The Colt Bisley was introduced in May 1894 as a target handgun intended for competition in England. The first name the gun had was the “Special Target Model of 1894.” The gun performed so well at the famous Bisley Commons shooting grounds in England over the next year or so that Colt redesignated it the “Bisley Model Target.”
The Bisley design altered the grip-to-barrel angle and hand position so that the bore would be lower in the hand, and also at nearly a right angle to the gripping axis. Together with the altered grip came a lower and wider hammer, enabling the shooter to cock the gun without shifting his grip. A third main difference is the wide trigger, curved and brought closer to the rear of the trigger guard. These are all improvements to enhance the gun’s performance for the target shooter.
The adjustable-sighted target version was followed in 1896 by a field or everyday version that didn’t have movable sights. The great success of the target model had created a demand for a Colt that combined the Bisley features with the ruggedness of the original fixed-sight Single Action Army (SAA). This was called the Standard Bisley Model. The Bisley model in all its variants was made until 1912, then suddenly dropped from Colt’s listings despite reasonable sales for the model. However, the period of Bisley production was sufficient to produce a legacy that endures today. Some pistoleros simply aren’t satisfied unless they own a Bisley.
The grip angle of an original Colt Bisley is essentially the same as that of the 1911 .45 auto. Handle a 1911 and then pick up a Bisley and you’ll quickly see the similarity. Whatever the reason, some shooters like the increased grip angle of the Bisley and the high hand position it gives on the gun. Several makers (though not Colt) currently offer clones of the Bisley style, and we chose three of them to try for you.
For this test, we tried the EMF Bisley made in Italy by Armi San Marco, the American Arms Regulator made by Uberti of Italy, and the Ruger Bisley-Vaquero. All of these .45 Long Colt revolvers had 5-1/2-inch barrels, blued and case-colored finishes, fixed sights and wood grips. All held six shots, but only the Ruger permitted that number to be loaded in complete safety. None had external safeties. All required the manual ejection and reloading of one cartridge at a time, in the time-honored single-action manner.
Fit & Finish
Our American Arms Bisley took the cake for best fit and finish — externally. The wood grips appeared to have grown in place on the frame. The metal polish was superb, and the case coloring was eye-catching. Internally, it was quite a different story. The chambers were visibly rough, and some of the dimensions were too large. The chamber outlets measured 0.459 inch, and that won’t provide the best accuracy. We had difficulty getting the cylinder back into the gun because of some interference with the hand, and this didn’t get much easier as our test progressed.
We also noted some scratching of both sides of the hammer from burrs within the frame after cycling the hammer a few times. In spite of that, we had to rate the overall fit and finish of the American Arms as good to very good. We particularly liked the beveled contour given to the front of the cylinder, which emulated the cylinder shape of Colts produced around the turn of the century, when original Bisleys were made. This made for extremely good looks and easier holstering.
Our EMF (which stands for Early and Modern Firearms) Bisley looked a bit dingy overall, and the wood was nowhere nearly as well fitted as the American Arms gun. The EMF’s grip screw had a bashed head, which created a burr that snagged on the shooter’s fingers, and the right grip-screw escutcheon had been partially ground away, which was quite unsightly.[PDFCAP(2)].
The stock wood was unevenly finished, though the varnish-like finish was appropriate for this style gun. There was some unevenness in the metal polish. Also, there was a huge 0.030-inch gap between the ejector rod housing and the barrel. We rated the overall fit and finish as poor to average.
The Ruger Bisley-Vaquero had a good-looking polish to its metal, but there was a flaw on the bottom of its frame right in front of where the trigger guard meets it. This appeared as a bright spot about an eighth-inch in diameter where the case coloring was either worn or scratched away. The grips were mated to the frame in a manner that left some excess wood, which hopefully will shrink over time to match the metal. In other words, the wood was generally higher than the adjacent metal. However, the wood itself was quite attractive. The color case hardening was less than brilliant, but attractive enough. We rated the metal-to-metal finish of the Ruger as very good to excellent, and the wood fitting as average.[PDFCAP(3)].
Ruger didn’t make any attempt to copy the original Colt Bisley grip shape, which was to their credit. (Their grip does a wonderful job of absorbing recoil. In fact, it is the grip shape chosen by John Linebaugh for his .475 and .500 Linebaugh handguns because it permits them to be shot without destroying the shooter’s hand.) The other two guns in this test did attempt to look like the Colt Bisley, but both fell short of being exact clones. The EMF came closest to feeling like a real Colt, while the American Arms gun had a grip that felt too big.
Timing and Dimensions
All three guns had very good timing. They would all catch the hammer in the full-cock notch just as the locking bolt fell into the notch on the cylinder. Both the EMF and American Arms guns dropped their bolts into the approaches to the bolt notches. However, the Ruger’s bolt dropped at the mid-point between notches in the cylinder, which eventually wore a line around the cylinder. Lockup on all three was solid. Barrel-to-cylinder gaps were loose in two cases. They measured as follows: American Arms, 0.013 inch; EMF, 0.008 inch; and Ruger, a very reasonable 0.005 inch. The American Arms’ cylinder had outlets that measured from 0.458 to a full 0.460 inch, much too big for any kind of accuracy. Groove diameter of this one was 0.451 inch, which means the bullets slug up seven thousandths in the cylinder and then get mashed back down in the bore to 0.451 inch, so the gun probably won’t shoot up to the potential of its barrel no matter what ammunition you put into it.
The dimensions of the EMF appeared to be essentially correct. The cylinder outlets measured 0.452 to 0.454 inch, but one in particular was out of round to a significant extent and that cylinder caused lead spitting.[PDFCAP(4)].
Our test Ruger’s outlets measured 0.453 to 0.456 inch, not as tight as we’d have guessed. We measured an original Colt SAA revolver from 1904 in excellent condition, and it had outlets that measured 0.453 inch. Another from 1923, however, emulated the 2nd and 3rd generation Colts, with outlets of 0.459 inch, which is far too large. Ideally, the chamber outlets should be 0.001 to 0.003 inch larger than the groove diameter of the barrel for best accuracy, and the bullets should closely match the groove diameter.
The fixed sights on all three revolvers consisted of a notch in the top rear of the frames, and a curved blade front. The Ruger’s sights were really good and clear, with a wide front blade and a generous square-notched rear that provided an outstanding picture. The front sight’s curved top glared in bright light, though.
The other two guns emulated the sights of original Colts. The rear sight was a rather shallow and small V-shaped notch, while the front was a thin, tapering blade. The American Arms’ sight picture was superior to that of the EMF, but only by a small margin.
The trigger of the EMF broke cleanly at 4.3 pounds when we first tried it, but it smoothed out to 3.5 pounds by the end of our tests. That of the American Arms gun was a bit creepy, and its pull varied from 2.8 pounds to over 8 pounds — we don’t know why — and this gave us fits during our accuracy shooting. The Ruger’s trigger suffered from a lot of creep and a heavy letoff of 5.2 pounds.
Controls and Safeties
Of the three revolvers tested, the Ruger Bisley-Vaquero was the only one that had a modern safety. It had a transfer bar ignition system that permitted the loading of six rounds with perfect safety. The other two Bisleys were, effectively, five-shooters, because the hammer needed to be down on an empty chamber for safety. The EMF had an extra notch on its long cylinder base pin which permitted the pin to be positioned to extend out the rear of the frame, blocking the hammer. The American Arms has Uberti’s hammer safety, linked internally to the trigger. Still, neither of these two can safely hold six rounds.
Getting rounds into and out of all three of these guns was a bit frustrating. To load an original Colt, you put the gun on half-cock, swing open the loading gate, and insert a round. Then you index the cylinder to the next chamber, back it up against the hand to center the chamber in the opening, and insert the next round. To unload fired cases, you follow the same procedure. Backing up of the cylinder against the hand allows a smart stroke of the ejector rod to eject the case out the center of the loading port.
Unfortunately, this didn’t work with the EMF, and only poorly with the American Arms gun. It was impossible with the Ruger. Backing the cylinder up against the hand with any of these guns let the cylinder swing back too far, partially obscuring the chamber opening. This made loading a bit more difficult, and unloading very frustrating. The partially obscured chamber opening caused the rim of the fired case to hit the back of the frame and not fly out, unless we visually centered the cylinder in the opening. We had to look at the gun to unload it, and that should not be necessary. This was one of the few complaints shooters had about the Ruger, yet their very safe and very solid design mandated this technique. With the other two revolvers tested here, there was no excuse.
There is a cure for those who have an EMF or other Colt clone (it won’t work on Rugers) and want to be able to load and unload easier. You (or your gunsmith) can grind away part of the frame so that the cartridge rim won’t be stopped by the frame. You essentially make a funnel out of the loading opening. This is unsightly, though most of the metal removal is on the inside of the frame. We would think it totally violates the warranty of the guns, so be sure you need that ability before you modify your gun.
The cure for the Ruger is John Linebaugh’s very effective one: get rid of the ratcheting function when the loading gate is open, so the cylinder can freely rotate in either direction. This is a godsend to easy loading/unloading manipulation of new Rugers, one we wish the factory would adopt.
We had one big problem with the EMF Bisley. Its ejector rod stuck in the rearward position because of the improper shape of the notch in the rod housing. With the rod in the rearward position, it was possible to press upward on the ejector rod and lock it into the rear notch in the housing (necessary in the manufacture of the part). This notch needed to be shaped so it wouldn’t lock the rod rearward. The shooter can fix this with a file, but there goes your bluing.
The EMF Bisley felt just like a Colt in our hands (except for loading and unloading). Four out of seven shooters who tried all three guns — for feel alone — preferred the EMF. Two of them were women. All who chose the EMF first for feel also liked the feel of original Colts, and there was no doubt that the EMF was a very close kin to the Colt. (The company advertises that their guns’ parts will interchange with those on a Colt.) Even the act of cocking the EMF felt, to a Colt collector, pretty much like the “real thing.” Two shooters preferred the Ruger’s feel; they were both very experienced with Ruger handguns.
To a Colt fancier, the grip of the American Arms Bisley was just too big. The gun felt clumsy, even though its frame and most parts were the size of Colt parts. The grip’s shape was somehow wrong. The one and only shooter who preferred the feel of the American Arms gun had huge hands.
The Ruger Bisley-Vaquero was simply a bigger handgun. Its cylinder was larger, and this gave the Ruger the ability to handle essentially any factory-loaded .45 LC ammunition that will fit into its chambers, including +P Cor-Bon and the new, very hot, Buffalo Bore HVY .45 loads. These hot loads are not recommended for the other two revolvers.
For many shooters, a gun’s performance with live ammunition is the only significant bottom line. However, for the serious Cowboy Action shooter, appearance is as important as shooting — sometimes more so. The Ruger Bisley-Vaquero doesn’t look enough like an old Colt to keep the diehard authentic-prone SASS (Single Action Shooting Society) shooter happy for long, but many Rugers are used in these events. One good reason is that Rugers, and ours was no exception, are outstanding shooters.
Our Bisley-Vaquero took the highest honors in this test. More to the point, it shot closest to where its fixed sights pointed. (Even new-condition first-generation Colts often don’t shoot where the shooter wants them to.) This fact alone would make the Ruger the first choice for the .45 Colt shooter, but this revolver also shot the smallest groups of the test. Its best five-shot groups averaged 2.7 inches at 25 yards, with Black Hills 250-grain Cowboy ammunition. The Winchester 250-grain Cowboy load was right behind that at an average of 2.8 inches. However, the Ruger didn’t like the Remington 225-grain lead semiwadcutter ammunition, which produced average groups at 25 yards of just under 4 inches.
The EMF Bisley’s best average group size was 4.2 inches with the Black Hills ammunition, and the revolver showed erratic performance. We assumed one or more chambers were not indexing properly. We had two failures to fire, the primer showing a firing pin strike right at the edge. The only way for that to happen was for the cylinder to be indexed either to the right or left of the barrel, and that undoubtedly contributed to this gun’s erratic performance. Several chamber mouths were at least 0.003 inch out of round. We had three decent groups of 2.9, 2.8, and 3.5 inches, indicating the gun was trying to shoot. It just didn’t. Sadly, that’s not the whole story.
The EMF came with a high front sight, so the shooter could file it to make the revolver shoot where it pointed. However, the manufacturer went a bit overboard. The gun printed about 8 inches low at 25 yards. Centering this gun would require the careful removal of lots of metal from that front blade. Loading and unloading the EMF was not a lot of fun. The ejector rod stuck rearward if we even thought about the aforementioned notch. Furthermore, several times, the ejector rod spring stuck in the fully compressed position, though the rod was free to move fore and aft. Lining up the spent cartridge rim with the hole in the frame to eject it was sometimes a very frustrating chore, as it required just a bit of movement off the fully counterclockwise stop. Also, if we rotated the cylinder a bit too far forward, the rim then hung up on the other side of the ejection port. This, in our opinion, needed fixing. If the port could be made larger, that should fix the problem. Several years ago, Senior Technical Editor Ray Ordorica wrote the EMF company a lengthy letter detailing this problem on a .44/40 revolver. Apparently, the company chose to ignore the problem, but it hasn’t gone away.
Adjusting the sights of the American Arms Bisley would require more than simple filing. It printed correctly for elevation, happy day, but nearly six inches left of the point of aim at 25 yards. Centering this revolver would require turning the barrel tighter into the frame, or bending the front sight to the left, or somehow making the rear notch move to the right in the frame. None of these are simple tasks. The best groups with the American Arms gun averaged 3.5 inches, with the Remington ammunition. The erratic trigger pull needed looking into, as it did nothing for confidence or group size.
In a nutshell, if you want a Bisley for looks, pick the American Arms. If you want one for feel, pick the EMF. If you want one to shoot, pick the Ruger. That’s only a little oversimplified. If you, the buyer, want all three in one handgun, none of these revolvers are the solution.
If you’re a traditionalist, the American Arms gun is the one for you. We had so many problems with the EMF we’d never consider it, and, when we looked at its price tag, it became totally out of the question. The Ruger, as most Rugers are, is a good handgun at a reasonable price. You will have to decide if its looks will make you happy. We’re sure its shooting will do so. If push came to shove, we’d buy the Ruger and be quite happy, if somewhat compromised.