Many shooters don’t know the steps they should follow to build a competitive wheelgun. Here’s what you have to do.
On the action-shooting circuit, the Bianchi Cup guns have rapidly evolved over the last decade, and with this evolution has come better and better scores. It used to be a challenge to see who would clean the 48 8-inch steel knockdown plates. Then the bar was raised to see who would be the first to break a score of l900 out of a possible of l920 points. Now, it is expected that several competitors will score perfect l920s, and the winner will be determined by how many of those 10-point shots, which must be in the 8-inch l0 ring of the Bianchi D-1 target, fall within the 4-inch X ring. The current standard is John Pride’s 1995 score of 1920, in which he notched an astounding 179 X’s to win the Bianchi Cup.
Many Bianchi Cup leaders are now shooting pistols, but revolvers still have a strong following in the action-pistol venue. However, it takes quite a bit of tuning to get a wheelgun to perform at top levels. Here are a few upgrades, which I’ve illustrated with work I’ve done on an L-frame Smith & Wesson 686, you need on your revolver to make it capable of winning a Cup.
Choosing A Revolver
The choice of make and model of revolver is a personal matter. If you look at what Bianchi competitors choose, you will find Colts, Rugers, and an occasional Taurus, but Smith & Wesson revolvers seem to be the favorite. The majority choice boils down to either the S&W; K frame in a .38 Special or the L frame .357 magnum. While the K frame has some advantages in its intrinsic accuracy related to loading densities, the L frame may have some advantage for those who prefer the larger frame for its balance or size. Either one can be made to shoot well within the X ring. Personally, I like the L-frame Model 686, and began working on it as a Bianchi gun back in 1989. The L-frame currently retails for $465.
Replace The Barrel
Since winning the Bianchi Cup requires the winner to have the most shots in the 4-inch X ring at distances out to 50 yards, a revolver used in this competition must be capable of 2-inch-groups, and preferably 1-inch-groups, at 50 yards. A factory barrel can, at times, surprise you with its accuracy, but in general, it will produce anywhere from 2- to 6-inch groups as 50 yards. To get into the 1-inch category, you will have to replace your barrel with a good custom unit. Quality barrels or blanks can be had from Douglas, Nowlin, Jarvis, Power Custom, Shilen, and other manufacturers.
The current rate-of-twist standard for custom revolver barrels is 1 turn in 14 inches of barrel. For the S&W; 686, I chose a Douglas 1:14 with a 1 1/4-inch diameter and 7 inches in length. The 1 1/4-inch diameter is large, but you can always turn down a heavy barrel to a more suitable size if needed. I chose the 7-inch model to accommodate the milling of an integral recoil compensator.
Also, the barrel must be fitted square to the frame and cylinder to eliminate alignment problems and should be mated to give a maximum of 0.006 inch cylinder gap that remains constant as the cylinder rotates. If the barrel will have a recoil compensator, it too must be properly fitted to be aligned with the bore. If not, as the bullet exits gas pressure on its base will hinder accuracy.
Thus, to achieve an intrinsic accuracy level of 1 inch at 50 yards you’ll probably spend about $150 for the custom barrel plus $50 for installation. In addition, you will need to pay at least another $50 to ensure the cylinder aligns properly with the barrel as it indexes for each shot. This brings your barrel-accurizing total to $250.
At this point you have a heavy-barreled revolver that will put most of its shots into a 1-inch hole at 50 yards from a rest. The next step is to make it into a gun that will perform close to this level in human hands.
Practical Accuracy Upgrades
Once you have the accuracy necessary, the matter of practical accuracy becomes paramount, especially in the four Bianchi courses of fire: the barricade event, the practical event, the plates, and the mover.
The first step to perform feats of near perfection in the hands of a master shooter is an action and trigger job. The trigger action of the revolver is really the premier refinement when it comes to practical accuracy. Without a smooth, consistent, and predictable trigger action, you can’t shoot the revolver well. Next to a quality barrel and sighting system, a trigger job is the most important modification you can make.
A good action/trigger job will include smoothing, polishing, and truing of all contact surfaces in the action. It should cause the cylinder to rotate cleanly and to lock up precisely and predictably for each shot. It might include a rounding and polishing of the trigger surface so it can roll comfortably under the trigger finger during the long double-action pull. It should feel like two pieces of oiled glass gliding over each other, and it should require 9 pounds or less of trigger-pull weight, but provide absolutely reliable ignition. A trigger stop is optional. Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $165.
Sights And Mounts
The sight, and the mount by which it is secured to the revolver, is another area that requires the best equipment. You can shoot only as well as you can see.
No one ever shot a perfect Bianchi score with iron sights, but since the advent of optical sights, X count determines who wins the match each year. In terms of optical sights you have your choices. You can use one of the non-magnifying, illuminated dot scopes by Sightron, Aimpoint, Tasco, AAL Optics, or Weaver, or you can use any of the low-magnification handgun scopes. A disadvantage of the latter is that they also magnify your wobbles, add extra weight, and require precise eye alignment to maintain a sight picture.
I settled on a Sightron S33 with a 3 minute-of-angle dot and no magnification. It comes with optional tube extensions to allow enough length to be attached for the specialized “scope draw” on the barricade event. It has proved to be durable, reliable and has a very well defined red-dot aiming point with positive click adjustments that held true through practice, airline travel, and the Bianchi Cup itself.
For a mount base, I used a custom-built unit that is secured to the revolver by six cap screws, two into the barrel and four into the frame. Rings were supplied with the Sightron S33. Total cost for the sight and mount, including drilling and tapping for the base, was $350.
Recoil compensators are either integral or added to the barrel and vent gases upward to hold the muzzle down. They can take many forms, but in general, due to the relatively high weight of a fully equipped Bianchi revolver (4 pounds) and the cartridges’ low minimum power factor of 120 (bullet weight in grains multiplied by velocity in ft./sec. divided by 1000 = power factor), coupled with low muzzle pressures, the difference in effectiveness of various designs is minimal. You might even choose to do without, but there is no denying that if you have even fractionally more time to aim and fire each shot, it may make the difference between an X or a 10 (or even an 8). This is especially true in certain strings of fire where you are pressed for time, such as the weak-hand practical, prone practical at 25 yards (with three shots on each of two targets in 7 seconds), or at the 10-yard barricade, which requires six shots from a draw in 5 seconds.
For this, expect to pay at least $100.
Many factory-supplied grips on revolvers are marginal at best for a particular shooter or purpose. In the case of high level Bianchi competition, we have a fairly specialized set of requirements. The grips must position the hand and fingers for consistent, relaxed manipulation of the double-action trigger and add enough length to the grip frame to allow a relaxed head position when shooting from the prone position at a 4-inch X ring approximately 5 feet off the ground. Due to the height of the target, some competitors utilize a series of plates that can be bolted to the base of the grip to adjust the line of sight even higher, to allow a prone position without muscular stress.
After trying several after-market options, I’ve settled on a set of $16 Bill Davis synthetic grips. They are plain, but functional. Other options include grips by Pachmayr and Hogue, including some of Hogue’s beautiful checkered wood grips for $58.
Barricade Wings, Finger Stop
Now your revolver is getting close to becoming competitive, but it still needs two more items.
The barricade event has become specialized over the years. Originally, it was shot by leaning around the barricade in traditional fashion and firing shots from the right and left side at 10, 15, 25, and 35 yards. Then Brian Enos popularized the braced barricade position. This is accomplished by bracing the revolver solidly against the side of the barricade by holding the barrel with the index finger and gripping the barricade between the thumb and remaining fingers. Once the effectiveness of this position was established, it was only a matter of time before accessories became available to enhance it further.
The first of these are wings. Wings extend to the right and left of the revolver, are positioned about 2 inches forward of the cylinder, and are either integral with a custom scope mount or are a separate unit affixed to the barrel.
Their function is to provide a gripping and positioning surface to mate the revolver to the barricade. They must be solid and they must not slip around once the position is established. The tab for a well made set of wings (with 10-lines-per-inch checkering on the barricade side and 24 to 30 lines-per-inch on the thumb’s gripping surface) will set you back about $100, because they are made on a custom basis according to a specific shooter’s desires, equipment, and style. Mine were made by Rick McDowell. They may not gain you a lot of points, but they do give you the ability to consistently and confidently hit the X ring.
The second item is the finger stop, or at least some surface with a tactile reference to prevent your index finger from creeping over the compensator port, or worse yet the muzzle, when firing from the braced barricade. This will help prevent a mishap from occurring using this very specialized technique. The price tag may be as low as $20 for a plastic stop, and installation will run up to $75 for specialized machining and finishing of the barrel. My S&W; has a machined and stippled depression in the top of the barrel, which cost $65.
The Smith & Wesson 686 Bianchi revolver featured in this article was built in 1989 and has evolved over the years. I tried several different types of wings; I turned the barrel down to a 1-inch diameter to decrease weight and shooter fatigue, and the action has been re-tuned to put it back in time, make it stage, and get rid of a catch in the trigger job. The total investment on the gun is $1,511.
In my view, these are the basic equipment upgrades you must have on a revolver to make it a capable Bianchi Cup action handgun. Certainly, you can do more—and you may want to—but these changes will put your equipment on par with all but the best shooters’ guns. How much more performance you need all depends on what you’re willing to spend.