Ruger Blackhawk Revolver

By Chuck Hawks

Ruger Blackhawk
Illustration courtesy of Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.

Sturm, Ruger & Company has, in the last 50 years, become the biggest manufacturer of sporting firearms in the U.S. It all started in 1946 with the Ruger .22 autoloading pistol. Bill Ruger built his company on good design, modern manufacturing techniques, and quality products at a fair price.

In 1953 the Single Six .22 revolver was introduced, and it quickly became a best seller. The Single Six is a single action that closely resembled a 7/8 size Colt Single Action Army, but with a modernized mechanism.

The Single Six was quickly followed by the justly famous Blackhawk .357 Magnum revolver. This model became the mainstay of the Ruger line. Today, at least among handgunners, the name "Blackhawk" is equated with strength and reliability.

The versatile Blackhawk has also been adapted to fire the .30 Carbine, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and .45 Colt cartridges. Later, cylinders were made available to allow "Convertible" Blackhawks that could shoot .357 Magnum/.38 Special in one cylinder and 9mm Luger (9x19) in another. There are also .45 Long Colt Blackhawks that are convertible to .45 ACP by means of a second cylinder.

Blackhawks are so strong that they are the revolvers of choice for high-pressure handloads. This is particularly true in .45 Colt caliber, where the Blackhawk has achieved a sort of cult status. Many reloading manuals have special sections devoted to high pressure .45 Colt loads for Ruger Blackhawk revolvers and T/C Contender single shot hunting pistols only. This should not, however, be taken to mean that a Blackhawk cannot be blown-up. They can, and have been. But Blackhawks do have a greater safety margin than most revolvers.

All of the 3-screw (or "Old Model," as they later came to be called) Ruger SA revolvers, including the Single Six, Bearcat, Blackhawk, Super Blackhawk, and Old Army, are based on the same simple design. They use music wire springs throughout and their reliability has become legendary. They were, and still are, perhaps the best single action revolver ever designed. However, they were traditional single action revolvers, as had been made and sold in the U.S. and the rest of the world for over 100 years. This means that they are loaded with the hammer in the half-cock notch and properly carried with the hammer down on an empty chamber. There is also a quarter-cock "semi-safe" hammer position.

The typical 3-screw Blackhawk (so called because of the three screws in the side of the frame) was a blued steel .357 Magnum/.38 Special revolver built on a flat top frame roughly the same size as a Colt SAA. However, the Blackhawk has a much stronger frame and can handle higher pressure cartridges. The one piece Western-style grip frame was made of aluminum alloy, as was the ejector rod housing. It has two piece walnut grips, a 6 1/2 inch barrel, and a fully adjustable rear sight. The ramp front sight has a square topped blade. The cylinder pin is retained by a simple, spring loaded cross pin. The hammer and trigger springs are coil springs, much easier to adjust and more durable than the flat springs used in the Colt SAA. The 3-screw Blackhawk is a simple action and it is easy to work on.

Over the years Ruger sold a great many SA revolvers and ignorant fools who didn't bother to read the owner's manual purchased a few of them. A predictable percentage of these, who also ignored over 100 years of established firearms protocol, managed to accidentally injure themselves or someone else by improper loading and handling of Ruger SA revolvers. Naturally, these greedy idiots refused to accept responsibility for their actions. Rapacious tort lawyers sprang to the attack and by the beginning of the 1970's the successful Sturm, Ruger & Company suddenly found itself the target of unfair, but expensive, lawsuits.

The result was that Bill Ruger redesigned his single action revolvers in 1973 and created the "New Model" Single Six, Blackhawk and Super Blackhawk. These revolvers incorporated a new transfer bar ignition system. The old coiled hammer spring remains, but the new trigger spring is a music wire spring in a sort of "U" shape. Opening the loading gate retracts the cylinder bolt, allowing the cylinder to turn for loading. The hammer is not involved. No more quarter-cock and half cock hammer positions and no more necessity to leave the hammer down on an empty chamber.

The New Model Ruger SA revolvers are probably the safest revolvers ever made and they can be carried fully loaded with six cartridges. New Model Ruger SA revolvers only have two screws in the side of their frames; otherwise they are externally similar to the Old Model Blackhawks.

Over the years the Blackhawk has mutated into a number of variations. There are New Model Blackhawks with "Bisley" as well as traditional Western grip shapes, blue and satin stainless steel finishes, and barrels of 4 5/8, 5 1/2, 6 1/2, and 7 1/2 inches in length. Standard Blackhawk calibers remain .30 Carbine, .357 Magnum/.38 Special, .41 Magnum, and .45 Colt. Convertible Models are available with .357/.38 and 9mm Luger cylinders or .45 Colt and .45 ACP cylinders.

The New Model Blackhawk that is externally almost identical to the traditional Old Model is model BN36. This blued steel .357 Magnum revolver comes with a fluted cylinder and a 6 1/2 inch barrel. The two piece grips are smooth rosewood with a sliver and black Ruger medallion. It comes with the same target style adjustable sights as the Old Model. It is 12 1/2 inches in overall length, and weighs 42 ounces. The same basic gun is also available in satin stainless steel (KBN36). The MSRP in 2007 is $579 in blue finish and $594 in stainless.

There are plenty of belts and holsters of various sorts for Blackhawk revolvers. Hunter and Uncle Mike's are two brands that I have used with good results. I prefer a cross draw carry in the field and, since this is a hunting pistol, that is how I usually carry it. I wear the gun belt high and snug, which I have found to be the most comfortable way to carry a heavy pistol for an extended period of time. (I'd love to see one of those cowboy movie actors wear their fast draw rigs everywhere they go--sitting, standing, walking, running, climbing, and driving a vehicle--for about 10 hours straight.)

The specific gun used for this review is a blued steel .357 Magnum Blackhawk with a 6 1/2 inch barrel. The sights are the standard Ruger adjustable type and are zeroed to hit dead on at 75 yards.

For those who like, and can safely control, a lighter than normal trigger it is a simple matter to slip one limb of the New Model trigger spring from its peg. This nearly cuts the pull weight in half. About 4 coils were removed from the hammer spring to reduce the effort required to cock the hammer; this had no detrimental effect on reliability. In the case of the test Blackhawk, these simple modifications and some judicious polishing of the engagement surfaces resulted in a trigger pull that measured 1 7/8 pounds on my RCBS Deluxe Trigger Pull Gauge with a little smooth creep. I would actually prefer it to be heavier, 2 1/2 pounds is about right in my opinion, but I have used this gun so long that I have gotten used to the ultra-light trigger.

A trigger this light is dangerous for inexperienced shooters and can catch even an experienced shooter by surprise if he or she is not warned in advance. It is best to give other shooters an opportunity to become accustomed to the light trigger pull by dry firing it a few times before actually shooting the gun.

Ruger does not approve of modifying their revolvers and liability wise you are on your own. Be especially careful to always keep the revolver pointed in a safe direction and your finger off of the trigger until you are actually ready to shoot. Safety is the responsibility of the shooter! So don't blame Ruger or me if you shoot your foot off.

Ruger Blackhawk revolvers have earned a good reputation for accuracy and this .357 is typical of the breed. This gun has been used to shoot about every kind of .38 Special and .357 Magnum ammunition imaginable, from maximum velocity .357 reloads and factory loads to mild .38 Special target wadcutters. It particularly likes jacketed bullets in the 140-160 grain weight range.

My standard .357 Magnum field load for many years used a 146 grain Speer JHP bullet in front of enough Hodgdon H110 powder to produce a chronographed MV of about 1100 fps. This is fast enough to give a reasonably flat a trajectory and kicks less than full house loads. That load using the 146 grain Speer JHP bullet will take down a deer, as I have reason to know. It could also serve as a home defense load. Even better for the latter purpose is the Remington Medium-Velocity .357 Magnum factory load that drives a 125 grain JHP bullet at a MV of 1220 fps.

For maximum velocity I could never handload anything as fast as the old Remington factory load that drove a 158 grain JHP bullet at a MV of 1550 fps from an 8 3/8 inch closed breech test barrel, or an actual chronographed velocity of 1325 fps 10 feet from the muzzle of my Blackhawk's 6 1/2 inch revolver barrel. These are excellent big game hunting loads.

At the other end of the power scale, a pleasant .357 Magnum practice and plinking load uses enough Hodgdon HS6 powder to drive a 158 grain Hornady JHP bullet at a chronographed MV of 997 fps. This is also a pretty good small game load and shoots flatter than .38 Special +P ammunition.

Long experience has shown that the Blackhawk will put all of these loads into 5 shot groups that average about 1 1/2 inches at 25 yards from a bench rest. If I do my job particularly well the Blackhawk will reward me with a 1 inch group. I have shot groups smaller than 1 inch at 25 yards, but I've gotta admit that they are not typical.

At 50 yards my average groups from a bench rest with this revolver expand to about 3 inches, which is actually pretty good shooting for me with iron sights. In the field, shooting from a sitting position at 100 yards, I can hit a quart can most of the time. I have made some rather spectacular (in my opinion, at least) long range shots with this gun, but they were mostly a matter of either "walking" the bullets into the target, or about half good judgment at guessing the right amount of "Kentucky elevation" and half pure good luck!

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Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.