August 31, 2022
In 1966, eight years after Ruger announced the compact Bearcat .22 six-shooter, the mother of a young high school graduate in southeastern Idaho handed him $40. It was a graduation gift. “Take that into town,” she suggested, “and buy yourself a new suit.”
Instead, the young man, whom we’ll just call “Sam,” found his way to the local hardware store. The shop had a brand-spanking-new Bearcat, and the price was $39.50. It would be another two years before the Gun Control Act of 1968 regulated the sale of handguns to individuals 21 and older, and Sam walked out of the store the proud owner of the Bearcat.
Loosely based on Remington’s single-action revolvers, the Bearcat was designed as a trail gun or kit gun for trappers, hunters, and their ilk. According to some sources, Bill Ruger was a fan of the Stutz Bearcat automobile and named the sleek little wheelgun after it.
Over the years three variants were introduced. The first, built until 1971, featured fixed sights, an alloy frame, a brass trigger guard, and walnut grips. The barrel length was 4.0 inches. The words Ruger Bearcat were engraved on the cylinder, along with a bear and a mountain lion scene. The revolver shown here is a first variation. Due to confusing serialization processes, it’s unknown exactly how many first variations were made, but estimates are 140,000 to 160,000.
Ruger’s second variation sported an all-steel frame and was named the Super Bearcat. It was built until 1975, at which point, through an oversight, the superb little revolver was dropped from the catalog. Orders stalled, and the Bearcat was discontinued.
When the Bearcat third variant was introduced in 1993, it featured Ruger’s transfer bar firing mechanism. Rosewood grips set it apart, and a more subtle difference was a slight barrel length increase to 4.2 inches. It’s been in production ever since. Stainless versions became available in the early 2000s, and adjustable sights were added in 2015.
Although internal parts utilize music-wire coil springs and other reliability-enhancing components, the original Bearcat functions exactly like a traditional single action. Open the loading gate on the right side of the cylinder fence to load. Ear the hammer back to halfcock to unlock the cylinder, which may then be rotated clockwise, emitting crisp clicks as it turns. Insert .22 Short, Long, or Long Rifle cartridges into the cylinder chambers. Close the loading gate, and the Bearcat is ready to fire.
Pull the hammer back to full cock, aim, and squeeze the trigger. Unlike the later transfer bar version, the early Bearcats usually have clean, light, crisp trigger pulls. To clear the chambers, open the loading gate, put the hammer on halfcock, and use the ejector rod to push the empties out of the chambers.
The purchase history was narrated to me 55 years later by the now-veteran rancher who has owned it since he bought it new in 1966. Eyes twinkling, he told me, “That little gun has dispatched several hundred coyotes.” A lifelong passion of his is lion hunting with hounds, and over the decades, the Bearcat has been used on a whole passel of cougars, too.
Sam carries his Bearcat in a well-made leather holster, stitched with rawhide and tooled with a basketweave pattern. It’s stamped Idaho Leather Company, Boise, Idaho. It’s worn but clean and well cared for, and it fits like a glove.
Sam graciously allowed me to borrow his Bearcat for this column. Still tight, the cylinder rotates as if it’s on ball bearings, and .22 LR cartridges slide effortlessly into the chambers.
Setting a target out at 25 yards, I fired a series of three consecutive six-shot groups for average with a Browning load, then a Remington load, and then an SK load. I was surprised at how good the trigger was. I later measured it with my Lyman digital trigger gauge, and it trips crisply at 2 pounds, 2 ounces. That’s darned light for a trail and trapping gun, but oh-so easy to shoot well.
Accuracy was good, too. Browning’s load averaged a tad less than 2 inches at 25 yards. The others tested averaged less than 3 inches. That’s plenty good for a vintage wheelgun that’s been through a half-century of hard use and all most shooters will ever need for practical shooting.
My seven-year-old son Henry asked to handle Sam’s Bearcat. “It’s so light!” he commented, his eyes lighting up. “I can hold it steady!” And therein is found one of the great appeals of the Bearcat single action: It’s easy for beginners to handle and fire. It also feels good and fires wonderfully for experienced adults.
I have a very nice version of the new stainless Bearcat with adjustable sights, but naturally, after shooting this one, I wanted an early original first variant, too. The website gunbroker.com has a handful of auctions listed, some with original boxes and in very nice condition. It appears that prices range from about $400 up to $1,000, depending on condition and variation.
I suspect there was a bit of a reckoning when Sam returned home from town with a .22 Bearcat rather than a new suit. But 55 years later the Bearcat is still going strong and is increasing in value. Even a very good suit would be in tatters by now. I think Sam’s gambit paid off.
Ruger Bearcat Specifications
- Manufacturer: Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc.
- Type: Single-action revolver
- Caliber: .22 LR
- Cylinder Capacity: 6 rounds
- Barrel: 4.0 in.
- Overall Length: 8.88 in.
- Width: 1.21 in.
- Height: 4.30 in.
- Weight, Empty: 17 oz.
- Grips: Walnut
- Finish: Satin blue metal, low-gloss wood
- Sights: Square-notch rear, Patridge blade front
- Trigger: 2.13-lb. pull (as tested)