RUGER'S CLASSIC SINGLE ACTION: THE FLAT-TOP BLACKHAWK
Those who frequent gun shows on a regular basis know that it easy to find great guns. It is also easy to find great prices BUT the rub is trying to find a great gun at a great price! I've walked a lot of aisles over many years at our local shows always looking for that certain sixgun. Some of my better buys have been a Smith & Wesson 3 1/2" .357 Magnum, a new 4 5/8" Ruger Blackhawk Three Screw in .41 Magnum, and the same in .45 Colt. Just last year I arrived home after the SHOT Show, showered and hurried down to the last couple of hours of the local show. In the third aisle I found a sixgun friend Gary Sitton had been looking for over a year. A Smith & Wesson 4" .45 Colt, like new at a great price.
Those four sixguns cover about seven years of gun show searching. SO I did not have high hopes this past month when I headed to the fairgrounds for our local show, the EE-DA-HOW Fort Boise Gun Show. In the second aisle I spotted the back end of a Ruger Flat-Top .357 Blackhawk amongst a whole bunch of guns of varying kinds and qualities. The price tag was extremely reasonable for a Flat-Top .357 and it looked as if I had found another sixgun to squirrel away for future conversion to .44 Special, .44-40, or .45 Colt.
As I looked at the Blackhawk, the barrel kept going. And going. And going. What I had in front of me was not just an ordinary Flat-Top .357 Magnum but a ten-inch barreled Ruger .357 Magnum. The deal was quickly struck, (I did not even try to get the price down) and the check was written and I headed away with my treasure.
Arriving home I went right to John Dougan's Know Your Ruger Single Action Revolvers 1953-63. I knew I had a rare sixgun but I certainly did not know how rare. The ten-inch .44 Magnum Flat-Top my wife bought for me to celebrate the successful completion of graduate school in 1971 was one of only 1,050 or less out of 30,000 plus .44 Magnum Flat-Tops manufactured from 1956 to 1963. The .357 Magnum turned out to be even rarer. In fact it is the rarest of all the Flat-Tops. Of the 42,600 plus .357 Magnums, much less than a thousand, probably only five hundred were ten-inch models. Of these five hundred, Dougan estimates fifty ten-inch Flat-Tops were made with eight groove rifling. My new find has eight groove rifling. So call it one of fifty out of 43,689.
In 1953, Bill Ruger went against the idea that the single action was dead and brought out one of the great success stories in the firearms field, the .22 Single-Six. For more than forty years this has been the outdoorsman's twenty-two. The Colt Single Action Army had been dropped from production twelve years earlier in 1941. Ruger replaced the three flat springs of the Colt, two of which were prone to easy breakage, with virtually unbreakable coil springs. I've been shooting Ruger Single Actions since 1957 and have yet to experience a broken spring. The grip frame of the Ruger was a dead ringer for the classic Colt while the rest of the gun was about seven-eighth's scale.
In 1955, Ruger really modernized the Colt Single Action with a full-sized center-fire single action in the magnum of the period, the .357 Magnum. The frame was flat-topped and held a fully adjustable Micro rear sight that mated up with a ramp style front sight. The barrel length was a perfect packin' four and five-eighth's inches. Hunters, hikers, fisherman, guides, packers, outfitters, woods bums, you name 'em, the love affair with the .357 Blackhawk has not ceased for these four decades. Walter Rodgers, an old time sixgunner and contributor to GUNS in the 1950's, said it best with "God bless Bill Ruger for putting magnum cartridges in workin' sixguns."
Myself, I wanted A .357 Blackhawk so bad I could hardly stand it. Other teens had pictures of Jane Russell or Marilyn Monroe hanging over their beds. I hung a life size picture of the Ruger .357 Blackhawk 4 5/8" on my bedroom wall in 1955 and drooled over it every day for two years. My father had died many years earlier, and my step-dad, a fine man, had gone through World War Two and spent eighteen months as a seriously wounded P.O.W . When he was liberated and came home he wanted to never see a gun again. The two 9MM German handguns he brought home, a Luger and a Walther, were quickly sold. He changed in later years as he appreciated my guns, my hunting, and my writing career.
My family would not buy guns but I soon got out of high school, found a job and then went Ruger sixgun crazy in 1957, purchasing a .22 Single-Six, followed almost immediately by a .357 Blackhawk and then the first .44 Magnum Blackhawk in our area. The Single-Six was $63.50, the .357 Blackhawk $87.50, and the .44 Magnum four dollars under an even one hundred at $96.00.
At the ninety cents and hour that I was making at the time in my first job, it took a lot of weeks to pay for those beautiful sixguns. Fifteen years later I would begin the same sequence again, this time providing my son with a.22 BearCat at age ten, followed by a .357 at age thirteen, and a.44 Magnum at age eighteen. It is difficult to break great habits!
The .357 Blackhawk was my first really modern Centerfire single action. Colt Single Action Armies were readily available at excellent prices, but the Ruger had three great advantages. It had adjustable sights and it also accepted easy shooting and easy on the billfold .38 Specials. When I did start reloading a great deal of my heavy loads were assembled using the 170 grain Keith bullet, Lyman's #358496, over 13.5 grains of #2400 in .38 Special brass. This is still a great load but only to be used in .357 Magnum sixguns. It also was literally unbreakable.
For those who have gotten into firearms within the last ten years, or twenty, or even thirty, it may be difficult to understand the extreme importance of the Ruger Flat-tops. Bill Ruger single-handedly brought back the single action and has continued to offer rugged, virtually unbreakable single action sixguns for the past forty years.
The Ruger .357 Magnum Flat-top was only offered for eight years before being replaced in 1963 by the Three Screw or Old Model Blackhawk as it is now known to collectors. The main differences in later models are a change in the grip frame that gave more room behind the trigger guard and changed it from the standard Colt Single Action size, and at the same time the rear sight now no longer a Micro, received the distinctive protective ears that changed the Flat-Top profile. The ejector tubes were also changed. They were no longer steel but had been changed to an alloy.
In 1973, the Old Model was replaced by the New Model .357 with transfer bar safety allowing six rounds to be safely carried in a single action for the fist time. The New Model .357's are also on the .44 frame size so the .357 Blackhawk, while bull strong now, is no longer quite as slick and light as the Flat-Tops and Three Screws. The original .357 Blackhawks were offered in 4 5/8" and 6 1/2" barrels as standard with the very few 10" guns as mentioned. Since 1963, only the two shorter lengths have been offered. Strangely enough, no .357 Blackhawks have ever been built in the 7 1/2" length.
The story goes that a Ruger worker found several strange once-fired cases at a scrap yard and gave them to Bill Ruger. Ruger traced them to Remington Arms and discovered the secret .44 Magnum project going on between Remington and Smith & Wesson. That was in late 1956. Three .357 Blackhawks were chambered in the new .44 caliber and when one blew with proof loads, the frame and cylinder was enlarged to the.44 frame size that continues today.
By early 1957, Ruger .44 Blackhawks were being manufactured and shipped arriving on most gunshelves before Smith & Wesson's .44 Magnum. At about half a pound less than the Smith product, they kicked and kicked hard. It was not unusual to find .44 Blackhawks for sale with a box of shells missing six rounds. Or less.
In 1959, Ruger 'improved' the .44 Flat-Top, adding protective ears to the rear sight, changing the grip frame from standard Colt Single Action size of a lightweight alloy to a steel Dragoon sized grip frame, and standardizing at a barrel length of seven and one-half inches. The Flat-Top would stay in production alongside the new Super Blackhawk until 1963 when it was dropped with the coming of what is now known as the Old Model Blackhawks.
During its seven years run, the .44 Flat-Top was to go to serial number 29860 with most guns being 6 1/2" barreled models. About 1,050 were ten-inch models and the seven and one-half inch models number somewhere between the number of ten-inch .357's and ten-inch .44's making them the second rarest Flat-Top Blackhawks.
My first .44 Blackhawk, a standard 6 1/2" model was soon cut to
4 5/8" and carried for many miles and many years in a Lawrence holster. I still have the .44 and the holster. The .44 now wears a 7 1/2" barrel and the 6 1/2" holster has been trimmed to fit a replacement old Flat- Top with the shorter barrel length. In the days, actually many years, when I could only afford one big bore Magnum sixgun, it was the Ruger .44 Magnum 4 5/8" that did it all. Even after Smith & Wesson .44 Magnums were added in the early and mid-1960's, it was still the Ruger that was normally called upon until it was semi-retired by the addition to my working collection of the ten-inch .44 Flat-Top mentioned earlier.
That ten-inch Flat-Top was really my first real hunting handgun and it was carried for years in a Goerg shoulder holster, a great design that should still be in production. Al Goerg was an early supporter and promoter of handgun hunting who was killed in an Alaska plane crash.
I very early learned that the long barrels were much easier to shoot. Less recoil, less noise, less muzzle blast all accompanied by a longer sight radius. In both the ten-inch and four and five-eighth's inch Flat-Tops, I also learned early that the Keith load of 22.5 grains of #2400 with a 250 grain hard cast bullet kicked like crazy and I dropped back slightly to 21.0 grains.
One of the fondest memories of my shooting career is tied to the ten-inch .44 Flat-Top. It was February and too cold to shoot outside and I was getting very close to cabin fever. Something had to be done so I headed for the local indoor range to keep my hand in. This was in the days when Bullseye shooting was king and everyone there was a serious paper puncher which meant, at the very minimum, a High Standard .22 and a 1911 .45 ACP with target sights and the touch of master gunsmith.
It was in this atmosphere that I pulled out the ten-inch Ruger .44 Flat-Top. Some snickered. Others were downright rude. I heard comments about that "cowboy gun." I loaded five rounds of .44 Specials with 250 grain bullets over 6.0 grains of Unique, a target load. Fortunately I was a much better off-hand shot in those days and five shots later, using the .44 Special target loads as required, I had a one hole group and all snickering and commenting stopped.
When I acquired the 7 1/2" Flat-Top .44 Magnum, I knew this was it. I'm almost ashamed to say how much I paid for this one and how I got it! But here goes. A friend brought it over with the complaint that it would not shoot. I always love to hear this as it is a rare sixgun that won't shoot. We went down to the same indoor range with the same .44 Special target loads and that 'poor shooting' .44 did its best and it also cut a one hole group. He said that since I could make it shoot and he could not he would still sell it. "But it is worth much more than you want for it!" I offered. "Your an honest man so I will still sell it to you for the first price I asked." And with that I had a fine sixgun.
This surely was the finest sixgun ever made. Not as easy to pack as the four and five-eighth's inch .44 nor as easy to hit with as the ten- inch Flat-Top, it was nevertheless a superb compromise. The nearly perfect sixgun. All it lacked was a steel grip frame to be perfect. It would not be until the advent of the Freedom Arms revolver that this fine sixgun would drop to second place. For my somewhat biased choice, there are three superb 7 1/2" forty-four sixguns out there and all will cost what I paid for my first car! (Of course it wasn't much of a car!) They are the Ruger Flat-Top .44 Magnum with less than 1,000 made; the Second Generation .44 Special New Frontier with less than 150 in existence, however we are fortunate to have an ample supply of Third Generation New Frontiers in this chambering. And last, but certainly not least and still available, the Freedom Arms revolver in .44 Magnum. I would add one more. An Old Model Ruger Super Blackhawk, with its Dragoon-style grip frame replaced by a standard frame, is also a mighty fine sixgun.
Flat-Tops have not been made for more than thirty years now and I see no future trying to make modern magnums out of them. That is, I save my heavy magnum loads for the newer, larger-framed, and stronger .44 Magnums. No 300 grain bullets. No heavyweight jacketed bullets. Strictly traditional loads with traditional bullets.
Lyman, NEI, and RCBS all offer excellent Keith-style .44 bullets that weigh in right at 250 grains lubed and sized ready for loading. My heaviest .44 Magnum Flat-Top load is normally 21.0 grains of #2400 for 1350 feet per second in the short barreled sixguns and 1400 feet per second in the longer barrels. My favorite load these days is an easy shooting 1100-1150 feet per second using 10.0 grains of Unique.
Lyman's Thompson designed gas check #429215 is a stellar performer at a cast weight of 220 grains and 25.0 grains of #2400. Ray Thompson was a professional outdoorsman and a design genius who came up with four superb gas check bullets for Lyman. Those bullets are #358156, a 155 grain .357 bullet; #429215; #429244, a 255 grain .44 wadcutter; and #452490, an excellent 255 grain bullet for .45 Auto Rim and .45 Colt sixguns.
SELECTED FAVORITE LOADS FOR RUGER FLAT-TOP SINGLE ACTION BLACKHAWKS
|Barrel Length||Caliber||Load MV||FPS|
|10"||.357 Magnum||Lyman #358156GC/15.0 gr #2400||1555|
|10"||.357 Magnum||Lyman #358429/13.5 gr. #2400 *||1449|
|10"||.357 Magnum||RCBS #38-150KT/7.5 gr. Unique||1375|
|4 5/8"||.357 Magnum||Lyman #358156GC/15.0 gr. #2400||1405|
|4 5/8"||.357 Magnum||Lyman #358429/13.5 gr. 2400 *||1239|
|4 5/6"||.357 Magnum||RCBS #38-150KT/7.5 gr. Unique||1260|
|10"||.44 Magnum||Lyman #429215GC/25.0 gr. #2400||1514|
|10"||.44 Magnum||Lyman #429421KT/21.0 gr. #2400||1409|
|.44 Magnum||Lyman #429421KT/21.0 gr. #2400||1398|
|.44 Magnum||NEI 260.429KT/21.0 gr. #2400||1388|
|4 5/8"||.44 Magnum||Lyman #429421KT/21.0 gr. #2400||1347|
|4 5/8"||.44 Magnum||#429421KT/10.0 gr. Unique||1102|
* Loaded in .38 Special brass
Today's Ruger single action Blackhawks are bigger, stronger, and perhaps even built to closer tolerances. With the transfer bar safety they are certainly safer especially for those who are not familiar with traditional single actions and the precautions that must be taken number one of which is always let the hammer down on an empty chamber. But the old Flat-Tops are part of history and stir my soul almost as much as a fine Colt Single Action. That speaks highly for them.