Samuel Colt, marketer extraordinaire, was a very astute businessman who fully understood the value of satisfying his customers. While his first attempt at producing a repeating handgun for the mass market failed, we all know the results of perseverance and the influence his single actions had on the Old West. Besides the innovation offered in a multi-shot handgun concept, a major part of his success was based on looking at what potential buyers needed and then meeting those needs. The famous Peacemaker wasn’t the keystone to Colt’s success as a company—it was all the smaller-caliber revolvers that preceded it. All sorts of gunners carried all sorts of gun sizes, and the .31s and .36s were highly regarded from the streets of New York through the riverboats of the Mississippi to the gold camps of California, even aside from military roles later on when the Civil War opened up. Colt’s reputation was solidly founded long before the big-bore .45 Colt came along; Sam gave his varied clientele a varied range of sizes and options, and they then bought by the wagonload.
Why are we discussing Samuel Colt in a Ruger review? The single-action revolver is alive and well today due almost entirely to the two greatest names in the single-action game: Samuel Colt and William B. Ruger. Colt laid the foundation and Ruger modernized it. Bill Ruger was an equally savvy businessman and a very talented design engineer who, like Colt, also knew how important it was to understand his market. The company Ruger built on that idea is still riding the track he laid down, and there’s no question that a substantial part of the reason Sturm, Ruger & Company is around today is the line of single actions developed in the 1950s to fill in the void left when Colt dropped production of its iconic hogleg. Those single-actions make up a sizable percentage of current Ruger production even in a modern era where the trends are so heavily skewed toward plastic, high-capacity, shoot-today-reload-tomorrow designs. Single actions are very much alive. That’s not merely tradition or because they look so natural riding under a Western hat. It’s because they’re strong and reliable guns that get the job done.
Ruger’s catalog offers more single-action options today than Colt ever did during Samuel Colt’s heyday, and Ruger has not been at all shy about trying new variations on existing themes. One of the more interesting recent introductions came about because Lipsey’s worked with Ruger, again, and the result is a peachy little distributor-special New Bearcat in a long-overdue, adjustable-sighted package that boots Ruger’s smallest-framed single-action rimfire into entirely new territory as a shooter.
One of Bill Ruger’s pet projects relatively early on in the company’s history, the Bearcat was announced in 1958, and since then the small-framed thumb-buster’s gone through several production phases and design changes, running from alloy frames in the first series, from 1958 to 1971, through steel frames in the second series as the Super Bearcat from 1971 to 1973, to the reintroduction in 1993 as the New Bearcat, with upgraded transfer-bar
lockwork and stainless steel as an alternative to bluing for the first time.
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All the way along, the idea was to create a trim six-shooter in .22 LR for compact carry as a kit gun for times and places where anything bigger might be too big. The 4-inch barrel length was long a standard for regular-production Bearcats, along with a fixed front blade and the time-honored topstrap groove serving as the rear sight. While it never hit as many holsters as its bigger kin, the Single-Six rimfire single actions, the Bearcat was always a fairly steady seller while it was in production, and the reason it was dropped from Ruger’s lineup in 1973 wasn’t lack of interest—it was the new transfer-bar lockwork introduced that year among all of Ruger’s single-action cartridge-firing models. In an emerging era of personal litigation blaming the maker for the buyer’s misuse, the transfer-bar design was developed to reduce the likelihood of an accidental discharge, and while the redesign was fairly easy to incorporate into the bigger models, it wasn’t considered practical in the little Bearcat, with its scaled-down in-ternals. There’s only so much room to tweak and twiddle in there.
Fortunately, wishes, cards, letters, emails and internet forums all kept up interest and demand over the next 20 years, and when the New Bearcat was released in 1993, we got a choice of finishes and the new upgraded lockwork, which was a double bonus. Ruger managed to not only adapt the lockwork to the transfer-bar safety system, but the company did it while retaining the traditional half-cock loading process lost in all of the other single-action cartridge models in 1973. This should help those who miss the older Ruger action style feel a lot happier with the new one.
The New Bearcat is a 24-ounce six-shooter with either a blued or stainless finish and a 4.2-inch barrel and Altamont hardwood grip panels. It features the traditional bear and cat roll engraving on its cylinder, which has counter-sunk chambers and a raised “wall” around the outside rim of the rear end. This means there’s virtually zero chance of blowing debris out either side near the shooting hand if you manage somehow to rupture a case on firing, which is a good thing, but it also means you can’t tell which chambers are loaded by looking through the frame from the side. If this gun was the traditional older design, with the firing pin resting on a case rim or primer and without that transfer bar, common sense would dictate carrying the gun with only five rounds loaded and an empty chamber in front of the hammer. In that situation it’s convenient to be able to see at a sideways glance where the empty chamber is if you’ve lost track while loading, but it’s not necessary here. With the New Bearcat, it’s perfectly safe to carry the gun with six rounds in the cylinder, and you load by drawing the hammer to half-cock, opening the gate (which is not connected to the hammer or trigger operation in this gun), rotating the cylinder to line up a chamber in the gate cutout, closing the gate when you’ve got the chambers filled, drawing the hammer back fully and lowering it to rest.
A short note on that: This Bearcat uses a modified version of the old Colt action that’s a hybrid of the modern Ruger action, and even with the transfer bar you need to watch what you’re doing while loading it. If you load all six on half-cock, you can lower the hammer from that half-cock position by drawing it back slightly, pulling the trigger and guiding the hammer down to rest. If you do it that way, the cylinder won’t lock up—you’ll have to rotate it by hand until it does—and the cylinder latch will enthusiastically engrave a drag line around the cylinder. Doing it “Colt style,” by drawing the hammer fully back, pulling the trigger with your thumb controlling the hammer and the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, and lowering the hammer to rest, leaves the cylinder locked and less likely to leave a deep drag line.
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The Bearcat’s always had its own character, and the wide hammer spur and offset Colt-style narrow trigger combine with a Remington-style grip frame arch to keep that character going. Unlike the bigger single actions, the Bearcat doesn’t use a main frame with a separate bolt-on grip frame; the frame is a one-piece unit that extends all the way from the front to the bottom of the grip panels as a single unit, with just the triggerguard dropping out of the bottom for internal access. Besides drawing the obvious “Aw, ain’t it cute!” commentary, there’s a hell of a lot of impressive engineering in this little package, to fit a full six rounds and that transfer bar inside such a small envelope.
For 2015, Lipsey’s has worked with Ruger to produce an actual adjustable-sighted version, and for me, this is where the little blaster gets truly interesting. Until now, for all of its 57-year history, the Bearcat used fixed sights dating back to the early 1800s in configuration, and while those were rugged, they were neither the most visible nor the most practical in matching up with various rimfire loads. The collaboration between the two companies combines a tall black Williams front blade made for this gun with the fully adjustable rear sight of the recent SP101 series of revolvers, and that makes it easy to zero with everything from .22 Short rounds to your favorite high-velocity .22 LR loads.
According to Ruger, the company had gotten steady requests for adjustable sights on the Bearcat over the years, but it was the development of the SP101 rear sight assembly that could easily translate over without requiring a substantial redesign or parts inventory that made it practical, and Ruger’s designers were able to use the same existing frame casting molds of the fixed-sight Bearcat by creating an insert inside the molds to adapt the casting dimensions in the sight area, and cutting the resulting raw frame casting differently. By using an existing sight already in inventory, and not having to order expensive new molds just for this model, Ruger’s engineers were able to make the Lipsey’s exclusive practical in terms of development costs, and the result is even more impressive engineering in this model.
Adding adjustable sights to the little New Bearcat turns it into a fully viable trail gun for hunting and camp use, and a near-perfect plinker and learning tool for introducing smaller hands to rimfire shooting for either recreation in itself or as a base for moving on up into the bigger calibers. The dimensions are ideal for young hands, the hammer’s easy for small thumbs to cock, and it can still grow up right along with its owner.
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Out of the box, at 25 yards, the trigger broke at a consistent 4.75 pounds and the action was a little rough initially before smoothing up with wear, but the New Bearcat was already sighted in well enough to just get to work as it came, and that black-on-black sight picture was much clearer than stainless-on-stainless. Three solids and one hollow point later, the gun had produced an unusual number of five-shot best groups at exactly 2.31 inches with two of those loads, and it punched best groups of 2.5 inches each with the other two. I couldn’t manage that with the last fixed-sight New Bearcat I worked with, and while the new sights do clutter up the graceful lines of the standard New Bearcat, if you want to hit what you point at, this Lipsey’s version is well worth the tradeoff. I can see this one going into Ruger’s regular catalog before too long, but I’d pick one up now just in case.
For more information, visit http://www.ruger.com.
This article originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.