Ruger New Vaquero .44 Special Revolver
By Rick Ryals
The Ruger Blackhawk (Flat Top - Old Model) was introduced in 1955 and was initially chambered in .38 Spec./.357 Magnum. The original Blackhawk was a medium frame revolver that weighed 38 ounces. It was constructed of chrome-molybdenum steel with a one-piece aluminum alloy grip frame and trigger guard. The barrel lengths were was 4-5/8”, 5-1/2" and 6-1/2", with the latter being the most popular.
The first additional chambering was the then new .44 Magnum in 1956 using a slightly larger and heavier frame with protected rear sights that was adopted by all subsequent Blackhawks. After the Super Blackhawk was made available in 1959, this caliber was discontinued in the standard Blackhawk in 1963. The improved Blackhawk was chambered for the .41 Magnum (in 1965), .45 Long Colt (in 1968) and .30 Carbine (in 1968).
The Old Model Blackhawk ("three screw") was therefore offered in two frame sizes. The smaller Flat Top frame was used for the .38 Spec./.357 Magnum only, while the later, larger frame was used for several calibers. The various barrel lengths offered over the years included 4-5/8”, 6-1/2”, 7-1/2” and 10”.
Although the Blackhawk outwardly resembled the Colt Single Action Army revolver (especially the flat top Target Model) and operated in an identical manner, the Blackhawk is built on a larger and heavier frame. Bill Ruger also introduced design changes to improve strength and reliability over the older Colt revolvers. Coil springs were used throughout, instead of flat springs. Other internal parts, including the sear and cylinder bolt, were made thicker and stronger and all Blackhawk revolvers featured ramp front and fully adjustable rear sights.
The strength and durability of Ruger Blackhawk and Super Blackhawk single action revolvers has become legendary. Many reloading manuals contain special load data for the Ruger Blackhawk, particularly in .45 Colt caliber.
In 1972, Ruger ceased production of the Old Model (also known as "three screw") single action revolvers. In 1973, the New Model Blackhawk was introduced. The New Model uses Ruger's transfer bar ignition system. This is the safest single action mechanism ever conceived, as the hammer cannot contact the firing pin unless the trigger is pulled. Unlike earlier Colt and Ruger SA revolvers, which should always be carried with an empty chamber under the hammer, the Ruger New Model single actions can be safely carried with six cartridges in the cylinder.
The New Model Blackhawk weighed a minimum of 40 ounces. Calibers included .357 Magnum, .30 Carbine, .41 Magnum and .45 Colt. Over the years, various barrel lengths have been offered, including 4-5/8”, 5-1/2”, 6-1/2”, 7-1/2” and 10-1/2”. Blued steel and stainless steel finishes are available. Early models had walnut grip panels, but this was later changed to laminated wood or black plastic. Convertible models with two cylinders have also been offered for .357 Magnum/9x19mm and for .45 Colt/.45ACP.
In the 1980's, a new type of shooting competition emerged. This became known as Cowboy Action Shooting. This competition generally required traditional single action revolvers with fixed sights. Since the Blackhawk had adjustable sights, it was excluded.
To gain a share of the Cowboy Action Shooting market, Ruger developed the Vaquero revolver, which was introduced in 1993. It used the basic Blackhawk frame, but with the top strap thinned, rounded and milled for a fixed rear sight groove in the manner of the Colt SAA. The Blackhawk's ramp front sight was replaced by a simple rounded blade set into the barrel.
The finishes used on the Vaquero are different from the polished and blued Blackhawk. Ruger developed a process to color the frame so that it resembled traditional color case hardening. Since Vaquero frames are made of nickel alloy steel, actual color case hardening is not possible.
The first stainless steel Vaqueros were produced with a satin finish. However, in response to early negative feedback, Ruger quickly changed the stainless finish to a high polish that resembles the premium nickel finishes used on some original Colt SAA revolvers. Calibers included .45 Colt, 44-40, .44 Spec./.44 Magnum and .38 Spec./.357 Magnum. Barrel lengths were 4-5/8”, 5-1/2” and 7-1/2”.
Over the years there was a steady demand for Ruger to build Vaqueros on a smaller frame, similar in size to a Colt SAA. In 2005, Ruger surprised many by introducing the New Vaquero, built on a smaller frame. This new model replaced the (larger) original Vaquero. The New Vaquero has a steel grip frame and an alignment pawl that helps align the cylinder's chambers with the loading gate, making loading and unloading easier. A Bisley version is offered with the long Bisley grip frame and imitation ivory grips.
The available barrel lengths are 3-1/2”, 4-5/8” and 5-1/2”. Chamberings include .38 Spec./.357 Magnum and .45 Colt. In addition, there are several distributor exclusives offered in .44 Special. Weight ranges from 37 to 45 ounces, depending on caliber, barrel length and grip frame. All feature traditional fixed sights with a groove rear and blade front. Grips are black plastic with a molded Ruger emblem.
The new Ruger Vaquero reviewed for this article is a Lipsey's exclusive. It is a polished stainless steel model in .44 Special caliber. The checkered black plastic grips contrast nicely with the stainless steel frame. The stainless steel is highly polished to resemble nickel plating. The serial number is on the right side of the frame, with the model and caliber designation on the left side of the frame. The usual Ruger warning message is stamped on the bottom of the barrel.
The barrel length is 4-5/8”, overall length is 10-3/16” and the weight is 40 ounces. As with all Vaqueros, the rear sight is a fixed groove in the top strap and the front sight is a blade set into the barrel. It is a handsome, traditional, single action revolver with modern lockwork.
The trigger pull exhibits a small amount of creep before releasing at around 3.6 pounds per an RCBS trigger pull gauge. The pull weight has a bit of variation between 56 and 60 ounces. Nevertheless, this is a decent trigger for a production gun. Ruger has improved its triggers over the past few years.
The grip on the New Vaquero has a slim feel in the hand. It is noticeable thinner than a Blackhawk. At 40 ounces, this revolver is a good compromise between portability and sufficient weight to mitigate recoil. The Vaquero has excellent balance and feels good in the hand.
The .44 Special is an under appreciated cartridge. The SAAMI maximum average pressure limit is 15,500 psi. Current factory cartridges are loaded somewhat below this, presumably in deference to the many older .44 Special revolvers still in use. Factory 240-246 grain loads are catalogued at around 750 feet per second and 300 ft. lbs. at the muzzle.
Reloading data for the .44 Special is readily available. Within SAAMI limits, at least four reloading manuals show that 240 to 250 grain bullets can be pushed to between 850 and 1000 feet per second. Thus, the .44 Special can become a potent handgun cartridge for both defense and hunting.
I used new Starline cases, Speer 270 grain GDSP jacketed bullets, Beartooth 260 grain hard cast bullets, Winchester WLP primers, Hodgdon HS-6 and Accurate No. 7 powders to develop loads for the Vaquero. Actual bullet diameter is .429", the same as the .44 Magnum, which is based on a lengthened .44 Special case.
The Speer soft point bullets shot into 2.5" to 3" at 25 yards with both powders, while the cast bullets achieved 2" groups with HS-6 powder. These loads were all pleasant to shoot.
With fixed sight revolvers like this, it may be necessary to try different loads to find one that shoots to point of aim. In the case of this particular Vaquero, the best load I have found so far in this regard is a handload using HS-6 powder behind a Beartooth 260 grain cast bullet. This centers groups to point of aim at 25 yards and a couple of inches low at 50 yards.
While I prefer the adjustable sights of the Blackhawk series revolvers, there is something to be said for the smooth top strap and simplicity of the fixed sight Vaquero. Its traditional look has an appeal to us older folks who grew up watching cowboys on television.
The New Vaquero, like other Ruger firearms, is a good value in today's market. The 2012 MSRP of the model reviewed here is $699, with the actual purchase price being a bit less than $600. For comparison, a nickel finished Colt Single Action Army revolver carries a 2012 MSRP of $1518. In addition, the Ruger action offers real improvements over the Colt design.
This is not to say that Colt does not make fine revolvers. However, I believe the Vaquero offers more gun for the dollar. It is an extremely durable, reliable, well made and good looking revolver at a reasonable price. You can get an imported SAA clone in the price range of the Ruger and some sell for a little less. However, I chose the American made Ruger.
If you are interested in a traditional single action revolver, the Ruger website currently lists several New Vaquero models, including various distributor exclusives. I am very satisfied with the Vaquero I purchased and that is the best recommendation I can give.
Copyright 2012 by Rick Ryals and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.