THE RUGER BISLEY

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            A question I receive often is “What is the best grip frame for handling recoil?” On the surface this look like an easy inquiry to answer, however the problem is we do not all have the same size hands, do not all hold a gun the same way, and we do not all have the same pain threshold when it comes to felt recoil. We can also add the fact the grip frame which feels good in the hand, doesn't always feel as good when the sixgun is fired. From 1836 to 1941 Colt offered six grip frames, the Paterson, the Walker, the Dragoons, the 1851 Navy which carried over to the Colt SAA, the 1860 Army, and the Bisley Model, in addition to various smaller grip frames. Smith & Wesson, over the years has offered the square butt J-, K-, L-, and N-frames, and now offers all of these as well as the X-frame in the round butt persuasion, and with the 50th Anniversary Model .44 Magnum and the Model 22 .45 ACP has reintroduced the square butt N-frame.

Ruger started with the Colt-sized XR3 on their Single-Six, .357 Blackhawk, and .44 Blackhawk; they added the Super Blackhawk frame in 1959, the XR3-RED in 1963, and the Bisley Model in 1985-1986. Today it is possible to buy a Ruger .44 Blackhawk in any one of these four grip frame styles, however the XR3 is found only on the 50th Anniversary Model .44 Blackhawk. Ruger has also used both the XR3 and the XR3-RED in aluminum alloy and steel versions. With all of these combinations it becomes apparent the simple question is not so simple. 

Once the West was pretty well settled shooters turned from the necessity of firearms to the more pleasurable aspects such as target shooting. As we saw in an earlier chapter on Smith & Wesson, such shooters as Walter Winans and Ira Payne were expert marksman using the S&W Model #3 revolver. Smith & Wesson even brought out special target versions of their sixguns. In 1888 Colt began producing the Flat-Top Target Model with factory records indicating 51 Flat-Tops in .44 S&W and 51 Flat-Tops in .44 Russian. Many current researchers believe these were all the same therefore there were actually 102 Flattops brought forth in .44 Russian which was the reigning target cartridge of the era. The Colt Single Action Flat-Top Target Model was only offered from 1888 to 1895 as Colt's offering for bullseye shooters. Some Flat-Tops were assembled from existing frames after 1895 and there exists one Flat-Top Target Model in .44 Special, a caliber which did not come forth until 1907-1908 and was not chambered by Colt until 1913.

Some of the Flat-Top Target Models were fitted with extra long grips that filled in under the butt of the standard Single Action Army grip frame to give target shooters better control of the sixgun. The same grip is now offered by USFA on their Flat-Top Target Single Actions. The Flat-Top was officially dropped by Colt in 1894, however it was improved, there's that word again, to become the Bisley Flat-Top Target Model.

Colt retained most of the features of the Flat-Top SAA Target on the new Bisley Flat-Top Target Model. The cylinder and barrel were the same as well as the sights, however, a wide hammer and trigger were added, and to provide a much better solution than the oversized target style grips provided on the SAA Flat-Top, the grip shape was radically changed. To raise the back of the back strap, the frame was slightly altered to ride about 1/8" higher in the back, the grip frame was given a smooth curve that went right to the top of the back strap and also was curved higher behind the trigger guard. This allowed the grip to nestle deeper in the hand for stability while target shooting.

The grip shape of the Single Action Army is a marvelous design borrowed from the Colt 1851 Navy. Strangely enough, the 1871-72 Open-Top which preceded the 1873 SAA used the 1860 Army grip frame, however this was passed over in favor of the Navy frame when the Single Action Army arrived. For heavy recoil I prefer the 1860 Army however the Single Action Army grip frame helped tame felt recoil of big bore cartridges as it allowed the sixgun to roll naturally in the hand. Remember in 1873 heavy recoil came from a 255 grain bullet  at about 900 fps and the grip frame allowed the fired sixgun to roll gently in the hand. The Bisley grip frame was totally different; it was designed to stabilize the sixgun and keep it from shifting in the hand during target shooting.

While the SAA was modified to become the Flat-Top Target Model, the Bisley took the exact opposite path. The Bisley Model started out as a target pistol, however it did not stay that way. Colt recognized a demand from shooters for a standard, fixed sighted Model P with the Bisley Model hammer, trigger, and grip frame. For me, and probably for most shooters, the original Colt Single Action has better balance and is faster from leather than the Bisley, in fact, again for me, the Bisley Model is quite clumsy from the leather.

Life is full of trade offs. Once the sixgun is in the hand, the Bisley Model is easier to control for shooting, however, again for me, the area behind the trigger guard goes up too high. Most single action shooters consider the Colt Single Action grip frame as the best for shooting quickly as when it rolls naturally in the hand upon recoil it places the thumb in the proper place for fast re-cocking of the hammer. However, once that recoil increases past a certain point the rolling of the grip frame in the hand becomes a liability and often allows the hammer to dig into the back of the hand. This is why the standard grip frame did not last very long on the Ruger .44 Magnum Blackhawk. However, once the sixgun is in the hand, the original Bisley Model grip frame does a much better job of handling recoil than the original Single Action style, but only to a moderate recoil level, and at least theoretically it is quicker to get back on target with a sixgun that does not roll in the hand.  Again remember I am speaking subjectively here, and all grip frames and grips and the desirability thereof are highly subjective.

In 1959 Bill Ruger reached back more than 100 years to find the inspiration for the Super Blackhawk grip frame in the Colt First Model Dragoon with its square backed trigger guard. When the Super Blackhawk grip frame was modified in 1985, Ruger looked to the Colt Bisley Model grip frame as well as Elmer Keith’s #5SAA grip frame, and I wouldn't be surprised but what they also took a good look at the Freedom Arms Model 83 grip frame. Keith’s #5 grip frame was made by using the trigger guard of the Colt Single Action Army and a cut down Colt Bisley Model back strap, and with this modification the middle finger did not come up as high behind the trigger guard as on the Colt Bisley Model. For me this makes for a better balance of the sixgun when shooting and also allows faster work from leather than with the Colt Bisley Model.

As one who has never liked the Super Blackhawk grip frame, I was very happy to see the introduction of the Bisley Ruger as the grip frame is near perfect for my hand feeling much like the Freedom Arms single action grip and the original  Keith #5SAA grip now found on Texas Longhorn Arms Improved Number Five. At first I, along with others, erroneously reported the Bisley grip was a copy of Elmer Keith's old #5SAA design. That was before I had a chance to handle both the original #5SAA and the Texas Longhorn Arms grip frame. When I did have the chance to handle Elmer's #5, I found, no doubt due to Keith’s small hands, the grip frame was much smaller than the Ruger Bisley grip frame.

The length of Elmer's grip frame was dictated by the trigger guard of the Colt SAA, however the Ruger Bisley grip frame is longer and dictated more by the Bisley back strap. For me, it changes the recoil and avoids the knuckle dusting of the Super Blackhawk frame. But, as we have mentioned, life is full of trade offs, so instead of my knuckle getting nailed by recoil from the Bisley Model, I do get pinched on the trigger finger by the tip of the radically rounded trigger. This can easily be taken care of by shortening and straightening the trigger. One thing about the Bisley grip, there is no middle of the road. There are those who claim it is one of the best grip frames ever offered while others see it as the answer to a question that no one ever asked. I like it except for that pinching of the trigger finger.

I have extensive experience with three .44 caliber Ruger Bisley Models. One is an original version going back to the mid-1980s with the only change being the addition of fancy walnut stocks by Charles Able. A few shots with the Super Blackhawk and I'm ready to quit, however the Bisley Model can be fired with long strings of full house .44 Magnum loads in relative comfort, especially if I tape my trigger finger. My old 10 1/2” Super Blackhawk used for silhouetting is now a candidate for Perfect Packin’ Pistol. I found a Liberty marked Super Blackhawk barrel in the parts bin at Shapel’s Gun Shop, and had it cut to 5 1/2” and installed on the silhouette sixgun. The first five shots using 300 grain hard cast bullets over 21.5 grains of H110 cut a one-hole group at 25 yards, however the recoil, I should say felt recoil, was more than I wanted to put up with, so I had David Clements install a Bisley Model grip frame, hammer, and trigger which has made all the difference. It also now wears grips made of mesquite by BluMagnum.

Several years ago when hunting on the Penn Baggett Ranch outside of Ozona Texas I found myself on the last day of the hunt and had not yet connected on a whitetail buck. We went into town that afternoon so I could ship my guns home and then I used Penn’s custom sixgun for the last late afternoon’s hunting. After I sighted it in to fit my eyes and hands, Penn dropped me off for one last chance in my favorite stand. Just before dark I took a dandy 10-point whitetail buck using his 10 1/2” .445 SuperMag built on a .357 Maximum Ruger frame and fitted with a Bisley Model grip frame, hammer, and trigger all to sixgunning perfection by Ben Forkin. I was so impressed by the performance and the quality of this big .44, I found a 357 Maximum Ruger and sent it off to Ben with instructions to make one for me just like Penn’s Bisley Model .445. It now wears custom stocks by Scott Kolar and is a superb hunting revolver.

I questioned Ruger's wisdom in going from the XR3 grip frame to both the Super Blackhawk and XR3-RED grip frame; vindication came with the introduction of the Bisley Model. It makes .44 Magnum loads much more pleasant to shoot and is absolutely mandatory on the really big five-shot custom single actions.

26-1) This Ruger Super Blackhawk converted to a Bisley Model handles .44 Magnum

loads much more comfortably than it did in the Super Blackhawk configuration.

 

 

26-2) Thirty years of Ruger’s .44 Magnum evolution: the Flat-Top Blackhawk,

the Super Blackhawk, the Bisley Model.

 

 

 

26-3) From 1956 to 1986 Ruger offered four different single action grip frames.

From the left we have XR3, XR3-RED, Super Blackhawk, and Bisley.

 

 

26-4) This Bisley Model has been totally customized by Jim Stroh: barrel cut to 5 1/2”,

Stroh front sight installed, action totally tuned and tightened, trigger set back,

flutes cut in cylinder, and finished in bright blue.

 

 

 

26-5) This Jim Stroh creation started as a stainless-steel New Model .44 Super Blackhawk.

The barrel has been shortened, Stroh front sight installed, trigger set back,

action totally tuned and tightened, cylinder flutes cut, and Bisley Model grip frame

 and hammer installed.

 

 

26-6) The Bisley Model was originally introduced by Colt in the 1890s; these two

shot out old Bisleys have been rebuilt and converted to .44 Special and are back in service.

 

 

26-7) A Ruger .357 Maximum was used by Ben Forkin as the platform for building the

“Bisley Model” .445 SuperMag. The cylinder has been re-chambered, a new .44 barrel

installed with special front sight, and Bisley Model grip frame, hammer, and trigger fitted.

The grips on the .357 Maximum are by BluMagnum; Bisley Model .445 stocks are by Scott Kolar.

 

 

26-8) From the 1890s to the 1980s we have Bisley Model grip frames.

First the original on a Colt Bisley, then the #5 designed by Elmer Keith in the 1920s,

and finally the Ruger Bisley Model.

 

Chapter 25       Chapter 27