Single-Action Sixguns

Playin' Favorites: .357 Magnum
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Classy .357 Magnum Single Actions don’t come any better than these from Freedom Arms:
the 5-shot Model 83 and the 6-shot Model 97.

The Colt Single Action Army which was produced from 1873 until the end of 1940 is now known to collectors as the 1st Generation. During this time nearly 356,000 were produced, with one of the rarest options being the .357 Magnum with approximately 525 being made. Many of these went to Great Britain under Lend Lease during WWII.

Before Colt resurrected the Single Action Army 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 Single Action, were manufactured in Los Angeles beginning in 1954. The first guns were chambered in .45 Colt, however the .357 Magnum was not only soon added, a special version, the .357 Atomic was soon available. This cartridge was nothing more than a .357 Magnum +P+. Loaded with 16 grains of #2400 under a 158-gr. 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.

While I was in high school the walls of my bedroom were covered with pin-ups. No not that kind! I had maps of all the Canadian provinces, 8×10 photos of each of the Cleveland Indians, all kinds of animal pictures and right above my bed where it would be the last thing seen at night and the first thing to catch my eye in the morning, was a full-sized picture of the then new .357 Magnum Ruger Blackhawk.

Someday I would have one just like it. Usually somedays take forever, however this was only two years in coming. 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 1900’s-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 that .357 Magnum.

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
simply a hot-loaded .357 Magnum.

Colt-Like

It was just about the perfect single-action sixgun. It had the same virtually indestructible coil-powered action as the Single-Six, however it was basically the same size as a Colt Single Action. The shape of the grip frame was identical to the Colt, but 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 (just like today!) and .357 Magnum brass was virtually impossible to find. However, .38 Special brass was easily found and very inexpensive too. Most of the loads fired in that early Blackhawk consisted of Keith’s Heavy .38 Special loading of a 168-gr. 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 that 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. However, I’m sure the belt has shrunk by now.

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, allowing more room for the fingers behind the trigger guard. At least in my hands, this has proven to be a bad move.

Top: Flat-Top Blackhawk with 101/2" barrel and brass grip frame. Larry Caudill-stocked 45/8"New Vaquero
with Ron Power hammer and trigger. Middle: 71/2" Bisley Model with an extra cylinder chambered in .356
GNR. Bottom: The top and bottom sixguns have been embellished and refinished in high polish blue by Gary Reeder.

Conversions

Mostly 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 has been fitted with a 101/2″ .357 Ruger Maximum barrel and an original Ruger Super Blackhawk brass grip frame. Gary Reeder finished it in high polish bright blue. It’s not only beautiful, it’s superbly accurate and an excellent long-range sixgun.

The Old Model would last until 1972 when it was replaced by the New Model Blackhawk. The .357 Blackhawk was given a transfer bar safety making it the first single action to be carried safely fully loaded. It was also made larger and now built on a .44 Magnum frame. I’ve never cared for the size of the New Model .357 Blackhawk, but 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 into “cattle brands” for her and finished the package with Eagle Grips Gunfighter Grips of buffalo horn.

One New Model I do like is the Bisley Model. 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, in size it’s the same as the original, including the Colt-style/sized 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. These are available from Ruger for less than $60. I was not happy with the New Model action that arrived in 1972, however I have learned to appreciate it in my later years.

Top: New Model .357 50th Anniversary Ruger Blackhawk. Original Flat-Top Blackhawk. Bottom: Both
sixguns are separated by half a century. Custom checkered rosewood grips are available from Ruger.

New Things

Ruger eventually 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 single actions 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 5-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 Single Action while still being a bona fide 6-shooter. The Model 97 is offered in both adjustable-sighted and fixed-sighted versions. Just like its older and heavier brother it’s superbly accurate.

With less models to choose from than found among double-action .357 Magnums, it’s easier, but only slightly so, to choose a favorite .357 Magnum single action. 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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