By Jeff Monks
The Ruger Bearcat has been the scourge of tin cans, pop bottles, and squirrels for 57 years. First introduced in 1958, the Bearcat is a trim little rimfire single-action revolver with more cowboy style than Sam Elliot’s mustache. It was immediately popular when it hit the market for under fifty bucks (the equivalent of about $400 today), and found its way into many a backpack and tacklebox. The Bearcat is styled after the Remington revolvers of the Civil War era, and named for one of Bill Ruger’s favorite cars, the Stutz Bearcat . . .
The original Bearcats were built with an aluminum alloy frame and steel cylinder. These were produced until the first revision in 1971, which replaced the alloy frame with steel and changed the name to “Super Bearcat”. In the mid-70s, Ruger began installing their new transfer-bar safety on their single-action revolver lines, making them safe to carry with a round under the hammer. At that time, it was decided that the Bearcat design wasn’t readily adaptable to the new mechanism, and the Bearcat was dropped from production in 1975.
A couple of decades later, engineers at Ruger decided that it wasn’t impossible to implement a transfer-bar system in the Bearcat after all, and 1993 saw the re-introduction of the revolver as the cleverly-named “New Bearcat” (hey, nobody ever accused the marketing folks at Ruger of being too creative). This model has been in the Ruger lineup ever since.
The subject of today’s review is the newest leaf on the Bearcat family tree, the “Shopkeeper” model. Introduced in 2013, the main differences between it and its older brothers are the bird’s-head grip and shorter barrel. Standard Bearcats have a 4.2-inch barrel, but the Shopkeeper’s is 1.2 inches shorter. The name comes from the historical preference among shopkeepers and tradesmen for smaller, cut-down revolvers like this that were easier to conceal in an apron pocket or the like. The story goes that Jason Cloessner of Lipsey’s (a major firearms distributor) was shown a customized 3″ Bearcat by one of his dealer customers, and liked it so much, he convinced Ruger to produce a shortened version for exclusive sale through his company. When he committed to buying several thousand copies, Ruger agreed, and the Shopkeeper was born.
In terms of appearance, the Shopkeeper is definitely a winner. Everything fits and functions in a very precise, tight fashion. Pulling back the hammer produces that instantly recognizable series of metallic clicks that’s Hollywood shorthand for, “Okay, now I mean business.” There’s very little wiggle room anywhere on the gun, and the joint where the frame meets the trigger guard is a very fine hairline, visible, but undetectable by touch.
Aside from the rosewood grip panels, everything on the gun is stainless steel, in an attractive brushed finish, which explains the gun’s 22-ounce weight. For a gun this small, it feels hefty, but in a comforting, solid, “this will still be a functioning firearm a hundred years from now” way, not a “this thing is a brick” way. Cylinder-to-barrel gap measures a consistent .005″ on all six chambers, and the cylinder has just a couple thousandths of fore-aft movement when the revolver is in full lock up. Speaking of the cylinder, it’s engraved with a little nature scene of a bear and a cougar (bear + cat, get it?), emphasizing the outdoor intentions of the little sixgun.
The trigger is as sweet as you’d expect a single-action revolver’s to be. There’s maybe 1/8″ of smooth takeup, then a crisp break at about four pounds. There’s another 1/8″ of overtravel, making the total trigger travel just 1/4″ or so. The trigger guard is a bit small, so folks with oversized mitts will need to leave the gloves at home. The springs are fairly light, so thumbing back the hammer is easy, helped by the gun’s excellent grip ergonomics.
At the range, that crisp trigger helps make the Shopkeeper a great performer, putting up relatively tight groups for a gun with only a 3″ barrel. At ten yards, it’s possible to get one-inch five-shot groups with quality ammo if I do everything right. At twenty-five yards, two or three inch groups were the norm. In a rest, or the hands of a shooter with better hands and eyes, I suspect the gun is capable of even a bit more accuracy than that. A lot of the variation in group size can probably be chalked up to the rudimentary, low-contrast sights. The sights are right on for windage, but shoot a bit low with most ammunition. Reliability for me has been perfect. Aside from the occasional empty case sticking a bit on ejection, hundreds of rounds of all manner of .22 ammo have all fired without a hitch. Be advised, however, that the short barrel and cylinder gap mean it’s surprisingly loud, even with lower-powered ammo.
Of course, how it shoots bullseyes is sort of beside the point, because the Bearcat was never intended to be a paper punch. This little guy was born to shoot at cans, bottles, clay pigeons, tennis balls, and the like. It’s a purebred plinker, and carefully shooting it at paper targets almost seems like sacrilege, like tasking a great hunting dog with fetching your slippers. He might do it, but he’d be much happier bringing you a duck.
There’s not many guns in my safe that are more fun to bring out with a brick of .22 and a bunch of cans or clay pigeons, and not many that are less exciting to shoot at paper. Reactive targets provide a much better return on the time invested in reloading an old-fashioned gun like this.
It’s not all rainbows and butterflies, though. The diminutive size of both the gun and the cartridge it shoots means reloading is a fiddly process. To accommodate the short barrel, Ruger had to cut the ejector rod button into a crescent shape so that it would pass over the cylinder pin, allowing the ejector rod to travel a bit further for more reliable ejection of spent casings.
Even with that, you still have to give a pretty solid pop to the ejector to get the casings to fall free, and the crescent button’s sharp edges make that a bit less than comfortable after a few cylinders. Most casings will fall free when ejected, but occasionally they’ll hang up and have to be plucked out manually. Which might not be easy for you sausage-fingered fellas, because there’s not a whole lot of room for digits in the loading gate area. This generally isn’t a huge issue, because nobody is speed-reloading a single-action .22 revolver, anyway, and it has never risen to the point of annoyance such that it outweighs the fun of shooting the thing.
The sights are fixed, and typical of the breed. A thin, rounded blade up front and a square notch machined into the frame’s top strap are adequate for the ranges you’d likely expect to be using such a pistol, but being silver-on-silver, sight acquisition is a somewhat leisurely affair. The only fit-and-finish complaint I have on the entire gun is that the groove in the top strap is rougher, and appears to be more or less the raw casting texture. This is done, I imagine, to reduce glare off the top strap, but it’s a bit unrefined looking when compared to the finish on the rest of the gun. I’d prefer if that area had a nicer matte finish, but Ruger’s already doing a heck of a lot of machining on this gun, in an era when most handguns are made by squirting molten goo into a mold, so I’m willing to overlook it.
Takedown for cleaning is simple and straightforward. Pull the hammer back to the half-cock position, push in the base pin latch and pull out the cylinder pin. Open the loading gate, the cylinder drops out, and you’re free to clean the rimfire gunk out of all the nooks and crannies.
So what is this gun good for? As mentioned earlier, it makes a very handy little “kit gun” for outdoor activities. The transfer-bar mechanism means the gun can’t fire unless the trigger is pulled back, so it’s drop-safe with a round under the hammer. The Shopkeeper would be an excellent companion for a day of hiking, camping, or fishing. Inside of ten yards, I wouldn’t want to be a snake or rat on the business end of this gun. It’s also a nearly perfect gun for introducing newbies to shooting. Its cowboy good looks, unassuming size, negligible recoil, and simple manual-of-arms (not counting the tedious single-action reloading, of course) make it an excellent choice for teaching a new shooter. The inherent safety of a single-action revolver (an excited newbie who hasn’t yet mastered trigger discipline can’t pop off a second shot accidentally without consciously cocking the hammer), and the fact that you can start skittish folks off with something as tame as .22 Shorts or CB rounds makes the Bearcat a great gateway drug.
Of course, $600 is a lot to spend for a handgun just to teach new people to shoot, or for a knock-around tacklebox gun. Which is my only real gripe with the Bearcat line. It’s a little pricey for a .22LR plinker, but the quality of this gun is higher than most cheaper rimfires, and it is a real beauty. Sure, you can do most of what the Bearcat does by spending $300 on a Ruger SR22 or Walther P22, but where’s your sense of style? Sometimes you just have to treat yourself. Not to mention, there’s a heck of a lot more manufacturing labor embodied in a gun like this than in most .22LR semi-autos. And it’s an all-steel Ruger revolver. That means it’ll probably outlive you and a couple generations behind you, too.
That said, I bought this one for $400 out of the used case at the gun shop, and aside from a couple of light scratches, it looked new. It was a steal at that price, and I got very lucky that day. Would I buy one at full price? I wanted one the first time I saw one, even though the full-size Bearcat never really caught my eye. The bird’s-head shape and overall proportions of the Shopkeeper called to me, though, and it was on my wish list. But I couldn’t bring myself to pay full price for it. Now that I’ve got one and have enjoyed putting box after box of precious .22LR through it, I think it’s probably worth six bills – but only if you’re the sort of person who can appreciate the virtues of a fine mechanical device for its own sake.
Specifications: Ruger New Bearcat Shopkeeper
Caliber: .22 Long Rifle
Action: Single-action revolver
Barrel: 3 inches, 1:16 RH twist
Weight: 22 ounces
Length: 8 inches
MSRP: $693 (street price $550-$600)
Ratings (out of five stars):
Accuracy: * * * *
The Shopkeeper shoots better than I expected for a short-barreled handgun. The crisp trigger no doubt has a lot to do with that. Fixed sights means you might have to hunt a bit to find an ammo loading that shoots directly to point-of-aim, though.
Ergonomics: * * * *
The bird’s-head grips fit the hand very naturally. The all-metal heft of the gun is reassuring and helps to stabilize it. For its small dimensions, it feels better in the hand than it should. Minus one star for the cramped trigger guard and sharp edges on the ejector rod button.
Reliability: * * * * *
100% reliable with all types of ammo tested, from Aguila Colibris to CCI Velocitors and everything in between.
It’s a single-action .22 revolver. Your choices for customization are pretty much limited to what color leather holster you want to get.
Overall: * * * *
An excellent little cowboy gun. If you’re a “tacticool” type of guy this isn’t the gun for you. If I had kids, this would definitely be their first handgun, and I would be confident that they could hand it down to my grandkids when the time came. It’s the kind of gun that just grabs your imagination when you pick it up, and you probably won’t put it back down until the ammo box is empty.