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Rifle Magazine
June - July 2000
Volume 35, Number 3
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 205
On the cover...
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The Ruger Bisley, Vaquero and standard Blackhawk... Purchase the CD-ROM here
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The first Ruger Blackhawk was shipped in 1955. From serial number 1 through 42,689, the top strap was flat; collectors refer to this as the “Flattop.” By 1962 the top strap incorporated two raised ribs on either side of the rear sight mortise to help eliminate movement of the rear sight when it was set in an elevated position.

Of the first 1,600 Blackhawks, most of those with serial numbers of less than 100 were not built until 1957. (Ruger still holds some early serial numbers of any given model for issue at a later date when modifications or changes are made.)

At the outset, the Blackhawk featured a 4 5/8-inch barrel, frame-mounted firing pin, adjustable sights and hard rubber stocks. Stocks were later changed to varnished walnut and longer barrel lengths were added, including 6 1/2, 7 1/2 and 10 inches, which vary by caliber. The .44 Magnum was added to the Blackhawk line in 1956, the .41 Magnum followed in 1965, and the .30 Carbine debuted in 1968. The .45 Colt was added in 1971. All but the .357 Magnum had recessed chambers to accommodate the rim of the cartridge.

Other features of the Blackhawk prior to 1962 included a steel ejector rod housing and an XR-3 grip frame. The ejector housing was later changed to aluminum (1963) to match the grip frame, and the grip frame itself was modified slightly to allow for a bit more room between the rear of the trigger guard and the stocks - XR-3RED(redesigned). There were also a succession of changes in the ejector rod thumbpiece and the head of the cylinder pin.

Probably the most noteworthy fact concerning the Ruger Blackhawk was that it was produced at a time when most would-be experts, including officials at Colt, had declared the single-action revolver dead. Conversely, Bill Ruger, Elmer Keith and others, including Jack O’Connor, believed that a modern sixgun built along the lines of the Colt Single Action Army had a secure place in the overall scheme, assuming it was designed correctly in the first place.

With the basic premise in mind, and drawing on Ruger’s success with the Single Six .22 rimfire single action, the basic Colt design was emulated, but the flat springs that were prone to breakage in the Colt were replaced with unbreakable music wire coil springs. Other parts, including the cylinder latch, were redesigned as well, making the Blackhawk a marriage of old and new technology that resulted in the strongest, most reliable single-action revolver ever made.

Sales of the Ruger Blackhawk proved that Bill Ruger was correct - the single action wasn’t dead - but about the time Bill Ruger was developing the Blackhawk, Elmer Keith was off to Smith & Wesson and Remington, working on another new concept: the .44 Magnum.

Bill Ruger was admittedly stunned by the advent of the .44 Magnum (which had been conceived in a secret alliance between Keith, Remington and Smith & Wesson) and immediately embarked on a series of tests to find out if the basic Blackhawk design would accommodate the big .44 case. Early on, one of the Blackhawks that was chambered for the .44 Magnum on the .357 Magnum frame blew to pieces, making it necessary to enlarge the cylinder .053 inch in diameter and make it longer, which also required that the frame window be increased in length as well. The beefier cylinder was also used on the .45 Colt and .41 Magnum.

While the new .44 Magnum Blackhawk could handle the pressures of the big case, Elmer Keith also suggested the sixgun could be further improved by adopting the Dragoon square-back trigger guard and removing the cylinder flutes, increasing the overall weight of the sixgun to help dampen recoil. Elmer also wanted a Bisley-type hammer that lowered the spur within easy reach of the thumb of the shooting hand. The big single action was further improved by replacing the aluminum grip frame with a steel framework and lengthening the grip frame itself, more on the lines of the 1860 Colt.

Elmer wanted to call the new Blackhawk the Dragoon, but Bill Ruger insisted on “Super Blackhawk.” The final version of the Super Blackhawk with a 7 1/2-inch barrel, wide trigger, fully adjustable micrometer rear sight and a high front blade to accommodate long-range shooting was finished in a high-luster blue and shipped in a cloth-lined mahogany box until 1961. The long grip frame lasted until 1960, whereupon it was replaced with the standard RX-3RED profile, albeit still steel. The MR-3D (long profile) grip frame appears within the serial number range 196 through 3,111.

While the Ruger Blackhawk was probably successful beyond Bill Ruger’s wildest dreams, it still had the basic drawback of any of the traditional single-action designs: It could only be loaded safely with five rounds in the cylinder, lowering the hammer on the empty chamber to avoid having a live primer under the hammer while the sixgun was carried. The same problem plagued the Colt SAA, and many an old pistolero endured the unpleasantness of an inevitable mishap if a loaded round found its way under the hammer and a saddle stirrup was allowed to fall off the saddle horn and hit the hammer of the sixgun. There were other reports of the sixgun simply falling out of the holster and landing on the hammer, discharging with a measure of astonishment when the slug from the sixgun pierced any one of a number of fleshy parts.

By 1972 Ruger decided the basic design flaw of the traditional single action should be eliminated from the Blackhawk. The first of the New Model Blackhawks that incorporated the use of a “transfer bar” system to make it mechanically impossible to fire the revolver unless the trigger was pulled left the plant in 1973.

Following the debut of the New Model Blackhawk, Ruger also came up with a conversion kit for the older Flattop and Old Model - as collectors called them to distinguish the various design transitions - to prevent accidental       discharges by the unknowing or unwitting, who inadvertently or purposefully found a live round under the hammer and suffered the consequences. The conversion kit was offered (and still is) free, requiring only that the sixgun be returned to the factory for the retrofit. The original parts would also be returned (for collector interest); Ruger even paid the freight.

Since 1973 the Ruger Blackhawk has continued to evolve, transforming it into the Bisley, the Vaquero and the Old Army. The finish - blue, stainless steel or simulated color case - varies with individual models.

While the basic Blackhawk design in its various manifestations has become the standard in the industry over the last 45 years, owing to its strength and reliability, it has also become the darling of the big-bore crowd. Augmented with the addition of a five-shot cylinder chambered for .45 Colt, .475 or .500 Linebaugh, by the skilled hands of Hamilton Bowen (PO Box 67, Louisville TN 37777) or John Gallagher (3923 Bird Farm Rd., Jasper AL 35503), the Ruger Blackhawk has been used to take all the dangerous game in Africa and the big bears of North America.

No doubt, when loaded to surpass the muzzle energy of the .45-70 from a handgun barrel, recoil becomes, well, fierce, but the basic Blackhawk would appear to take the stress and strain in stride. It is at least of passing interest to note, while the early press releases stressed the reliance on unbreakable music wire coil springs throughout, it might appear somewhat ironic that the strongest, mass-produced sixgun - the New Model Blackhawk - has one leaf spring, under the loading gate. One might wonder if the coil spring gambit was a gimmick, but it worked. The Ruger Blackhawk is truly a classic.

Sierra Bullets
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