Just before the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, target shooting had become quite popular using both Colt and Smith & Wesson single action sixguns. In 1895, to accommodate the paper punchers, Colt modified the grip frame of their standard Single Action Army to produce a target version known as the Bisley Model. (See Chapter 7) The grip frame was much longer and came up higher in the back and also behind the trigger guard to give a completely different feel, in fact changing from the fast handling gunfighter grip to a more secure and deliberate feeling target grip. Ninety years later, Ruger set out to perform the same modification on their Super Blackhawk.
Ruger's Bisley Model grip frame is not a copy of the Colt Bisley grip frame. The Ruger Bisley grip frame does not come up as high behind the trigger guard and the front strap is much straighter avoiding the ladle shape of the Colt. The result is a grip frame that actually handles recoil much better than either a standard single action grip or the original Colt Bisley Model grip frame. This is what Keith hoped to achieve with his grip shape back in the 1920s and has been carried out to near perfection by Ruger.
When Elmer Keith designed his version of the perfect sixgun in the late 1920s he combined the front strap of a standard Colt Single Action with a modified backstrap from the Bisley Model. His goal was to maintain the excellent feel of the Colt Single Action grip as to the area of the front strap and behind the trigger guard while also raising the backstrap higher to better control felt recoil and prevent the sixgun from rotating backwards in the hand when using heavy loads. The result was the #5 Single Action. (See Chapter 8) Two things to note with the Keith #5 grip frame is the fact Elmer had small hands and his heavy .44 Special loads never exceeded a 250 grain hard cast bullet at 1,200 fps. When Bill Ruger wisely decided to offer a Bisley grip frame on his Super Blackhawk, he did not use either the original Colt style nor the Keith but rather came up with a marvel of engineering that makes it possible to control the heaviest loads practical in a sixgun, in fact its use is absolutely necessary to even come close to handling some loads such as the .500 Maximum which are way above practicality in a sixgun. When Ruger brought out the Bisley Model in 1985 they labeled it as a target version of the Super Blackhawk. Instead of using target loads, most Bisley Model fanciers go to the opposite extreme using hard cast bullets at high-end velocities. Without the Bisley Model grip frame most of us could not handle these heavy loads.
I am one who has never liked the Super Blackhawk grip frame nor the Old Model Ruger grip frame (XR3-RED), also found on the New Models, as much as the original Colt SAA style found on the Ruger Flat-Tops (XR3), and was most happy to see the introduction of the Bisley Ruger as this grip frame is near perfect for my hand feeling much like the Freedom Arms single action grip and although larger, much like the original Keith #5SA grip which is also found on the Texas Longhorn Arms Improved Number Five. One thing about the Bisley grip, there seems to be no middle of the road, a shooter either loves it or hates it. I definitely like the Bisley grip frame. It changes the felt recoil for me and avoids the knuckle dusting of the Super Blackhawk frame. I do get pinched on the trigger finger by the tip of the radically curved trigger, but this can easily be taken care of by shortening and straightening the trigger.
Custom gunsmiths have adopted the Bisley Ruger as the best candidate for conversions to their really hard-kickin’ five-shot single action Rugers chambered in .475 and .500 Linebaugh. The main frame size of the Bisley is the same as the Blackhawk or Super Blackhawk, but the grip frame handles the recoil of the big cartridges much better than the others. I know I could not even come close to handling the felt recoil of either the .500 Linebaugh or the .445 SuperMag in a single action sixgun without the Bisley Model grip frame.
When the Bisley Model arrived in 1985 it was looked upon as both an improvement and a throwback that should never have happened being greeted with widely differing reactions. One gun writer called it the solution to a problem that never existed, while another one called it the best single action grip ever devised and the only one to use for heavy recoiling sixguns. I decided to see for myself by using three 7 1/2” .45 Colt Rugers all with steel grip frames. One was the new Bisley Model, a second New Model was fitted with the Super Blackhawk grip frame, while the third was an Old Model with an Old Army stainless steel grip frame. All were equipped with smooth wood grips and all were fired with the same load, Lyman’s #454424 Keith bullet over 21.5 grains of #2400. This load in .45 Colt duplicates the .44 Magnum and is for use only in heavy-framed .45 Colt sixguns such as the Ruger or Freedom Arms Model 83.
Muzzle velocity of the Old Model clocked out at 1,430 fps and the top of my trigger finger was rapped solidly as the sixgun came back in recoil. The New Model Super Blackhawk chronographed at 1,398 fps and this time rapped me solidly both in the palm and on the knuckle. The Bisley Model was slightly slower at 1,380 fps with the felt recoil being a heavy push in the palm of my hand. There is no doubt in my mind the Bisley grip frame does the best job of absorbing recoil of the three Ruger grip frames tested. However a new problem arose as the testing proceeded with heavy loads; with loads above 1,200 fps my trigger finger starting getting rapped on the bottom. The curved tip of the Bisley trigger was catching the bottom my trigger finger and actually bruised it a long session of firing heavy loads. As mentioned, this can easily be corrected by straightening the overly curved trigger. A person with a less fleshy trigger finger should have no problem that all.
Two changes were quickly made on the Bisley Model .45. I do not like aluminum ejector rod housings nor warning labels on barrels. The alloy housing was replaced with a steel version and the barrel was replaced with a pre-warning 7 1/2” New Model .45 Colt barrel. Finally, the grip frame, as well as subsequent grip frames from .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, and .44 Magnum Bisleys, were all shipped to Charles Able to be fitted with fancy walnut stocks. To this day the Bisley Model is cataloged only with a 7 1/2” barrel and offered in .45 Colt, .357 Magnum, and .44 Magnum, however, only occasionally and sparingly in .41 Magnum. Special small quantity runs have also been offered through Ruger distributors differing from the standard blued 7 1/2” version and instead in stainless steel with 5 1/2” barrels and chambered in .45 Colt, .44 Magnum, and .41 Magnum. The Single-Six framed Bisley Model has been offered with fixed sights in both a .22 Long Rifle/.22 Magnum and a .32 Magnum version.
The Ruger Bisleys have proven themselves to be well built, strong, good shooting sixguns. In fact these revolvers seem to be put together with more care than normal. I purchased two Bisleys when they first came out, one in .45 Colt and the other in .41 Magnum. One was purchased locally and the other through a distributor. The barrel/cylinder gaps on them are .002" and .003" respectively; two subsequent Bisleys in .44 Magnum and .357 Magnum go .001" and .002".This is exceptional for revolvers in the Bisley price range.
The .357 Ruger Bisley is about as comfortable a shooting .357 Magnum as one is likely to encounter. Many sixgunners are bothered by recoil even in .357s and this sixgun will be of tremendous help for them. I see no point in anyone trying to shoot any sixgun that is more powerful than they can handle and if the bottom line is a .357, this one can be loaded heavily and still not bother anyone with excessive felt recoil. For nearly 50 years my favorite standard weight cast bullet for the .357 Magnum has been the Lyman #358156 gas check designed by Ray Thompson. This is an excellent performer in the .357 Bisley over 15.5 grains of #2400 for a muzzle velocity 1,587 fps which is no doubt aided by the tight barrel/cylinder gap.
The .41 Magnum is a grand cartridge but has never had much respect except from true connoisseurs. Ruger began chambering the .41 Magnum in their Old Model Blackhawk in 1964 and carried it over to the New Model in 1973 with both versions having 4 5/8” and 6 1/2” barrel lengths. For some reason it was never offered with a 7 1/2” barrel, the length I prefer for most shooting, hunting, and especially for long-range use. This situation was corrected in the Bisley Model and results in the .41 Magnum really coming alive. I have found it to be exceptionally flat shooting and accurate out to several hundred yards. The .41 Magnum Bisley has become a real favorite as I especially like the way this sixgun shoots with Lyman's #410459 220 grain cast bullet over 19.5 grains of #2400. Velocity is around 1,500 fps. While the .41 has never been as popular as its bigger brother, it is a fine cartridge in its own right and the Ruger .4l Magnum Bisley is probably the most pleasant of all .41 Magnums to shoot except the mammoth Dan Wesson .41.
Ruger has been making .44s for a long time and they have made a lot of really good .44 sixguns. My favorite has always been the classic .44 Flat-Top. The Bisley comes real close to edging out the Flat-Top as my choice of the best .44 Magnum. All it would take would be for Ruger to remove the warning stamping on the barrel and finishing everything off with a really top quality blue job.
It is no problem achieving a full 1,500 fps with the .44 Magnum using 250 grain cast bullets in the Ruger Bisley and brass taps out easily. Either the 250 grain Keith or Lyman-Thompson #431244GC are excellent performers in the .44; 21.0 grains of #2400 being a little milder than the normal "standard" load of 22.0 grains but still gives 1,400+ fps. BRP’s 295 grain Keith SWCGC, (NEI’s #295.429) is an excellent heavyweight bullet performing well in the Ruger Bisley .44 over 21.5 grains of WW296 or H110 for around 1,350 fps; and the same bullet over 10.0 grains of Unique gives around 1,150 and is very pleasant shooting and accurate.
Ruger gave new life to the .45 Colt when it first chambered for the oldest of the big bores 35 years ago. For the first time it was possible to safely load the .45 Colt to 1,200 fps or more. When used with common sense, the Ruger Bisley makes a fine heavy duty .45 Colt. I like 21.0 grains of #2400 with a 260 grain cast bullet for around 1,300 fps, and one of my favorite bullet/load combination in the Bisley .45 is NEI's 300 grain #310.451 Keith-style bullet over 21.5 grains of WW296 for right at 1,200 fps. Definitely not a .44 Magnum heavyweight load but a respectable load that does not give excessive recoil, and certainly more than adequate for any deer or black bear. Sierra, Hornady, and Speer all make jacketed hollow points for the .45 Colt at 240, 250, and 260 grain weights respectively. While wasted in the Colt Single Action, they are perfect for the Bisley .45 Colt and will give around 1,250 fps when coupled with 25.0 grains of H110 or WW296.
The .357 Magnum Bisley Model is such a favorite I picked up a spare New Model 9mm cylinder and shipped both sixgun and extra cylinder off to Gary Reeder. Reeder chambered the 9mm cylinder to his .356 GNR which is the .41 Magnum necked down to .357. Stag grips were fitted and polished smooth, the sharp corners at the toe and the butt of the grip frame where slightly rounded and the entire sixgun was finished in high polish blue with gold embellishments. That result is a very good-looking and good shooting sixgun.
The Bisley Model is so popular Ruger, as well as Brownell’s, now offers a conversion kit consisting of Bisley Model grip frame, hammer, trigger, and stocks for converting any Blackhawk to the Bisley Model. I simply switched parts between two Bisley Vaqueros and two 4 5/8” .45 Blackhawk New Models, one in blue and the other in stainless, resulting in two excellent candidates for the category of Perfect Packin’ Pistol. The switching of parts was quite painless requiring no fitting and a pleasant evening’s work. It is not quite so easy starting with new parts, grip frame, hammer, and trigger, which have never been installed on a sixgun. Going this route will probably require some fitting and polishing. The end results are well worth the effort. Bill Ruger has been responsible for a number of excellent sixguns; the Bisley is one of the best.