Factory 5-shot Ruger Single Actions
The .454 and .480 Ruger Bisleys
By Hamilton Bowen
Ventures into high-performance revolvers began in the 1970s with Dick Casull and John Linebaugh, who utilized everything from Colts to Ruger .45 Blackhawks. But it was not until the advent of the Ruger Bisley model in 1985 that the big-bore craze started in earnest. Before the Ruger Bisley, there was simply no other revolver that handled severe recoil as well. The grip frame of the Ruger Super Blackhawk is longer than that of Colt single-actions or regular Ruger Blackhawks, but it is still essentially the traditional plow-handle shape. A plow-handle grip absorbs recoil by allowing the gun to pivot in the hand while the hand serves as sort of a friction brake. The problem is there’s not enough friction to arrest the movement created by severe recoil. Consequently, the corner of the Super Blackhawk’s dragoon-style trigger guard mauls your fingers, and the low hammer spur spears the back of your hand.
The grip frame of Ruger’s Bisley is not much like its Colt namesake. In fact, one could make a life’s work of searching the planet for a more awkward grip than the original Colt Bisley and die a failure. The Colt Bisley was devised for formal competition during the closing years of the 19th century. It’s only useful if you shoot one-handed in the peculiar, drooping-elbow style of that era. Certainly it’s not the ideal vehicle for the deployment of a magnum cartridge. The grip frame of the Ruger Bisley is more vertical and has a less tapered configuration that prevents the painful, plow-handle pivot. The Ruger Bisley’s wider cross-section spreads recoil over a larger portion of the shooter’s palm, and there’s enough reach between the front and back straps to provide the shooter a good solid grip. Also, the grip frame is long enough to allow shooters with average hands to wrap three fingers around the front strap. With the standard Blackhawk grip, shooters hook their little fingers under the bottom strap where it can at least lend moral support. With the longer Super Blackhawk grip, the little finger can perch on the bottom corner, where it does absolutely nothing constructive. As an added bonus, the Ruger Bisley grip keeps most shooters’ fingers out of range of the trigger guard.
The arrival of Ruger’s Bisley provided the last piece of the big-bore puzzle. Shortly after its advent, the great .500 Linebaugh made its debut on the cover and in the pages of the August 1986 issue of Guns & Ammo magazine in a piece by Ross Seyfried. The appearance of that article was what put the ultra big-bore revolver craze off and running. The .500 was followed in short order by the .475 Linebaugh, which is now a SAAMI-recognized cartridge – a real distinction, and rightly so, for John Linebaugh. If one had to choose the greatest revolver round ever in terms of absolute performance and handiness of packaging, the .475 Linebaugh would be it.
Sturm, Ruger and Company put its toe in the big-bore water with its own .480 Ruger, which is sort of a kinder and gentler .475 Linebaugh. It was available only in the ponderous Super Redhawk double-action revolver. The rage for super-powerful revolvers led to the introduction of the .500 S&W X-frame leviathan in 2003. In less than twenty years, 475 and .50 caliber revolver cartridges were accepted by mainstream shooting enthusiasts and were no longer the exclusive province of cranks and mystics.
While Ruger had dabbled in serious big-bore cartridges in its double-action Super Redhawk, which was chambered for both the .454 Casull and the .480 Ruger, there was a huge gap in their product line. They had no single-action revolvers in these calibers. While advances in ammunition development for .44 Magnums and .45 Colts kept these more mundane calibers in the hunt, a small but vocal segment of the shooting public wanted more and they wanted it in single-actions. Attentive dealers passed the word along to thoughtful distributors — among them AcuSport, Buckeye Sports, Williams Shooter Supply, Davidsons and Lipsey’s. Over the years, distributors have used their deep pockets and buying power to order relatively small runs of specialized, non-cataloged Ruger products tailored for niche markets. Thanks to the persistence and perseverance of Lipsey’s, we now have Ruger Bisleys chambered for the .454 Casull and the .480 Ruger.
The folks who run Ruger are not gamblers or fools. They also owe their shareholders careful stewardship of their investments. Given the size of the market, developing a new design for the two powerhouse cartridges wouldn’t have made economic sense. For every .454 or .480 Redhawk or Bisley that Ruger produces, it’ll probably sell at least a hundred .44 Magnums. Ruger didn’t have to engage in any complicated engineering or financial heroics because they already had in hand the makings of a perfectly wonderful, ultra big-bore revolver in the form of the large-frame Bisley. With a little adroit re-engineering and material choices, that platform would serve perfectly well for the two super cartridges, and it wouldn’t be some outsized monstrosity more suitable for carry in a scabbard than a belt holster.
Big-bore custom revolver makers have known for three decades that the large-frame Ruger Bisley is nearly indestructible. If no one ever blew one up, lord knows it wasn’t for want of trying. To protect the guilty, I won’t mention the name of the worthy involved in the following incident, but I was a party to his deliberate effort to destroy a Colt .45 Bisley. This happened at least twenty-plus years ago, so I no longer recall the exact amount of powder used. It wasn’t merely a compressed load; it was such a strong dose of WW296 that it was literally crushed beneath a 360 or 370-grain cast bullet. In order for the cartridge to chamber in the standard factory cylinder, the mouth of the case was crimped over the bullet’s front driving band. Otherwise the cartridge would’ve been too long to fit. Coward and cynic that I am, when it came time to pull the trigger, I took refuge behind our stalwart’s pickup truck. After the first cataclysmic roar boomed out over the startled prairie, I feared the worst and was summoning up the courage to peep around the tailgate, only to be assailed by another soul-shattering blast. Then came four more as quickly as you could whisper “Oh my gawd, he lives!”
With the aid of a good micrometer, we surveyed the damage. Nothing was obvious externally, but when we examined the chambers, we could see a telltale dimpling of the chamber walls at the leading edge of the cylinder bolt notches where the walls are thinnest. There was nothing excessive in the endfloat or headspace departments, and after being fitted with a new cylinder, the gun went on to enjoy a long, happy life, fully proven at about five times the usual allowable SAAMI pressures for the .45 Colt.
Ruger engineers didn’t have to do much to adapt the Bisley to the big rounds,and what they did do was done well and sensibly. They reasoned that with a hardy alloy material, a five-shot cylinder would put the cuts for the bolt notches between the chambers and provide adequate strength to handle the .454 and .480 cartridges. The alloy selected was Carpenter 465 stainless steel, which has served well for the six-shot .454 and .480 cylinders of the Super Redhawk. With the notches offset between the chambers, the Bisley cylinders are enormously strong. Those of us in the custom revolver trade have used 1.790 to 1.800 diameter cylinders for 30 years, but a cylinder that large almost certainly would’ve required Ruger to design a new receiver. Factory production makes no allowance for the modifications and hand-fitting necessary to accommodate cylinders larger than standard.
Durability is the greatest hurdle for guns firing high-intensity cartridges. Those of you who have shot tens of thousands of heavy loads through older blued Ruger single-actions will occasionally see one bearing the imprint of the cylinder ratchet on the face of the standing breech. Since cylinders must absorb nearly all of the pressure of ignition, they’re typically harder than receivers. But that doesn’t mean you can use melted beer cans or re-bar steel as receiver material. S&W’s ultralight Model 329 .44 Magnum has a scandium receiver. Scandium is a super-tough alloy of aluminum and the element scandium. Small amounts of scandium increase the tensile strength of aluminum enough for it to serve as the receiver of a .44 Magnum, but it’s not as tough as alloy steel. The Model 329 uses a steel insert in the standing breech to prevent wear of the center pin hole and battering by the extractor that would lead to cylinder endfloat.
I’ve never had a revolver come completely unraveled, but I’ve seen several that have done so. Invariably, the cause was either an obstruction in the barrel or a haphazard reading of a loading manual. Regardless of how the owners of the guns managed to destroy them, the one constant is that no catastrophic frame failure occurred that wasn’t precipitated by catastrophic failure of the cylinder. My experience may not constitute a scientific sampling, but it’s sensible enough in theory. For the receivers of the new Bisleys, Ruger stuck with their tried-and-true 410 stainless alloy, which has great tensile strength and toughness at moderate hardness. I’ve never observed one of these receivers that exhibited appreciable wear or battering.
The barrel of a revolver is not as highly stressed in firing as is the cylinder. Most major barrel makers — such as Douglas and PAC-NOR — produce stainless barrels from 416 material, which is the moral equivalent of 4140 chromoly. This barrel material is not very hard, usually testing between C26 and C30 on the Rockwell scale. For the barrels of the .454 and .480 revolvers, Ruger elected to use Carpenter 15-5 stainless, which is considerably harder than most barrel material. It also is highly resistant to corrosion and erosion, and that gives the forcing cone and barrel breech face a fighting chance against the .454, which operates at ultra high pressure and near white heat. On high-mileage guns, the breech-end of the barrel is often burned to a crisp, exhibiting a rough-textured surface that resembles charcoal.
If there is a significant fault of New Model Rugers, it’s the unhappy tendency of the loading gate to detach under heavy recoil and disable the gun. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s most likely to occur when the gun is fired without a cartridge case under the loading gate. The only thing that holds the loading gate in place is the tip of the detent spring. Pivot pins for the loading gate don’t fit the pivot holes with great precision, so the spring tip can detach from its seat. Unless a revolver has recessed case heads, there’s a gap of roughly one sixteenth of an inch between the standing breech and the breech-end of the cylinder. Extreme recoil can make the loading gate travel into that gap.
Given the incredible acceleration and recoil velocity of a .454 or a .480 single-action, it isn’t hard to imagine the loading gate just sitting there while the gun recoils away from it. The head of a cartridge case in the chamber lined up with the loading gate will hold the gate in place. Without the case head, the gate may not go along with the recoil ride until the back of the cylinder gives it a lift, and at that point it’s too late. If the gate escapes its tether and blunders into the headspace gap, action comes to a halt and the gun becomes useful only as a hammer for putting up wanted posters. A clever hand with a screw driver might be able to reposition the detent spring, but if not, the gun must be completely disassembled before it can be made operable again.
How many times have you loaded six rounds in a New Model Ruger (which you can do safely, thanks to the transfer bar) and then proceeded to fire eight strings of six rounds each? With a 50-round box, that leaves you with two rounds left over. So you load those two rounds and leave the remaining four chambers empty. When you send those two rounds downrange, maybe you won’t have a problem, but maybe you will. With heavy-bullet loads, I’ve had unaltered Blackhawks as small as .41 Magnums derail the loading gate. The solution to wandering loading gates is to keep every chamber of a non-recessed cylinder stuffed with a cartridge case, either fired or unfired. The first .475 and .500 Linebaugh revolvers I built would, when loaded with a single round at a time, dependably shuck the loading gate by the time a couple of dozen rounds were fired. If I could pick the most significant improvement in the new Ruger five-shot guns, it would surely be the recessed-head cylinder. The breech face of the cylinders will hold the loading gate in place with or without a cartridge case in front of the gate.
We can argue endlessly about the ideal barrel length for serious big-game revolvers. While I think the traditional 5½-inch length is the ideal compromise of handiness, sight radius and performance, I won’t quibble with the extra inch of barrel that’s on the new Bisleys. The 7½-inch barrel of the cataloged Bisley is simply too long for comfortable carry in a belt holster. Some of us like the looks of tapered barrels, but the straight, untapered barrels of the Bisleys provide some welcome weight to dampen recoil. Their thickness also affords another thread or so of engagement for the screw that holds the ejector-housing in place. On the new Bisleys, the ejector rod and its tube are longer than standard, which makes for more positive ejection, especially with the long .454 case. A smart move would be to apply red Loctite not only to the screw but also between the tube and barrel to reduce the shear load on the screw. For absolute dependability, it wouldn’t hurt to add a hidden recoil lug, which would relieve the screw of any stress other than simply holding the tube against the barrel. I would check on a regular basis not only the ejector-tube screw but also the five screws that hold the grip frame in place. If the grip frame is ever detached or if the original factory thread-locker breaks down, the screws should be retreated with blue Loctite.
Before the advent of modern high-performance, heavy-bullet ammo, the traditional spring-loaded base-pin latch did a fair job of retaining the base pin, or at least it did for a while. Once the latches and base-pin notches became a bit worn, the base pin would begin jumping the latch. A few thousand rounds of typical .44 Magnum high-velocity ammo will do the trick. A heavier latch spring may postpone the inevitable failure, but my guess is a stout .454 load will cause a stock base pin to jump ship sooner rather than later. That won’t be a problem with the new Bisleys because the base pins come with an added lock screw. Ideally, the tip of this screw should engage a recess in the barrel rather than work as a simple friction lock. The problem with the friction version, even with cup-point set screws, is that applying enough force on the screw to hold the pin in place may also cause the pin to bow slightly and cramp the action cycle. As long as only the side of the screw tip touches the leading edge of the recess and doesn’t bottom in it, the action will run freely. The base-pin screw should also be treated with blue Loctite.
The new Bisleys will be very familiar to users of Ruger single-actions. The new guns operate exactly the same as six-shot Bisleys and Blackhawks. Like other Ruger stainless revolvers, the Bisleys’ front sights are black, serrated, ramp-style blades that are pinned to slots in the sight bases. The front sight, in combination with the adjustable black, square-notch rear sight, gives a good sight picture under most conditions. And if for some reason the existing sights won’t provide proper regulation with a particular load, fitting a taller or shorter front blade is a simple gunsmithing procedure. The sight base arrangement is also a boon to shooters who find that other blade shapes and styles are more to their liking.
Trigger-pull weights on the two specimens we tested were pretty good: The .454 broke at a relatively creep-free 4½ pounds. That’s a pound or so heavier than I personally like in a field gun, but it’s perfectly shootable with minimal creep and backlash. The .480 hammer fell at a bit over 3 pounds with a trace of creep, but the travel was very smooth.
The barrels feature the familiar 11/16×24 thread that’s common to all medium and large-frame Rugers except the Hunter models. The ribbed Hunter barrels are machined for Ruger scope rings, and have .706×32 thread, a size note found in nature, to support the added weight of a scope. Neither barrel on the Bisleys was set with excessive torque, which can kill accuracy by choking the threads. Chamber throats on the .454 were a perfect .452. Throats on the .480 ran to .478, which is a touch larger than the .475 groove diameter. But that’s not large enough to affect accuracy with factory ammo and jacketed bullets, and for shooters of cast bullets, it’s nearly perfect for .476 to .477 diameter bullets.
Shooting the guns presented no real surprises. Both exhibited fine accuracy and behaved like gentlemen. Fired from a rest in direct sunlight (a real loser) with iron sights, the .480 produced groups in the 2-inch range. Fitted with an ancient Leupold 2X EER scope, the .454 cut that nearly in half with several groups showing at least three holes touching. By virtue of sheer horse power and ultra-high operating pressures, the .454 has a more limited capacity for pure fun. I’ll have to admit I’ve never owned a .480 and have no overwhelming desire to do so since the .475 Linebaugh will handle .480 cartridges just fine in the same manner that a .44 Magnum handles .44 Specials. The .480 is a great understudy to the .475, and where the .480 really shines is in comfort.
Several cartridges – including the .44 Magnum, .45 Colt, .480 Ruger and .50 Action Express – will propel 300 to 325-grain bullets at velocities of 1250 to 1300 fps without overly savaging the shooter. Most critters hunted with such cartridges will surrender if bullets are well placed. But if you add 100 grains of bullet weight to the mix, as is the case with the .475 Linebaugh, or 300 fps of velocity, as with the .454 Casull, then shooting becomes another game altogether. Recoil climbs to a level that’s beyond the tolerance of most shooters. Firing a few rounds of .454 or .475 ammo at a time may be manageable, but firing 50 to 100 shots in one sitting is a venture into sadomasochism and a nearly certain recipe for flinching. Remember, shooting is supposed to be fun.
Custom pistolsmiths won’t find a great deal to do mechanically with these guns. Beyond the usual tuning and sight work, they might shorten a barrel or add a lanyard ring. But if my two examples are much of an indication, the new Bisleys will provide a field day for custom grip makers. Both guns exhibited commendable metal fit and finish, and the shape and finish of the grips were also excellent. The fit of the grips, though, was at best indifferent. Grips are machined and sanded then applied to a cast part largely polished against wheels while held in the hands of the craftsman. That these two separate operations are not and cannot be held to exceedingly close tolerances is why Everyman can buy a Ruger. The cost of these guns is only a little higher than the cost of premium-quality wood or horn grips from the best grip makers. Nevertheless, these are handsome guns and otherwise very well turned out.
Hunters and shooters with high-mileage eyes may want to install scopes on the new Bisleys. Ruger offers no scope-mounting system, but Weigand Combat has designed an excellent base that doesn’t require drilling or tapping. The base is not difficult to install, and it stayed installed throughout our shooting and testing. The base is made of tough 6061-T6 aluminum, which keeps the weight down and lessens inertial strains on the mount, rings and screws. Rings are also available from Weigand Combat, although almost any Weaver-type ring will work. For catastrophic levels of recoil, it is best to use four rings. That provides maximum grip and minimizes distortion of scope tubes, which is a leading cause of scope failure.
I’ve not had the best experience with no-drill, no-gunsmithing-type mounts, so I was skeptical about the Weigand mount until I saw one. As with Weigand’s other designs for Ruger revolvers, this mount has a recoil lug that engages the shoulder of the rear sight cut on the top strap of adjustable-sighted revolvers, both single and double-actions. The lug takes virtually all of the shear load off the mount’s screws and leaves them with little to do other than hold the mount on top of the gun. That’s not a demanding job since the gun recoils into the mount. The recoil lug insert is made of steel to withstand battering over the long haul. Coupled with the untapered barrel and the six-screw clamp at the front sight, I can’t imagine this mount ever failing if it’s properly installed. Bowen Classic Arms doesn’t produce many big-bore revolvers fitted with optical sights, but when we do, we use Weigand Combat mounts. All have given perfect satisfaction with no known failures, even on .475 and .500 Linebaugh revolvers. Detailed instructions come with the mount, and it’s imperative to follow them closely for best results. Weigand also has posted a helpful instructional video on YouTube.
Some will bleat about how heavy and ungainly scopes and mounts are and how they shouldn’t be attached to a nice, respectable revolver. And it’s true that as soon as a scope or some other optical contraption is applied to a relatively compact revolver, attractive appearance and slick handling go out the window. But if your vision is impaired or you simply want to make the most humane shot you can at a big-game animal, ignore naysayers. Forget about pretty, too. Hardiness is not always pretty, but a brutish success is better than a comely failure.
To sum it up, Ruger has answered a steady drum-beat of demand from single-action aficionados by stepping up to the plate and producing two outstanding revolvers that offer both excellent performance and excellent value. Sturm, Ruger and Company can’t be accused of leading the charge in ultra big-bore revolvers, but they certainly have been co-conspirators and enablers in it. Their sturdy and affordable revolvers have provided the foundation of the cottage industries devoted to these guns. Those cottage industries have put food on the tables and shoes on the feet of a couple of generations of custom revolver makers. With the introduction of their new five-shot Bisley single-actions, Ruger is no longer a conspirator or an enabler; it has become a full-fledged member of the gang.
|Gun Specs table||.454||.480|
|* Trigger pull weight:||4 ½ —4 ¾ lbs.||3—3 ¼ lbs.|
|* Cylinder body length:||1.775 in.||1.772 in.|
|* Cylinder body diameter:||1.725 in.||1.725 in.|
|* SAAMI maximum cartridge length:||1.765 in.||1.650 in.|
|* Cylinder chamber throats:||0.4520 in.||0.4780 in.|
|* Barrel-to-Cylinder Gap:||0.009 in.||0.005 in.|
|* Barrel diameter, breech-end:||0.785 in.||0.785 in.|
|* Barrel diameter, muzzle:||0.785 in.||0.785 in.|
|* Barrel thread:||11/16-24||11/16-24|
|* Barrel twist rate (claimed):||1 turn in 24-inches||1 turn in 18-inches|
|* Barrel length, nominal:||6 ½-inches||6 ½-inches|
*These measurements were taken from only two examples. Other guns may exhibit slightly different specifications.
|Ammo||Avg. Group Size||Avg. MV||MV S.D.|
|Garrett .454 Casull 365-grain Hammerhead||1.625 in.||1435-fps||14.4-fps|
|Hornady .454 Casull 240-grain XTP||1.375 in.||1779-fps||46.5-fps|
|Hornady .454 Casull 300-grain XTP||1.5 in.||1598-fps||14.4-fps|
|Hornady .480 Ruger 325-grain XTP||2.5 in.||1267-fps||28.5-fps|
|Speer .480 Ruger 325-grain XTP||1.875 in.||1337-fps||17.5-fps|
*Shot at 25 yards rested. The .454 was scoped, the .480 was fired with factory iron sights.
**Due to factory ammunition shortages, this is the average size of two, five-shot groups.
***Conditions sunny & dry.
Sources & Suppliers
Sturm, Ruger and Company, Inc.
411 Sunapee Street
Newport, NH 03773
P. O. Box 83280
Baton Rouge, LA 70884
Weigand Combat Handguns, Inc.
1057 South Main Road
Mountaintop, PA, 18707
Garrett Cartridges of Texas
Hornady Manufacturing Company
3625 West Old Potash Hwy.
Grand Island, NE 68803
2299 Snake River Avenue
Lewiston, ID 83501