THE RUGER .44 MAGNUM

THE MODERNIZATION OF THE SINGLE ACTION

THE FIRST .44 BLACKHAWK--THE FLAT-TOP

BY JOHN TAFFIN

Ruger jumped on the .44 Magnum wagon very early, in fact, as soon as they realized a new cartridge had arrived on the scene. There are several stories about how Bill Ruger found out about the .44 Magnum. One story says fired cases were found in the dumpster at Smith & Wesson; my first reaction to this is why would anybody be rooting through the dumpster? Supposedly those fired cases were delivered to Bill Ruger and he went from there. A more plausible story is the one that says a Remington employee, who was a friend of Bill Ruger, delivered a sackful of ammunition and empty cases to his desk. Whatever the case may be, Bill Ruger did not waste any time in developing the .44 Magnum Blackhawk. We have already talked about the fact the first three .44 Magnum prototypes were nothing more than the .357 Magnum Blackhawk of 1955 being re-chambered and re-barreled to the new .44 and when they were found wanting both frame and cylinder were enlarged to what became the .44 Blackhawk. It had the same fine sights as the .357 Blackhawk, a fully adjustable Micro blended nicely into the heavy flat-top frame and matched up with a ramp front sight.

In some parts of the country, Ruger .44 Blackhawks actually arrived on dealer's shelves before the Smith & Wesson .44 now known as the Model 29. I encountered my Ruger Blackhawk long before I ever saw a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum for sale and bought the first Blackhawk arriving in my area in late 1956 or early 1957. The first .44 Magnum Blackhawk was almost perfect; two things prevented it from being so. First there was the barrel length. Since the beginning of time single actions were meant to have barrel lengths of 4 3/4”, 5 1/2”, and 7 1/2”, however the new Ruger carried a 6 1/2” barrel. It did not look right and did not balance right; secondly, the single action grip configuration was identical to the Colt Single Action, however it was made of aluminum not steel. I would soon find out there was another problem with that grip frame.

 I was one of those early .44 Magnum shooters who found the recoil of the Smith & Wesson painful, and actually believed those writers who said that the natural roll of the single action grip would lessen the felt recoil of the .44 Magnum. Wrong! In the 1950s, several of us teenage sixgunners spent much of our time at Shell’s Gun and Archery Farm in Greentown Ohio. Shelby Estep was the owner, a fine gentleman with a lovely wife and three kids. The potbelly stove was always lit during cold weather so we could shoot and come back to get warm. The first .44 Magnum Ruger Blackhawk, the original Flat-Top version, I ever saw was at Shell’s. It sold for $96, two and one-half weeks pay, and I passed up a 1st Generation Colt Single Action .45 with engraving, an adjustable rear sight and a full-length barrel rib priced at $150 to buy the Blackhawk. In retrospect, I wish I had bought that Colt, but not at the price of giving up all the enjoyment this old Blackhawk has given me over the years.

The original Blackhawk was a grand sixgun even though I did not particularly care for the 6 1/2” barrel length. It did have adjustable sights, was chambered in .44 Magnum, and felt good in the hand, at least until it was fired, having the same grip frame size and shape as the Colt Single Action Army, however, that old original Peacemaker grip frame was made to handle loads in the 800-900 fps range.  For me it could be stretched to 1100 to 1200 fps and still be fairly comfortable, however I got a real surprise the first time I touched off one of those early .44 Magnum loads in that Blackhawk.  When the hammer fell, the tremendous recoil forced the sixgun up and the hammer dug a chunk out of the back of my hand. So much for the "natural roll" of the single action; there was nothing natural when it came to the .44 Magnum.

The Blackhawk was hung on two pegs in my bedroom and I went back to shooting the .45 Colt, .45 ACP, .44 Special, and .357 Magnum. It would be a couple years before I realized that the .44 Magnum had to be approached differently than other sixgun cartridges and required sixguns fitted with custom grips, more shooting experience, and most important was the need to acquire a completely new mental attitude. It took some real learning on my part to be able to handle the Blackhawk especially when I was so stubborn in feeling a .44 Magnum should be just that, a full-house, peddle-to-the-metal loading.  In the 1950s that meant a 250 grain Keith cast bullet over 22.0 grains of #2400.  It was very powerful then, still is, but I missed the great advantage of reloading, which is custom-tailoring loads for the particular sixgun and situation.

I’m a lot smarter now and my favorite load for this sixgun is still assembled with the Keith bullet, however it is now over 10.0 grains of Unique instead of the standard #2400 loading for a muzzle velocity of around 1150-1200 fps instead of 1450 fps.  The truth be known, the lighter load, which duplicates Keith’s old Heavy .44 Special load, will handle anything I am likely to encounter while packing this old .44 Blackhawk.  The original barrel length, as stated above, was 6 1/2” and while I wasn’t particularly happy with it, I did order a George Lawrence #120 Keith holster, plain black with a laced edge, and a matching cartridge belt.  I still have the old holster and have no idea what happened to the belt, but no matter as it has certainly shrunk over the years.   I put up with the 6 1/2” barrel as long as I could then had it cut to 4 5/8”, a version Ruger should have cataloged but never did, and the Lawrence holster was modified to accommodate the new length. The short-barreled .44 Blackhawk made the move to Idaho with my family and me 40 years ago.  The fellows I hunted with here in those early days, all strictly rifle shooters, dubbed it  “The Bear Buster” and were all more comfortable when I had the  .44 along.

One very cold snowy night, in the middle of nowhere, three of us were in the camper sleeping, with all of the rifles in front of the truck, when someone pounded on the door.  Now why would someone be pounding on the door in the middle of the night?  The first thing my friends asked is whether or not I had the .44; I did.  With my hand on the .44 we opened the door to find a hunter just about totally worn out.  He had shot a deer way down in a hole, and had to come out for help. The snow was over a foot deep and his brother was still down in the hole with the deer and a fire.  We did not need the .44 in that particular situation, but it was sure comforting to have it and for many years it was the number one item on our group list when on a hunting trip.

I was wearing the .44 Blackhawk when a farmer asked me to help him get his bull loaded to take to auction. I said O.K. but if he comes for me I will shoot him. No problem said the farmer. Well the bull did try to take me; I jumped up (I could still jump in those days) on an old hay wagon, the bull followed and fell through the floor of the wagon. When I left the farmer was trying to figure out how to get him out of there. It was also the .44 Blackhawk helping me to stare down a wild horse in Wyoming who decided I did not belong in his territory. I would have been almighty uncomfortable in this situation without the .44 Blackhawk.

The .44 Blackhawk Flat-Top was a grand sixgun, still is, but seemingly could not make up its mind as to what function it was to provide. The barrel length at 6 1/2" was too long for a Premier Packin' Pistol and to my eyes it was not only non- pleasing aesthetically speaking, it also did not quite balance right for a hunting sixgun for those of us who prefer the longer 7 1/2" length; one-inch really does make a difference. A few .44 Blackhawks, around 1,000 or less, were offered in the 7 1/2" and in addition to the 6 1/2” and 7 1/2” lengths Ruger also offered a 10” version with about the same number being made as the 7 1/2” Blackhawks. This is also a superb shooting sixgun and carries easily in a Goerg shoulder holster. Al Goerg was a pioneering handgun hunter who was killed in Alaska plane crash in the 1960s.

I still have my old original Blackhawk, however it has been changed to better suit me.  The time came when I needed the short  .44 barrel for another project, so it was pulled from the Blackhawk, which was then shipped off to Ruger to be re-barreled with a 7 1/2” barrel; this was in the 1960s when they still had replacement parts for the .44 Blackhawk.  Earlier I had installed a longer base pin, wide hammer and trigger; parts all coming from the new "improved" Ruger .44 Magnum which was introduced in 1959. The wide trigger required the trigger opening in the grip frame to be enlarged, which I did with a drill and some file work.

When I did my first book, Big Bore Sixguns, my book editor, Ned Schwing, asked me to do a chapter on my favorite sixgun. I couldn't then; all I could do was pick a favorite category which was, of course, a big bore single action, and for all around use, with adjustable sights and a 7 1/2” barrel. Now this is certainly not the best choice for self defense or concealment, however it would work better for these two categories than the S&W Scandium .357 Model 340 in my pocket would work for hunting. There is no doubt, the 7 1/2” big bore single action sixgun remains my favorite. However, Roy Huntington, my editor at American Handgunner, really put the pressure on me to come up with A favorite, not just a category.

Over the past nearly half century now the firearms makers of America have produced some absolutely excellent 7 1/2” single action sixguns such as the Colt New Frontier in .44 Special and .45 Colt and the Texas Longhorn Arms  .44 West Texas Flat-Top Target, and several others as we shall see in later chapters. However, the old Flat-Top .44 Blackhawk and I have been together for half a century. We know each other very well and we trust each other. If I can have only one sixgun, and that would be a minor tragedy, it would be this 7 1/2” .44 Blackhawk. 

I’m pretty careful with my sixguns. When hunting in bad weather they are in a shoulder holster or under a long coat, however after five decades of use this old .44 is showing a little gray around the temples. The bluing is getting rather thin on the ejector rod housing, it has gone through several pair of grips, and the scarred aluminum grip frame is a good indication of just how many miles this favorite sixgun has been carried.  There are certainly better sixguns available today.  As mentioned and as we shall see in the next chapter even Ruger  improved the Blackhawk  .44 Magnum three years after it arrived with the Super Blackhawk version with a larger, steel grip frame, unfluted cylinder, and protective ears built into the top strap protecting the rear sight.

The Super version became so popular the original was dropped from the catalog in 1963, but these days the old .44 Blackhawk will do everything I really need a sixgun to do, and notice I said need not want, and if it came down to it, I could survive sixgun-wise with this old .44.  It feels oh so comfortable on my hip in a homemade holster; it feels so good in my hand with its Colt-style grip frame and stocks. We both have a lot of miles on us, but hopefully we both have a lot left.

This old 7 1/2” Flat-Top Blackhawk now has an understudy. Too many years ago to even think about a friend stopped over the house and has happened to tell me he had a Ruger .44 Blackhawk and he was thinking of having the barrel shortened. When he told me about it my heart almost stopped; it was an original 7 1/2” .44 Blackhawk. I pleaded with him not to mess with it so he called the gunsmith who fortunately had been so busy he had not gotten to the project yet and that original 7 1/2” Blackhawk was rescued. The friend then said he would sell it to me and quoted a ridiculously low price. When I told him it was worth a lot more, he said since I was an honest man I could have it for the price he asked. So honesty paid off and there is no guilty conscience on my part. Since it was in the dead of winter we grabbed a box of factory level .44 Specials and headed to the indoor pistol range; at 25 yards, offhand, the first five shots cut one ragged hole. I was a whole lot younger then!

After three grueling summers of Graduate School I returned back home that last summer and Dot and I were out shopping and stopped at one of the local gun shops. What should we find but a 10” Flat-Top Blackhawk. I looked at it and decided we couldn't afford the $125 price tag. We got back outside and climbed into the pick-up and Dot says “Why don't you just go buy it?” You have to love a girl like that! That's how I know the 10” Flat-Top carries so easily in a Goerg shoulder holster.

That 10” Ruger taught me a lot about what it means to be a handgun hunter. October was made for hunting and this particular day was perfect. The oppressive heat of summer had given way to frozen mornings and warm afternoons, while the green was rapidly being replaced with gold and red splashes of color. Heavy flannel shirts and down vests were once again the dress of the day. Yes, it was a perfect day for hunting and the ram was standing almost defiantly broadside at 225 yards. A long shot? Definitely. Could I make it? Maybe. I assumed the steadiest position possible, sighted down the barrel of the .44 Magnum and squeezed the trigger sending a 265 grain hard cast bullet on its way.       The shot was as perfect as the day. It seemed like an eternity as the flat-nosed bullet made its way to the target and I waited to hear the satisfying Whomp! as the bullet hit. Instead I heard Clang! for this critter was a steel ram and I was shooting long-range silhouettes. While I was active in silhouettes in the 1980s this happened hundreds of times as I, and thousands of others, successfully took chickens, pigs, turkeys, and rams. Silhouetting taught us a lot about long-range shooting, however most of what we did shooting the black steel animal silhouettes did not transfer positively to the hunting field unless we were really paying attention.

It is one thing to shoot a steel animal at a measured distance, standing still, allowing time for the shooter to assume the Creedmore position, and continuing to stand broadside as the shooter slowly squeezes the trigger from a well-known sixgun shooting the same load at the same distance as hundreds of times before. Silhouetting was and is a wonderful and satisfying shooting sport for handgunners, however it would be more realistic for the handgun hunter if the targets actually had a kill zone. In the game fields bullet placement is critical; on steel critters a hit is a hit. I took many rams with perfect shoulder shots, however I also took them with horn shots, ham shots, gut shots, leg shots, and even shots which had they been ewes would have been complete misses. It didn't matter. As long as the ram went down the shot counted. We do not have this forgiving situation in the reality of the game fields; bad shots remain bad shots often allowing animals to escape and die a painful lingering death. The two equal first rules of hunting are use enough gun, and respect the animal being hunted.

As most hunters I started my adventures afield with a scope-sighted, bolt-action rifle in what was then the most popular chambering, the .30-06. When I decided to become a handgun hunter I did not strap on the sixgun as a backup but instead left the ’06 at home. My 10” .44 Magnum Ruger Flat-Top in the Goerg shoulder holster carried so much easier than the old sporterized 1917 Enfield. As I made my way up the mountain I appreciated the Ruger more and more. I reached the top, sat down to rest with my back against a fallen log, looked across the canyon and there he was, the biggest mule deer I had ever seen. He was a long way off, however if I had the .30-06 Enfield I might have been able to move behind the log, roll up my down vest and use it as a rest, and take the shot. Instead, I just sat there and enjoyed the view.

He was much too far for an open-sighted sixgun shot even with the relatively flat shooting .44 Magnum. Perhaps I could have gone down into the canyon and back up to him however I was definitely too tired and it would be dark before I ever reached him. When one decides to become a handgun hunter, situations like this are to be expected. Three hundred yard shots may be possible with the accomplished rifleman, however they are totally out of the question for the sixgunner. I may have been able to hit 225 yard rams most of the time, however I was realistic enough to know my hunting range with an open sighted sixgun was about one-third this distance, and 50 yards is even better. As I came down off the mountain with the 10” Flat-Top still in the Goerg shoulder holster there were no regrets; I simply savored the beautiful moment I had enjoyed.   

Dot and I have come up with other Flat-Top .44s over the past half-century. We really did find the proverbial like new 6 1/2” .44 complete with a box of factory ammunition with six rounds missing. Sadness goes along with the pair of 6 1/2” Blackhawks purchased from a friend who was dying of cancer and needed money badly. We paid too much, however there are times to bargain and their other times not even try. We also have his two 4 5/8” .357 Blackhawks and Colt Gold Cup .45. I hope I am never faced with the same selling situation he had to go through. Somewhere along the line I picked up a 4 5/8” .44 Flat-Top to replace my original which had been cut to 4 5/8” and then had a 7 1/2” barrel installed; it just seems like it was meant to be replaced.

Now to celebrate the golden anniversary of the .44 Blackhawk we have the companion 50th Anniversary .44 Blackhawk, and with this 21st century .44 Blackhawk, Ruger did a very good job of taking my mind, spirit, soul, and heart back 50 years. However, we will never see the old traditional action three-click action which was replaced by the New Model action nearly 35 years ago, and this is a New Model Flat-Top. It does have the standard 6 1/2” barrel of the Original Blackhawk (I still cannot understand why that was the standard), a Micro rear sight and ramp front sight, the flat-topped frame, standard hammer and trigger, and the original, and best grip frame known as the XR3. This time around the grip frame is steel rather than an alloy resulting in a slightly different feel and balance. The grips on that the original .44 Blackhawk I bought 50 years ago were smooth walnut, however the very first few hundred .44 Blackhawks out of the factory wore the same checkered hard rubber grips found on the .357 Blackhawk and that is exactly what we find on the Anniversary Model .44 Magnum.

The Anniversary Model .44 comes in a red plastic box with a special Anniversary plastic medallion inlaid in the lid and inside in addition to the sixgun itself there is a very informative little pamphlet entitled 50 Years of .44 Magnums.  The .44 Blackhawk itself is also specially marked on the top of the barrel in gold filled letters with "50 YEARS OF .44 MAGNUM" and the below it we find "1956 TO 2006.” This .44 is put together quite well although the bluing is not as highly polished as on the original Flat-Tops. I’m sure some will buy this .44 as an investment, but to me the best investment is in the shooting and this one is meant to be shot. To this end the cylinder throats are set at a uniform, and desirable, .431”; the barrel/cylinder gap is also right set at .005”; and the trigger pull, which was 4#, is now 2 1/2# with one leg of the trigger return spring popped off its post inside the grip frame.  Not only did seeing the .44 Blackhawk take me back 50 years so did the shooting, and just as I learned then I shot .44 Special loads first. My full power .44 Special loads using a 250 grain Keith bullet shot very well placing five shots at 20 yards inside 1 1/4”. Those loads are 16.0 grains of Alliant’s #2400 for 1145 fps and 11.5 grains of Alliant’s Blue Dot for 1151 fps.

Switching to .44 Magnum loads resulted in similar or better results. Three factory jacketed hollowpoint loads, Black Hills 240, and Hornady’s  200XTP and 300 XTP also shot the same 1 1/4” group clocking at 1264 fps, 1362 fps, and 1147 fps respectively over the PACT PC chronograph. Cor-Bon’s new 225 jacketed hollowpoint load using the Barnes DPX bullet clocked at 1388 fps while placing five shots in a very satisfying 3/4”. My most used cast bullet load these days, especially for the original .44 Magnums, which are much lighter in weight than the more modern versions, is 10.0 grains of Unique and a Keith bullet. Lyman’s version, #429421 clocks at 1079 fps as does NEI’s #260.429 and both also place five shots in 1 1/4”.

The original .44 Magnums from both Ruger and Smith & Wesson were introduced during what, at least in retrospect, were much more relaxed times. The 1950s, once the Korean War ended in 1953, became one of the best decades ever for growing up. Little did we realize what awaited in the 1960s. The anniversary models from both companies illustrate a real example of the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak as they do a grand job in taking my mind, soul, spirit, heart, in fact everything but my body back 50 years.

24-1) Taffin shooting “Bear Buster II”, a Flat-Top .44 Magnum Blackhawk cut to 4 5/8”.

 

 

24-2) Ruger cataloged three barrel lengths for the .44 Flat-Top, 10”, 7 1/2”, and 6 1/2”.

 

 

24-3) Heavy .44 Special loads work just fine in the 7 1/2” .44 Flat-Top,

 

 

 

24-4) or the 10” .44 Flat-Top,

 

 

 

24-5) or the 6 1/2” .44 Flat-Top.

 

 

 

24-6) 50 years ago, sixgunners had a choice of two 6 1/2” .44 Magnums, the

Smith & Wesson and the Ruger Blackhawk.

 

 

 

24-7) Smith & Wesson early on offered 4” .44 Magnums, however Ruger never

cataloged a 4 5/8” .44 Blackhawk; they did make one up especially for Elmer Keith in 1956.

 

 

 

24-8) The 10” Ruger Flat-Top .44 Magnum carries easily in a Goerg shoulder

holster as does a pre-29 S&W .44 Magnum.

 

 

 

24-9) Great .44 Magnums from the 1950s: 7 1/2” Ruger Flat-Top and

pre-29 Smith & Wesson.

 

 

 

24-10) The 7 1/2” and 10” Ruger Flat-Tops are relatively rare, about 1,000 produced,

well in excess of 25,000 standard 6 1/2” Blackhawks were manufactured.

 

 

 

24-11) After more than 35 years of service the .44 Blackhawk 10” and Goerg

shoulder holster are still a good handgun hunting choice.

 

 

 

24-12) When Ruger went to the style now known as the Old Model in their

Blackhawk line the .44 Magnum was dropped and replaced by the .45 Colt

Blackhawk with a choice of a 7 1/2” or 4 5/8” barrel.

 

 

 

24-13) 50 years separates the original .44 Blackhawk from the 50th Anniversary Model.

The original is safe only with five rounds and the hammer down an empty chamber;

the Anniversary Model is built on the New Model action and is safe to carry fully loaded.

 

Chapter 23    Chapter 25