February 2004

.32 Single-Action Revolvers: Navy Deluxe and Bird’s Head Shoot Out

The Navy Arms Deluxe .32-20, $435, and Rugerís $576 Single Six Birdís Head .32 H&R Magnum are loaded with charm and shoot easy. Bonus: S&Wís .500 S&W Magnum wheelgun.

Navy Arms Deluxe revolver

This Navy Arms Deluxe revolver came chambered in .32-20, originally a rifle cartridge introduced in 1882. We liked the pairing of revolver and cartridge.

The single-action-shooting craze with its cowboy theme is a mix of modern technology and Old West gear. Period wear is required for the shooters, but if you check out the equipment you’ll likely discover that even the guns are costume. What goes on the hip may have the appearance of being old iron, but the most popular calibers at these matches were hardly dreamed of when the game was for real. Almost everyone seems to be shooting .38 Special or a light load of .45 Long Colt instead of black powder, or ancients like .41 Smith & Wesson and .45 Colt. So, with the appeal of the cowboy action guns well established, we were not surprised to find more than one manufacturer taking artistic license when it comes to new combinations of frame and caliber. Uberti of Italy has for some time been producing working replicas of American guns of the 19th Century. In this test we try one of the Cattleman series revolvers, a specialized version marketed by Navy Arms called the Deluxe SCW322 and chambered in .32-20, originally a rifle cartridge. We wondered if this round would give our Deluxe an Old World feel. Ruger revolvers are very popular in Cowboy Action circles. But with their improved sights and redesigned loading gate, the Ruger gang of guns has been relegated to the sport’s Modern division. However, we did find a Ruger single-action revolver that was fit with more traditional sights and a Bird’s Head grip as well. Chambered for .32 H&R Magnum, this gun was not meant to be an authentic reproduction, but we hoped the rest of the gun might give us a unique Western feel. Would these guns prove to be novelties or would they really shoot? Here’s what we found:

Navy Arms Deluxe SCW322 .32-20, $435


Our Deluxe, which was externally identical to the Uberti Cattleman, and which came with a Uberti warranty and owner’s manual, looked and felt like the real thing, all 3 pounds of it. This shooting iron was finished with a case-hardened look and walnut grips. Three screws are visible from the side of the frame. A new-style plunger is used to retain the cylinder pin. This same gun is available with the original screw retainer, however.

Our Deluxe came with the 5.5-inch barrel that we think is ideal. This length provides more than enough sight radius and the right type of balance. Short-barreled revolvers are a kick, but getting the muzzle a little farther downrange does quiet things down a bit for the shooter. Then again, chambered for .32-20 Winchester, the gun’s blast was just enough to be pleasant. We have seen a lot of good single-action revolvers, both modern and traditional, chambered for rimfire rounds be they magnum or .17 HMR. But as accurate as those guns can be, a lot of people get tired of them because the moment of ignition doesn’t provide enough excitement. We liked the .32-20 because the pop is substantial but still easy on shooter and equipment. Keep in mind that durability in some older-style single-action replicas has been cause for concern. Even the original Colt revolvers were known to break once in a while. One advantage in owning a .32-20 should be its longevity.

We found fit and finish on our Deluxe to be very good. Starting with its heavy steel barrel and tall front sight and continuing to its steel frame with case-hardened finish. We were impressed by its tight construction. The walnut grips were glass smooth and richly colored. Much of the gun showed tasteful color coordination and evidence of hand-fit construction. We think that some manufacturers take for granted that the operator is adept at common chores such as removing the base pin. We’ve seen construction that left room for the beginner to find the wrong way to remove the pin simply because machining had left the door open for improper technique. The Deluxe was easy to service, and parts slid into place without stress or drag. For most people the only pleasure in handling a particular gun is the firing (and sometimes that isn’t even fun). But we have found that a lot of people who purchase single-action revolvers enjoy not only the history of these weapons but also take pleasure in the mechanics of loading and unloading them as well. Unlike models such as those from Ruger that integrate modern design, the Cattleman New style still requires moving the hammer back to a loading position before the cylinder is released. The cylinder turns with a pleasing click per each chamber. You could line up the smooth-working ejector rod with each chamber just by the sound. The firing pin is mounted to the face of the hammer, but it can be lowered safely behind a live round. Once the gun is loaded, you must control the hammer while pressing the trigger. On the way down the hammer will click once. That is the cue to release the trigger-activated hammer block. This will stop the hammer about 0.15 inch from full rest with the firing pin hidden safely inside the breechface. The trigger was virtually without grit or creep. We can’t recall there being any take-up or any hard resistance. At 4 pounds, this was a totally neutral trigger that gave us every chance to break a clean shot.

Unfortunately, we only had one choice of ammunition available to test. This was the Winchester 100-grain lead round, (number X32201) in a silver box. The shape of the slug was similar to a truncated cone or to be more descriptive it was a conical shape with a slightly rounded profile leading to a flat top. (An old-fashioned semi-wadcutter). The case was slightly tapered. The 1.315-inch-long rimmed case starts out with a diameter of 0.354 inch and about two-thirds of the way to the case the mouth tapers to 0.338 inch. The case also showed an embossed crimp at the base of the bullet to regulate seating depth and a steep roll crimp at the mouth. The .32-20 was originally a rifle round, having been introduced by Winchester in 1882 for the model 73 lever action. As a rifle round, velocity can soar above 2000 fps with soft-point bullets commonly weighing 85 to 110 grains. But loads designed for handgun use are generally limited to 100 grains or less and driven at a velocity of 1000 fps or slower. Our test ammunition averaged only 827 fps but proved quite accurate. Our best group at 25 yards from the bench measured 1.8 inches center to center. A largest group of 2.7 inches expanded the average to 2.3 inches. Actually, we would rate this gun as capable of sub 2.0-inch groups all day long. We are sure that the only reason our average was higher was because the sights just wore out our eyes. After a while the little pin up front is harder and harder to regulate inside the frame notch.

Accuracy and Chronograph Data

Ruger .32 H&R Magnum SSMBH-4F, $576

Our other .32-caliber revolver was built on a slightly smaller frame than the Deluxe and held five rounds of .32 H&R Magnum. This gun will also chamber .32 S&W and .32 S&W Long. But what makes it interesting is its primary caliber that was developed not in the 1890s but in the 1980s. A product of a joint venture between Harrington & Richardson and Federal Cartridge, this round was designed for use in H&R’s Model 504, 532 and 586 revolvers. In dimension, the .32 H&R Magnum is the .32 S&W Long case lengthened by 0.155 inch. Some engineers wondered why H&R had not simply produced a .32-20 revolver, but at 1.350 inches maximum overall length, the new magnum round would be easier to chamber in H&R’s current models. In fact, a loaded .32 H&R Magnum round is nearly the same length as an empty .32-20 shell. However, the performance of this round in the minds of most ballisticians has never really lived up to its magnum billing. According to Krause’s Cartridges of the World, 9th Edition (715-445-2214) performance of this new round was supposed to be on par with most .38 Special rounds.

Be that as it may, much like the .32-20 Winchester cartridge, the .32 H&R Magnum is good fun in a single-action revolver. Power with the 95-grain Federal Classic lead semi-wadcutter was very similar to the 100-grain lead rounds of .32-20 we fired in our Deluxe/Cattleman. The 85-grain HI-SHOK hollow points had a little more pop, but were distinguished more for the cleaner air they left behind than for the concussion.

The Ruger model SSMBH-4F has at least two letters in its suffix that are easily traced. The BH most certainly stands for Bird’s Head. This is the style that adorns the rearward frame and it is one of our favorites. It had a distinctive look. We guess if you hold the gun vertically and imagine the grip screw to be a bird’s eye, then you can see the connection. But we knowthat it is also one of the most comfortable ways to hold a single-action revolver and a sure way to turn heads. For what it’s worth, this type of grip is easier to conceal.

Our Ruger showed only two screws on its frame but shared the spring-operated plunger with our Deluxe that releases the base pin. The barrel is gray, but like the Deluxe, the frame is case hardened. The trigger and hammer, however, are cut and polished in an unmistakably modern way. In fact this model is a little bit modern and a little bit traditional. Other modern traits were the load gate, which is swung out with the hammer down releasing the cylinder. This also freezes the hammer. Pulling back the hammer then shows you that there is not a half cock position nor is there any need for a loading position. The firing pin on this gun is not on the end of the hammer. It rides independently inside the frame held from moving forward by a strong spring. The hammer will not make direct contact with the firing pin unless a transfer bar is raised to transfer the force of the hammer‘s blow. Pressing the trigger raises the transfer bar. A solid strike on the transfer bar delivers the necessary force to drive the firing pin into the primer. The safety aspects of this design are twofold. For one, there is no danger in leaving a loaded chamber under the hammer. Two, it is not necessary to manipulate the hammer for any reason but to fire. Another way that Ruger has been updating its single-action designs has been with improved sights, better than the ones found on the Deluxe, in our view. The Ruger rear sight is still a frame notch, but by adding more definition and moving it forward of the rear edge of the top strap, visual relief is greatly improved.

We might like the Navy Arms Deluxe with adjustable sights better than our current test model, but simply switching the Deluxe/Uberti’s rear sight to this design would surely have improved its accuracy by reducing eyestrain. In our test of the Ruger with its 4.5-inch barrel, we were unable to land a five-shot group that measured less than 2.3 inches (which coincidentally was the Deluxe/Uberti’s overall average). The problem was no matter how we tried to find the odd chamber, we consistently had four tight shots (some as small as an inch in diameter) and a flyer. Nonetheless, group size ranged from only 2.3 to 2.7 inches for two different rounds over the span of 10 measured groups at 25 yards.

Gun Tests Recommends

Navy Arms Deluxe SCW322 .32-20, $435. Best Buy. This gun was smooth and elegant, and we think that 32-20 was an excellent match to this frame. The trigger was just about perfect. This gun was as enjoyable and as accurate a gun as any you are liable to find in the traditional single-action category.

Ruger SSMBH-4F .32 H&R Magnum, $576. Buy It. With this model we got to cash in on Ruger’s advanced safety features and some nifty sights that are much like Ruger’s double action service revolvers. Thankfully, none of the modern features interfered with its charm.

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