|June - July 2000
Volume 35, Number
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The Ruger Bisley, Vaquero and standard Blackhawk... Purchase the CD-ROM here
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 OConnor, 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 Rugers 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 wasnt 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 Rugers 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
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
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.