Firearms|Reviews

The Single Action Army and the Bisley Advantage

Ruger revolver top, isley revolver with thinner grip bottom

The Colt Single Action revolver was a sensation when it was introduced. Building on Colt’s reputation for durable fight winning revolvers the solid-frame centerfire revolver quickly became a military and civilian favorite. An advantage of the Colt was that it chambered ever more powerful cartridges including the .44-40 WCF and .45 Colt.

Ruger revolver top, isley revolver with thinner grip bottom
The Ruger, top, is also called a Bisley but the original grip isn’t as thick as the Ruger.

Another advantage that is often pointed out is that the Colt grip frame handles recoil well. The Single Action Army more or less rolls in recoil and allows a rapid follow up shot for those that have mastered quickly cocking the hammer as the muzzle rises. I have said that the SAA is comfortable to use and fire. And it is in standard calibers.

If you use heavy loads in the .45 Colt the SAA becomes less pleasant to fire. The trigger guard sometimes raps the knuckles of the hand and the pistol becomes less docile. When Ruger chambered the new Blackhawk for the powerful .44 Magnum cartridge, the formerly-docile single-action revolver became a bear to manage. This led to the Super Blackhawk grip frame, but that is another story.

Part of the problem was that the SAA plow handle was designed to pivot during firing. Recoil dynamics change with a heavy load. A 255-grain bullet at 900 fps is manageable in the SAA. However, when the .44 Magnum came along, we were throwing 255 grains at 1,400 fps. The Bisley grip frame was re-discovered.

Ruger Bisley with open loading chamber
The Ruger Bisley seems odd at first but works well for all types of shooting.

The Bisley was designed to make for a different grip, a target-type grip for use in target competition such as the old Bisley shooting matches. In simple terms, the primary difference between the SAA and Bisley grip frame is in the fit and handling. The SAA points well. Some would say it points like a finger and offers rapid hits on a target.

The Bisley is more stable for slow fire. You have to look at how target-type grips lock the wrist in place for accurate fire. We have to understand how muscle adduction works. Take a closed fist with the thumb up. If the thumb is locked down, you feel the difference in the strength and the lock. You need a strong lock on the grip. Remember, those who engaged in martial arts know how to keep the wrists offset, so as not to wreck their joints when dealing heavy blows. The same goes for handgun grips. A heavy-kicking handgun should offset recoil.

The Ruger Bisley and the Ruger Hunter grips are not exactly the same as the original SAA derived Bisley, and they should not be. The new Ruger grip frames absorbed recoil better. The new Bisley revolver grip frame managed recoil in a superior manner to either the SAA or original Bisley. Ruger made the new Bisley resemble the original but make the grip thicker. During recoil many heavy magnum revolvers rotate. The Bisley grip frame is superior in that they move recoil back to the shoulder.

Three revolvers
Three .44s: The Ruger, top, is distinctly more comfortable with heavy loads.

Firing Tests

I enjoy firing and using single action revolvers. While Colt and Cimarron offer authentic designs, I like Ruger revolvers for firing heavy loads. Among the revolvers I carry when hiking and camping or traveling in certain areas, are a beautiful pair of Ruger revolvers—one in .45 Colt and one in .44 Magnum. The stainless New Vaquero is a 4 5/8-inch barrel .45 Colt with a conventional grip frame. This revolver handles quickly and rides comfortably in a Galco Wheelgunner holster.

I enjoy using several loads in this revolver. Among the mildest and most accurate are two loads from Fiocchi. I use the 250-grain lead bullet for accuracy work and also the 250-grain jacketed bullet. Either is affordable, accurate and clean burning. It isn’t unusual for five shots to cut a 1.9-inch 25-yard group.

A heavier load for personal defense and use against animals is desirable. A classic is the Federal 225-grain SWCHP. This load is accurate and hits hard but is controllable. The CCI Blazer 200-grain JHP, using the Speer Gold Dot bullet, is faster and expands well. For general defense and protection against feral dogs and the big cats, both work well. Heavier loads, such as the classic 255-grain SWC at 1,000 fps I sometimes handload, is reaching the limits of comfort in this handgun.

Two wood revolver grips
The Ruger grip frame is designed to make firing heavy loads more comfortable.

I also own a stainless Vaquero in the Bisley version. This revolver is distinctly more comfortable to fire with the 255 grain 1,000 fps load. I have loaded the hard cast heavy bullet to 1,060 fps with good results.

Another Bisley I enjoy very much is a .44 Magnum Vaquero. This one is in blue steel. While I appreciate the ruggedness and resistance to corrosion of the stainless revolver, I like the looks of the blue steel revolver. This revolver gets a lot of us.

When I do not have time to handload, the versatility of the .44 Magnum over the .45 Colt is an advantage. With the .45 Colt, I can handload mild to heavy loads. I doubt a wild boar or one of the big cats would be able to tell the difference between a .454-inch 255-grain SWC at 1,000 fps from a .45 Colt or a .430-inch 250-grain SWC at 1,300 fps from the .44 Magnum. With the .44 Special, I may use a factory load such as the Fiocchi 200-grain JHP at 750 fps for practice. There are heavier loads such as the CCI Blazer 200-grain JHP, which is well suited to general defense. However, the .44 Magnum loads are in a class by themselves.

DM Bullard leather holster
This exotic leather holster from DM Bullard is a frequent companion when the author is off the beaten path.

After using single action revolvers for more than 40 years, these types are still among my favorite handguns and remain on the front line for use outdoors. When I have carried the piece hiking or exploring on a photographic hunt or something of that nature, when I return home the SAA revolver becomes my home defense handgun. I do not feel undergunned—far from it.

While I enjoy the traditional SAA revolvers, the Bisley-type has become my favorite for heavy loads. When you are considering a single action revolver for target shooting, hunting, or trail use, take a hard look at the Bisley. This may be the best choice for your needs.

How do the Bisley-type revolvers compare to the traditional Single Action Army models in your opinion? Share your answer in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (5)

  1. Great article on the Bisley SA revolver. Its too bad COLT is in such trouble as to not be able to make an SA in quantity. I understand STANDARD MFG in Conn is making a high end COLT style SAA I find that RUGER still makes the best SA in either the COLT style or BISLEY model. Ruger’s
    well made SA in quantity, quality, price point and various finishes. Second in importance and more authentic in appearance are the UBERTI and PIETTA nodels. I just wonder with all our modern industrial technology and such why someone cannot make copies of COLT’s Thunder model or early S+W double action revolvers from the late 1880s. S+W did make the SCHOFIELD models back in 2000. I was able to pick 3 of them in the wooden box and am now trying to find someone to make me a double authentic gun rig. Any ideas?

  2. I certainly enjoyed your article on these pistols. When my mother went off to college, my grandfather gave her an authentic Bisley pistol to protect herself while away from his protection. When my mom passed in 1992 at 77 years old, the pistol was inherited by me. The pistol is in the 32 WCF caliber and is part of a matched serial number pair, one part being the pistol and the other part is the rifle and both guns use the came cartridge. I have fired the weapon a lot and even let women fire it with real success. It is a heavy pistol and absorbs recoil very nicely so is a pleasure to fire. One of the ladies that fired it was very accurate on target and really enjoyed the experience.

  3. Guns of the Old West are why I became a gunsmith, reloaded, and competition shooter.

    My favorite Old West cartridge is the .44-40 and is a real “do it all” caliber. I have used it successfully for competition, medium game hunting and big game hunting. Its improved velocity over the .45 Long Colt combined with a Jacketed hollow-point is a devastating round. I’ve dropped 6′ black bear with a single shot from my Colt Lightning (AWS reproduction).

    I own several antique and reproduction firearms from the late 1800s. Each have a special place in my shooting world. Hand loading makes shooting possible and definitely more affordable.

    The modern steel and rifling in reproduction firearms make them even better. My 44-40 hunting round drives a 205 gr. Jacketed hollow-point at 1240 fps and deadly inside 100 yards. One shot kills are the rule.

    For antiques and Cowboy action shooting, I prefer Trail Boss in everything from .357 and larger. It doesn’t work in the various .38 calibers or smaller.

    I don’t have a favorite powder for my various 45 dash caliber rifles. My 45-90 Shilo Sharps utilizes different powders based on bullet weight. My 45-70 lever guns also use different powders based on bullet weight. The Shilo Sharps has dropped Elk and a bison with one shot kills. I get some insane velocities with 400 to 500 grain bullets from these calibers. The old buffalo hunters would go nuts at my hold overs for 1,000 yard shots!

    Great article and its always great to find others that share my passion.

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