A Century of Sixguns
At midnight on December 31, 2000 we were, willing or not, whether ready or able, forced into 2001 and the 21st century. For those of us that haven't been overly fond of the last century, the move was especially painful. Of course, the 20th century hasn't been a total loss. As a country, we rose to great heights in the 1940's. Unfortunately we learned nothing from history and began our slide into mediocrity shortly thereafter.
In the area of sixguns, the 20th century will never be equalled. As the clock struck 12 on December 31st, 1900, the single action sixgun was still number one with the Colt Single Action Army having just recently celebrated its silver anniversary. Both Colt and Smith & Wesson had made some miscues along the way trying to come up with a double action sixgun, however by 1901, Smith & Wesson had the medium-framed .38 Military & Police while Colt's New Service was offered in big bore calibres such as .45 Colt and .44-40. Both sixguns were in their infancy and would blossom during the early years of the 20th century.
The past century has produced some truly great sixguns. For this treatise we will not consider the rimfires (The S&W K-22 and Ruger Single-Six have to be labelled as great sixguns by anyone's standards!), nor the small pocket sixguns as exemplified by Smith's Chief Special or Colt's Detective Special, nor the imports, but rather we will touch only on the medium and large frame big bore centrefire sixguns that have come forth from the major manufacturers in this country, namely Colt, Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Great Western, Dan Wesson, and Freedom Arms. In no particular order, we will look at the best they have offered and then try to narrow it down to Taffin's Top Ten of the Twentieth. Here then are the great sixguns of the century.
COLT - As the new century began, Colt's Single Action Army was about to be challenged by several double action sixguns as well as the soon to be 1911 Government Model .45. The Single Action Army would hang on until the beginning of World War II but sales were dropping every year and some of the sixguns sent to Britain at the onset of the War had been in the Colt inventory for 10 years or more. In 1941, The Peacemaker, known at the factory as the Model P, was removed from production. The machinery was worn out. Only the most discriminating of sixgunners still wanted a Single Action.
During its production run of nearly 70 years, more than a third of a million Single Action Armies were produced with over one-half in .45 Colt and one-fourth in .44-40 with the next two most popular calibres being .38-40 and .32-20. A few of these "pre-War Colts" were made in .44 Special and .357 Magnum.
That was supposed to be the end of the grand old sixgun. American shooters were more interested in .38 Special and .357 Magnum double action sixguns, .38 Super and .45 ACP semi-autos. The Single Action was surely dead, buried and never to be missed except by a few. Then came one of the strange twists of fate. Television arrived. The airwaves had to be filled to meet the appetite of the new viewers and much of that time was filled by Western movies from the 1930's and 1940's. The Single Action Army was discovered all over again as the demand arose for a new run of Single Actions. Two new companies, Ruger and Great Western, would be the first to heed the call. Finally Colt decided the time was ripe to bring back the old Army and in 1956, the Second Generation of Colt Single Actions began. Offered in the standard barrel lengths of 4 3/4", 5 1/2", and 7 1/2", the .45 Colt and .38 Special came first, followed by the .44 Special and .357 Magnum.
In 1962, the Colt was semi-modernized. The flat springs remained, however the frame was flat-topped, adjustable sights were added and the New Frontier had arrived. Barrel lengths were the same standard lengths as the Colt Single Action Army, with all four calibres also available. For the first time in this century we had a Colt Single Action Army with a fully adjustable rear sight and a ramp front sight. The Single Action Army has always been an easy packing', quick into action, no nonsense type of sixgun. Now we had an imminently practical hunting sixgun in the New Frontier with a 7 1/2" barrel in .44 Special or .45 Colt.
By the late 1970's, the Second Generation machinery was wearing out. The Colt Single Action was taken from production. Again. This time with the promise to return. Return it did in the late 1970's with the Third Generation. Still the same basic sixgun as the 1873 Peacemaker, the Third Generation had some subtle changes such as a new press fit short bushing in the cylinder, a newly designed hand, a poorly contoured hammer, and for reasons known only to Colt, the threads on the barrel were changed.
This time around chamberings were .45 Colt, .44 Special, .44-40, and .357 Magnum in both Single Action Army and New Frontier persuasion. This run of Single Actions also came to a close, but the Third Generation Part II continues as a Colt Custom Shop offering in .45 Colt, .44-40, and .38-40.
In the early 1900's, Colt had several double action sixguns. The large, very large that is, framed New Service was available with fixed sights or target sights in .45 Colt, .44 Russian, .44-40, .38-40, .455, .38 Special, and later in .45 ACP and .357 Magnum. The New Service lasted until World War II as did the SAA with more New Services being produced than Colt Single Action Armies.
With the end of the War, peacetime production of both Colt and Smith & Wesson sixguns began with most sixgunners not seeing any new guns until the early 1950's. Demand for the .357 Magnum was especially high, however Colt did not resurrect the New Service even for this chambering. When the .44 Magnum arrived in 1956, Colt chose to ignore it. Still no resumption of the New Service which was certainly large enough to handle the big bore magnum.
Colt would spend the next three and one-half decades ignoring the .44 Magnum, until finally in 1990, the Anaconda arrived, chambered first in .44 Magnum and then .45 Colt. The first .44's had mediocre accuracy but that was quickly addressed with both .45 Colt and .44 Magnum Anacondas in my experience being exceptionally accurate. Anacondas were available only in stainless with 4", 6", and 8" vent ribbed, heavy underlug barrels.
Colt's mid-frame double action sixgun, on what was known as the .41 frame, was the New Army with fixed sights, in calibres .38 Long Colt, .41 Long Colt, and that upstart cartridge at the beginning of the century, the .38 Special. Add target sights and the Army became the Officer's Model probably the most popular target sixgun of this century. The Army would evolve into the Official Police, which would vie with Smith & Wesson's Military & Police as the .38 Special sixgun for police use for much of this century.
In the 1950's, target shooting was still the number one sport with handguns and the .38 Special was king. Colt decided to build the perfect target revolver using the Officer's Model as the platform. A heavy underlugged barrel was attached to the Officer's Model frame and the overly heavy .38 Special Colt Target Revolver emerged. It was so heavy that it never saw production. Instead it was chambered in .357 Magnum, the barrel contour was lightened and slots were cut in the rib atop the barrel to further lighten the new sixgun. The result was what Colt called their Cadillac revolver, the Python.
The previous year had seen Colt chamber the Official Police for the .357 Magnum with adjustable sights and a heavy bull barrel of 4" or 6" in length. It only seemed natural to go the extra step and bring out the premium sixgun that the Python is. There are many sixgunners who will call it the finest sixgun ever produced by Colt or anyone else. I have one that was willed to me by a friend gone home. It has been specially tuned by one who knew what he was about and it is smoooooth to say the least. The Python was definitely a forerunner of things to come in 1955 as its distinctive heavy underlugged barrel style is now also used by Ruger and Smith & Wesson, as well as most foreign manufacturers, and has been used by Dan Wesson.
In the mid-1980's, Colt came forth with a more economical double action .357 Magnum in the King Cobra which maintains the vent ribbed barrel of the Python with a completely new, and easier to manufacture lockwork. The Python design goes back nearly 100 years and is expensive to produce requiring much hand fitting. The Anaconda is basically a large-framed King Cobra. The King Cobra has an excellent reputation among its followers.
SMITH & WESSON - Smith & Wesson's first large frame double action of the twentieth century was appropriately named the New Century by the factory. It is also known as the .44 Hand Ejector First Model, The Model of 1908, and more lovingly as the Triple Lock. The single action Smiths of the 1870's were beautifully balanced and exquisitely crafted sixguns. The double actions that followed in the 1880's were ugly ducklings and that is being kind.
Redemption was allowed with the coming of the New Century. Originally chambered in the then also new .44 Special calibre, the Triple Lock became the ancestor of the large frame sixguns that followed concluding with the .44 Magnum in 1956. The Triple Lock was so named as the cylinder locked in three places: - at the rear of the cylinder, at the front of the ejector rod, and also at the front of the cylinder with a Swiss bank vault type third locking lug built into the frame. The ejector rod was also protected by a shroud under the barrel. Those that call this the finest double action revolver ever made cannot easily be discounted or refuted.
In addition to the .44 Special chambering, whose heavy loading by such sixgun stalwarts as Elmer Keith would lead to the .44 Magnum, the Triple Lock was also chambered in .44 Russian, .44-40, .45 Colt, and .38-40, plus 5,000 were made as the .455 Mark II for the Brits and Canadians.
By 1915 someone at Smith & Wesson decided the Triple Lock was too expensive to produce and after less than 16,000 were made, the third locking lug and the enclosed ejector rod were both dropped. For under $2 less, sixgunners could now purchase the .44 Hand Ejector Second Model. Chambered in .44 Special, .45 Colt, .44-40, and .38-40, this model would last until 1937. It also became the basis for the 1917 Model chambered in .45 ACP for use by the troops in World War II. Nearly 35,000 Second Models were manufactured with all but a very few in .44 Special. They were also made in .455 in large quantities for English and Canadian service. Nearly 70,000 were in this mode and they are often found converted to .45 Colt.
Dedicated sixgunners wanted the Triple Lock back however their pleas fell on deaf ears. Finally, in 1926, Wolf and Klar, a Texas distributor placed a large order for .44 Special double actions with enclosed ejector shrouds and the 1926 Model was born. Right at 5,000 of these superb sixguns were manufactured from 1926 until 1940 in .44 Special, .44-40, and .45 Colt. They were very popular with peace officers especially in the Southwestern part of the country.
During the 1930's peace officers with their .38 Specials found themselves terribly outgunned by the gangs of the day. Smith & Wesson's answer to this problem was to chamber the heavy duty 1926 Model in .38 Special and call it the .38/44 Heavy Duty. A special heavy loading of a 158 grain bullet at 1100 fps was provided.
Experimenters looked at the .38/44 Heavy Duty and wanted more. Target sights were added and it became known as the .38/44 Outdoorsman. Keith came up with a load of 13.5 grains of #2400 with his 170 grain semi-wadcutter bullet that is still a good heavy .38 Special loading for use only in large frame sixguns. Phil Sharpe, a noted handloader of the time, also worked with Winchester and with his 158 grain semi-wadcutter bullet.
The result, in 1935, was the .38 Special case lengthened by 1/10 of an inch to use in a .38/44 Outdoorsman that was specially heat treated and precisely fitted along with checkering along the top rib of the barrel and the rear sight assembly. For the first twenty years of its existence it was known simply as The .357 Magnum. In 1957, the .357 Magnum became the Model 27 as all Smith & Wesson sixguns became a number like all the rest of us.
The .357 Magnum was a magnificent sixgun fitted as well, perhaps even better, than the Triple Lock .44 Special. Those first .357's with 8 3/4" barrels were popular with outdoorsman while the 3 1/2" and 4" lengths became the thinking peace officer's first choice. Colonel Wesson used the .357 Magnum to hunt and successfully take several species of big game while the first production .357 went to J. Edgar Hoover Director of the FBI.
For the first three years, the .357 Magnum carried a special registration number signifying its hand fitting. Options abounded with both blue and nickel available, several sight options including a gold bead on a front post, and nearly infinite choices as to barrel lengths. Smith & Wesson's historian, Roy Jinks, calls the .357 Magnum "...the most important handgun developed in the twentieth century." It would be hard to argue with him.
In the four years directly after World War II, about 1500 1926 Model .44 Specials were made in barrel lengths of 4", 5", and 6 1/2" with about 100 of them carrying target sights. As we reached mid-century, the 1950 Targets arrived in three chamberings, the Hand Ejector Fourth Model in .44 Special or 1950 Target .44 Special, the .38/44 Outdoorsman Model 1950, and the Model 1950 Target .45 ACP. All of these carried 6 1/2" ribbed barrels, micrometer click rear sights, shrouded ejector rod housings, and Patridge front sights. A very few were made in .45 Colt with 5" barrels and .44 Special with 4" and 5" barrels.
The target shooters did not flock to the .45 ACP Model until it was upgraded, mainly due to the efforts of Jimmy Clark, to the heavy barrelled 1955 Target with improved rifling. The .38 Special and .44 Special versions were extremely popular with knowledgeable sixgunners. Both were also available in a Heavy Duty Model, while the .45 ACP also came as a civilian style patterned after the 1917 Model as the Model 1950 Army without the enclosed ejector rod.
Finally in 1956, the N-frame Smith & Wesson sixgun reached its zenith with the .44 Magnum. The first four prototypes were simply Model 1950 Target .44 Specials with specially heat treated frames and cylinders. Recoil was so severe that weight was added to production models by increasing the length of the cylinder to fill the cylinder window frame and changing the barrel to the heavy bull barrel style found on the Model 1955 .45 Target.
Just as with the .357 Magnum two decades earlier, the .44 Magnum came about by lengthening an existing cartridge by 1/10 of an inch. Elmer Keith had asked for a heavy loaded .44 Special for thirty years; he got it with the .44 Magnum in spades. His load used a 250 grain cast bullet at 1200 fps. The first factory loaded .44 Magnums featured a 240 grain bullet at over 1500 fps.
Known only for a short time as the .44 Magnum, this big bore sixgun soon became the Model 29 under the Smith & Wesson numbering system. It rivalled the Triple Lock and .357 Magnum as to fit and finish. First offered in the 6 1/2" length, it soon became available in the 8 3/8" length for hunters and long range shooters and the 4" became popular with some peace officers and those that wanted a powerful but easy packing' pistol. With the advent of the .44 Magnum, the dawn of the sixgun hunter had really arrived.
In 1964, the .44 Magnum was chambered in .41 Magnum as the Model 57. It was never very popular except with true connoisseurs. It is, in fact a fine sixgun in an excellent chambering. Those that do not like the recoil dished up by full house loads in the .44 Magnum, should find a 220 grain hard cast bullet at 1500+ fps from an 8 3/8" .41 Magnum more to their liking.
Both the .44 Magnum and the .41 Magnum were offered in both blue and nickel finishes. In 1978 and 1986 respectively, the .44 Magnum and the .41 Magnum became the Model 629 and 657 in stainless steel. In recent years, the .44 Magnum and .41 Magnum have been offered in blue and stainless models with heavy underlug barrels and round butted grip frames. I still prefer the originals.
The 1950 Target (Model 24) was revived in 1983 with both 4" and 6 1/2" blue versions and the same barrel lengths in the stainless Model 624. Both versions are still relatively easy to find at gun shows and in gun shops even though now removed from production
Even before the Triple Lock arrived, Smith & Wesson already had what would become the standard peace officer's sidearm for several decades. The .38 Special Military & Police arrived in 1899 and while never adopted full bore by the military, it rode in the holsters of tens of thousands of cops, especially big city cops.
In the 1950's, Bill Jordan, then of the U.S. Border Patrol, sought a better solution for peace officers than what was then available. Many found the .38 Special inadequate while at the same time those .357 Magnums offered were felt to be too large of frame and too heavy to be carried comfortably all day by many peace officers. Jordan asked Smith & Wesson to add a heavy barrel with a shrouded ejector rod to the M&P, lengthen the cylinder to fill in the cylinder window frame, and chamber it in .357 Magnum.
The result, in 1955, was the Combat Magnum, a 4" heavy barrelled peace officer's dream sixgun. Weighing in at about one-half pound less than the original Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, the K-frame Model 19 became the .357 Magnum that was number one on the peace officer's most wanted sixgun list. In 1970, the Model 19 was also offered as the stainless version, the Model 66. Both have been offered in the 4" standard length as well as a 2 1/2" and 6" version.
In the 1980's, with modern .357 Magnum ammunition that literally ate forcing cones alive, the Combat Magnum was found somewhat wanting. Jordan had envisioned a sixgun that was fed a steady diet of .38 Special's and then used with .357 Magnums for duty. When shooters starting pounding hundreds of rounds down the barrel of the Model 19 at one shooting session, the forcing cones showed excessive wear and some sixguns locked up when they were heated from cylinder after cylinder of .357 Magnum ammunition. Smith & Wesson's answer to this problem, which can be addressed also by proper ammunition, was to maintain the K-frame grip frame, and add a larger cylinder while beefing up the forcing cone area, and finally, feature a heavy barrel with a full underlug. The result, in 1981, was the aptly named Distinguished Combat Magnum. This L-frame sixgun has proven to be exceptionally accurate and rugged in both the blued, Model 586 version, and the stainless 686 packaging.
During the 1980's and early 1990's, Smith & Wesson offered so many variations that some even suggested they were being driven by a "Gun of the Month" plan. Their line has been pared down considerably since that time and most of the old traditional large frame sixguns with regular barrels and square butts are gone replaced by those with heavy underlug barrels and round butted grip frames. Two of the best of these are those numbered as the Model 625 offered in .45 ACP and .45 Colt with most being made with 5" barrels. They are shooters to be sure.
Most welcome sixguns have been the Mountain Gun and Mountain Revolver. Both in stainless steel with 4" light barrels as found on the old Fourth Model Hand Ejector or 1950 Target, and round butted grip frames, these sixguns are designed for easy packing'. The Mountain Revolver is a .44 Magnum offering while the Mountain Gun is in .45 Colt. They have also been offered in Mountain Gun style in .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, and .45 ACP.
GREAT WESTERN - Before the Italian replica single actions that began to arrive in the 1960's, before the return of the Colt Single Action Army in 1956, even before the Ruger Blackhawk in 1955, there was the Great Western Frontier Revolver.
Great Western began manufacturing Single Action Armies in Los Angeles in 1954. Nearly a dead ringer for the Colt Single Action Army, the Great Western differed in having a frame mounted firing pin, instead of the firing pin mounted on the hammer as with the Colt. There were other subtle differences such as the shape and angle of the grip frame, Colt grips can be made to fit a Great Western but not vice versa, and a beryllium copper trigger, but to the untrained eye, the Great Western looked very much the Colt. Many of the Westerns on TV in the 1950's featured heroes and bad guys alike packing' Great Western Frontier Revolvers.
Great Westerns were made in the standard Colt barrel lengths and in calibres .45 Colt, .44 Special, .357 Magnum, .357 Atomic, .38 Special, .44-40, .22 Long Rifle, and even .44 Magnum on a Colt Single Action sized cylinder and frame! A Target Model was available with adjustable sights as well as a Buntline Special, a specially tuned Fast Draw Model, and a Deputy Model with a 4" ribbed barrel and adjustable sights. The Great Western was also chambered in the .22 Hornet.
Quality of Great Western sixguns ran all the way from terrible to superb. Early sixguns were often out of time; later revolvers were some of the best single actions ever produced. The Great Western sold for $97 when the Colt was $125 but it still was unable to compete with the real thing and disappeared in the mid-1960's.
RUGER - Bill Ruger, along with his partner, Alexander Sturm, arrived on the firearms manufacturing scene in 1949 with a Ruger semi-automatic .22 pistol. Four years later, New Englander Ruger had picked up on the Western interest in the country and brought forth a traditionally styled single action .22 sixgun with fully modernized lockwork. The Single-Six featured a full-sized grip frame that duplicated the Colt Single Action Army while the rest of the gun was scaled down to match the .22 cartridge. To say the Single-Six has been a tremendous success is putting it mildly.
In 1955, the Single-Six was enlarged to Colt Single Action size, the frame was flat topped and fitted with a Micro adjustable rear sight mated up with a sloping front sight on a ramp base on an easy packing' 4 5/8" barrelled sixgun. The calibre was .357 Magnum, and the Blackhawk had arrived.
This was the first true modernization of the single action as the Ruger Blackhawk differed from the Colt Single Action by having a frame mounted firing pin, adjustable sights, and coil spring lockwork. The modern single action was reality. The first chambering was .357, however both the .44 Special and .45 Colt were promised.
Before Ruger could chamber the Blackhawk for either .44 Special or .45 Colt, the .44 Magnum arrived. Three Blackhawks were chambered for the new Magnum, and when one blew with proof loads, the Blackhawk's frame and cylinder were enlarged to accommodate the .44 Magnum. The result in 1956 was the .44 Flat Top Blackhawk.
Both Blackhawks would last until 1963 when the Flat Tops would be replaced by the Old Model Blackhawks. The grip frame was redesigned, a mistake, and changed from the Colt Single Action size to allow more room between the back of the trigger guard and the front strap. The .357 Magnum remained, the .44 Magnum Blackhawk was dropped. In 1959, Ruger had brought forth the Super Blackhawk by 'improving' the Blackhawk with a Dragoon style grip frame, non-fluted cylinder, and protective ears around the rear sight. For four years both the .44 Blackhawk and Super Blackhawk were produced side-by-side, however the .44 Blackhawk was dropped in 1963. In its eight year run it had been produced in the standard 6 1/2" barrel length as well as the rare 7 1/2" and 10" lengths.
The Old Model Blackhawk would be manufactured from 1963 until 1973. In addition to the .357 Magnum, it would be offered in .41 Magnum, .30 Carbine, and .45 Colt. The latter allowed reloaders to experiment with the .45 Colt in a way that was not possible with the Single Action Army. I long ago settled on a .45 Colt Ruger Blackhawk loading of a 300 grain hard cast bullet at 1200 fps. The Ruger Blackhawk handles it perfectly. In 1973, the Ruger design was changed once again. Unlike "Flat Top" and "Old Model" which are collector's terms, the newly designed Blackhawks are marked on the left side of the frame with the words "New Model". In 1955, Ruger modernized the Single Action. In 1973, it was made safe for carrying with six rounds as the action now contained a safety transfer bar that kept the firing pin from contacting the primer when the hammer was down. I opposed this at first but in retrospect it was an important move on Ruger's part and made single actions safer in the hands of less than knowledgeable single action shooters. All Flat Top and Old Model Rugers, as well as all Colt Single Actions, should be carried with an empty chamber under the hammer.
With the coming of the New Model Blackhawk, the .357 frame size would be dropped and all Ruger centrefires now came with the same frame size. This, of course, made the .357 New Model Blackhawk heavier and bulkier than its counterpart in the Flat Top or Old Model series. New Models are or have been chambered in .357 Magnum, .357 Magnum with auxiliary 9MM cylinder, .41 Magnum, .45 Colt, .45 Colt with .45 ACP auxiliary cylinder, .30 Carbine, .32-20 with extra .32 Magnum cylinder, .38-40 with a 10mm cylinder. The Super Blackhawk also became the New Model Super Blackhawk in 1973 and has been produced in both .44 Magnum and .44 Magnum with an extra .44-40 cylinder.
Ruger early entered the silhouette market by offering the Super Blackhawk with a 10 1/2" barrel. My wife and I used two of these with excellent results in the early 1980's. The New Model Super Blackhawk is also available in stainless as is the .357 and .45 Colt New model Blackhawk.
Along with the long-barrelled Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum for silhouetters, Ruger also brought forth the .357 Maximum New Model. This stretched frame and cylinder New Model chambered a cartridge three-tenths of an inch longer than the .357 Magnum. Designed for the use of 180 and 200 grain bullets at .357 Magnum velocities, it was killed off by those that did not understand the cartridge. This was a real pity as this is one of the finest long range sixguns ever offered.
In 1986, Ruger brought forth the Bisley New Model Blackhawk. The original ladle handled Colt Bisley was named after the target range in England and was offered as a target shooting version of the Colt Single Action Army with a larger and higher grip, wide trigger, and wide hammer. Ruger modernized the Bisley grip frame, attached it to a New Model Blackhawk with the result being the best grip frame ever from Ruger for handling heavy recoiling sixguns. With really heavy recoiling cartridges such as .44 Magnum, full-house .45 Colt, .475 and .500 Linebaugh, standard single action grip frames tend to twist in the hand accentuating recoil, even ripping skin as the hammer spur digs in or the back of the trigger guard contacts the knuckle. With the Bisley, which is much longer and higher along the backstrap, the twisting motion is contained making the heavy recoiling single action sixgun much more controllable.
The Bisley has been offered only with a 7 1/2" barrel, blue finish, and in calibres .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and .45 Colt. The grip frame can be fitted to other New Model Blackhawks with a hammer, trigger, and two grip frame screws also necessary to complete the conversion.
Ruger's final single action offering to the twentieth century is the Vaquero. Cashing in on the popularity of organized cowboy shooting, Ruger brought forth the fixed sighted Vaquero as their version of the traditional single action sixgun. Since 1955, all Blackhawks have carried adjustable sights. For the Vaquero, Ruger simply rounded off the top strap of a Blackhawk, replaced the adjustable rear sight with a hog wallow trough down through the centre of the top strap, added a blade front sight, and we had a traditionally styled single action with virtually unbreakable coil spring powered lockwork.
The Vaquero has not only been tremendously popular with cowboy shooters, it has captured a major share of the outdoorsman market as it is a bull strong, no nonsense single action sixgun that keeps going and going and going....It especially makes sense in stainless steel for the outdoorsman who wants a sixgun to shoot one load. The sights can be filed to accommodate that one load, and carried in a Tom Threepersons hip holster or a well designed shoulder holster, it is always instantly accessible, powerful, and accurate. The Vaquero is offered in .45 Colt, .44 Magnum, .44-40, and .357 Magnum with a traditional single action grip frame or as the Bisley Vaquero with the Bisley grip frame. The standard model is the best choice for cowboy shooting while the Bisley Vaquero should be the choice for the outdoorsman who will be using heavy loads.
Ruger not only offers a full line of single action sixguns, they also are deep into the double action scene. The first double action Ruger, the Security Six sold well over a million before it was upgraded and replaced by the GP-100. In .357 Magnum the latter is probably one of the strongest and most accurate of the double action sixguns offered in this calibre over the past 60+ years.
Even more important to the big bore fancier is the fact that the GP-100 opened the door for the first big bore double action from Ruger, the Redhawk. In the 1970's .44 Magnum double action sixguns were very hard to obtain and commanded premium prices as the only available sixgun was the Smith & Wesson Model 29. The "Dirty Harry" movies of the early 1970's created such a demand for .44 Magnum Smith & Wessons that many would be shooters paid black market prices to get one. The pressure was not relieved until other double action .44 Magnums appeared, the Ruger Redhawk and Dan Wesson .44 Magnum in particular.
Ruger's .44 Redhawk is offered in both blue and stainless with either a 5 1/2" or 7 1/2" barrel. In the past it was also available in .357 Magnum and .41 Magnum, and is now also available in .45 Colt. In 1987, a 'super' version of the Redhawk emerged as, what else, the Super Redhawk. Actually, the Super Redhawk is closer in design to the GP-100 than the Redhawk. Only in stainless, and with a 7 1/2" or 9 1/2" barrel, the Super Redhawk features an elongated frame that supports the first several inches of the barrel. It is also scope ready and provided with Ruger scope rings. Both the Redhawk and the Super Redhawk are very popular with hunters who prefer double action sixguns. They are probably the strongest .44 Magnum sixguns ever offered with their only challenge in this department coming from the Freedom Arms .44 Magnum. In the last years of the 20th century it arrived in .454 Casull and in the last few days of the old 100 years, the new chambering of .480 Ruger arrived.
As we leave Ruger we need to mention one other sixgun. For a very short time in the early 1990's, Ruger catalogued a Hunter Model Super Blackhawk. This stainless steel model carried a heavy 7 1/2" barrel with scallops to accept Ruger rings, interchangeable front sight inserts, a rounded off Super Blackhawk trigger guard eliminating the square back feature, and laminated stocks. It was a superb hunting handgun and should still be in production.
DAN WESSON - Dan Wesson had a better idea. Originally he planned to offer a revolver frame that would accept several different cylinder and barrel combinations. When the Dan Wesson revolver reached production, the idea of interchangeable calibres was shelved, however the interchangeable barrel feature remained.
The first Dan Wessons, in .357 Magnum chambering, were ugly ducklings to say the least. The nut that held the barrel and shroud in place hung out the end of the barrel and looked terrible. It did not take long for Wesson to realize this, and the shroud was soon designed to accept the locking nut inside the muzzle end resulting in a much trimmer and neater appearance.
Most Dan Wesson sixguns featured interchangeable barrels in lengths of 4", 6", 8", and 10", with some shorter, and longer barrels available on some models. A barrel vice was not necessary to remove and replace Dan Wesson barrels as a simple wrench was provided that did the job. The nut was loosened and removed, the shroud slid off, the barrel un-threaded and removed. To replace the barrel, the steps were simply reversed. A provided feeler gauge was used to set the barrel/cylinder gap.
The Dan Wesson sixgun early became the silhouette revolver first with the 10" heavy barrelled .357 Magnum, followed by the 8" .44 Magnum, and then the epitome of the double action sixgun for silhouetting, the 8" .357 SuperMag. All of these were superbly accurate and finished in the brightest blue provided by any manufacturer. On the down side the chambers were quite often very rough requiring polishing. The back end of the barrel and the front face of the cylinder were rarely ever parallel.
Accuracy of the Dan Wesson was mostly due to the fact that the barrel locked at the front and the locking latch for the cylinder was also at the front end. Dan Wessons rose with the popularity of silhouetting. When that market declined, the Dan Wesson eventually disappeared. The 10" .357 Magnum Heavy Barrel is one of the most accurate sixguns I have ever fired, while the Dan Wesson .44 Magnum is the most comfortable shooting of all .44 Magnums. Dan Wesson is now back as Wesson Firearms and producing the finest sixguns ever to were the Dan Wesson name.
FREEDOM ARMS - The first sixgun success was the single action Colt Texas Paterson of 1836. Nearly two hundred years later, the finest sixgun in existence is the single action from Freedom Arms. The single action has been declared dead by so many over so many years that is it extremely gratifying to me to see the success of the single action sixgun from Freedom Arms.
Freedom Arms has taken a different path. Every other manufacturer is controlled by the bottom line. First price, then the sixgun. Everything is built to a price. Not so with Freedom. First comes the sixgun, then the price. The finest sixgun possible is produced and then priced accordingly.
The first Freedom Arms offering was in .454 Casull, the most powerful cartridge ever offered commercially. With a 300 grain bullet at 1600+ fps and a 260 grain bullet at over 1800 fps, the .454 rewrote the book of sixgun power. To be able to handle this level of power, precision and tolerances must be strictly adhered to. The .454 from Freedom is built individually with a cylinder mated to a barrel and frame before it is chambered. All Freedom Arms are made of the finest stainless steel available with cylinders that lock up T-I-G-H-T. There is no end play or lateral movement in a cylinder of a Freedom Arms revolver.
Freedom Arms sixguns are available in several barrel lengths, with standard lengths being 4 3/4", 6", 7 1/2", and 10 1/2" in either a Premier Grade or Field Grade model. The latter is simply a less finely finished revolver that is built exactly the same way as the Premier Grade. Both models are available with fixed sights or adjustable sights that can be removed and replaced with a special scope mount base for scope mounting.
All full-sized Freedom Arms sixguns are in reality five-shot revolvers and are available in the original .454 Casull as well as .44 Magnum, .50AE, .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, and .475 Linebaugh. No matter what the calibre choice, every Freedom Arms revolver is manufactured the same way. They are in fact custom built factory revolvers. The .357 Magnum from Freedom Arms is known as the Model 353 and accepts high pressure .357 Magnum loadings using 180 grain jacketed bullets that cannot be used in standard .357 Magnum sixguns. It is especially popular among silhouetters.
The easy packing' pistol from Freedom Arms is the Model 1997. This new, true sixgun is about 90% of the size of the full-sized Freedom Arms revolver which is now known as the Model '83. The first Model '97's were in .357 Magnum chambering and in either 5 1/2" or 7 1/2" barrel lengths with fixed sights or adjustable sights. The latter also accepts a scope mount base. They are now also available in .45 Colt and .41 Magnum.
It really has been a great century for sixgun production. Now it is time to select the Hall of Fame of Sixguns. These are the best that American manufacturers have offered in this century. We take the easy way out and do it alphabetically. From Colt, Single Action Army, New Service, Python, King Cobra, and Anaconda; Freedom Arms, Model '83 and Model '97; Ruger, Blackhawk, Super Blackhawk, Bisley, Vaquero, GP-100, Redhawk, and Super Redhawk; Smith & Wesson, Triple Lock, .357 Magnum, 1950 Target, Combat Magnum, .44 Magnum, Mountain Gun, Mountain Revolver, and L-Frame; Dan Wesson, .357 Magnum Model 15, .44 Magnum Model 44, .357 SuperMag.
As I compiled my personal list of the Top Ten, I found six were products of the 1950's, one came from the 1960's, two from the 1980's, and one from the depression years of the 1930's. Of the Top Ten, seven are no longer catalogued. Taffin's Top Ten were not found scientifically, but rather preferentially. These are not the ten sixguns that are necessarily the best designs, nor the strongest, nor even the most accurate, they are simply the sixguns that I most prefer. Instead, these are the ones I am most likely to reach for hunting, woods bumming, cowboy shooting, self defence, or just plain plinking. These are the sixguns that most stir my soul, heart, and spirit. Again, I take the easy way out. The listed order is not necessarily the order of preference.
COLT SINGLE ACTION ARMY - The old Colt has been a favourite of mine since I purchased my first centrefire sixgun, a .38-40 Single Action Army in 1957. Today, I use both Second and Third Generation Single Action Armies routinely with favourites being .44 Special and .45 Colt with 4 3/4" barrels and the classic 7 1/2" .45 Colt.
COLT NEW FRONTIER - Just as with the standard Colt Single Action, I prefer the .44 Special and .45 Colt especially in the 7 1/2" barrel length, while the 4 3/4" New Frontier .45 with factory ivories has a special place in my heart.
RUGER BLACKHAWK - Of the three models of the Blackhawk, Flat Top, Old Model, and New Model, favourites are the original .44 Magnum Flat Top and the .45 Colt Old Model both with 7 1/2" barrels.
RUGER SUPER BLACKHAWK - Favourite Super Blackhawks all have had the original Dragoon style grip frame replaced. Colt dropped this design before the Civil War and for my hand they were right. Old Model Super Blackhawk grip frames are replaced by either Old Army or Blackhawk grip frames, while New Models take the Bisley grip frame. Favourites are a 7 1/2" OM with Old Army grip frame, OM 4 3/4" with Blackhawk grip frame, and 5 1/2" New Model with Bisley grip frame, hammer, and trigger.
RUGER BISLEY - With full house loads, the 7 1/2" Bisleys in .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, or .45 Colt, are fairly comfortable to shoot, rugged, and make excellent hunting handguns. The .41 Magnum Bisley is a real sleeper and a fine choice for deer with 220 grain bullets at over 1500 fps without excessive felt recoil.
SMITH & WESSON 1950 - Most chores for which I need a sixgun can easily be taken care of with a 250 grain .44 Special at 1200 fps. Both the 4" and 6 1/2" Model 24/624 .44 Specials are easy to pack in shoulder holster or on the hip and easily dispatch close range deer-sized game. With proper ammunition now available from Cor-Bon, Hornady, and Speer, the 4" .44 Special is hard to beat for defensive purposes.
SMITH & WESSON .357 MAGNUM - Has there ever been a more business looking sixgun advanced than the 3 1/2" .357 Magnum? The 5" Model 27 makes an imminently practical holster sixgun, and the 8 3/8" is a fine long range sixgun. Perhaps Jinks is right!
SMITH & WESSON COMBAT MAGNUM - If I were a peace officer, this is the sidearm I would prefer. Its size and weight make it easy to pack all day without fatigue. Carried in a Threepersons holster and backed up by a couple of six round belt slides, the Combat Magnum Model 19 is a preferred companion during the off season when roaming the forest and mountains
SMITH & WESSON .44 MAGNUM - This is certainly the .44 Magnum by which all other .44 Magnums are judged. It is not the strongest nor the easiest to shoot, however, the Model 29 has classic lines found in no other double action sixgun. The 4" .44 is fairly easy to pack and kicks like the proverbial mule with full house loads. It is also a most comforting companion to have. The 6 1/2" Model 29 packs easily in a Threeepersons style holster, while the 8 3/8" is carried in the same style holster cross draw style.
FREEDOM ARMS MODEL '83 - a 4 3/4" .454 for easy packing', a 7 1/2" scoped .454 or .44 Magnum for hunting, 10" models for long range shooting and silhouetting, and a 6" .44 Magnum for everyday outdoor use carried in a shoulder holster, there is a Model '83 for every situation Of those great sixguns covered, almost all of the standard N-frames from Smith & Wesson are gone. The Colt New Frontier, plus the Official Police, Officer's Model and New Service will never be seen in a Colt catalogue again. Ruger's Flat Top and Old Model sixguns, and the Security Six, are also a thing of the past. In some cases, sixguns such as the Ruger Single Actions, have been replaced by those with transfer bars; others are no longer economically feasible to produce. More will disappear for this last reason. The Colt Single Action Army is terribly over-priced but it hangs on as there are enough sixgunners whose spirits are filled with nostalgia to keep it in production.
What does the future hold for guns in general, and sixguns in particular? Will this century be as fruitful as the last one? I'm not very optimistic. "The society of the late twentieth century America is perhaps the first in human history where most grown men do not routinely bear arms on their persons and boys are not regularly raised from childhood to learn skill in the use of some kind of weapon, either for community or personal defence--club or spear, broadsword or long bow, rifle or Bowie knife. It also happens to be one of the rudest and crudest societies in history, having jubilantly swept most of the etiquette of speech, table, dress, hospitality, fairness, deference to authority and the relation of male and female and child and elder under the fraying and filthy carpet of politically convenient illusions. With little fear of physical reprisal Americans can be as loud, gross, disrespectful, pushy, and negligent as they please....Today discourtesy is commonplace precisely because there is no price to pay for it."...Samuel Francis via Jeff Cooper.
As a nation we have lost our sense of humour as well as our common sense. We have become a country that is too civilized in many ways and terribly barbaric in others. We are losing the media battle as the "unbiased" reporters eagerly grab any statistic, truthful or not, as long as it is anti-gun. We are regulated endlessly by a bloated bureaucracy that never seems to end. Instead, it spreads rapidly like the worst form of cancer.
In 1960, the USSR's dictator Nikita Khrushchev said our grandchildren would live under communism. Richard Nixon countered with Russia's grand children would live under freedom. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and our rush towards socialism, it appears that both were prophets.
I hope I am wrong. I hope we will see a new birth of freedom and Americans will wake up and see what is happening. We have had 160 years plus of great sixguns beginning with the Colt Texas Paterson in 1836. For now, our link to the past looks a whole lot better than the bridge to the future.
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