When I left home at age 22 to join the Army, I had five firearms: a couple of .22 rifles bought as surplus from Boy Scout Camp, two inherited shotguns and a .22 revolver. These firearms had always been like fishing rods, pocketknives or hand tools — used when needed, then cleaned and put away. We never thought of needing a firearm for self-defense back in those days. There were only four bad guys in the whole county. I knew who they were and stayed away from them. Warning, Dr. Dabbs, one of them has a son who lives in your neck of the woods.
In the Army I went through M16 qualification, but my job after training was to fly a helicopter. When we got shot at, my crewmembers shot back. I just flew. After the Army I flew twenty-something years as a corporate pilot. While flying for computer companies, I was cross-trained in computer hardware and software. All this time I was living in the city and the guns stayed in a closet. When my three sons got old enough to go dove hunting, they wanted to, so we needed another shotgun. It just so happened I was doing contract programming at the time for a sporting goods distributor who also had a gun store. I bought a Winchester M1300 at employee pricing, but even at six guns I didn’t consider myself a collector.
The Lure Of A Blackhawk.
In 1999 I walked by the gun counter at that same gun store and did a double take at something I saw in the used gun display cabinet — a Ruger Blackhawk with a 10.5″ barrel, looking like new with a price tag of $300. Three hundred dollars was something I could justify for such a fine looking cowboy gun. The salesman seemed to be cautioning me when he said, “You know this is a .357 Maximum, right?” I must have nodded my head or something. I didn’t know what a .357 Maximum was and didn’t care. I’d dreamed of owning a Blackhawk ever since my cousin back home killed a deer with his .44 Magnum Blackhawk. And this one was almost a Buntline Special. When I took the gun home my wife asked me what it was for. “I don’t know,” I told her, “I guess home defense.” When I started figuring out what ammo I needed to try it out was when I discovered what the .357 Maximum was all about. I knew it was okay to shoot .357 Magnum and .38 Special rounds in the gun, but I wanted to shoot .357 Maximum rounds. Using the Internet and a search engine called Yahoo, I located some .357 Maximum reloads being sold by Old Western Scrounger. I got some, shot some and decided .357 Magnum was enough for me.
I didn’t shoot the Blackhawk much. Honestly, I didn’t cotton to the concept of a gun range where you paid to shoot. The only time in my life I had shot at a gun range before the Army was at Boy Scout Camp. You just went out in the pasture and shot. Or if you lived in town, you drove a mile or two outside the city limits on any highway and found a creek bed, sand ditch or old gravel pit. A few miles further and there was a National Forest, which in those days had none of the restrictions on shooting they seem to have these days. Now I lived in the city and it took some adjustments, but I finally found a gun range where I could shoot my Blackhawk. It wasn’t long before that long barrel started feeling heavy to me. I decided to order a replacement barrel from Ruger, only to learn Ruger doesn’t send out barrels. You send them the gun and they’ll put a new barrel on it. Then I learned something else. If you send them a .357 Maximum, they won’t send it back. They’ll work out some sort of equitable trade, but there had been a recall on the .357 Maximum years earlier. I chose not to send my gun to Ruger. I was just starting to learn about forums. Google and Wikipedia did not yet exist and I didn’t at that time know anyone at Ruger that would tell me their side of the story.
.357 Maximum History.
Through reading some stuff online, I’m sure much of it conjecture, I figured out what the .357 Maximum was all about and why Ruger decided to bow out of it. Elgin “Butch” Gates was an internationally known trophy hunter and the author of The Gun Digest Book of Metallic Silhouette Shooting. In order to bang metallic silhouettes of various animals farther and farther away using a handgun, Gates developed a wildcat cartridge he called the .357 SuperMag. From that cartridge Remington and Ruger worked together to develop the .357 Maximum with a SAAMI pressure of 40,000 psi pushing a 158 grain bullet at 1,825 fps or a 180 grain bullet at 1,550 fps. Ruger designed a Blackhawk for the task and Remington manufactured the ammo. Apparently handloaders, not satisfied with the already powerful ballistic profile of the manufactured cartridges, started pushing the limits, which resulted in damage to some of the handguns in the form of top strap and forcing cone burning. Ruger, wanting no part in having production revolvers with their name on it being so damaged, issued a recall, offering equal value in another production revolver. All of this happened six or seven years before I bought my revolver. It shows no indication of any top strap or forcing cone burning. Prior to my ownership, it doesn’t appear to have been fired much at all. I put maybe 20 or 30 rounds of .357 Maximum through it along with a box of .357 Magnum and a fair amount of .38 special. As much as I liked owning it, there was something not quite right about it that kept me from shooting it much. Then it hit me. It was that 10.5″ barrel. I’m not into handgun hunting or long-range target shooting with a handgun and that long barrel made the gun unwieldy to carry and out of balance to shoot.
It’s Good To Have Friends.
Jerry Colliver is a friend I met when we worked together at an insurance company in 2005–2006. Together the two of us worked through getting our concealed handgun permits and obtaining instructor ratings in various disciplines including NRA Basic Pistol and the Texas Concealed Handgun License. Up to that point in time, I’d never owned a semi-automatic handgun, but Jerry knew them well. He guided me through purchasing my first, a Taurus 24/7, and together we began teaching Hunter Education, NRA Basic Pistol and Texas Concealed Handgun License classes. Jerry was handy with a Dremel and other hand tools and helped me with the barrel shortening project. In fact, he did most of the work.
We measured 4.5″ back from the muzzle and marked the location to be cut with electrical tape. I wanted to make sure our cut was perfectly perpendicular, but Jerry assured me that at this point it only had to be close. Jerry cut the barrel with the Dremel using a carbide cutting disc. Next came touch-up work on a small grinder. After the grinding came hand filing to smooth out the effects from the grinder wheel, leaving the metal surface as shiny as possible.
The factory barrel end had an inside bevel around the bore and an outer bevel around the outer circumference of the barrel. Jerry used a stone with his Dremel tool to grind the inside bevel to match the factory original as closely as possible. Then he filed the outside bevel by hand, carefully eyeballing the width of the bevel to make sure it was even and consistent as he went around the barrel. Final touch-up on the outside bevel was done with the Dremel tool.
When the bevels were done, Jerry went back to the grinder, this time with a cloth wheel and rouge to polish the end of the barrel before bluing. There were several steps in the polishing process before Jerry was satisfied. He used a cloth polishing wheel attached to his vertical drill press, periodically coating the wheel with polishing compound. We blued the barrel, tapped out a hole for the sight mounting screw and put the front sight back on the gun.
A Training Tool.
The Blackhawk holds a special place in my training regimen for people who are serious about mastering handguns. At some point in their training I introduce them to the Blackhawk. I load the gun for them while they’re shooting a training exercise. That way they don’t see what I’m putting in the gun. I load two .38 Special rounds followed by two .357 Magnum rounds, then two .357 Maximum rounds. Locking the cylinder so shooting would start with the .38s, I hand the student the gun and ask them to shoot it until it runs dry. Naturally they’ll be aiming to please me, the instructor, and with the first two shots they generally do pretty well. The next two shots have a surprising amount of recoil, but most shooters stick with it and try to make good shots. When number five rolls around, they’re not expecting what comes down the pike. I stand close enough to catch the gun if they drop it because that shot is going to hit them like pulling both triggers on a double barrel twelve gauge. If I’m lucky enough to coach them through shooting one more time, their, “What was THAT?” question invokes a discussion on the effects of various calibers and loads on recoil. The explanation will hit home because of what they just experienced. Although they won’t be carrying .357 Maximums for personal defense, they will become aware of such differences as +P and normal ammo or .40 S&W compared to 9mm.
I now reload my own .357 Maximum rounds using a .357 Magnum die set adjusted for length. Remington and Starline both make brass and the caliber has found a home with T/C Contender and Dan Wesson Model 40 shooters. I’ve often wished someone would offer a lever action rifle in .357 Maximum. It seems close enough to the new .350 Legend cartridge to have filled that gap. The .357 Maximum has enough of a following that someday you may be banging steel silhouettes of various animals at 600 to 1,000 yards with a handgun. Just keep your loads within SAAMI specs and have fun!