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Thread: Vetterli centerfire conversion

  1. #1
    Boolit Master

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    Vetterli centerfire conversion

    Part-1 The Vetterli Rifle

    It all started a couple of years ago when I bought a couple of really interesting Swiss rifles.

    I collect interesting guns, sporters or military, and the Swiss Vetterli riles fall into both categories, interesting and military. It didn't hurt that they were also very reasonably priced.

    The first was an 1869/71 model that I picked up from a dealer in Canada. The .41RF Vetterlis are regarded as antiques in most countries. The lack of restrictions and official paperwork was refreshing. I sent a MO and the seller mailed the gun to me, way cool!
    Sometime later, I was wandering around the gun show in Springfield and spotted another Vetterli looking for a home. It was a very nice Model 1878/81, completely surrounded on the table by Garands. This is a sure sign of good hunting for serious bargain hunters.

    Vetterlis tend to be reasonably priced because they are old, funny looking, and they fire a cartridge, the 10.4x38mm rimfire, that has not been available for about 80 years. The good news is that the bores tend to be very nice and the rifles are generally in good shape after a near-century as wall hangers. A large number of these rifles were "buba'd" into rather ugly sporters and sold by Sears & Roebuck and other arms merchants in the early 1900's. Fortunately, most were not subject to this fate.

    Here is a photo of my 1878/81 rifle:


    1878/81 Vetterli Specifications from Swissrifles.com:
    Barrel Length: 33.5 inches
    Overall Length: 52 inches
    Weight: 10.19 lbs empty
    Chambering: 10.4x38 (.41) Swiss Rimfire
    Rifling: 4 groove, RH twist, 1 in 26"
    Velocity: 1425 fps
    Capacity: 13 (12 round tube magazine +1 in the cartridge elevator)
    Total Production: 37,010 Model 1878/81s

    Link to page about vetterli rifles:
    http://www.swissrifles.com/vetterli/



    There is something that draws me to old guns. The early breechloaders are examples of a very interesting and brief period between muzzleloaders and machine guns. The last fifty years of the nineteenth century began with the invention of the first self contained rimfire cartridge and ended with the development of the modern self-loading rifle and the first machine guns.
    The development of the Vetterli rifle took place from 1869 to 1881. It was the first repeating cartridge rifle adopted by any modern army. The Swiss were a decade ahead of the rest of the world's armies with a reasonably powerful, large capacity repeating rifle.

    Jack

  2. #2
    Boolit Master

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    Part-2 Converting the Vetterli Rifle

    I can't take credit for coming up with the idea of converting the Vetterli rifle from rimfire to centerfire. Quite a few folks have blazed that trail for me. While the end result is the same, each person who does a conversion uses materials and techniques that are convenient and familiar. The object of the exercise is to drill the bolt for the new firing pin and fabricate a firing fin that will not fall out of the bolt. I chose to make the firing pin retainer from 6061-T6 aluminum because I have access to truckloads of it and it is easy to work with machine or hand tools. Others have used steel or nylon for the same reasons. The retainer simply keeps the firing pin located between the end of the striker and in the new firing pin hole in the bolt head. I used an RCBS headed decapping pin to make the firing pin. The decapping pin is .070" in diameter and about 1/8" longer than the finished product. I Drilled a .073" hole in the center of the bolt face and into the striker channel. After it was fitted to the bolt and retainer, the firing pin was trimmed to leave .06" protruding with the striker down and the tip was rounded and polished.

    Here is a picture of the bolt with the original two-pronged rimfire firing pin and the two pieces of the centerfire conversion firing pin. You can see the end of the striker through the slot in the bolt. The striker is shown retracted to the cocked position and moves about .4" when released.



    This photo shows one of the original Swiss military 10.4x38mm cartridges, a newly made 10.4x42mm and the .348 Winchester cartridge that provided the new brass.



    All of the work to make the parts and modify the bolt can be done in two or three hours.

    The Vetterli bolt with the new centerfire firing pin in place:



    Converting the rifle to centerfire requires modifying the gun by drilling a hole for the new firing pin through the face of the bolt. This conversion does theoretically reduce the value of the gun as a collectable. The conversion also makes the gun more desirable as a shooter. I believe that the net effect on the value of the gun is nothing at all. Some people scrounge up a replacement bolt for the conversion. They are not easy to find or inexpensive.

    Jack

  3. #3
    Boolit Master

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    Part-3 Forming and Loading cartridges for the Vetterli Rifle

    "To retain respect for laws and sausages, one must not watch them in the making."~usually attributed to Otto von Bismarck
    The same might be said of making cartridges for vintage arms. Such an undertaking requires a clear understanding of the function and limitations of the cartridge case in a particular firearm. There are no SAAMI specs, no proven loading data, and no readily available loading components. Period documents, collectors cartridges, and carefull measurements of available firearms are the source of most information. If this does not make you nervous, welcome to the dark side of handloading.

    The important characteristics of the 10.4x38mm cartridge and the Vetterli rifle are as follows.

    1. The head of the 10.4 cartridge is just slightly larger than the .348 Winchester cartridge and the rim is a little larger. In both cases, the size difference is within safe working tolerance.

    2. The .348 Winchester case is more than long enough to trim down to the required length.

    3. The nominal bore and groove sizes of the Vetterli rifle are just a few thousandths smaller than bullets used for modern .44 magnum and .444 Remington cartridges. While we are now accustomed to bore sizes that vary within tenths of thousandths, the bores of firearms made a century ago had much larger tolerances. It is not unusual to find bores .008" or more larger than the nominal size. Many of the old guns used hollow based soft lead bullets so that the bullet could expand to fit whatever size the barrel was bored. The only way to dertermine the actual bore size is to push a well lubed soft lead ball through the bore and measure it. My 78/81 Vetterli barrel, when slugged, measures .426" across the grooves. This is close enough to use a .429 soft lead bullet.

    4. The mechanism in the Vetterli rifle that moves the cartridge from the tube magazine to be in line with the chamber is the same as that used in the Henry and early Winchester rifles. The cartridge in the carrier serves as a stop for the next cartridge in the magazine. A cartridge that is too long will catch in the end of the magazine tube and one that is too short will allow the next cartridge to partially enter the carrier and, in both cases, prevent it from rising. The correct length for a 10.4mm Swiss cartridge is 2.2" overall. The original cartridges used a very long heel seated, hollow based bullet of about 330 grains weight. the closest match for the original bullet is from the Lee .429 - 310grain mould. It is blunt and flat nosed and quite a bit shorter than needed for the 38mm long Swiss cartridge, but it is close to the original weight and diameter.

    5. The 10.4mm Vetterli rifles are chambered a lot deeper in the throat than modern cartridges. The extra length was intended to leave room for powder fouling. I decided to lengthen the cartridge case into this space to make up for the short bullet. This practice was also employed with the original rimfire loadings to allow the use of a shorter and lighter bullet. Many folks just keep the original case length and single load the cartridges with a lighter and shorter bullet. I measured the useable length of the chamber by making a case quite a bit too long and measuring how much the rim protruded from the chamber. The case was cut back until it just fit and then trimmed another .02" for clearance. The final case length was just determined to be a bit short of 42mm at 1.645".

    The original loadings for the 10.4x38mm were black powder. Later loadings used low pressure smokeless powder loads with either outside lubricated or paper patched soft lead bullets. I decided to "split the difference" and am loading my first cartridges with Hodgdon's Triple7, a black powder substitute. This powder burns at the same pressure levels as black powder and is very bulky. The 10.4 cartridge is too large for a safe full load of any modern smokeless powder. The Triple7 powder will fill the case for best ignition and accuracy, while keeping the pressures down to safe levels. By consulting available loading data for this powder in other guns, I estimate that the velocities should be arguably close to the original factory loadings. The powder charge was determined by filling a formed case to about 1/16" above where the base of the bullet would be in a loaded cartridge. Hodgdons suggests that, with Triple7, the powder charge be compressed lightly or not at all, but the loading density should be 100%. The powder is measured by volume, not weight, like black powder and the charge was determined to be 45 grains equivalent, by volume.

    The only loading dies that are currently available are from RCBS and cost about as much as a Vetterli in excellent condition. Many other people have found that the cartridges can be formed and subsequently neck sized by using the mouth of a .44 Mag die and the bullets can be seated with a .45 ACP die. Since these dies were available, that's what I used. The first attempt at forming cost me a couple of ruined cases but the next 18 went without a problem.

    The Vetterli chamber has a slight bottleneck and the cases were formed so that the shoulder bears firmly to maintain minimum headspace. After the cases were formed, a cutoff wheel in a dremel tool was used to remove the bulk of the excess brass. Finally the cases were trimmed to a finished length of 1.645" with the Forster case trimmer.
    The necks were opened up and the mouths very slightly belled with a Lyman .44 caliber "M" die.

    I have found that many of the older calibers shoot more accurately with pistol primers. Many times a rifle primer will start the bullet moving before the powder is properly and consistently ignited. My first loads use the Winchester large pistol magnum primer, seated with the Lee auto-prime tool.

    The powder was measured by volume, using the Lee dipper and the bullet was started in the case as for as possible by hand. The seating was finished with a .45 ACP seating die. The slight bell of the case mouth was removed and a slight taper crimp applied by driving the cartridge a short distance back into the original sizing die. The primer was protected from accidental firing by placing a shell holder back on the case and tapping the cartridge back into the die with a nylon hammer.

    The loaded cartridges fit the chamber with just a little resistance at the end of the bolt handle travel and function through the magazine.


    Vetterli 10.4x38mm rimfire and 10.4x42mm centerfire cartridges
    348 Winchester case - 10.4x42mm CF - 10.4x38mm RF


    For more information about the 10.4x38mm cartridge:
    http://www.swissrifles.com/ammo/index.html

    Jack

  4. #4
    Boolit Master

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    Part-4 Firing the Centerfire Vetterli Rifle

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating. ~ancient proverb



    The 78/81 Vetterli proved itself to be still quite capable, after more than a century of silence.
    A few shots were fired at 25, 50, and 100 yards to get the feel of the rifle and to check the trajectory of the bullets. I was not surprised to find the gun shooting high. The lowest setting on the sight is 225, yards or meters, I don't know which. At 25 yards it was about 8" high, over a foot high at fifty and a couple of feet high at 100 yards. The Hodgdon's Triple7 black powder substitute produced a satisfying cloud of smoke but without the rotten egg smell of real black powder. The recoil was negligible, as expected from a cartridge of about the same power as a .44 Magnum, in a ten pound rifle.



    I set up targets at 25 yards so the the shots would all fall on the target. The chronograph is an Ohler Model 33 that I have had for many years. The screens are a PITA to locate and cost $80 each, the last time that I shot one. I set the screens out to the end of the reach of the cables to try to keep the muzzle blast, smoke and powder residue from affecting the results



    Three groups, each of five shots were fired. The flyer to the left of the first group was the offhand shot fired when taking the photo of the offhand shooting. All of the groups were fired from a rest for best accuracy. The first two groups were fired using a six o'clock hold on the lower targets. The third group was fired taking a twelve o'clock hold on the lower target, shown by the red front sight outline added to the photo. The group sizes in order of firing were 1-3/4", 1-1/2", and 3/4". I attribute the smaller size of the last group both to growing familiarity with the gun and sights, and to having a much clearer sight picture with the twelve o'clock hold. It is noteworthy that the chronograph results for the last group showed an extreme spread of 12 fps and a standard deviation of only 4 fps!

    The average velocity for the 15 shots was 1271 fps with an extreme spread of 62 fps and a standard deviation of 19 fps. I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged by the consistency of the chronograph results. While the velocity is a couple hundred fps below the original loadings, I am still more comfortable using the Triple7 at black powder pressure levels and 100% loading density than with a quarter of a case of fast burning pistol powder. The magnum pistol primers proved their value in the consistent velocities and lack of set back.

    The cases formed nicely to the chamber, increasing .02" in diameter at the shoulder and extracted with ease. The cases now have a long tapered shoulder like the original rimfire cartridge shown earlier. There is no measurable case head expansion. The primers are deeply indented but with no signs of immanent perforation and the edges of the primer and firing pin mark are well rounded. In the absence of a pressure gauge, these are all positive signs of chamber pressure that is appropriate for this type of gun. There is no blackening of the case necks, which would show poor sealing caused by excessive clearances or inadequate chamber pressure.

    The bore was not cleaned during the firing session. I checked the bore after every five shots and found that there was no more fouling after the 18th shot than after the second shot.



    It was a great day to bring the Vetterli back to life.
    I think it heard it whisper, "Let's do this again."

    That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

    Jack

  5. #5
    Boolit Master

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    Jack, an excellent presentation. I don't own a Vetterli, but your explanation and photography made for a great read...Ray
    I've got the itch, but don't got the scratch.

    Democrats, uninsuring the insured.



  6. #6
    Boolit Master


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    Jack,
    Thanks for a really well written report on the Vet. I'm starting just such a conversion and had questions about the case length, which you answered very well. I'll be using 8mm Lebel cases for my conversion though, mostly because they're a little cheaper than the .348 Winchester.

  7. #7
    Boolit Master
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    Very interesting! I have a Vetterli-Vitali which was converted to 6.5 Carcano. The bore is far from perfect and it has a 20 lb. trigger but one of these days I am going to try the Lyman 140 grain Loverin in it. I shot a few Hornady 140's through it with mild loads and it shot about 2' high at 100 yards.

  8. #8
    Boolit Master

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    Well, Jack, with that fine dissertation, I think we should call you Dr. Jack.

    Very enjoyable and informative.

    Thanks, Mark

  9. #9
    Boolit Master

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    Thanks to all for your kind remarks.

    Quote Originally Posted by Nueces View Post
    Well, Jack, with that fine dissertation, I think we should call you Dr. Jack.

    Very enjoyable and informative.

    Thanks, Mark
    Mark,
    You can call me anything except late for supper.

    It was a fun project and I'm not quite done.
    I am going to make a taller front sight that will clamp on the barrel, sort of like a scope ring. I'm more than a little curious to see how it will shoot at 100 and 200 yards.

    Jack

  10. #10
    Boolit Master at heavens range
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    Great shooting, I have a long reamer and reamed out that long freebore.Make my cases now 1.700. Had a mold made up by CBE for it, Also try the mauser bullet 446110, size them to. 431 and they are a great bullet with 13 grs. unique.I have a number of the Vetterlis and JB welded a Ly. 57 sight to one, Has been on it for 2 years now and over 900 rds. through it, Took one other and drilled and tapped it and put Unteral scope blocks on it with a 20 X scope its a 1/2 in. shooter at 100 yds. Some of these bores run at .426, 429- .430 and the 69-71s will run about .435. Good to meet someone else shooting the Vets, The Swiss fue is hard to get rid of. I wrote a 2 page story in the Fouling Shot awhile back if you happen to take it, You done a great job.

  11. #11
    Boolit Master

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    Quote Originally Posted by smokemjoe View Post
    ... its a 1/2 in. shooter at 100 yds. ....
    Was this with the 446110 and 13gr Unique?
    Funds are limited so I won't be buying any more moulds for a while but I would like to find one more similar to the original shape than the current Lee mould.

    I am totally immune to the Swiss Fue, according to my wife.
    I have been thinking about a Vetterli carbine though.

    Jack

  12. #12
    Boolit Master at heavens range
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    Jack : Yes it was with the 446110 mold, Lees D.C. Mold No. C430-310- RF is a very good shooter also for the Vets.- Joe

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    Jack

    Great write up!
    Ran across one and after reading this I had to get it.



    Ordered brass, dies and a boolit mould also.

    Smokemjoe
    Dont get the Fouling Shot, is there any way to get a copy of your store?

    Swede Nelson
    The expectation of evil is more bitter than the suffering -OR-
    More people die from worrying about getting ate by a bear then get ate by a bear.

    Owner and CEO/CC&BW
    NOE Bullet Moulds
    You can check our schedule HERE



    Made in the U.S.A.
    Come and see us at:
    www.noebulletmoulds.com

  14. #14
    Boolit Master

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    Swede,
    Glad you enjoyed it.
    I'm shooting mine every week and having a ball.
    After the cases are fireformed they will hold another 5 gr equivalent of Triple 7.
    The average velocity went up from 1270 fps to 1335 fps with 50 gr equivalent and the groups shrank noticeably. I'm shooting just a bit under 2 moa now.

    I'm thinking of increasing the hardness of the boolits when I cast the next batch. I'm casting air cooled WW now and they are very soft. I might have to size a harder boolit a couple thousandths smaller as I am .005" over groove diameter right now. I cut the group sizes in half with my 8x58RD when I went to harder boolits.

    You have a nice looking rifle there and I'm looking forward to a range report when you get it going.
    If you need any advice about the conversion or case forming and loading, please drop me an email (see my user profile for contact info)
    If you are going to use smokeless powder, you should get in touch with Smokemjoe. He has been doing some good shooting with his Vets with smokeless powder.

    I made this taller clamp on front sight from a scrap of steel. The gun was shooting a couple of feet high at 100 yards so I made the sight .300" higher than the original front sight. Now I set the rear sight to 250 meters for 25 yards, 300 meters for 50 yards and 350 meters for 100 yards. I made the blade .085" wide and it gives a good sight picture. The camera flash made the bluing look terrible. I natural light the sight matches the bluing on the rest of the gun pretty close.



    Jack

  15. #15
    Boolit Master Andy_P's Avatar
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    I suggest that anyone shooting, or intending to shoot a Swiss Vetterli consume the information found over at the Vetterli Forum of swissrifles.com A guy named "Parashooter" has done up info on the centerfire conversion that can't be beat.

    I have several Vetterlis converted and have found that the most simple conversion (simply drilling a hole and using an RCBS decapping pin), works as well as the more complex and expensive means. I shoot only smokeless and did well in the latest Swiss Postal Shoot (91/120). I love these guns.

  16. #16
    Boolit Master

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    Andy,

    What boolit are you using?

    Jack

  17. #17
    Boolit Master
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    Argh, you boys arebad influence on a body. I have looked at these for several years. It seems
    for some reason that there are a few more every time I get to a GS. The last small one day show I went to a gent had one that was in fair condition as far as the wood. The metal was excellent.
    He had it priced fair enough. I picked it up and looked at it twice. Each time he came down a bit and almost begged me to take it. I thought maybe he would offer me some $ to get it off of his table,lol.
    I am afraid now that the next time this occurs I will haul one home with me.

    I see one of you were using Lebel brass. Is that somthing that Grafs had made up? Or, is it available some where else?

    Also, I would think Trail Boss would be a good powder for this one?

    Jeff

  18. #18
    Boolit Master

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    Quote Originally Posted by JSH View Post
    Argh, you boys arebad influence on a body.

    .....
    Also, I would think Trail Boss would be a good powder for this one?

    Jeff
    Remember that this is a ~20Kpsi black powder cartridge.
    That was the main reason that I decided to go with Triple 7.
    It has given me great results with modest pressures and the cleanup is probably easier than smokeless.
    Two patches with black powder solvent and then some oil is all that I have needed.
    I rinse the cases with hot water with a little white vinegar and they come out like new.
    Work your loads up carefully. If you can find some loading data for Trail Boss in the .44 magnum, that would be a good place to start..

    Jack
    Last edited by jhrosier; 11-23-2007 at 11:23 AM.

  19. #19
    Boolit Master Andy_P's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jhrosier View Post
    Andy,

    What boolit are you using?

    Jack
    I use the Lee 310 44 Mag bullet. Barrel slugs at 0.430", and use 348 Win brass and cut it to 1.635", so there isn't much bullet in the neck when I set the OAL to 2.200" so it will feed through the mag. I have a custom bullet ordered from Mountain Molds that will weigh 325 grs and have a crimp groove at 0.565" from the nose which will be perfect for my brass. The twist is 1:26 in these guns, so bullets much heavier than that don't always stabilize at least much past 100yds. I tried the 370gr RCBS boolit for the 43 Mauser sized down from 0.446" to 0.430" and it did not shoot well.

    By way of loads, I mostly use a full case of pulled Swedish military powder (burn rate near IMR4320) and get about 1400 fps. Some unburnt powder (crinklers), but a solid performer. Other loads that work well with the Lee 310gr have been:

    SR4759 - 22.0 grs - 1400 fps
    H4198 - 28.0 grs - 1350 fps

    If I was to try Trail Boss, I'd stick to no more than about 1000 fps and start at about 8.0 grs. With Unique, I'd go as high as 1100 fps and try 10.0 grs.

    The idea to use 44 Mag loads seems a good one. The Vetterli operates at much lower pressures than the 44 Mag, but the case is much larger which compensates.

    P.S. Lee makes good and inexpensive dies for the 41 Swiss. Thanks Lee.

    Mine shoots 12" high at 100 yds. I love that front sight you contrived - good job.
    Last edited by Andy_P; 11-23-2007 at 04:17 PM.

  20. #20
    Boolit Master dakotashooter2's Avatar
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    All great info. I am currently in possession of what appears to be a sporsterized single shot converted to a box magazine and with the centerfire conversion. I've been intending to get it up and running for some time but the cost of dies held me back. I see now that lee has them for under $30 so this project may get back on track. I have 100 new 348 cases I picked up for for only $20 and tried case forming with 44 dies but was not happy with the results. I like the idea of using the triple seven instead of smokeless.

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Abbreviations used in Reloading

BP Bronze Point IMR Improved Military Rifle PTD Pointed
BR Bench Rest M Magnum RN Round Nose
BT Boat Tail PL Power-Lokt SP Soft Point
C Compressed Charge PR Primer SPCL Soft Point "Core-Lokt"
HP Hollow Point PSPCL Pointed Soft Point "Core Lokt" C.O.L. Cartridge Overall Length
PSP Pointed Soft Point Spz Spitzer Point SBT Spitzer Boat Tail
LRN Lead Round Nose LWC Lead Wad Cutter LSWC Lead Semi Wad Cutter
GC Gas Check