June 2006

Cowboy .38 Specials: EMF Is Our Pick, Ruger Gets A Buy Nod

EMFís Great Western II is one of the best single actions weíve tested in a while, and Rugerís 50th Year wheelgun also hit the bullís-eye. But Taurusís Gaucho missed the mark, in our opinion.

We pitted (top to bottom) the Taurus Gaucho, Rugerís 50th Year New Model Blackhawk Flat Top, and the Pietta-made and EMF-imported Great Western II single actions, all in .357 Mag/.38 Special against each other, with a strong eye to Cowboy Action shooting.

Those who are most serious about Cowboy Action shooting tend to favor lighter-recoiling firearms so they can cut their times down, never mind that bigger guns like .45s tend to be more authentic, especially when stoked with black powder. Not that it takes any less skill to do well with lighter recoiling equipment, but it can give an edge, or so we’ve been told. This means .38 Special loads in handguns and rifles, and probably 20-gauge shotguns. How much benefit does a .38 Special offer over, say, a .45 Colt? There’s a huge difference in recoil, even if the .45 shoots only light cowboy loads.

To find out more, we gathered a trio of .38 Special single-action six-shooters to see how well they’d do for us, and to find out how much we liked ‘em. All were .357 Mag-capable, and all had 4.75-inch barrels. The guns were a Ruger New Model 50th Anniversary Flat Top Blackhawk ($583), a Taurus Gaucho M38SA ($499), and from EMF Co., a resurrection of the old Great Western revolvers, the Great Western II “Californian” model ($450). We tested with three main types of ammo, Black Hills Cowboy loads, Federal 110-grain JHP .357 Mag, and with a modest handload in .38 Special cases that approximated Cowboy loads. Here’s what we found.

We acquired one of these limited-edition flat-top Rugers largely because it resembled the earliest Blackhawk Ruger .357s which so many shooters liked, though the similarities extend to outward appearances only. These 50th Year Blackhawks will be harder to come by as time goes on, but the normal New Model Blackhawk, which sells for $482, should be easy to get. Some of our staff used to have the older version, and liked it much better than recent Blackhawks, so we chose this one for a good look at the latest single-action setup by Ruger. The neat, adjustable, all-steel rear Micro sight set into a flattened top strap set this Ruger off from the other two test revolvers, which both had fixed sights. This 50th-Year commemorative Ruger brought back memories of long ago to some of our testers, who recalled a time when Ruger made the Blackhawk with an aluminum frame and ejector rod housing, and with the earliest easy-loading cylinder that you could turn back against a stop and eject an empty or load a fresh cartridge, all without fumbling for that just-right cylinder position.

Unlike the older Blackhawk, this new Ruger was all steel, and had all of Ruger’s latest safety devices. Open the loading gate and the hammer is locked. Even better, this Ruger incorporated the latest Ruger innovation, easy loading. You could simply back the cylinder up against a stop and the chamber would be perfectly aligned with the opening, a feature now incorporated on all new Ruger single actions, and long overdue, we thought.

Fit and finish were impeccable. We appreciated all the well-done flat surfaces, something Ruger used to have trouble with long ago, especially on the flat top of the frame. Gold-filled lettering on top of the barrel declared the commemorative nature of this offering, but as always, we didn’t like the lengthy discourse along the left side of the barrel, which basically tells you to read the manual. Cylinder lockup was dead tight, and timing was excellent. The balance of the gun, though it was a touch heavier than the other two, was perhaps the best of the trio. The slightly smaller grip with its classic-looking black checkered grip panels felt great, we thought, and if normal Blackhawks don’t have this identical grip size, we all though they should. As we found out, the grip size and shape was identical to that of a Colt S/A. Normal Blackhawks now have “rosewood” panels. The sight picture was ideal, we thought, with just the right amount of light on the sides of the front blade.

We found a bit of creep to the trigger, which broke at 3.80 pounds. [PDFCAP(2)], the sights were perfectly centered, and the Ruger shot better than its competition with both types of cowboy loads. Oddly, the only revolver in this test with adjustable sights was the only one that didn’t need to have the sights touched. The other two guns shot off center. We found no problems with the Ruger at all. The more we shot it, the more we liked it.

[PDFCAP(3)]
We liked the Gaucho at first. This Brazilian-made six-shooter was not an attempt to copy the original Colt’s finish. It had bluing all over its well-polished surfaces except for the hammer and trigger, each of which had case coloring that looked fake, but wasn’t. The front of the cylinder was too sharp, and could have used a bit of bevel, which even the Ruger had. Fit and finish were very good to excellent, we thought. We liked the black checkered grips, but didn’t care for the odd modernistic border to the checkering, nor for the protrusion of the grip panels above the sides of the frame. However, the grip straps were in two pieces, so it’s possible a one-piece grip could be fitted. Single-action Colt grips were a near-perfect match to the Gaucho’s, including the hole placement, so replacement grips ought not to be a problem at all. In fact, all three guns had grip sizes that were identical to those found on old Colts.

The Gaucho had decent balance and in general felt much like an old Colt S/A. Loading was similar, too. Bring the hammer to the second notch, and have at it. The gun could be loaded with six rounds, because the mechanism kept the firing pin off the primer unless the trigger was pulled all the way back.

Ignition was via a transfer bar that we didn’t care for. The hammer was very easy to cock, but the trigger had creep and varied in its pull by a pound, from 2.7 to 3.7 pounds. The trigger moved with a gritty feel when uncocked, the result of its raising the beveled transfer bar over the firing pin. This feel was not there when the gun was cocked. During some cold-weather shooting we had several failures to fire. In the cold, we could make the gun fire every time by mashing the trigger, or fail to fire every time by pressing it very slowly. This failure didn’t occur in normal temperatures, but we lost a lot of confidence in the gun once that first round failed to fire.

We found an added safety feature at the base of the hammer, a storage lock that would render the Gaucho unshootable with the turn of a key. However, with our attention on that part of the gun, we found the hammer’s curving base didn’t match the curves of the straps. We liked the easy cocking, so pulled off the grip panels to see what was inside. To our surprise, the hammer spring was a leaf, not coil, and it had a slot in its center. This worked well, and Taurus could probably make lots of money selling those springs to other S/A makers.

On the range we found the gun shot three inches high at 15 yards. That won’t be easy to fix, because the gun requires a higher front sight. Of course, once you realize this you can compensate, but in the heat of cowboy competition we doubt anyone is going to be happy with a gun that shoots high. The best group of the test was fired with this Taurus, 0.8 inch for five shots with the .357 Mag ammo. On average, groups were in the range of 1.5 to 2 inches at 15 yards.

[PDFCAP(4)]
Here’s the Old West personified. Made by Pietta, this six-shooter had one-piece walnut grips, case coloring on the frame, trigger and hammer, and decent bluing on the rest, just like old Colts. The case coloring was the real thing. It didn’t look much like that found on original Colts, but it sure rendered the surfaces hard. The front of the chambers had the arched beveling of turn-of-the-century Colts, and the gun also had the rounded trigger guard of that period. The base pin was of the two-notch type that gave a safety device to the gun. Oddly, the base pin’s notches didn’t make a full circle, so you had to be a bit careful how you reinstalled it. The markings on the gun were modest and tasteful. The top of the barrel had “Great Western II”, and the left side had the caliber marking. Hidden beneath the barrel, in small characters, was the impression of the maker and importer. The frame had no markings but for the serial number in the right place.

The hammer held the firing pin, a happy sight to those weaned on old Colts. The hammer also had checkering as found on early Colts. The one-piece walnut looked dirty until we rubbed the grip with some linseed oil, which brightened the wood considerably. Loading and unloading were easy, just like on a real Colt. The sights were, like those on the Taurus, typical for the genre, but to both makers’ credit, the rear groove was squared and the front sight blades were wide enough to be seen easily. But the big difference on the Great Western II was that the front sight was intentionally left too high so you can first determine your best load, and then file down the front sight to give perfectly centered shots. This is what the Taurus desperately needed, and so do quite a few other S/A guns we’ve seen along the way. The Great Western II overdid it slightly, because our shots all landed six to eight inches low at 15 yards. But we’d far rather have that situation than the reverse.

The gun was very well made, we thought. There was a slight touch of waviness to the sides of the frame, but all the rest of the surfaces were well polished with no waviness. The bluing was well done, too. The cylinder even had the removable insert common on early Colts, a feature not many makers put in their guns these days. This part interchanged with that of a Colt S/A made in 1907. The cylinder of the old Colt went right into this gun, and locked up perfectly, but the star on the GWII was just a touch too long to permit it to fit the old Colt. A few swipes with a file could do it, if you needed to. The Taurus Gaucho also had an insert in the front of the cylinder, but it was just a short button that might easily be dropped and lost in the field. A reading of the Great Western information that appears on the EMF website (www.emf-company.com) gave good insight into the history of Great Western revolvers, which first appeared when there were no other single-action copies of the Colt being offered, and when Colt had ceased production of its Model P. The GW was well received back then, and we suspect it will gain many thousands of new fans once they get a look at this offering. We surely liked it, and had yet to shoot it.

The trigger was perfectly clean, and broke at a respectable 3.8 pounds. At the range, we found sub-two-inch groups to be the norm, most being close to 1.5 inches, but the best group showed four of the five shots in 0.6”, with a called flyer spoiling it. We liked the way this gun shot and looked and felt. We tried it in fast shooting and liked the results, but in fairness, the other two guns did about as well when fired fast. Be advised, this is a truly honest copy of the old-style Colt, and you must load only five chambers, and keep the hammer down on the empty one.

Gun Tests Recommends
• Ruger 50th Year New Model Blackhawk Flat Top, $583. Buy It. Anyone seeking a single action that can compete in cowboy competition, can serve as a home protection firearm, is a fun plinker that shoots where it looks, and can handle the hottest .357 Mag rounds need look no farther, though you may have trouble finding one of these limited-edition guns. We’d choose this version, with its specific attributes, over the normal Ruger Blackhawks now being made. Most of our shooters felt that Ruger ought to bring this particular example out as a standard model with all the features specific to this version, small black grips, flat top and all. It may not look exactly like an old Colt, but it sure as heck looks like an old Ruger, and we liked that.

• Taurus Gaucho, $499. Don’t Buy. We’d like to see a version of this gun built exactly like Colts used to be built, with cylinder-front bevels, with a firing pin in the hammer (along with a notice to load only five rounds), and traditional-looking checkering on the grip panels. But we must evaluate what’s in front of us, and we had a few complaints. Accuracy was fine, all the gun’s functions were normal, and loading and ejection were easy. We liked the light touch to cocking the hammer, and liked the overall workmanship inside and out. But we didn’t like the transfer bar setup and the questionable ignition we encountered. The trigger pull was also doubtful, and the front-of-cylinder treatment would cut your holster. The easily lost tiny button at the cylinder front didn’t please us either. The Great Western cost $50 less, was far more authentic, and handled and shot just as well, and also could be made to shoot dead center, which this one can’t.

• EMF Co. Great Western II “Californian,” $450. Our Pick. The Great Western II was our first choice of the three, because it was the cheapest, best looking, most authentic, and had performance fully up to whatever you’d want to do with a handgun of this type. There were exactly no problems with it. It surely was one of the best single actions and good values we’ve encountered in a long time. It’s Our Pick.

Ruger 50th Year New Model Blackhawk Flat Top, $583

On the range

Taurus Gaucho, $499

EMF Co. Great Western II ?Californian,? $450