Getting into Cowboy Action shooting can be an exercise in frustration, considering only the selection of the handguns needed for that lively game. There are hundreds of them to choose from. There’s no way we can test them all, but we will try to simplify this selection a bit, beginning with three likely six-shooters that promise to do everything needed, and do it well. The three are chambered in .45 Long Colt, which we feel offers a lot more than just an historic viewpoint. The big .45 is a versatile caliber in a good revolver, and is thus our first choice.
Our test guns include Ruger’s brand-spanking-new New Vaquero NV-455 No. 5101 ($583), with smaller frame and super-easy loading that had us cheering; Beretta’s Stampede JEA1501 ($540), a nicely finished import; and a sixgun we tested in the April 2001 issue, Cabela’s Millennium revolver (now $280) with brass frame. We had some surprises along the way, and part of the story cannot yet be told, but here’s what we’ve found so far.
We liked this newly designed revolver instantly. It had a smaller grip frame than old Vaqueros, and the gun looked and felt a lot like a single-action Colt. Grip shape was mighty close, and the panels looked like hard rubber. They were synthetic, but retained the feel of the Old West. The best was yet to come. Opening the loading gate freed up the cylinder and locked the hammer down, just as before, but the cylinder could be rotated in either direction. However, as you tried to back it up, the star ran into a spring-loaded plunger in the frame that prevented the cylinder from backing up. Instead, the chamber lined up perfectly with the loading gate. That’s right, this Ruger single action could be loaded and unloaded just like an original Colt. With many Colt clones, empty cases strike the edge of the loading port coming out. They zinged right out of the Ruger, centered in the opening. In a blink, Ruger SA’s went from the hardest to load to the easiest. This new Ruger could be loaded and unloaded blindfolded. Score a big one for the New Vaquero.
The frame was coated with pseudo-case coloring that didn’t add to the hardness. The one-piece grip strap, barrel, ejector rod, and cylinder were blued. The grip was the size of early ones made of aluminum, but was steel. Score another one for Ruger. The trigger and hammer were white on the sides, and blued on the edges. The hammer’s cocking serrations were sharp enough. The front of the cylinder was beveled to avoid gouging the holster, a nice touch, though not done the same way Colt did it. A plate allowed the hammer to contact the firing pin when the trigger was depressed. The trigger itself stood a bit too far forward for best aesthetics. Cocking the hammer got the trigger back to where it belonged. The trigger blade was fairly wide, and pull was a clean 3.6 pounds.
The hammer had a pronounced hook, but it was a touch too long for our hands. It contacted the web of the hand when fully cocked. The grip arch may have been slightly too high, but this is a personal thing. Colt hammers gently brush the web of most of our shooter’s hands. This one pressed it in noticeably. There were only two positions for the hammer, fully cocked or fully down.
A notch in the top of the frame formed the rear sight, and the front was a rounded, flat-topped blade that worked well enough. In bright overhead light it could be tricky seeing the exact top of the front blade on all three of these revolvers, but that is part of the game, and this setup was workable and traditional.
We tested the Ruger in two strings. Shortly after we began our shooting evaluation we got notice from Ruger that the gun might have a glitch of some sort, and would we please send it back so technicians could look it over. At that time we had had no trouble with the Ruger, and had fired several dozen rounds through it. We had tried it in rapid fire, and the Ruger ran without a hitch. When we got the gun back, it no longer functioned perfectly. The cylinder would now skip past one or two chambers, resulting in failures to fire. We called Ruger and were told that so far as they could tell, nothing had been done to this gun. We sent it dirty because we like to see if crud affects function. The returned gun had been thoroughly cleaned, but we could not tell if it had been opened.
The skipping problem got worse. The skip took place usually on just two of the cylinders. The corresponding bolt cuts in the cylinder, and the bolt itself, looked to be in fine condition. Our contact at Ruger promised to look into this problem, but we had run out of time for this article, and the solution will have to be told in a later issue of Gun Tests. We thought the bolt spring seemed weak compared to the other two guns, but once the cylinder was bolted it stayed in place solidly.
On [PDFCAP(2)], the Ruger shot where it looked, no mean feat for a fixed-sight handgun. We tested with Black Hills’ cowboy loads, Ultramax cowboy loads, and a handload consisting of 8.0 grains Unique and a 250-grain cast lead bullet. The Ruger, having excellent dimensions, shot them all well and had minimal leading in the bargain. The only problem we encountered was the skipping already noted. This would be a fine option, we thought, for beginning Cowboy Action shooters, in that the gun should last a long time and will digest rounds that would damage early Colts (and probably some modern clones too). The Ruger New Vaquero is available in a variety of calibers and barrel lengths.
The first things we noticed were the unsightly cracked black-polymer grip panels. Both checkered panels were cracked through the center. The panels had raised studs that met in the middle to prevent cracking from over-tightening, but if one grip panel hung up on the edge of the grip frame while the panels were being installed, it would be easy to crack them. Inside, we found more evidence in the form of a bit of plastic cracked off where the grip panel contacted the frame at the bottom to prevent wobbling. We are in the process of trying to get replacement grips from Beretta.
The Stampede was mighty attractive. There are several versions (see website), including a deluxe one, for $710. Other options include nickel plate and something costly called “Inox.” Barrel lengths are 4.8 inches, 5.5 inches, or 7.5 inches, and calibers are .45 LC or .357 Magnum. All are made by Uberti, but we presume final details are specified by Beretta, and we also suspect Beretta is responsible for the final finish and assembly.
Our Stampede had blued grip straps, cylinder, barrel, and ejector housing. The hammer was white-sided with blued edges. The frame was color-case hardened, and this was the real thing, so far as we could tell. Our tests indicated the metal surface is hard. The hammer had a tiny bit of checkering on its tip. The sights were a cut in the frame and a fairly wide front blade. We had a hard time telling the Beretta from the Ruger, they were so similar in appearance. However, the details of the Beretta in profile were slightly closer to original Colts, notably in the curve of the top of the grip strap, the trigger-guard shape, and the hammer.
The Stampede operated like most Colt clones, requiring the hammer to be put on partial cock to load or unload. There was no “safety notch,” nor any need for one. The hammer operated against a transfer bar. We did not like this setup. It produced a slight jump in the feel of the hammer, perhaps from the bar dragging on the firing pin. The trigger pull was excellent, breaking cleanly at 2.4 pounds. Loading was easy, but unloading was not. The edge of the fired case would catch on the edge of the ejection port. One quick fix is to bevel the forward edge of the ejection port, a few seconds’ work for a good gunsmith. You ought not to have to jiggle the cylinder to get the empties to eject, we think, on an otherwise fine revolver.
We first tested this revolver in the April 2001 issue of GT. At the time its price was $200, and the gun got our highest rating. It was accurate, well made, and despite its brass grip straps and vapor-blast surface finish, we thought it looked authentic enough to grace the holster of any well-heeled Cowboy Action shooter. You don’t have any options of caliber or barrel length here. The Millennium is available only in .45 LC with a 4.8-inch barrel.
The hammer was case-colored and held the firing pin. The Cabela’s gun had the nicest hammer checkering of all three guns, much like that found on early Colts. Today’s shooter will have to fork over $280 for the gun, which we still think is a great price for value received. Though the Millennium was not listed on the company’s website as of this writing, we understand that is being corrected, and the gun will also be in the upcoming 2005 Cabela’s shooter’s catalog. Your dealer ought to be able to get you one with little trouble.
We have put a few hundred rounds through the Millennium revolver since our first test, and it still shoots well and shows no signs of shooting loose. We understand serious action shooters will put thousands of rounds a year through their handguns, but for beginners, this six-shooter is still ideal, in our opinion. It won’t break the bank, won’t fly apart, and looks good enough that you won’t be embarrassed to show or shoot it. If you wear it out (and in our experience that won’t be easy), buy another one. Lockup on our sample is still very tight, and to our joy there are no flip-up hooky-dookers inside it to make it go bang. It’s a basic single-action revolver, and you have to understand its limitations. Never load six rounds unless you’re in a gunfight. Keep the hammer down on the empty chamber, because a blow to the hammer will cause a loaded round to fire. These features are just like you’d expect from a Colt made a century or more ago, and make the Cabela’s Millennium the closest to the “real thing” of the three test revolvers.
Gun Tests Recommends
• Ruger New Vaquero NV-455 No. 5101 .45 LC, $583. Conditional Buy. The temporary failure of this revolver was a blow to us, because we had fallen in love with it. It shot very well indeed, shot exactly where it looked, and seemed to be shooting better all the time. So you, like us, will have to wait to see how the problem gets fixed. Ruger does not habitually make non-functional guns, but for now, we must give the Ruger a Conditional Buy rating. If the gun had run perfectly, this sixgun would probably have received an “Our Pick” rating, because we liked absolutely everything about it, including the dimensions of its cylinder outlets and groove diameter, its good looks and accuracy, the immense ease of loading and unloading, the fine trigger, and the new, smaller, Old-West-style grip with black checkered panels. This one had a lot going for it.
• Beretta Stampede .45 LC, $540. Buy It. We liked this Beretta a lot, particularly the real case hardening. The gun looked and felt good, and had better balance than the Ruger. It worked well in rapid-fire tests. It had decent accuracy and functioned well except for questionable ejection. The Stampede shot about 1.0 to 1.5 inches to the left at 15 yards, good enough for most action events. We preferred its slim grip to the Cabela’s or the Ruger’s. Incidentally, the cylinders of the Cabela’s Millennium and Beretta interchanged perfectly.
• Cabela’s Millennium Revolver, .45 LC, $280. Best Buy. We don’t know how you can beat this one for value received. Touching the high points, the machining and fitting of the Millennium were excellent. All the critical parts were of steel, and the well-fitted, one-piece wood grips were a nice touch. The front of the chambers were beveled like original Colts and look great. The chambers were as highly polished inside as those of the Beretta Stampede. The brass could be chemically blackened through the use of “Brass Black,” available from Brownells. We tried the gun for accuracy and it shot as well as the others, and hit exactly where it looked. The trigger broke cleanly at 3.0 pounds. Empties ejected easily.
In short, there were no flies on this revolver, and even at $280 we think it’s one of the best bargains in the shooting world, an ideal first choice for assembling your Cowboy Action equipment.
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