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Paul Durrant

Buckles - make your own

I've found a few people over the last couple of years making the effort to try and find, or make, better buckles for their reenactment accoutrements. Some have admired my own workings and have asked to buy but to be honest, the work that they sometimes take would make them pretty pricey. So I thought I'd share what I've managed to find out so far with my meddlings and hopefully it will encourage some of you guys out there to have a go.

Once I got started in re-enacting, I quickly became interested in the making of cartridge pouches and knapsacks and enjoyed seeking out and trying to understand the original process of manufacture.

In looking at other manufacturers of such accoutrements, I was always disappointed in their use of modern buckles attached to their otherwise nice reproductions.

In searching suppliers of buckles I soon realised how difficult it was these days to find anything remotely similar to period buckles so I started looking at the possibility of adapting existing ones.

Cartridge pouch and knapsacks

1¼", 1", 3/4" & 5/8"

I scourced these from:
Large bridle buckle on left: online Ebay shop, Leather & Stuff

Centre buckle in 1" & ¾" Nickel plated from Le Prevo in Newcastle;

The small square 5/8" rolled wire on right was given to me but can be usually found in most suppliers

I removed pins and any rollers. Replacing the pin and having them on the opposite side of the buckle may suffice for some although the nickel plate is, I feel, way too shiny. The curved edge of the buckle can then be hidden behind the leather strap.

It's important to shape the pins also. Some of the original I've seen are flat bottomed, their sides sloped to a flattened top, the point angled.

With the large bridle, I found the curved edge a little too thick to hold the pin so access to a vice and a good file is needed. A few minutes filing the curve will bring it down. File in a nick for the pin to rest in. With the centre 1" or ¾" nickel plated, I prefer to file the shiny plate coating off completely. This shapes easily and can be left either raw or heated (to a dull red), which, when cooled, gives a nice gun-metal grey look.  You can do this with a butane gas torch or simply over the hob flame on the cooker. Leave the pins untreated.
All three without heat treatment                              The large Bridle heated                                        The 1" with and without heat

This is the 1" heated without the Nickel plate filed off. This was heated several times as the patina caused by the nickel is unpredictable.

With the small 5/8", I filed along each edge to try and take off the roundness and hammered slightly flat. The pin you also only need to thwack with a hammer a few times to square it off. It will lengthen in doing this but the tip can be simply nipped off with pliers at an angle to give it its sloping point.

Un(heat)treated in situ and treated

Some originals

Canteen straps & Rifle slings

Brass buckles seems to be used with abandon and my biggest bugbear is the roller buckle model most makers use on knapsacks and rifle slings. What annoys me is that once an acceptable shape is found it is very easy to simply remove the offending roller and switch the pin to the opposite end. The rest is hidden behind leather. If you have the patience, file down the brass (quite easy as it's a soft metal) and shape it.

Better the pin is iron (buy some cheap Nickel Plated rolled wire ones and use their pins)

Brass roller                              Roller removed, buckle turned around, iron pin attached

1" brass square (think I got this from Batchelors & Co, London)
Plain then filed down to shaped

These are all on-going experiments. Feel free to pass comment or judgement (or contact me if you need further info). If you've experimented yourself with other methods, why not share.
Have fun!

Really good article Paul. We have both adapted commercial steel buckles and made some of our own.

The only thing I would add is that if you are going to buy them from a web site make sure that what you buy is actually steel. There is a range of very standard looking square buckles around that to the naked eye look like zinc plated steel. The body of the buckles are actually some kind of white metal and will disintegrate in heat, especially if you apply an oxy acetaline torch as I did. Funny enough the tongues were steel but a handful of tongues is not much use.
Paul Durrant

For the main Thatcher pack style harness buckles, I used the above 1¼" bridle buckles from 'Leather & Stuff' and did some serious filing down (You're talking of 3/4 hour on each one).

Original                                               My efforts

For the small 3/4" along the bottom I filed down the 'Le Prevo' NP roller;
Paul Durrant

I just use the gas ring on my cooker. It's not too ferocious and gets them to a dull red ok.

Also, if you notice on the pix of the originals, some of them are what is often referred to as 'white metal'. No idea what this was/is. It's very magnetic, light weight  and doesn't look like it rusts. Possibly pure tin??
John Waller

Great stuff Paul. Just had an email from Le Prevo; the 3/4" 1019 is currently out of stock.


Paul Durrant

More originals. Note shape of pins;


Bristol Royal Volunteers                                               Royal Artillery (NAM)

Cartridge pouch.
Leeds Armouries. English 60rnd
Paul Durrant

Bryan wrote:
The only thing I would add is that if you are going to buy them from a web site make sure that what you buy is actually steel. There is a range of very standard looking square buckles around that to the naked eye look like zinc plated steel. The body of the buckles are actually some kind of white metal and will disintegrate in heat, especially if you apply an oxy acetaline torch as I did. Funny enough the tongues were steel but a handful of tongues is not much use.

Just bought some bridle buckles from Le Prevo advertised as "Square bridle buckles" (code S01) in various sizes from 3/8" up to 1" with stainless steel finish (take note of the term 'finish' when you're searching around).

I became excited at the term square - that's my holy grail at moment. So seeing the photo of the 3/8" buckle they show; I decided to grab some 3/4" & 1"....


This is what I got:

Not really square.

Anyway, I decided to see what I could get from them and decided to file down the 'thick' end only and see how they would take heat treatment without filing off their outer skin. My first disappointment was the pins - and now I know what Bryan was on about. When I prised the pin away from the 1" it snapped (the 3/4 was fine). Looking closer, it looked like some composite metal. Tried a couple more and same result. V. disappointing! My next surprise was just how tough the buckle was to fie down. The small one took a long time and my first reaction was that it was taking the same amount of time as totally filing down and shaping their 1019 roller.

The broken 1" pin                        the 1" filed down

With heat treatment, more disappointment. Even after several heatings the patina was all over the place with a distinct brass yellow and blueing appearing.

I didn't reverse the pin side as one side was quite thin. However, I filed in to the existing nick/groove.

1" before & after                               3/4"

Finally, wondering what the metal might have been, I took a magnet to it. Before heating, slight magnetism - after heating - nothing! Nadar!

So if there are any metallurgists out there...please help!
John Waller

Hmm! Have just ordered some of those.
John Waller

My first efforts.

Not a great photo and work not up to Paul's exacting standards but it's a start.
Paul Durrant

Looking good John! I wonder if these are some kind of brass alloy that had stainless steel coating/nickel coating?

Some sort of copper / tin alloy I would have thought. If you break one the surface is uneven and granular so it's quite low density. Not that it matters a great deal if the finished article looks and acts correctly.

Even made from scratch they are probably technically incorrect as I imagine the originals would have been made from wrought iron rather than mild steel which is what's most available now.
John Waller

I was thinking the harness buckles might be a zinc alloy. As I said to Paul by PM I'm not even sure the 3/4" and the 5/8th sizes are the same composition as the smaller gave off sparks when attacked by my Dremel and the larger didn't. Still I think they will do. I plan to make up a greatcoat sling using them at the weekend.
Paul Durrant

A Brass harness buckle that one of our former members had specially moulded for our Mk1 knapsack (Pierre Turner's 1812 reconstruction).

Would suit musket sling!

Tim Edwards

If the original examples were often some kind of white metal alloy / gunmetal - surely we can simply get a load cheaply cast and save ourselves hours of filing?

You could probably cast white metal alloys on the stove at home into plaster moulds - easy!

An added benefit would be achieving the exact dimensions of the originals without having to bastardise modern steel buckles.
Paul Durrant

That's the cunning plan Tim. I have an original buckle for 3/4" but I reckon I could mock a copy of one of the square buckles for a mould (ha, easily said!)

I'd like to know what that white metal is. I suspect it's tin but I'd love an opinion from a metallurgist. I've found a supplier of tin ingots for that very reason.

Watch this space....
John Waller

If you want tin/tin alloy cast in quantity I have a mate who runs a wargames figure company who could do the job. He casts buttons for my lot (2nd Queen's) at very reasonable rates. There was a small set up cost for the mould but the last batch of buttons cost us 20p for large ones, 15p small. If anyone wants details just ask.

You have two  types  of white metal  in modern  buckles.

The zinc based ones are  usually  Zamak or  Pot metal.   A mixtrue  of zinc alloyed with  small amounts  of  aluminium,  magnesium and copper.  Usually die cast,  but can be spun cast.    Tends to  be brittle and melts around the  500c mark  which  is a very dull  red.

The  other type,  and the ones slightly magnetic, are  grey iron with probably a  lot  of slag  or impurities  in it.  Mass produced  in china  and  india etc.  with  basically everything thrown into  a crucible.   Strong,  but  can  be brittle.

Most  period buckles are  either wrought iron,  brass  or  tinned brass or iron.  The latter are  often  termed white metal buckles as  cast  pewter  would simply not have the strength and  would bend too  easily unless very thick.
Iron buckles are  generally  swaged formed.

The few examples  i've seen  with a definate pewter buckles  are  probably  field repairs to  replace a missing  one as they are  often  pretty crude

Not always,  but  quite common  is tinning  iron buckles simply to prevent them  rusting.  Wrought  iron  is  fairly  resistant ,  but  hot dip tinning is  extremely easy and  extremely  common, especially with shoe buckles which were exposed to  water much more frequently.

I'd  avoid  going with pewter and  get them all  cast  in brass.  As a substitute for iron, I'd  have them  tinned and  the blacken  them down as  above.  Vinegar  or dilute sulphuric will  work  very effectively.

ps..   get a matching  pin  cast for each buckle as  it saves a lot  of effort.

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