THE RUGER SUPER BLACKHAWK

BY JOHN TAFFIN

As we have seen Ruger got the jump on Smith & Wesson and in some gunshops, the Ruger .44  Blackhawk debuted  before the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum. That was 1956 and the Smith & Wesson, beautifully finished and with a magnificently smooth action and trigger pull, sold for $140. As a teenager I was making $15 a week with a paper route at the time. The Ruger, not quite so nicely finished sold for $96. A few months later, after graduating from high school, I bought the first local .44 Ruger Blackhawk for the full $96 at a time when I was making ninety cents an hour.

            The Ruger Blackhawk .44 was a real thumper, and not only to me. There were many complaints about the recoil of the Flat-Top Blackhawk so Ruger decided to improve the Blackhawk. In 1959, the Blackhawk .44 was improved to the Super Blackhawk design. The grip frame was enlarged to the old square backed trigger guard Colt Dragoon style and now made of steel instead of alloy, hammer and trigger were changed to the wide target style, ribs were added to the top of the frame to protect the rear sight, a 7 1/2" barrel was standard, and the cylinder was now unfluted. The Flat-Top .44 and Super Blackhawk .44 would be produced side-by-side until the coming of the Old Model Blackhawks in 1963 when the .44 Blackhawk was dropped from production.

            When the Super Blackhawk arrived in 1959 Elmer Keith was the number one sixgun writer and a Texas sheriff and former member of the U.S. Border Patrol, Skeeter Skelton, was just starting his writing career and would soon have a wide influence on handgunners. They did not agree on the Super Blackhawk. Keith wrote of the .44 Magnums from Ruger in the 1961-revised edition of Sixguns By Keith. "When Smith & Wesson and Remington produced the .44 Magnum gun and load, Bill Ruger was one of the first to get on the ball and develop a modern single-action gun for the load.  First he had three guns made up on his .357 Blackhawk frame and exhibited them at the N.R.A. Convention.  They were very nice looking guns, but the cylinder was too short to accept my .44 Magnum handload, and I told him then the frame was too small and cylinder also too small in diameter for the heavy load.  He had three: one in 4 5/8”, one 5 1/2” length, and one in 7 1/2” length. 

Bill asked me if I wanted one and I told them I would like the 4 5/8” and use it with .44 Special loads. He told me to pick it up before leaving for Idaho, but when I went to get it the boys had packed it for shipment back to the Ruger factory; so Bill said he would send it to me.  However, before shipping, he decided to proof fire it, during which the gun blew up.  Bill then wrote that I was right and he was redesigning the whole gun to handle the big load.  The frame would be made larger and also the cylinder, and it would be longer to handle perfectly my 250-grain .44 Magnum handload.  He then sent me the so-called Blackhawk design in 4 5/8” barrel.  It proved to be a very fine single-action .44 Magnum, but I still was not satisfied.  The new gun, was very accurate and handled the big loads perfectly, but the extractor button was inadequate, and the rear sight still wiggled around when raised out of its mortise. The trigger guard also wrapped the second finger for some shooters, so they kicked about this.  Others wanted a larger and longer grip.

I asked Bill to redesign the gun again and bring it out with the old, square-backed, second Dragoon grip, with ample length of grip and also ample room for the second finger behind the guard.  Also I asked for a Bisley-type hammer spur sharply checkered and a wide-grooved trigger instead of the narrow, old Single Six trigger; also for a larger extractor button, and that the flutes in the cylinder be eliminated leaving it straight sided and thus stronger.

He sent me the first prototype.  It was a great improvement over any single-action cartridge gun I had ever seen or used and we took into the elk country that fall.  It accounted for four elk with clean kills.  The barrel was 7 1/2” and he had greatly improved the rear sight by extending the top of the frame in a flange on both sides of the rear sight so it could not move sideways when raised.  The hammer was Bisley-type all right, but needed sharper checkering and also needed to be cut down deeper just in front of the knurled or checked portion.  The trigger and grip are perfect and the heavy unfluted cylinder was another great improvement.  Bill had to have that gun back to the factory for further study, so I returned it and he sent me the second prototype… This one had a slight change in width of the grip and also the length of the grip and was even better than the first… This second prototype I have is in every respect by far the finest single-action sixgun I have ever owned.  It is wonderfully accurate and handles any and all factory loads perfectly as well as having a cylinder of ample length for my handloads, and is one of the most comfortable .44 Magnums to fire I have ever used.  I wanted to name it the Dragoon Ruger but Bill has called it the Super Blackhawk, in my opinion a hell of a name for a fine gun in this type and caliber… Thirty years ago I urged Colt to bring out a modern single action, but they felt it was a dead horse.  Ruger sales have proven how wrong they were.”

Notice the great praise Elmer Keith had for the Super Blackhawk. Thirty years earlier he had worked with gunsmiths to come out with his #5SAA, the Last Word as it was simply the finest single action, which could be built. Now in 1959 his #5SAA, with custom grips, sights, base pin catch, hammer and trigger, full engraving, and carved ivory stocks falls to second place behind the standard factory produced Ruger .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk. I don't know that you could find too many sixgunners today agreeing with his sentiment.

Skeeter Skelton certainly did not agree with Keith. Writing in Shooting Times in March 1969 he said, compared to the .357 Blackhawk: "When the Ruger .44 Magnum appeared in 1956, it proved to be the same type of low-cost, high-performance handgun. Although it had a longer, deeper frame and thicker cylinder than the .357, it was still a light, handy gun, very comfortably handling the recoil of the new hotrock cartridge.  As a handgun hunter and experimenter with handloads, I found the single action of the Ruger to be fully as useful for my purposes as a double action with the advantage of being a little more comfortable in fielding the recoil of heavy loads.  I owned two of the 6 1/2-inch barrel lengths before a 7 1/2-inch model .44 Blackhawk was announced in 1959, and I quickly changed to the longer version to gain the benefits of better balance, longer sight radius, and slightly more power.

The Super Blackhawk .44, coming along in 1959, is the most finely finished of any Ruger handgun.  It replaces the standard alloy grip frame with one of steel--an idea I like.  The Super was the first Ruger sixgun to feature raised shoulders on the top strap to protect the rear sight when it is fully elevated--another well-considered change and one that has since been adopted on all Ruger single actions with adjustable sights.

I have always found the old Colt single-action grip as carried over from the 1851 Navy to be more comfortable than that of any other handgun.  The original .357 and .44 Blackhawks were exactly the same shape, and the current Ruger production which comes with a grip sprung farther to the rear, leaving more room between front strap and trigger guard, is no improvement for my hand.

The square-backed trigger guard on the Super Blackhawk was ill advised and is a design that was discarded by Colt more than 100 years ago.  Since its lower rear corner protrudes more to the rear than a guard of standard, rounded proportions would, I fail to understand the claims that it is less likely to rap the knuckles in recoil.  The wide trigger of the Super is a definite aid in controlling let off.  The low wide hammer spur, for me, manipulates less easily than the longhorn type that copies the Colt.  The unfluted cylinder of the Super adds recoil-dampening weight and is said to be stronger than the older fluted style, but my standard .44, now a discontinued model, has digested thousands of the heaviest of loads without a whimper and is noticeably more comfortable to pack around than my Super.

Yep, I have both, keeping the Super model because of its prestige value.  But I prefer to carry the obsolete standard .44 Blackhawk. I would be the first customer for an all-steel, fancy-finished renovation of this good gun.”

Skeeter almost got his wish for an all steel renovation of the original .44 Blackhawk.  In 1988 we lost this true sixgunner’s friend and excellent writer; at the time Ruger was working on a special presentation .44 for Skeeter. The .44 Blackhawk built for Skeeter Skelton used the idea of the original .44 Magnum Blackhawk but built on the New Model action. Skeeter's intended .44 Blackhawk used the standard grip frame, a flat-topped mainframe, and had a 6 1/2” barrel. Unfortunately, Skeeter did not live long enough to receive this Special Blackhawk and it was instead presented to his wife Sally and son Bart. We can consider this .44 Blackhawk as the prototype for the 50th Anniversary .44 Blackhawk sixgun now offered by Ruger 18 years later.

Two very accomplished sixgunners and the most famous handgun writers of the 20th century and they had totally differing views on the Super Blackhawk. I have to mostly side with Skeeter on this one. The Super Blackhawk square backed trigger guard nails the knuckle on my middle finger unmercifully. That knuckle is full of scar issue and has been for 20 years being nailed in succession by the .454 and then the .500 and .475 Linebaughs and all the rest of the heavy cartridges that followed them. However, nothing nails me as bad as the Super Blackhawk and it even does it with .44 Special loads using 250 grain bullets at 1,000 fps. I did buy a Super Blackhawk in the early 1960s, however it was eventually sent to Mag-Na-Port in the 1970s to be totally tuned, barrel cut to 4 3/4”, muzzle crowned, C-More front sight installed, Mag-Na-Ported, and finished in Mag-Na-Loy, a stainless steel appearing hard finish.. It now wears a stainless-steel Old Army grip frame and a black post front sight. Just as Skeeter did, I still keep a standard Three-Screw 7 1/2” Super Blackhawk around for prestige purposes.

Ruger has always managed to price their sixguns to appeal to the average shooter. In 1956, A Ruger Blackhawk cost less than 70% of the $140 price tag of the Smith 29s. When the Super Blackhawk came out in 1959, it was a highly polished specimen in a wooden case for $120, and when the factory supplying the wooden cases burnt down the price dropped to $116. The improved model Blackhawk won acceptance from most .44 shooters immediately. It still cost less than the Smith even with the improvements and many sixgunners felt recoil was less because of its grip design. When `Dirty Harry' arrived and everyone had to have a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, many shooters discovered the Ruger Super Blackhawk, as it was much cheaper and more importantly, it was available. Usually.

            In 1973 with the coming of the New Model Blackhawks, the Super Blackhawk received the New Model lockwork with transfer bar safety and cylinder operation for loading and unloading by opening the loading gate. The 7 1/2" barrel remained standard, however a longer 10 1/2" barrel was soon brought forth for hunters and silhouetters. Still there were no short Packin' Pistol lengths from the factory. The 5 1/2" barrel length came along in 1987 and finally in 1994 both blued and stainless 4 5/8" Packin' Pistols in .44 Magnum were introduced by Ruger. Strangely enough the short-barreled .44s were and are fitted with standard grip frames rather than the longer, square-backed Dragoon style frames of the other Super Blackhawk barrel lengths.

            Before the first 10 1/2” Super Blackhawk arrived I had Trapper Gun build me one on a New Model Super Blackhawk and since it was to primarily be a hunting handgun, I also had it finished in satin nickel. It was also scoped and used for hunting and I still have it 30 years later. It now wears a 2X Burris scope and Herrett’s fancy wood stocks, which fill in the area behind the trigger guard; it doesn’t bite me anymore. About this same time J.D. Jones designed his 320 grain flat-nosed cast bullet for use in his .430 JDJ and the .44 Magnum. Loaded over 23.5 grains of Winchester WW680, muzzle velocity was around 1350 fps and the combination made a dandy hunting handgun and load. When H110 became more available and also more well known, I switched to it using 21.5 grains for the same results.

            The factory produced 10 1/2” Super Blackhawk arrived mainly due to the great interest in long-range silhouetting in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Since my wife and I were both competing and since we did not see sights the same way, I ordered a pair of 10 1/2” Super Blackhawks so we could both easily keep track of our sight settings. Both of them were also equipped with Pachmayr rubber grips. Mine was used to win the Idaho State championship in long range silhouetting in the early 1980s. When the same Super Blackhawk arrived in stainless steel I soon found I had the most accurate Ruger .44 Magnum I had ever experienced. With its interchangeable post front sight I found I could shot it very well with iron sights and have used it for hunting taking a record book Aoudad. With its long barrel and black sights I find I can still shoot this sixgun as well as anyone I own. It now wears filler stocks by BluMagnum; however I have found the 10 1/2” Super Blackhawks do not bang my knuckle as bad as the shorter barrels do. Perhaps it is just that extra weight out front.       

Ruger Super Blackhawks are a super bargain in the handgun market. They deliver more in service and accuracy than their price tag would warrant. The 10 1/2" models in my experience have all been superbly accurate with the mentioned two blued models and one stainless model being used for silhouetting and hunting. My long barreled blue models are now a thing of the past as one has been re-barreled with a 5 1/2" Ruger barrel from 1976 marked "THE 2OOTH YEAR OF OUR LIBERTY" and fitted with a Bisley Model grip frame by David Clements, while the other has now been built into a 5 1/2" .45 Colt by Jim Stroh and also wears the Bisley Model Grip frame which we will discuss in more detail in the next chapter. The 10 1/2" stainless remains as it was and will be eventually passed down to one of my grandsons.  The .44 Flat-Top Blackhawk was “improved” to the Super Blackhawk in 1959; the Super Blackhawk was really improved in 1985 as we shall see in the next chapter. 

 

25-1) This custom Super Blackhawk by Mag-Na-Port gets along quite well with

these three long existing powders from Hercules, now Alliant, Bullseye and Unique

dating back to the 1890s, and #2400 from the 1920s.

 

 

 

25-2) Two Old Model Super Blackhawks, one original and one cut to 4 3/4”

do fine with .44 Special loads which extend both sixgun life and Sixgunner’s life.

 

 

 

 

25-3) In the 1870s leverguns and sixguns chambered for .44-40 were quite popular;

today the .44 Magnum is first choice for the same combination which here

happens to be a Winchester 1894 and a 5 1/2” New Model Super Blackhawk.

 

 

 

25-4) The Super Blackhawk and the Blackhawk .44s were great guns for packing

in the 1950s; they still are.

 

 

 

25-5) By 1959 sixgunners had a choice of two high-quality .44 Magnums, the

Ruger Super Blackhawk and the Smith & Wesson Model 29.

 

 

 

25-6) This New Model Super Blackhawk, stainless steel version, has been tuned

and embellished by Gary Reeder and stocked by BluMagnum.

 

 

 

25-7) Elmer Keith called the Super Blackhawk the finest single action sixgun

he had ever seen or used; many shooters think he was right.

 

 

 

25-8) A true classic sixgun, the Ruger .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk.

 

 

 

25-9) The Super Blackhawk is an excellent choice for customizing as this

10 1/2” New Model tuned and embellished by Gary Reeder with stocks by

BluMagnum; and an Old Model cut to 4 3/4”, Mag-Na-Ported, tuned, re-finished,

and stocked with Eagle’s UltraIvory grips.

 

 

 

25-10) These look like Super Blackhawks at first glance but are actually .44 Specials

built on Ruger New Model stainless steel .357 Blackhawks by gunsmith Dave Ewer.

Owner Glen Fryxell says “..they are workin’ guns, impervious to weather,

designed specifically for a life long diet of the Keith load.”

 

 

Chapter 24       Chapter 26