In the earlier chapters we have discussed how readily and eagerly gun writers of the time accepted Bill Ruger’s single action sixguns. In comparing them to Colt Single Action Army Models it was often said the Ruger Blackhawk was a better single action sixgun then the old Colt Model P. That argument still continues today, and the problem with the argument all comes down to whether one is arguing from the head or from the heart. There is no doubt any Ruger Blackhawk is stronger than any Colt Single Action ever produced. Ruger wins that one. On the other hand speaking from pure aesthetics, anyone must surely admit, at least artistically speaking, the Colt has classic lines the Ruger has never achieved; or at least until now. I sat in Bill Ruger's office as he showed me the new single action sixgun Ruger was about to unveil. That was in the early 1990s but let us back up a bit and see how we got there.
Once I purchased my first Ruger I could not help comparing it to the classic Colt Single Action Army. The .22 Ruger Single-Six, looked much like a Colt and felt much like a Colt with two great advantages. It was virtually indestructible and exceptionally inexpensive to feed. That was the great reality of this little sixgun and perhaps even more important, at least to my life, was the fact it began my deep and enduring love affair with the single action sixgun.
The first centerfire Ruger, the .357 Magnum Blackhawk became readily available in my area about this time and while it did not have the beautiful esthetically flowing lines of the Colt it was close and I was soon to find out superior in one all important way. At the time, pre-War Colt Single Actions were plentiful and cost about the same as one would pay for a new Ruger or Smith & Wesson Highway Patrolman. By the time I had 50 plus year-old .38 Special, .45 Colt and .41 Long Colt Single Action Armies added to the first .38-40, I soon discovered that 50 year old Colt springs broke, especially hand and bolt springs, and Ruger coil springs did not. Even new Colts, which were not properly tuned placed undue stress on hand and bolt springs causing their premature demise.
It did not take me long to realize the ideal situation would be a Colt Single Action Army with Ruger lockwork. That of course never happened. But 35 years later we came almighty close, and this year even closer. The sixgun Bill Ruger had on his desk to show me in the early 1990s was a totally different style of Ruger single action. Until that time every Ruger Blackhawk had fully adjustable sights; even the original .22 Single-Six had a rear sight adjustable for windage by drifting it right or left in its dovetail slot. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new shooting game arrived that being Cowboy Action Shooting. This sport required four traditionally-styled firearms, a levergun, a shotgun, and two sixguns all of which had to be originally manufactured prior to 1899 or replicas thereof.
As the sport spread across the country a special dispensation was given to allow the use of Ruger Blackhawks shooting in the Modern Class, however they were not allowed in the Traditional Class, which required two sixguns with fixed sights such as those found on the Colt Single Action Army. Ruger saw a large market and decided to fill it. Credit Bill Ruger for taking a giant backwards step forwards and offering a 20th Century sixgun with a real 19th Century look. Traditional single actions are normally thought of as having case colored frames, and although a few early Single -Sixes were finished with a case colored frame, they were never offered to the public. Ruger “de-horned” the Blackhawk and case colored the main frame making it look very much like the original Colt Single Action. The Vaquero had arrived.
After a single action history spanning nearly four decades, Ruger began offering a classic looking single action sixgun with fixed rather than adjustable sights. Now this seems like anything but progress at first glance, after all, the Blackhawks had been delivering superior service for four decades because they had excellent adjustable sights. Beginning with the .357 Magnum, then the .44 Magnum, the .41 Magnum, the .30 Carbine, the .45 Colt, all Blackhawks have come equipped with the familiar massive top strap fitted with an adjustable rear sight.
The Vaquero, as the name implies, is a throwback to the B western movies of the 1930s-1940s. It was designed to conjure up in the Old West in every sixgunner's minds. Ruger does not make very many, if any, marketing errors. Cowboy Action Shooting was big 15 years ago when the decision was made to go with the Vaquero and is even larger now with more than 70,000 members in the number one governing body, SASS (Single Action Shooting Society), and I wouldn't be surprised to find there are at least that many who also participate in local matches without being members of SASS. Cowboy Action Shooting is based upon enjoyment of the guns and clothes from the last quarter of the 19th century, and thanks to Ruger and the introduction of the Vaquero, 19th afficianados could have an authentic looking single action sixgun with virtually unbreakable lockwork and a transfer bar making it perfectly safe to carry loaded with six rounds. This last item is very important as many of those taking part in Cowboy Action Shooting are not experienced shooters but rather brand-new to the shooting sports. The Vaquero provides the safest possible single action sixgun for their use.
The first Vaquero was offered in the 7 1/2” Cavalry barrel length only and only in .45 Colt. At the time it was the preferred Cowboy Action Shooting caliber and many shooters liked the authentic looking 7 1/2” length. This is why the first chambering in the Vaquero was none of the modern Magnums of .44, .41 or .357 but the 125 plus year old .45 Colt. The first gun may have been a 7 1/2” blued and case colored .45, however the demand was so great for this new old sixgun Ruger added the two standard Colt Single Action Army barrel lengths, the 4 3/4” Civilian, or Gunfighter's Model (in Ruger's case this length is 4 5/8”) and the 5 1/2” Artillery Model, all in blue with a case colored frame. Then came stainless steel models in .45 Colt, .44 Magnum and, at least for a short while, in .44-40. As we have pointed out when the Vaquero first arrived the most popular caliber for Cowboy Action Shooting was the old .45 Colt. It is still popular, however there is one large contingency among Cowboy Action Shooters who are driven largely by the need to shoot as quickly as possible with minimum recoil resulting in a call for a medium bore cartridge in large frame sixguns. For these shooters, the answer has been light loaded .38 Specials in the .357 Magnum Vaquero, a situation I find hard to understand. Today less than 5% of the Vaqueros sold have 7 1/2” barrels, and at least in the matches I have seen there are a lot more .38/.357 than .45 Colt sixguns.
One of the great selling points of Blackhawks for all the years is the fact sights were fully adjustable and whatever the load, within reason, and however one held the sixgun or saw the sights, they could be adjusted to mate point of aim with point of impact. Since the Vaqueros are fixed-sighted guns, it could become a real problem getting a gun that shoots to point of aim. Ruger has taken care of this problem as the front sight blade is generously high to allow each individual sixgunner to adjust his/her sights by judicious filing for the particular load and hold he/she prefers. My first .45 Vaquero shot three inches low with 300 grain bullets and twelve inches low with 225 grain bullets. It was dialed in to hit point of aim with 255 grain bullets at 850-950 fps.
The Vaquero, in either blue/case colored or stainless steel, and especially in the shorter barrel lengths has become tremendously popular with Cowboy Action Shooters. In fact, at the last local match I attended more than 80% of the competitors were using Vaqueros. There's an extra added bonus with the traditionally styled Ruger as the stainless steel version of the Vaquero strikes me as the near-perfect outdoorsman's sixgun especially for a packer or guide or woods bum who wants a strong dependable sixgun that will shoot one load to the preferred point of aim and distance with no worries about adjustable sights getting out of whack. A 4 5/8” .45 Colt or .44 Magnum adjusted to hit point of aim with 300 grain bullets at 1,250 fps in the .44 or around 1,100 fps in the .45 Colt is an excellent shooting, easy to pack big bore sixgun. Some Vaqueros have even been converted to five-shot .500 Linebaugh giving an extremely powerful, but lightweight, easy to pack, go anywhere sixgun. Recoil? Don’t even ask!
Sizewise the Vaquero is slightly larger than the Colt Single Action Army (for now). A close look at a 7 1/2” Vaquero in .45 Colt reveals a sixgun that at 43 ounces is 10% heavier than its counterpart from Hartford, a similarly barreled Colt Single Action Army. The flat-top frame is contoured and rounded off very nicely to provide a western style single action look and the traditional hog wallow style rear sight sets high enough one can sight down the top of a Vaquero with out cocking the hammer. The rear sight does not extend all the way to the back of the frame but rather stops about five-sixteenths of an inch in front of the hammer face resulting in a dished out area that gives a flat sight picture. I find blackening this area with spray on sight black helped my groups immensely.
The front sight of the Vaquero is shaped like a traditional Colt Single Action front sight and with a height of three-eighth's of an inch affording plenty of latitude for filing in to one's load and hold as mentioned earlier. It is also shaped to provide a flat black sight picture. The grip frame is Blackhawk style and size and is steel rather than the alloy found on most Blackhawks since 1955. The firing pin is frame mounted as on all Ruger Blackhawks and the Vaquero has a transfer bar single action. This means it is loaded by opening the loading gate, which then allows the cylinder to rotate for loading or unloading with the hammer down.
The frame of the Vaquero is the case colored not case hardened. The colors are somewhat subdued and show up best in certain lighting, but they are nowhere near as bright as those found on most Colt Single Actions or Colt-style replicas. Holding a Colt Single Action Army in one hand while clutching a Ruger Vaquero in the other really emphasizes the difference. There are two other major differences with the Vaquero compared to the Colt, those being the fact the Vaquero is every bit as strong as the Blackhawk from which it descended and also the great difference in price when compared to the Colt. And therein lies the great popularity of the Ruger Blackhawks whether they be standard Blackhawks, Super Blackhawks, or Vaqueros. They are priced within reach of any sixgunner. The legacy of Bill Ruger is not just great shootin' sixguns, and I have never experienced a big bore Ruger in nearly 50 years that would not shoot, but truly affordable great shooting sixguns.
Shooting the Vaquero is pure single action pleasure. It does not have the hammer at half cock, open the loading gate, load one, skip one, load four, cock hammer and let it down on an empty operation of the much beloved Colt Single Action Army but it is safe to carry fully loaded with six rounds. That is not important to those of us who were raised with old style single actions and know how to handle them but it is tremendously important to new shooters. I do not change very easily so I must admit I treat all single action sixguns the same. Yes, I normally still load five rounds even in true six-shot sixguns; and even though the Vaquero is safe fully loaded with six rounds, Cowboy Action Shooting rules require only five rounds and the hammer down on an empty chamber even in New Model Rugers
Currently Vaqueros are mostly available in the two shorter barrel lengths with the choice of blue/case colored or stainless steel finish and chambered in .45 Colt, .44 Magnum, or .357 Magnum. The Vaquero is also now available in a Bisley Model version in the same chamberings and finishes but with the Bisley Model grip frame, hammer, and trigger; and it has even been offered in a Sheriff’s Model style with a 3 1/2” barrel and birds head grip. Some special issue Vaqueros have been offered through Ruger distributors in .38-40/.40S&W and .45 Colt/.45ACP Convertible Models with dual cylinders. By the time this book is printed, Ruger is scheduled to introduce two new single action sixguns. One will be the 50th Anniversary Model of the Blackhawk chambered in .357 with a New Model Flat-Top frame the same size as the original Blackhawk frame; and to follow up with this model, a newer Vaquero will be offered with a original Blackhawk/Colt Single Action sized frame. First sixguns will be chambered in .357 and .45 Colt.
Is the Vaquero a hunting handgun? I prefer adjustable sights, however if one chooses one hunting load and files in the sights to hit to point of aim, and if the chambering chosen is .45 Colt or .44 Magnum, yes it could be. What about the Vaquero for defensive use? Again with the proper choice, yes. A short-barreled Vaquero or Sheriff’s Model in .357 Magnum (very heavy to pack all day in this chambering), .44 Magnum or .45 Colt, it could be. A better choice will be the newer, smaller, lighter Vaquero.
I am a great fan of the Colt Single Action Army; that is no secret. But I am also a great fan of the Vaquero. It has the same ability to conjure up visions in my mind’s eye as the Colt Single Action. I am 10 years old again and sitting in the front row of the Allen Theater watching a double feature. It may be Roy, or Gene, or Hoppy; it doesn’t matter. My soul is stirred, my spirit is kindled, my heart beats a little faster; a good single action will do that. Colt Single Actions and Vaqueros conjure up great visions from our historical past, bacon frying over a campfire during a drizzling rain in the mountains, the smell of powder smoke from Tombstone or Dodge City, trail dust from thousands of longhorn cattle walking north, bugles in the afternoon, … Each time one is picked up the same images emerge. With the Vaquero, the bacon smell is a little lighter, the trail dust a little fainter but it is there. The Spirit of the Old West lives on with the Vaquero.