This year I’m trying my hand at cowboy action shooting. Cowboy action shooting is at least a four gun sport; two revolvers, a shotgun, and a pistol caliber carbine. This makes the initial price of entry into the sport quite steep, especially if you intend to be competitive. A full compliment of slicked-up guns, gear, and leather can run $6,000 or more.
In order to keep costs down, I looked around at what I already had on hand. I have quite a few Ruger revolvers, but one of them was suited well enough for the game, and wouldn’t be hard to find a mate.
A stainless Ruger New Model Blackhawk in .38 SPL/.357 Mag with a 4.62″ barrel is one of the guns I’ve had for some time, long enough that I’m not sure when I got it, but I know I got it used. According to the Ruger serial number chart, this revolver is 40 years old.
It was pretty easy to find a brand new one to match the gun I already had, and I was surprised at how similar the guns were to each other, even though they were made decades apart.
All of the basics are the same on these revolvers. Same barrel length. Same frame dimensions, hammer, and sight style. Their parts are essentially interchangeable. The finish is the same, although the new gun may be a tad shinier. I shot the old gun quite a bit, but didn’t carry it around much. It was on my hip for some javelina hunts and shows a little damage to the front sight, but overall it’s in great shape.
There are some differences to the two guns.
Most obvious is the grip material. Both are wood, but the older revolver is a plain style and the new one includes the shiny laminate. As far as grip surface, neither provides any advantage over the other. When it comes to fit, however, the newer Blackhawk falls short of the older gun.
Considering that Ruger has become the master of low-cost/high value firearms manufacturing, the wide variation in wood-to-metal fit on their revolvers is a bit of a conundrum. I have quite a few of these guns, and they all vary. This new Blackhawk in .357 Magnum is probably the worst of the bunch, especially compared to the older Blackhawk, which very well may be the best of the bunch.
There is also a slight difference in the cylinder pin style. The older model has a wide flat ring that butts up against the frame, whereas the new model deletes this feature. Both pins are the same length and the same diameter. In this weight and this caliber, no larger cylinder pin is necessary.
One advantage of the newer style is the placement of the large amount of text Ruger includes on the barrel. The old style includes even more wording than the new one, and puts it on the left side of the barrel. Ruger now wisely places the text on the newer models on the bottom of the barrel. I’ve paid gunsmiths to have the text removed from previous barrels, but I wouldn’t bother having that done on Rugers with the text underneath.
If you look closely at the rear sight base, you’ll find that the newer gun is labeled with the Ruger logo, whereas the older gun’s rear sight base is left blank.
The guns are, considering how many years apart they were made from each other, very similar. Why would they change? It’s a great value and people love the product. Ruger’s just kept doing what works, and I’m glad they did.
When it comes to accuracy, our pair of Blackhawks are the same…and also pretty drastically different.
Nothing drives this point further than a .357 Magnum round I’ve come to recognize as capable of producing consistently small groups in several revolvers, the Barnes VOR-TX 140 gr HP. Shooting from a rest at 25 yards, the new Blackhawk produced an average of 1.75″ five round groups over four-shot strings. Switching to the older Blackhawk, the exact same round produced 2.5″ groups on average. Percentage wise, that’s quite the difference.
My preferred pistol hunting bullets are made by Cast Performance. They all feature extremely wide meplats and a Brinell hardness of 18-21. Using this 180 gr bullet, heavily lubed, and pushing each round with 13 grains of Winchester 296, I fired both guns under the same conditions. The new Blackhawk printed groups of the same size of the Barnes round. The old Blackhawk saw a difference though, now printing groups equal to the newer revolver.
The older gun likes the heavy hard cast bullet. The new gun likes anything.
Looking at the numbers on the chronograph for this review, the new revolver launched a bullet 2% slower on average than the old revolver. That small percentage has a fairly wide deviation, depending on the bullet. Lighter .38 SPL rounds launched at low to modest velocities showed no real difference. But the heavier the bullet, and the higher the pressure, the more the difference between the two guns.
This is most likely the result in the difference in cylinder gap. The cylinder gap on the old gun measures at .005″, which is right where we would expect. The new Blackhawk, however, measures in at .008″, a bit much.
Casting each barrel with Cerrosafe, the groove diameter measures to .357″ on both guns. The lands are a different story. Using a minus pin gauge, the lands of the new Blackhawk measure to .350″ and the older Blackhawk measures ever so slightly larger at .351″.
The end shake — the forward and backward movement of the cylinder — of both the old and new Blackhawk is still within the factory tolerances. The old Ruger’s end shake measured .002″. The new revolver’s measured .001″. Both are smaller than the .003″ of a new Vaquero in .45 Colt I recently purchased.
As far as lock-up, as is typical of Ruger single actions, neither revolver particularly excels. There’s a good amount of play in either cylinder. Even in full lock-up, you can shake the gun back and forth and listen to the cylinder move. Let us all pause and give thanks to the forcing cone.
If you ever come across a gun review of a Ruger single action revolver and the author praises the quality of the trigger, please know you’ve entered the land of fiction. Both revolvers show the slop and squish these guns are known for. However, there’s a difference between the two. The newer revolver’s trigger pull average measures at 3 lbs 1oz. Contrary to what I would have thought after so many trigger pulls, the old revolver’s trigger measures more than a full pound heavier, at 4 lbs 3 oz.
For any revolver, the cylinder chamber throats should measure .001 to .0015″ larger than the bullet diameter, which should be of the size, or sized, to match the groove diameter of the barrel. Using a minus plug gauge, all six cylinders on both guns measure to a snug .358″, exactly where we would like them to be.
Just for fun, I took the roughly 1/4-sized deer shaped target included with the latest issue of RECOIL magazine out and placed it at 50 yards from my shooting bench. Shooting off a rest, I took one single shot at the vitals section marked on the target with each revolver, using the hard cast hunting load listed above.
Both guns were sighted for 25 yards. Both rounds struck the target, but the newer revolver struck a bit lower, barely taking a nibble out of the heart. With this round, I wouldn’t hesitate to take a shot at our little white tail deer at around 35 yards, and I’d be very confident I’d end up with venison shortly thereafter.
When it comes to reliability, I don’t see any reasons why the new gun wouldn’t last just as long as the old one. I don’t know how many rounds my older Blackhawk has had through it, as it was used when I got it. It has since had thousands of rounds of .38 SPL practice loads through it, and more than a few .357 Magnum hunting loads. The Ruger single actions are the best bang for your buck revolvers made, and much of that value is because of how generally overbuilt they are for the caliber.
I’ve been practicing shooting fast with each of these guns, and I’ll shoot them as-is for at least a few rounds before sending them off to be slicked up for competition. The cost associated with that is about $600 per gun, so I won’t make that change until I’m outrunning the guns in their factory form.
As they are now, it’s interesting to see how little has changed over the decades. Ruger has continued to make a product millions enjoy, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. We’ll see how I do with both of them over the coming year.