April 22, 2005
Ruger's newest offering in its heavy-duty double-action revolver line is the Alaskan, a 2 1/2-inch version of the Super Redhawk chambered for the powerful .454 Casull cartridge. It's designed to be an authoritative companion arm for hunters of dangerous game and outdoorsmen who hike or fish in their habitat. And because any .454 Casull firearm will also readily chamber and fire .45 Colt ammunition, this snubnosed gun will also have appeal to those who prefer big-bore revolvers for personal or household protection.
The original 7 1/2-inch .454 Casull version of the Ruger Super Redhawk revolver was introduced in 1999, which was Ruger's 50th Anniversary year. It was only the second double-action revolver with swing-out cylinder that had been chambered for the high-intensity .454 cartridge and was offered from the outset with a six-shot cylinder. (Its only competitor had a five-shot cylinder.) A 9 1/2-inch model soon followed. Both versions featured unfluted cylinders and stainless-steel construction, finished with the same hard, slick Ruger Target Grey surface treatment applied to the company's varmint version Model 77 bolt-action rifles. The long-barreled Super Redhawk .454 also came equipped with Ruger's frame-integral scope-mount dovetails and patented one-inch stainless-steel scope rings, also in the Target Grey finish.
The Super Redhawk design was initially introduced as a .44 Magnum in 1986, and it still remains available in 7 1/2- and 9 1/2-inch .44-caliber versions with natural brushed-satin stainless-steel finish and fluted cylinders. A Super Redhawk .480 Ruger version in Target Grey was introduced in 2001. The Ruger catalog lists the same weight for the 7 1/2-inch .44 Magnum and .454 Casull iterations (53.5 ounces), but due to the bigger diameter chambers and bore, the actual measured weight of a .454 Super Redhawk is nearly an ounce less. The 7 1/2-inch .480 Ruger version weighs 52 ounces. Other than those distinctions — and the fact that the .454 and .480 Ruger versions wear black laminated grip panels instead of the brown-colored Goncalo Alves wood panels used on the .44s — there have been no dimensional or configuration differences among Super Redhawk editions. That is until the introduction of the brand-new short Alaskan .454 Casull (weight is 41.25 ounces). Ruger has not yet announced whether the Alaskan format will also be offered in the other Super Redhawk chamberings.
Strong, Rugged & Massive
The Super Redhawk has always had an intimidating look. The frame's topstrap contains more metal than any other revolver made. There is a massive forward extension from the frame that completely encloses the rear 2.5 inches of the heavy, nearly one-inch-diameter, round bull barrel, which provides lengthened bearing surfaces and relocated barrel threads for greater strength and rigidity in barrel mounting. On long-barreled Super Redhawk versions, the topstrap and frame extension also provide dovetailed mount locations for attaching Ruger's patented scope ring system. Even the front sight on the long-barreled guns has an extra heavy-duty look: a black steel, red-insert blade mounted in a stainless-steel ramp that's twice the size of any other revolver's front sight base. On the new Alaskan version, however, the barrel ends flush with the front of the forward frame extension. There are no scope-ring dovetails, and the front sight blade is a low-profile serrated black ramp that is pinned in.
The Super Redhawk is actually much more closely related — and similar in design — to Ruger's mid-frame GP100 .357 Magnum revolvers than to the original .44 Magnum Redhawk introduced in 1979, even though it bears the Redhawk name and employs the same crane-lock cylinder latch point system. The most significant mechanical difference between the Super Redhawk and the standard Redhawk is that the Super Redhawk does not employ the much-heralded original Redhawk hammer/trigger "single-spring" double-action operation design. Instead it utilizes a coil two-spring system originally developed for the old .357 Magnum Security-Six line and later adapted to the GP100 series. This is why it is more correct technically to think of the Super Redhawk as a big GP100 and not just as an "evolved" Redhawk. The lighter looking "standard" .44 Magnum Redhawk is actually slightly heavier than a .44 Magnum Super Redhawk because of the internal parts differences.
Ruger's primary reason for returning to the two-spring system when developing the Super Redhawk design was that a two-spring action allowed the use of more conventionally styled stocks than the original Redhawk design allowed. Design constraints of the single-spring action required the standard Redhawk grip frame to be more closely stationed to the rear of the trigger guard, which left little room for wraparound, oversize stocks — which is why standard Redhawks have always been equipped with relatively small "service-type" side-panel grips. Most magnum revolver shooters, however, prefer hand-filling, oversize stocks — particularly with hard-recoiling calibers like the .454 Casull — so the Super Redhawk design went for the wraparound rubber/wood-insert stocks developed for the GP100 series.
One Serious Sixgun
I've had a lot of experience with the long-barreled versions of the .454 Super Redhawk. I've shot both .454 Casull and .45 Colt loads on the review range and hunting in the field. I'll be blunt: Shooting the Super Redhawk with full-power .454 Casull ammunition, in any barrel length, is a punishing experience. The gun contains no recoil-management features beyond the original .44 Super Redhawk design, and it weighs less than the .44 Magnum version. Prospective purchasers of a Super Redhawk .454, or indeed any .454 Casull handgun, need to clearly understand what they are in for. If you think the .44 Magnum is a powerful, hard-kicking cartridge, know that the .454 Casull is nearly 1 1/2 times more powerful, and operates at more than 15,000 psi greater pressure. It develops an entirely different level of recoil and is not intended for casual shooting. Guns designed to fire it are intended for hunting high-level dangerous game or for defense against life-threatening attack, not an afternoon banging away on the range. Be prepared.
The hump-shouldered double-action Super Redhawk frame design transmits recoil energy impact directly backward into the palm and wrist without the moderating rotational vector associated with a smooth-shouldered single-action grip design. Compared to a single-action .454 Casull revolver, which will rotate in the shooter's grip to a near-vertical barrel position after firing, the recoil force that is dissipated through the rotation of the grip sliding through the shooter's hand in an SA design is transmitted straight back through the grip into the shooter with the DA design. It hits you. Ruger terms its patented GP100/Super Redhawk grip design "cushioned," but the rubber material used offers very little compressibility, is stiffened by the laminated side panels, and contains no sealed air pockets or shock-absorbing mechanisms in the backstrap. To review the new Alaskan version, I instead used Ruger's wraparound/fingergroove aftermarket accessory grip manufactured by Hogue, which greatly improves controllability. But even it could be further improved by the addition of a compression feature in the web area, such as Hogue has developed specifically for other models of heavy-recoil revolvers. (A Ruger spokesman told us that plans are in the works to ship production Alaskans with the Hogue rubber grips)
Of course, by preventing rotation, the hump-shouldered grip design also keeps the Super Redhawk's muzzle flip to around 35 to 45 degrees, depending on the load and how tight the shooter locks down on the gun. But that flip is abrupt and forceful and transmits a vertical wrenching to the shooter's grasp at exactly the same instant the carpal bones in the shooter's wrist are experiencing the maximum compression impact of the DA grip's straight-back recoil.
Barrel porting, venting, or aftermarket compensator installation will counteract muzzle flip proportionately to the venting gas pressure of the particular cartridge being fired. Thus, in handguns of the same weight and configuration, porting will have a considerably greater effect in counteracting muzzle flip from a 50,000+ psi cartridge, such as a 260-grain .454 Casull, than from a 35,000 psi cartridge, such as a 240-grain .44 Magnum. Standard .454 Super Redhawk 7 1/2- and 9 1/2-inch barrels do not contain such features, and the design of the ultrashort frame-enclosed Alaskan barrel design makes adding them somewhat difficult. Mag-na-porting is the best approach, since any add-on design will ruin the compact configuration that is the reason to have this version. My own 7 1/2-inch .454 Super Redhawk wears a BP Technologies Venturi Comp muzzle brake, and I use a gel-palm cushioned shooting glove and an orthopedic wrist-brace whenever I'm shooting it on a range. I really like the .454 Super Redhawk, but without recoil management features it's a bear.
Not A Plinker
That's the bad news. The good news is that should you ever have to use the Super Redhawk Alaskan model .454 for its intended purpose, the last thing in the world you'll be paying attention to is recoil. Using full-power .454 ammunition, the Alaskan's purpose is close-up protection from in-your-face predators with fangs and claws, and you'll actually be best off with the loads that have the most power and recoil possible. On the other hand, the Alaskan's .45 Colt capability gives it a broader, more recreational application as well, which may be why Ruger (unlike some other makers of .454 Casull revolvers) has gone out of its way to emblazon all Super Redhawk .454 Casull models with three separate .45 Colt caliber-stampings along with the .454 Casull marks (twice on the cylinder; once on the frame extension). Shooting the Alaskan with .45 Colt loads, even .45 Colt +P or handloaded ammo at .44 Magnum-type power levels, is entirely pleasant. So loaded, it's even a reasonable choice for medium-weight or antlered game hunting in close-brush circumstances. And its accuracy with .45 Colt loads will surprise you; its chambers are specced to a tight .479-inch diameter instead of the sloppy .488-inch diameter that is SAAMI-standard for chamber diameters on .45 Colt-only guns.
I think the intelligent way to prepare yourself for carrying this gun would be to entirely familiarize yourself with its feel and function by shooting it as much and as often as you can with as powerful .45 Colt loads as you find comfortable and controllable and then loading it with the real mastodon-killers when you go into the backcountry. In an emergency, your reflexes will kick in, and the gun will feel familiar and comfortable in your hand, whatever the load.
Since the Super Redhawk Alaskan model is being presented primarily as a wilderness survival/protection tool, chambered for one of the most powerful revolver cartridges available, but with a barrel length that is only one-third the length of the industry-standard reference barrel for that cartridge, I wanted to find out how much of a loss in the .454 Casull's nominal ballistic muscle is that reduction in bore length going to cost. The question becomes one of is the tradeoff in size, weight, and convenience really worth it?
Ruger provided an early engineering performance prototype of the Super Redhawk Alaskan model: a standard 7 1/2-inch .454 Casull gun with the rifled bore portion of the barrel cut to Alaskan length with only a reference pin for the front sight location. To assess the ballistic effect of the reduced barrel, I chronographed it with three representative commercial .454 Casull loads, ranging across the available selection of bullet weight and power, and compared the results to the same loads fired in a standard 7 1/2-inch Super Redhawk. I did the same comparison with three different commercial .45 Colt loads, including "Magnum-level" hunting loads. The results were illuminating.
The three .454 Casull loads selected were the CorBon 320-grain Penetrator, Hornady 240-grain XTP/MAG, and Winchester 260-grain Partition Gold. The three .45 Colt loads were the high-performance CorBon Bonded Core +P, the classic Remington 250-grain lead roundnose, and Winchester's new-tech 225-grain Silvertip hollowpoint. Individual performance through the two different barrel lengths is detailed in the chart. Overall, the average velocity generated by the .454 Casull loads in the 7 1/2-inch barrel was 1742 fps with 1823 ft-lbs energy. In the 2 1/2-inch barrel the average velocity was 1497 fps with 1346 ft-lbs energy. That amounts to a 14.1 percent reduction in average velocity and a 26.2 percent reduction in average energy caused by the 66.6 percent reduction in barrel length. When the same overall comparison is made with the .45 Colt loads, though not as germane to the issue of protective power as with the .454 Casull ammunition, the results come out as follows: the 7 1/2-inch barrel averaged 966 fps with 541 ft-lbs energy; the 2 1/2-inch barrel averaged 863 fps with 433 ft-lbs energy. That amounts to a 10.7 percent reduction in average velocity and a 20.0 percent reduction in average energy. Not as much of a loss as with the more powerful loads, but still significant.
To render this in more familiar terms, let's take the average energy figures for the .454 Casull ammunition through the 2 1/2-inch gun and compare them to the .44 Magnum, which is the most commonly used other cartridge for dangerous-game protection or backup in the field. The most powerful SAAMI-spec commercial 240-grain .44 Magnum load fired in a 7 1/2-inch industry reference barrel generates 971 ft-lbs of energy (all heavier bullet .44 Magnum loads produce less energy than that). That gives the short .454 Casull Alaskan a 40-percent energy advantage over a long-barreled .44 Magnum.
The Super Redhawk .454 Alaskan is a superbly engineered shooting tool that packs a lot of power into a compact well-handling package. It will be up to the individual owner to determine which particular bullet, case, and load velocity provides the optimal result for his particular needs and applications, either by thorough comparison of commercial loads or through careful handload development. Plan on making it a long project. You're not going to want to spend a lot of continuous hours at the benchrest with this revolver.
Ruger spokesmen candidly acknowledge that they have never expected the .454 Super Redhawk in any form to be shot a lot for casual plinking or for steel-target competition. The first versions were designed as hunting tools, pure and simple, and this newest version is a very serious hunter's companion. Ruger anticipates the typical user will shoot it with full-power .454 Casull ammunition only for basic sighting-in and then actual field use — much as you would a high-recoil, big-bore magnum heavy-game rifle. It's not a plinker.