Compromise Part VI:
The Ruger Bisley

The ‘Other’ Single-Action Grip Frame

John’s original Big Bore Bisleys, a .45 Colt, .44 Magnum and .41 Magnum,
have been custom cut to 5-1/2", fitted with special front sights and refinished
with Turnbull case-hardened frames. The custom walnut stocks are by the late Charles Able.

The roots of the Ruger Bisley go back to the 1st Generation Colt Single Actions from which the original Bisley came. When the Colt Single Action first appeared in 1873, we were in our Frontier Period. However, by the 1890s, the frontier was pretty well conquered and Western expansion had reached the Pacific. Firearms began to be more than a life-saving requirement and were starting to have much more of a sporting and target use. Names like Walter Winan and Ira Chevalier Paine began to become widely known as target shooters.


To make the Colt Single Action Army even more conducive to target shooting, Colt drastically changed the grip frame. Whereas the standard SAA grip frame was designed to roll in the hand, the Bisley Model was made more vertical to the bore axis and made to ride up higher along the backstrap. In fact, Bisley mainframes are also higher along the back edge to gain the needed height. The front strap also came up higher behind the trigger guard to allow the grip frame to really nestle into the shooting hand. The Bisley was also given what is now normally referred to as a target hammer for easier cocking and the trigger was made wider and also curved to fit the trigger finger.

After the introduction of the Target Model Bisley, there was enough of a demand for a standard model Bisley for Colt to begin producing a Bisley counterpart to the standard Single Action Army. By this time gunfighters and gunfights were mostly a thing of the past and sixgunners wanted an easy-handling revolver.

The Bisley Model is nowhere near as fast from leather as the Single Action Army. However, it is much easier for most shooters to shoot once it is nestled in the hand, even though it does not have the natural comfortable feeling of the original Colt Single Action. Both Target Models, Single Action and Bisley had target sights, but these were very crude when compared to today’s offerings. The rear sight was adjustable by moving it back and forth in a dovetail and locking it in place with a screw, matched up with a front sight blade that could be raised or lowered and then locked in place. No click adjustments here.

Steve Sanetti, who was president of Ruger, shared the following: “In the early 1980s, we had been receiving many requests from potential customers that Ruger should make this or that new product. One of them was that Ruger reintroduce the Colt Bisley revolver. Larry Larson also thought this was a great idea and immediately began sketching numerous drawings. Bill did not like any of the specific grip profiles that Larry drew, and extensively reworked them…. Another thought was to make the production of the Bisley Models relatively simple, unlike the Colts, which were built with different cylinder frames from the Single Action Army revolvers. We were not entirely successful in this, as the Bisley grip frame placed directly onto a previously manufactured New Model revolver created a pronounced hump where the Bisley grip frame met the polished-down area at the rear of the existing gun cylinder frame.

“Many shooters like the grip frame shape and the curved “Bisley” style hammer/trigger configuration of the Ruger. Many believe we simply copied Elmer Keith’s No. 5 grip design, but I can tell you these designs are strictly from Larry Larson and Bill Ruger, with a nod to the original Colt Bisley. Nobody copied Keith’s design.”

The Bisley grip (right) has a more pronounced “hump” and different angle
than the standard SAA grip. Many shooters think it’s more comfortable to shoot.

A Tribute

They may not have copied Keith’s design but they surely took a peek at it! Keith’s #5 grip frame was made to fit his rather small hands. The Ruger Bisley Model grip frame is longer to accommodate average and larger-sized hands but the basic idea of mating a Single Action trigger guard with a Bisley Model backstrap is still there.

The original Colt Bisley Model was designed as a target revolver and Ruger may have had the same idea. However, the Ruger Bisley Model grip frame has proven to be much, much more. Realizing grip frame shapes are highly subjective, I can say for me it is without a doubt the most comfortable single-action grip frame for shooting heavy loads.

The Ruger Bisley Model arrived in 1985 with two frame sizes originally produced — the Super Blackhawk and Single-Six. The larger version arrived only with a blued finish, a 7-1/2″ barrel and a choice of four chamberings — .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt. The Single-Six version was offered in .22 Long Rifle and .32 H&R Magnum with both fixed and adjustable sighted versions having 6-1/2″ barrels.

In 1985, I acquired examples of all four centerfire cartridges. What a joy it was to fire heavy .44 Magnum and .45 Colt loads in the Bisley Model compared to the Super Blackhawk! My original .357 Magnum Bisley Model was sent off to John Linebaugh and converted to a 5-1/2″ .500 Linebaugh. As I look at my records from nearly 30 years ago, I find I shot a lot of heavy loads through that sixgun. Today I’m happy with 900 fps loads!

The other three Bisley models were basically kept stock except for the addition of fancy walnut stocks by Charles Able. About 10 years ago, I sent all three of them to Ben Forkin of Forkin Custom Classics to be given the works. Barrel lengths were cut to 5-1/2″, new front sights were fitted and mated with Bowen rear sights, the actions were totally tuned and tightened. Then they were all re-blued, except for the mainframes, loading gates and hammers, which were all case colored by Turnbull. These are about as beautiful as a Bisley Model can be. At the time I preferred the 7-1/2″ barrel on most single actions, especially for hunting, but on the Bisley, from the very beginning I preferred the balance of a 5-1/2″ barrel. These three custom Ruger Bisley Models are all now not only absolutely beautiful, they are great shooting Perfect Packin’ Pistols.

New Flat Top

Lipsey’s brought out a special run of Ruger .44 Special New Model Flat-Tops. Inspired by Keith’s .44 Special, Lipsey’s had Ruger fit the standard .44 Special Flat-Top with a Bisley Model grip frame, hammer and trigger. The result is a Bisley Model .44 Special. It is a superbly shooting sixgun reminiscent of Elmer Keith and his #5. This Special was so special to me I had full engraving done by Michael Gouse and ivory stocks fitted. To me, it is a 21st-Century rendition of Keith’s #5SAA. An extra added touch is the addition of a #120 Keith holster by Mike Barranti.

Lipsey’s .44 Special Ruger Bisley Model was so popular they followed it with 4-5/8″ and 5-1/2″ stainless steel versions. The stainless 5-1/2″ .44 Special Bisley is especially suited for outdoor use. This Bisley .44 Special is so special it was turned over to my friend, the late Roy Fishpaw, for the installation of Ramshorn grips as only the master gripmaker could make them. Roy surprised me by sending them back with a silver bighorn ram inlaid in the right grip. This makes it even more of a Special .44 Special.

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