Ruger Hawkeye Essay

I’ve never given voice to such misgivings before but, fact is,
there are times when I question just what is being testen when we run
accuracy trials on an open-sighted handgun. Are we finding out how
groupable “pistol X” actually is–or how well the
shooter’s eyes are dealing with distance and glare and fatigue on a
given day?

Alas, until some entergprising inventor comes up with a universal
mount that attaches a scope to any handgun made (and then dismounts,
leaving no evidence), I’m not due to find an answer to that
question. One thing I do know though, with an open-sighted sidearm,
I’ve never even come remotely close to duplicating the 1-1/2-inch
100-yard clusters I can manager with my Leupold-equipped custom .444
Marlin single-shot pistol.

So what’s causing me to suddenly begin reflecting on this
issue? Ruger’s Hawkeye, that fascinating no-longer-made amalgam of
single-action revolver and single-shot pistol, is the culprit. It just
spent a week with such a gun–the pistol was in iron-sighted trim, alas.
And though with said Ruger I shot one of the tightest 200-yard groups
I’ve ever printed with a scopeless handgun, well–I’m not the
least bit certain that I did justice by that remarkable, and now
classic, arm.

My odyssey with the Hawkeye began one afternoon at the shop of my
local dealer, Howard Smay (Smay’s Sporting Goods, 170 W. Main,
Dept. GA, Saxonburg, PA 16056). Now Howard is a Ruger Collector–there
are a number of such, to a point where they’ve formed their own
Ruger Collectors’ Association. And today there was something new
in my friend’s display case, an 8-1/2-inch barreled, .256
Winchester Magnum-chambered hybrid that would soon become my test piece.
I was enthralled; of course, I’d seen Hawkeyes before, but this was
the first time I’d had an opportunity to examine one in detail.
And when a search of Howard’s shelves revealed a supply of the
hard-to-find .256 ammo also (Winchester still loads this round, though
its limited availability would lead you to believe otherwise), I simply
couldn’t resist. Gun and cartridges were picked up following the
mandated three-day waiting period, and were transported to a local range
for testing.

However limited one’s enthusiasm may be for
Pennsylvania’s 72-hour handgun pickup delay one thing must be said
for it; it certainly gives the classic arms writer time to study the
history of any pistol he is borrowing or purchasing. And that’s
just how I made use of the three days, adding to what I already knew
regarding the history of what may be the best known of Bill Ruger’s
few unsuccessful undertakings.

What I discovered was that the Ruger Hawkeye represented a second
attempt by the U.S. arms industry to build a handgun around the hot .256
Win. Mag cartridge. A first attempt–a six-shot revolver–ended in
failure due to the .256 case’s propensity to back out of its
chamber at ignition, thus binding up the cylinder of any wheelgun one
might bore for it. A single-shot pistol, sans rotating cylinder,
promised relief from this problem.

Thus, early in 1962, Ruger’s engineers hit upon a plan for
creating such as single-shot while making extensive use of
already-present Ruger single-action revolver technology. This plan
involved use of the standard single-action frame, substitution of a
rotating breechblock for the cylinder, and placement of the chamber
inside the barrel. A rather long firing pin, running the full length of
the breechblock from frame to face, was thus necessitated, and so was a
“shod” extractor rod, the “shoe” of which formed
part of the barrel. The result of all this ingenuity–10 pre-production
Hawkeyes–left the Ruger plant in late summer of 1962, bound for the
testing facilities of a number of prominent U.S. gun publications.

These periodicals proceeded to give the new Hawkeye rave reviews.
For not only were .256 factory load ballistics pretty impressive in an
ungapped 8-1/2-inch tube (2,360 feet per second (fps) was achieved with
the 60-grain .257-caliber HP bullet loaded by W-W), but accuracy was
exceptional, especially for pre-Contender times. The entire Hawkeye
set-up–chamber integral with bore, unchanging sights-to-bore
relationship–was literally made for group-ability. Hawkeye was thus
pronounced an ultimate arm for the handgun varminter by most of the
authorities of the period and production en masse commenced in January
of 1963.

However, the new single-shot’s tenure on Ruger’s
production lines was not to be a protracted one, for the Hawkeye proved
to be no great seller, this despite such attractive features as a
factory trigger job and factory tapping for a scope block. Just why
such unpopularity was the rule is not hard to understand–the demand for
so specialized a pistol had simply been overestimated. Also there were
many shooters who just didn’t care for the Ruger’s SA style
lockwork, or its hybrid SA/SS looks, or its lack of versatility. Hence,
as of July 1964, Hawkeye production ceased for all time, with fewer than
3,100 units having been completed; it would be fully the mid-1970’s
before Ruger Inc. found distributors for the last of the 3,100, so
complete was the buyers’ ennui. Indeed, only with the rise of
interest in Rugers as collectors’ arms, in the late 1970s, would
prices of Hawkeyes ascend above cellar-level (to a point where now can
pay tariffs just under four figures for mint-in-the-box-with-papers

It was, however, no mint example I took possession of at
“first legal opportunity” in dealer Smay’s shop. Quite
the contrary, my test piece exhibited what, for a Hawkeye, represents
“considerable wear”. Perhaps 90-percent of the original
finish remained, the barrel giving much evidence of extensive
holstering. Functionally and internally however, this mid-production
Ruger Hawkeye was as-new.

Trials of the sample gun began with simple familiarization handling–a necessity in this case since I’d not had an opportunity
to examine a Hawkeye in detail before. What I found was a number of
significant differences, “feel-wise”, between the Hawkeye and
a conventional Ruger SA revolver. Balance, for example, was
noteworthily splendid–and I’m not one who takes much notice of
balance when evaluating any handgun.

In the Hawkeye though, the absence of a conventional cylinder, when
added to the long, thick-walled tube, led to a muzzle-heavy stability
even I could appreciate. Trigger too was spectacular; in fact, in fact,
it was absolutely perfect–3-1/2 pounds, no creep, no overtravel (I
would later comment that you knew you’d tripped the hammer when the
gun reared up in front of your face). Truly, that factory trigger
tuning had indeed been everything Ruger’s advertising had claimed
it was in 1964. Even hammer action had a unique feel to it as there
were but two hammer positions–full-down and full-cock–and, of course,
no cylinder to rotate; hence, gone was the assortment of “clicks
‘n’ clunks” one normally hears and feels when cocking a
Ruger SA wheelgun.

Other features though were “Blackhawk all the way”;
sights were of the characteristic Ruger adjustable variety–which is to
say excellent, though not perfect for my tastes (ramp fronts tend to
catch light under some conditions and offer little to compensate for
this vice on a sporting pistol). The butt was pure Ruger
plowhandle–super-comfortable to me–but not to others.

As for the Hawkeye manual-of-arms, this was easily mastered with a
single try. To load, simply thumb in the breechblock lock plunger
located on the pistol’s left side while sumltaneously rotating the
breechblock counter-clockwise as far as it will go. Then drop a .256
round into the barrel and rotate the breechblock clockwise until it
locks again. Cock the hammer, press the trigger, and the pistol will
fire. Unloading is accomplished by re-opening the breechblock and using
the extractor rod. All of which is in no sense complicated, though it
is slow, even for a single shot.

In any event, with the basics of Hawkeye operation now
second-nature to this writer, accuracy trials with the Ruger were
undertaken from the 25-meter bench. Initial shots yielded a variety of
impressions, not the least of which was that Hawkeye represented one
sweet-shooting instrument. That super-trigger and those thoroughly
functional sights made for a gun which literally wanted to shoot well.
The mild recoil helped matters still further: kick was about what one
would expect from a +P load in a mid-fram .38 Special. And, of course,
that long sight radius aided the shooter, too. Groups were as fine as
this shooter can print with open sights on a handgun (I have unashamedly confessed in print several times my inability to consistently print
inside “one-inch at 25” with an iron-sighted handgun. The
eyes are simply unequal to the task. I reiterate my confession here, so
that the reader may not be mislead regarding the Hawkeye’s

So . . . one-inch for five shots at 81 feet was the norm whenever
this writer did his part. And I’ll wager my being that said
one-inch would have been cut by one-third to one-half, if only a pistol
scope had been mounted on the test piece. Be assured then, a Hawkeye
will shoot, very probably into the “two inches at 100-yards”
claimed by the factory 20 years ago. It simply won’t do so in my
hands–at least without a scope. Following that extended 25-meter bench
session, incidentally, I did make a single on-command attempt to print a
five-shot 200-yard group with the test piece. Results were four shots
dead-on point of aim inside 6-1/2 inches, with round number five–a
product of visual fatigue–stretching matters to 8-1/2 inches.

As for negative Hawkeye shooting characteristics, these were few in
number. True, hammer-fall was slow and heavy, as is often said, but I
for one have difficulty relating to this characteristic as a significant
group-spreader. Too, blast is substantive–one shooter, seated a few
feet to the author’s left during trials–reported a foot-long
fireball at each ignition and complained of both a deafening report and
an almost palpable shock wave. But still, report, flash, and blast do
not rouble a shooter, only his observers. The Hawkeye is still among
the easiest-shooting of guns in my book.

Takedown of the Ruger for cleaning is also easy. Oen first opens
the action as previously described and checks to ensure an empty
chamber. The bnase pin latch is then depressed and the base pin is
drawn forward as far as it will go. The breechblock is then rolled, in
a counter-clockwise motion, out of the frame. Take care that the firing
pin and the breechblock lock plunger, both of which are under
considerable spring pressure, do not leap backwards out of the
breechblock as this is accomplished. When the breechblock has been
removed, the ejector assembly may be removed from the frame by
unscrewing the ejector housing screw, then pulling the assembly off the
frame. Reassembly is the reverse.

I’ve heard it said on a number of occasions that the only real
reason for Hawkeye’s failure lay in timing–it had the misfortune
to first see the light of day at least a decade before there was a
“world-full” of handgun varminters and metallic silhouette shooters to receive it. Do I believe this? I’d like to, for
Hawkeye is a fine shooting tool in my view . . . but I don’t.
Recreate the gun today and the same fate will befall it as befell it
before. There are several first-class reasons for this. First of all
is the very existence of the Contender which–quite unlike the
Hawkeye–can be set up for anything from squirrels to grizzly and very
inexpensively at that. Most of us like the idea of being able to
convert our .256 from the factory and it does well by the cartridge too.
In silhouette circles, the Hawkeye would not be beyond consideration.
But could it compete with a Merrill or Contender? I don’t think

The Hawkeye is, for one thing, laborious to load and unload,
relatively speaking. Extraction is a separate function that one must
undertake manually with a rod, not an automatic function as on modern
single shots. The chamber mouth is less accessible when in the loading
position than is the case with the competition, and the breechblock
always seems to want to inch back from the “rotated-full-open”
position, so as to interfere with introduction of a new roudn. These
are minor matters, I’ll concede, but not to a metallic silhouette
competitor for whom those two minutes for five shots pass awfully fast
when the clock’s running. Then there’s the simple fact that
lots of general interest shooters have taken to heart the various
written condemnations of its heavy hammer fall. So reissue the Hawkeye?
I doubt Ruger will ever undertake such a venture.

But that won’t prevent me from retaining quite a favorable
opinion of the gun all the same.

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