The Ruger Blackhawk and Vaquero Revolvers

By Chuck Hawks

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

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

In 1953 Sturm, Ruger introduced the Single Six .22 revolver. The Single Six was quickly followed by the justly famous Blackhawk .357 Magnum revolver. This model became the mainstay of the Ruger line.

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 are based on the same simple design. They were, and still are, perhaps the best single action revolver ever designed. They are loaded with the hammer in the half-cock notch and properly carried with the hammer down on an empty chamber.

The typical 3-screw Blackhawk (so called because of the three screws in the side of the frame) was a blued steel revolver built on a flat top frame roughly the same size as a Colt SAA. The one piece Western-style grip frame was made of aluminum alloy, as was the ejector rod housing. It has two piece walnut grips. 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 one that is easy on which to work.

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 tiny minority of these, who ignored over 100 years of established firearms protocol, managed to accidentally injure themselves by improper loading and handling of Ruger (and other) 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" Blackhawk. These revolvers incorporated a new transfer bar ignition system. Opening the loading gate retracts the cylinder bolt, allowing the cylinder to turn for loading. The hammer is not involved.

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 various lengths.

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, 6 1/2 inch barrel, two piece grips, and adjustable sights. It is 12 1/2 inches long and weighs 42 ounces

An offshoot of the Blackhawk is the Vaquero, a New Model Blackhawk with the rounded top frame contours of a Colt SAA and without the Blackhawk's adjustable sights. The front sight is a rounded blade, much like the Colt SAA. For the hunter and outdoorsman this is a step backwards.

Vaqueros come with a "color cased" and blued finish or an overall gloss stainless steel. Grip shapes are "bird's head," Bisley, and traditional. Barrel lengths are 3 3/4, 4 5/8, 5 1/2, and 7 1/2 inches. Vaqueros are available in .357 Magnum/.38 Special, .44-40 WCF, .44 Magnum/.44 Special, and .45 Colt. These guns have an overall length of 11 1/2 inches and weigh 40 ounces. Vaqueros are a favorite with Cowboy Action Shooters.

There are plenty of belts and holsters of various sorts for Blackhawk and Vaquero revolvers. I prefer a cross draw carry in the field and, since the Blackhawk is a hunting pistol, that is how I usually carry it.

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 adjusted 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 of this gun to reduce the effort required to cock the hammer; this had no detrimental effect on reliability.

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, all with good results.

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. In a pinch that 146 grain Speer JHP bullet will take down a deer, as I have reason to know . . ..

Note: Complete reviews of .357 Mag. and .327 Mag. Ruger Blackhawk revolvers can be found on the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2003, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.