50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
By the late 1950s, Sturm Ruger & Company and Colt Industries were battling it out to see who would be king of the single-action revolver market. Ruger had its popular Single Six and Blackhawk sixguns, but Colt could claim title to having the original thumbcocker, the Single Action Army. Plus, Colt’s new small-framed, .22 caliber Frontier Scout, having been introduced in 1957, was cutting into sales of Ruger’s Single Six.
Always ready for a challenge, Bill Ruger now surprised everyone. Instead of introducing the .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk his company was rumored to be working on, he took a giant step backwards and, in July 1958, came out with a diminutive .22 single-action that was even smaller than the Single Six. Following a tradition of naming his sixguns after famous, early twentieth century automobiles (the Single Six was named in honor of Packard’s five-person touring car, and the Blackhawk took its name from the 1920s Stutz Motor Car boat-tailed roadster), car aficionado Ruger dubbed his company’s newest revolver the Bearcat, after the Stutz Bearcat luxury roadster, which was originally produced from 1914 through 1917.
Like the lightweight Stutz Bearcat, which was notable in that it had no doors and only a Spartan, rounded “monocle” windscreen for the driver, the construction of the Ruger Bearcat was simplicity itself. The gun weighed a scant 17 ounces and was composed of only 26 pieces (28, if you counted the two-piece grips!), screws and springs included. Plus, it was priced at $49.50—a bargain even in those years.
In appearance, the Bearcat took its inspiration from the frontier-era Remington revolvers, a fact that Ruger readily admitted. The black anodized backstrap and frame were a single integral casting, while the separate trigger guard was anodized to resemble brass. Both were actually aluminum alloy, as was the cylinder. Later, trigger guards were anodized black. The 41⁄16-inch barrel was blued steel, as was the ejector rod housing on the initial run of guns. Later, the housing was changed to aluminum.
The Bearcat could handle .22 Short, Long, and Long Rifle rimfire cartridges. The sights were fixed, consisting of a grooved topstrap and a thick front blade, the latter of which was serrated to prevent glare. The grips were resin-impregnated wood without the Ruger medallion. Later, around serial No. 30,000, the grips were changed to walnut with a silver-colored Ruger “rising Phoenix” logo inlay.
Like the two Ruger single-actions that had come before it, and inspired by the original Colt SAA design, the Bearcat’s hammer consisted of three clicks—safety, half-cock, and full cock. The gun loaded via a gate on the right-hand side, and a spring-loaded pin on the frame released the cylinder base pin for removal of the cylinder with the gun on half-cock. Of course, like all pre-1973 Ruger single-actions, safety concerns dictated that owners carried only five rounds, with the hammer resting over the empty sixth chamber.
One of the Bearcat’s most notable features, in addition to its compact size, was the fact that the cylinder was roll-engraved, much like Colt’s cap-and-ball revolvers of the nineteenth century, only in this case, the design appropriately featured a fierce-looking mountain lion and a bear on opposite sides of the “Ruger Bearcat” name.
The Bearcat was “A little jewel among American handguns … It represents the ‘kit gun’ idea applied to a single-action,” Bill Ruger gushed in a letter to his friend, gun writer Charles Askins, Jr., just prior to the Bearcat’s introduction. Indeed, it did have a certain charm to it, just as the Colt 1849 pocket pistol must have had when it was first introduced. But this time there was no California gold rush, so people didn’t really need a diminutive single-action—not when, for a few dollars more, they could get a slightly more hand-filling .22—the Single Six—which had a dovetailed rear sight that was adjustable for windage.
Still, the Bearcat was considered an ideal boy’s gun and a revolver that women and others with small hands might enjoy, even though the Bearcat’s sights were rudimentary at best. Having one in camp certainly beat having no gun at all, and a great many of these tiny six-shooters did indeed fill Bill Ruger’s “kit gun” prophesy by ending up in fishing tackle boxes or carried in coat pockets, as there were very few holsters made for this tiny revolver. No wonder the introductory ads referred to the lightweight Bearcat as “A pocket-sized single-action revolver.”
In 1971, after 165,352 aluminum-framed Bearcats had been produced, the little pistol gained some heft with the introduction of the Super Bearcat, which featured a blued, investment cast, chrome-molybdenum steel frame. A total of 64,417 Super Bearcats were produced, with approximately half being shipped with anodized “brass” trigger guards and the rest having blued steel guards.
Finally, with a total run of 229,769 guns, the Bearcat was discontinued in 1973, a forced retirement mandated by Ruger’s new “transfer bar” system, which did not prove readily adaptable to the Bearcat’s compact lockwork. It would not be until 1993 that the New Bearcat, featuring this safety system, was finally introduced. Available in blued or stainless steel and with an extra .22 Magnum cylinder, this updated gun has an elongated frame and cylinder. It also weighs 23 ounces. Although a substantially much improved revolver, it is the beloved Old Model Bearcat that is now sought by collectors eager to complete their Ruger lineage. Even the red and black boxes bring a premium, as most were tossed out as unnecessary for what was conceived as a utilitarian sixgun.
In 2008, Ruger introduced a one-year-only 50th Anniversary Bearcat commemorative, featuring the transfer bar safety, but with a gold plated (rather than anodized) trigger guard. It was a fitting tribute to a rugged little revolver that proved, in the long run, size really doesn’t matter. And that’s why it belongs in our bucket. After all, it doesn’t take up much room.