Sunday, June 22, 2014

Guns: S&W Governor review - Judge the book by its cover


On paper, the Smith and Wesson Governor sounds like the kind of bullheaded, "F--- Everything, We're Doing Five Blades" one-upmanship you'd only find in a corporate boardroom. I can see the S&W executive meeting now: "The Taurus Judge is selling like hotcakes, so let's make one of our own, but with a six-shot cylinder, instead of five. And have it chamber .45 ACP using moonclips. And make the frame with scandium. And stick on a tritium night sight. That'll show those Brazilians!"

Yours truly was skeptical. From my comments three years ago about the Governor:
Against all odds (and common sense), the Judges continue to sell well. S&W is just following the money – can’t really blame ‘em.
The scandium frame means this sucker will be expensive, though – not sure how many people will pony up for a premium Judge. Especially since people who spend that much money on a revolver probably know better.
Well, I bought it, despite knowing better. I bought it even though the gun is an ungainly, cartoonish revolver of Samaritan-like proportions. The S&W Governor was awkwardly compelling enough for me to buy one, if only to have something to write about, and home it went.

First Impressions

A big selling point for the Governor is that it's a Smith and not a Taurus, which means that it's better built than any Judge. The ball-detent cylinder locks tight. There aren't any weird toolmarks, rattling parts, or crooked alignments. Things seem to be fitted together in a workmanlike manner.

In hand, the fat six-shot Governor is muzzle-heavy compared to the five-shot Judge, but it handles well enough. Smith is shipping the Governors with the same smoothly pebbled, non-tacky hard synthetic grips that come on most of its revolvers. If you don't like 'em, most K/L round butt grips should fit, including Crimson Trace lasergrips.

Sights and Trigger

You might need those lasergrips because the Governor has surprisingly small fixed sights, especially considering the outsized frame. Up front is a minuscule tritium bulb that's minimally visible in dim light, and in the rear is a shallow trench. I guess they thought that most people wouldn't use the sights at close range. I wish they were larger.

As for the trigger, it's very much like other modern full-size S&W revolvers, though a bit heavier overall - approximately 12-14 pounds double action and 4-5 pounds single action. The double action's pretty smooth, but nothing to write home about, and I didn't notice any weird stacking or hangups in the single action trigger.


The Governor is chambered for .45 ACP, .45 Colt, and .410 shotshells. Due to the incredibly high price of factory .45 Colt (a dollar per round, usually), the ability to shoot .45 ACP is a huge plus, and probably the single biggest advantage the gun has over a Judge. You will need a demooner tool to unload the spent cases from the moonclips, but if you're really on the cheap, you can improvise one from sprinkler parts:

Range Report

The Governor shot about as well as any sub-3" barreled .45 I've ever tried. Here are some offhand groups at 10 yards with Federal and Winchester 230 gr. ball ammo.

Recoil was quite soft with the .45s, partly because the gun is big, partly because the short barrel and elongated cylinder decrease muzzle velocity (the Governor spits out .45 ACP bullets at around 700 fps, with about 250 ft-lbs of energy). .45s are still usable for defense in the Governor (especially +Ps), but it's not the Hammer of Thor performance you might expect from such a big revolver.

The real point of the Governor is the .410 shotshell capability. When using .410 for defense, please, please, please avoid the novelty birdshot loads and stick with buckshot or slugs. Birdshot is for shooting tiny 14-ounce quail and fragile clay pigeons, not determined attackers.

If you're dead set on having some strange buck and ball load, Hornady puts out a "Triple Defense" combo of a .41 caliber slug and two .35 hardcast lead balls under their Critical Defense line. It's widely available and patterns reasonably well:

However, in my opinion, the Federal Premium 2-1/2" handgun-specific buckshot ammunition is the hands-down best choice for the Governor. Out of the S&W, each shell sends four 70-gr. .36 caliber pellets out at 800 fps - roughly equivalent to shooting four .32 ACP rounds at once. Penetration is not exceptional (you'll be lucky if they get to 12"  in gelatin), but using four separate projectiles, you're much more likely to land an incapacitating shot. Patterns are also excellent due to Federal's use of a longer than normal wad, designed to keep the shot together for as long as possible:

In contrast, here are some groups from an unoptimized Winchester Super-X 000 buck load, the kind that you might find on a Wally World store shelf. As you can see, there's a pretty stark difference in terms of effective patterning. If you use non-handgun specific .410, any shots outside of about 5 yards are going to lead to missed pellets and possible injury or death to innocent bystanders:


Is the Governor the ultimate self-defense handgun, or a useless gimmick? The truth falls somewhere in between. If you stoke the thing with leftover birdshot scrounged from a drawer, or generic Wally World 000, you're not going to be happy with the results (and I pray you never have to actually fire the thing in anger). But if you know the gun's many limitations, match it with the right ammo, and have an idea of its real world ballistics, the Governor is as durable, reliable, and even accurate as many of Smith & Wesson's other revolvers. So, in the end, I guess the Governor is what I thought it was.


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