The American West offered cowboys great freedoms. Sure, they had to contend with wild animals, manage an unpredictable relationship with the Indians, and survive the forces of Mother Nature, but for those seeking to live by their own rules and escape persecution, heading west and leaving it all behind was an attractive option. Many cowboys were ex-slaves, escaped or emancipated, such as Nat Love, better known as Deadwood Dick. Others hit the trail to forget one of life’s dirty deals, or in the case of many a bad man, to escape prosecution. For those who chose the cowboy life, a sidearm was standard equipment. While a rifle was more reliable for hunting, the revolver answered many other more personal problems. Just how many arguments were settled with fast-action gunplay is hard to tell. Even those scholars who write books on gunfighters of the Old West have difficulty agreeing on just how widespread real quick-draw gun fighting was. Still, even if we accept the largest gun fighting numbers, there’s a possibility more shooters today are claiming to be the “Fastest Gun in the West” than in the 1800s, due to the booming popularity of Cowboy Action Shooting.
Though there are many aspects of the cowboy game that require guns of different sizes and shapes, you may never have more fun with Americana than competing in the Dueling class at a cowboy match. No, you won’t be calling out some desperado face to face, but you do use shorter-barreled six-shooters just right for twirling, drawing, and shooting in this cowboy segment. We recently tested three such six-guns in .45 Colt (sometimes called .45 Long Colt to ensure it’s not confused with the .45 ACP): the Bounty Hunter 44 from European American Armory, Cimarron’s Model P, and the Ruger Vaquero BNV-455. All three guns sport barrels measuring 4.5 to 4.75 inches to make clearing leather even faster. Here’s what we thought about each one:
All range sessions were shot by hand, without the help of a machine rest. They began by attaining a natural shooting grip on the gun and holding it consistently upon a sandbag. We tested our three revolvers for accuracy at 15 yards off a sandbag rest, with the shooter seated at a bench. We did vary from our normal protocols, however, by shooting six-shot instead of the traditional five-shot groups. Reason: Each individual chamber on a revolver could create a variation in pressure and relation to the forcing cone, which could effect accuracy.
All three of these guns are capable of more accuracy than they showed and could have been fired at targets much further downrange. The determining factor was the sights supplied for these pistols. Certainly none of these models are target pistols. As dueling pistols the tall front blades are flags meant to be raised to assist the classic point-shooting stance. Our eyes wrestled with glare from the front sight, and the strange relief created by the rear notches hollowed into the top straps. To reveal a sight picture in these guns to begin with, you must first pull back the hammer and make the gun ready to fire.
The Ruger was the all-around champ. Its sight picture was the best compromise between the modern configuration and authentic period construction. The EAA Bounty Hunter actually has the best sights, but was hampered by a poor trigger that was ultimately painful to operate. Some groups were shot left handed in deference to the pain, but to our cowboy’s credit, some of the best groups from the Bounty Hunter were the result. The Cimarron Model P was nearly the Ruger’s equal despite having the vaguest sight picture. Had all three guns offered the latest Bo-Mar rib we can’t be sure the pecking order would have changed, but groups would certainly have tightened. Because of the level of eyestrain experienced by the test shooters, the tightest group was more often than not the first group fired out of the five allotted per each brand of ammunition.
The biggest surprise was not that the Ruger shot the best, but that the tightest groups were recorded with rounds manufactured by the 3-D corporation. However, these were not the reloads that 3-D is known for, but instead were fresh ammo in Remington-Peters (R-P headstamp) cases. This 3-D Blue is a new product from the company. Black Hills’ 250-grain RNFP were a tick behind and were very consistent for all three guns. The Federal Classic ammo (225-grain lead semi-wadcutter hollow point) was the only brand that was packaged without period design. This round more closely resembled a hard-core defense load. It averaged a 2.5-inch group in all three guns and delivered hits at the highest energy level. Power factor for this ammo was at its highest fired from the Ruger Vaquero, computed to be above 205, about the same as a good bowling pin load.
European American Armory Bounty Hunter 44
Our recommendation: At only $296, the lowest-priced gun in the test needs at least $100 worth of work, in our opinion. Though its fit was flawed, its accuracy was acceptable and could easily be improved.
This 4.5-inch revolver has all the trimmings and looks like it will let you play cowboy, but it didn’t really send us because we felt the case-hardened coloring looked too garish instead of antiqued. Likewise, the nicely stained and textured grips looked a little too new. We may be nit-picking here because until we received the more expensive Cimarron revolver, we were perfectly happy with the look of the Bounty Hunter.
Cosmetics aside, however, it was easy to point out two glaring faults in the gun’s construction. There was a gap between the grip and main frames large enough to show light and even insert a piece of card stock. With the load gate fully closed, you can see past it into the cylinders. This was just too sloppy for us.
The top strap of the gun was a raised “humpback” design, and this extra metal allows for a sight notch deep enough to allow the shooter to read the squared front sight with little eyestrain. Actually, this was the most modern sight picture available from the three guns. In the loading position, this gun had the most pronounced cylinder indexing, which made loading and unloading easier than in the Vaquero. A firing pin block acts as a safety, so EAA has avoided the old single action revolver bugaboo of having to travel with the hammer down an empty chamber. The forcing cone looks a might weak, but we encountered no malfunctions of any kind. However, the ejector rod assembly worked loose after only 200 rounds. Otherwise, there were no rough edges. The 7-pound trigger pull was far heavier than necessary, and the short length and contour of the trigger made this gun unpleasant to shoot after a short session. Inside the small trigger guard, which is common to many dueling guns, the trigger arcs forward at just the wrong angle so that all the pressure was on the inside edge of the index finger of our test cowboy.
Ruger Vaquero BNV-455
Our recommendation: Despite our dislike of the ejection system, this was a sturdy, accurate gun with more livable sights than most cowboy guns. It’s a good buy, but we’d like to see it come with antique grips.
Did Paladin carry a Ruger Vaquero? If he did, you can bet he’d replace the Ruger insignia with his own. The case-hardened color was just right, and the Vaquero has the heavy feel we expect of 19th Century steel. The clean stainless hammer and trigger push our believability, but we just can’t get past the grips. We hate ourselves for nit-picking (not really), because this is as good a buy as there is on the cowboy gun market. We feel it will stand up to a lot of shooting, and in so doing a little wear and tear will just make it look more authentic. In our opinion the hammer, trigger, and grip are in perfect relation, even if the grip looks a little short. But, when shot with only one hand, this works out just fine. Perhaps the answer is to have two Vaqueros, one in each hand. The gun’s trigger pull measured at just over 4 pounds.
Ruger also added the firing pin block for safety, so you can go ahead and load all six chambers. The loading gate can be opened and cartridges loaded and unloaded without pulling back the hammer. This allows you to exclude the dangerous act of having to pull the hammer back and gently release with the trigger after loading. The only hang up we have with the Ruger cowboy guns are the amount of care it takes to align the cylinders with the ejector rod, a problem exacerbated by a loading gate that didn’t want to stay completely open.
Cimarron Model P
Our recommendation: If your destination is the Old West, the Cimarron Model P will fly you there first class. Its antique finish is so convincing you’ll want to claim it’s an original and feel good about lying.
At an actual purchase price of $518 the Cimarron Model P is $100 more than the Ruger Vaquero, and $200 more than the EAA Bounty Hunter price. (This gap narrows if you include $100 to put the Bounty Hunter in better working condition.) What do you get for the extra money? To begin with, the finish of the Model P, made by Aldo Uberti, is thoroughly antique. The metal finish, called “Original” by importer Cimarron, appears to be in the white, but is actually a protected finish that won’t rub off. The wood grips are completely blended into the frame so much so they don’t even look removable. While the metal shows patterns of “natural” discoloration, the grips show faint dents and lines that might well have been earned in a gun fight or two, or perhaps from being set down authoritatively on a poker table. While the Bounty Hunter’s ejector tube was screwed loosely to the barrel and the Ruger’s was tightly held in place, the ejector assembly on the Model P is actually blended in.
The entire pistol flows together, unlike the others. For example, when holding the Ruger and the EAA products, you are aware of the front strap, the grip panels and the way they meet the trigger guard. The Model P’s construction gives the illusion of putting your hand inside the gun, not on it or around it. The trigger and hammer match the rest of the gun (unlike the Ruger), so none of the metallurgy seems modern or incongruous with the rest of the gun. It appears to have been constructed by hand with tools indigenous to the time in which it was first designed. The Model P’s hammer features a nosepiece set into the hammer that reaches through the breech face to ignite rounds. This shouldn’t be news, but since most of today’s modern revolvers, including the other so-called cowboy guns in this test, utilize an internal “floating” firing pin, it bears mentioning. Safe operation requires familiarity with the three positions of hammer, load/unload, reset and full cock. With the hammer completely forward the nose pin is visible protruding into the headspace, so it might be wise not to travel with all six chambers loaded.
Gun Tests Recommends
A gun is a tool. It should do exactly what you ask of it. If it isn’t perfect as it comes from the factory, parts and gunsmithing techniques to improve performance should be readily available. Moreover, in regards to a cowboy gun, we ask even more: A cowboy gun should also transport you to its time of preeminence.
The EAA Bounty Hunter, $296, shot well despite a heavy trigger. To improve the gun, its owner would need to get the gun a trigger job, and we also would recommend recontouring the trigger’s face. Its sights are great (and modern), so it shoots well enough. But in our view, its fit and finish are lacking. We’d pass on it.
The Ruger Vaquero, $379, shot very well and had a modern feel to its action. But a couple of visual cues, such as the grip and hammer, dampen the Old West mood. Also, we still can’t get over why Ruger hasn’t supplied individual indexing for the chambers to make loading and unloading easier. The Vaquero is a solid gun, but not our first pick.
Instead, our choice is the Cimarron Model P. It shot well, handled fast, and its antique metal finish and distressed wooden grip draw admirers faster than a pretty horse. Yessiree, we’d buy it.