Back in the fifties, when Fast Draw as we know it today, started, most of us thought the "Colt .45" was the gun best suited for the western style of fast shooting, since it was the gun depicted in the TV westerns and movies of that era. However, after some hard competition and many repairs later, the practical shooter realized that the Ruger version of the single action gun seemed to hold up better under stress than the Colt, Great Western, Hawes, and other colt clones. Much of this success was credited to the major changes Bill Ruger built into his gun. Coil springs throughout the gun instead of the old flat springs smoothed the action, eliminated the "bounce" that was prevalent in the action with flat springs, and virtually removed the breakage factor, a frequent happening of the early competitor. Ruger also changed the lock-up system to a solid locking bolt or sear dropping into a narrower notch that is deeper and more adapted to fast action shooting. Removing the spring part of the sear stopped the breakage and loss of tension problems that were prevalent in the Colt and clones. The hand spring was also subject to these undesirable problems as well, and using the coil spring here eased the pressure on the star or ratchet at the rear of the cylinder, and smoothed the action even more. Overall, coil springs lightened the action and decreased wear and tear on the internal parts, providing better response from the weapon, and reliability far superior to the flat springs. Most important was putting the firing pin in the frame instead of the hammer. This allows the shooter now to dry fire without fearing the firing pin will fall out of the hammer, and most importantly, removes the chance of taking a chunk out of your fanning hand or finger when you happen to mis-time your recovery fanning motion or second shot in some events. In the fifties and sixties it was shoot-till-you-hit, and everyone was fanning two or more back up shots at the target for good measure. If you ask any of the old shooters like myself, they can probably show you scars from this era. Having used the Colt in my earlier years of competition (I started out as a thumber), I found myself working constantly on them to keep them in "competition form". Now don't misunderstand me, I love the feel of the Colt, and quite honestly the slant of the grip frame is a little different than that of the Ruger…this positions the end of the barrel slightly higher in the shooting position, which allows a shooter to get the barrel up and on target a bit faster when competing. Except for the firing pin position, the Colt and clones make a good thumbing gun for competition, but when you start fanning them, problems start manifesting themselves due to the old design of the internal workings. Fast Draw is a great test track for single actions. Nowhere else will they be submitted to the stress and battering we give them here.
The FD gun of choice is the early model Ruger .357, distinguishable from the "new" model by the 3 screws in the side of the frame (the new models have 2 pins readily visible to the eye in place of the 3 screws). This gun has not been made for over 30 years now, and if you find one at all, the prices are escalating almost daily. The .357 3-screw has a smaller frame and cylinder than the .30 cal, .41, and .44 of its time, and this alone made it preferable for FD, as it created a lighter, better balanced gun when bored to .45 cal and fitted with a lighter aluminum barrel. As we run out of this particular gun the second choice is the other caliber 3-screws. These also will disappear with time, so we are facing choice number three. The original Ruger Vaquero is a viable FD gun for thumbing when tuned and the action lightened. However, the weight of the cylinder is way more than the notches and internal parts can take when fanned with a fanning hammer. As of 2005, Ruger has modified the Vaquero, making it a smaller framed gun the same size as the Colt, and even went back to the smaller grip frame of the old model .357 Blackhawks. This grip frame is the same as the Colt, with thinner grips than other Ruger SA's. The hammer spur is also longer than normal, helping the thumb draw considerably. With some modifications this weapon makes an ideal competition gun.
Barrels are most important to the Fast Draw shooter. We have found over the years that the lighter aluminum barrel helps to gain speed in the draw. But the all aluminum barrel quickly looses its accuracy due to the constant cleaning. With even the nylon bristle brushes, cleaning wears the lands and groove edges inside. Copper or steel wire brushes are devastating. After a few years of cleaning, the opening at the front of the barrel is sometime worn so badly that the barrel gauge will drop down into the barrel too far to make it legal. Many a shooter has faced barrel replacement before he can use the gun in competition. Shooting powerful blanks will add to this wear factor, as they are hard on the soft aluminum. Sleeving aluminum over a steel bore is the most common way to provide the lightness, and keep the steel inner barrel that will maintain accuracy longer. The steel inner barrel will also keep the barrel from splitting or blowing out when using powerful blanks. This has happened a number of times, as aluminum will fatigue over a period of time, loosing its strength, similar to aircraft paneling on planes. I strongly recommend anyone using the full aluminum barrel to replace it with a sleeved one, first for safety, and second for improved accuracy. Of course a titanium barrel is the optimum choice. You gain strength, lightness of material, and longevity. With any barrel, be sure to clean and oil it after use so rust doesn't pit the inner lining. These pits will accumulate wax and build up enough over a few shots to cause your next shot to shatter the wax, and there won't be a large enough piece to stop the timer on impact. I know, because I've experienced it.
For those who like the old four-click action, with a safety, half cock position for loading, and no safety bar, the new model Ruger can be converted to the old Colt action, but will work as well with the sliding safety bar and the loading gate feature. The frame on the original Vaquero is going to be larger and heavier, but this is a trade off that new shooters will have to accept if they cannot find an old model .357, or a "New Model Vaquero" to build from.
Hopefully this will give the new shooters some insight into locating a suitable gun for Fast Draw
competition, and a few tips learned over the last 45 years or so. If anyone has any questions, feel
free to call me at 210-946-2826 (daytime or evening Texas time, thank you).
(this article first appeared in the July 2002 issue of the WFDA Top Gun magazine, and updated Feb. 2006)