The Road to Perfection with the 1851 Navy Conversion

Cowboy action shooting is a game where looking good and shooting well can be of equal importance.


I for too long failed to heed the sage wisdom that “life is too short to shoot ugly guns”. Like many I have coveted fellow Shootists whose revolvers exhibited elaborate engraving, brilliant hues of blue, color case hardening and even the modest precious metal accent! Once or twice I had planned to own a distinguished pair of smoke wagons. These plans had all but been forgotten until a call from Taylor’s and Company.

I was driving back to Kansas City from Austin, Texas when I answered my phone and heard “Your revolvers are in”. I recognized the salesman’s voice and immediately began wracking my road weary brain to determine what revolvers he was talking about. At a complete loss, I said “Revolvers?”. So, after a moment’s pause, he responded with “you know the ’51 Navy Conversions, the ones in the white.” Then it struck me so I replied, “JC I asked you to let me know what the cost would be for a pair of ’51’s, hell partner that was almost 4 years ago!” His response was a longer pause that included a profound sound of a deep inhalation of oxygen with a slight hint of alarm. Now I like everyone with Taylor’s, so I immediately replied, “of course I’ll take them.” He recovered and marked them for immediate shipping.

The day had come, one that would result in my finally owning a brace of elaborately engraved revolvers. A project that would involve 3 gunsmiths, a recognized master gun engraver, a well-known provider of bluing and case coloring services, and a custom grip maker.


I am not immune to that excited feeling one gets waiting for a new firearm to arrive. I immediately experienced that light-headed sensation of “they’re here” when my gun shop calls. For god’s sake, I already have 3 pair of ’51 Navy Conversion revolvers, yet I am as giddy as a little school girl as I drive to my dealer to complete the requisite paperwork and take possession of my latest smoke-wagons.

These are the first firearms I have ever purchased in the white; no bluing, no color case hardening …undressed! I am not about to let my dealer know this; c’mon I am an aficionado of all things that go bang! Standing at the counter paperwork complete, suppressing the urge to whistle and proclaim, “darn don’t those pistols shine.” Instead I nod my head while carefully examining each handgun. Once satisfied I re-insert each revolver in its preservative filled wrapper and place each in its serial numbered box. Once back home I exhibit the new pistols to my audience, our “pack” of my mini dachshunds, their tails wagging in appreciation of Daddy’s new toys.


Over the course of many years of Cowboy Action Shooting, I have made several alterations to all my ’51 conversion revolvers. These consist of fitting the arbors per Larsen Pettifogger’s method to prevent barrel binding. Dovetailed brass front sights are fitted to the barrels so I can set the optimum point of aim/impact. To save the wear and tear on my holsters, I have the muzzles, cylinders and the ejector rod housings beveled. The unfluted cylinders are heavy, and the excessive weight can contribute to excessive wear to the bolt, cylinder notches and bolt window in the frame.

The likelihood of damage is reduced by fluting the ‘51’s cylinders using the old-style long flutes employed during the frontier era. I also have the ejector rods slightly tapered to avoid alignment issues that seem to plague the “51 Richard Mason Navies. The profiling of the hammers spurs improves the manipulation of the six-guns. All this hand and machine work is performed close to home by Fred D. Lipowicz. Fred is a master gunsmith with years of experience who will always consider and routinely accepts the tasks I ask of him.


Many old west gunmen sported revolvers adorned with elaborate engraving. Most notable was the Prince of the Pistoleers, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Three of Wild Bill’s 1851 Navy’s have survived two currently on display at the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, the most photographed resides at Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles, CA. All three exhibit the engraving style of Gustave Young or Cuno A. Helfricht, both employed by Colt during Hickok’s short and turbulent life. I chose master engraver, Kelly Laster, to replicate the engraving found on the ’51 Colt Navy revolver owned by the Autry.

Laster was highly recommended by my friend Bob Munden, who repeatedly prodded me to fancy up my revolvers. Kelly had engraved a SAA or two for Bob and his customers and Bob liked his work.I first met Kelly while competing at the 2015 SASS Kansas State Championship hosted by the Powder Creek Cowboys. He was a vendor during the Championship. Kelly engraved a close friend’s Winchester 1873 lever gun during the tournament, and I was impressed. The Winchester’s owner was too, he instantly employed Kelly to engrave his and his wife’s Colt Single Action Army revolvers.

For those not familiar with this artisan of chisel and hammer, Kelly Laster has quite the pedigree. A soft metal engraver in the family’s jewelry store, a friend of Kelly’s persuaded him to engrave a firearm. From these humble beginning Kelly’s resume now includes a stint as a Colt factory engraver and alumni of the prestigious Beretta engraving school in Italy. Kelly is a SASS member and can be found engraving competitor’s gun at the major SASS matches. I last visited with Laster during the 2017 SASS National Championship Winter Range in Phoenix, AZ.

Okay back to my revolvers, I contacted Kelly at his family owned jewelry store in Hickman, KY. I told him of my desire to have my Taylor’s ’51 conversions engraved to match Wild Bill’s handgun. After much discussion and some negotiation, he agreed to take on my pistols. Forty-five days later Kelly called saying the engraving was complete and was returning my handguns, I was ecstatic.

The packaged arrived, opened immediately and the contents thoroughly examined. My initial impression was these revolvers are going to be too beautiful to shoot!



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