Perfecting The Ruger Vaquero

The "Better" — And More Popular — Single Action

Dave Lauck tuned the actions, shortened the barrels, fitted the stag
stocks and slightly round the grip frame on this pair of Vaqueros.

Gary Reeder engraved Diamond Dot’s stainless steel Vaqueros with
cattle brands and they now wear Eagle Gunfighter Grips of buffalo horn.

Nearly a century ago Elmer Keith began writing about his custom sixguns. He inspired a lot of others and the basis for most of these personal pistols was the Colt Single Action Army. The Ruger Vaquero is a modernized version of the Colt Single Action Army with the New Model transfer bar action making it safe to carry six rounds along with the virtually indestructible Ruger coil spring powered action. It is possible to build a truly customized sixgun on the Vaquero platform and wind up spending less money than the price of a standard Colt Single Action.

More than 750,000 Vaqueros were produced before production was stopped in favor of the New Vaquero. How significant is this many Ruger Vaqueros? In just over one decade, Ruger produced more than twice as many Vaqueros as the entire 1st Generation run of Colt Single Actions in the 65+ years from 1873 to 1940.

This pair of custom Vaqueros in .45 Colt and .44-40 have 3 1/2" barrels, custom
grip frames, custom hammers and are shown with a full-sized Bisley Model
(bottom) for comparison.


As Cowboy Action Shooting became the shooting sport, someone at Ruger smelled the coffee and decided to come forth with a traditional single-action model. I was back at Ruger in time to see the prototype Vaquero.

In 1993 the Vaquero arrived and exceeded all sales expectations. Cowboy shooters, outdoorsmen, single-action fanciers, hunters, plinkers — everyone — had to have a Vaquero. To be able to offer a traditionally styled .45 Colt, Ruger started with the basic New Model Blackhawk, removed the adjustable sights, reshaped the top strap to the traditional style with the hog wallow rear sight, replaced the ramp front sight with the traditional blade and the result was the Ruger Vaquero. The Vaquero not only became extremely popular with Cowboy Action Shooters but outdoorsmen as well who wanted a virtually indestructible .45 Colt or .44 Magnum sixgun for heavy-duty use.

My original blued Vaquero with a 7 1/2″ barrel was soon radically changed. By the time I had acquired a pair of 7 1/2″ stainless steel .45 Colt Vaqueros and outfitted them with stag grips, I decided to do something else with the original .45. The barrel was shortened to 3 1/2″ and a brass grip frame with custom walnut stocks added while a .44-40 was shortened to the same barrel length and one of Qualité Pistol & Revolver bird’s-head grip frames was installed to turn this Cavalry Model Ruger into an easy-packing concealment pistol.

Dave Lauck of D&L Sports breathed on another pair of Vaquero 5 1/2″ stainless steel sixguns. On each of these, the barrel was cut even with the ejector rod housing, stag stocks were fitted and the grip frame ever so slightly round-butted to remove the sharp edges at the front and back of the grip frame. They are some of my easiest-packin’ pistols.

A second pair of 5 1/2″ stainless steel .357 Magnum Vaqueros were sent off to Gary Reeder to be personalized for Diamond Dot. Gary covered them with cattle brands and since she normally only shot .38 Specials from them, they are now marked “.38 SPECIAL” on the frame. They were completed with a pair of Gunfighter Eagle Grips of Buffalo horn. Ruger also offered the Bisley Vaquero in the original run. Bill Oglesby started with a 4 5/8″ stainless steel .45 Colt Bisley, satin finished the frame, totally tuned the action and reshaped and refinished the factory grips resulting in another Perfect Packin’ Pistol which carries and shoots easily.

This Bisley Vaquero is the work of Bill Oglesby and features a satin-finished
mainframe, tuned action and fitted and re-finished factory stocks.

Both of these New Vaqueros carry easily and securely in
Tom Threepersons leather by El Paso Saddlery.

New And Old

I know the choice of “New Vaquero” has caused all kinds of confusion, with some now dubbing the original Vaquero as the Old Model Vaquero — there’s no such thing. There is the large-framed Vaquero and the standard-framed New Vaquero. Period. The original Vaquero was built on the Ruger Super Blackhawk-sized mainframe while the New Vaquero reverted back to the original-sized frame found on the .357 Blackhawk in 1955.

When I chastised custom sixgunsmith Gary Reeder for using Old Model and New Model Vaquero terms, he said he had no choice as it was necessary to avoid confusion. I can handle that. Of course, both the Vaquero and New Vaquero being built on the Ruger New Model Action have transfer bars and are safe to carry fully loaded with six rounds. Now to add to the confusion even more, Ruger refers to the New Vaquero as simply “Vaquero” in their online catalog.

Comparing the New Vaquero with the standard Vaquero and the traditional Single Action Army reveals the New Vaquero is much closer in size to the Model P than the Vaquero and will fit most holsters designed for the Colt Single Action Army. Ruger never did build a .45 Colt on their original Colt-sized Three-Screw Blackhawk but did so with the Colt SAA-sized .45 Colt New Vaquero. This means loads for the New Vaquero .45 should be much closer to Colt levels than to Vaquero/Blackhawk levels. I see no reason to exceed 1,000–1,100 fps muzzle velocity with a 260-grain bullet in the New Vaquero. This load shoots comfortably, is very accurate and short of really big game, will handle any sixgun chore most of us will ever have.

In addition to its smaller, easier-to-carry size, several other improvements were made in the New Vaquero. The ejector rod head is larger, allowing more comfort and positive action when ejecting spent shells and the cylinder now lines up correctly with the ejector rod. With the New Vaquero, the click says we are there and the cylinder chamber is in line with the ejector rod.

One of the easiest ways to personalize a new Vaquero is by adding Kirinite grips
of pearl, ivory, or various colors by Eagle Grips. The red and black version is called “Lava.”

Gary Reeder offers several custom packages on the New Vaquero
such as this Doc Holliday Classic.

Before fitting this .44 Special New Vaquero with custom sights.

Vaquero Love

I like the original Vaquero; it is one tough sixgun capable of handling heavy loads and, in stainless steel in particular, makes a very practical outdoor sixgun. I like the New Vaquero even more. I also like having the choice of the bigger, tougher sixgun or the smaller, easier to handle Colt-sized .45. I have held on to the original Vaqueros while adding stainless steel .45 Colt New Vaquero’s in all three standard barrel lengths of 4 5/8″, 5 1/2″ and 7 1/2″.

The New Vaquero is just about as perfect a fixed-sighted single action for outdoor use as can be found. It’s safely loaded with six rounds, shoots easily and accurately and just to prove once again gun designers like to go to the edge of perfection and then step back, we have that weird New Vaquero hammer. Surely someone was on something when they designed this thing! Apparently it was thought by lengthening the hammer spur it would be easier to cock.

Actually, for me, just the opposite is true and to my eyes it is flat-out ugly. My New Vaquero hammers have either been shortened or replaced with Super Blackhawk or Montado hammers. They look better and are much easier to operate.

Ruger had the .44 Special New Model Flat-Top using the standard-sized frame with the old original XR3 grip frame size, something every sixgunner worthy of the name was thoroughly taken with, until Lipsey’s also offered the same basic sixgun in the New Vaquero. There are those who insist upon fixed sights in a Perfect Packin’ Pistol and they now had a choice in .44 Special in the New Vaquero. With the fixed sights, mine is right on the money for windage and only needed a small amount of filing to raise the groups less than 1″. This is a rugged, little, easy-to-pack powerful sixgun which is a whole lot less bulky than the larger New Model Blackhawks.

John first tested for accuracy. John’s Ultimate .44 Special New Vaquero.

There’s an obvious difference in the factory hammer shape of the New Vaquero and Vaquero.

John isn’t a big fan! Note the difference in size of the cylinders
of the New Vaquero (left) and the Vaquero.

Take Another Road

But, I wasn’t satisfied and felt I could come up with even more of a Perfect Packin’ Pistol. I started with a pair of stainless steel 4 5/8″ New Vaqueros, one chambered in .44 Special and the other in .45 Colt. I had shot them enough to know they were capable of excellent accuracy and worthy of being Perfected.

I performed two things myself. As noted above, the factory hammers had to go, and both of these now wear stainless steel Super Blackhawk hammers which look a lot better and are also much easier for my thumb to manipulate. The second thing I did was contact Kelye Schlepp of Belt Mountain for two of his replacement base pins. This is one of the easiest ways to improve a single-action sixgun as they not only are oversized to better fit the cylinder pin hole, they also have a much easier-to-grasp head and also a locking feature.

Both of these were now turned over to friend and local gunsmith Milt Morrison to be given a 1920s custom look by fitting S&W adjustable rear sights. These were then mated with post front sights by Fermin Garza. I finished by having my local gripmaker Tony Kojis fit some very special grips.

For many years I preferred thinner-than-normal grips. However, as my hands have become more tender with the passing of time, I’m better suited with a little thicker grip. Tony knew exactly what I needed and came up with grips that fit my hand and handle recoil much better for me. We went with some very special wood also.

The .44 Special now wears Bastogne walnut stocks while we went with burl mesquite for the .45 Colt New Vaquero. The combination of custom stocks, hammers, base pins and sights have personalized these sixguns, at least for me, to perfection.

I took a different route on another New Vaquero, this time starting with a blued 4 5/8″ .357 Magnum. The hammer was replaced and a Belt Mountain base pin installed. I maintained the fixed-sighted feature but to make it easier to sight-in, a Bowen front sight is fitted in a dovetail. The final custom feature was a pair of very beautifully grained exotic walnut stocks by Larry Caudill. This makes another eminently practical Perfect Packin’ Pistol chambered in .357 Magnum.

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