Playin' Favorites: .357 Magnum SAAs

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Both of these .357 Magnum single actions, a Ruger New Vaquero and Freedom Arms Model 97,
have been fitted with windage adjustable front sights from Hamilton Bowen and Freedom Arms, respectively.

The 1950s were a great time for sixgunners. During those few short years Colt resurrected the SAA, introduced the .357 Magnum and the .357 Python; Ruger gave us the .22 Single-Six, the .357 Magnum Blackhawk, the .44 Magnum Blackhawk, and the .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk; and S&W outdid both companies with the 1950 Target and Military Models in .44 Special and .45ACP, the .357 Magnum Highway Patrolman, the .357 Combat Magnum, the 1955 Target in .45ACP, and Elmer Keith’s long-awaited .44 Magnum.

I’m going to look at my favorite sixguns; this won’t be objective at all but rather subjective. With this in mind, we look at Taffin’s Top .357 Magnum single action sixguns.

Taffin has been shooting the .38 Keith Load in Flat-Top Rugers for over half a century.

Before the .44 Magnum emerged, Great Western offered the “.357 Atomic”
which was a hot-loaded .357 Magnum.

Colt and Great Western

The Colt SAA produced from 1873 until the end of 1940 is now known to collectors as the 1st Generation. Nearly 356,000 were made, including just 525 .357 Magnum variants. Many of these went to Great Britain under Lend Lease during WWII. Just this week I received a call from a Texas Highway Patrolman who came across a very rare Colt SAA .357 Magnum. It has a 71/2" barrel and letters as having left the factory in December 1940, making it one of the last SAs out the door. To make it even more special, this particular Colt has been worked over by the old King Gun Works giving it a short action, target trigger and adjustable sights. A truly unique sixgun.

Before Colt resurrected the SAA in the closing days of 1955, even before the Ruger .357 Blackhawk of 1955, there was the Great Western. Great Western sixguns, the first replicas of the Colt SA, were manufactured in Los Angeles, beginning in 1954. The first guns were chambered in .45 Colt, however the .357 Magnum was soon added and later, a special version, the .357 Atomic. This cartridge was nothing more than a .357 Magnum +P+. Loaded with 16.0 grains of #2400 under a 158-grain bullet, the Atomic must have been too much of a good thing as Great Western soon went back to marketing their sixguns as plain old .357 Magnums.

These .357 Magnum stainless steel Blackhawks have been embellished by Gary Reeder
with Scrimshawed stocks by Twyla Taylor; they were Diamond Dot’s favorites for cowboy
action shooting. Leather is by Kirkpatrick.

Favored custom .357 Magnum SA sixguns: Flat-Top
Top: Blackhawk with 101/2" barrel and brass grip frame. Middle: Larry Caudill-stocked 45/8" New Vaquero with Ron Power hammer and trigger Bottm: 71/2" Bisley Model which has an extra cylinder chambered in .356 GNR.

Enter Ruger

Once I was out of high school and working, I started buying firearms. My first single action was a .22 Ruger Flatgate Single-Six which was soon followed by a 1900s-era Colt .38-40 SAA, and then my first new centerfire single action, Ruger’s 45/8″ Flat-Top Blackhawk. I have since learned external things do not necessarily make us happy. However, I was certainly tickled to have the .357 Magnum.

It was just about the perfect SA sixgun. It had the same virtually indestructible coil powered action as the Single-Six but was basically the same size as a Colt SA. The shape of the grip frame was identical to the Colt, however the mainframe was flat-topped and fitted with an adjustable sight. If there was a downside, it was the fact the grip frame was alloy instead of steel. In those days it was very difficult to find reloading components and .357 Magnum brass was near impossible to find. However, .38 Special brass was readily available. Most of the loads fired in that early Blackhawk consisted of Keith’s Heavy .38 Special loading of a 168-grain cast bullet over 13.5 grains of #2400. This load is not to be approached lightly and is in fact hotter than many .357 Magnum loads today.

My first .357 Magnum was everything I could want in a sixgun. I made a black holster and belt, buscadero style but with the holster more like the Tom Threepersons design. I spent hours in front of the mirror drawing the Blackhawk from this holster until I could almost beat the reflection. Somehow, I let that leather rig get away. Oh, how I wish I still had it today.

Old Model

The Flat-Top Blackhawk only lasted until 1962, and then it was “improved” to what we now know as the Old Model. The rear sight received protective ears on both sides, probably a good move, while the grip frame was changed to allow more room for the fingers behind the trigger guard, which in my hands has proven to be a bad move.

Flat-Top and Old Model .357 Blackhawks have been used by many gunsmiths for conversions to larger calibers with the most popular being the .44 Special. I have had several gunsmiths convert these early Blackhawks to not only .44 Special but also .41 Special, .45 Colt, .38-40, and .44-40. With one Flat-Top .357 Blackhawk I took a different path — maintaining the original chambering. However, it’s been fitted with a 101/2" .357 Ruger Maximum and an original Ruger Super Blackhawk brass grip frame. Gary Reeder finished it in high polish bright blue. It’s not only beautiful but superbly accurate and an excellent long-range sixgun.

Top: This New Model .357 50th Anniversary Ruger Blackhawk and original
Flat-Top Blackhawk are separated by half a century.

This custom Ruger .357 Blackhawk Flat-Top has a 101/2" Ruger .357 Maximum
barrel and an original Ruger Super Blackhawk brass grip frame.

New Model

The Old Model would last until 1972, when it was replaced by the New Model Blackhawk. Not only was the .357 Blackhawk given a transfer bar safety making it the first single action to be carried safely fully loaded, it was also made larger and built on a .44 Magnum frame. I’ve never cared for the size of the New Model .357 Blackhawk, however, a pair of 45/8″ stainless steel New Models are favorites of Diamond Dot. I guess she isn’t tied to the past as much as I am. When Ruger chambered the stainless-steel Vaquero in .357, I had Gary Reeder cover a pair of these in cattle brands for her and finished the package with buffalo horn Eagle Grips Gunfighters. One New Model I do like is the Bisley. Mine has been tuned and expertly finished in bright blue by Gary Reeder, who also fitted it with an extra cylinder in .356 GNR. This wildcat is a .41 Magnum necked down the .357 giving the power of the .357 Maximum in a standard sized cylinder.

In recent years Ruger has combined the past with the present by resurrecting the original .357 Blackhawk with the 50th Anniversary Model of 2005. While this .357 is a New Model, it’s the same size as the original, including the Colt-style and size grip frame, which is now steel. I really like this new version of the .357 Blackhawk and have had it fitted with checkered rosewood grips complete with the black eagle medallion.

Recently Ruger dropped their .44 Magnum sized Vaquero, replacing it with the Colt SAA-sized New Vaquero. Available in .357 Magnum, it makes a dandy Perfect Packin’ Pistol with a few modifications. I did away with the original barrel replacing it with a properly marked Flat-Top barrel cut to 45/8″ and fitted with one of Hamilton Bowen’s windage adjustable front sights, a Bisley style hammer and trigger from Ron Power, and exotic wood grips from Larry Caudill. The front sight will be filed to allow point of aim shooting of heavy cast bullets.

In 1983 Freedom Arms began producing the finest SA to ever come from a factory. Those first guns were chambered in .454 Casull followed by .44 Magnum and then .357 Magnum. The full-sized Model 83 is a five-shooter and when fitted with a scope makes an excellent hunting sixgun, especially for head shooting Texas turkeys. In 1997 Freedom Arms scaled down the Model 83 to come up with the Model 97, which is slightly smaller than a Colt SA while still being a bona fide six-shooter. The Model 97 is offered in both adjustable sighted and fixed sighted versions. Just like its older and heavier brother, it is superbly accurate.

With fewer SA models to choose from than found among double action .357 Magnums it’s easier, but only slightly so, to choose a favorite. My heart says pick the original .357 Blackhawk while my head says Freedom Arms. I’m glad I have both of them.

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