The New Model Rugers have been used for building some of the most powerful sixguns in existence. Serious Single Action Sixguns chambered in such powerful cartridges as .475 and .500 Linebaugh, .445 SuperMag, .475 and .500 Linebaugh Long, all dubbed serious sixguns as they will handle the largest, toughest, meanest critters on earth. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the Sensible Single Action Sixguns. Those meant for daily packin', or plinkin', even defensive use or close range hunting. When the .357 Blackhawk was introduced in 1955, Ruger intended to next bring it out in both .44 Special and .45 Colt. Things don’t always work out the way they should and the introduction of the newest Magnum in 1956 resulted in a larger-framed Blackhawk in the .44 Magnum with the .45 Colt being chambered in the same basic sixgun 15 years later; and the .44 Special, which would have been perfect for the original Colt Single Action-sized .357 Blackhawk, never materialized.
Today several gunsmiths are specializing in custom Ruger single actions and especially the Flat-Top and Old Model .357 Blackhawks. Remember this is a Colt Single Action Army-sized sixgun so it’s use should be confined to calibers, which have been found in the old Colt. The original cylinder can be re-chambered to such cartridges as the .41 Special, .44 Special, .38-40, .44-40, and possibly .45 Colt; even the old cartridges now resurrected thanks to Cowboy Action Shooting, the .45 Schofield and .44 Russian. If one’s tastes should so dictate, semi-auto rounds such as the .45 ACP, .40 S&W, and 10mm can be chosen; while new cylinders can be manufactured in such great cartridges as the .32-20. And there is nothing that says we cannot keep the original .357 Magnum chambering while adding custom touches such as a tuned action, new sights, and a case-colored frame. Some gunsmiths may be hesitant to re-chamber to .45 Colt as the .45 Colt and Ruger Blackhawk have been connected with heavily loaded cartridges for over three decades; a .45 Colt on a .357 Three Screw is definitely for standard loads only as the Colt SAA-sized Flat-Top or Old Model will not handle heavy .45 Colt loads. Converted Flat-Top or Old Model Blackhawks and their respective loads are guns one can shoot all day without paying for it the next day with sore hands and fingers or worse.
The Colt Single Action Army is so perfect as is that very little is required in the category of embellishments. I almost always fit my Colts with custom grips made to fit my hand and particular taste. Grip makers offer grips of exotic woods, genuine stag, elegant ivory, even buffalo bone or ram’s horn stocks. Sixguns from the Ruger stable require a few more touches other than grips. My tastes normally run heavy on the traditional and that means I prefer the original grip frame as furnished on the Single-Six, and .357 and .44 Blackhawks, introduced in the 1950s that perfectly duplicated the feel of the Colt Single Action Army. Unfortunately the Ruger grip frame was “improved” in 1963 and the feel was changed dramatically. My Old Model .45 Rugers, which were introduced some seven years later, all came with the improved grip frame and have now been fitted with the old Flat-Top grip frame that is easily identified by the interior XR-3 marking as opposed to the XR-3RED of the post-1963 guns.
For those prefer an all steel Ruger Blackhawk, Old Models can be fitted with stainless steel grip frames from the Old Army while New Models will accept any New Model stainless steel grip frame. All blued Ruger Blackhawks come with alloy ejector tubes and these can be replaced with tubes from either Bowen Classic Arms or Qualite Pistol & Revolver. The addition of a steel ejector tube and grip frame helps to dampen felt recoil dramatically. A final touch is a high quality all steel replacement rear sight which is now being offered by Bowen Classic Arms.
Most Rugers, be they of Old Model or New Model persuasion, have relatively heavy trigger pulls. New Models are the easiest to lighten by the non-gunsmithing shooter. Simply remove one grip panel and then use a small pick or screwdriver to remove the dog leg spring from its post at the top of the grip frame. This is one leg of the trigger return spring and the trigger will operate perfectly well, and lighter, with only one leg in place.
Old Model Rugers require a little more work and the assistance of another hand. With the grips removed, cock the hammer and place a small pin in the small hole at the base of the mainspring strut. This will keep the mainspring compressed as the grip frame is removed. Watch out for the handspring, which enters the mainframe through a small hole in the rear of the mainframe and is held in place by the top of the grip frame. After the grip frame is removed, remove the mainspring strut and then with extreme care and wearing adequate eye protection, remove the pin slowly allowing the mainspring to decompress and be removed. A vise will help.
Clip one coil from the mainspring, and with the aid of the above mentioned third hand, compress the mainspring back on the strut, replace the pin, and re-assemble the sixgun. Remove only one coil at a time until the desired results are attained. Remember, if too many coils are removed they cannot be replaced. I have never found it necessary to remove more than two coils.
Hamilton Bowen of Bowen Classic Arms is well known for really big sixguns, however he has another side, his favorite side, a kindler, gentler side. Even before the advent of the Colt-styled Ruger Vaquero, gunsmiths, both professional and home-style, were slimming the top strap of the Ruger Blackhawks, removing the adjustable sights, and welding and re-shaping the top of the frame to a hog wallow fixed sighted sixgun. Friend Jim Taylor did this many years ago to a Ruger .357 rescued from the bone yard, fast draw exhibition shooter Joe Bowman has used a pair Ruger .357 Blackhawks made to look like Colt Single Action Army .45's for years, and Bowen now offers the same conversion as a custom option on the Three Screw Ruger Single Actions.
At the 1993 Shootists Holiday, I was privileged to handle, examine, and most importantly, shoot what has turned out to be in Hamilton Bowen's own words "my favorite handgun of all times". It is his favorite for two reasons. First it is a best-grade piece done by a gunsmith who thrives on perfection and looks to the past masters of the gunsmithing craft for inspiration, and secondly, it is chambered for that most pleasant shooting sixgun cartridge, the ancient, but certainly still viable .32-20 or .32 Winchester Center-Fire (.32 WCF). I can certainly understand why this is the favorite handgun of a pistolsmith responsible for so many superb creations. Starting life as a standard Old Model .357 Ruger Blackhawk, this .32-20 has been fitted with a custom line-bored cylinder mated with a .32 caliber barrel. The cylinder has been chamfered in the old Colt blackpowder style, the base pin is a custom job, oversized and mated perfectly with the cylinder. As with most of Bowen's single action conversions, this one contains an internal bearing block to eliminate the flexing of the cylinder bolt from side to side.
The barrel is a round Douglas barrel with a beautifully machined integral front sight base that has been dovetailed and fitted with a windage adjustable post front sight. This mates with a rear sight that is a perfect square notch cut into a frame that has been shaped to match the old Smith & Wesson fixed-sighted top straps or perhaps even those on the Remington cap-and-ball sixguns. The alloy ejector rod housing has been replaced with a steel housing that is held on by a screw that completely fills the hole and fits perfectly flush with the ejector rod housing.
Such a classic sixgun as this would have to be an all steel sixgun, so the original Ruger aluminum grip frame had to go, and it was replaced by a Colt Single Action Army-style backstrap and trigger guard with a pair of Colt black Eagle grips filed to fit. A longtime standard bullet for the .32-20 has been Lyman's #311316, a 120-grain flat-nosed gas-check design. As so often happens with sixguns, at least in my experience, Hodgdon's H4227 was the powder of choice giving 1 1/4” 25 yard groups with 12.0 grains for 1,237 feet per second from the 4 5/8” inch barrel of the .32-20.
To my somewhat biased way of thinking, the most sensible of all single action sixguns is a good .44 Special. I decided to have a .44 Special Ruger made to my specifications after reading of such a conversion by Skeeter Skelton in the 1970s. Skeeter was responsible for a whole bunch of sixgunners finding new appreciation for the .44 Special. However, a number of mistakes were made with my first custom Ruger. I opted for a red insert front sight instead of an easier to see black front sight. At least black is much easier to see these days and a black post sight is the best of all.
The Ruger Old Model or Three Screw .357 was sent of to a gunsmith back East who re-chambered the cylinder to .44 Special and relined the original barrel. The lining would have worked fine but I believe he used a section of .444 Marlin barrel as the twist was very slow and the Dream .44 Special would not shoot for the proverbial sour apples unless a full house load of a 250 grain bullet at 1,200 feet per second was used and I did not build this gun up to shoot only Magnum-type loads. The barrel was discarded and replaced with a 4 5/8” barrel taken from my .44 Blackhawk which was then returned to Ruger for a 7 1/2” barrel. (This was at a time Ruger still had Three Screw Super Blackhawk barrels available.) With the replaced barrel, the .44 Special shot fine so the whole gun was then finished in bright blue and fitted with ivory grips.
For a number of years now I have been picking up any reasonably priced Ruger Flat-top or Old Model Blackhawk .357 encountered for the express purpose of having them made into .44 Specials. We are not talking about using collector grade Blackhawks, some of which can still be found in unfired condition, but rather original Three Screw .357 Magnums some of which have been in-service for four to five decades. The original Ruger .357 Blackhawks, as opposed to the New Model Blackhawks, are made on a smaller frame and make into lighter, trimmer sixguns than a Ruger .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk or .45 Colt Blackhawk. If one needs the power, the New Model Blackhawk in .44 Magnum or .45 Colt is the answer. If, however, one simply wants a sensible single action, a .44 Special conversion is a better answer.
Pictured are four .44 Special Blackhawk conversions and one .41 Special Blackhawk with case colored frame and hammer all by Hamilton Bowen. Three of the .44s are on Flat-tops, one on an Old Model, and the .41 on a Flat-Top frame. The latter has to be one of the most beautiful single action sixguns in existence. Two of the .357 Flat-Tops are now a matched pair of 4 5/8" bright blue .44 Specials with stag grips. The third one had been ridden hard and put up wet and although it was mechanically fine, the finish was pitted in places. This has been made into a real workin' .44 Special sixgun with a bead blasted finish and factory original walnut grips. It also carries a 4 5/8" barrel.
The final .44 Special conversion by Bowen on an Old Model frame is fitted with a 7 1/2" barrel, polished grip frame, and black micarta grips by Charles Able. This is a long range .44 Special and like the other three annually sees many hundreds of rounds consisting of hard cast Keith 250 grain semi-wadcutter's over 7.5 grains of Unique as its standard load. This load goes right at 950 feet per second from the long barreled .44 Special and shoots into 1 1/4” with Oregon Trail 240 grain semi-wadcutters. The best load I have found for the 4 5/8” .44 Special Blackhawk is Speer's 225 grain lead interior/copper cup exterior hollow point over 17.0 grains of Hodgdon's H4227 for a potent 1,020 feet per second and groups right at one inch.
About 20 years ago I saw an ad for .44 Special Conversions placed by Andy Horvath. In talking with Horvath I soon learned that this was a man who loved sixguns in general and particularly single action .44 Specials. Wanting a very special .44 Special, Horvath was asked if he could do a round-butted, four-inch barreled .44 built on a Ruger .357 Three Screw Blackhawk, a real .44 Special Packin' Pistol. The answer came back affirmative and off went a 6 1/2” .357 Three Screw Blackhawk, a 7 1/2” Super Blackhawk barrel, and some special items I had been saving for just such a project. From my parts box, I pulled my last Ruger blued steel ejector rod housing, and my last 1960s wide Super Blackhawk hammer.
For grips I sent a pair of Rosewood Ruger grips from an over-run of .22 Single-Six Colorado Centennial stocks in the 1970s. The result was a beautiful round-butted, 4” .44 Special. The bluing was deep and matched well with the grip frame Horvath had polished and round-butted it so it slipped into my hand perfectly. Horvath also jeweled the sides of the hammer and trigger and made a cylinder pin with a flat face to allow maximum ejector rod travel to fully extract empties. My Horvath L'il Ruger has now been engraved by grip-maker Tedd Adamovich and sometimes wears the round-butt grip frame and at other times a standard grip frame with ivory stocks. I was so pleased with this special .44 Special I took it to the first Shootists Holiday in 1986 and it was certainly well received among the knowledgeable sixgunners in attendance. In fact, one very well-known gunsmith at the time, look at it, worked the action several times, turned it over in his hands repeatedly, and then looked up and said: "I have to get better.” I felt that was very high praise for the work of Andy Horvath.
The word spread and other sixgunners opted for the same type of L’il Ruger sixgun from Andy in other chamberings such as .45 Colt and .41 Magnum. The .44 Special, along with several of these other L’il Guns built by Horvath were featured in the Sept/Oct 1990 issue of American Handgunner and the fire was lit around the country and even in Hollywood. Either Don Johnson or Mickey Rourke or both saw the article and wanted my little .44 Special for a movie there were doing. There was no way I was about to turn my L’il Gun loose but I did suggest that Andy Horvath be contacted and as a result he not only built guns for the movie, he'll also made personal L’il Guns for both Johnson and Rourke. Horvath has been busy ever since!
Recently I have had the pleasure of working with one of Horvath’s latest .44 Specials. Starting with a Flat-Top .357 Blackhawk, Andy re-chambered it to .44 Special, fitted it with a full-ribbed heavy barrel with an undercut post front sight, re-contoured the front edge of the top strap to blend imperfectly with the ribbed barrel, then fitted it with a an abbreviated style #5 base pin. The finish is a deep, high polished blue set off perfectly by a case hardened frame and hammer. The hammer is really something special as from the side view it has a very thin and curved profile while from the top the oval shaped wide spur has beautiful fine line checkering. It is a pleasure to cock this sixgun and feel the parts operate smoothly with each other. I've never been a big fan of the Super Blackhawk grip frame, however for this special .44 and Andy fitted a modified Super Blackhawk grip frame which had been shortened and re-contoured on the back strap. This whole piece of sixgun artistry was then fitted with beautifully grained fancy walnut stocks perfectly contoured for my hand. It will be very difficult to send this sixgun back!
In the late 1980s I saw a very special .44 Special on a Ruger Old Model. The barrel was 4 5/8" in length, the grip frame was polished bright, and the grips were made from the horns of a bighorn sheep. This special sixgun was shown to me by Bart Skelton as it had belonged to his dad Skeeter before he died and now belonged to gunwriter John Wootters. That sixgun made my heart pound even further for other .44 Specials. Two Three Screw .357 Blackhawks went off to Bill Grover of Texas Longhorn Arms. Grover had been instrumental, along with Bob Baer, in building the Skeeter Gun as they called it, the .44 Special sixgun that Skeeter Skelton had commissioned. Its serial number is SS1 (For the complete story of this special .44 Special, see my previous book, Big Bore Handguns, Krause Publications), and I have SS4. The second Skeeter Gun, SS2 in the series, is now in Bart Skelton's hands, Bob Baer has SS3, Bill Grover has SS5, friend and fellow writer Terry Murbach has SS6, and Sheriff Jim Wilson also a good friend and fellow writer has the last gun SS7. The Shootists held a special seven-gun salute and memorial service to Skeeter in 1992 and there will be no more .44 Specials built in this series.
Although all seven of us have SS sixguns they are all quite different revealing the individual tastes of the owners. My particular SS4 started life as a .357 Magnum Ruger Flat-Top Blackhawk from the 1950s. Again, lest any collectors out there take me to task, it was not a collector's item as it had been re-blued at the factory. None of the other .357 Blackhawks used for conversions to .44 Special were anywhere near the collector’s item status either. In looking for convertible specimens, actions are important, finish is not. Grover and I put our heads together on this one so a double influence can be seen. The cylinder has been re-chambered to .44 Special tightly to allow the use of .429” diameter bullets but kept to minimum dimensions for long case life. Barrel/cylinder gap was set at .0025 inches. The Ruger XR3 grip frame and steel ejector housing were not discarded but put back for use on the other .44 Special Grover was building. In their place Grover fitted steel Colt parts, a Colt backstrap and trigger guard and a Colt ejector housing along with a Bullseye-headed ejector rod.
With the installation of the Colt backstrap and trigger guard, it was necessary to machine a special hanger to accept the Ruger mainspring and strut and Grover also replaced the trigger return spring with a new coil spring. The main purpose of a Colt back strap and trigger guard on a Ruger is to allow the installation of one-piece stocks and this Ruger now wears ivories by BluMagnum. For sighting equipment, Grover installed a Texas Longhorn Arms Improved Number Five front sight, bold, flat, and black and a Number Five base pin with a large, easy to grasp head was also installed. The front of the cylinder was beveled as on the old Colt Single Actions and the gun was engraved to read "SKEETER SKELTON .44 SPECIAL" on the left side of the barrel and "TEXAS LONGHORN ARMS INC, RICHMOND TEXAS" on the top of the topstrap. Serial number is marked S.S.4 in the same three places as the original Colts.
The second .44 Special sixgun from Grover was built with a 7 1/2” barrel using a 10 1/2” Ruger Super Blackhawk barrel. The XR3 grip frame of SS4 now resides on this sixgun along with rosewood stocks. This long-range sixgun made to compliment the SS4 Packin' Pistol also wears a Number Five front sight and a Number Five base pin. Serial number is JT1 and it is also marked in three places as with the SS4 sixgun. Both of these .44 Special sixguns shoot my everyday working load of 7.5 grains under a 240 grain SWC bullet superbly.
Bob Baer was earlier mentioned as one of those who worked on Skeeter Skelton’s .44 Special # SS1. For several years, he had been suggesting that I send him a proper sixgun for customizing. One Sunday morning before church I hit the gun show early before most of the vendors had opened their tables and was rewarded with a bargain basement priced Old Model Three Screw .357 Ruger Blackhawk. It was sent off to Baer with instructions to simply build me a special gun, his choice of style and caliber. Having seen, handled, and shot many of Baer’s creations from short barrels to long barrels, from round butts to lanyard rings, from .22’s to .357’s to .44’s, with all kinds of artistic touches abounding, I certainly did not know what to do expect but I knew I would not be disappointed.
Since Baer had a pretty good idea where my heart lies, and as I really expected, the conversion is a .44 Special. The front and rear edge of the grip frame are both tapered to make it more comfortable in the hand with no sharp edges to emphasize recoil. Tedd Adamovich of BluMagnum made the fancy walnut grip blanks, which Baer then expertly fitted to the bright polished aluminum grip frame. The aluminum ejector rod housing is also polished bright while the rest of Baby, as Baer dubbed it, is finished in satin hard nickel plating. To aid in the project, gunsmith Keith DeHart expertly re-chambered the cylinder and furnished the 3 1/4” barrel. The total package is a very easy to pack 30 ounces.
Other special custom touches include a shortened base pin head, a thinned ejector rod head with a recess in the bottom of the ejector housing so the housing does not have to be removed to remove the base pin. The hammer spur has been slightly lowered, broadened, and checkered, the top strap has been tapered on both sides, and the front edges of the cylinder have been chamfered. One of the really special custom touches is a very slight offset placed at the back edge of each chamber so that one may remove fired cartridges with a thumbnail if so desired. Of course the entire action has been smoothed.
Sixguns are very personal and to identify this as my very personal sixgun, special markings on this .44 Special include my initials, “JAT” on the front of the frame, and in front of the trigger guard on the bottom of the frame, we find “RGB”, “01 SS SPL.” The RGB is for Robert G. Baer, and the SS is for Skeeter Skelton who inspired us all so many ways. I was able to take Baby to Texas and Bob and I broke it in shooting 250 grain Keith bullets over 7.5 grains of Unique all the while thinking of Skeeter.
Ben Forkin of Montana began his gunsmithing career the right way, working under Hamilton Bowen. That should tell you something about the quality of his work. Ben is a complete gunsmith working on single action and double action revolvers, semi-automatics, bolt action rifles, and also does big bore custom conversions on Marlin leverguns. When Ben and Kelye Schlep of Belt Mountain Base Pins stopped by my place after the 2003 Shootists Holiday, I could not resist sending an Old Model Ruger .357 back to Montana with him.
Except for the short barrel conversions by Bob Baer and Andy Horvath, all of the custom Three Screw Blackhawks mentioned have 4 5/8” or 7 1/2” barrels. It was time for something different. I had just recently purchased a like new 6 1/2” .44 Magnum Flat-Top barrel and it seemed like the perfect time to use it. We decided to do a 5 1/2” .44 Special complete with case hardened mainframe and hammer. Ben performed his usual action work, smoothing, tuning, and tightening; re-chambered the cylinder to .44 Special cutting it to use .430” Keith bullets; cut the .44 Magnum barrel to the proper length fitting it with a post front sight mated up with a Bowen adjustable rear sight; and finished off the package with one of Belt Mountain’s #5 base pins.
In addition to the Ruger barrel I also had a Flat-Top XR3 grip frame, which Ben perfectly fitted to the Old Model frame. The original XR3 grip frame is the same size and shape as that found on the Colt Single Action Army and feels much better in my hand than the XR3-RED grip frame shape that is standard on the Old Model Ruger. A sixgun this nice deserves the original grip frame shape, and the end result is a most pleasing .44 Special capable of stirring soul and spirit and one that also shoots the standard .44 Special loading of a Keith bullet over 7.5 grains of Unique extremely well.
David Clements is another custom sixgunsmith building many big bore New Model conversions, however, he also turns out some fine Three Screw special sixguns. Looking for something a little different? Consider this. An Old Model Ruger .357, an extra cylinder, and a 4 3/4” Colt .44-40 New Frontier barrel placed in Clements’ skilled hands. The result is New Frontier look alike .44 Special/.44-40 sixgun. The custom stocks are by Larry Caudill of Albuquerque. Caudill specializes in custom rifle stocks and saves the left-over gun stock woods for custom sixgun grips. His work, like Clements’, is superb.
Clements Custom Guns has come up with one of the most beautiful conversions of a Ruger to .45 Colt that I have ever seen. Starting with an original Flat-Top Blackhawk in .44 Magnum chambering, Clements re-chambered the cylinder, fitted a 5 1/2" barrel and ivory micarta stocks. The frame is case colored Colt-style and the balance of the sixgun is deeply blued, resulting in a most beautiful, good shootin' .45 Colt that was very hard for this sixgunner to return.
The .44 WCF arrived in the Winchester Model 1873 and was subsequently chambered and the Colt Single Action Army around 1878. To come up with a cartridge a little flatter shooting than the .44 WCF, also known as the .44-40, Winchester necked the cartridge to .40 caliber and for some reason decided to call it the .38 WCF, also known now as the .38-40. It was also chambered in that Winchester Model ’73 and then in the Colt Single Action Army in the 1880s. My first centerfire single action was a .38-40, so I was immediately drawn to the work of Larry Crow. Crow of Competitive Edge Gun Works is not only a gunsmith specializing in single actions, leverguns, and shotguns, he also has a great set of video tapes covering gunsmithing and customizing Colts and Rugers as well as Marlins. Crow knows his way around traditional firearms. It just so happens his favorite cartridge is the .38-40. In addition to working on guns for others he also builds his own Cowboy Action Shooting firearms and obviously uses them to good advantage as he is Missouri Cyclone, the current Missouri State Champion. He, of course, used a pair of his own custom .38-40 New Model Rugers.
Crow’s CAS sixguns are built on New Model Ruger Vaqueros, however the Three Screw Ruger .357 Blackhawk makes a dandy platform for building a standard sized .38-40. Two Old Model .357 Blackhawks have been converted to .38-40 by Crow. The shorter barrel version has a second cylinder chambered to .401 Herter’s Powermag, as both the .38-40 and the .401 use the same diameter bullet. In fact we could add the .40 S&W and 10mm to this list as well as the .41 Long Colt when the case is loaded with heel-type bullets. The 7 1/2” .38-40 Blackhawk is in my hands, and being shot regularly as I write this, and a beauty it is. The cylinder has been line bored and re-chambered to a tight .38-40 and using a .401” Shilen barrel, Larry cut it to 7 1/2”, tapered like a Colt SAA barrel, Taylor Throated it, and then mated it to the frame with a very tight barrel/cylinder gap. The front sight is of the Colt New Frontier style mated up with a Bowen adjustable rear sight. Other niceties include a polished stainless-steel Colt-style two-piece grip frame from Power Custom and Belt Mountain's #5 base pin. The cylinder has also been fitted a Power Custom bushing. Of course, the action has been tuned and tightening with all end shake and side-to-side movement eliminated with the fitting of an oversized cylinder bolt.
The finish is one of those "has to be seen to be believed" deluxe blue job. The Ruger was first polished and then finished Deluxe High Polish Blue. Then came the gold embellishments. On the left side of the barrel running the full-length of the ejector rod housing, we have "CUSTOM BUILT FOR JOHN TAFFIN"; behind the front sight is the seal of The American Pistolsmiths Guild along with Larry Crow's signature; on the left side of the frame we have "Custom Ruger by Competitive Edge Gun Works"; and finally we have the caliber marking on the top of the barrel in front of the frame. I was most happy to see “38 W.C.F.” instead of .38-40.
At one time Ruger, through one of their distributors, offered a 6 1/2” Blackhawk with two cylinders, one and .38-40 and the other 10 mm. In recent times, the Vaquero was also offered in a convertible .38-40/.40 S&W. In both cases the Rugers used were New Models, which means they were built on the .44 Magnum frame. These are super strong sixguns and I have run some very heavy loads to the .38-40 Blackhawk. However, I really prefer standard .38-40 loads and a standard sized sixgun as my old circa 1900 Colt. I now have one awaiting its brother.
The Ruger .357 Blackhawk can also be customized without changing caliber. When a New Model .357 Maximum was used as a platform for a custom big bore sixgun, the 10 1/2” bull barrel was placed in my parts box awaiting who knows what future project. At the time I did not really foresee any possible use for a long, heavy, .38 caliber barrel; at least not until I found a .357 Flat-Top Blackhawk at a gun show for less than $200! The finish was worn, and someone had made a mess of the front sight by trying to install a plastic insert that had long ago disappeared, however, it would make a perfect project gun and at a most reasonable purchase price. Now that I had the economically purchased Flat-Top I had to decide what to do with it. The action was sound, however it was not really shootable because of the front sight. The thought came to me that it would make a perfect choice to match up with the 10 1/2”” .357 Maximum barrel to come up with an easy shooting Long Range Ruger in .357 Magnum. With that in mind, I took the old Ruger, the Maximum barrel, a long ejector rod housing, and as a special touch a pair of original Ruger stag grips that a reader friend had so graciously supplied, all to Mike Rainey, resident gunsmith at Shapel’s.
Rainey fitted the bull barrel to the little Ruger and also matched the stag grips to the Ruger frame. This was to be a one-load sixgun, that is, if my load of choice would work. I wanted to shoot only heavyweight cast bullets expecting the bull barrel to dampen recoil and place this custom .357 into the pleasant shooting category. My load consisted of Cast Performance Bullet Co.’s 187 grain hard cast gas check bullet over 13.0 gr. of either WW296 or H110. Muzzle velocity was just a shade under 1,300 fps, recoil was mild, and accuracy was excellent. It was now time to re-finish the .357 Magnum Long Range Ruger.
Gary Reeder is known for excellent re-finishing so my newest Long Range Ruger was sent off to Flagstaff to be high polish blued and fancied up a mite. Reeder polished the aluminum grip frame bright, put gold bands around the cylinder, and embellished the left side of the barrel with “John Taffin The Shootists” placing it in the Not-For-Sale category to be saved for the fourth John Taffin, my eldest grandson. By the time he inherits it, it will hopefully have seen thousands of 187 grain Cast Performance Bullet Co.’s bullets run down the barrel and should still be in excellent shape.
All of the conversions we have talked about have been done on the Colt-sized Three Screw .357s. There are two other ways to go, the .44 Magnum Blackhawk or Single-Six. Some choose the former for a tight chambered .45 Colt, however it seems a waste to be to change it from its original .44 Magnum. Shoot ‘em and enjoy ‘em as they are, the first truly big bore Magnum. A common customizing over the decades is that of shortening a .44 Flat-Top or Three Screw Super Blackhawk to 4 5/8” and fitting a Old Army stainless steel grip frame. The Single-Six is such a small frame and cylinder, that we have very few choices. However, John Gallagher can turn an original Three Screw .22 Single-Six into a lightweight, easy to pack, five-shot .41 Special. It should go without saying these are for standard loads only.
For a conversion such as the .41 Special on a Single-Six one must start with the a Three Screw as there is not enough room in the New Model to re-cut the loading gate area without cutting into the lock work. Gallagher’s .41 Special has a 4” barrel, knurled locking base pin, full window cylinder with minimum barrel/cylinder gap, and a very trim Colt SAA style serrated front sight mated up with the windage adjustable rear sight. Stocks are of a beautiful light colored exotic wood with lots of grain.
This is about as small as one can get with a single action and still have a big bore sixgun. With 6.0 grains of Unique Oregon Trail’s 215 SWC clocks out at 822 fps, while the Speer 200 grain JHP does 855. That puts the Gallagher .41 Special in the same league as the .45 ACP. It may well be the ultimate single action trail gun.
If there is such a thing, I probably have too many custom Old Model Rugers, but then again I have eight grandkids. Only three of them are boys, however the girls also shoot. I guess I will keep looking for candidates for customizing.