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Sat, Apr. 24th, 2010, 07:01 am

It's no secret that I like my mechanical devices to be elegant in their simplicity, with as few moving parts as possible, rugged, easily understood, and just as easily fixed if broken. It's okay if a little special knowledge is needed to get the most out of simple devices; I like to learn. And while this approach often means "tried and true" or even "retro," I incorporate modern materials and technology where they mean simpler, more rugged designs are possible.

Take my motorcycles, for example. Sure, I like Harleys for their retro styling, but there's more to it than just the looks: I like that they've eschewed liquid-cooling when little advantage is to be gained by it, and I like that their entire product line is fuel-injected, because there really is the benefit of simplification to be had by getting rid of carbs. Some complain that the cam configuration isn't overhead, but sticking with pushrods means I can swap out chain-driven cams for gear-driven cams and get a super-reliable engine as a result. Can you think of any other engine for which that's the case?

My photography hobby followed the same pattern. I got into it just before digital cameras took the world by storm, so I had the very best autofocusing and auto-exposure lenses and logic to choose from just before the engineering efforts turned to digital sensors instead. Yet, my SLR cameras were the Pentax K-1000 and the Nikon FM2, both manual-everything cameras that did their jobs very well and would undoubtedly continue to do their jobs well if I still had the patience for getting 35mm film developed. I enjoyed learning how to control aperture, film speed, and shutter speed on my own to ensure I could make use of simpler, more robustly-designed equipment.

I sold the SLRs, but I've kept some collectible large-format Graflex Speed Graphic cameras to remind me of the elegant simplicity and beauty of all-manual cameras.

If this attitude carries into my shooting hobby, do you think I might grow tired of ongoing discussions about magazine reliability, spring compression, feed lip damage, stovepiping, double-feeds, limp-wristing, and gas tube obstruction? Do you think I might say to myself, "there's got to be a simpler, more reliable way?" Do you think I might be impressed less by the latest gee-whiz technology than I am by the tried-and-true designs with retro styling?

Some shooting friends pride themselves on taking this approach with their collections of 1911 pistols. The design is now almost a hundred years old, still highly popular, fairly reliable, and shoots a .45 ACP cartridge that still gets the job done well. It doesn't require much in the way of special tools or unusual maintenance, and has aged quite gracefully, with more companies in recent years jumping on the bandwagon to provide 1911 knockoffs to the growing market. I understand this philosophy, and while I don't own any 1911s myself, I enjoy hearing from my shooting friends about what they value in their collections.

But how much more affirmation can we get, how much greater is the vindication of time, when we talk about revolvers? If I weary of loading a magazine, inserting it into the handgun, shooting the rounds, ejecting the magazine, and inserting more cartridges into the magazine, how much more appealing might I find the simplicity of just doing away with the magazine altogether? If I crave a really old-fashioned but still popular style, might I find satisfaction with a modern reproduction of the 1873 Colt Single-Action Army, or the "Peacemaker?"

Might I find twice the satisfaction in owning and shooting two of them?

Enter the Ruger Bisley New Vaquero. Well, enter two of them.

The New Vaquero is a direct knockoff of the Colt SAA in shape and size, a modification of the original Vaquero in order to bring the frame size and barrel length options into consistency with Colt's original offerings well over a century ago. It's enjoyed renewed popularity alongside the sport of cowboy action shooting, and a whole new generation is finding new respect for the design now that westerns are not so popular in theaters or on TV. This is fortunate for me, because it fits my philosophy of simple elegance, ruggedness, and retro styling perfectly. For example, the original Colt nickel-plating, known for flaking off or aging to a dull gray sheen, is reproduced by building the whole thing out of stainless steel. The finish is tougher, easier to clean, and stronger than the original: modern materials make maintenance more manageable. The action has been upgraded only slightly; a transfer bar makes it impossible to fire by dropping it on its hammer. Thus we no longer have to carry only five rounds and keep the hammer down on an empty chamber; we've gone to six rounds safely carried, only one fewer than the capacity of the 1911's magazine! The Bisley grip is an improvement on the original hog-leg design, but not a new one. It was introduced before the end of the nineteenth century by accuracy shooters in England working with heavy loads, and as a result, fits my giant hands better than the traditional old western style.

The combination of Colt SAA reproduction, modern materials and action upgrade, appropriate size for my hand, and .357 Magnum caliber is not commonly found these days, so when I found the pair of them, consecutively numbered, for offer online, I jumped at the opportunity. Was it ever worth it! I got a chance to try them out at my local indoor range today, while a springtime hailstorm howled through town.

Never having fired a .357 Magnum revolver before, I planned ahead and grabbed a box each of .38 Special, .38 Special +P, and .357 Magnum. While the local stores are rebuilding their supplies of .223 and 9mm, the revolver rounds are slow to catch up from the drastic ammo deficit of the past year. Salesmen everywhere tell me it's also because revolvers are growing in popularity again. The end result is that my boxes of ammo were mixed: jacketed hollowpoints in one caliber, semi-wadcutters in another, lead round tip in another. Bullet weights were all over: .38 Special was 158 grain, .357 Magnum was 110! But I at least had a decent sample to make sure the target was properly ventilated.

My first shots were at ten yards. My groupings were quite loose; I was trying a few different stances and trying to figure out the sight pictures throughout one cylinder each of the .38 and .38 +P. By the time I got to the .357, I had things figured out a little better... except for the odd flyer. Sorry about that ear shot there, buddy!

The first revolver was, quite simply, a joy to shoot. Even with .357s, there was no discomfort at all, and the game of silhouette-the-front-sight-with-muzzle-flash was not only fun as usual, but remarkably easy. The trigger break is crisp, and cocking for the followup shot flows smoothly with the Bisley-style lowered hammer. I ran the target out to its max of 25 yards, and was pleased to find that placing six fatal shots with .357 was as pleasant and easy at that distance as it had been at ten yards.

You know what the awesome thing about these handguns? After I try my first few rounds in each caliber and check performance at different distances, I get to pack it up and do it all again with the second gun! In just one session, with only two dozen or so rounds expended, my groupings were already getting a bit tighter. The fixed sights were proving not to be a hurdle, and true to my philosophy of mechanical simplicity, learning a little bit about the design means I can make do with fewer moving parts up on top of the frame. No adjustment screws, nothing to drift, work free, snag on holsters, or get knocked off center. Perfect.

There's no better range day than when I can take delivery of a brand new gun, shoot it, and declare afterwards that it's my new favorite gun ever. I treated my new Bisleys to gun socks from Cabelas and holsters from Bianchi, and took them home for their first cleaning. I've got some full metal jacket .38 Special lined up for not much money, so I can keep shooting them cheaply into next week. But since the Vaqueros were such a screaming success, I'm looking forward to taking delivery of another new .357 as well: a Taurus medium-frame, in double-action this time.

I guess I can stand a few bells and whistles for the sake of variety after all. Double-action revolvers aren't exactly "newfangled" themselves... unless you're viewing them from the perspective of Colt in 1873, when they'd seem downright futuristic. But they're still a good embodiment of mechanical simplicity, fewer parts to break, thick stainless-steel construction, nothing to jam, and most importantly... they're fun, fun, fun.

(Cross-posted from my personal journal.)