Ruger’s new double-action revolver, the latest iteration of the SP101, offers worthwhile improvements over earlier versions of the .357 Mag handgun. It also offers advantages over Ruger’s larger GP100.
Introduced in 1985, the GP100 was an all-new design destined to replace the Security Six—Ruger’s first entry into the double-action revolver market. I had mixed feelings about this introduction. I’d owned a Security Six for several years and really liked the gun. For me, the GP100 held less aesthetic appeal. Also, the medium-frame revolver didn’t feel as good in my hand as the Security Six. While the innovative GP100 was a success, its bulk and 40-ounce heft was more than some shooters wanted to deal with. But it remains a popular revolver among many shooters.
Only three years after the GP100 first appeared, Ruger unveiled yet another .357 Mag revolver. The SP101 sported a smaller frame, and was 9.5 to 13 ounces lighter than its predecessor, depending on barrel length. Like the Smith & Wesson Model 60 and similarly compact revolvers, the SP101 .357 Mag wore a five-shot cylinder. Speedloaders designed for S&W’s J-frame revolvers work nicely with the SP101.
“The SP101 has been an extremely popular small frame revolver since its inception in 1988, but it has always featured a short barrel and minimal sights,” said Chris Killoy, Ruger’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing. “This new version is a quality .357 Mag small-frame revolver with a longer, full-shroud barrel and improved sights. It offers shooters a better sight picture, longer sight radius, and additional weight to better control recoil. This 4.2-inch-barreled .357 Mag is a great all-around centerfire revolver that retains true classic SP101 styling.”
The latest Ruger SP101 is made of weather-resistant stainless steel with a satin finish. In place of the relatively hard rubber grip found on earlier SP101s, the new version sports a cushioned, one-piece rubber grip with checkered hardwood inserts. I compared the feel of the new grip to that of the 6-shot .22 rimfire SP101 I’ve owned for several years. The new grip is broader and fills the hand. The rubber is softer and more resilient, which goes a long way toward minimizing felt recoil.
Lockup is very solid. The cylinder locks into the front, rear and bottom of the frame. When the gun is cocked, there’s very little rotational play in the cylinder.
Unlike many revolvers, the SP101 has no sideplates. Disassembly is accomplished by removing the grip panels, then pulling the grip downward and off the frame. Follow the instructions to remove the hammer, then drop the trigger and triggerguard assembly from the frame. The swing-out cylinder assembly can then be pushed forward and off the frame. A separate set of instructions guide you through the reassembly process. The only tool you’ll need is a properly sized screwdriver.
I’m old enough to remember when stainless steel handguns were first introduced. While stainless steel is far more corrosion resistant than blued carbon steel, it’s not 100-percent proof against rusting. To see how long stainless steel would keep corrosion at bay, I removed the grip panels from a stainless Ruger Blackhawk and left it on my back lawn, where it would be subject both to the elements and to regular drenching from my sprinkler system.
I checked the gun regularly for signs of corrosion. By the fifth day, telltale patches of discoloration appeared on the barrel. Gun cleaning solvents wouldn’t touch it, but buffing with crocus cloth quickly removed the stain. Then I rubbed in some good gun oil.
I compared this simple (and effective) solution with the several, time-consuming steps needed to remove rust and re-blue affected areas on a blued steel gun. I had no intention of further mistreating the stainless steel Ruger, but it was good to know how quickly and simply surface corrosion could be repaired. As a result of that experiment, the vast majority of the handguns I now own are made of stainless steel.
The SP101 I’ve been testing sports a substantial rear sight offering both windage and elevation adjustments. The 0.44-inch high front sight sports an eye-catching fluorescent green fiber-optic insert. These sights are easy to see under most lighting conditions.
In spite of the new grip’s shooter-friendly design, the little gun is still a handful to fire. With 125-grain full-house magnum loads, recoil is more than just snappy. The gun comes back in your hand hard enough to promote flinching on follow-up shots. Recoil can quickly bruise your palm. For accurate shooting, you need to exert enough pressure on the grip to make the gun controllable. Momentarily forget and loosen your grip and the gun will deliver a painful reminder.
Naturally, recoil is noticeably milder when .38 Special loads are used. But if you’re using the gun for self-defense, you’ll likely want the power .357 Mag loads provide. If you’re unhappy with .357 Mag recoil, however, .38 Special ammunition provides a gentler alternative. There are no flies on the .38 Special. This cartridge has served with distinction for many years, and will still get the job done. Like other .357 Mag revolvers, Ruger’s SP101 gives you a pair of effective choices.
I took the gun and three different kinds of .357 Mag ammunition to my desert range. Before testing for accuracy, I checked the trigger action. Fired double-action, the trigger weighed somewhere north of 12 pounds (the limit my trigger gauge would register). The trigger came back smoothly, with only minor stacking near the end of the pull. Backlash was practically nonexistent. With a little practice, you could anticipate when the trigger would “break,” allowing surprising accuracy.
The single-action trigger broke crisply and cleanly at a consistent 4.5 pounds. It was easy to hold the sights on target until the hammer fell. The hammer spur was checkered, with no sharp edges to abrade your thumb. Ruger’s patented transfer bar mechanism positively prevented the gun from firing until the trigger was pulled.
I fired the gun off-hand at a range of 15 yards. It shot extremely well, particularly considering its relatively lightweight. I fired four different five-round spreads with each kind of ammunition.
The fact that Winchester’s 125-grain jacketed hollowpoints produced the tightest groups could partly be attributed to the fact that they were the first I fired at the targets. I did my best to hold the gun in a consistent, rock-solid grip, but inevitably groups gradually grew as the testing progressed. However, none of the groups disappointed.
I probably should have fired some .38 Special loads, but since I viewed this gun as primarily for self-defense, I stayed with the more potent .357 Mag fodder. Once my hand had been subjected to 60 rounds of full-house magnum ammunition, I’m not sure what kind of groups the .38 Special loads would have produced.
In addition to serving for self-defense, the Ruger would also make a great trail gun—lightweight, compact and easily carried holstered at your belt. It’s a handy little gun with great ergonomics. It’s sized just right for a wide variety of applications. Once you’ve lugged larger, heavier .357 revolvers around on your hip, you appreciate carrying the SP101.
The sights were easy to see. The glowing round, green dot contrasted nicely with the plain, black ears of the rear sight. The upper rubber section of the grip had an indentation to accommodate your right thumb when the gun was held in firing position. This feature was lacking on the left side of the grip, meaning the gun was primarily designed for right-handed shooters. However, a southpaw friend of mine didn’t even notice the difference and did very well shooting the SP101 left-handed.
Chambers were not recessed, simplifying the manufacturing process without diminishing the strength of the cylinder. Extracting fired rounds went smoothly with the extractor effortlessly lifting empties an inch out of their chambers. Some new .357 revolvers I’ve tested have been reluctant to part with expended brass. The SP101 offered no such problem.
The small-frame SP101 can be quickly restoked with the same five-round fast-loader tool (i.e., HKS 36, etc.) used for Smith & Wesson J-frame revolvers.
While the new SP101 is a lively handful when fed .357 Magnum fodder, it behaves very well in all other respects. It’s a smooth-operating, well-finished firearm that is capable of excellent accuracy. I like this well-designed revolver a lot, and these guns are made here in the USA. To learn more, visit ruger.com.