Photography by: Denis Prisbrey
Originally published in
Guns of the Old Westę Summer 2002 Issue
Click on images to see larger size.
I'm a longtime fan of Ruger single-actions; I got my first one back in 1975 and it's still going strong. One of the few complaints I've had with Ruger SAs was the adjustable sights, which to me just look out of place on a regular working six-gun. If Roy didn't need 'em, neither do I.

Even aside from the traditional aspects, there are times when adjustable sights are neither necessary nor desirable. A gun that may be carried hard, far and often in rough country can easily get an adjustable rear sight knocked out of alignment. On the other hand, its pretty difficult to skew the old blade front and topstrap notch setup.

I was actually in the process of dickering with an old-line custom firm on having them convert and adjustable-sighted .45 Colt Blackhawk into a fixed-sight blackhawk a few years back when I first heard rumors that Ruger was coming our with a new version of the Blackhawk, and guess what? Fixed sights! I immediately cancelled my Blackhawk conversion plans and settled in to wait for the new Vaquero. In 1994 I bought the first on I found, a blued .45 with a 4-5/8-inch barrel, and I was quite happy with it. Two other vaqueros followed, and there are a couple of more recent variations that'll probably find a home in the vault before much longer.

I have very few guns that are highly customized; most are working or recreational guns, and I don't usually go much beyond an occasional action job or change of sights. But I'd toyed with the idea over the years of doing a little more with that first Vaquero, and one day happened to be talking to Bill Laughridge at Cylinder & Slide when he mentioned that his shop also does custom work on six-guns. Hmmm. Shortly after, I ended up sending my 1994 Vaquero off to Nebraska. Later on, e-mails went back and forth, and eventually my Ruger came back home. Prior to this, Bill's shop had worked on two of the finest revolvers I own; this makes it three of the finest revolvers I own.

Vaquero Details

Everybody who's handled a standard out-of-the-box Vaquero knows it comes in a utilitarian form. The insides use the same basic lockwork that Ruger engineers redesigned in 1973 employing a transfer bar safety system that involves a vertically sliding bar of steel that rises up when the trigger is pulled to transfer the energy from the falling hammer to the firing pin. There's never any direct contact between the hammer and the frame-mounted firing pin, and the transfer bar will drop to a lowered position where nothing can strike the firing pin as the cocked hammer falls unless the trigger is held back. For normal carry with the hammer down, the bar rides below the contact point between hammer and firing pin, and the gun can't be jarred into firing if dropped on the hammer even with a live round in the chamber ahead of the firing pin. Rugers are among the safest single-actions on the market, and the most durable. There are inevitable comparisons between Ruger SAs and Colts, and it's true that the Ruger only comes with two cocking clicks whereas the older Colt has four, but the end result (pull trigger, gun goes bang) remains the same and I can easily live with just two clicks. For Cowboy Action Shooting, where only five rounds are loaded and the guns are carried with an empty chamber under the hammer, there's no advantage to the Ruger other than longevity, but for serious use it can safely be carried with all six loaded, while the Colt can't. Also for serious use, the Rugers can handle hotter loads that a Colt cannot.

On the outside, Ruger finishes their blued Vaqueros in what I'd call a "utility blue," which involves an adequate level of polish and bluing to fit the price range and intended use of the guns. Not criticizing, just pointing out that Ruger doesn't provide a high polish, deep luster bluing on their guns.

The frame and loading gate on the Vaqueros are case colored with a finish that's chemically applied, rather than using the traditional method of bone charcoal case hardening, because the steel used doesn't take to case hardening. Again, there's nothing wrong with this. Rugers are built tank-tough for long life, and the company has done its best to provide the single-action market with as close to a classic appearance as is reasonably possible. This case coloring does have mixed results, though-it's not as durable as the real thing; on some guns it looks more mottled than colored, and diehard traditionalists complain that it's "just not the same."

The gripframe is an area often mentioned by classic Peacemaker shooters as being "different" Vaqueros are about 10% larger than the old Colts, and this carries over into the gripframe. Many shooters find the Ruger gripframe a bit large for comfort, although I've never been bothered by it. The grip-to-frame angle is also frequently criticized by Colt aficionados. I think some of this comes from the fact the Vaquero isn't a Colt and was never intended to be a Colt clone, but there are divided camps with Colt followers on one side of the river and Ruger fans on the other side. I personally like both, and believe that the Colt is for tradition and recreation while the Ruger is built for work. But don't get me sidetracked, and please hold those hostile letters.

One other minor criticism about the Vaquero is the factory standard grip panels, and I have to agree that the relatively bland factory panels can be improved upon. The rosewoods work just fine, but the Vaquero can be dressed up quite a bit by simply replacing the factory-supplied grips. Sq, what did Cylinder & Slide do to my gun?

Inside C&S Vaquero

An action job was the spot to begin. As part of this, Bill wanted to install an aftermarket trigger and hammer by Ron Power, along with his free-spin pawl. These parts are precision machined to exact tolerances and super hardened for long life. The free- spin pawl is something I like more and more as time goes by. It allows the cylinder to spin freely in either direction when the loading gate is opened, and this is particularly handy in the Ruger single-actions, which don't automatically index a chamber in line with the loading gate cutout for loading and brass ejection like the Colt design does. It's a common occurrence to over rotate past the chamber you're trying to load or unload, and the freespin modification allows you to rotate the cylinder backwards to line a chamber up again quickly without the need to go all the way around again.

This combination also provides two different methods of loading and unloading the Vaquero. Normally, when  you open the loading gate, the hammer can't be cocked as long as the gate is open. This is a safety feature intended to help avoid accidental discharge while loading with the hammer cocked, and it's retained. But, if you prefer something a little more traditional, you can bring the hammer back to half-cock first, and then open the loading gate to rotate the cylinder.  If you open the gate first, you can't bring the hammer back any farther than about a quarter-inch and the gun can't be either cocked or fired accidentally. If you put the hammer on half-cock first and then open the gate, you can't fully cock the hammer or pull the trigger until the gate is closed, and the gun can't be fired accidentally. This is important, although it obviously voids the factory warrantee, no safety mechanism in the gun has been compromised. Another result of using the half-cock loading method is that the cylinder reverts to a one-way spin and you get the clicks back as the cylinder rotates. So, you have your choice of a modified Ruger loading procedure, or a modified Colt loading procedure. Neat, and more than moderately ingenious.

C&S also welded up an internal trigger over-travel stop, and set the trigger pull at a consistent three pounds.

The Cylinder

I like the older style radiused cylinder fronts on certain guns, and that was one of the requests I'd made. When Bill first got the Vaquero and looked it over, he noticed some rough spots inside the chambers and suggested that they be removed while the cylinder was being worked on, which was fine with me.

One of the most interesting modifications done to the gun was creating a separate removable Colt-style cylinder bushing. Why, you may ask? I did, and the answer was C(For tighter tolerances and less cylinder play:' Bifl believes this bushing works even better in tightening up the cylinder than an oversize cylinder base pin. I thought it was worth a try, and the cylinder is now markedly tighter with much less fore and aft and side-to-side movement than it had when it was shipped back east. Another benefit of this cylinder bushing for those who shoot black powder. The original military specs for the Colt SAA included the removable bushing to provide a second bearing surface for the cylinder to rotate around (besides the base pin) to keep the guns firing longer with black powder fouling, and there should be some similar benefit here. This all involved some tight mach work, by the way, which was flawless done.

The Sights

Vaquero sights are pretty good as ti come from the factory, with a tall squared off front post and a square rear notch t gives a workable sight picture. With way my eyes have gone over the past years, I still needed some help in that area and the rear sight notch was widened .010 of an inch and deepened to make it a little quicker to lineup on target. A ding that the front sight had picked up somewhere over the years was also removed.

Ron Power Gripframe

Bill and I were both interested in the Power gripframe, which is closer in size actual Colt dimensions than the standard Ruger factory gripframe. The Power frame is a two-piece unit like the Colt frame, and it's shorter from front to rear with a slightly different grip angle than the Ruger factory one-piece unit. The differences a subtle, but grips are not interchangeable with the standard Ruger frame, and this does change the feel of the gun. With the right grip panels, it can also make the Vaquero a little more amenable to shooters with smaller hands. The Power gripframe retains the Ruger coiled mainspring.

Nice Little Things

C&S also did several other alterations here and there including installing an extra-power Wolff cylinder basepin spring to guard against the basepin jumping forward under recoil (which feels about twice as strong as the original factory spring), polishing the barrel forcing cone, very lightly chamfering the rear of each chamber to reduce cartridge drag on loading, cutting slots in the two frame crosspins to make them look like screws (no practical function, but looks spiffy!), and rounding and polishing the face of the trigger (which has pretty much become a standard on many of my revolvers).

Not really a little thing, but as the Vaquero had picked up some scratches in the case coloring since I acquired it, and the chemical treatment was starting to fade a bit, I asked Bill to completely reblue the gun, including the frame. This was not a quick reblue, it involved a complete polish job on just about every external surface from the muzzle to the Power gripframe, and it's miles beyond the factory finish in both the degree of polish and the deepness of the bluing. No engraving or gold inlay, just a beautiful job of refinishing, which retains crisp lines and lettering and gives the workhorse Ruger a much more thoroughbred appearance. I'd already installed a steel ejector rod housing and crescent-head ejector from Qualite' (available at Brownells) some time back to replace the Ruger stock stainless steel housing and button-head rod, and these were polished and blued to match the rest of the gun. (editor's note: Since last year all Ruger blue single-action revolvers come standard with steel ejector rod housings.)

The only thing left to do performancewise was decide which mainspring to use. The factory spring is overly heavy -and Bill returned the Vaquero with three different weight Wolff mainsprings. There will be some experimenting with those and various handloads later when I get the time, but for now the gun retains the factory spring with three Coils removed. This gives reliable ignition and a lighter hammer pull when cocking the gun.


New grips were needed to fit the Power gripframe and to round out the custom package. Ebony grips have intrigued me for more years than I have fingers and toes combined, and Raj Singh at Eagle Grips provided a set for the project. Ebony is not exclusively a deep black wood, it can range from dark brown to jet black, and the panels Raj installed on my Vaquero were dark black with a hint of contrasting straight dark brown grain, which you have to look very hard at to see.

Does It Shoot?

You betcha! On a sunny day in 40-degree February temperatures, I took the C&S custom Vaquero out to the gravel pit and gave it a good workout in the snow at 25 yards. Using Cowboy ammunition from Winchester,  PMC, and Black Hills, and standard factory lead loads from Remington, the C&S Ruger shot quite well from a rest at the bench, and the sights were regulated to hit point-of-aim at 15-yard CAS target distances when firing with a two-handed standing hold. The short chart tells the story at 25 yards.

The gun has plenty of accuracy for Cowboy Action Shooting, and should easily handle any trailgun or hunting needs within reasonable handgun distances in areas where the caliber is legal to hunt with.

At The End Of The Trail

I'll have to warn you right here that the combined modifications done to this custom Vaquero carry a custom price. If you're interested, duplicating my Vaquero as it now sits will run you well over $1300, not including the price of the gun itself. (These prices have been changed, since the publication of this article, please visit our online store for the latest pricing.)  Before you let this scare you off, remember that each of these modifications can be done, or not done, individually, and you don't have to buy it all as a package deal unless you want to. Cylinder & Slide will be just as happy to install only the Power gripframe, for instance, as they would be to go the whole route.

How far you go depends on your wallet and what you want to get out of your own Vaquero, but the Power parts, action job, sight work, and forcing cone are the core of the project, and worth the money.

Rugers are good as they come; Cylinder & Slide makes them even better.