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Range Report: Ruger SP101 — Light, Handy, Powerful

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Over the years, among the most useful handguns I have used have been five-shot revolvers. Light, handy and powerful enough for most chores, these are excellent defensive revolvers. Another idiom I have used has been the 4-inch barrel kit gun—usually in .22 caliber. A favorite recreational shooter has been the Smith and Wesson Regulation Police, a five-shot .38 with 4-inch barrel.

Ruger SP101 right side with wood grips

The SP101 is one rugged and reliable revolver.

A few weeks ago, I had my first experience with a revolver that combines the best attributes of the Kit Gun and the light carrying five-shot revolver. The Ruger SP101 with 4-inch barrel is chambered in .357 Magnum. This 30-ounce revolver packs a lot of punch—up to 560 foot-pounds. The SP101 is easily among the most versatile handguns in my gun safe. My first concern is the worst case scenario. For use in personal defense against two- or four-legged threats, the SP101 is a great choice for the trail. For recreational shooting, small game hunting and informal target shooting, the SP101 is also a great handgun.

The Ruger features all stainless construction, an underlugged 4-inch barrel and fully adjustable rear sights. The front sight is a fiber optic type that aids in visibility and rapid sight acquisition. While many small frame handguns are not well suited to the .357 Magnum cartridge, this handgun is an exception. The combination of heavy 4-inch barrel and recoil dampening grips make for good control. Is the Ruger SP101 the handgun to test maximum effort handloads? Of course not, but for the occasional saving shot, the ratio of weight and power is unbeatable.

Revolvers such as the SP101 are at their best when regarded as nice .38 Special revolvers. With target grade loads such as the Winchester 158-grain SWC at about 800 fps the revolver is docile to use and fire. Accuracy is more than adequate for taking rabbit, squirrel, and other small game. A treed possum or raccoon might be better taken with a good quality hollow point such as the Winchester .38 Special 125-grain JHP offered in the white box USA line.

Ruger SP101 101 with cylinder partially open

The Ruger locks up vault tough. This is one rugged revolver.

Target loads are mild and pleasant. Move to a .38 Special +P such as the 125-grain Silvertip and you have a reasonably powerful home defense loading. The .38 Special is widely regarded as the most powerful cartridge the occasional shooter may handle well, and I agree. With the Ruger’s hand-filling grips and well-distributed weight, you have an excellent all-around handgun.

A Superior Design

A few years ago, Ruger introduced the SP101 revolver with a heavy-duty frame and a cylinder strong enough to remove any doubt as to the strength of the revolver. The SP101 is regarded as the strongest five-shot .357 Magnum revolver ever made. Ruger currently offers the revolver with fixed sights and a 3-inch barrel for use in concealed carry. This is an excellent concealed carry revolver.

Ruger SP101 with green sights

The green fiber optic front sight is a great aid in rapidly finding the target and keeping the front sight on target.

The 4-inch barrel version with adjustable sights, however, is a personal favorite. This revolver is among a very few in the size and weight class with sufficient accuracy and power to make the addition of adjustable sights worthwhile. While intended as a field gun, it is clearly a good choice for home defense and by no means too large for concealed carry in a proper holster. The double-action trigger is smooth and controllable making good defense shooting possible. The single action press is crisp, which allows for good long-range results.

The revolver handles the .38 Special cartridge with excellent accuracy. The .357 Magnum cartridge is 1/10th-inch longer and will not chamber in a .38 Special revolver, while the .38 will chamber and fire normally in a Magnum cylinder. This makes for great versatility. Powder-puff loads and snake shot may be used. The revolver doesn’t rely upon recoil energy for operation and a wide range of power levels are available.

While the SP 101 has many good features, the ball indent that aids in locking the chamber is a good addition to the revolver. A custom grade feature of this additional lockup is part of the reason for the Ruger’s accuracy potential. The grips are another outstanding feature. Likewise, the fiber optic front sight is especially attractive.

When firing the Ruger, I tested quite a few .38 Special cartridges. A ratio of 20 .38s for every .357 Magnum is a good practice regiment. However, I also fired several Magnum loads. I will carry these loads when hiking, taking long walks and for personal defense. The first was a very interesting load from Liberty Ammunition. Using a frangible 50-grain bullet this load demonstrated a startling 2,050 fps. Works for me! This is an ideal low penetration load for home defense.

Ruger SP101 with target in background

Accuracy with the Ruger was excellent with every load tested.

Next was Cor Bon’s 110-grain JHP. This is going to be the carry load. This load exhibited 1,410 fps from the Ruger’s 4-inch barrel. Ruger has a reputation for demonstrating greater velocity than other handguns of a similar barrel length, and this revolver is no exception. A 15-yard five-shot group with the Cor Bon 110-grain JHP went into 1.25 inches.

As a heavier load for use in personal defense, the Winchester 158-grain JHP was loaded. Average velocity was 1250 fps. This is a load with deep penetration that also shows good expansion. I also used a number of my own handloads using the Matt’s Bullets (mattsbullets.com) 178-grain Keith-style bullet at 1,020 fps with a heavy load in the .38 Special case—not for .38 revolvers. This is my big dog and small bear load. At a long 100 yards this, load gives the trainer shooter excellent accuracy.

Packing the Ruger

I was surprised to find the Ruger fit my Don Hume 721 holster (molded for the K frame Smith and Wesson) perfectly. The Don Hume is famously tight, and a slight break in is needed, so the Ruger worked fine. The strong belt clip allows good concealed carry. For carrying in the field, the thumbreak H 721 Don Hume is a great holster. The Ruger packs light and offers plenty of power. As a go-anywhere do-anything revolver, the Ruger is hard to beat.

Are you a fan of Ruger’s rugged revolvers? Share your best Ruger story in the comment section.



Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

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