By Stephen A. Camp
Revolvers continue to be popular in the age of the autoloader and one that seems to garner good reports far and wide is the Ruger SP101. It is currently offered in .22, .32 Magnum, .38 Special, as well as .357 Magnum. Barrel lengths run from 2 1/4″ to 4″ and the revolver is available with fixed or adjustable sights. The one I purchased was in .357 Magnum with the 3 1/16″ barrel and fixed sights.
The .357 Magnum chambering is probably the most common and I suspect that it is sold more often than not in the 2 1/4″ barrel length with fixed sights. Of course, .38 Specials can be fired in the .357 guns. These little magnums are five-shooters rather than six and the swing-out cylinder is used. As the gun comes from the factory, stocks are of rubber with plastic inserts snapped in and retained by the grip screw.
The SP101 is a bit smaller than the S&W K-frame but beefier than the same company’s compact J-frame, some models of which can be had in .357 Magnum.
Weight: 27 ounces
Length: 8″ (with 3 1/16″ bbl)
Cylinder Width: 1.349″
Frame Width at Barrel: 0.774″
Top Strap Width: 0.602″
Top Strap Thickness: 0.204″
Action: Conventional double/single action revolver
Cylinder Rotation: counterclockwise
Sights: Fixed or adjustable (front sight pinned to bbl)
Twist: 1:18 3/4″ (.38/. 357)
Safety: Internal transfer bar allows for firing only when the trigger is pressed all the way rearward. The revolver is safe to carry fully loaded.
Ruger SP101 Comparison to S&W J & K-frame Revolvers
Measurement (in.) – Ruger SP101 – S&W K-frame – S&W J-frame
Cylinder Width – 1.349 – 1.47 – 1.34
Frame Width at bbl – 0.744 – 0.823 – 0.697
Top Strap Width – 0.602 – 0.654 – 0.546
Top Strap Thickness – 0.204 – 0.233 – 0.168
Forcing Cone Thickness – 0.086 – 0.086 – 0.066
The table shows that the SP101 might be thought of as a J-frame on steroids, a compact revolver that has been beefed up in critical areas. Note also that the forcing cone on the SP101 is equivalent to that on the K-frame rather than the J.
Having been in constant production in .357 for over a decade now, complaints on the SP101 being fragile have been few and far between. Why is this? The K-frame from S&W has been associated with some parts breakage when a constant diet of magnums have been used, but the K-frame is a bit larger than the SP101. That means there is more steel around the .357’s SAAMI-rated 35K CUP pressure limit each time a round is fired. What’s the deal here? SP101’s are regularly described as being “built like a bank vault” and praised for their ability to digest huge amounts of full-power magnum ammunition.
I think the answer is two-fold. It has been my observation that most .357 factory ammunition is simply not loaded as hot as it was a few decades ago. Years ago it was not uncommon to honestly break 1450 ft/sec with various makers’ 125-gr. magnum loads from 4″ barrels. Now, chronographed velocities are closer to 100 ft/sec slower. Since the hot 125-gr seemed the culprit in most cracked forcing cones and flame cutting, this slight reduction in muzzle velocity probably alleviated the problem. Combine with that the reduction in size of .357 Magnum revolvers in recent times. These guns are certainly easier to carry concealed than the K, L, and N-frames of years past, but one pays for it in increased felt recoil. I strongly suspect that most owners of the compact magnum revolvers shoot a few full-power loads through them, but do the bulk of their practice with the considerably milder .38 Special. I believe that this includes SP101 shooters, but they are shooting a gun is probably a bit more rugged than the J-frame. Hence, we get the comments on the Ruger’s durability. I am neither a gunsmith nor a mechanical engineer so I cannot honestly say whether the internal parts on the Ruger are stronger than the S&W, or give bold statements on which system is better. It does appear that both work quite well, but there seems to be fewer complaints of the small Ruger having problems than the small S&W when either is heavily used.
There is an area where the S&W usually beats the Ruger: trigger pull and smoothness of action. I believe that S&W is almost always the winner here. Using full-power springs in the SP101 compared to the S&W will almost always result in a noticeably smoother action in the latter. Both the Ruger and the S&W use coiled springs to power their hammers. The SP101 spring is rated at 14 pounds, the S&W at 8.5. The trigger return spring on the SP comes in at 10 pounds while the rebound spring on the S&W is 18 pounds at factory standard. It seems like the Ruger should have the lighter smoother trigger pull, but such is usually not the case. Some folks reduce the trigger return spring a bit to smooth up the Ruger, but if a person opts to do this, make absolutely sure that the trigger doesn’t have a sluggish return for the next shot.
I suspect that S&W perfected the double-action pull many years ago and that we’d have to look long and hard to find better ones on out of the box guns. That does not mean that the RUGER SP101 necessarily has a terrible trigger pull or that they cannot be smoothed up very nicely for they certainly can.
The trigger pull on the SP101 used in this evaluation was smooth, but stiff, and certainly nothing special. It has proven imminently useable however. As it came from the box, it did have sharp edges. These were taken care of using 400-grit sandpaper and a little elbow grease. Others have commented on similar experiences and applied similar corrections. Total time spent was less than 15 minutes. Other than that slight “modification”, the SP101 used was as it came from the box.
Shooting: I fired the SP101 at 7 and 15 yards. The revolver was fired in double-action at a combat-type target at the closer distance. At 15 yards, the revolver was fired single-action and from a sitting position with wrists braced. Unfortunately, I only had two types of .357 Magnum ammunition available so I included quite an array of .38 Special also.
The chronograph data is based on 10 shots fired approximately 10′ from the chronograph screens.
Ruger SP101 w/3 1/16″ Bbl Chronograph Results
Load: – Average Velocity (ft/sec) – Extreme Spread (ft/sec) – Std. Deviation (ft/sec)
38 Corbon 110-gr. DPX – 1141 – 44 – 18
38 Corbon 115-gr. +P+ – 1342 – 62 – 24
38 Rem 130-gr. FMJ – 821 – 28 – 11
38 Federal 147-gr. HS +P+ – 963 – 35 – 13
38 Remington 158-gr. LSWCHP +P – 906 – 23 – 9
357 Remington 125-gr. GS* – 1189 – 57 – 22
357 Winchester 145-gr. STHP – 1207 – 39 – 18
The SP101 used for testing had fixed sights. Nothing fancy to be sure, but they worked fine and provided a very usable sight picture.
Observations: Neither the double or single-action trigger pulls on my SP101 were as smooth or light as on my J or K-frame S&W revolvers. It is slightly heavier but has smoothed up a bit after roughly 400 shots, about half of which were .357 Magnum handloads and factory ammunition. The gun does appear to have its fixed sights regulated toward the heavier end of the .357 bullet spectrum although POI was perfectly satisfactory at 15 yards with the slightly attenuated Remington Golden Saber load.
The 145-gr. Silvertip was right on the edge of becoming uncontrollable in rapid-fire when using two hands. Using one hand, as might occur in a defense scenario, it was not at all easy to handle. For that reason, I will be using the Remington 125-gr. Golden Saber in this gun for now. Other potential defensive .357 ammunition will be looked at as time permits, but the Golden Saber is it for now.
I found the revolver more comfortable than expected when firing magnum rounds. No doubt the heavy barrel and its shroud putting more weight up front to reduce muzzle flip were factors, but I think there’s also much to be said for the grips on this revolver. I found them extremely comfortable and have no plans to replace them.
There were no malfunctions of any kind. Primer strikes were plenty reliable and well centered. Case ejection was positive and there were no incidents of “sticking” cases.
I find the SP101 a little gem. It might be a bit of a “diamond in the rough,” but not by much. I will use this revolver and report back any problems that might crop up. Frankly, I expect none from what I’ve read and now, seen.
Some will opine that 5 shots are not enough for a serious defense arm. I suggest that it depends on the type scenario envisioned. I believe that for me, it is adequate in my now tame orbits. I no longer am involved in police service and my days of kicking in a door to a room full of crack heads are long over. That said, if you do not feel comfortable with but five rounds before a reload, the SP101 might not be your best choice as a primary defense gun. A nice fact is that the SP101 uses the same speed loaders as the J-frame S&W revolvers. A fellow could have the SP101 on his belt and an Airweight J-frame in a pocket holster and use the same speed loader(s) for both. (Obviously, the speed loader would contain 38 Special ammo if the pocket gun were so chambered.)
Some complain about a handgun of this weight for carry. I agree that it is heavier than many revolvers intended for concealed carry. I also find it too large for pocket use, but as a compact belt gun, it is just fine and carries comfortably. Its weight is appreciated when firing magnum ammunition.
Frankly, I cannot see limiting this revolver to “just” self-protection. Though its stainless steel construction makes it heavier than various lighter framed revolvers, that emphatically does not mean that these are hard to tote. Given a proper belt and decent holster, just the opposite has proven true for me. I think they would be a heck of a fine sidearm for hiking, camping, fishing, or just knocking about in the woods.
The gun has no removable side plate. The gun is easily disassembled for cleaning via very good instructions provided in Ruger’s paperwork accompanying the revolver. Some suggest that the frame is stronger as it has no removable side plate as do S&W revolvers. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but do think that these are tough little guns that should easily last a lifetime, even with regular use over the long term. The barrel’s bore cleaned about as easily as a Smith so I assume smoothness is similar.
Though I am not about to divest myself of S&W revolvers, neither am I going to ignore Ruger wheelguns. They have a lot going for them and I remain very favorably impressed with this example.
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