March 08, 2023
One can’t be in this business for 50 years without occasionally being asked: “How can I develop a depth of ballistics and reloading knowledge.” A complex question, but part of my answer is “be curious and not afraid to dabble within limits of sanity.” In my early days at the lab, we fortunately had time for research and were encouraged to “dabble.”
Dr. Atticus James Gill was dean emeritus of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas, located next to the Crime Lab building. In addition to being a respected educator and pathologist, Dr. Gill spoke several languages, was a keen historian, was graced with good humor and deep kindness, and was an avid reloader.
When the lab began its firearms reference collection, some specimens had not seen factory ammo in decades. Dr. Gill said, “They need to speak again.” The goal was to make usable ammo with existing dies for similar cartridges through die-forming and fireforming. We allowed rim modifications that Dr. Gill could do with his benchtop lathe. Before the internet, dimensional guidelines were scarce; all we had were George Nonte’s The Home Guide to Cartridge Conversions (1961) and an early edition of Frank Barnes’s Cartridges of the World.
Dr. Gill had previously made the 8mm Nambu from .41 Colt, and we had successes with the 8x52Rmm Siamese Mauser, the 9mm Steyr, and the 7.65mm French MAS.
We acquired an 11mm Model 1873 French Ordnance revolver, and Dr. Gill gave me the lead. The M1873 was a massive primitive double-action revolver as large as a Colt Single Action Army. Ours was an early version that, judging from the straight-through chambers, fired an outside-lubricated 0.457-inch lead bullet from a case about .44 Special diameter with a painfully thin rim. Turning modern .44 Special rims to 11mm thickness (0.039 inch) was not working. After thinning, the factory rim bevel on modern .44 Special cases left little support for a hammer that felt driven by a tractor spring. This was a deal-breaker unless we ventured outside the box. An old tip I remembered from Nonte’s book pointed the way.
I started with .45 Auto brass. I ran the cases into a .308 Winchester die to taper the case enough to enter a stripped steel .44 Special sizer die. (Don’t try this stunt with a carbide die; you’ll shatter the carbide insert.) I heavily lubed the cases and used a Rockchucker press to push it into the .44 Special die until the rim touched the die body, using a flat piece of steel instead of a shellholder. This required a knock-out rod, but it worked. The smaller die forced any excess metal into the extraction cannelure and left the original .45 rim standing slightly proud of the case body.
A quick test in the old revolver showed that the case chambered properly and the rim was strong enough to resist the firing pin blow. The .45 Auto’s rim was smaller (0.480 inch versus 0.500 inch) in diameter and a bit thicker, but looseness in the geriatric revolver nicely compensated for differences.
The next hurdle was the bullet. There were no hollowbase handgun bullets suitable for outside-lubricated use. Back to the books. I saw Lyman/Ideal #445599, a 250-grain hollowbase Minié ball mold, and I knew Dr. Gill had that mold. The next day I had samples in hand.
The bullets cast closer to .45 Auto diameter, so we knew they wouldn’t quite fit outside-lubricated, and we did not have a tapering die. We challenged defeat with a pair of aluminum plates. I found if I tipped the top plate toward the bullet base and rolled the bullet between, its hollowbase started to taper. Soon they would enter the case halfway, right where we wanted them. Inexact, yes, but it worked at a very basic level.
Satisfied the old revolver was in reasonable condition, we loaded 3.0 grains of Bullseye powder (a good .44 S&W Russian load). I donned a full-face shield and fired into the bullet catch-trap. We got a very satisfying gun report and had a fired bullet to examine. It showed symmetrical engagement with the rifling with minimum gas-cutting in the long cylinder. That was gratifying, especially because my training officer had opined more than once we would fail.
Failure is always an option, and we had one. One of our medical examiners had added a Model 1907 8mm Austrian Roth-Steyr pistol to his collection and offered it for our experimentations. We were able to create a case to fit the chamber without a bullet, but the neck needed some serious reaming to avoid bulging with a seated 0.321-inch bullet. The special reamer required would have cost about $500 in 2022 money! That was the “fail” part.
Some situations get better with time. We had worked up 7.65mm French MAS cases from .32 S&W long cases, but the required head-turning and trimming were time-consuming. A couple of years ago I got an announcement from Starline that it would be selling MAS cases. Nice!
Bullets can be a limitation. We found that cast bullets were easiest for prototyping and testing. Dr. Gill had scads of molds. Every time either of us acquired a new one, he fired up his lead pot and cast about 50 samples, left them as-cast, and stored them in butter tubs. If a cast rifle bullet were the right diameter but too long for a handgun application, it was easy enough to shorten some for testing.
Dr. Gill passed suddenly in 1979. I still remember—and greatly miss—his quirky quotes and great stories of hunting with old blackpowder shotguns. His favorite was a cased English percussion double circa 1850. He quipped that the secret to hunting with blackpowder shotguns was finding a wadding material that did not bring out the fire department!
Nothing would have pleased him more than my publishing loading manuals. To honor him, I placed a tribute at the bottom of the copyright page of Speer Reloading Manual 12, 13, and 14. It reads simply: “Thanks, AJG.”