At times, you just gotta go cowboy. Among my favorite handguns are single-action revolvers. I like the feel, heft, accuracy and handling. While some say they are outdated, they sure get a lot of use. I have had a single-action revolver on hand for most of my life and have carried them in the wild, hunting and on my person for personal defense. I do not recommend the single action for personal defense use, but what they once did they still will do.
Without getting into war stories, the first time I held a member of our protein-fed ex-con criminal class at gunpoint, the handgun in my hand was a Colt single-action revolver. The burglar was impressed. But the best of the single-action revolvers was yet to come, and I do not say that lightly. For longevity, ruggedness and accuracy, the Ruger Vaquero is at the top of the heap. I also should add that it is affordable. To date, I have owned four—two in .45 Colt, one in .44-40 WCF and another .44 Special.
The .357 Magnum chambering may be the most practical, but I just cannot warm up to a single-action revolver in a modern caliber. My bad I suppose, but I like the .45 Colt, and my only Vaquero is a .45 Colt. It just looks and feels right. On the other hand, if I were to engage in a serious attempt at Cowboy Action Shooting, the .357 Magnum loaded with light-recoiling and super-accurate .38 Special loads would be my number one choice. I carry my single actions in the field, and since I may call on them to take meat or dispatch a nasty beast, I chamber the .45 Colt cartridge.
The Vaquero is a single-action, six-shot revolver. By single action, we mean that you must cock the hammer before every shot. The trigger does one thing; it releases the hammer. You thumb the hammer back to full cock. Then release the trigger, and the trigger action drops the hammer. The Ruger is available in a variety of finishes, with blue and stainless steel the most common. There are also several grip materials and special versions, such as the Montado.
The Vaquero features a bold, blade-type post front sight and a rear sight that is simply a notch milled into the top strap. The Vaquero comes in barrel lengths from 4.625 to 7.5 inches. The Ruger is the safest single-action revolver ever made. In the past, the rule was five beans under the wheel for carrying a single-action revolver. The hammer-mounted firing pin would rest on the cartridge primer when the hammer was fully lowered on the chamber. Various half-cock notches and the like were not true safety measures.
The rule of thumb in those days was to load one, skip one, load four and then cock the hammer and lower it on an empty cylinder. That left an empty chamber under the firing pin. The Ruger design features a transfer bar system. The bar acts as a barrier between the hammer and firing pin. When you cock the hammer, the transfer bar rises into place. As the hammer falls, it smacks the transfer bar, and the transfer bar contacts the firing pin. This modern system makes the Ruger safe to carry with six rounds fully loaded.
The original single-action revolver required you to place the revolver’s hammer at half-cock to load it. The loading port opened when you put the hammer in the half-cock notch. Then you thumbed in the cartridges one at a time. To eject the cartridges, you followed the same procedure, pressing the ejector rod, in the ejector-rod housing under the barrel, to eject the cartridges one at a time. Yes, one at a time. The single action is no speed demon for loading or unloading. The Ruger differs in that you open the loading port with the hammer at rest and the cylinder turned to load or unload without having to place the revolver on half-cock.
The single-action revolver is more about a sense of history and a link with the past. It will serve as an all-around, go-anywhere, do-anything revolver—but only for those schooled in its use. If you believe that one shot should suffice, and will suffice in your personal scenario, then the single action in a big-bore caliber is for you. The uncomplicated and compact single-action mechanism is an advantage of the 4.75-inch barrel .45 Colt.
You can pack a single-action .45 about as easily as a 4-inch barrel .38 Special double-action revolver. There are two types of Vaquero revolvers in circulation, but only one is available now. The original was built on the Ruger Blackhawk frame. It is beefy, strong as an anvil and well-balanced to most of us. However, the slightly smaller Colt single-action revolver is lighter and smaller and has the traditional “gunfighter” feel.
Intended as an ultra-strong hunting revolver, the Blackhawk was not a cowboy gun, and the original Vaquero revolver was a good cut-down version of the Blackhawk without adjustable sights. The New Vaquero is a smaller revolver, similar to the Colt Single-Action Army. The original Vaquero is well suited to +P .45 Colt loads, while the new version is better with standard loads that would be used in the Colt Single-Action Army. That is fine; this is a cowboy gun, not a hunting gun. The new model does seem lighter in the hand, but my old model works just fine.
When handling the Ruger single-action revolver, a proper grip is essential. For most hand sizes, the small finger wraps around the bottom of the grip. It is important to remember that the thumb does not come from the rear to cock the hammer, but rather lies across the hammer from the side to cock the hammer. This side motion does not disturb the grip and offers more leverage. The plow-handled grip is very comfortable in recoil, rolling upward more than moving straight to the rear. It is quite comfortable to fire my .45 Colt version with standard loads and heavier handloads. Recovery is simply a tad slower with the heavier loads.
In the past, the only factory option was the original 255-grain conical bullet load. This was a fine defense load with an excellent reputation. A generation ago, you could get factory hollow points that were loaded down, used light bullets and were less effective than the original load. I once saw one of these loads stopped by the vinyl side molding of a vehicle. Today, you still can get the 255-grain bullet.
Another addition to the lineup is the .45 Colt cowboy load. These are usually standard-weight bullets loaded to 750 fps for cowboy-action shooting. A strong favorite is the Winchester cowboy loading. Packaged in a box with an original Western appearance, those loads burn clean and deliver good accuracy. Convincing a cartridge that was originally designed for 40 grains of black powder to burn clean with a modest charge of modern propellant is no easy trick, but Winchester has done it. I also have fired a good number of their cowboy loads in .44-40 WCF. This is a fine cartridge, perhaps the best of the Old West loads as originally loaded and accurate with proper load practice.
While modern loads are light for use in cowboy-action shooting, I worked up some serious handloads for the 7.5-inch barrel Ruger Vaquero I owned a few years ago; 200 grains at 1,200 fps exhibited modest recoil and excellent accuracy. That is 10mm class or a little better. Another class of loads available for the .45 Colt is intended for personal defense.
The Winchester PDX uses a 250-grain bullet with an excellent balance of expansion and penetration. That load demonstrates an advantage over the original 255-grain load. While velocity is modest in the 800 fps range, the 250-grain bullet has plenty of momentum and expands well. Accuracy is good to excellent.
How accurate is the Vaquero? Revolvers are sometimes individuals, and quality firearms will prefer one load to the other. Just the same, I have fired enough Vaquero revolvers to know that my example is representative of the breed. The 4.75-inch barrel Vaquero will print 5-shot groups of 2.5 inches at 25 yards with the Cowboy load or Winchester defense load. That is more than adequate for cowboy action or personal defense. A word of caution, though: If you use one of the wonderfully durable stainless-steel revolvers, be certain to apply sight black to the front sight. Otherwise, glare from sunlight will cause you to fire the pistol off to one side or the other, depending on from which side of the sight the sunlight is coming.
When packing the Ruger, I have used a couple of excellent holsters. For cowboy-action shooting, the Rocking K Saddlery holster gives the ultimate cowboy look, although few cowboys purchased a holster as nice as this Cattlebrand. The Mexican loop holster was easily the most popular in the Old West, although the Slim Jim and others also had their days.
The Diamond Loop Cattlebrand holster is very distinctive and quite different from the average Mexican loop in style and appearance. The holster is well made of good material and should last for many years. It is, incidentally, a fine field holster as well as a cowboy-action holster. For general use and concealed carry, the Ted Blocker CCI is a great design. That holster fits between the belt and belt slide, allowing the holster to ride high, affording an excellent sharp draw. Comfort is good, and the holster features very attractive Blocker tanning. There is a small loop for securing the hammer if needed. When hiking and generally spelunking, I like this holster. The Ruger will handle any likely problem—man or beast—and it is a very handy and comfortable firearm to use.
The Ruger single-action revolver is not for everyone. For those who hear the call of the single-action revolver, there is nothing quite like the Ruger. It is traditional in appearance, but the heart and action of the Vaquero are all modern coil spring and CNC-machined reliability. It is accurate enough for hunting, but the Vaquero is at its best at just plain packing.
Do you enjoy shooting single-action revolvers? Tell about your experience in the comment section.
Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooters Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.
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