by R.K. Campbell
There are many handguns available on the market, most of them well suited to the task at hand. In other words, we have many good fighting handguns to choose from.
Every concept and theory is represented by these handguns. Calibers range from .22 to .45 caliber. Some can be concealed in the pocket, others seem to require a sling for easy carry! But one characteristic seems to be more popular than ever: the fighting handgun must be simple.
Not simple to manufacture-although this is important-nor even mechanically simple. The gun must be simple to operate. It must be simple to employ under life threatening stress. No firearm is simpler to operate than the double-action revolver.
Combat handguns must have certain features. They must be light enough for comfortable carry, heavy enough to tame the recoil of the cartridge they chamber, accurate enough for the task of defense, and use a cartridge that strikes a heavy blow.
The gun should be controllable in rapid fire strings and concealable as well. It must carry enough ammunition to meet most defense requirements. A great many guns do not meet these needs well. Whole classes of handguns such as the Derringer and the .380 auto are disqualified on various grounds, including cartridge power and capacity.
One firearm that fills the bill as a defense gun very well is the Ruger SP-101. This little revolver is bank vault tough, accurate, and chambers a fight-stopping cartridge. The SP-101 is compact, but not so small that it cannot be controlled when fired. This is partly due to the Ruger's chunky frame. The weight just seems to lie in the right place. Another excellent design feature is the rubber stocks. These are among the very few factory grips panels we do not replace on revolvers.
The Ruger SP-101 is chambered for the potent .357 Magnum cartridge. I strongly prefer big, heavy bullets with a good balance of expansion and penetration. But there is no doubt the .357 Magnum is a powerful, effective cartridge.
My Ruger SP-101 is sometimes a primary firearm, but most often serves as a backup revolver. And the backup should always be a revolver for many reasons. The revolver can be placed against an opponent's body and fired repeatably; the autopistol could not. The Ruger will not jam or malfunction when limp-wristed.
The Ruger is more than accurate enough for defense and offers excellent gun retention in a worst case scenario. An opponent grasping the short barrel of the Ruger has little to hang onto, while we have a good purchase on the SP-101's large grip frame.
The .357 Magnum cartridge produces exuberant recoil, no question. For this reason we have to reach some compromise. The load that made the .357's reputation as a man-stopper is the 125-grain jacketed hollowpoint. This potent load reaches 1,450 feet-per-second (fps) from 4-inch barrel revolvers. Even from 2°- and 3-inch revolvers, this estimable loading is breaking nearly 1,300 fps.
The 125-grain Magnum load is difficult to control, even when fired in full size handguns, and out of the question to control in revolvers lighter than the SP-101. Recoil is literally wrist-snapping. One wonders if the time and practice required to acquire a margin of proficiency with this load in light handguns is worth the wear and tear on both the shooter and the gun.
A reasonable choice is to load the light revolvers, or any .357 revolver destined for home defense, with the 110-grain, .357 load. The 110 is loaded lighter than the 125-grain JHP. The 110's usually break 1,300 to 1,340 fps from 4-inch handguns, and about 1,240 fps from the shorter guns.
Results have been good. This load has proven much easier to control in the SP-101 than any other full power load. The only drawback is lessened tactical penetration, really only a police problem. Civilians and off-duty cops are well served with this load. Our personal choices in either 110- or 125-grain loads are from Winchester-they work well and burn clean.
There is some blast and flash in company with the .357's recoil, but in turn we have a cartridge much, much more effective than the common, short barrel 9mm and .38 loads. The .380 ACP and 9mm Makarov are squib loads in comparison.
Some will choose to load the SP-101 with hot .38 loads. There are numerous fine .38 +P or +P+ loads, and if physical difficulty prevents mastering the .357 loads the .38 Special is an accurate, highly developed cartridge.
The Ruger SP-101 has excellent, high visibility fixed sights. Fixed sights are rugged and well suited to personal defense duty. They do not get knocked out of whack or lose their zero. Sighting a fixed sight gun is not difficult. Most SP-101 revolvers are dead on target at 10-15 yards with the .357 Magnum 110- and 125-grain loads, and also the Winchester 158-grain, lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint, known as the .38 Special FBI load. This is all we can ask for.
Most importantly the SP-101 has excellent geometry. The grip is readily grasped in a hurry; it gets on target fast and stays there. In rapid fire drills, we were able to pull the front sight back into the rear notch time and again and return to the target quickly.
In slow-fire benchrest testing, the SP-101 proved surprisingly accurate. With good loads groups of 3 inches or less were realized at a long 25 yards.
As a field or backpacking handgun the SP-101 would be an excellent choice. It may be filled with .38 birdshot loads to deter aggressive reptiles, lead semi-wadcutter .38 loads for small game, and full power, 160-grain full metal case loads in case of bear attack. (Sure, bears seldom attack-but sometimes we feel better being ready.)
An increasing concern in some of our western states is attacks by the big cats. These animals and the feral dog will go down quickly to the 125-grain .357 load, per personal experience.
The Ruger's construction is stainless. Stainless is just that, stain-less, not stain proof, but requires much less maintenance than carbon steel. Stainless is an excellent choice for most handguns, with good corrosion resistance when worn close to perspiring bodies.
The SP-101 offers a good combination of compactness, power and handling. It may be concealed as readily as most 5-shot .38s, but offers real power. The price is reasonable and performance proven. The rest is up to the person behind the gun!
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