By: Tom Lounsbury.
Certain memories stick with you, no matter how many years pass by. It was in the winter of 1974 I thought I’d buy myself a Christmas present and travelled to Williams Gunsight in Davison. My goal was to purchase a .44 Magnum Ruger Super Blackhawk revolver, which was referred to as the “New Model”, since Ruger had upgraded all the Blackhawk models in 1973 to have a transfer bar system which allowed revolvers to be safely carried fully loaded. For safety reasons the “Old Model” required an empty chamber to be under the hammer, otherwise a hard bump, such as being dropped, could discharge matters.
I soon found myself examining a Super Blackhawk, which is a dandy revolver. However, another Blackhawk, in .45 (Long) Colt in the glass counter caught my eye, and I asked to examine it. Although I have big paws, the smaller (than the Super Blackhawk) grip melded perfectly into my hand, even with my “pinky” resting slightly under the grip. With its 7 ½ inch barrel, it possessed, to me at least, the perfect balance, and it was love at first sight. We’ve been together ever since!
In those days, there wasn’t much of a selection of .45 Colt ammunition, and I ventured into reloading for my trusty revolver. The Ruger Blackhawks are stout affairs, and I must admit I got into some “beefy” loads which were a delight for me to shoot. There is no question in my mind that the .45 Colt round can readily hold its own in “wallop power” with the .44 Magnum, and in some cases, even exceed it. It is also an inherently very accurate round. However, other than targets and local woodchucks (which I dearly love to hunt with this revolver), that was the extent of my field experience with my Ruger Blackhawk for the next 10 years.
During the mid-1980’s, I had gotten into outdoor writing and had the wonderful opportunity to meet and do an interview with legendary handgun hunter Larry Kelly. I had long admired his articles and ads in outdoor magazines, featuring him bagging everything from whitetails to African elephants with only a handgun. Larry did this not only to promote his Michigan based Mag-Na-Port International business (which ports gun barrels to manage recoil, as well as fully customizing firearms), but also to promote handgun hunting in general (the Handgun Hunting Hall of Fame is located at the Mag-Na-Port facility). I also met Larry’s son, Ken Kelly, who grew up in the business, and is a true artist at gunsmithing.
I would finally start the process of customizing my Ruger Blackhawk, and upon Larry Kelly’s recommendation, I would begin with just the basics, which were porting the barrel, trigger-work (for a crisp 3 pound pull) and better sights. The original sights were bulky “partridge” type, and I went with low profile express sights, featuring a fine bead, and I absolutely loved this combination for quick and accurate target acquisition!
Also, when it comes to trigger pull, I’m not into the old adage of “squeeze in a manner that the gun going off is a surprise”. Well, folks, when it comes to precise shot placement, I’m not into any surprises, and want the gun to fire exactly when I know the sights are dead-on. I also dislike “hair triggers” and a 3 pound trigger pull is perfect for me, because all it requires is a firm “touch”.
What put me into the “customizing” mode at that time, was because there was a movement, which I fully supported, to legalize (repeating only) handguns, .35 caliber or larger, using a straight-wall cartridge case, for deer hunting in southern Michigan’s “shotgun zone”. Much to my delight, it would soon come into fruition, and I was more than ready and waiting for that first opening morning, which found me using a compass and flashlight to locate a specific huge birch tree in a dense cedar swamp. I was quite happy that my holstered revolver allowed both of my hands to be free to assist in negotiating through such a maze.
I soon found myself nestled in at the base of the ancient birch on a plastic “hot-seat”, with my revolver resting in my lap, when the first rays of dawn began streaking the sky. This was a favorite spot of mine that had already provided a goodly number of opening morning bucks, but it entails very intense cover where shots often required “threading the needle”, so to speak. Shortly after daybreak, I picked up the motion of a fast approaching deer, which turned out to be a large doe. Seated on the ground and with my back braced firmly against the birch, I had my revolver in a solid two-handed grip resting on my upraised knees, and was cocked and ready when the doe crossed a small gap 35 to 40 yards away.
Although I had a doe permit, she wasn’t my target that morning, because the rut was in full swing, and I sensed she just might have a suitor in tow, which happened to be the case, because another deer wasn’t far behind. I noticed some respectable ivory on top of this deer’s head, the only identity in that heavy cover, and I made the quick decision – “he’s good enough for me” – and I got ready for him to hit that gap for a clear, unobstructed shot.
Everything felt right as the buck briefly appeared fully in sight and I touched the trigger. When the handloaded 300 grain Hornady bullet passed completely through the deer, breaking both shoulders, his front end folded right up while the hind legs gave a final thrust of momentum. This had him landing head first and then flat, and with his nose plowing a furrow through dead leaves for a few yards before coming to rest, and down for the count. I had just bagged my first deer with a handgun, and needless to say, folks, I was fully smitten with this form of deer hunting. The buck turned out to be a pretty decent 8-pointer (at least in my eyes), and it was a moment in time I will never forget.
A few deer seasons later found me at the same opening morning spot, and I was about to discover a couple surprising things. As daylight was easing in, I decided to routinely check matters to see if my sights were readily visible. Much to my dismay, I couldn’t make out the front bead, and couldn’t do so for about an hour. Almost as if overnight, I had lost my “owl-eyes” (I would also need bifocals). Fortunately, no deer arrived until I could see the front sight, but I was surprised by the suddenly very close appearance of a buck, and as I slow-cocked the revolver, I noticed matters were lacking a final “click” in the process. I then used my index (trigger) finger to fully lock the cylinder in place, and then promptly shot the buck.
All my previous practice sessions had been in full light, of course, and I always “fast-cocked” the Blackhawk, which obviously needed an overhaul due to worn parts from frequent use. All went back to Mag-Na-Port for a refurbishing job. Larry Kelly recommended I go with a rear peep sight and a highly visible green front sight, which I still use quite effectively to this day. I also asked Ken Kelly to perform his magic in revitalizing worn parts, not to mention redoing the finish which had seen its share of holster wear and rigorous field duty. Ken did exactly that, and I ended up with a beautiful, two-toned silver and blue revolver!
For a number of years, I used (simulated) ivory grips, in place of the normal walnut grips, to set matters off, but Ken Kelly had recommended I check out the custom elk-antler pistol grips made by Patrick Grashorn in Wyoming. I recently decided to do just that, and I had Ken Kelly disassemble my Blackhawk and send the grip frame to Grashorn’s Gunworks. I had a phone conversation with Grashorn, and let him know I wanted “no bark”, as I prefer a smooth single-action revolver grip, because the plow-handle design is supposed to rock naturally in the palm during recoil. That is when Grashorn let me know caribou antler actually made the best “no bark” grips and I requested, that him being the artist, to do his magic, which he did. They turned out beautifully, in a gray-streaked on ivory pattern that is custom-fitted perfectly to the grip frame. It feels marvelous and quite “natural” in the hand, too!
As a final touch, I had Ken Kelly add a lanyard ring to the bottom of the grip frame, something I have long wanted to do, just because.
There is no question, I probably paid more for the custom caribou antler grips than I originally did for my Ruger Blackhawk revolver back in 1974, but those were different times, and some things need to come full circle, especially a completed rejuvenation after such a long and very dependable relationship.