I was just 17 when blacksmith and knife maker Chris Petersen told me he had a new favorite smallbore handgun.
Even at that age I was perceptive enough to know one had better pay close attention when Petersen got a twinkle in his eye—especially because I knew he disdained small cartridges. Cautiously, I asked about this “smallbore,” and he simply suggested we should go shoot it.
Out in central Utah’s dusty hills, Petersen uncased a single-shot .45-70 handgun. “It’s just right for squirrels,” he offered. “The other day a corn-raiding squirrel stopped behind a railroad tie back of my shed. Shot right through the tie and killed it.”
Instructing me to clench it hard and brace one foot well back when I shot, he loaded the 10-inch .45-70 with one of his substantial 405-grain handloads and passed it to me.
“It will make you take two steps back when it goes off,” he said. I was young and tough, so I figured maybe it wouldn’t. It did.
Although few firearms are less practical or less versatile than a .45-70 handgun, since that day I’ve always kind of wanted one.
And although single-shot big bores are cool, Magnum Research’s BFR (no, it means Big Frame Revolver) is sort of like today’s version of a Colt’s Walker revolver: big, heavy and more powerful than just about anything else. Had it been available during the War of Northern Aggression, Josey Wales surely would have traded in his Walkers on a pair of BFRs.
Designed by Jim Tertin around 1999, the BFR was purchased by Magnum Research in 2005. The company also hired Tertin as director of manufacturing, and he currently serves as director of design, research and development.
What is such a revolver actually useful for? Louis L’Amour would have written that if it had wheels it would make an admirable piece of artillery. Aside from sweeping raiding Yankee guerilla fighters from their saddles, a BFR in .45-70 is particularly well suited for big game hunting. Some “shotgun only” states allow straight-wall centerfire cartridges in handguns for use during deer season, and BFR-toting hunters are well served.
Such handguns are heavy, difficult to get into action quickly, and recoil so heavily that fast follow-up shots are all but impossible. They really aren’t great for protection in big bear country, but they are accurate and hit with bona fide authority.
In deer country, they offer an ideal combination of modern muzzleloader-like accuracy and repeating-shotgun-like follow-up shots. While they’ll never match a centerfire rifle for range and precision, they do provide astute handgun hunters solid 200-yard capability.
However, most folks aren’t hunters. For them, like me, the best reason to own a BFR is simply because you can.
Let’s take a closer look at the bones of a BFR and how one performs in accuracy and reliability tests, but first, here’s a list of available cartridges and configurations.
Two primary variations enable use with traditional-length cartridges such as the .44 Magnum and with long cartridges such as the .45-70. The former category houses .44 Magnum, .454 Casull, .480 Ruger and .500 JRH. The latter platform handles the .30-30 Winchester, .444 Marlin, .45 Colt/.410, .45-70, .450 Marlin, .460 S&W and .500 S&W. Available barrel lengths (depending somewhat on caliber) are 5.0, 5.25, 5.5, 6.5, 7.5 and 10.0 inches.
I chose the 7.5-inch barrel. It’s long enough to provide adequate velocity and sight radius but not so long I feel like a Stooge drawing out a never-ending barrel when I bring the big wheelgun into action.
All BFRs are constructed of stainless steel, which is given an attractive brushed finish. Frames are robust, featuring a massive flat topstrap fit with a sturdy adjustable rear sight and drilled and tapped for a rail-type Weaver-spec scope base (one of which is included with each revolver).
Cylinders feature five-round capacity and rebated-rim chambers, and most are not fluted.
Barrels are cut rifled and stress relieved. A target-type recessed crown maximizes accuracy while providing a modicum of protection against damage in the field. A ramp-type front sight is screwed down atop the barrel just aft of the muzzle.
“Magnum Research, Pillager MN” and the cartridge for which it is chambered are engraved on the left side of each barrel. Beneath at about four o’clock is a steel ejector rod assembly, and a kidney-shaped ejector button provides plenty of purchase and adds a little traditional single-action flair.
To ensure that the cylinder pin doesn’t walk forward and disengage during the rather heavy recoil most BFR revolvers generate, it is screwed to the bottom of the barrel. To remove the pin and cylinder, the locking screw must first be spun out.
As of mid-2016, an “upgraded” version of the BFR became available with a taller, narrower hammer spur and a new, one-piece, screwless Hogue rubber grip. My .45-70 sample was fitted with the new hammer but not the new grip.
My sample’s grip is also from Hogue, but it’s checkered and slightly shorter than the stippled one-piece grip found on new revolvers. All BFRs manufactured since 2000 will accept the new hammers and grips.
The hammer is precision machined to very tight tolerances and is touted to provide a smooth, consistent trigger pull. Measured with a Lyman digital trigger gauge, mine averages three pounds, two ounces with almost no measurable variation over a series of five measurements. It’s clean and crisp, too.
To enable shooters to safely carry BFR revolvers with the cylinder fully stoked with five cartridges, the hammer/firing pin relationship is consummated via a trigger bar. Unless the trigger is squeezed fully rearward the bar does not engage, so the hammer can’t knock the firing pin and detonate a cartridge if dropped or accidentally bumped.
The grip frame is attached to the main frame with Allen-head screws, minimizing the chance that some well-meaning pseudo gunsmith will bugger up the heads.
Each BFR comes with a Weaver rail scope base, one machined with a massive recoil lug that fits firmly against the rear of the revolver’s frame—providing metal-on-metal contact and reducing the chance the attachment screws will sheer off under extensive firing.
Three screws secure the optics rail atop the frame, and it’s important to note the rearmost screw is of a small diameter and has a smaller head than the other two and is designed to be compatible with the rear sight elevation screw threads.
A small tool is included with each revolver, and I used it to remove the filler screws in the frame’s topstrap and unscrewed the click-adjustable elevation screw in the rear sight. A stout leather needle served to press the sight pivot pin out so the rear sight assembly could be lifted out of the frame.
With the Weaver base installed and my trusty old Leupold Vari-X 2.5-8X EER handgun scope mounted in one-inch Mark 4 rings, I collected a variety of .45-70 ammunition, including a 300-grain TSX/FN Barnes VOR-TX load, a 300-grain Ballistic Silvertip load by Winchester, Hornady’s innovative 325-grain LeverEvolution load, and a traditional 405-grain cast lead bullet load by Black Hills Ammunition.
Unlike traditional single-action revolvers, the BFR’s hammer does not need to be placed on half-cock to allow the cylinder to rotate. Instead, the cylinder is unlocked by opening the loading gate. Once said gate is fully open, the cylinder rotates freely in both directions without clicks.
Purists may view this design with revulsion, but such modern innovation makes the revolver far easier to manipulate under stress. Shaking hands and fingers functioning under gross motor control can still make sense of a freely rotating cylinder and get the fired cartridge cases ejected and replaced with live rounds.
With a target placed at 50 yards, I rested the .45-70 BFR over a sandbag and fired a series of three five-shot groups with each type of ammunition. Like most firearms, the massive revolver showed a marked preference in ammunition.
While all ammo—including the cast-bullet load—averaged less than 3.5 inches at 50 yards, Barnes’s 300-grain TSX/FN proved to be an absolute hammer, turning in both the highest velocity (1,502 fps) and by far the tightest groups. Amazingly, it averaged only 1.13 inches at 50 yards and had a gusting 12-mph wind not been buffeting me at the bench, I have no doubt it would have averaged sub-inch groups.
With official testing complete, I left the sandbag and shot offhand and from field positions to evaluate the practical accuracy and ergonomics of the massive wheelgun. No surprise, it’s pretty heavy for unsupported shooting, although its inherent weight gives it a natural stability.
When rested on shooting sticks it aimed steadily and provided admirable accuracy.
Throughout my testing the BFR functioned in stellar fashion, but that was to be expected. It’s a single-action revolver, after all.
Recoil with the stouter jacketed loads was attention-getting, but I’ve fired far more vicious handguns. Even a lightweight .44 Magnum with heavy loads kicks more painfully than the BFR, which produced a long, rolling recoil impulse.
Most of the loads tested produced about 500 fps slower velocity in the handgun’s 7.5-inch barrel than the factory-advertised numbers fired from rifle barrels. Interestingly, every cartridge case contained unburned grains of gunpowder. Clearly, the barrel isn’t long enough to provide complete burn.
For recreational shooting, the Black Hills cowboy action load provided considerably less recoil than the others yet still had impressive downrange results. Plus, it has considerably less impact on one’s wallet.
Field Use Options
Hornady’s zesty, pointed Flex Tip 325-grain LeverEvolution load is the best for extended-range work, providing your particular BFR shoots it well (accuracy with mine is just so-so, but every gun is individual in its taste for ammo). Given careful shot placement, it’s suitable for just about any big game out to a couple hundred yards.
For toothy critters of uncivilized intention, on the other hand, I’d opt for Barnes’s 300-grain TSX/FN, which offers enough velocity and won’t shed any weight. Typically, the homogeneous bullet design offers deeper penetration than cup and core bullets.
Taking penetration a step further for use on the biggest bears or Alaska/Yukon moose, a heavy hard-cast semi-wadcutter bullet will penetrate deeper than any expanding design, while still severing arteries and wreaking havoc on vital organs, heavy muscle and dense bone virtue of its sharp-shouldered profile.
Do you need a Magnum Research BFR? That depends. If you prefer single-action revolvers to those of double-action design but want to hunt with the most powerful cartridge available, then the answer is a resounding yes. If you simply admire the wheelgun’s unique combination of tradition, quality and jaw-dropping authority, the answer is also yes.
Big Frame Revolvers are anything but versatile. They’re not a “one-gun-for-every purpose” sort of six-shooter. Rather, a BFR is a specialty tool, and within its sphere nothing else touches it.