Recently, I witnessed a heated and vastly entertaining discussion amongst four veteran bear hunters regarding the most suitable sidearm for protection when in bear country. Listening in was financially irresponsible; it led to an intense desire to own a single-action revolver chambered in .475 or .500 Linebaugh, preferably one of the Swiss-watch-quality versions by Freedom Arms or Hamilton Bowen.
Two of the four debatees espoused lighter-recoiling, higher-capacity tools such as a 10mm Auto loaded with deep-penetrating bullets. However, the other two had such profound respect for big — really, really big — revolvers that I decided it behooved me to own one. I already have a very nice 10mm Kimber 1911, which I’ve packed extensively and will continue to pack in grizzly bear country. However, a .44 Mag. S&W Combat Magnum with a 2.75-inch barrel has been my go-to heavy revolver for some time. The discussion of .475- and .500-caliber wallopers made it seem, well, small.
Unfortunately, my financial solvency proved insufficient to purchase a Freedom Arms or similar revolver. So, I began researching alternatives and found a positively brilliant option in the form of a Ruger Super Blackhawk Bisley.
Ruger’s single-action Super Blackhawk Bisley is a stainless steel, five-shot revolver chambered in .480 Ruger, a cartridge that fires the same projectiles launched by the slightly longer .475 Linebaugh. Velocity is about 10 percent slower but still mightily impressive, and retail price runs less than $800.
I ordered one through my local gun shop and was even more delighted after handling it. Right off the cuff I liked it so much I packed it as my everyday-carry (EDC) sidearm for the last month of winter while I could still comfortably conceal it beneath a jacket.
So this is a two-sided article focused on a bruin-thumping cartridge that is somewhat comfortable to shoot and for which factory ammo is widely available and an affordable powerhouse pistol chambered for it. (If you argue that revolvers aren’t pistols, I’ll point you toward many vintage texts dating from the days of duelers right up through the late 1800s that apply the term to single-shots and six-shooters before semiautos were ever invented.)
Let’s look at the cartridge first so you’ll understand why a sleek, medium-weight, controllable wheelgun chambered for it is such a big deal.
.480 Ruger cartridge
Introduced in 2003, the .480 Ruger’s parent case is a shortened .475 Linebaugh case — which in turn is a shortened .45-70 Gov’t. Bullet diameter is .475 inches. Ideal bullet weight ranges from about 275 to 410 grains.
The quick and dirty performance review is this: The .480 Ruger fires a 410-grain bullet as fast as the .44 Magnum fires a 300-grain bullet, and because of its bigger bore diameter (.475 for the .480 Ruger versus .429 for the .44 Magnum), it provides 19 percent more frontal area — and that’s before expanding. Hark back to your math classes: increasing diameter causes an exponential increase in capacity, which in this case means frontal surface area of the projectile.
As a result, the .480 Ruger impacts with 25 percent more projectile weight and offers almost 20 percent more contact area via which to transfer the energy carried than the popular .44 Magnum. As I’ll demonstrate later, the .480 is on some scales more authoritative than the wrist-numbing .454 Casull — a heavy revolver cartridge often used as a benchmark against which to compare others.
One-time Shooting Times handgun editor Dick Metcalf once told me that the .454 Casull — for all its virtues — is the most painful handgun cartridge he’s ever fired. Why? Because it operates at an astonishing (for a handgun) chamber pressure of over 60,000 copper units of pressure (CUP). Note that CUP is not easily converted to pounds per square inch (psi), which is more commonly used today. Let it suffice to indicate that the .338 Win. Mag.’s max pressure ceiling is rated at 54,000 CUP and/or 64,000 psi. The hearty 60,000 CUP of the .454 Casull possibly equates somewhere north of 70,000 psi, which is a truly shocking amount of pressure for a handgun cartridge. This, my friends, is what makes firing the .454 Casull feel akin to attempting to contain a detonating hand grenade within your palm.
In comparison, the .480 Ruger operates at a modest 48,000 psi. As a result, the recoil impulse is slower and milder, and the recoil is less painful and more controllable.
The .454 Casull commonly carries around 1,650 to 1,800 foot-pounds (ft-lbs.) of muzzle energy. This is with 250- to 360-grain bullets. In contrast, full-power .480 Ruger loads pack from 1,200 to 1,450 ft-lbs. of muzzle energy with 275- to 410-grain bullets.
When plugged into a formula that gives mass, momentum and bullet diameter their righteous due, the pendulum swings. Fired at 1,200 feet per second (fps), a 410-grain .480 Ruger bullet rates a 33 on the Taylor Knock Out (TKO) calculator. In comparison, a 300-grain .454 Casull bullet fired at 1,650 fps (the same load that generates top muzzle energy in the calculator) rates a 31 on the TKO scale — almost 10 percent less than the .480 Ruger.
The TKO is a formula to estimate on-impact authority developed by legendary hunter John Taylor nearly a century ago. To this day, savvy big-bore savants consider it more useful than the common, velocity-favoring ft-lbs. representation of killing ability.
Of course, like any ballistic calculation, the TKO formula can be manipulated. For instance, plug in a 360-grain .454 Casull load at 1,425 fps — which generates 200 ft-lbs. less energy than the lighter, faster 300-grain bullet — and the .454 bumps up to a 33 on the TKO scale.
Still, that only matches the .480 Ruger. It doesn’t better it.
The nice thing is the Ruger Super Blackhawk Bisley is available in both calibers plus .44 Magnum. Take your pick. I’m entirely enamored with the .480 Ruger cartridge and its heavy, big-diameter bullets at nearly comfortable recoil.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the revolver itself.
Ruger Super Blackhawk Bisley
There are a couple of keys to this revolver’s user-friendly, big-bore nature.
First, it’s built using a five-shot cylinder to keep size and weight inside comfortable packing limits. As a result, it weighs just 48 ounces. That’s 10 ounces more than my well-worn Kimber Custom TLE II in 10mm, but it is still within acceptable limits. It’s not so gargantuan that you’ll end up leaving it in camp.
Second in critical importance is the “Bisley” attached to this Super Blackhawk’s name. It indicates an extended, hand-filling grip frame and is one of the most important factors in controlling aggressive recoil. The Bisley grip doesn’t just provide a secure place to hang on, it’s downright comfortable.
Another important manufacturing decision occurred when Ruger opted for stainless steel. While the wheelgun shines in bear country anywhere, it’s important that it be resistant to corrosion from constant humidity and sea air for the guys that want to pack it in coastal Alaska.
Two different barrel lengths are available. I opted for the 4.62-inch version rather than the 6.5-inch barrel, primarily because it’s quicker handling, and the shorter barrel settles on target a trace quicker for me. Plus, it’s a fraction lighter. Were I primarily hunting with it, I’d have gone for the velocity increase and greater sight radius of the longer barrel, but for me this is a backup gun.
Barrels are cold-hammer-forged and rifled with a twist rate of one turn in 18 inches. The finish of all the metal is a nonglare, brushed stainless steel.
To enable the shooter to fine-tune point of impact, whether shooting light, fast 275-grain bullets or massive, deep-penetrating 400-plus grainers, the revolver is fit with an adjustable rear sight. The front is a serrated black blade.
A transfer bar trigger mechanism makes it safe to carry the Super Blackhawk Bisley with all five chambers loaded. There’s no half-cock notch. To load, simply open the loading gate, which unlocks the cylinder latch and allows the cylinder to be rotated, and thumb the gratifyingly massive cartridges into the chambers.
For those of us that grew up with the traditional long hammer spur on Ruger’s standard single actions such as the Vaquero and on Colt and Colt reproductions, the shortened Bisley hammer spur takes a little getting used to. However, it’s easier to get ahold of and rear back when shooting one-handed, so it’s worth it.
From the get-go, the trigger was very nice, scaling right at 2 pounds, 10 ounces on my Lyman digital trigger gauge. It’s fairly crisp, with no take-up or grittiness.
Pairing it with a new Galco Gunleather Outdoorsman holster, which can be worn strong-side or cross-draw, I began packing it dawn to dusk. Only warm springtime weather and the difficulty of concealing it beneath a light shirt forced me to reluctantly switch to a more discrete carry gun.
As a side note, I carry pretty much all bear backup defense guns cross-draw. Binoculars preclude a chest rig — for me — and strong-side hip holsters are slow to access when carrying a backpack.
Firing the .480 Ruger Super Blackhawk Bisley
Don’t get the impression that “comfortable to fire” means this pistol is a pussycat in the palm. Candidly, that phrase only applies in comparison to other powerhouse cartridges such as the .454 Casull, .460 S&W and .500 S&W. The .480 Ruger is still a handful.
When shooting one- or two-handed in field positions, where the revolver leaps comfortably in the hands, the .480 Ruger feels great, leaving the shooter with an impression of massive authority at a very kind level of recoil. However, when you benchrest that same revolver for clinical accuracy testing and fire a dozen five-shot groups one after the other, your psyche quickly cottons on that this ain’t a little featherweight cartridge.
On the plus side, the grip is so comfortable and offers such an excellent handle on recoil control that, unlike even many .44 Magnums that I’ve tested, the .480 Ruger Super Blackhawk Bisley does not make my shooting hand begin to tremor or vibrate after firing a long series of groups — a dismaying effect I’ve regularly noticed when testing various big-bore handguns.
During benchrest testing, I fired seven different loads. Here’s a quick look: Three different loads — one each by Buffalo Bore, COR BON and Federal Premium — utilized Barnes Bullet’s outstanding 275-grain monometal XPB projectile. These are all excellent options for hunting deer-size game and for personal protection in black bear country.
Hornady loads a 325-grain HP/XTP bullet, which is another excellent projectile for crossover work on big game and black bear defense.
Of all the ammo companies that load the .480 Ruger, Buffalo Bore has the best selection, with various bullets ranging from massively expanding 275-grain versions right up through nonexpanding, hard cast versions of 410 grains. Perhaps the most interesting Buffalo Bore load pushes a machined monometal 330-grain bullet with a broad, flat, sharp-edged nose.
All but one of the factory loads averaged 2.6 inches or less at 25 yards, and as you can see on the accompanying chart, four of the seven averaged less than 2 inches. That’s excellent performance from a heavy-recoiling big-bore revolver.
Predictably, point of impact varied a fair bit. From a revolver, very heavy bullets tend to hit higher than lighter, faster bullets that exit the muzzle fast before it has a chance to rise quite as much during early stage recoil. However, the adjustable rear sight made it easy to marry point of impact with point of aim.
In a nice turn of events, Buffalo Bore’s 275-grain XPB and 330-grain Monometal Heavy Dangerous Game loads impact nearly the same at 25 yards, making for a great combo. My plan is to pack the lighter bullet for all-around work and the heavier, deeper-penetrating monometal bullet in big-bear country.
It’s worth noting that in cartridges bigger than the .44 Magnum, Ruger fits Super Blackhawks with a special cylinder rod incorporating a locking screw designed to prevent the rod from migrating forward during recoil — a happenstance that locks up the gun. That’s a bad thing when in an argument with a big toothy critter with uncivilized intentions. The locking screw engages but does not bottom out in a hole drilled into the barrel. This enables robust solidarity without putting accuracy-compromising pressure against the underside of the barrel.
Interestingly, Ruger ships the revolvers with these locking screws installed but not screwed in far enough to engage the barrel. I didn’t know that. The rod in my revolver began migrating during my extended shooting sessions, and it took a quick call to Ruger to set me straight. Now that screw stays permanently screwed in except when I’m cleaning the handgun.
Sometimes, I conclude an article such as this by writing something like, “firearms like this aren’t for everybody, but if you’re looking for the ultimate in…” and suggest that X gun is a good tool for certain folks with a certain purpose. Not this time. This packable, shootable revolver combined with a friendly recoiling, honest big-bore cartridge is so good that everybody should have one.