Ruger did not remain with .22 production exclusively very long. The Single-Six just begged to be made into a full-sized single action for the big bores of the time, the .44 Special and the .45 Colt. Ruger again showed his astuteness by passing over the big bores and offering what has been a most popular centerfire sixgun chambering for many decades now, the .357 Magnum. By 1955, the Single-Six was scaled up to full size and had gained excellent adjustable sights and a flattening of the top of the frame that would come to be known as the Flat-Top. Elmer Keith reported at the time that the first Blackhawk would soon be offered in both .44 Special and .45 Colt. Other developments were happening that would change this.
“God Bless Bill Ruger for putting Magnum rounds in single action workin' guns!" I remember reading this quote in the middle '50s in an article in GUNS magazine. The piece was written by an old cowboy, trapper, ranger, etc., one Walter Rogers. This really impressed me as Rogers had carried Colt Single Actions all of his life, mainly a 4 3/4” .45 Colt Bisley Model with a standard Single Action hammer, and now, in his later years, Ruger had given him a nearly perfect single action, the .357 Blackhawk. After packin' Colts for so many years, Rogers found tremendous improvements in the then new big bore single action Ruger. The Ruger had virtually unbreakable coil springs, and excellent adjustable sights made up of a Micro that set low in the wide flat top strap. Rogers also impressed me in that he made his own leather just the way he wanted it to carry his Colt SAA and later his Ruger .357 Blackhawk.
Ruger’s .357 Magnum was announced while I was senior in high school and just one year before I purchased my .22 Single-Six. Just over 1,700 were made that first year with a total production of over 43,000 by the time production ended. What a magnificent single action this was. I had yet to see one in 1955, however one of the outdoor magazines of the time carried a life-size picture of the new Blackhawk, which became the #1 pin-up on the sloping ceiling of my bedroom. It was the first thing I saw when I awoke and the last thing I saw before going to sleep. It would be two years before I would ever see the real thing.
To come up with the .357 Blackhawk, Ruger went to a full-size single action with a cylinder the same size as the Colt. However, instead of trying to replicate the Colt Single Action Army, Ruger enlarged and flattened the top strap and added a fully adjustable Micro rear sight matched up with a front sight of the quick draw style on a ramp base, and once again Bill Ruger was tremendously influenced by the earlier writings of Elmer Keith and sixgun improvements put forth by the then young cowboy. The same virtually unbreakable lock work found in the .22 Single-Six was also present in the Blackhawk and as with the Single-Six the grips were also Colt-style, that is, checkered black rubber.
The first Ruger Blackhawk arrived just in time to find its way into the pages of the 1955 edition of Elmer Keith’s monumental work, Sixguns. Keith said “When Ruger first mentioned bringing out his now famous Single Six, incorporating all coil springs and a new type rebounding firing pin, we urged him to bring out a larger version as to frame, barrel, and cylinder, for the most popular big cartridges, .357 mag, .44 Spl. and .45 Colt. We also criticized his .22 caliber Single Six, suggesting that the flat top be left a full flat top frame and the rear sight be fitted back at the extreme rear-end and adjustable for both windage and elevation. We recommended a sloping ramp-type front sight with its highest point near the muzzle to give maximum sight radius. We also asked for an improved thumb piece on the extractor rod, which we will get, and a wide Bisley-type hammer and wide trigger, not in view at this writing…. The first production, against our wishes, is to be in .357 caliber and we expect it will be sometime before he can get into production of larger calibers. For the shooter, be he plinker, peace officer, cow-poke or hunter, this new Ruger is a good well-made arm. Colt collectors may prefer the original old peacemaker but any shooter who wants to have first-class target sights combined in a really modern arm with all the improvements including the rebounding separate firing pin will find the new Ruger Blackhawk the finest single action revolver manufactured to date. Aside for the few minor improvements we have mentioned and which we will no doubt get in the final production run, it is the best commercially made gun we have yet tested in single action….
The frame of this Ruger closely follows the design Harold Croft and myself dreamed up 30 years ago, except that the top strap is even thicker and heavier, and does not extend to the rear quite as far… We would have preferred a slightly larger frame and a cylinder a bit larger in diameter, especially for the .45 Colt cartridge, but this 357 Ruger is one honey of the gun and amply heavy for .357 and .44 Special and will give standard chamber wall thickness if Bill ever chambers it for the .45 Colt…. Bill Ruger has a far better single action than has ever came out of the Colt factory.”
Skeeter Skelton was also a great fan of the Ruger .357 Blackhawk, “I recall a day in early 1956 when I saw my first one. That was when, with a few simple precautions, a man could display his guns in racks and on the walls of his house without serious fear of thievery. This one hung behind glass in a huge, peg board-walled gun room of Dewey Hicks, an Amarillo home builder and owner of possibly the largest collection of guns, especially antique handguns in that part of West Texas… This new Ruger .357 looked good. It seemed an excellent idea to have an adjustable-sighted single action in the powerful chambering.... It looked and felt like a customized Colt, with a thick, wide flat topstrap, inset with the steel Micro rear sight. Its 4 5/8-inch barrel was somewhat muzzle heavy, partially due to its steel ejector rod housing, which was not changed to aluminum for years. I liked it very much….
Over the years I owned and used a succession of Ruger .357s with 4 5/8-and 6 1/2-inch barrels, taking a great deal of game up to javelina size with them. I bought one of the seldom seen .357 Flattop Blackhawks with a factory 10-inch barrel from a friend. He could shoot it very well but couldn't find a comfortable way to carry it. I had the barrel cut to 7 1/2 inches, which was never a standard factory length for the .357 Blackhawk, and had the nicest-carrying Ruger I've ever owned.” (Shooting Times, March 1977)
If ever a handgun was designed with the outdoorsman in mind, it was the Ruger .357 Blackhawk. These first centerfire sixguns from Ruger were virtually indestructible, fitted with rugged adjustable sights, carried an easy packing 4 5/8” barrel, were chambered in the most powerful cartridge available in 1955, and I was in for a rude awakening the first time I fired the .357 Blackhawk. It was on a Sunday afternoon and I got belted twice. I had been used to shooting the .22 Single-Six by curling my little finger under the butt and resting on whatever was available. One shot from the .357 Magnum and the ensuing sharp rap on my finger as the Blackhawk recoiled cured me of that habit immediately. In those days there was no such thing as ear protectors, at least I never saw any, and the horrendous muzzle blast from the .357 penetrated all the way to my brain but apparently not far enough. My ears were still ringing on Thursday and yet I continued to practice unprotected sixgunning. I pay the price today with one dead ear and the other operating at about 25%. It would be at least 10 years before I started wearing ear protectors and I'm very fortunate today to not suffer from tinnitus. No firearm, except in an emergency or possibly a hunting situation, should ever be fired without ear protection.
My 4 5/8” .357 Blackhawk was a three-digit serial number example and certainly served me well. For my use I made myself a belt and holster; cast bullets over my long-suffering mother’s stove often splashing little pieces of lead on her refrigerator; and using .38 Special brass, loads were assembled with 13.5 grains of the then Hercules #2400. My bullets of choice, both from Lyman molds, were the Elmer Keith designed 168 grain #358429 and Ray Thompson’s gas checked 156 grain #358156. The latter has two crimping grooves, with the top groove normally used for .357 Magnum brass, and the bottom with .38 Special loads. I still use both bullets today. My bullets were molded one at a time in Lyman single cavity molds, and .38 Special brass was easy to obtain at bargain basement prices so although the frame said .357 Magnum, more often than not the Blackhawk was a heavy .38 Special. It was a great sixgun, and being the stupid teenager that I was, I showed my appreciation by selling it. Not once, but twice. I sold it, got it back, and sold it again. It is a miracle any of us survive our too often brainless teenage years.
The standard Packin’ Pistol barrel length was soon joined by the 6 1/2” barrel .357 Blackhawk and before the end of the decade of the 1950s, the rarest .357 Blackhawk appeared. Several years ago at a local gun show I spotted a Flat-Top, as these original .357 Blackhawks are now called, in a batch of revolvers placed in somewhat of a pile on the table. As I started to remove some of the other sixguns so I could get to the one I really wanted to see I soon realized the barrel stretched through most of that pile. What I had found was the seldom seen 10” barreled .357 Magnum Blackhawk mentioned by Skeeter. I wrote the check as quickly as I could, and then found that it was even rarer than I had imagined as it was one of only 50 of approximately 1,000 10” .357 Blackhawks made with eight-groove rifling.
The finish was well worn, and the front sight was too low. It has now been fitted with a Patridge front sight of the proper height and re-blued. Had it been in excellent shape to begin with I would have left it alone, however, this is a shooting sixgun not a collector’s piece. For some unknown reason Ruger has never offered the .357 Blackhawk in the 7 1/2” length.
The .357 Magnum Blackhawk Flat-Top version has a special place in my heart for several reasons. It was the first new centerfire single action I had ever purchased. In between my Ruger Single-Six and the .357 Blackhawk came a beautiful 4 3/4” Colt Single Action Army, circa 1900, chambered in .38-40, however, it was the .357 Blackhawk that not only really taught me to shoot it was also the main vehicle for my learning about reloading and bullet casting.
Meanwhile over at Smith & Wesson in 1955, engineers were working on chambering for a new Magnum. Keith had been calling for his .44 Special loading to be offered commercially for thirty years. The powers that be were afraid Keith's .44 Special load of a 250 grain bullet at 1,200 feet per second would strain older sixguns so they decided to build a new gun for a new cartridge. Smith & Wesson and Remington combined to give us the .44 Magnum sixgun, cartridge, and load that upped Keith's loading to 1,500 feet per second.
The original .44 Magnum cartridge was more than Keith had envisioned and definitely more cartridge than Bill Ruger understood at the time. Three .357 Blackhawks were re-chambered to the new .44 Magnum and fitted with 4 5/8”, 5 1/2”, and 7 1/2” barrels and displayed at the NRA Show. Keith told Ruger that the cylinders and frames, the same size as the Colt Single Action, were too small for the .44 Magnum and further testing proved him right. When one of the .357 to .44 sixguns blew, Ruger enlarged the frame size from 3.313" to 3.438", front to back, and cylinder length was increased from 1.604" to 1.749" and the result in 1956 was the .44 Blackhawk.
In some parts of the country, the Ruger .44 actually hit the shelves 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; the Ruger, not quite so nicely finished sold for $96. With the advent of the new big bore Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, Ruger was able to jump on the project very quickly. The story may or may not be true, but if it is not, it is one of those should be’s. The story goes that a Ruger employee found an empty .44 Magnum cartridge case in the dumpster behind Remington. (If he did, what in the world was he doing there?) A more likely story is that one of Bill Ruger's friends from either Remington or Smith & Wesson delivered a bag of a .44 Magnum brass to Bill Ruger in secret one night. This story sounds more plausible, but then again it may also fall into the myth category.
Skeeter Skelton was an early fan of the new Ruger .44 Blackhawk. “In 1960, I took a hiatus from law-enforcement to go into the cattle business. I foolishly sold many of my best guns. Still a trader, I dropped into Bud Maffett’s gunshop in Clovis, New Mexico, and spied a standard model flattop Ruger .44 Magnum with an unusual 7 1/2-inch barrel. I have always preferred the early flattop Ruger to the more massive Super Blackhawk, so when Bud priced this one--the first I had seen with the longer than standard 6 1/2-inch barrel--at $50, I snapped it up. Although I owned several .44 Magnums of various types, this old flattop is still my favorite. I’ve taken a great deal of game with it and trust it implicitly.” (Shooting Times, August 1978)
I spent a lot of time, and money, in the local gunshop in those days so I was there to find the first Ruger .44 Magnum Blackhawk in my area. It had a four digit serial number, 6 ½” barrel, and kicked like 44 proverbial mules all at once. Previous to this I had fired the .44 Magnum from Smith & Wesson and I thought it was bad. It only kicked; the Ruger went the extra mile. The first full-house load from the Ruger .44 and the barrel was pointing skyward while the hammer had dug a hole in the back of my hand that was rapidly turning red, blood red. It took a lot of learning on my part to handle Ruger's first .44 Magnum, however, it eventually became a favorite.
The original barrel was cut to 4 5/8” and carried for many years over many miles of desert, sagebrush, foothills, forest and mountains of Idaho in a George Lawrence #120 Keith holster and then later, when I needed that barrel for a .44 Special project, the Flat-Top .44 was sent back to Ruger and re-barreled to 7 ½” as it remains today. I was also fortunate to find an original 7 1/2” Flat-Top .44 in the early 1970s, however instead of Skeeter’s $50 price I had to go $147 which was still a tremendous bargain. At about the same time I also found a 10” .44 Flat-Top for the incredible price of $125.
Ruger's Flat-Top Blackhawks, as these original Magnums have come to be called, would be offered only for a relatively short time. The .357 Blackhawk, first offered with a 4 5/8” barrel, was soon joined by a 6 ½” version and a very rare 10” example. It would be manufactured from 1955 to 1962. The .44 Magnum Blackhawk, which arrived one year later would also be offered in two very rare versions with 7 ½” and 10” barrels. It also ended production in 1962. Ruger collectors say there never was a 4 5/8” factory produced .44 Blackhawk, however, Elmer Keith relates in Sixguns (1961 2nd Edition) how he was presented with one in this short length by Bill Ruger in 1956. Perhaps it was made up especially to replace the .4 5/8” .357 Magnum Blackhawk chambered to .44 Magnum that Keith never received. The Blackhawk was an instant and ongoing success although the original Flat-Tops were only made until 1963. The .357 Blackhawk reached approximately 43,000 units by the time production ceased in 1962. The .44 Magnum's barrel lengths were the common place 6 1/2” barrel length (approximately 27,000 produced) and the rare 10” length (1,500) and the rarest 7 1/2” (1,000). By 1957 I had acquired all three single actions offered by Ruger: the .22 Single-Six, the .357 Magnum Blackhawk, and the .44 Magnum Blackhawk. Had I never advanced past that point I would still have enjoyed nearly five decades of enjoyable sixgun shooting.
Selected loads for the Ruger .357 Flat-Top .38 Special Brass
Bullet/Load Sixgun MV 5 Shots/25 Yds
RCBS #38-150 KT/11.0 gr. #2400 6 ½” Flat-Top 1,111 2 ¼”
RCBS #38-150KT/13.5 gr. #2400 6 ½” Flat-Top 1,419 2”
RCBS #38-150KT/13.5 gr. #2400 4 5/8” Flat-Top 1,370 2 ½”
Lyman #358156/13.5 gr. #2400 4 5/8” Flat-Top 1,356 1 ¼”
Lyman #358156/13.5 #2400 6 ½” Flat-Top 1,396 1”
Lyman #358156/13.5 gr. #2400 4 5/8” Flat-Top 1,329 1 ¾”
Lyman #358156/13.5 gr. #2400 10” Flat-Top 1,432 7/8”
.357 Magnum Brass
Lyman #358156 / 14.0 gr. #2400 4 5/8” Flat-Top 1,359 2 1/2"
Lyman #358156 / 15.0 gr. #2400 4 5/8” Flat-Top 1,386 1 5/8"
Lyman #358156 / 16.0 gr. #2400 4 5/8” Flat-Top 1,467 2 1/8"
Selected Loads for the .44 Magnum Blackhawk Flat-Top
Bullet/Load Sixgun MV 5Shots/25 Yds
Lyman #429421/10.0 gr. Unique 6 1/2” Flat-Top 1,192 1”
Lyman #429421/18.5 gr. #2400 6 1/2” Flat-Top 1,355 2 1/2”
BRP 295SWCGC/10.0 gr. Unique 6 1/2” Flat-Top 1,164 1 3/8”
RCBS #44-300SWC/16.3 gr. #2400 6 1/2” Flat-Top 1,155 2 1/4”
Lyman #429421/10.0 gr. Unique 7 1/2”Flat-Top 1,187 3/4"
Lyman #429421/18.5 gr. #2400 7 1/2” Flat-Top 1,389 2 ”
Lyman #429421/22.0 gr. #2400 7 1/2” Flat-Top 1,519 2 3/4"
Lyman #431244GC/22.0 gr. #2400 7 1/2” Flat-Top 1,528 2 1/2"
BRP 295SWCGC/10.0 gr. Unique 7 1/2” Flat-Top 1,170 1”
RCBS #44-300SWC/16.3 gr #2400 7 1/2” Flat-Top 1,164 1 3/8”
Lyman #429421/10.0 gr. Unique 10” Flat-Top 1,203 2 7/8”
BRP 295SWCGC/10.0 gr. Unique 10” Flat-Top 1,173 1 1/8”
RCBS #44-300 SWC/16.3 gr. #2400 10” Flat-Top 1,198 1 5/8”
It has been 50 years since the first Ruger Blackhawk arrived, however I could easily spend the rest of my outdoor life with these easy packin' and good shootin' Ruger Single Actions. The loading of a 250 to 300 grain hard cast bullet over 10.0 grains of Unique is a tack-driver in most Ruger .44 Magnum single actions and at 1,150 to 1,200 feet per second in long barreled sixguns it will certainly handle most sixgun chores quite nicely.