Tag Archives: Old West firearms

Interesting Collectables: “Old” 1st issue Ruger Bearcats


Rare unmodified Ruger “Alpha Cat” Bearcat

Until recently the Ruger Bearcat wasn’t even on my radar, as the new production models are pricey (MSRP $639 blued; $689 stainless) and older models seldom come up in the market. So, when the above pictured Bearcat showed up at my favorite local gun store (Collector’s Gun Exchange) for what looked to be a relatively so-so price, I took a chance. The only reason I did was because this particular example had not been modified with the Ruger transfer block system. Thus, cocking the four-stage hammer gave me that very satisfying, nostalgic, Old West quadruple C-O-L-T click. The bore was clean, the rifling intact, the cylinder lock-up good. Several of those beautiful cocking sounds later I asked the salesman to stuff it behind the counter while I looked around the shop and thought it over.

Rare unmodified Ruger “Alpha Cat” Bearcat

After completing my rounds I headed back to that Ruger Bearcat and cocked it a few more times. By this time another collector whom I know had walked into the shop and told me if I didn’t take it, he would. So, it followed me home, whereupon I started doing research and found I’d inadvertently struck pay dirt. The shop thought this particular Bearcat was from 1971. It wasn’t. It was from 1960, the third year of a fourteen-year production (1958-1971) before the alloy frame was changed to steel (1971-1975). Not only that, this particular example was a rare “Alpha Cat”, which used a letter at the beginning of the serial number (A001 through Z999 excluding the letter “O” for obvious reasons). Additionally, this was a very late “Alpha Cat” on which the front sight had been reduced in height ¼-inch to improve aim. This modification probably started around serial number X165 and ran through Z999, continuing on through later numbering schemes until the end of “1st issue” production. Thus, at most, only 2,382 “Alpha Cats” were produced with that lowered sight.

Y293 — “Alpha Cats” X165 through Z999 had reduced height front sights

Where did I get all this wonderful Bearcat 1st issue information? From an article written by noted Ruger collector Bill Hamm and posted online at GunBlast.com. Here’s a link to that article: Ruger Bearcat 1958 to 1970. Thanks, Bill!

Reading up on values, I was pleased to see what I thought was only a so-so deal turned out to be $200 to the good on my side. Add another $75 if the darned thing had come with the original box and owner’s manual, which it didn’t. But then a funny thing happened exactly two weeks to the day later, same gun store, when I ran into another 1st issue Bearcat.

1964 Ruger Bearcat with lightly stamped “Ruger Eagle” on walnut grips

At first I thought this one had non-original grips, because these grips were oiled walnut instead of the shiny rosin-impregnated rosewood grips on the earlier Bearcat.

1964 Ruger Bearcat — early oiled-walnut grip variant

This post-Alpha Cat example was also unmodified, and so still had that wonderful Single Action quadruple click. But in this case it wasn’t the gun I was after, even though it was a beauty despite the shiny drag mark around the circumference of the cylinder. So, what was I really after? This:

Original Ruger Bearcat box and owner’s manual

Considering that the box and manual added about $75 to the value of the “Alpha Cat”, I figure I got are really good deal on this later oiled walnut Ruger with the “aftermarket” grips. Well, it turns out those oiled-walnut grips are factory, and that this particular example is one of the first ones to come out of the factory that way. Oiled walnut grips were used starting at serial number 35000 through the end of 1st issue production. This Bearcat is number 35623, meaning only 623 Bearcats with oiled walnut grips preceded it out of the Ruger factory door. It’s also one of only about 15,000 Bearcats in the 35000-to-114000 serial number range that retained the original steel ejector housing before Ruger switched to aluminum. Yes, I checked that with a magnet. It’s steel.

35623 makes this the 623rd Bearcat to come with oiled walnut grips

So, while the original Ruger box and manual came with this 1964 Bearcat, it’s now paired with the “Alpha Cat”.

1964 Bearcat in its original box

Here is a comparison of the rosin-impregnated rosewood grips originally used on the early Bearcat next to the oiled walnut grips with lightly stamped Ruger Eagle medallion that first appeared in 1964:

Rare 1960 “Alpha Cat” (top); very early (1964) oiled-walnut Bearcat

1964 oiled-walnut Bearcat (top); 1960 rosin-impregnated Bearcat

The Bearcat is a smaller cousin to Ruger’s very popular Single Six (see: Six Shooter Week — Ruger Single-Six Convertible). In my previous article on the Single-Six I displayed a new engraved example next to a two-screw example from 1976. What wasn’t pictured is an unmodified (no transfer bar) three-screw example from 1971 that I acquired after that article was written. Because the three-screw is unmodified, it also comes with that nostalgia-inducing C-O-L-T click when cocked. The all-steel Single Six is big, though, and heavier than the original alloy frame Bearcat, as you can see here:

Size comparison — Ruger Single Six (top); Ruger Bearcat

Indeed, the Single Six is nearly as big as a full-size copy of Colt’s original 1873 Single Action Army pistol. Here is a comparison beneath a USFA Rodeo (see: U.S. Fire Arms Mfg. Co. — A Look at the Premier “Colt” Model 1873 Single Action) standing in for a Colt:

USFA Single Action Army; unmodified 3-screw Ruger Single Six; 1960 Ruger Bearcat

The “Alpha Cat” is now retired, reunited with an original Bearcat box and owner’s manual and potentially becoming too valuable to keep shooting. The 1964 Bearcat is well used, and will continue to see time at the range. Look for a firing review on that pistol, along with a direct comparison to its three-screw Single Six cousin, in a future article. For now, I’ll just close with observations about the pistol and how it handles. The original alloy frame Bearcat is light, well-balanced, and comfortable in the hand, more so on all counts than the Single Six. The trigger is a real gem—fairly light (not as light as an El Patron Competition, but lighter than the USFA Rodeo), and with a very crisp break with absolutely no play whatsoever. It should be a great shooter.

A word of warning about acquiring any early unmodified Ruger single-action revolver: These pistols do not have a trigger-activated transfer bar between the hammer and frame-mounted firing pin. As such, it is not safe to carry such “six shooters” with all six cylinder chambers loaded. For safety, the hammer must rest over an empty chamber. Failure to do this can result in an unintended discharge if the weapon to dropped or otherwise forcefully impacted in any manner. Bad things happen with unintended discharges, including damage to property, nearby people, or even the shooter.

Proper (safe) loading sequence for any Single Action Army-type pistol or unmodified (no transfer bar) Ruger single action revolver:

  1. Count out and place five (for a six-round weapon) bullets before you
  2. Five rounds only!
  3. Put the rest of the ammunition out of reach
  4. Thumb back the hammer two clicks, to the half-cock position; this frees the cylinder for rotation by hand
  5. Open the loading gate
  6. Visually inspect all cylinder chambers, making certain no bullets are loaded, by rotating the cylinder while peering down through the open loading gate
  7. After verifying all chambers are empty, place one round in the chamber exposed through the open loading gate (we’ll call this “Chamber 5”)
  8. Rotate the cylinder, bypassing the next empty chamber (Chamber 6) and proceeding to the second empty chamber (Chamber 1—why the skip will become evident in a moment); load one bullet into Chamber 1
  9. Continue loading the next three chambers in order (Chambers 2, 3, and 4)
  10. Close the loading gate
  11. Loaded Chamber 5 is next in line for the barrel, a.k.a., firing position
  12. Thumb back the hammer to the fully cocked position; doing this rotates loaded Chamber 5 away from the barrel
  13. Empty Chamber 6 is now in the firing position
  14. Holding the hammer back with your thumb, squeeze the trigger until the hammer releases
  15. Keeping the trigger pulled, gently lowering the hammer all the way to the frame with your thumb; failure to keep pulling the trigger will result in the hammer stopping at the half-cock loading position, which is not safe

You’re done. Your “six shooter” is now properly loaded with five bullets, and if you followed these directions the hammer is safely resting over an empty chamber and the weapon is safe to carry.

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Six Shooter Week — Uberti 1873 El Patrón Competition


El Patrón — "The Boss"

El Patrón — “The Boss”

Regular readers of my firearms posts may have detected a slight deviation from my usual affinity toward semiautomatics.  Lately I’ve come to appreciate the firearms that tamed the Wild, Wild West, particularly Winchester lever actions.  Here are a rare pair of consecutively numbered, “Centennial Edition” Winchester Model 1894s, unfired and chambered in .30-30 and .44 Magnum.  (see:  Winchester Rifles — Part 1 and Winchester Rifles — Part 2)

Centennial Edition Winchester 1894 rifles — .30-30 and .44 Magnum

I also have a childhood fascination with the old black-and-white television westerns of the 1950s.  In those shows, the Winchester Model 1892 often substituted for the more era-appropriate Model 1873 because new 1873 weren’t being made (as they are now) and existing ones were rather pricey.  Two favorites from the Golden Age of Television were The Rifleman and Wanted: Dead or Alive.  (see:  Firearms — Television Westerns from the 1950s for more on the weapons pictured below)

Mare’s Leg (top) — Pistol version of the M1892; Rifleman’s Rifle — Modified M1892 for trick handling and rapid fire

Two weapons bore the title of “The Gun that Won the West”.  The first was the aforementioned Winchester Model 1873.  The second was a pistol that coincidentally also made its debut in the year 1873 — the famous Colt Model 1873.  The Colt M1873 also went by several other names depending on configuration and caliber — two of the more common versions being the Single Action Army (.45 “Long” Colt), the Frontier Six Shooter (.44-40), and “The Peacemaker”.  Today, most people just refer to the Colt M1873 and its clones as Peacemakers, 1873s, or the SAA, short for Single Action Army.

El Patrón — "The Boss"

El Patrón — “The Boss”

The M1873 you are looking at today is from Italian manufacturer Uberti, a maker of replica firearms that supplies re-branded Old West rifles and handguns to Benelli (Uberti’s direct owner), Beretta (owner of Benelli), Cimarron Firearms Company, and Taylor’s and Company.

Uberti Single Action Army box

Uberti Single Action Army box

Uberti’s El Patrón box comes with the following goodies —Instruction Manual, Instruction (be careful or you’ll shoot your eye out, kid) Sheet, Cylinder Lock, and, of course, an El Patrón Competition six-shooter.

Uberti Single Action Army — What's inside the box

Uberti Single Action Army — What’s inside the box

This particular Uberti is a special factory-tuned Cattleman “El Patrón Competition” model with lowered hammer for easier one-handed cocking and a very light trigger for competition shooting.  Other features include a blued cylinder, case-hardened frame, steel trigger guard and backstrap, and nicely textured walnut grips.  A stainless steel version is also available.  But, really?  This is an Old West firearm.  Stainless just wouldn’t look right.

Blued cylinder set in a case-hardened frame

Blued cylinder set in a case-hardened frame

Stamped into the barrel is the model name and caliber, in this case .357 Magnum.  That means this weapon will also handle the lower-powered, cheaper to fire .38 Special without a hitch.

Uberti El Patrón Competition barrel markings

Uberti El Patrón Competition barrel markings

I find the numbered cylinder an interesting and useful touch.  Since this is an almost exact replica of the original Colt, it is imperative that you leave the hammer down on an empty chamber for safety, and numbering the chambers makes that a snap.

Numbered Chambers — a nice touch

Numbered Chambers — a nice touch

As anyone with experience will tell you, the proper way to accomplish this with the 1873 is to pull the hammer back to the half-cock position (don’t confuse that with a “safe” position; it isn’t), open the loading gate, rotate the cylinder to chamber 1, and load a bullet.  Now, skip chamber 6, then load in order chambers 5, 4, 3, and 2.  Loaded chamber five is now beneath the half-cocked hammer, and empty chamber six is the next in line.  Close the loading gate and cock the hammer to the firing position.  This will rotate empty chamber six into firing position.  With your thumb on the hammer, pull the trigger until the sear trips and then gently ride the hammer completely down against the frame.  Don’t release the trigger prematurely or the hammer will stop at the half-cock position.

Chamber #1 ready to load

Chamber #1 ready to load

It is possible to load five chambers in sequence, close the gate, and then carefully pull the trigger while gently pulling back the hammer until the hammer disengages from the half-cock position, then lower hammer onto the empty chamber.  But the problem with this method is that you then have to wiggle the cylinder until it locks up with the cylinder bolt, which was disengaged when the hammer was previously in the half-cocked position.  Rotating the cylinder and hopefully not inadvertently placing a loaded chamber beneath the hammer just doesn’t work for me.  I simply cannot recommend this method.

Loading gate, blued cylinder, and case-hardened frame

Loading gate, blued cylinder, and case-hardened frame

There is a third method that supposedly allows for safely carrying an 1873 with all six chambers loaded, but I’m certainly not going to do it.  That requires additional manipulation so that the firing pin built into the face of the hammer rests directly on the cylinder between the rims of two loaded cartridges.  Yeah . . . right.  I’m not doing it.

Case-hardened mottling

Case-hardened mottling

Disassembly is a snap.  Just pull the hammer to the half-cocked position, open the loading gate, push the spring loaded base pin latch, pull out the base pin (the long metal rod below), and remove the cylinder through the gate opening.  Reassembly is not quite as easy, at least for me.  You have to get the cylinder into just the right position before pushing the base pin latch and reinserting the base pin.  If it doesn’t all go together perfectly, the hammer cannot be pulled back beyond the half-cock position.  The trick here is to keep pushing on the base pin while wiggling the cylinder until the base pin snaps fully back into the frame.

Simple breakdown; reassembly not so much

Simple breakdown; reassembly not so much

Now for my impressions.  Bear in mind I’ve yet to fire this weapon.  That being said I can tell you that cylinder lockup is incredibly tight with barely any movement.  Both fit and finish are superb.  The Uberti emits the legendary ‘C-O-L-T’ cocking sound — that’s four distinct “clicks”, one for each letter in “Colt”, as the hammer is cocked back into firing position.  Because of the low-angle hammer and the custom Wolff springs, the Uberti is incredibly easy to thumb cock with no shifting of the hand required.  The trigger is by far the best I’ve encountered in any weapon.  There is absolutely no slack take-up, the break is clean and crisp with almost zero (less than a millimeter) creep, and the trigger weight feels to me as though it has to be well under three pounds.

Uberti Single Action Army and a Ruger Single-Six

Uberti Single Action Army and a Ruger Single-Six

So, show me favorably impressed.  The Uberti 1873 Cattleman El Patrón Competition is a solid, well-built, tight example of the classic, original Colt 1873 design.  Suggested retail is currently $669, or $799 for the blasphemous stainless model.  Calibers include .38SPL/.357 Magnum and .45 Colt, and barrel lengths come in 4.75 inches/120 mm, 5.5 inches/140mm, and a CMS (Custom Mounted Shooter) at 3.5 inches/90mm.

Now, if only Uberti would offer a Paladin Have Gun — Will Travel version with a 7.5-inch/190-millimeter “Cavalry” length.  Well, I can dream, can’t I?

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