Bowen Classic Arms Custom Ruger Bearcat with Sack Peterson Elk Stag Grips


by Boge Quinn

photography by Boge Quinn & Jeff Quinn

February 18th , 2008

Updated August 5th, 2008 & May 19th, 2011





Bowen Classic Arms' new web site has gone online - it's an excellent redesign, and I extend my compliments to Hamilton and his web designers. The newly-redesigned site now features Bearcat packages, from a basic action tune package to Bowen's excellent "Perfected Bearcat". I cannot recommend Bowen's work highly enough.

Boge Quinn - May 19th, 2011

Anyone who knows me well knows of my fondness for the Ruger Bearcat. Introduced in late 1958 and reminiscent of the 1858 Remington New Police revolver, the little .22 immediately struck a chord with the gun buying public. A quality-made, lightweight, tough, accurate, cowboy-style kit gun at an introductory price of $49.50 (later reduced to $39.50 because favorable sales allowed them to be produced at a lower per-unit cost) – how could the Bearcat miss?

The Bearcat is my favorite .22 revolver for a very simple reason: I believe the Bearcat to be the most perfectly-sized .22 sixgun ever made. For a kit gun, why carry a heavy .22 when the 17-ounce Bearcat (or the later 24-ounce Super Bearcat and New Bearcat) is available? This is not to state that there is no need for larger .22s – I own many Bearcats, but I also own many larger and heavier .22 revolvers, from Ruger’s excellent Single-Sixes to Smith & Wesson’s equally-excellent K-frame .22s and J-frame kit guns, to the wonderful old High Standard Sentinels. Each has its place, from small-game hunting to plinking, even to personal protection, and each has a job that it does better than the rest. S&W’s kit guns, in particular, are to the double-action .22 what the Bearcat is to the single-action: absolutely the best. Still, I prefer single-actions, so while I love my S&Ws, the Bearcat reigns supreme. This is why you can never own too many .22 sixguns!

As my brother Jeff likes to say, any handgun is an exercise in compromise, and the Bearcat is no exception. Still, to me, the Bearcat is the .22 I most want to pack around when I am in the woods, and it’s the one I reach for when I just want to have some fun burning up some .22 ammo. The weight is perfect, the size is perfect, and the balance is perfect. I’ve heard large-handed shooters complain that the Bearcat’s grip is just too small for them, but the little plow-handle grip nestles into my large hand very comfortably, and my pinky curls underneath in just the right manner.

The above-mentioned revolvers, and others as well, are the favorite .22s of millions of Americans, and it is hard to argue with them. Their larger grip frames feel better to many; the added weight helps with the only kind of “gun control” we should ever have to discuss; the longer barrels available yield greater velocity; and perhaps most importantly, the sights are vastly better than the sights on the little Bearcat, and are often fully adjustable for windage and elevation. This makes these revolvers easier to shoot accurately, and the adjustable sights allow them the ability to shoot a wide variety of loads to the sights. Admittedly, sights are one area in which the Bearcat falls short: the rear sight is the familiar single-action type groove in the top of the frame, and the front sight is the equally-familiar rounded blade which can be hard to pick-up in all but perfect lighting conditions, especially to aging eyes like mine.

In short, the Ruger Bearcat may not be all things to all people, not even to myself, but it is still my favorite.

Hamilton Bowen, I can state without fear of too much argument, is our greatest living custom revolver maker. Building on the pioneering work of such legendary men as Croft and Sedgley, Hamilton Bowen has elevated the custom revolver beyond its utilitarian purposes into the realm of art. He literally wrote the book on custom revolvers. We are truly living in a Golden Age of custom guns, and this Age was largely ushered in by the work of Hamilton Bowen. There are many custom revolver makers today who do amazing work, but there is something about a Bowen gun that no other gun possesses; an artistry, a perfect geometric meeting of angles and curves, even a “soul”.

I was introduced to the work of Hamilton Bowen as a teenager by the excellent writings of the man whom I consider to be the Dean of modern gun-writers and heir to the mantle of such iconic men as Elmer Keith and Charles “Skeeter” Skelton: John Taffin. Taffin often wrote of Bowen’s work, and his descriptive prose was almost as breathtaking as the accompanying pictures of Bowen’s guns, describing the beauty of the case colors, the artistry of the scalloped loading gate, the perfect symmetry of the Damascus octagonal barrel, and the flawless craftsmanship. Taffin is also an excellent technician and shooter, and his extensive loading work made it clear that Bowen’s guns were not only beautiful, but also powerful and functional tools, able to cleanly and surely take even the largest and most dangerous game. Taffin lived in a world of which I could only dream; a world populated by exotic game animals, adventure, and the finest guns ever made; and his words made that world real to my impressionable young mind. I am quite sure that Taffin’s words, regarding Bowen’s work as well as many other subjects, made much more of an impact on me as a young man than he can possibly realize, and owning a Bowen gun became one of my fondest, and surely unattainable, dreams.

It is a testament to the depth of God’s blessings that I can now call both Hamilton Bowen and John Taffin my friends, and my brother Shootists. It is a further testament to His blessings that I now own multiple Bowen guns, one of which is the subject of this article: a one-of-a-kind Bowen Classic Arms Custom Ruger Bearcat.

The story of my Bowen Bearcat started when I acquired a shooter-grade Old Model Bearcat, made in late 1969, at a very reasonable price. I had considered having a custom Bearcat made for a long time, and I knew that Bowen was the man I wanted to do the work. My idea of what I wanted was this: rechamber to .22 Magnum, put on a S&W J-frame type rear sight (which would also require a custom front sight), and refinish. The only problem was, Hamilton didn’t want to do it! Seems he had fiddled with a Bearcat or two many years ago, and found them to be too inconsistent in their tolerances to be feasible as a catalog item. After some wheedling and outright begging, he agreed to take on the project as long as I kept it a secret. He didn’t want word getting out that he was working on a Bearcat for me, so I agreed to keep it under my hat and sent him the Bearcat.

A problem that Hamilton encountered early on lay with the lightweight aluminum alloy frame, and the J-frame sight’s tang screw threads. Typically, these screws go straight into the top strap, and they are quite small and fine-threaded. The sight works basically by becoming its own leaf-type spring – it is made to always be under some tension so as to provide elevation detenting, and this tension is offset by the screws. As thin and soft as the aluminum-framed Bearcat’s top strap is, Hamilton was concerned that the threads would strip the first time I tried to tighten the screws. At first glance, Hamilton thought he might try some sort of threaded sleeve for the sight screw but, unfortunately, the screw hole would need to fall into the barrel thread section of the receiver, and Hamilton was not sure this would be a good arrangement. His idea was to try it on a steel-framed Super Bearcat , but I really wanted to use the lighter-weight aluminum-framed gun, so I suggested the screw might be moved back until it is no longer over the barrel threads. Hamilton’s idea was to use a sort-of helicoil arrangement, where a threaded sleeve is installed with fine threads inside and coarser threads outside. He thought it would be worth a try – as he said, “All we can do is ruin it.”

The final solution for the rear sight problem came about because Hamilton was not happy with the screw location on the J-frame sights, and my idea of moving the hole back from the barrel threads would be too labor-intensive to be practical. Hamilton decided that a smaller pre-War style rear sight would be better, and remembered that David Clements makes just such a sight. Hamilton procured two from Clements, which proved to be prescient of him because one was ruined during the process – it seems the Bearcat’s frame was quite crooked, and a second sight had to be used in order to get the screws in the right place. Once the frame and the top strap contour were straightened out, Hamilton was able to install the pre-War style rear sight without too much trouble, and as you can see from the photos, the sight turned out much nicer than a J-frame sight – just as Hamilton surmised. That Clements sights is the nicest-looking adjustable sight I have ever seen on a Bearcat – it really looks like it belongs there. As a finishing touch, Hamilton contoured the front of the sight to match the shape of the front of the Bearcat’s frame – truly a classy and functional sight.

The custom front sight Hamilton fabricated is perfect – a small custom base with a pinned in, serrated blade, offering a crisp and non-reflective sight picture while maintaining an unobtrusive appearance. Hamilton was also nice enough to send an extra unshaped blade, just in case I found his blade less than perfect; it resides in its Ziploc bag, where I suspect it will remain for the foreseeable future.

While Hamilton was sorting out the frame and sight issues, I got the idea that a .22 Long Rifle / .22 Magnum convertible Bearcat would be neat, rather than just rechambering for .22 Magnum. Both Hamilton and I thought that finding a proper spare cylinder might be difficult, but my "Yooper" pal Lloyd Smale found a nice Old Model cylinder for me in a Michigan pawnshop for only $20, and we were in business. Hamilton found that the second (pawnshop) cylinder timed-up a bit better than the original’s, so he used that cylinder for the .22 Magnum (as he put it, “since I'd rather have a LR go off out of battery than a Mag”). Another problem was encountered when exploring the firing pin layout. The trouble with the Magnum cylinder was the firing pin location. The problem was, the .22 Magnum’s rim diameter is larger so the firing pin was hitting too near the center of the cartridge to set off the priming compound along the rim of the case. What Hamilton ended up doing was making up a firing pin out of a Single-Six part and contouring the nose to obtain reliable ignition on both cylinders. He also polished off the Magnum cylinder’s Bearcat roll mark so it would be easy to distinguish the two. This also gave the gun a very distinctive look with the Magnum cylinder installed.

Once Hamilton got the problems associated with the dual cylinders worked out, he turned his attention to the worn lockwork. He had to work some of his magic on the original lock parts, but he was able to save them and restore them to crisp as-new function. He had to do some work to eliminate cylinder end shake, and he also fit custom endfloat / headspace bushings on each cylinder. A fine time & tune job completed the action repairs, and the Bearcat now locks-up better than any new Bearcat I have ever handled. Timing is perfect, as evidenced by the fact that, to this day, there is no sign of a turn ring on either cylinder.

The only modification to the original barrel that Hamilton made was to add the all-important “BOWEN CLASSIC ARMS CORPORATION” roll mark to the top of the barrel. I was very pleased by this, as the barrel now sports Hamilton’s mark as well as the original “STURM RUGER & CO. SOUTHPORT, CONN.” roll mark, along with the Ruger Eagle mark, on the side of the barrel (being an Old Model Bearcat, the barrel does not feature what Hamilton calls “a little light reading from Ruger’s legal department”). Some Ruger experts had told me that the groove diameter of the Bearcat would not work for the .22 Magnum cartridge, but not being an expert myself, I decided to leave that up to Hamilton. The Bearcat proved to be up to this challenge for which it was not designed, as it shoots both .22 Magnum and .22 Long Rifle cartridges with very satisfying accuracy. Hamilton had sighted the gun in for .22 Magnum ammunition; his sight adjustments worked perfectly for my eyes as well, and I found that no further sight adjustments were required. Even with the .22 Long Rifle cylinder installed, the gun shot very close to the sights as received using my favorite plinking ammo, Federal’s bulk pack.

After all problems were straightened-out and the gun was shooting as it should, Hamilton turned to the cosmetic aspects of the project. As I have already mentioned, the Bearcat started out as a “shooter-grade”, which is a nice way of saying it was pretty beaten-up. Not only were the lock parts badly worn, but there was significant pitting evident on the frame, and quite a bit of finish loss throughout. A close inspection of the pictures will show a slight amount of pitting still evident on the right side of the aluminum frame, just below the hammer; this is all that remains of the roughness of the Bearcat in its original condition, and Hamilton did an excellent job of restoring the gun’s appearance. I could have saved him a lot of work if I had sent him a Bearcat in better condition to begin with, but as a lover of those old Bearcats I just couldn’t bring myself to modify one of my collector-grade guns; I trust Hamilton has forgiven me by now for all the extra work.

The final step was refinishing and reassembling the gun, and here is where Hamilton again offered some sage advice. He refinished all the steel parts in-house, and recommended I let him send the aluminum parts to W.E. Birdsong for their “Black-T” Teflon finish. He told me that Black-T is a very tough and cosmetically pleasing finish, and I of course accepted his recommendation. I am glad I did – as you can see from the pictures, the Black-T finish on the frame and trigger guard is a beautiful matte black, and offers a nice contrast to the polished blued steel of the barrel and cylinder.

When I received the gun (nearly four years ago as of this update), I was absolutely ecstatic. I finally owned a Bowen gun, and the most beautiful and practical Bearcat I have ever seen. The entire cost of the gun, including all the custom work and the original gun, was not cheap, but it was quite reasonable for all the work involved; it was quite amusing to Jeff that I wrapped up that much money in a Bearcat, but he underestimated my love for Bearcats and my longing for a custom Bowen gun. I considered it money well spent, because I now owned a Bowen that was unlike any other had ever been, or would ever be.

To summarize the work that Hamilton did to my Bearcat:

Modify / machine top strap for Clements Pre-War S&W style rear sight, including steel thread plugs

Install Clements Pre-War S&W style rear sight

Fabricate custom front sight base / silver solder on pin-in serrated blade

Repair action / time & tune

Fit custom endfloat / headspace bushings on both cylinders

Rechamber one cylinder to .22 Magnum & remove factory roll mark

Install custom modified firing pin / test fire for function and sight-in

Polish & blue steel parts

Prep aluminum parts and send to W.E. Birdsong for Black-T finish

Some time after receiving the Bearcat, I was still basking in the magnificence of the little gun, and I was just dying to let some of my friends take a look at it. So I asked Hamilton if I could break my silence and tell some folks about it, and he said that would be fine but that he did not want me to write a feature article for Gunblast because he did not plan to do any more and didn’t want to have to explain why to a multitude of Gunblast readers. Hamilton asked me to make it clear to everyone that he would not be doing any more work on Bearcats, as he assured me that he easily had twice as much work in my gun than his billing indicated. As he wrote to me, “You might tell anybody that wants to know that this was a one-off experimental piece and that we do not, at this writing (October 1, 2007), plan to offer Bearcat services as a catalog item.”

I showed the Bearcat to some of my Shootist friends, and posted some pictures of it to some Boards that I frequent, including the Ruger Forum ( Shortly thereafter I received an email from Sack Peterson, a grip maker who also frequents the Ruger Forum and shares my love of Bearcats. Peterson specializes in American Elk Stag grips for Ruger revolvers, and while I had been impressed with the pictures I had seen, I had never handled any of his grips. Sack wanted to tell me how impressed he was by my Bearcat, and asked if he could send me a set of American Elk grips for it. I was only too happy to oblige, so very shortly I received a beautiful set of Elk stags that really sets off my Bowen Bearcat. These are the nicest Elk stags I have ever seen. The color and the amount of “bark” are perfect, and there is practically zero pith. Peterson does an excellent job of matching the figure and color of each panel, and the fit is excellent. Another thing I really like about Peterson’s grips is that they are profiled very much like the original grips. Often you see stag grips that are far too thick, which alters the handling qualities of the gun; Peterson’s grips are profiled just like the original Bearcat grips, so the excellent feel of the grip’s shape in the hand is maintained, while the “bark” of the grips offer a much better and more positive feel than the original smooth walnut grips. These are some of the nicest stag grips I have ever seen, and I highly recommend Sack’s work – in fact, I have since bought some more grips from him, and I can offer no higher praise than that.

When the time came to order some leather for my Bowen Bearcat, I did what I often do: I contacted Rob Leahy at Simply Rugged Holsters. Rob’s holsters are just what the name suggests: simple and rugged in design and construction, but still beautiful and supremely functional. He makes holsters of several designs, but his most popular is the classic pancake design. Rob’s pancake holsters offer multiple slots so the angle of the holster can be adjusted. My personal favorite way to carry most field handguns is an across-the-chest holster rig, and Rob offers the slickest chest rig I have ever seen – the Chesty Puller system. Using simple adapter straps, the Chesty Puller rig allows any of Rob’s (or any other maker’s) pancake holsters to easily and quickly adapt to an across-the-chest rig. Rob even offers adapter straps at a very reasonable price that will allow virtually any belt holster of virtually any design to be used with the Chesty Puller system. It’s a really nifty, versatile, and cost-effective system, and is much more comfortable than standard belt carry for “full figured” shooters like me. Rob can custom make holsters for just about anything, his prices are reasonable, and he’s a great guy to boot. I highly recommend you try some of his leather.

And now for some really good news: as I mentioned above, Hamilton Bowen finally allowed me to show the Bearcat to some folks, with the caveat that I was not to write a Gunblast article featuring the Bearcat. So why now am I writing this article? A few weeks ago Hamilton emailed me that he had been thinking about how nicely my Bearcat turned out, and that he had reconsidered offering Bearcat services as a catalog item. He said he was considering offering a package for the Bearcat in the near future. Bowen’s Bearcat package will only be offered on the New Bearcat, both because they are easier to obtain and because they are constructed with better consistency in many cases. He’s not sure yet exactly what the catalog Bearcat package will include, but will probably consist mostly of tuning and new sights with shortened barrels as an option. He says that any package they offer will feature the excellent Pre-War S&W style rear sight. As Hamilton says, “They are the only reason to work on these guns as far as I am concerned, and will be the main part of any package we do on the Bearcats. The package will also include a simple front sight blade/base. Cutting barrels would probably be an option but might make for a more compact gun where indicated.” At Hamilton’s suggestion (resulting from a series of not-so-subtle hints from me), I immediately sent him a New Bearcat as a prototype for Bowen Classic Arms’ "Perfected Bearcat" package, and I await the results with great anticipation. Look for a Gunblast article on the Bowen Bearcat Package as soon as it becomes available. In the meantime, be sure to let Hamilton know of your interest in a Bowen Bearcat - you can call him at (865) 984-3583. The more interest he sees, the more likely he is to catalog the Bearcat package. Tell him Boge says "howdy".

With the Bowen Bearcat, Hamilton Bowen has taken one of the finest sixguns ever made and elevated it to absolute perfection. Best of all, soon these fine little sixguns may be available to any shooter who desires the finest .22 available, from the finest custom revolversmith of our time.

Visit to view and order the finest custom revolvers available.

Check out Sack Peterson’s American El Stag grips at

For Rob Leahy’s Simply Rugged holsters, go to

Boge Quinn

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Click pictures for a larger version.


Bowen Classic Arms custom .22 Magnum / .22 Long Rifle Ruger Bearcat, shown with .22 Magnum cylinder installed.





Front sight is a custom-fabricated base with pinned-in blade.



Rear sight is a Pre-War S&W style by David Clements, custom contoured and fit to the Bearcat frame.





Bearcat with .22 Long Rifle cylinder installed.



Firing pin comparison shows how Hamilton Bowen solved the problem of striking the rims of the differently-sized cases. Bowen Bearcat (top) has a custom-fabricated firing pin of a larger, truncated cone shape. Old Model Super Bearcat (center) has a conventional rounded shape. New Model Stainless Bearcat (bottom) has a shape similar to Bowen's, but smaller in size.



These pictures show the difference in firing pin shape on the case head. Bowen Bearcat (top) has a noticeably larger area than the Old Model Super Bearcat (center). Bottom picture shows the firing pin strike of the Bowen Bearcat at left, compared to that of the Old Model Super Bearcat at right.



Sack Peterson American Elk Stag grips really dress up the Bowen Bearcat, adding a look of distinction and improving handling.





Simply Rugged pancake holster adapted for the Chesty Puller system is a comfortable and secure way to carry the Bearcat afield.