It was great being a kid growing up in the 1950's. We were raised, not on MTV and The Simpsons, but Hoppy, Gabby, and Roy. The infant medium of television was ruled by the westerners in the form of old grade B movies and it soon would be invaded by the adult western although `adult' had a much different connotation in those days. Adult meant "Gunsmoke" and "Have Gun, Will Travel". In between Hopalong Cassidy and Matt Dillon came Bill Ruger.
The TV westerns created a demand for single action sixguns at a time when none were being produced. Single actions that the experts said were no longer a viable commodity in the handgun market. Colt had stopped production in 1941 and decided not to start up again. Bill Ruger, an upstart gun manufacturer with four years of experience building a cheap .22 semi-automatic that shot like a target pistol, stepped into the gap and the result was the Ruger Single-Six.
Ruger was smart enough to make his single action, which would be only the first of many, in the inexpensive to shoot .22 LR and he made it with three significant features. Ruger took a close look at the legendary Colt Single Action Army and the results were: 1) the frame and cylinder was down-sized from the Colt Single Action to better fit the diminutive caliber, 2) the grip frame was left full size and it was a dead ringer for the Colt Single Action, 3) the springs were all coil- type replacing the flat springs of the Colt Single Action. The hand and bolt springs of the Colt were particularly susceptible to breakage; Ruger's are virtually indestructible.
My first ever handgun was a Ruger Single-Six purchased in 1956. That started my love affair with single actions and over the next two years it was followed by more Rugers plus Colts in 38-40 and .45 Colt, and even an original 1860 Army .44. I then made a huge mistake and let it get away. That mistake was just corrected as I walked into one of our local shops here and Mark Shapel of Shapel & Sons pulled a sixgun of the back shelf with "I just took this in. Thought you might be interested." I certainly was as it turned out to be a flat gate Single-Six with better than 95% finish. It was made in 1955 and as I left Shapel's one of life's mistakes had been corrected.
Going back forty-plus years made me think about all the Ruger Single Actions I had enjoyed since that first Single-Six. More importantly I thought about the great impact Bill Ruger has had on the handgunning world with his forty years of quality single actions. Sixguns that were always much higher in quality more than they were in price. Beginning in the 1950's Ruger did for the shooting world what Henry Ford had done in the 1920's with his Model T. And that is offered good and affordable products.
Let us look at forty years of Ruger Single Actions in a few brief pages beginning with the Single-Six which was first offered to an eager public in 1953. Although I am a member of the Ruger Collector's Association, Member #84, going back to the very beginning, I am not an expert and have always been more interested in shooting Ruger sixguns rather than in being concerned with what type ejector rod a particular sixgun has. So take all figures and dates as approximations, not gospel as we hike through Ruger single action sixgun history. I also will not dwell on the .22 Single-Sixes and Super Single-Sixes and BearCats very much being more concerned with the big bores except for the beginning of the saga which starts with the Single-Six.
RUGER SINGLE ACTIONS 1953-1963 (FLAT-TOP): Ruger stunned the world in 1949 by offering the original Ruger, the Red Eagle .22 semi-automatic . When Bill Rugers partner, Alex Sturm died, the Red Eagle on the grip panels were changed to black and have remained so these many years. The Single-Six was an immediate success and I'm sure I was joined by thousands of other teenagers who made the single action Ruger .22 their first sixgun. Mine was mated up with a Lawrence #120 Keith holster and matching belt and I spent many a pleasant Saturday morning hunting squirrels and Saturday afternoon killing rocks and tin cans with Ruger .22.
Ruger did not remain with .22 production exclusively very long. The Single-Six just begged to be made into a full-sized single action for the big bores of the time, the .44 Special and the .45 Colt. Ruger again showed his astuteness by passing over the big bores and offering what has been a most popular Centerfire sixgun chambering for many decades now, the .357 Magnum. By 1955, the Single-Six was scaled up to full size and had gained excellent adjustable sights and a flattening of the top of the frame that would come to be known as the Flat-Top. Elmer Keith reported at the time that the first Blackhawk would soon be offered in both .44 Special and .45 Colt. Other developments were happening that would change this.
Over at Smith & Wesson, engineers were working on chambering for a new Magnum. Keith had been calling for his .44 Special loading to be offered commercially for thirty years. The powers that be were afraid that Keith's .44 Special load of a 250 grain bullet at 1200 feet per second would strain older sixguns so they decided to build a new gun for a new cartridge. Smith & Wesson and Remington combined to give us the .44 Magnum sixgun cartridge and load that upped Keith's loading to 1500 feet per second.
The period of 1955-1956 has to go down in history as the greatest time for sixgun development ever. In that short period of time, Colt gave us the Python .357 Magnum and resurrected the Colt Single Action Army. Smith & Wesson not only brought out the big .44 Magnum, but also the K-frame answer to a peace officer's prayers, the four-inch Bill Jordan-inspired .357 Combat Magnum now known as the Model 19. And then add to these developments the fact that Bill Ruger brought out the Blackhawk first in .357 Magnum and then one year later in .44 Magnum.
The original .44 Magnum was cartridge was more than Keith had envisioned and definitely more cartridge than Bill Ruger understood at the time. Three .357 Blackhawks were re-chambered to the new .44 Magnum and fitted with four and five-eighths inch, five and one-half inch, and seven and one-half inch barrels and displayed at the NRA Show. Keith told Ruger that the cylinders and frames, the same size as the Colt Single Action, were too small for the .44 Magnum and further testing proved him right. When one of the .357 to .44 sixguns blew, Ruger enlarged the frame size from 3.313" to 3.438", front to back, and cylinder length was increased from 1.604" to 1.749" and the result in 1956 was the .44 Blackhawk.
The Blackhawk was an instant and ongoing success although the original Flat-Tops were only made until 1963. The .357 was offered in barrel lengths of four and five-eighths inches, six and one-half inches and ten inches with a total of approximately 44,000 being made when production ceased in 1962. The .44 Magnum's barrel lengths were the common place six and one-half inch barrel length (approximately 27,000) and the rare ten-inch length (1500) and the rarest seven and one-half inch length (1000). Collector's say there is no known .44 Flat-top that was originally made in the four and five-eighths inch length but Elmer Keith relates in "Sixguns" (1961, 2nd ed.) that he was presented with one in this short length by Bill Ruger in 1956.
I recently spent a pleasant day going back into the past and reliving my teenage years as I thoroughly enjoyed myself shooting three Ruger single actions from the 1950's. Three original single actions from Southport, a five and one-half inch flat gate Single-Six, a four and five-eighths inch .357 Blackhawk, and a seven and one-half inch .44 Blackhawk. And to make it more nostalgic I used only .22 ammunition from companies that were in existence in the 1950's and handloads that would have been standard fare in the 1950's. For the .22 Single-Six it meant ammunition form Winchester and Federal, and for the Centerfires, handloads with Lyman bullets and Unique and #2400 powder from Hercules:
RUGER .22 SINGLE-SIX 5 1/2" @ 25 YARDS
LOAD MV GROUP/4SHOTS GROUP/5 SHOTS
WESTERN EXPERT 951 1 3/8" 1 3/4"
WINCHESTER HIGH VELOCITY 967 3/4" 2"
FEDERAL HIGH VELOCITY 1045 1 1/2" 2 1/8"
FEDERAL HIGH VELOCITY HP 1052 1 3/4" 3"
.357 MAGNUM BLACKHAWK 4 5/8" @ 25 YARDS.
LYMAN #358429 / 13.5 GR. #2400* 1328 1 3/4" 2 3/4"
LYMAN #358156 / 13.5 GR. #2400** 1314 1 1/8" 1 3/4"
LYMAN #358156 / 14.0 GR. #2400 1359 2 1/2" 2 1/2"
LYMAN #358156 / 15.0 GR. #2400 1386 1 3/8" 1 5/8"
LYMAN #358156 / 16.0 GR. #2400*** 1467 1 3/4" 2 1/8"
*.38 SPECIAL BRASS. THIS WAS KEITH'S FAVORITE .357 LOAD.
**.38 SPECIAL BRASS. THIS WAS SKEETER SKELTON'S FAVORITE .357 LOAD.
***THIS WAS THE ORIGINAL POWDER CHARGE FOR THE .357 IN 1935.
.44 MAGNUM BLACKHAWK 7 1/2" @ 25 YARDS.
LYMAN #429421 / 10.0 GR. UNIQUE 1187 5/8" 3/4"
LYMAN #429421 / 22/0 GR. #2400 1519 2 5/8" 2 3/4"
LYMAN #431244GC / 22.0 GR. #2400 1528 2 1/2" 3"
I could easily spend the rest of my outdoor life with these three easy packin' and good shootin' Ruger Single Actions. The loading of a 240 to 250 grain hard cast bullet over 10.0 grains of Unique is a tack- driver in most .44 Magnums and at 1150 to 1200 feet per second in long barreled sixguns will certainly handle most sixgun chores quite nicely. My sixgunning' soul soars as I watched the thirty-five year old .44 Blackhawk cut one ragged hole with the big .44 Keith bullets.
RUGER BLACKHAWKS 1963-1973 (OLD MODEL or THREE SCREW): Subtle changes, that seemed radical to many sixgunners, were made to the Blackhawk line in 1963. The grip frame shape was changed ever so slightly to allow about one-fourth of an inch more room between the frontstrap and the back of the trigger guard with the result that the Colt Single Action feel was gone. The Flat-top profile was gone as ribs appeared on both sides of the rear sight as had been on the Super Blackhawk since 1959. Ejector rod housings were now alloy instead of steel.
The .41 Magnum arrived on the scene in 1964 and the "Old Model" Blackhawk was soon chambered in the new Magnum caliber. The .44 Magnum had been dropped when the production of the Flat-Top ceased. While only two center-fire calibers, .357 and .44 Magnums, had been produced in the Flat-Top, the Old Model Ruger Single Actions would be available in .357 Magnum, .30 Carbine, .41 Magnum, and finally just a couple of years before the series ended in 1973, the .45 Colt. Some dual cylinder models were available in .357/9MM and .45 Colt/.45 ACP.
The .357 Magnum and .41 Magnums , strangely enough were manufactured only with four and five-eighths and six and one-half inch barrel lengths, while the .30 Carbine and .45 Colt came with the more desirable, at least to this sixgunner, seven and one-half inch barrel. The .45 was also available with the shortest barrel length of the Magnums.
Forty-one Magnum single action sixguns are very sparse with only one being available, the Ruger Blackhawk. Anyone who has ever owned more than two sixguns dreams of building that one perfect sixgun. A few years back I located a new Three Screw .41 Ruger with a four and five-eighths inch barrel at a local gunshow with a bargain marked price. It shot well so a Stainless Old Army grip frame that had been in my parts box for more than a decade was fitted to it along with my last blue steel ejector rod housing. Then it went off the Roy Fishpaw for a pair of his Circassian walnut grips that are guaranteed to make your mouth water. The extra weight of the steel parts really cut down the recoil, the grips make it handle better as well as look better, and the little .41 single action will handle just about any situation short of the big bears, so how much closer can one get to having the ideal sixgun?
Ruger did what Colt would not do and brought out a modern .45 single action around 1970. These guns will take much heavier loads than the ancient Colt design but some have overdone it. It is not a .44 Magnum. And with its light weight, lighter than a Colt Single Action, it is a real kicker with heavier loads.
The Ruger .45 Blackhawk was the first .45 Colt that could utilize the case capacity of the .45 Colt cartridge efficiently. And it is at its best with the big 300 grain bullets from BRP, NEI, or RCBS. Again it is not a .44 Magnum. The .44 will easily do 1300-1400 feet per second with 300 grain bullets; the .45 Colt is better suited to 1100-1200 feet per second with the same weight bullets.
RUGER SUPER BLACKHAWK 1959-1973 (OLD MODEL or THREE SCREW): Elmer Keith, who had pushed for his .44 Special Magnum for thirty years, began to lobby Ruger to `improve' the .44 Blackhawk almost immediately. The result was the Super Blackhawk in 1959. The Colt Single Action grip frame size was replaced by the square-backed trigger guard and long profile of the old Colt Dragoon, the protective ribs were added on both sides of the rear sight, and a wide hammer and trigger were also added.
To add to the distinctive look of the Super Blackhawk, a non-fluted cylinder became standard and we had an all steel .44 Magnum single action. Sometime later the steel ejector rod housing would be replaced by an alloy housing as would the housings on all Blackhawks. The reasoning advanced was that the steel housings were more likely to fly loose under the stress of recoil.
The .44 Super Blackhawk is a natural for hunting and general outdoor use. It is very popular in the mountains and desert areas as it is virtually indestructible when used with common sense. The standard barrel length for the Old Model Super Blackhawk is seven and one-half inches with a very few being made in six and one-half inches (leftover .44 Blackhawk barrels?) and two being made in the ten inch length.
RUGER BLACKHAWKS AND SUPER BLACKHAWKS 1973-PRESENT (NEW MODEL): Beginning in 1973 all Ruger Single Actions were changed to the New Model design with the safety transfer bar. For the first time single action sixguns were safe to carry with six rounds as the firing pin does not come into contact with the primer of a loaded round. Contact is only made when the hammer is pulled back to full cock and the gun is fired. Gone was the loading half-cock notch on the hammer and the cylinder could now be revolved simply by opening the loading gate.
Up to this time, Ruger Single Actions came in four sizes: 1) BearCat, 2) Single-Six, 3) .357 Blackhawk, 4) the Super Blackhawk frame which was also used for other Blackhawk calibers. With the coming of the New Model design, the BearCat was dropped until very recently and the .357 was now made on the large frame size of the Super Blackhawk. Since 1973, all Centerfire Ruger Single Actions have the same-sized frame.
New calibers have come with the New Model design. In addition to the calibers of the Old Model, Ruger now brought out special editions in .30 Carbine/.32 Magnum/.32-20; .38-40/10MM; .44 Magnum/.44-40 to name some of recent years. With the rise of silhouetting and handgun hunting, the Super Blackhawk first received a ten-inch barrel and then became available in stainless steel as had the .357 Magnum Blackhawk previously. It is now offered in short barrel lengths with standard Blackhawk steel grip frames.
In the 1980's Ruger brought out the stretched frame and cylinder edition of the Super Blackhawk chambered in the .357 Maximum. It should still be in production and also chambered for the .375 SuperMag and .445 SuperMag calibers. Instead it was prematurely dropped under complaints of gas erosion on the bottom of the top strap. The ten and one-half inch barreled .357 Maximum Ruger Single Action is one of the finest long- range sixguns it has ever been my good pleasure to shoot.
The 1980's also saw the introduction of real improvement in the Blackhawk line-up with the introduction of the Bisley Model. The grip frame was radically changed to a shape somewhat like the #5SA grip built up by gunsmith Harold Croft for Elmer Keith back in 1927. Croft had combined a Colt Bisley backstrap with a Colt Single Action trigger guard to come up with what both he and Elmer Keith considered the perfect sixgun grip. This identical grip frame is now available on Grover's Improved Number Five from Texas Longhorn Arms.
Bisleys, in seven and one-half inch barrel lengths only, are available in .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and .45 Colt. The Bisley grip has also been matched up with the Single-Six frame size in both .22 and .32 H&R Magnum. When it comes to handling heavy single action recoil, the Bisley grip frame is simply the best for this writer. Everyone does not agree and a number writers have called it `the answer to a problem that doesn't exist'. The problem certainly existed for me and that problem is getting nailed on the knuckle by the Super Blackhawk trigger guard. I do not get nailed by the Bisley but it is still not perfect in design as the tip of the trigger gets me and will cut the bottom of my trigger finger in long strings of fire. For more complete information on Ruger Single Actions two books by long time Ruger collector John Dougan are highly recommended. Those books are "Know Your Ruger Single Actions 1953-1963" and Compliments of Col. Ruger" . The latter is a study of factory engraved Rugers and the former contains copies of many full page Ruger ads from the 1950's and 1960's.
It was old-time sixgunner Walter Rodgers who first said "Bless Bill Ruger for putting Magnum calibers in real workin' sixguns." He may have been the first to say it in print but he has been joined by thousands of shooters over the last four decades who have had the same feeling. Bill Ruger caught the mood of sixgunners in 1953 and he has continued to offer "real workin' sixguns" ever since.