Tuesday, June 10, 2014

This Is It! The Ruger SP101

As I expressed last week after being frustrated with another lightweight revolver at least after handling the S&W 637 and the Gemini Customs Ruger SP101 I now knew what I need and do not need in a small revolver.

What I Do Not Need
What I Need
1. Ultra Light Revolver
1. All Steel Revolver
2. Ultra Short Barrel
2. 3 Inch Barrel
3. Immeasurably Heavy Trigger Pull
3. 9.5 Pound Trigger Pull
4. S&W Grips (including Hogue, Desantis, etc)
4. Hand-filling Grips
5. Small Plain Sights
5. Adequately Sized Front Night Sight

Let's start with what I don't need:

  1. An ultra light revolver.  The tradeoff between weight and shoot-ability is too high.  Ultra light equals painful practice.  The backstrap rockets into the web of my hand and becomes painful after only a few cylinders of ammunition have been fired.  The trigger guard bangs against the knuckle of my middle finger adding more pain.  I know that the old adage it that the small .38 special revolvers are to be carried a lot and shot a little but in today's litigious society any handgun I carry  needs to be backed up with a lot of practice.
  2. An ultra short barrel.  The barrel on the S&W J frames isn't even 2 inches long.  Practical sight radius is not there.  They are nothing more than a 5 round derringer.
  3. An immeasurably heavy trigger pull.  S&W J frame revolvers have terrible trigger pulls, well north of 13 pounds.
  4. Small grips.  For some reason the grips on S&W's J frames never fit my hand be it their stock wooden grip, their stock rubber grip, a Hogue Monogrip, or their new ones by DeSantis.
  5. Small plain sights that disappear in sunlight and dusk.
All of these attributes make for one little revolver that is painful to shoot and difficult with which to find accuracy.

So what I do need is pretty much the opposite.  I need an all steel revolver with a 3 inch barrel, a front night sight, a trigger pull of about 9 to 10 pounds and hand filling grips.

The answer to my needs comes in the Ruger SP101.  But did I need so send it to Gemini Customs for their $459.00 treatment?  Read on!  But first, here's a quick comparison of the S&W 637 and the 2.25 inch and 3 inch barreled Rugers:

637 Wyatt Deep Cover
Ruger SP101
Ruger SP101
.38 Special +P
.38 Spec./.357 Magnum
.38 Spec./.357 Magnum
Barrel Length
1.87 inches
2.25 inches
3.06 inches
Fixed (Night Sight Added)
Fixed (Night Sight Added)
Overall Length
6.31 inches
7.2 inches
8.0 inches
Double Action Only
Double Action Only
14 ounces
25 ounces
27.2 ounces
Polymer Clip Grip
Polymer Grip
Polymer Grip
Aluminum Alloy
Stainless Steel
Stainless Steel
Stainless Steel
Stainless Steel
Stainless Steel
Trigger Pull

9.8 pounds
9.5 pounds DA/2.1 pounds SA

Let's start with the grips.  Grips that fill and fit my hand are crucial.  What I have found is that if the hand isn't making full contact with the grip it is bad for accuracy, recoil control and pain management.  If the hand is not making full contact if means there will be gaps between the hand and grip at various points.  Those gaps are areas where you have no grip control and they provide room for the grip to slam into your hand.  Also, I am partial for a grip that gives me room for my pinky finger.  That is another grip control point and accuracy enhancer.  With properly sized and fitting grips you will still experience muzzle flip and a push into your hand but proper fit eliminates the slap-shot recoil pounding your middle finger and the web of your hand.  
Grant Cunningham recommended Pachmayr grips for the SP101 and since he is "The Revolver Specialist" I knew he would not steer me wrong.  The SP101 is pretty well set up right out of the box but it can be made a little better.  The $34.00 for the Pachmayr grip was money well spent.  The grip is slightly longer than the stock Ruger grip so it gives my pinky finger some room.  Additionally they fit my hand very well with no gaps between hand and grip and the textured synthetic grips have a better "feel" to them than the standard Ruger grips.

Obviously I went for a 3 inch barrel as I find they offer better balance and provide more sight radius and more velocity.  For sights I chose a Meprolight front night sight.
It provides a better sight picture in all lighting environments and, from a cosmetic standpoint it is very "sleek".  The Gemini Customs SP101 sported an XS Big Dot night sight which looked a little odd and contributed to the revolver shooting a bit low.

The three-inch barrel and all stainless steel construction provide more weight which also helps dampen recoil.  At 27.2 ounces the 3 inch SP101 is almost twice as heavy as the Smith & Wesson 637 and believe me, this is a good thing.  I do not find the extra weight to be a hinderance in concealed carry, all day long carry.  If you have a proper belt and holster, including pocket holster, the weight is no problem.

This leaves us with the trigger pull.  The trigger pull as it came out of the box was better than any S&W "J" frame pull I have ever experienced.  But I knew it could be made even better.  Fortunately for me the gunsmiths at Bill's Gun Shop in Robbinsdale, MN are trigger pull experts. They offer several options for their trigger pull work. They can give you a competition trigger pull which is amazingly light or can give you their "safe carry" pull which is heavier than their competition pull to keep you from negligently discharging the revolver when under the stress of a shooting situation and it is ultra reliable.  With some competition triggers you may find that the pull is so light it is not heavy enough to reliably strike with the force necessary to fire all of the various primers on different ammo.  When this revolver was returned to me it had a buttery smooth 9.5 pound double action trigger pull and a 2.1 pound single action pull.  This trigger pull is awesome!

Time for the Targets:

The above target shows 10 rounds of Magtech 158 grain FMJ ammo fired at 21 yards.

Same ammo with 25 rounds fired at 30 feet.

Same ammo, 20 rounds fired at 50 feet.

Defensive Loads

5 rounds of Hornady Critical Defense 110 Grain +P FTX bullet at 21 feet.

The above target shows 5 rounds of Federal Hydra Shok +P 129 grain Hollow Point ammo fired at 21 feet.

The above target shows 5 rounds of Winchester PDX 1 Defender +P 130 Bonded Jacketed Hollow Point ammo fired at 21 feet.

10 rounds of Remington High Terminal Performance 158 grain +P Lead Hollow Point at 21 feet.

So, was the extra work I had done on the SP101 worth it and how much did it cost?  In my opinion, yes it was.  The cost of the grips, night sight, springs, installation and trigger job was $144.00.  That's $315 less than had I sent it to Gemini Customs and I had to wait about a week instead of five months to get it back.

Ruger SP101 DAO 2.25 Inch Barrel

I liked the 3 inch barreled model so much that my curiosity lead me to ask if the 2.25 barreled model could perform as well.  I wondered how much would be traded off between a shorter length and the performance of the longer barrel.

Ruger manufacturers a Double Action Only version with a bobbed hammer in a 2.25 inch barrel so that is what I procured.  I had all the same work done to it as I did with with the 3 inch model.  After being worked over the double action trigger pull on this SP101 came in at 9.8 pounds.

And here's how she shot (all targets were placed at 21 feet):

Here's five rounds of the Hornady Critical Defense ammo.

Federal Hydra Shok +P

Remington High Terminal Performance 158 grain +P

Speer 135 grain +P Short Barrel Gold Dot Hollow Point

Winchester PDX 1 Defender 130 grain +P

In short, the 2.25 inch barreled model gives up very little to the 3 inch model especially when using the Speer or Winchester ammo.

And this is how they ride in the DeSantis Super Fly pocket holster and a Bianchi outside the waistband belt holster.

A final and wonderful observation about these revolvers is, that instead of being painful, they are really fun to shoot and exceeded my expectation for accuracy!

In Conclusion: THIS IS IT!


That Guy said...

An SP-101 has been on my list for a while. Thanks for the writeup.

Dogman said...

I like the SP101 but mine has been infuriating to say the least. Mine is prone to malfunction--the mainspring went dead early on and it has jammed up due to firing residue accumulation. I'm not comfortable carrying it due to this history. I'm not fond of the factory grip nor the Pachmayr option but the Hogue Monogrip is perfect for me. Unfortunately, the Hogue makes the pistol a bit on the large side for pocket carry even though the weight doesn't bother me at all. I'm glad it's working for you because that's what's important.

Also want to say I like the new(?) design for the site. I haven't been visiting much in the last few months because I truly hated the design changes you had made to the site so long ago.

Unknown said...

Been carrying my SP101 2.25 for several months now. After reading Grant's Defensive Revolver book I was even more convinced that a revolver was the way to go for me. Great review Joe as always.

Eclectic Breakfast said...

I don't own an SP-101 but I've spent time at the range with a 2.25 inch 357. Even with full power 180s my buddy's SP101 was more pleasant to shoot than my long-suffering S&W M49 Bodyguard is with 158 gr +P. Don't get me wrong, there's no doubt the Ruger has gone off, it just doesn't hurt. As much as the stainless job is fun to shoot, a bobbed 2.25 inch SP-101 38 special - made of Ruger titanium castings - would have made for a really neat pocket gun, but now the LCR has come along there's no chance of that.

Anonymous said...

What brand are the wood grips on the 3in?

Average Joe's Handgun Reviews said...

Got them off of ebay. They come from Thailand. Just do a search for Ruger SP101 grips and they will turn up.

Anonymous said...

I decided years ago that the SP101 was the perfect small .357 magnum revolver. Mine is carried for woodswalking, and concealed carry because it carries so perfectly, and unobtrusively in both concealed and open belt carry.

I spent a few more dollars but not that many, I drove my 3" model to Mag-Na-Port and had them do some action work and invert the crown to protect accuracy over the years. I went with the same sight you did, and Eagle secret service grips.

NotoriousAPP said...

Great choice on the SP101! Glad you finally found your carry piece. I've always wanted one and finally picked up one last year. It's a DAO 2.25" SP101 that was shipped directly to Gemini Customs. I didn't receive it for another 11 months which happened to be the week before you published this review. Man, was I impressed with the work of Gemini Customs. I had him do the action job (minus porting), hard chrome and custom Bolivian Rosewood grips...she was beautiful. She shoots like a gem too, even with the XS big dot. I had the same experience with the big dot, I was shooting low until I got used to the sight, now it's dead on and the groups are good enough for defensive use distances.

I don't have any complaints about carrying it, it's roughly the same weight as my glock 19 but is more comfortable to carry, I believe mostly due to the smooth wood grips.

Here's my new baby:


Average Joe's Handgun Reviews said...


She's a beaut!

Anonymous said...

Fine review. Which model Bianchi holster is that?

Average Joe's Handgun Reviews said...

Anonymous it is a model 58BHL

Anonymous said...

The very first target you said 21 yards. I think you meant 21 feet.

dsal45 said...

I smoothed and polished my SP 101 and changed the mainspring and trigger return spring now it's my favorite carry gun. I live half way between the country and the city. In the country it's loaded with snake shot. Hiking in hog or cougar country it's loaded with hollow points or JSPs. In the city .38 snubby ammo from Hornady. I have other options but I usually end up carrying the SP. I shoot 158 grain magnum ammo mostly for practice. 38 practice ammo feels like .22lr. So far a versa carry holster is all I have been using till I bought a Mini Trumpcard concealment holster. Dehorning the edges has made the biggest difference!

Anonymous said...

I have the Wiley Clapp talo Edition and I am being offered a Smith & Wesson performance center shield with a Viridian Laser I am tempted but the SP101 is so solid I don't know if the shield is a good trade even in the performance center model

Average Joe's Handgun Reviews said...

I'd go with the SP101. The performance center shield is ported which will be an issue shooting in the dark and it can be detrimental to you if you are shooting at close range with the pistol close to your body.

Unknown said...

I own both the sp101 model 5771 in 357 and a S&W M&P Shield Performance Center in .40SW. Both are fine weapons and I routinely carry both. I love both of them but if I had to choose one to carry it would be the S&W Shield, simply because of the inherent advantages to a semi-auto, mainly the larger capacity and quick reloading of a spare magazine. With a .40 ammo is your biggest concern, as bad ammo like Fiocchetti will jam constantly. That being said, whenever firing Remington or Speer I never get a jam. I've also had very good luck with bulk ammo from Freedom Munitions.

While porting can be detrimental if you have the gun pressed to your body, I'm not sure it will be such an issue at night compared to the SP101 in .357, as that beast has a tendency to have quite a bright muzzle flash anyway, especially when firing 158 grain ammo.

I definitely wouldn't pick one over the other to own, I would choose both. And I would definitely pick a Performance Center over a regular shield, for the $100 or so more that you pay the difference is totally worth it. You'll be paying at least $200-$250 just for the trigger job and fiber optic sights, and the porting does make a difference in recoil control. Maybe not a big deal with a 9mm but helps with the 40.

Anonymous said...

I recently handled the 101 3 inch for the first time. Loved the feel and the almost no trigger pull in the single action. It's now on my list, with a price under 600 and s 90 day layaway, I can't wait to pick it up

Anonymous said...

I love my SP101 2.5" but it is so heavy, big and bulky I carry it in a computer bag I leave open on top for instant access. I feel totally confident with .357 125 gr HP that I can stop anyone with it.

I also carry a little LCP .380 and though it is light and small enough to pocket carry - I know I must really do my part to stop anyone and I never feel the confidence a .357 provides.

So, to me, here it is: too heavy to carry .357 - but great stopper
vs LCP easy-carry but a mousegun. I say even a .380 beats no gun at all