Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Road Trip Memories- The Ruger Bisley

I grew up watching old Westerns. Most were reruns from the 50's that play to this day on some channels, though I remember Gunsmoke from when I was little. I loved those old shows - Rifleman, Wanted Dead or Alive, Palladin, anything with John Wayne. The good guys were known, the bad guys obvious. The heroes rode a landscape of the lever action and the revolver, the name of their firearm more than a forgotten name, their duty and honor more than a shout of defiance but an honor scratched into every weapon they held. The weapons would show the marks of their courage, etched into the very wood and steel of what they carried, not casually, but with the hurt and pride and grief with which men long since unremembered had died for.

A number of readers have asked me about the gun that's on my blog sidebar next to the dinner plate. It's a Ruger Bisley, with custom made birds-eye maple grips. It doesn't get out to the gun range every time friends go shooting, but when it does, it's the star of the gunfight. The Ruger Bisley Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum. Handgun hunters, long range competitors and fans of the single action are going to find this one of their favorites, ideal for slow, deliberate shooting. They're very popular with cowboy shooters and I've seen several that could be this gun's twin on those ranges. I can't help but look at the firearm and think of those old TV Westerns.

The TV Western. Where did it go? As a kid, I'd rather take a bullet rather than watch the last years of Brady Bunch and the Partridge family, I didn't watch a whole lot of TV, we played outside every chance we could get. But I remember Bonanza, the Big Valley, Gunsmoke and of course the reruns. The TV Western reigned supreme in the Fifties and Sixties. But by the time I was actively watching TV, they were disappearing, to be enjoyed mostly in reruns. I like them though, still do. Unlike the post-war world in which they flourished, you could tell the good guys from the bad and none of the guns were fully automatic.

In 1953, Bill Ruger went against convention and resurrected the single-action sixgun. Colt had stopped manufacturing their Single Action Army in 1941 when they switched to wartime production. The machinery to make the SAA was getting old and tired at that point, and the demand for the old Colt had dropped off since WW, while everyone discovered Colt's other great handgun, the 1911 Government Model. So at the beginning of the TV Western's debut, there were few single actions guns available to the public. In 1953, the new firm of Sturm, Ruger and Company introduced the Ruger Single Six, a .22LR rimfire single-action revolver with full-sized grips and a downscaled cylinder and action to match the small .22 cartridge. It' popularity lead to the development of a full sized center fire version.

Ruger introduced the Blackhawk in 1955, chambered for the .357 Magnum, but the next year in 1956, the magical happened. Ruger was located near the firearms manufacturing of Bridgeport, Connecticut, where was located the Remington Arms Company.

According to legend, repeated even in the Ruger Company's own literature, a Ruger employee was in a scrap metal yard when he saw some unusual cartridge cases in a trash barrel. He astutely grabbed a few of them and took them to William B. Ruger. The cartridges were stamped with a designation nobody at the Ruger plant had encountered before: .44 Remington Magnum.

Now, Remington was already developing the .44 Magnum in partnership with Smith and Wesson, but thanks to the unintended security breach, the Ruger Blackhawk in .44 Magnum debuted at almost the same time as the S & W Model 29, and was available before the first S & W .44 Magnum made an appearance. It was a force to be reckoned with, top quality, albeit single action. It was an instant classic, "classic"defined by Webster as a "standard of excellence". Much like it's founder. Not since Sam Colt was there a gun maker who could tap into what American shooters and hunters were yearning for.

There have been adaptions over time, until 1986 when Ruger offered one of the finest single-action revolvers to be manufactured, available to the public. The Ruger Bisley. Based on the immensely popular Super Black frame, it does have some differences.

The grip is typical western design that is both natural to the hand and naturally straight shooting. The wooden grips here conform to the original design while adding the beauty of wood. Custom made by a friend who does such things, they add beauty to an already classic weapon.

The grip frame of the Bisley owes it lines to the original Colt design with some changes. It doesn't come up as high behind the trigger guard as the original Colt, which increases it's controllability with heavy loads. The grip frame as well, are wider than the Colts, which spreads felt recoil even more. Ladies, if you shoot one of these, there is no "painful slap" associated with heavy loads. It's powerful but manageable.

The hammer spur is right where it was intended to be, low and swept back, with deep serrations for a firm purchase when cocking the revolver for firing. The trigger has more of a curve to it than a Colt Bisley's, which adds greatly to trigger control.

It's not a 'light" gun due to the steel in it's frame, but at 48 ounces, a whole let less heavy than my purse. Lots of steel is like a lot of words in a political speech, sounds great, but if they're not in the right place, then they mean nothing. The steel is placed well in the Bisley, taking the brunt of the pressure when a cartridge is fired, adding to the longevity of the weapon. This is no plastic throw away gun. This is a gun you can give to your grand-daughter, or grandson. An adjustable rear sight, makes competition shooting a pleasure.

With help from fate and a vision beyond most men, Ruger developed, in essence, the perfect six shooter- good looking with smooth classical lines, strong, dependable as well as highly functional. Like the hero of the 50's Western.

After I shot it the first time, it made me want to go home and see if I can find an old showing of
Bounty Hunter or Maverick. Better yet, an old John Wayne Western. Not for me the TV of today, with a bunch of actors and actresses who weigh less than my ammo can, sitting on their parents wallets, whining about their lives.

How can that compare to that moment where John Wayne as a grizzled old marshal confronts four villains and calls out: "I mean to kill you or see you hanged at Judge Parker's convenience. Which will it be?" "Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man," their leader sneers. Then Duke cries, "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" and, reins in his courage, rushing at them while firing both guns.

"There's right and there's wrong," John Wayne said in The Alamo. "You gotta do one or the other. You do the one and you're living. You do the other and you may be walking around but in reality you're dead.". The TV shows of today, like too much of society, don't have many of these types of Americans. People who have an honesty in living, and courage in the face of criticism. A person of honor, a defender of what they believe is right and true, and the force of America as a nation united, a nation crafted under a Constitution that is as right now as it was two hundred years ago.

So give me an old Western. Give me an old Western style sixshooter.

For when you mean business.


  1. I saw Neal Stephenson a couple of weeks ago and snagged an autograph for my copy of "Cryptonomicon".

    His latest, "Reamde", has lots of action involving firearms mixed with some clever language and is worth taking a look at if you enjoyed "Snow Crash".

    Sadly, I couldn't find a line in the book nearly as good as this one from "Cryptonomicon":

    "Ask a Russian engineer to design you a shoe, and he'll give you something that looks like the box the shoe came in. Ask him to design something that will slaughter Germans, and he turns into Thomas f---ing Edison."

  2. Don't forget the hat...."There's right and there's wrong. You gotta do one or the other. You do the one, and you're living. You do the other, and you may be walking around, but you're as dead as a beaver hat."

  3. Oh, yes, the old Westerns. Almost all that you mentioned here - Gunsmoke, Bonanza, the Rifleman - LOVED them. And I grew up thinking John Wayne was a hero, still do! Didn't you just love it when the cowboys on their horses were shooting at the bad guys and never had to stop to reload! Why can't we do that today???

  4. I don't have the Bisley, but I have a Blackhawk in .45 Colt. Nothing even remotely tactical about it, but it's still a fun gun at the range, and very attractive.

    Using most of the cowboy level loads, it's pretty much a pussy-cat at the range, but I did buy a few boxes of Cor-Bon 300gr loads for it on clearance, and when I light a cylinder full of those off at the range, it's an attention getter.

  5. I'm having Brigid and Elmer Keith envy again...

    Dann in Ohio

  6. I miss the westerns; I grew up watching them as a small kid.
    I have a Bisley Colt Peacemaker in 38-40 that was manufactured in 1894, and it is an interesting gun to shoot.

  7. That is a beauty, being shot by a beauty... It doesn't get any better :-)

  8. "People who have an honesty in living, and courage in the face of criticism. A person of honor, a defender of what they believe is right and true, and the force of America as a nation united, a nation crafted under a Constitution that is as right now as it was two hundred years ago."


    Well stated, Brigid. :)

  9. The Saturday afternoon matinee serial westerns at the house of moving pictures. Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autery, the Zane Grey stories and there were many others and there were the luscious ladies.

    Still pull up old videos and watch them on the puter on occasion.

    First time I shot the .44 I thought my hand was going to never return to normal. The early ones had a kick, not the balance like today. Love the old single action rugers.

    For a side bar you may want to do a search a Jon Erick Hexum and read his story about messing with a .44 on a TV show called "Cover Up."... It was fatal, age 26.

    There are a few around here that still strap on the side arm, with the hat n boots.... etc. The west still lives here.

  10. Wonderful article. Wonderful gun. Thanks Brigid.

    I watched all those old westerns, unfortunately I actually saw them first run. :)
    Sugarfoot, The Lawman, Cheyenne, The Bounty Hunter, Wyatt Earp, etc., etc.
    I can still sing most of the words to the theme songs (if you call my bellowing singing).

    My absolute favorite weapons of all time are SA western style revolvers. Period, bar none.

    Interesting that the values spoken in the old westerns would be considered rude or embarrassing in today's corrupt world.

  11. What NFO said.
    Both are purty.

  12. It's funny to watch the old Westerns because there just wasn't much in the way of diversity in the guns carried in those movies; they all seemed to carry Peacemakers, usually the 4.75" model, and 1894 Winchesters. No Remington single actions, no Smith & Wessons; the TV buffalo hunters all carried Sharps rifles, never a Remington Rolling Block. No Iver Johnson or Merwin Hulbert revolvers, either.

  13. WOW! All of them shows bring back so much. And that is a real neat pistol. Never got to shoot one. But I had just about every toy cowboy pistol there was when I was a kid. And was lucky enough to be able to ride a real horse on my uncles ranch in the summer. It made playing cowboy so much more real.

    Love the pictures of the pistol. Wonderful article.

  14. I just recently saw the remake of True Grit. Give me a break. It was pitiful compared to the original. Jeff Bridges or John Wayne? Duh! It is stupid of Hollywood to try to improve on the Duke.

    I love all the old John Wayne westerns but one scene that sticks in my mind is when he is playing a cop. When questioned about having a search warrant, the Duke responded, "Yes, I carry it in the bottom of my shoe!" and promptly kicked the door open.

  15. My first handgun was a cheap .22 LR/.22 Magnum single action revolver my dad gave me that had been given to him by a co-worker. Twas a POJ, but it was fun. It broke long ago, no remorse. It has since been replaced by a nice Ruger Single-Six. Funny thing though. Given to me by a co-worker. Deju vu, eh?

    Anyway, it's the slowest to reload handgun I have, but I still like plinking with it occasionally. There's just something about those old iron sights that says it's just you, and the gun. No fancy optics or bells or whistles to help hit the target.

  16. Squirreled away in my stash of treasures, I have the autographs of the Cartwrights. They attended the Soap Box Derby banquet in Akron that year and signed my program in person (& character, I might add).

  17. Any chance you could tell me where to go to get a set of Maple grips like those for some of my Bisley Rugers?

  18. nate - the person that made those is long gone, but they are pretty aren't they.

    Jerry - I was up in the Tahoe area and my cousin and I were going past where it was filmed. I couldn't help but bounce up and down in my bucket seat like I was on a horse and singing the tune of the theme song. Fortunately my cousin did not have me committed and we got to play tourist up there.

    at lunch on the eebook

  19. I have a .44Mag Bisley Vaquero with the 5 1/2 inch barrel. Not as nice as yours, a few scratches here and there and one of the aweful aluminum grip frames.

    A bisley was on my "list" for a long time and when I found that one for a good price I jumped on it. Turns out, the bisley grip frame doesn't fit my hand very well (especially with the 44's recoil) and the aluminum grip frame screws with the balance, not a lot, just enough to be mildly annoying.

    I've been debating on swapping out the grip frame with a steel bisley grip frame (if I can find one), or getting a brass grip frame in the plowhandle shape which seems to fit my hand better. I think the brass frame would look nice, but I'm not sure if it would stand up to the .44Mag.

    Still thinking about it.


  20. I have it in the .45 as I can get loads as hot as the .44 Mag, but still shoot the cowboy loads for pretty much anything else. Love it, love it, love it. Only wish it had a 7 inch barrel instead of the shorter one. also have it in the .357 but loaned it to my son. You mean to tell me there is another company that makes handguns other than Ruger? !!!!

    Next you will try to tell me there is one that makes lever actions other than Winchester!!!!

  21. I am always curious about the shape of the grip on old "cowboy" handguns. They all have that universal shape that doesn't fit the hand well. Made from metal and wood, they could have made them in any shape they wanted. So why did they all settle on that shape? Was the entire gun-owning community really convinced that that was the best they could hope for? In a time when every little town had a blacksmith/tinkerer/wood carver, no one every tried to shape a pistol grip that would fit the hand better?

  22. I stand corrected.

    In an earlier comment I stated that MY bisley has the aluminum grip frame. OOPS! I must have been thinking of another gun since a look at it (inspired by this post) tells me that it is definately an all-steel gun.

    Still doesn't fit my hand though. I wonder if other people with big hands have that same issue?


  23. Hi Stuart,

    Fitting any handgun or rifle to plus size shooters has always been problematic. My friend, Fred, was 6-11 and finally resorted to carving his own grips for the Thompson Center pistol he used for metallic silhouette shooting. For me, the grip was not unlike picking up the large end of a pine post. Fred, I might add, carried a 1911 as a pocket pistol.


  24. Around ten years ago, I was browsing through a gun magazine and happened across an advertisement that stopped me in my tracks. It featured the most beautiful handgun I had ever seen: a then new Ruger Vaquero in stainless steel with ivory grips. I couldn't take my eyes off of it.

    My incredible wife witnessed this episode and, bless her soul, presented me with one just like it for my birthday that year. It's in .45LC with a 5 1/2 inch barrel and it is awesome.

    A modern recreation of a classic that my great grandchildren will, I have no doubt, cherish and pass on to their children.

  25. Story is told..'bout 30 years ago of a young female police officer's first day on the force was responding to a call, bank robbery, 2 offices shot & down; she arrived during the shooting, saw the bank robber running about 2 blocks away, looked at her issue 38 on her side and then looked at her 44 magnum under her vehicle seat, took out the magnum and shot for & hit the center of mass; Story was told she liked to shoot in her spare time, she was fired for using a personal weapon. The Dept of Corrections immediately hired her. Anyone who could shoot that good was wanted...


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