Brownells 75th Anniversary - A Shooting Heritage

Everything New Is Old Again – Antiquing A New Cap & Ball Revolver

In previous articles, I have written about refreshing the appearance of firearms in order to make them look new. This time, I am going in reverse and taking a new, never-been-fired, replica 1860 Colt Army Cap & Ball Revolver and making it look old. I know… heresy. There is a method to my madness.
I have always been a student of the American Civil War and having a replica of this mainstay sidearm given to me was a gift to treasure. As I looked at it, something was just missing. The black and white, faded images of those who fought in the war looked, well, old. The weapons they were photographed with also looked worn and used. The one I was holding in my hand just looked too fresh and clean.


Just like that, a project was born. In order for me to truly appreciate this reproduced piece of history, I had to make it look like it had been well-used during the war, and then stored in Grandpa’s barn waiting to be rediscovered. The dilemma was how do I make it look like something other than a new gun that has been made to look old?

I asked one of the Cowboy Action shooters here at Brownells his opinion on my undertaking. Our resident cowboy, Badlands Braby (AKA John Feeley), fully understood what my motivation was and offered me some tips on how to “old-ify” my revolver. We talked about wear-points, areas that would be prone to rust, holster marks, and other such wear-and-tear markings that would have happened to a gun where function was more important than appearance. I also consulted our Gun Techs and asked them if there were any products that could be used to give this new revolver an old look. They were very helpful in identifying the products that they have had success with in restoring the look of antique guns, which was really what I was trying to do - take a new gun, beat it up a bit, and then make it look old.

One thing that I did not want to do was to compromise the functioning of the revolver. I planned on shooting it, and wanted to make sure that in my quest to make it look old, I didn’t do any damage that would cause it to not work properly. Safety is always the first concern in the shooting sports, and black powder shooting involves even more precautions. If you plan on shooting it, make sure it’s safe!

A lot of time went in to envisioning what this revolver was going to look like when it was done. I spent quite a bit of time handling it, noticing where the grip lay in my hand, watching as I drew it from a holster to see where the metal rubbed against the leather, and generally seeing what areas got a lot of handling, and which areas didn’t. I then thought about what a “working gun” might go through in the course of its life. One suggestion was to get some nails and use it like a hammer. I thought this was a little far-fetched, but then I got to thinking that if I was in a pinch to tack something down, the butt of a gun would look an awful lot like a hammer. I imagined that despite how careful its owner was, it would undoubtedly get dropped a number of times. To see where it would fall, I pulled it from a holster and “accidentally” let it drop onto a blanket, noticing how the weight of the gun affected the fall. It may seem like this is a lot of malarkey, but I didn’t want just a “dented” gun. I wanted something that looked and felt “old and worn.”

I also did some research on the internet looking at antique gun websites and paid careful attention to the finish of guns that were over 150 years old. The look of the finish ranged from a gray patina to a brown, rust-like color. I found that I liked the look of the brown guns, and decided that would be the finish I would try to duplicate. Since the revolver I own has a brass frame, I also looked to see what the effects of aging were on brass. During my years in the Army, I went through a lot of cans of Brasso® keeping my brass looking new, so making it look old would certainly be a change of pace. When I examined the pictures of brass-framed guns, I saw a familiar sight - the dreaded black oxidation that drives drill sergeants crazy. The other thing that I noticed was that the wood grips on many of the guns were in surprisingly good shape. They were worn and had some gouges here and there, but for the most part, they didn’t look too bad.

With the research done, and a pretty clear picture of what I wanted in my mind, I set about gathering the materials I would need. I decided to use Birchwood Casey’s Plum Brown Barrel Finish (#167-000-002) to get the color I wanted on the barrel and the cylinder. In order to get rid of the bluing, I would need Brownells Pumice (#083-057-008), Brownells Steel White (#082-055-032) and #0000 Steel Wool (#439-300-400). Roughing up the grips would require some Norton E-Z Flex Metalite 400 Grit Cloth Roll (#657-150-400) and Brownells Linseed Oil (#083-040-016). I also would be using Brownells Oxpho-Blue (#082-024-004) for added effects.

I decided that the first thing to tackle was the grips, so I disassembled the grip frame and removed them.

I used 400 grit sandpaper to take the finish off without removing very much of the wood. Once I had removed the finish, I held the grip in my hand and made some light pencil marks on the wood where it would be worn from use. I rubbed the wood with the E-Z Flex to simulate years of handling and use in just a short time. I worked some very shallow spots into the wood to give a worn, but not contoured, appearance. The E-Z Flex was especially nice to use because its cloth backing allowed me to work the contours of the grip with ease. I took a knife and made a couple of gouges in the wood in random places, making sure not to compromise the strength of the grip. As an added touch, I did what I had seen on many Civil War-era weapons: I carved my initials into the bottom of the grip.

I rubbed some Linseed Oil into the grip, along with some shop dirt to give the grip a worn, dirty look. I gave the grip another generous coating of Linseed Oil and set it aside.

The next phase was to age the brass parts of the revolver. I spoke with our Gun Techs and they told me that Oxpho-Blue would put a tarnish on brass very quickly. I rubbed the frame with Brownells Pumice to take the bright shine off the brass.

Once this was done, I put some Oxpho-Blue on a rag and rubbed it on the brass. The results were instantaneous, just as it is on gunmetal. A nice, black color formed, and I was able to rub it down until I achieved a look that was consistent with aged brass that hadn’t been taken care of for many years.

The next portion of the project would be the most involved. I would need to strip the bluing off of the barrel and cylinder in order to properly refinish them in the brown color I wanted. I put the parts in a bath of 20 parts water, 1 part Steel White and let them soak. I brushed the parts every few minutes, and it was very clear that the Steel White was doing its job. In ten minutes, nearly all the bluing was removed from the pieces in the bath. I gave it a few more minutes, and then removed the parts and washed them thoroughly with soap and warm water. Once the bluing has been stripped off the metal, if you are unable to immediately begin putting the new finish on the metal you should treat it with Brownells HOLD (#082-023-128), which is designed to prevent rust without leaving an oily surface.

Once the metal was clean and dry, I started applying the Birchwood Casey Plum Brown finish. I suspended the barrel by running a length of Black Iron Wire through the barrel to give me something to hold while I heated the part. I used a propane torch to heat the barrel until a drop of water sizzled on the metal. I applied the Plum Brown with a cleaning patch in long, even strokes down the length of the barrel over the entire surface. Once the barrel was covered, I let the Plum Brown work until the barrel was cool enough to handle comfortably.

There was some streaking that occurred when the finish was applied, but I wasn’t concerned because the look I wanted was that of a revolver that hadn’t been cared for, so a perfectly even finish was not desirable. While the barrel cooled, I repeated the process on the cylinder. This part was a little trickier, due to the uneven surfaces of the cylinder. When I applied the finish, I used a well-soaked patch and drizzled the Plum Brown into the nooks and crannies. Some of it pooled and gave a heavier coating in low spots, but this is where water would have naturally run to over time. Once the cylinder was covered, it set it aside to cool.

I then applied the finish to the cylinder wedge and retaining screw, as well as the frame screws. Once the metal had cooled enough to handle, I used some #0000 Steel Wool to card the metal and get the built-up areas of finish knocked down.

I then repeated the process of applying the finish. This will allow you to get a darker finish and to get a more even application. When the metal had cooled completely, I gave my work a close inspection. I was very pleased with the results of the Plum Brown. The metal had the appearance of rust, and quite a bit of it. David Bennetts, one of the friendly Gun Techs here at Brownells, offered a suggestion on how to create the appearance of holster wear and how to tone the rust look down. He told me that a Birchwood Casey Lead Remover Cloth, used carefully, will wear the finish off the metal quickly, but in a very realistic way. He gently ran the cloth over the parts I wanted to show the effects of a holster, and the results were impressive.

The muzzle, top of the barrel, leading edge of the cylinder, and the edges of the housing for the loading lever all had the look of repeated holstering. A word of caution: do not put a lot of elbow grease into this, as the cloth does not need a lot of pressure to do its work. I also lightly rubbed the cloth over the entire barrel and cylinder to get a look of muted aging, rather than fresh look the Plum Brown gave it.
The remaining items that needed to be aged were the loading lever and plunger, and the hammer. These parts were beautifully color case hardened at the factory and I had a difficult time deciding whether or not to alter that finish. Once I reassembled the revolver, those parts looked very out-of-place. I decided to do as little as possible to them in order to preserve the great colors. I gave these parts the once-over with some pumice. I used the Plum Brown finish on a few spots to give the appearance of some rust, but the overall integrity of the color case hardening was intact. I just couldn’t bring myself to completely cover those wonderful colors.

Looking back, this project brought a great deal of satisfaction to me. I was able to achieve what I set out to do, and the revolver has the look of a firearm that has seen better days, but has a lot of stories to tell. The products were very simple to use, and did exactly what they were supposed to do. I most certainly wouldn’t recommend doing this to a firearm that has historical or monetary value, but to transform a relatively inexpensive revolver from a new-in-box finish to a conversation piece was certainly worth the effort.