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Tuning the Pietta Cap & Ball for Competition
Part 1: Diagnosing the Problem Areas
Larsen E. Pettifogger
SASS # 32933L
Cap and ball handguns are fun to shoot and if tuned properly can be very reliable.
However, many pards buy a pair, go to a match, have problems, and then quickly
become disillusioned with them and write them off as difficult and unreliable. We are
going to go through the steps necessary to tune a Pietta C&B for competition. Like
many things, a picture is worth a thousand words. So, I will try to illustrate as much as
possible what needs to be done and try to suggest tools and ways of doing the job that
a good home gun tinkerer can use to tune his/her Pietta.
The revolver chosen for our tuning exercise is shown in Photo 1.
I picked up a pair of these from EMF at EOT 2007. They were under $200.00 each and
it is amazing that these guns can be produced, shipped halfway around the world, and
still sold for such an amazingly low price. They are described in the EMF catalog as the
“1851 Navy Sheriff Model in .44 caliber with a 5 1/2” barrel.” As an historical note, there
is no such thing as a .44 Navy. Whenever Colt advertised a revolver as being of “Navy”
caliber, by definition it meant a .36. A revolver of “Army” caliber was a .44. Uberti tends
to offer only guns that copy original Colts. Pietta mixes and matches parts to come up
with a wide variety of interesting, but historically incorrect models. Our revolver is
actually an 1860 Army frame and cylinder mated to a set of “Navy” grips with an
octagon barrel bored out to .44. Although listed as a 5 1/2” barrel, it is actually closer to
4 3/4”. It will be a great shooter when we are done with it, and the shorter barrel will be
quicker out of the holster than a 7 1/2” or 8” model.
Before we get started we need to discuss some of the tools needed for our tune-up.
The first thing anyone needs when working on guns is a quality set of hollow ground
screwdrivers. Hollow ground screwdrivers are machined so the sides of the tip that
enter the screw slot are parallel. A regular screwdriver simply has tapered sides that
taper all the way to the tip. Photo 2 shows a hollow ground and a standard screwdriver.
The parallel sides of a hollow ground screwdriver fit the screw slot tightly from the top to
the bottom of the screw slot. A standard screwdriver fits in the slot like a wedge and
only engages the top part of the screw slot. The quickest way to bugger a gun screw is
to use the wrong type of screwdriver. We are going to be doing a lot of internal work
and its hard to get light down inside the gun to see what is going on. Photo 3 shows an
LED light that has a twistable neck and a magnet on the end of the base.
I picked this thing up in the checkout line at Walgreens Drug Store. It is an amazing
little tool that costs less than $5.00 and can be found at a lot of drug and hardware
stores. No matter what kind of light you have, your head or something always seems in
the way and you can’t see down in small holes. This little gizmo solves that problem.
Photo 4 shows a burr remover/metal scraper.
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If your Pietta is like most, you will need one of these for the tune-up. (As an example,
go to Enco.com and type in #380-0840. This should take you to a simple de-
burr/scraper tool.) You will also need a variety of needle files, preferably fine diamond
needle fines (since some parts are hardened and difficult to file with a regular file), and
some honing stones. Lastly, you will need a drill press and drill press vise.
The first step in any tune-up is to inspect the exterior of the gun and test the action to
identify problem areas that will need fixing. The first thing, which isn’t exactly a
“problem” but is an issue for many, is the grip shape. Photo 5 shows an original 1861
Navy (same grip as a 51 Navy) on top with our Pietta below.
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Colt spent a lot of time coming up with what many believe is the best grip ever put on a
handgun. The 1851 Navy grip was so popular it was carried over into the Single Action
Army. The original back strap has a compound curve (Photo 5, A) that starts at the top
of the back strap and runs almost to the bottom of the grip frame and then curves
slightly outward at the bottom (Photo 5, B). The Pietta grip is narrower front to back at
“A” and the back strap is absolutely flat before turning out at “B”. The Pietta grip looks
more like a trumpet bell. The wooden grip itself on the Colt is also thinner than the
Pietta. For some, because of the angle of the back strap, the Pietta grip tends to cause
the gun to point high. (Much like a Colt 1911 with a flat or arched mainspring housing.)
We will modify the grip to be slightly more like an original Colt. The front strap is pretty
close to an original and is fine as is.
Cock the action and look for anything that causes friction or binding. Raise and lower
the hammer a few times and put SLIGHT pressure side-to-side on the hammer. On our
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gun, the hammer was hitting on the left side of the frame and had already turned up a
burr ever though the gun has never been fired. Photo 6.
Something else that seems to be a problem on many new C&B’s is that the wedge is
pounded in so tight it is difficult to remove. On our gun, the wedge didn’t stick out of the
right side of the barrel and had been hammered in so hard it had puckered the metal.
Photo 7.
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