The Ruger Old Army is fashioned after the 1858 Remington black-powder revolver, albeit improved with modern steels and adjustable sights.
I was 10 years old in 1954 when an advertisement in an outdoor magazine lying on a table in the recreation room at the Associated Plywood logging camp caught my attention. The ad showed a single-action .22-caliber revolver labeled “Single Six” that resembled a Colt Single Action Army carried by all the would-be movie and television stars in popular westerns of the time.
Turnbull Restorations removed the Ruger instructions on the barrel of this Bisley Vaquero; reblued the barrel, grip frame and cylinder; and color cased the frame and hammer. Bill Lett after-market stock panels were added by Dave. The barrel is restamped “.45 Colt.”
As I was to learn, the Ruger revolver was made by the same outfit that made the semiautomatic .22 pistol a friend carried in his fishing creel. It made no sense, the semiautomatic, aside from the barrel, appeared to be made from a section of pipe and stamped steel. The revolver looked like the real deal, save for the lack of polish common to the Colt SAAs I had seen, one of which was a .38 Special the owner allowed me to shoot. Perhaps the faded bluing and scum from fish slime and such tainted my opinion of the pistol, but the revolver left a positive impression.
Nearly 60 years after the discovery of the Ruger .22 rimfire single action while shuffling through outdoor magazines, fate found me in Bill Ruger’s home in Prescott, Arizona. I asked: “The Single Six was quite a departure from what we now know as the Mark I. How did that happen?” Mr. Ruger responded, “With success of the .22 pistol, I made up a prototype single-shot pistol with a Colt grip style and frame and realized it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to make a revolver. Considering comments from outside marketing and sales people about the demise of the Colt Single Action and the demand for such a revolver, we came up with the Single Six, but with the response to a little announcement in one of the magazines, Argosy I think, we had problems. . . . Our little company didn’t have the manufacturing capacity to keep up.”
Hamilton Bowen and Doug Turnbull produced this custom .44 Special from a ragtag Old Model (three screw) .357 Magnum.
The exchange with Mr. Ruger continued to include the Blackhawk, the logical full-sized extension of the Single Six with adjustable sights chambered for the .357 Magnum. When asked about the origin for the name “Blackhawk,” Mr. Ruger admitted it was “stolen” from one of his favorite cars, the Stutz Blackhawk, a car that set the land speed record in 1928. Reminded of Mr. Ruger’s love and fascination with powerful, older cars (some of the Ruger automobiles patterned after the Stutz and others were stored in the Prescott Ruger plant), I didn’t ask but assumed the little Ruger Bearcat .22 revolver came from the Stutz Bearcat, circa 1912, that was a scaled-down version of the Stutz Blackhawk.
Moving on, I asked about his reaction when someone walked into his office in 1955 and handed him a few fired cartridge casings stamped “.44 Magnum” that had been scrounged from a dumpster or some such. He smiled, and said, “I was stunned. We were just getting underway with the Blackhawk and had that dumped in our lap.” (I didn’t ask how someone came to be “dumpster diving” at the Smith & Wesson plant and delivered the “goods” to Mr. Ruger.)
This New Model Blackhawk was originally chambered for the .357 Magnum, then rechambered to .375 SXT (Scovill x Thomas), .41 Magnum and finally, by the late Bill Atkinson, a .45 Colt with a 16-inch Shilen barrel that shoots as well, if not slightly better than, any .45 Colt carbine out to 150 yards.
Mr. Ruger recalled how he immediately set about to figure out how to adapt the then-new Blackhawk single action around the big cartridge, ultimately determining a larger frame and cylinder would be required to handle the pressure and recoil.
From its introduction, the Ruger Blackhawk was touted as superior to the older Colt-type revolvers, owing the use of virtually unbreakable coil wire springs to replace the traditional leaf springs common to most revolvers. The new revolver was also produced using modern manufacturing (casting) techniques with chrome-moly steel, fixed frame-mounted firing pin and one piece aluminum alloy grip frame.
John Gallagher converted an Old Model (three screw) .357 Magnum to .25-20 Winchester, complete with highly polished and fitted after-market transfer bar conversion and custom walnut stocks; a fine companion for a Winchester Model 92 rifle using factory duplication loads with 87-grain softpoints.
When the new Ruger Blackhawk .44 Magnum with a 6.5-inch barrel came out (28,515 made from 1956 to 1962), some folks, once referred to as “effete” shooters by Skeeter Skelton, complained that recoil produced by the sixgun was difficult to handle. In response to demands, the “Super Blackhawk” was unveiled with a longer 7.5-inch barrel, serrated trigger and Bisley-type hammer. The square back trigger guard, unfluted cylinder and, in a few guns a longer steel grip frame, were also unique to the big revolver. The flattop frame of the standard Blackhawk was also modified with patented raised ribs on either side of the adjustable rear sight to prevent lateral movement. All in all, the improved design, introduced in 1959, added weight to help dampen recoil and increased strength over the previous Blackhawk design.
Acknowledging that while Mr. Ruger was going out of his way to accommodate complaints regarding recoil of the early Blackhawk .44 Magnum, I commented that custom gun makers were doing a brisk business chopping Super Blackhawk barrels off to 45⁄8 and/or 51⁄2 inches, to make them a bit lighter for everyday carry. Mr. Ruger said, “We finally responded to that by offering shorter barrels. There was no sense in giving all that business away.”
This Ruger Super Blackhawk (Old Model serial number 3xx) features the standard Bisley-type hammer, wide serrated trigger, after-market front sight and relatively rare long steel grip frame with original varnished stocks.
When asked if there was ever any thought of chambering the earlier Colt-sized Blackhawk for the .44 Special, considering the increased size and weight of the Super Blackhawk, Mr. Ruger responded, “No, they would just load the thing [Special] up like the .44 Magnum, and you can shoot .44 Special in the Magnum, so it serves both purposes.”
(Since Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc. had always stated that the use of handloads in its firearms would void the warranty, I left it at that. Neither was there any reason to mention the hundreds of .357 Magnum Blackhawks that had been converted to .44 Special.)
Meanwhile, the original (flattop) Blackhawk .357 Magnum served to provide the basis for the addition of the .30 Carbine (1968), .41 Magnum (1965) and .45 Colt (1971), which also inherited the raised ribs on the top strap in 1962. Cylinder diameter for the larger calibers was also increased approximately .15 inch, and length was increased to include recessed chambers.
Introduced in 1971, Old Model Blackhawk .45 Colts were fitted with larger (wider/longer) recessed cylinders than the standard .357 Magnum.
By 1973 the Blackhawk lineup was changed to the improved New Model, signified by the single pin that replaced the two screws, known to collectors and Ruger fans as three-screw Old Models, for the trigger and cylinder bolt. The big news was the patented transfer bar safety mechanism that included a safety lever that, when the trigger was pulled, moved up between the firing pin and hammer to transfer the blow of the hammer to the firing pin. The transfer bar dropped away from the firing position when the trigger was at rest, eliminating the nemesis inherent in the pre-1973 models (and Colt SAAs) that effectively mandated the hammer be lowered on an empty chamber for carry to avoid an accidental discharge if the sixgun was dropped or mishandled.
In 1983, a replacement to the firing mechanism advertised for the “Old Models” manufactured prior to 1973 included a transfer bar safety system. Interestingly, while the Old Model incorporated the use of piano wire coil springs, the New Model Blackhawk has one leaf spring that upon opening the loading gate deactivates the cylinder locking bolt to allow the cylinder to rotate during loading and unloading.
In time, the Blackhawk became the foundation for the Old Army, Bisley and Vaquero offshoots. The latest iteration of the
This stainless steel New Model Blackhawk .45 Colt with Herrett stocks is based on the original Old Model .357 Magnum Colt-sized frame.
Blackhawk introduced after Mr. Ruger’s passing on July 6, 2002, brought the Blackhawk full circle with the reintroduction of the original Colt-size flattop Old Model that was first offered by Lipsey’s a few years ago and chambered for the .44 Special, followed by the .45 Colt, both of which are now listed in the Ruger catalog, including a Bisley model.
I’ve owned and used a number of Blackhawks over the years, including most calibers in several configurations. They’ve all been rugged and dependable, and more importantly, proved capable of good to fine accuracy. A few of those sixguns have been gussied up by custom gun makers – Hamilton Bowen, Doug Turnbull and John Gallagher – that not only look great but also with minor polishing and tuning make exceptional hunting rigs.
This standard Old Model Flat Top .357 Magnum came off the assembly line in 1962. The worn finish on the aluminum alloy frame is polished brightly.