In this installment we once more pit a classic pistol that is in high demand by collectors and shooters alike against a plain-vanilla readily available modern handgun. The Colt New Frontier single-action 22-caliber revolver commands a premium at gun shows, yet the revolver is similar to the affordable Ruger Single Six. Which one is the better performer? There is an interesting slant to the tale.
The Ruger is actually the classic and the Colt the upstart, in one manner of thinking. The Ruger was introduced in 1953, and while the type has undergone various refinements, the modern Ruger would be instantly recognizable to anyone purchasing the Single Six 22 some 58 years ago. The Colt New Frontier was introduced in 1970 and discontinued in 1977, although there was a short run a few years later. The Ruger was modified to accept a spare cylinder in 22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire after the 22 Magnum was introduced, a step followed by Colt. In this test, both of our handguns featured the interchangeable Magnum cylinder, which is an important advantage in a small-game hunting revolver.
Colt New Frontier 22 LR/22 WMR, $650
The Colt received rave remarks regarding fit and finish. The case-hardened frame contrasted nicely with the Colt Blue barrel and cylinder. The grips were well made and appropriate for the theme of a very nice Cowboy shooting revolver. The adjustable sights were a welcome addition on a light revolver, and the ramp post front sight was well designed, we thought.
This revolver is approximately 7/8 the size of the Colt Single Action Army and handles well. The balance was good, and the grip fit most hands well. Some of us with larger hands had to let the pinky finger hang under the grip, depending upon the shooting style. The Colt trigger was heavier than we like at 6 pounds, but it was smooth enough, our testers said. The cylinder rotated smoothly.
Accuracy testing went well. The revolver proved accurate with the 22 Long Rifle cylinder installed, about what we have come to expect from this type of handgun. The Ruger was more accurate with 22 Long Rifle ammunition, but the Colt was certainly usable for small-game hunting. With the Winchester Wildcat 22 LR 40-grain lead roundnose cartridges, the Colts smallest group at 15 yards was 1.8 inches, slightly larger than the Rugers best effort at 1.6 inches. The Colt lagged in average group size as well, 2.4 inches to 2.2 inches. With Federal Champion 40-grain solids, the New Frontiers smallest group matched the Ruger at 2.3 inches apiece, but the Colt fell behind in average group size 2.7 inches to 2.5 inches.
With the 22 Magnum cylinders, the Ruger was more accurate than the Colt with every ammo we tried. Using Fiocchi 22 Magnum 40-grain JSPs, the New Frontier shot an average group size of 3.5 inches compared to the Rugers 2.1-inch average. The gap narrowed with CCI 22 Magnum 40-grain Maxi Mags, with the Colt at an average group size of 2.4 inches compared to the Rugers 2.0-inch mark. Things tightened further with Winchester 22 Magnum 36-grain JHPs, 2.5 inches for the Colt and 2.4 inches for the Ruger.
Our test team shooters said two main areas contributed to the clean sweep by the Ruger. First, the Colt had a heavier trigger, and heavy triggers have a major effect on handheld accuracy. Our shooters also looked closely at the adjustable sights. The Colt sights were fine, but spare parts – springs and screws and the blade – may not be readily available. The big slot screws of the Ruger and the removable front sight were rated superior. After firing the 22 Magnum ammunition, the Colts owner remarked, I would not have known I wasnt getting my moneys worth if we had not fired the Colt against the Ruger.
Another item in the accuracy/chronograph table is worth examination. Sometimes differences in velocity are inexplicable, with one handgun of nearly identical dimensions producing more velocity than the next. But we cannot recall another test when two handguns have produced such very different velocities. Both revolvers feature 4.75-inch barrels, so velocities should have been similar. With the 22 LR choices, the spread wasnt that bad. With the Winchester Wildcats, the New Frontier produced an average velocity of 933 fps compared to the Single Sixs 981 fps. With the Federal Champion, the difference was narrower, 1044 fps to 1063 fps.
With the Magnum cylinders installed, the difference was marked. With the Fiocchi, CCI, and Winchester loads, the average difference in velocity was 181 fps, 168 fps, and 95 fps, respectively. This was a startling difference. The standard deviation numbers were also higher with the Colt – roughly twice as high. What could explain that? Since the velocities with 22 Long Rifle loads were so close, the barrel dimensions probably werent at play. We noticed when firing 22 Mags in the Colt that we occasionally felt something striking our cheek. It wasnt anything large enough to be seen when we wiped our faces, but it had to be something escaping the barrel-cylinder gap. (We always wear shooting glasses and so should you!) The conclusion was that the 22 Mag cylinder gap was bigger with the Colt. This would affect both accuracy and velocity. As the owner noted, he would not have known about the performance of his pistol without checking velocities over the chronograph.
Our Team Said: If looks or a certain brand are your prime concern, then the Frontier might be your first choice. But the Colt New Frontier was clearly less accurate than the Single Six, which made the decision about which gun to recommend easy.
Ruger Single Six 22 LR/22 WMR, $325
The Ruger Single Six was introduced during the 1950s when cowboy movies and fast-draw competitions were very popular. The 7/8-size single action was not a straight-up copy of the Colt, but rather featured significant improvements, including rugged construction and coil wire springs rather than flat springs. A great advantage of modern production is the safety system. While the Colt also uses a transfer bar system, the Ruger was the safer of the two, we believe. The Ruger was loaded by opening the loading gate and rotating the cylinder. The Colt was loaded by placing the handgun on half cock and then rotating the cylinder. The Ruger may be carried safely with six rounds loaded. The Colt features a safety notch in the hammer we do not trust. Thus, the Colt was a five-shooter in practical terms, as one chamber must be left empty. To make the Colt safe, follow this rule – load one, skip one, load four, cock and lower the hammer. Colt later introduced an awkward manual safety for the revolver that is universally despised, but which makes the revolvers fitted with this Rube Goldberg contraption collectors pieces.
In another significant difference, the Ruger featured a crisp trigger of just less than 4 pounds of compression. Also, as we noted in detail above, its accuracy cannot be faulted. Velocity with the Magnum rounds was more than expected, but this often happens with Ruger firearms. They usually exhibit greater velocity than similar revolvers in the same class.
Our Team Said: Fit and finish of the Colt was great, but when you examine the Ruger closely, its fit was excellent as well. The sights of the Ruger were a superior design, and trigger compression on the Ruger was better to a measurable degree than the Colt. The accuracy of each was more than acceptable, with the edge going to the Ruger. The velocity advantage of the Ruger with Magnum loads was too great to ignore, and may be a result of good fitting with the Ruger versus poor cylinder fit with the Colt. Another advantage was the safety system used in the Colt. A shooter unfamiliar with the single action design of a generation ago may not be up to handling the Colt safely. The Colt was a nice gun. The Ruger was the better shooter and cost a heckuva lot less.