Compared: Ruger Super Blackhawk SA and Redhawk DA .44 Magnum Revolvers for Protection in the Field
By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
In the article "Handguns for Protection in the Field," Managing Editor Chuck Hawks boldly recommended two .44 Magnum revolvers for the purpose, the Ruger Super Blackhawk and Ruger Redhawk with 5.5" barrels. The Super Blackhawk is Ruger's premier single-action (SA) revolver, while the Redhawk is Ruger's double-action (DA) .44. Both are more compact than the huge Super Redhawk (and its sundry imitations from other manufacturers). The Super Redhawk is offered in .44 Magnum, but was designed to handle the larger .454 Casull round. We can't imagine carrying a Super Redhawk or similar size revolver as an ancillary weapon. One of the desirable features of a revolver carried for protection from large predators is reasonable size. After all, it will be carried a lot and, hopefully, never actually used for its intended purpose. It must, of course, be capable of fulfilling its defensive mission if called upon.
When selecting a revolver for protection in the field, one must balance size and weight (portability) against caliber and barrel length (power). While a handgun hunter would likely choose the 7.5" barrel option and a concealed carry revolver normally has a 2" to 3" barrel, a Magnum revolver carried in the field for protection will usually have a barrel in the medium length range of 4" to 6". Because .44 Magnum cartridges hold a lot of powder that must be burned, we chose the 5.5" barrel length over the four-something inch barrel lengths available in the Redhawk and Super Blackhawk. This proved to be a wise choice.
The Redhawk is only made in stainless steel, while the Super Blackhawk is available in either blued or stainless finish. We prefer stainless steel for a field protection revolver, due to its weather resistance, and we requested both of our test guns in that material. Ruger's stainless steel finish is attractive as well as practical. It is a satin polish, not dull, but not highly reflective, a good compromise. Both the Redhawk and the Super Blackhawk embody unique and notable features.
New Model Super Blackhawk Specifications
When our stainless steel Super Blackhawk arrived, even the jaded Guns and Shooting Online staff was impressed by its handsome appearance. It is a well-proportioned, nicely finished revolver with excellent balance. The smooth, rosewood finished hardwood grips feel great in the hand and look terrific. Anyone should be proud to own such a nice revolver. It looks a heck of a lot more expensive than it actually is.
The Super Blackhawk was designed from the ground up for the .44 Magnum cartridge. It is the right size and weight for the job, without being bigger than necessary. Its durability and strength are legendary, as is its accuracy. It features a lengthened, western style grip that handles recoil extremely well, Ruger's transfer bar mechanism that allows safe carry with the cylinder fully loaded, an all coil spring mechanism, frame mounted firing pin and a fully adjustable rear sight. Most Super Blackhawk's, including our test gun, now come with rounded trigger guards that most shooters find more comfortable than the square back "dragoon" style trigger guard previously used, although the latter is still available on select models.
The action of our test gun was decent, with a 3.75 pound out of the box trigger pull and that is how we used it for this review. However, it can be greatly improved by cutting three or four coils from the main (hammer) spring and slipping one side of the "U" shaped trigger spring from its post beneath the right grip panel. These simple fixes produce a much easier to cock revolver with, typically, about a 2.5 pound trigger pull. Of course, Ruger's lawyers do not approve, but (should you ever need to) you can easily restore the gun to stock form by installing an inexpensive OEM replacement main spring and simply hooking the right arm of the trigger spring back onto its post. You can pay a gunsmith to lighten the action (he will likely remove one arm of the trigger spring and drop in a lighter Wolfe main spring), but why waste the money when it is so fast and easy to do yourself at zero cost? Bill Ruger designed his New Model action to appease the Company lawyers, but he cleverly made it very easy for the owner to modify for superior performance.
There are both objective and subjective reasons for preferring a single action revolver for protection in the field. A SA is generally lighter and less bulky than a DA. They are stronger, pound for pound, more durable and every bit as accurate. They fit most hands better, handle a little quicker and point more naturally. Western style SA's like the Ruger Super Blackhawk (subjectively) handle heavy recoil well, because of their smooth and rounded grip frame. Since extreme accuracy is required to hit a charging predator's central nervous system (normally a brain shot), you are going to thumb cock either type of revolver for best accuracy. You sure as heck are not going to have time to reload (the DA's primary advantage in a firefight) before a big predator is upon you. You will only have time for one good shot, so there is no reason to tote around a DA mechanism you will not use.
Super Blackhawk Shooting Results
Guns and Shooting Online staff members Chuck Hawks, Gordon Landers and Jim Fleck participated in shooting the Super Blackhawk. We did our shooting at the Izaak Walton outdoor range south of Eugene, Oregon. All groups for record were three shots from a bench rest over a Pistol Perch at 25 yards. The weather was mild, partly sunny, with a high of 69-degrees F. Our ammunition included Remington .44 Mag. w/180 grain JSP bullet (MV 1610 fps), Winchester .44 Spec. w/240 grain Lead Flat Point bullet (MV 750 fps), Winchester .44 Mag. w/240 grain JSP bullet (MV 1180 fps) and one .44 Mag mid-range reload using 10.5 grains of HS6 powder and a 200 grain Speer JHP bullet (approximate MV 1000 fps). Here are the results:
Those results are not horrible. However, they are not as good as we expected from a Super Blackhawk. In our experience, Super Blackhawk .44 Mag. revolvers have shot brilliantly, routinely achieving 1.5" groups at 25 yards when we do our part. None of us felt that we were shooting well on this particular day and, unfortunately, we had neglected to bring along a "control" gun of known accuracy for comparison. All we can do here is report the results, but we suspect that the gun can do better. Certainly, previous Super Blackhawks that we have owned have done much better.
One thing for sure, the Remington 180 grain JSP high velocity factory load is a poor choice for the relatively short 5.5" barrel. The muzzle blast was very loud and a tremendous ball of flame came from the revolver with every shot. Lots of powder was obviously not being burned before the bullet left the barrel. We would prefer a JSP, hard cast or other deep penetrating bullet weighing at least 240 grains for protection in the field. The Winchester load tested above is representative of the type and such loads are also available from Remington, Federal, Stars & Stripes, Cor-Bon and others.
Regardless of the load, the Super Blackhawk functioned perfectly. Due to its simple, robust design there is not much that can go wrong.
Shooting any .44 Magnum with full power loads is an engaging experience. The Super Blackhawk is no exception, but (subjectively) it is a relatively comfortable .44 to shoot. The Western style grip rolls a bit in the hand during recoil and this helps dissipate some of the recoil energy. It is easier on the wrist than a gun that recoils straight back into the hand, creating a maximum compression load on this delicate joint. Don't lock your elbows to avoid unnecessary stress on the elbow joint; let the gun rise on recoil. We have been shooting magnum revolvers for 30 or 40 years and have paid the price, particularly in wrist damage, for this hard-earned knowledge.
The Redhawk, unlike competing DA revolvers at the time of its introduction, was designed from the ground up for the .44 Magnum cartridge. Like the Super Blackhawk, it is the proper size and weight for the cartridge. In the case of a DA .44 Magnum, that makes the Redhawk a big revolver. It is significantly more durable than its primary competition, the S&W Models 29 and 629. Other advanced features include a triple-lock cylinder, "single spring" mechanism for enhanced DA trigger pull, replaceable front sights, fully adjustable rear sight and Ruger's transfer bar mechanism for maximum protection against accidental discharges.
Deserving of special mention is the "single spring" mechanism. It really does result in a superior DA trigger pull, reminiscent of the legendary Colt Python in smoothness and pull weight out of the box. Unfortunately, the SA trigger pull, more important in field use, is clean, but very heavy at 7 pounds on our digital scale. Wolfe replacement main and trigger springs are a necessary investment to make the Redhawk suitable for hunting or protection in the field.
The "no side plate" design of the Redhawk (the trigger group drops out of the bottom of the frame) makes it an exceptionally easy DA revolver to disassemble and instructions for doing this are included in the Owner's Manual. A little pin to help accomplish disassembly is stored beneath the grip panels and no other tools are necessary. (You can use a small finishing nail if you lose the supplied pin.) Bill Ruger was a very clever gun designer and simplicity is one of the hallmarks of his designs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Redhawk.
There is a full length rib along the top of the barrel to add weight and stiffness. The front sight ramp at the muzzle is integral with the rib and the rear sight is Ruger's fully adjustable Patridge style. These are easy sights to use; the sight picture is the same as the Super Blackhawk.
The smooth, well finished, laminated wood grips supplied on the Redhawk appear ordinary in photographs. However, they are well shaped, hand filling and very broad across the back to spread the effect of recoil in your hand. You can tell right away that the Redhawk will be comfortable to shoot, and it was. Our only complaint is that the wood to metal fit is poor, particularly at the bottom of the grip. There is really no excuse for this oversight on an otherwise very sanitary revolver.
Guns and Shooting Online staff members Chuck Hawks, Rocky Hays and Jim Fleck participated in shooting the Redhawk. We did our shooting at the Izaak Walton outdoor range south of Eugene, Oregon. As with the Super Blackhawk, all groups for record were three shots from a bench rest over a Pistol Perch at 25 yards. The weather was overcast with occasional rain showers and a high temperature of 69-degrees F. Our ammunition included the Remington .44 Mag. factory load with a 180 grain JSP bullet (MV 1610 fps) and two .44 Mag mid-range reloads. The first reload used 10.5 grains of HS6 powder and a 200 grain Speer JHP bullet, while the second used 11.0 grains of HS6 and a 180 grain Sierra JHC bullet. Both reloads achieve an approximate MV of 1000-1050 fps. We had an insufficient number of Winchester 240 grain JSP factory loads remaining for accuracy testing, although we did use that load for recoil comparison. Here are our shooting results:
The Redhawk is a nice .44 Magnum revolver to shoot. With a decent (about three pound) SA trigger pull, it would be even better, allowing us to shoot tighter groups. Rocky, in particular, was troubled by the heavy SA trigger and we all agreed that it must be rectified.
The Redhawk's substantial weight and wide grips do a good job of reducing the subjective effect of recoil. Compared to the exceptionally hard kicking S&W 629, the Redhawk is a pussy cat. It also kicks less than the Super Blackhawk.
The cylinder rotates backward (counter clockwise), unlike most Ruger revolvers and all Remington and Colt revolvers. This is the only flaw we found in the Redhawk design and it is not a big deal. The big, good looking gun functioned perfectly and we found its "push-in" cylinder latch easy to use.
As you can see from the accuracy results above, the Redhawk produced the kind of groups we have come to expect from Ruger .44 Magnum revolvers. It is a highly accurate .44 and with a lighter trigger pull we feel certain it could average 1.5" groups at 25 yards.
Chuck and Jim appreciated the good points of both revolvers, but preferred the Super Blackhawk for protection in the field. They are experienced single action shooters who normally thumb cock all revolvers, including DA models, to take advantage of the lighter SA trigger pull. The Super Blackhawk is noticeably lighter and more compact, more so than the specifications would seem to indicate. If you are going to carry a lot and shoot little, the Super Blackhawk seems like the better choice to Chuck and Jim.
Conversely, Rocky preferred the Redhawk. The Redhawk's extra weight attenuates recoil, reduces muzzle jump and makes it the softer shooting gun. Except for its heavy trigger pull, Chuck also preferred shooting the Redhawk, but felt it is unnecessarily large for full time carry.
The Redhawk substantially outperformed the Super Blackhawk in our accuracy testing. To stop an aggressive predator, the central nervous system must be disrupted, so both intrinsic and practical accuracy are important. In the case of our test guns, the Redhawk's accuracy was up to par out of the box; it is essentially a load and go proposition. Our test Super Blackhawk needs some load development and tuning to reach the requisite level of accuracy. This is unusual for a Super Blackhawk, but there you are.
For shooting and handgun hunting, we would prefer the 7.5" barreled versions of either revolver, but for protection in the field, the 5.5" barrels are appropriate. Our time at the range shooting these revolvers made it clear that under no circumstances would we want a .44 Magnum with a shorter barrel. Even with a 5.5" barrel, the muzzle blast and flash from full power magnum cartridges was excessive. After shooting these 5.5" .44's, we would opt for a 6" barrel in a .44 Magnum if it were available. (In the Super Blackhawk and Redhawk, it isn't.) The .44 Magnum is a large capacity case and barrels shorter than 7.5" are simply not long enough to burn most of the powder it contains. In the case of the Remington 180 grain JSP load we tested, the 5.5" barrel was much too short. You must choose your load carefully for a .44 Magnum with a 5.5" barrel.
We tested both revolvers in their original, stock condition. The Super Blackhawk had a superior SA trigger pull out of the box. It is lighter and that enhances practical accuracy. Slipping one leg of the Super Blackhawk's trigger spring from its peg to lighten its trigger pull requires no disassembly at all, merely remove the grip panels. It just doesn't get any easier than that.
The Redhawk's trigger is unsatisfactory as sold. It can (and should) be improved by installing a set of Wolfe replacement main and trigger springs. These are drop-in parts and most owners will be able to do the job themselves, without the assistance of a gunsmith, particularly since the owner's manual provides disassembly instructions. The design of the Redhawk makes it the easiest DA revolver we have ever seen to take apart, but its action is unavoidably more complicated than the SA Super Blackhawk.
If you choose a revolver for protection in the field, you must always carry it anytime you are not carrying a rifle. That includes while camping, fishing, hiking, cooking outdoors, walking to the latrine, fetching something from your boat or vehicle, etc. It must be your inseparable companion. Make sure you choose a revolver you are willing to carry 100% of the time you are awake. Choose a wide, supportive gun belt and holster for maximum comfort. We find a cross-draw holster convenient, but there are also good shoulder holsters and strong side field rigs, should that be your preference.
The Redhawk balances, handles, feels and recoils differently than the Super Blackhawk. If you are more comfortable with a DA style revolver, the Redhawk is a superior example of the type and the way to go. Conversely, if you prefer a SA revolver, the Super Blackhawk is the logical choice. Either, with appropriate ammunition, is capable of saving your life in a close encounter of the dangerous kind with a big predator, if you have developed the skill required to take advantage of their thunderous potential.
Although it is not the focus of this article, we would be remiss if we did not mention that a magnum revolver is the only practical handgun alternative to a rifle, should a rifle armed human predator threaten you in the field. Any handgun, even a magnum, is at a serious disadvantage at ranges approaching or exceeding 100 yards. However, the .44 Magnum cartridge shoots flat enough and hits hard enough, in the hands of an accomplished shooter, to give even a rifle armed adversary pause.
No handgun is as effective against predators in the field as a powerful rifle and a rifle is always our first choice. However, some outdoor activities, such as fishing streams and rivers, effectively preclude carrying the awkward bulk of a rifle. On those occasions a powerful revolver, such as a Super Blackhawk or Redhawk .44 Magnum, can potentially be a lifesaver!
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