, it is not difficult to remove it from the gun and carefully straighten it in a vice. Excessive working of the metal is to be avoided and it is better to use a little thought and get things right the first time.
Smith & Wesson revolvers, on their Military and Police and larger frames, are the smoothest double action guns available. This smoothness can usually be enhanced a bit, and the DA pull made lighter, by some judicious work on the mainspring and trigger rebound spring. In the case of S&W pocket revolvers – the Chief’s Special, Centennial, and Bodyguard models – extensive use will do more good in improving the action than any home alteration you are likely to do. My attempts at cutting down their coil mainsprings have not brought about any noteworthy improvements, and generally resulted in a lumpy, out-of-balance DA pull. A great deal of firing and dryfiring, though, does seem to soften and slick up these little revolvers.
To get to the heart of your larger Smith, shuck off its grips and remove the three sideplate screws (four, if it’s an older model). Each of these screws needs to return to its own hole, so remember where they came from and place them and other parts in a container to prevent their loss. As soon as the screws are out, loosen the sideplate by tapping the grip frame, as recommended for the Colt revolver. Lift the sideplate and the safety bar from the gun.
Next, back out the strain screw which enters the lower front grip strap and keeps the mainspring under tension. The mainspring may then be pushed carefully to the side toward the sideplate opening and disengaged from its yoke on the hammer. At this point, the cylinder and crane assembly should be removed from the revolver by opening the cylinder in the normal manner, then sliding it and the crane forward from the revolver frame.
Holding the thumbpiece of the cylinder latch at it its rearmost position, pull the trigger about halfway back, then remove the hammer from its pin. Withdraw the hand from its cut in the frame and remove it from the trigger. Lift the trigger from its pin, catching the rebound spring and housing as they separate from the trigger.
In point of fact, the stripping and reassembling of the S&W sixgun is more complex than the alterations that need to be made to its parts. All that remains to be done is the reduction of the width of the mainspring and the length of the rebound spring. A tapering cut, made with a power grinder, should be taken from each side of the flat mainspring, with only a tiny amount of metal removed from the top of the cut, increasing gradually to a depth of about 1/16” at each side of the base. The amount to be removed varies with individual springs, and it is always a good plan to have a spare or two on hand in case you get over enthusiastic with the grinder. Clipping two coils from the end of the rebound spring needs only a few seconds. Sometimes it is necessary to cut three coils for optimum results.
The raw edges of the cut down springs should be polished. This is best handled with a cloth buffer and a fine grit compound if you are using a bench grinder, but can be done with a little sweat and emery cloth if necessary. Before polishing, it is a good idea to reassemble the altered springs into the gun and try the action, to see whether more metal needs to be removed, or if you by chance have taken off too much.
Remember that too light a mainspring means misfires. Leave your spring strong enough to offer a somewhat heavy pull when its strain screw is tightened all the way, then handle the more subtle adjustments by gradually loosening the screw, one-quarter turn at a time until the pull feels right and ignition is still positive and uniform.
Only two phases of reassembling the Smith might give you a little trouble. The hand carries two pins which must enter corresponding holes in the right side of the trigger. Insert the larger of these pins into its hole only far enough for the tip of the smaller pin to barely catch in its channel. Arrest the tip of the wire hand spring with the tip of a small screwdriver blade and force it gently under tension until the hand may be fully seated against the side of the trigger and the spring allowed to snap against the pin, putting the hand under tension and moving it toward the front of the trigger. Holding the hand to the rear, slip the trigger onto its pin, then guide the hand into its slot in the frame.
Placing the rebound spring into its housing, fit the little stud in the front of the housing into its notch on the rear of the trigger. With a pointed tool (a crochet hook or dentist’s pick works well), compress the coil rebound spring into the housing until its end may be slipped behind the retaining post that holds it. Pull the trigger back halfway and replace the hammer. Make sure all lock parts are pressed fully into place, then reconnect the mainspring and replace the safety bar, which must be in its highest position before the sideplate can be replaced. Tap the sideplate home very gently with your wooden billet, then replace the screws in their original holes after first slipping the cylinder and crane back into the gun. The last step is to put on the grips and tighten the strain screw.
The Colt Single Action Army’s mainspring may be narrowed by grinding, if desired, or weakened by placing a leather pad under it. A ½” length of sole leather, with a hole punched in it for the screw is positioned under the spring and the screw tightened. This reduces tension by altering the angle, and helps to cushion the whip of the big hammer’s impact.
If your Ruger Blackhawk is a mite stiff, remove two or three coils from its piano wire mainspring. To do this, remove the stocks, then cock the gun. Insert a straightened paper clip in the hole at the bottom of the mainspring guide, lower the hammer, then remove the grip frame from the gun and lift out the guide and captive spring. Point the plate that retains the spring away from you, preferably into a box to catch it and the spring, and withdraw the paper clip. After snipping a couple of coils from the spring and dressing down the raw cut on your grinder, reassemble by holding the ends of the plate in a vise while you force the spring-mounted guide back into battery, and replace the paper clip slave pin.
There are other surgical procedures that you may perform on your sixshooter, but not all of them will make it healthier. When I was younger and more eager, I loved the looks of the belly guns which had the fronts of their trigger guards cut out and their hammer spurs ground as slick as a dehorned steer. In those days, the front blades of both Colt and S&W double actions were of a profile as round as an apple pie, and most gun jockeys took a file to them and ramped off the back of the blade for a slicker draw and, in some cases, a sight picture that was a hair sharper after holster wear began to set in.
Removal of the front half of the trigger guard, while it makes the belt gun look vicious, serves no good purpose. I know because I’ve tried it a few times. Without the guard, I always felt that I was about to drop the gun. Although I knew it took a harder shove than I was likely to give it to make the cutaway job go off when hung in the clothing, I always took great pains to slip the little demon into my waistband or pocket without hanging the trigger. A little practice showed that the guardless revolver was no whit faster from draw to shoot than an unaltered specimen. Those ginks with hands large enough to have trouble inserting their finger in the trigger guard (I wear a size 10 glove, and don’t) will do well to emulate gunswift Bill Jordan. Bill has compromised by cutting a half circle from the forward part of his trigger guards, making a passing lane for his big fingertip while still leaving a protective ring of steel around the trigger.
Dehorning the hammers of pocket guns is one amputation that I perform regularly. That bulky Colt hammer shroud which is often attached to adapt the Colt for pocket use gives the gun a cluttered look. Both of Smith & Wesson’s attempt to solve the hammer-hooking-in-the-pocket problem, the Bodyguard and the Centennial, are not so neat and compact as the standard Chief’ Special.
It is the work of a few minutes to remove the hammer of your pocket revolver, grind off the spur, and polish the raw cut. You will have left a hammer that clears the clothing as suavely as a dealer’s ace in Las Vegas blackjack game. Neophytes sometimes fret that they won’t be able to thumbcock their nubbed-off hammer for single action fire. A few tries, starting it back with the trigger, then cocking in the usual manner, shows them that their fears are groundless.
A little imagination and some careful file work can add target sights to your big six. A pair of factory made target stocks that are too generously proportioned for your hand can easily be rasped to fit and then refinished. There are dozens of small jobs that you can do unaided that will make your sixgun fit you better.
My Grandmaw didn’t wait for a custom tailor to make Daddy’s hand-me-down britches hang right. She just got a needle and thread and went to work.
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