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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Joys of a Good Single Action…

I'd been looking for an ‘Old’ Vaquero in .45 Colt for some time. I cut my teeth on single-actions, mostly Rugers, JP Sauers & Colt-pattern black powder sixguns. This happy state of existence got mothballed when word came that I had been accepted for the police academy. I had an old Model 28 and two months of wait before it started- so I figured I better get to learnin' this double-action stuff, lest I embarrass myself. Oh, I acknowledge the efficiency of more modern defensive handguns- but single actions have held my affection, all my life.

I prefer fixed sights and I wanted a sixgun that would take the heavy loads. I passed on a couple of Old Vaqueros back before obama-fright drove the prices dizzy, and the ones I had priced recently were higher than New Vaqueros. I was actually looking for a used Glock when I called a dealer and just asked if he had any of these laying around. He said he had one, the finish wasn’t great but it must shoot OK ‘cause the prior owner killed a deer with it.

I looked it over and everything was right; perfect timing on all six, reasonable tight lockup and close to 0.050 firing pin protrusion. The gun was dirty but the bore was perfect & showed no leading. The forcing cone was well done end evenly worn…looks like maybe they got the holes in all the right places on this one. The trigger was typical New Model which at least told me that nobody had butchered the innards yet.

Per the serial# it is a 1999 gun, so I guess it stands to reason that it’d be a little worn. The colors had long since rubbed of leaving a patina and the aluminum ejector housing had worn through to the ‘shiny’ in a few spots. That didn’t bother me none ‘cause a new one would get roughed-up this bad if I carried it six for months. As it stood, it priced about$175 under the going rate for Old Vaqueros and that suited me fine.

Actually, the only thing that concerned me at all was whether the gun would shoot close to the fixed sights. While pricing .45 Colt ammo (35 bucks a box for BLAZER!!) it soon became apparent that any ‘ammo money’ would be better spent on reloading components.

I did pick a box of Starline’s excellent brass and some Hornady 255 swaged RNFP’s. The bullets weren’t my first choice but there were no SWC’s, LBT’s or even 240 JHP’s available locally- including the Sierra Outlet Store. I set about loading the Hornady over mild-to-moderate doses of W231. I had seen a published load of 7.1 grains with an OAL of 1.650” using this bullet, but the crimp lands back in the bearing surface a ways and that's probably not conductive to best accuracy. Velocity was in the high 700’s, seated out like that; the 0.005 barrel-to-cylinder gap may also play a role in that reading. The 25 yard point-of-impact with this load, when shooting two-hand unsupported, was close enough to be encouraging.

I fiddled with charges up to 8 grains, getting the velocity over 900 fps but not improving much of anything else. The closest I’d come to benching the gun so far was been to shoot it rested over one knee, while seated in a plastic lawn chair. Despite that arrangement, several six-shot groups gathered inside 4 inches, with clusters of 3-4 shots about halving that. Ongoing efforts burned 150 of the Hornady slugs, with almost no leading present. The bore proved slick and the gun was showing promise.

Initial 50 yard shooting revealed that the gun printed 6” low and about 3” left at 50 yards, using essentially factory-dup loads. Since we are taking fixed sights here, I wanted to remove all doubt before regulating them. My experience with 5 ½” Ruger SA’s in this caliber indicates that when zero is reached with the factory-duplication load, zero with Sierra 240’s at 1300 will be within a couple of inches at deep-woods whitetail range. The creep in Ruger’s lawyer-proof SA trigger sure wasn’t helping my shootin’ none…so I decided to tackle both problems at once. Pretty soon the gun was a collection of parts on my bench.

One of the great things about the advent of cowboy shooting is the proliferation of useful information on tuning these guns. Sources indicated that halving the full-cock notch depth would produce a safe, shootable trigger, so I dug out the files, stone and feeler gauges and set to work slowly. The result was an almost creep-free trigger of about 4 ¼ pounds using the factory springs- eminently more shootable and it passed the ‘push off test’ with flying colors.

While I had the gun apart I also cleaned up some burrs and cold blued the hammer and trigger. I have always disliked the appearance of the shiny ‘non-Colt-looking’ ignition parts on NM Rugers and bluing them sure helped that.

I also prefer the looks and improved handling of checkered, hard rubber grips on my single actions, so I added a pair of Vintage Grips. I'm not going to sugar coat the fact that they were a bitch to fit. They were partially drilled, about a 'half-hole off' and the side that mates to the frame was so far out of square that the bottom of one grip hung out in thin air. It was necessary to true them up in about every direction to get them to fit well. Unless you're just looking for a grip project, I wouldn't recommend them at all.

I replaced the aluminim ejector rod housing with a steel part from Borchardt Rifle Company. This is a quality product. It was a good fit to the Vaquero and the only problem was that the matte blue on its top surface was a poor match to the rest of the revolver. A few passes with 0000 steel wool corrected this. The end result of all this tinkering made the gun considerably more 'shootable' and far more in line with my notion of what a single action should be.

I also made a few light file strokes across the top of the front sight, taking care to keep it square, and serrated its visible edge with the rough-cut side of a mill file. It worked out just right and the elevation was near-perfect at 50 yards. Several shots directed at a 100 oz. laundry detergent jug, at that distance, filled it with holes and sent it skittering for cover. Offhand work on cans at ranges from 15-25 yards confirmed that we were ‘getting there’.

More Load Development…

Since this was going to be a ‘do-everything sixgun’ I figured I better get busy on developing a .45 Colt load for game to about 500 pounds. While there are several schools of thought on this I subscribe to the one that says a deep, full caliber hole in the right place will get the job done as well as anything. A 255 SWC at 1050-1100 fps will bore through meat and bone with vigor and I figured such a load would shoot pretty close to the factory-duplication load..

The first order of business was to select a load. John Linebaugh’s articles on the .45 Colt report that he settled on 13 grains of HS6 for loads in this range. I’ve had good luck with this powder, finding it accurate and kinder to bullet bases than faster powders.

For bullets, I turned to Missouri Bullet Company of Kingsville, MO. I’ve corresponded with its owner, Brad Alpert, and found him knowledgeable on alloys, bullet hardness and the like. Like myself, Brad believes that super-hard bullets are unnecessary for most applications. He offers a good 255 SWC in his ‘Cowboy No. 9’ which has a big meplat and Brinnel’s at about a 12- soft enough for proper obturation, but plenty hard for penetration on game. (This bullet can be had 50% harder if you really need it that way.) A phone call got 400 SWC’s on the way and the price was right. I also wound up some of with his 250 grain RNFP, dubbed ‘Cowboy #1’ in MO Bullet lingo. Whatever you call these bullets, they are shooters! The Old Vaquero loved them and put 5 out of 6 of the RNFP’s into ¾” at 25 yards. The 255 SWC shot equally well, planting another 5 of 6 shots into 2 9/16” inches at 50. A full report on the results with these bullets, including target pics, is here for anyone interested.

This old Ruger surprised me, proving capable of near ‘match accuracy’- two inch groups at 50 yards. Reaming the cylinder throats to a uniform 0.4525" should enhance accuracy even more. Whether or not my aging eyes can use that much accuracy on a given day, is a moot point. The accuracy is there and I sure can't blame the gun for any misses,.

I was quite happy with 'just' single-actions for years and could return to that blissful state with little effort. When I hang up this tin star in a few years, you can bet that the lion’s share of my handgun attention will vested in one or another iteration of Sam Colt’s invention- which revolutionized America.


Blogger Peter said...

Sarge, for factory level loads you might also consider some of Hodgdon's TiteGroup. It is the only smokeless powder I use in my Colt clones. It shoots as tight as I can hold these days, now that I'm old. It also has the advantage of not caring whether it's next to the primer or next to the bullet.

In my Winchester '92 clone I like the max load of H110 under the Hornady 250 grain XTP hollow point. These are the Ruger only loads out of the Hodgdon Manual. I assume that this charge would do just as well with a cast bullet but I won't load it with cast for fear that one, or more, might find it's way into one of my Colt clones. That would be sure to give them indigestion.

Monday, May 25, 2009 1:47:00 AM  

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