Ruger Blackhawk Flattop

FullSizeRender (9)  I think at some point, every boy in the States dreams of being a cowboy. Some of those dreams are carried into adulthood and manifest themselves in the form of various trinkets or items that have varied usefulness. One of the more familiar Cowboy type items or accouterments that actually has quite a bit of usefulness is the single action revolver. In a world permeated by polymer autos and (even if you are a revolver guy) swing out cylinder double action revolvers, the Colt-style single action revolver with its loading gate, ejector rod, and single action; seems at best obsolete and at worst a novelty. I mean,  the only reason these can still exist and thrive on the firearms market is as some form of nostalgia amongst the more wisened of us who watched Gunsmoke when it was still in syndication, right?

Wrong.

The Colt style single action remains one of the more capable handgun platforms for recreational shooting and hunting. For grip comfort and pointability, it is hard to beat a Colt style single action. Even with a 7.5″ barrel, which in any other pistol would seem ungainly or muzzleheavy, the Colt retains an elegance and index finger-like pointability, similar to the stabilizer of a compound bow. With the short 4.75″ barrel, it makes for a handy, and lightning quick packing pistol. When fired with heavy loads a Colt will actually roll in your hand, instead of coming straight back, which helps to reduce felt recoil. Colts also have fairly strong actions for what they are, due to their one piece frame, which allowed for some creative handloading back in the day.

As with all fine originals, there are many copycats and variations of the famous pistol, but none top Ruger’s Blackhawk in popularity or usability. Ruger Blackhawks are some of the most affordable single actions on the market, cheaper than several Colt reproductions, but capable of serious use. The Blackhawk’s main claim to fame is their brute strength in handling hot and heavy loads. At last glance some of the more venerable chamberings in its history have included the 357 Maximum, 30 Carbine, 480 Ruger, and in custom versions 475 and  500 Linebaugh. Blackhawks have taken just about every game animal that walks this green earth, even the more ornery ones.

As I begin my foray down the rabbit trail, I want to mention that much has been written of the Blackhawk family and by much more capable reviewers and writers than I, so I shan’t sully the good name of Bill Ruger by my writing ineptitude. However I do want to talk about one particular variant: the Flattop.

FullSizeRender (6)

The Vaquero/Blackhawk on top dwarfs the Flattop on the bottom

 

The Flattop BlackHawk was the first center fire pistol designed and manufactured by Bill Ruger. Introduced in 1955 and known simply as the Blackhawk, it revived the almost dead single action and brought it into the 20th century. With adjustable sights and a frame built to handle the heavy 357 Magnum loads of the day, but still the same size as a Colt SAA, it was a perfect pistol for huntin’, packin’ or just plinkin’. Sadly, the original Blackhawk was short lived. In 1963, it was replaced by the Old Model or “Three Screw” Blackhawk which was a bigger and bulkier handgun designed to handle hot .44 Mag loads. Along with several new design and construction elements, the newer pistol had “ears” that protect the rear sight and give the topstrap an ungainly hump which the original Blackhawk lacked:hence the name “Flattop”. Many shooters bemoaned the discontinuing of the original Blackhawk or the Flattop as it was now known because it was a smaller, sleeker size than the newer and larger Blackhawk. Today original Flattops command a serious premium amongst Ruger collectors and are amongst the best built mass produced revolvers available.

FullSizeRender (5)

The Flattop’s grip is much thinner and shorter than the Vaquero/Blackhawk’s Dragoon-style grip.

 

But hope is not lost! In 2005, Ruger reintroduced the Flattop to celebrate the Blackhawk’s 50th anniversary, and because of overwhelming demand, continues to make and sell them in variety of calibers. The revolver I have to review is one of the newer ones.

Overview

The modern Flattop is built on the XR3 grip frame which is the same as the New Vaquero. This is designed to mimic  a Colt SAA or New Frontier frame size. Anyone who has shot a Blackhawk knows that it is quite a large gun, and in my opinion, overengineered and too cumbersome for 357 Magnum. For the 44mag, or hot 45 Colt loads, it is perfect, but it is a mite too much for the 357. The Flattop is a perfect size for the medium 357 Magnum bore. Think of it like this: some shotgun receivers are scaled to different gauges for better handling and attractive looks, the Flattop Blackhawk is no different.

My version of the Flattop is a Lipseys distributer special in 357 Magnum and came with Rosewood grips and a 9mm Luger conversion cylinder. The 9mm Cylinder is in my opinion a novelty as it does not shoot to the same point of aim or level of accuracy as 357s or 38 specials. There is a considerable amount of freebore between the cylinder and the where the rifling starts in the barrel. Plus a 9mm is .355-.356 in diameter while a 357 is .357-.3575 in diameter.  That 1/1000 of an inch may not seem like a lot of difference, but it shows when shooting, especially at longer ranges. I do acquiesce that from a realistic standpoint having a gun that shoots three calibers is handy, especially if one or more becomes scarce, I just don’t use it very often.

Even though this Blackhawk pays homage to the original Flattop, it still retains all the safety features and strength of modern Rugers. It has a two screw frame and a frame mounted firing pin and transfer bar, making it perfectly safe to carry with six rounds in the cylinder. Even though it is slightly smaller than regular Blackhawks and old model Vaqueros, the holsters for the older ones are more common and seem to fit ok.

I chose the 5.5″ barrel as a compromise between the 6.5 and 4.6″. I feel like it gives the best combination of balance  without giving up any long range capability. It is short enough to wear on the hip, drive in your vehicle and not be uncomfortable and but long enough still reach out and snuff a jackrabbit at 100 yards. Overall length is 11″ and weight is 40 ounces unloaded.

The trigger is, in my opinion, the worst part of this great handgun. There is quite a bit of creep, a lot more than I would consider acceptable in a SA pistol. It breaks at a consistent 3 lbs but could be a lot more crisp in my opinion. Maybe I’m just spoiled by Smith and Wesson triggers, who knows. I have a couple of  old model Vaqueros that have very crisp triggers, so that may be a fault of this particular specimen’s and not of the breed as a whole.

On the Range

IMG_1482

The best groups came from heavy lead loads, like this one at just over 3/4″ from 25 yards.

Despite a mediocre trigger the pistol is quite accurate. Off a bench I have eeked out several sub-inch 3 shot groups at 25 yards with heavy 200 grain cast bullets. I have noticed that it seems to favor heavier cast bullets, but even with more common factory 125 and 158 grain jacketed loads, I can manage groups between 1.25 and 1.75″ with boring regularity. 9mm groups at 25 yards print about 5″-6″ low and are about softball or bigger sized which is ok, I guess, but very blah.

FullSizeRender (4)

9mm groups tend to print lower in the Flattop, but still present decent accuracy.

The black partridge blade sticks up and blends into an amorphous black blob with the square notch rear sight. I know the current set up is more traditional but I think the revolver would be better suited with perhaps some contrasting fiberoptic sights like on the SingleSix series. The pictures I took at the range were on a really sunny day, so my exposure looks a bit off.

 

 

Conclusion

Ruger revolvers are not perfect. They are not a Freedom Arms, and they are not a Colt New Frontier. However I cannot afford a FA or a New Frontier and I would be deathly afraid of ruining the Colt. The Ruger is what we like to call in the Army an 80% solution. It will get the job done, and get it done well, but may miss on some style points. Whatever style points it loses, I want to make known that the Blackhawk gives up nothing in function or utility. This is a revolver that I am not afraid to pack, drop, scuff,  use to frame a house, etc. Ok, maybe not frame a house, but drywall, sure. I joke, but in all seriousness I say that  not because I don’t have my kids college money wrapped up into it, but more so because it is a Ruger, and it is a well built, affordable, quality tool for the working man and his budget. It is more revolver than most could ever or will ever need. And that is what I like, guns that are built to be used. And boy can you use this one.

Advertisements

Smith and Wesson 357 Magnum

IMG_1158

The 357 Magnum goes well with an factory original antique Smith and Wesson shoulder holster and HKS Speedloader

This is the first installment in “A Trio of Smiths” series

https://thatweirdgunguy.com/2015/08/31/a-trio-of-smiths/

Stay tuned:)

In The Roaring Twenties, during the heyday of Prohibition and organized crime, the standard issue law enforcement sidearm was either a Colt, or a Smith and Wesson revolver in .38 Special. With a 158 grain lead round nose bullet lazily frolicking at around 750-800 feet per second, it made for an adequate man stopper, was exceedingly accurate, and had mild recoil. However, it did make for poor penetration, especially in cases of the new fangled bulletproof vests and armored cars that the bad guys had. The alternative for those in law enforcement on the cutting edge was the 1911 in .45 ACP. Unfortunately, its 230 grain slug going a smidgen faster than the 38’s didn’t improve the penetration enough to make a difference.

In light of this, Colt and S&W both got to work on solutions to the problem. In 1929 Colt introduced the .38 Super Automatic. This hot little round, an update to the old 38 ACP and chambered in the 1911, drove a 130 grain full metal patch(jacketed) bullet at a blistering 1300 fps. This made short work of the bulletproof vests and the armored cars of the time. However, most Law Enforcement was mistrustful of semi-auto pistols and required a revolver to be carried by patrol officers. In 1930, Smith and Wesson came up with a solution called the 38-44. This was the 38 Special cartridge loaded with a 158 grain full metal patch bullet flying along at 1150 fps, but chambered in the heavier S-Frame pistol built originally for the .44 Special. There was an obvious problem though, both of these rounds could be chambered in firearms designed for the older and weaker cartridge. Colt and Smith and Wesson both tried to fix that by changing the head stamps on the cartridge rims but people still put 38-44HV rounds in their much weaker K-frame revolvers. Along with help from Elmer Keith, S&W set about to fixing the problem and developing an even hotter round, and hotter pistol.

In 1934-35 S&W introduced a completely new cartridge: the .357 Magnum. This round was 1/8 of an inch longer than a .38 so it could not be chambered in a pistol that was designed for the .38 Special. The new round’s ballistics were originally a 158 grain bullet at 1500 fps! That is roughly double what the humble .38 Special was capable of. They also introduced a new pistol, called the “Registered Magnum” to house the new round. This pistol was, and is, the most desirable of all Smith and Wesson revolvers as it was completely hand made and customizable with a myriad of barrel lengths in ¼ inch increments, grips, finishes, sights, etc. Even though it was introduced in the middle of the Great Depression and was extremely expensive for the time, Smith & Wesson was backlogged with orders for the entirety of time that it produced the Registered Magnum. The Kansas City Police Department issued the Registered Magnum to its officers, and many other law enforcement officers across the United States carried the Registered Magnum. In 1939 Smith & Wesson stopped producing the Registered Magnum and replaced it with the 357 Magnum, which was still the Registered Magnum, but with the lack of customizable features, and standardized for ease of production and economy. In 1955, Smith and Wesson changed how they named revolvers and began using a numeric system instead of the old titular style. The Military and Police became the Model 10, the Chief’s Special became the Model 36, The Highway Patrolman became the Model 28 and the 357 Magnum became the Model 27, etc.

Owning the 357 Magnum

IMG_1154

The rollmark and pinned front sight are clearly observed in this picture

IMG_1141

The classic Smith and Wesson recessed chambers and lockwork are still tight sixty years later

 

My example is a Pre-Model 27, on a 5 screw, S-Frame. It has a 6 ½ inch pinned and ribbed barrel, with pinned front partridge sight. The chambers are recessed as well. All of these features are very desirable in early S&Ws. The best I can figure is that this pistol was probably made somewhere in the early 1950s as it has the second model hammer. The finish, even though it is sixty plus years old, still has a lovely luster. Somebody really did like shooting this pistol because it has a deeply impressed cylinder ring, but the rifling in the barrel is still sharp. The big wheel-gun balances very nicely, and is easy to shoot accurately with one or both hands, despite its 3lb weight when loaded. The trigger breaks at a clean 3 pounds in single action, and about 10lbs in double action. Overall it is probably the most beautiful pistol I have ever shot.

On the Range

“What?!” you are probably thinking. “You still shoot this pistol?” Oh yes, yes indeed. In fact, this revolver is the most accurate pistol that I own. It makes me look good. Too good, in fact.

When I was on Active Duty Some years back, some Army buddies and I would go to a local gun club off post on our time off. I would bring my trusty Smith with me. My buddies would then bet the local patrons, and on one occasion the owner of the establishment, that no one could hit the little green man in the top left corner of a standard B-27 target from the back of this indoor pistol range, which If I recall correctly was about 100 feet, so roughly 33 yards. Some money would exchange hands, the marks would take their turns shooting, almost everyone would miss. Then, I would roll up to the line, drop in one 148 grain match wadcutter in the big cylinder of that Smith, assume a good Weaver stance, and let fly. When the target came back, there would always be a perfectly round hole in the center of that little green man. We would then leave with our fruits of labor.

IMG_1126

This was my smallest group at just under 1.2″ at 25 yards measured center to center. In my haste, I mistakenly wrote down 38 instead of 357 😦

Like I said, I am a middling-to average shot, but when I benched this pistol the other day at the range, only shooting Mags, the largest group I got at 25 yards was a touch over two inches, with the smallest just under 1 and a quarter inches from center to center. No telling what a Match grade 38 Special could do in this behemoth. I shot several types of 357 through the pistol; Hornady 158gr XTP, Federal 158gr JSP, Grizzly 200 gr LNFP, and some handloads with Keith-style 158 gr LNFP. It favored the Federals in this trial, but I have some more playing to do with this pistol.

Final Thoughts

The 357 Magnum is one of those few truly iconic American pistols and I feel very fortunate to be one the few that has a working example. This pistol exudes history and nostalgia, but not so much to have become obsolete. The classic lines, hand tooling, musclecar-like performance, and tank-like reliability make this one a keeper.