What follows is the initial draft of a future article. Comments welcome. Hope you find it of interest.
The year was 1955. Fresh from the success of his .22 caliber “Single Six” single action revolver introduced two years earlier, Bill Ruger directed his attention to the design of a centerfire single action. The public was hungry for single actions since the apparent demise of the Colt Single Action Army revolver, and Ruger was determined to offer something even better, using modern materials, methods and manufacturing techniques.
Ruger rolled up his sleeves and he and his engineers went to work. What emerged from the drawing boards was a traditional-looking yet very modern single action revolver. His new revolver had a one piece investment cast aluminum lower frame, anodized black. The upper frame, cylinder and barrel were all made of chrome molybdenum steel. This upper frame was also an investment casting, making it quite economical to make. The frame incorporated three transverse screws, similar to the Colt. The grips were two-piece checkered black plastic, with black eagle medallions. The ejector rod housing was black anodized aluminum. The new gun retained the shape of the old Colt. However, it dispensed with the Colt’s sometimes-fragile leaf springs in favor of virtually unbreakable coil springs. The frame was beefed up a bit to better handle the power of the .357 magnum cartridge. The “flattop” upper frame featured a fully adjustable rear sight. The hammer had no firing pin. Instead, a floating firing pin was located in the frame. The front sight, mounted on a sturdy base, was ramped in the Baughman style. In operation, the gun mirrored the Colt. It used the same basic action, which required that the gun be loaded with only five rounds instead of the cylinder’s capacity of six. The hammer could then be put to rest on an empty chamber – an important safety measure. With the hammer at half cock, the traditional drill was to load one, skip one, load four, bring the hammer to full cock, and lower it on the empty chamber. The new revolver was first sold in 1955, and was christened the “Blackhawk.” It became an instant hit with the buying public. The .357 chambering was ideal, because it allowed full-power defense or hunting loads, yet permitted easy and economical practice with .38 specials, which of course will fit and function in any .357 magnum chamber. These first Blackhawks were quite similar in dimensions to the Colt single action, with the grip frame exactly matching the Colt profile. Barrel lengths ranged from 4 5/8” to 10 inches.
In 1954, at the urging of gun writer Elmer Keith, Remington and Smith &Wesson had collaborated on developing the powerful .44 magnum cartridge and a gun to go with it. The S&W .44 Magnum revolver came about in December of 1955. Bill Ruger had become aware of the new cartridge, and immediately began work on a gun to fire it. Close on Smith & Wesson’s heels in the following year, Ruger introduced the Blackhawk in the new .44 magnum chambering with a 6 ½” barrel. This one was a real boomer. The frame and cylinder were about 1/8” deeper and longer than the .357 guns. The recoil was stout given its aluminum lower frame. It of course could also chamber and fire the milder, shorter .44 special rounds. 27,610 were made with the 6 ½” barrels, 1500 with 10” barrels, and only 750 with 7 ½” tubes. All are collector prizes today.
In September 1959 the Super Blackhawk revolver was announced as a gun specifically designed to better handle the recoil of the .44 magnum cartridge. Shipments began in November of that year. This heavy revolver featured a non-fluted cylinder and a 7 ½” barrel. The cylinder frame was larger than the standard Blackhawk. The trigger guard was of the Colt Dragoon style; straight instead of rounded at the rear, ostensibly to prevent hammering of the middle finger under recoil. The grip frame was made of investment cast steel and was larger than the standard Blackhawk version. A rear sight guard was built into the frame. It had a wide-spur hammer and a wide serrated trigger. The high-polish bluing was exceptional. Many of these features were suggested to Bill Ruger by Elmer Keith following his examination of prototypes. Some 1,550 were fitted with brass grip frames and (by mistake) a few were made with shorter 6 ½” barrels. A very few were factory-equipped with 10” barrels, and one 12” barreled Super Blackhawk is known. The standard .44 magnum Blackhawk was discontinued in favor of the Super version in early 1963.
In the late summer of 1962, the .357 Blackhawk was slightly redesigned, at serial number 42689. A rear sight guard similar to that used on the Super Blackhawk was incorporated in the frame to better protect the adjustable sight when elevated high. The grip frame was redesigned to give a fuller grip. This was designated the XR3-RED grip, and was also used on the .22 caliber Single Six revolvers. Smooth walnut grips were introduced. The ejector rod housing was changed from steel to aluminum, as was the rear sight. These improvements were generally welcomed, but made instant collector items of the original “flattops.” From 1955 to 1973, approximately 317,000 .357 magnum Blackhawks were made, including both flattops and this later configuration. The .357 Blackhawk illustrated was shipped in October, 1967. It is in unusually nice condition, and is accompanied by an original box and instruction sheet.
In June 1965, the standard Blackhawk became available in .41 magnum. It was provided with either 4 5/8” or 6 ½” barrels. Over 39,800 were made. In 1967, the .357 Blackhawk could also be had as a “convertible” model, packaged with a fitted extra 9mm Luger cylinder. In February 1968, a .30 carbine version was announced. This was produced in only one configuration, with a 7 ½” barrel. Total production through June, 1972 was almost 33,000. In December of 1970, Blackhawks started to be made in .45 Colt. Convertible models were also offered in that caliber. These included a fitted .45 ACP extra cylinder. Total production of .45 Blackhawks through 1973 was slightly over 23,000. The .41, .30 carbine and 45 Blackhawks were all built on the slightly longer standard .44 frame.
In 1972, Ruger sought to use up some brass frames that had been made. These frames would not fit the coming “new models.” The company therefore equipped approximately 4,290 of various Blackhawks and Super Blackhawks with them. These brass-framed guns are highly sought after by collectors today.
In the following year, Bill Ruger redesigned the whole Blackhawk line, incorporating a transfer bar action which allowed safe carrying of the revolver with a full six rounds in the cylinder. No longer was it necessary (or possible) to place the hammer at half cock to load. One simply opened the loading gate to free the cylinder for loading. The traditional “four clicks” when cocking were gone. There were no safety or half-cock notches on the hammer. The trigger moved the transfer bar into place over the firing pin to allow the hammer to strike it forward. Unless the trigger was pulled while the hammer was at full cock, there was no way for the firing pin to touch a primer. With the hammer down, even over a charged chamber, the gun was safe. Two pins replaced the traditional three screws in the frame. Ruger offered (and still does) a free conversion of the older three-screw revolvers to a transfer bar system. They will even send back the older parts with the converted revolver for collector purposes. Unfortunately, the new system made it slower to load and unload the cylinder. You could not rotate the cylinder back until it indexed to properly line up a chamber for loading and unloading. You had to eyeball the alignment carefully. This was a nuisance. Many users of the new system, myself included, retrofitted a Ron Power kit (www.powercustom.com
) that allows the revolver to be operated exactly like the older system. The hammer can be placed at half cock for loading, and the cylinder indexes exactly like the older models. The cylinder can still be loaded with six cartridges safely. OK, call me traditional and old-fashioned if you like.
Unaltered old model “three screw” Blackhawks are now avidly sought after by shooters and collectors alike and are milestones in the Ruger story. They combine tradition with ruggedness and practicality. While lacking the safety features of the later models, with care and proper handling, used as “five shooters,” they’re great guns. They’re genuine classics.
(c) 2013 JLM