Guns: The Little Big Revolver - Ruger SP101 Review
The Ruger SP101 is a steel-framed revolver first introduced in 1989. It's still one of Ruger's best sellers, and you can find models chambered in .38 Special +P, .357 Magnum, and .327 Federal Magnum. This review will examine the 3" barrel .357 Magnum variant.
First Impressions - One Heavy-Duty Dubba
Most reviews of the SP101 call it "tanklike," "solid," or "beefy," and I found that these are indeed apt descriptors. Though the 3" SP101 weighs in at 27 ounces (only about two ounces heavier than a comparable 3" S&W Model 60), it has a very substantial, muzzle-heavy feel in hand. Aside from the compact 5-shot cylinder, the gun's dimensions seem more akin to a K-frame or a Security Six than a J-frame.
The blocky full underlug gives the SP101 an interesting muzzle profile (it reminds me of a ship from the "Homeworld" PC game). As Stephen A. Camp found, the top strap, cylinder, and forcing cone are all slightly larger than a J-frame. These are key areas in a revolver, and it's not surprising that the SP101 has earned a reputation for being very durable.
Mechanically, the gun doesn't depart from established Ruger conventions. The SP101 does not use a sideplate; the major internal components drop into the one-piece frame. The Ruger design locks up at the yoke; there's no detent for the ejector rod, and the rod itself doesn't spin at all. The rod is much longer than those found in S&W snubbies - a brisk press of the thumb will eject all but the most onerous cases easily. The gun uses Ruger's transfer bar safety which you can see in the picture below:
Ergonomics - Rough Around the Edges
The SP101 trigger is noticeably heavier, grittier, and rougher than S&W's J-frames. Both designs used coil mainsprings instead of leaf mainsprings. Though many of the SP101's springs are actually lighter than S&W's, through some combination of lockwork, trigger/grip geometry, and plain old Yankee craftsmanship, the SP101 comes out the loser when compared to a Smith. Both my old 642 (with several thousand rounds) and a new 638 had better pulls than the SP101.
I also found that the overall fit and finish of the revolver was several steps behind a S&W. There are sharp, non-radiused edges on the trigger and the trigger guard, as well as some nasty corners on the hammer spur. Granted, it's not too hard to sand, file, and polish these away, but it's still an issue.
Except for the .327 Fed. Magnum, all SP101s come with fixed sights. The sights are tough and bombproof, with a rear groove and a black front sight ramp. They're noticeably larger than the tiny 1-7/8" barrel J-frame sights, and work fine for the SP101's intended purpose (concealed carry and home defense).
Field Strip and Disassembly
The SP101 can be disassembled without (too much) trouble; the procedure is detailed in the instruction manual. One word of warning: unless you need to work on the trigger itself, once the trigger assembly is out, set it aside and do not manipulate the trigger in any way. The trigger assembly contains a number of small parts and springs that can be easy to lose.
In testing the SP101, I used some of my own standard pressure .38 reloads (a Speer 158 gr. LSWCHP over 3.5 grains of Bullseye) as well as some factory .38s (Winchester White Box 130 grainers and UMC +P 125 grainers - huge amount of flash) and .357s (Remington 158 gr. SJHP). All loads fed and functioned without issue; all told, I've put about 500 rounds through this SP101.
As I expected, the recoil and blast of the .357s was intense - definitely at the top end of what is tolerable for most shooters (and me). I actually cut my trigger finger on the sharp edges of the trigger guard after shooting a single cylinder of the .357s. Needless to say, my practical accuracy with full-house .357 loads was poor; nothing creates a flinch quite like the gun physically cutting you. On the other hand, the .38s were quite pleasant to shoot. I managed some decent groups with them, averaging at about 1.5" at 10 yards in single action slow fire.
The Ruger SP101 is a good revolver with some caveats. It's probably the only .357 Magnum on the market that is both light enough to comfortably carry and heavy enough to make shooting magnum loads practical. It's as accurate and reliable as its competitors, and is usually priced well under S&W's stainless steel J, K, and L frame models.
At the same time, though, the gun won't win any beauty contests, and it won't feel right in hand unless you can correct (or learn to ignore) all the sharp edges. The most significant issue is the trigger - if you thought the J-Frame trigger was heavy, the SP101 will feel like a staple gun. Overall, this is a no-frills handgun that does what it is supposed to do - no more and no less.