Rugers .357 GP-100 Revolver Considered a Modern Classic
by Jim Williamson
When the .357 Magnum cartridge appeared in 1935, Smith & Wesson (S&W) chambered it only in their large-framed revolver, which would eventually be known as the Model 27. It was built on a frame originally meant for the .44 Special. Following World War II, considerable demand arose for a lighter gun strong enough to fire this powerful ammunition.
Colt and S&W responded, and several medium-framed .357s were on the market by the late 1950s. Alas, a smaller package is likely to wear faster, if shot frequently with full power loads. By the time Ruger finally got its first double-action (DA) revolver on the market in 1972, police departments were often requiring that all practice and qualification be with the full duty load. Moreover, this was the era when very hot 125-grain bullets were becoming the rage in police circles, and these rounds considerably accelerated erosion in the barrel forcing cone and top strap of a revolver.
Those who read much about guns can see by now where this is headed: S&W dealt with the problem of wear in their smaller .357s by offering a new, medium-heavy frame on their Models 581, 686, etc. These larger guns were still smaller than their big N-frame models 27 and 28, and were an instant hit with police and with sportsmen who shot a lot of Magnum ammo.
Ruger's Security-Six and its fixed-sight siblings were being made on a medium frame, but with a beefier top strap than on S&W's Combat Magnum. The Ruger frame was a modular item possibly inspired by Ruger's single-action Blackhawk design. The Ruger DA guns soon earned a reputation for ruggedness beyond their size. Today, Internet forum input suggests that some owners of both brands think the Security-Six is about twice or three times as durable as equivalent rivals.
That is, of course, their subjective judgment. Nevertheless, the introduction of S&W's L-frame guns must have surely brought market pressure to bear on Ruger. To compete, they needed a larger DA revolver suitable for police, military, and defense use. Bill Ruger wasn't going to fool around; he set out to design the new gun around the very hot ammunition it would have to use. His goal was to design the most durable DA .357 Magnum ever. The result was the GP-100, introduced in 1986.
The GP-100 combines elements of the Security-Six with ideas borrowed from 1979's huge Redhawk, Ruger's DA item meant mainly for the .44 Magnum. Apart from the fact that it usually has a full-lug barrel, the thing that sets the GP-100 apart from the crowd is that the front cylinder lock is on the frame and the crane. This may be the first time that concept has been used since S&W made the Triple Lock from 1908-1915!
Generally, crane locks have been seen as just too complex and costly to use in "production" revolvers. Ruger probably manages to use one by virtue of its unique manufacturing techniques, which involve sophisticated investment casting rather than the usual forgings. Engineers also threw out all previous design parameters with this model.
The extractor rod no longer has a front lock and cannot even be used to rotate the cylinder. The thing has no extractor rod head, and really looks quite Spartan. I suppose that Ruger must have had both cost cutting and starkly functional "Scandinavian Modern" furniture in mind when he designed this gun! The rod even has a slot in one side, something that I've seen in no other revolver. The rod's sole purpose is to kick out fired cartridge cases.
The cylinder timing mechanism seems especially durable; God bless Bill Ruger! I've never seen a GP-100 that was "out-of-time", and I've seen a lot of used revolvers. This is all the more remarkable considering that most GP-100 owners regard the gun as being tank-tough and fire a lot of magnum ammo. It should come as no surprise that several ammunition makers test their output in GP-100s.
Another very unusual feature of the gun is its frame. Normally,
one sees a frame that pretty much outlines the shape of the grips/stocks
that will be screwed onto it. It's been that way since Sam Colt
contrived the first practical revolver, about 1835. But the GP-100
has no such provision. Instead, it has a "tenon" that
extends below the frame. It's pretty beefy, and contains the robust
coil mainspring. The grip "unit" slides onto this tenon.
The factory provides a black Santoprene grip hollowed out on the
sides for rosewood inserts.
Bill Ruger reportedly got the idea for this "stock option" from the dash of his BMW motorcar. Some like it very well, and it is one of the "friendliest" grips ever put on a revolver by a modern factory. It comes in two sizes. Guns with adjustable sights have a longer model, with "muted square" corners. Guns with fixed sights use a shorter, more rounded profile that feels truly remarkable in most people's hands.
The average owner never changes the grip on a GP-100. But some do, and the aftermarket manufacturers like Hogue and Uncle Mike's do offer options. One company's spokesman told me that his firm has more trouble fitting this gun than most. The casting varies from one production run to another, he said, and tolerances vary. I don't know if that's true. I do know that I tried two different grips by his company, and both left a gap behind the trigger guard. Fortunately, I tried a Pachmayr Gripper unit, and it fit both the GP-100 and me well. This is amusing, for I don't especially like that style of Pachmayr on S&W guns. On those, I prefer their Presentation model. The GP-100 is a law unto itself insofar as the grip issue goes.
Let me tell you a true tale about why I needed to change the grip. The same thing may happen to you, so listen. The factory grip texture is "tacky" and when made more so by gunpowder residue, it can grab your gun hand in recoil. I've had skin ripped off my palm on several occasions. Literally! I was glad to find that the Pachmayr Gripper is a bit slicker finished and doesn't grab my epidermis when the gun rocks under the violence of full .357 loads.
Barrels are grooved on top and usually have a full lug, although half-lug models are available. The six-inch barrel version with half-lug was recently discontinued, which is a pity. It offered weight and balance advantages over the full-lug form in that length, and is a favorite of gun scribe Mike Cumpston, who also publishes on the Internet. Cumpston is a very knowledgeable pistoleer. I second his preference for this format in the six-inch GP-100.
In addition to the "six-inch," barrel lengths are three and four inches. I personally prefer the four-inch, but those who want a robust short-barreled revolver that will withstand many full magnum rounds are much enamored of the three-inch version. Fixed sights are offered in the two shorter lengths, although adjustable sights are more common in the four-inch model.
The cylinder release is in the mode of the late Security-Six: it pushes inward to unlock. This seems a more natural motion than pushing it forward (S&W, Taurus) or rocking it rearward (Colt). The Ruger release also won't cut one's thumb in recoil, which often happens with the primary rival brand and its copies.
The trigger is a clever design that is a continuous curve along the front up into the frame. Other traditional American brands have a flat at the top of the trigger that can catch and abrade one's finger, especially in rapid fire. The GP-100 is a comfortable gun to shoot.
The blocky hammer is checkered on top. If it lacks the graceful styling of Colt or Smith hammers, it works fine. Those who initially objected to its shape have often become so fond of the gun that they manage to overlook the blockiness, which does seem to blend in with the overall lines of the gun. Both front and rear sights can be replaced with aftermarket options, although I've never done that. I do paint the rear surface of the front sight with bright orange fingernail polish. This makes it show up better against both black bullseyes on the range and on animate targets. I gather that hobby shops have model paints that can be similarly employed and that some are fluorescent. Bright green paint should be ideal in this role. The sights are dead black, even on the stainless GP-100s, by the way. (Blued GP-100s are offered, although I seldom see one.)
The modular frame is very strong, probably contributing significantly to the GP-100's reputation for longevity. Rather than using a traditional sideplate, the frame is solid, open below for the complete trigger group, which is removable
The smoothly contoured barrel/lug unit is always (in my observation) neatly fitted to the frame without gaps. This is a problem area for another major revolver maker, and was a serious factor in my buying a GP-100. Ruger deserves esthetic accolades for this. The other side of the coin is that the gun has more tool or mold marks left on it than other high quality US manufacturers tolerate. This is especially evident within the cylinder window and on the top of the crane when the cylinder is swung out. The front of the barrel lug also used to have some tool marks, but on my present gun, it's smoothly polished. In fact, recent examples seem to have better overall finishes than was the case a few years ago. (Yes, my GP-100 was bought over the counter; it's not a selected writer's sample.)
When the GP-100 hit the market, I thought there was something familiar about the lines where the rear of the trigger guard curves up to meet the front of the grip unit.
On reflection, I recalled where I'd seen that shape. Back in the 1960s, the late gun writer Skeeter Skelton was asked by Shooting Times to design the ideal double-action revolver. His sketch was a composite of several makes, but it had that shape behind the trigger guard. That was new at the time. Skelton did advise Bill Ruger occasionally, but it doesn't seem to be recorded whether he specifically contributed to the GP-100 project. The shape there may be coincidence.
The GP-100 lies steady in the hand, and current production seems to have especially smooth actions, on average. My gun is very even in trigger pull, single- or double-action, and the pull seems a little lighter than on most that I've handled in the past. I'm sure that's why it seems easier to shoot well than the two that I owned several years ago.
The brawny Ruger is known for accuracy. Gun scribe Wiley Clapp once got four examples together and fired them from his Ransom Rest. All four shot impressive groups, one being especially fine in that regard. His story is in the 1989 Handguns, one of the many Krause annuals. As I recall, the various 140-grain loads performed most impressively. I've leaned toward them in my GP-100s since, currently using Hornady's XTP version. Accuracy is indeed terrific! Those 140-grain bullets have enough integrity to penetrate well on deer and most other animals for which one ought to be using a .357, and recoil seems a bit less than with the more common 158-grain loads.
I most often wear my GP-100 on a Bianchi River Belt with that firm's No. 5BL holster. However, most holster makers have options to fit the medium-heavy Ruger DA guns. Ruger even has its own offerings today, made by Galco. El Paso Saddlery and other boutique outfits also provide quality leather for Rugers.
A .357 Magnum on a medium-heavy frame is an excellent outdoors sidearm. It'll easily take rabbits, woodchucks, Western marmots, raccoons, and other small animals, and will clobber deer, javelina, badger, bobcats, coyotes, and such dangerous beasties as cougar and bear in a pinch. The versatility of the .357 is really unmatched, especially when one factors in the ability to fire .38 Special ammunition. As a defense handgun, the .357 reigns supreme, having the best stopping record of any cartridge for which a large database is available. Even for home protection, the best .38 Plus P loads are as good as anything, and better than most. The GP-100 is certainly chambered for the optimum cartridge, as revolvers go.
When Ruger designed the GP-100, the goal was to provide the most durable .357 that could be conveniently worn on a gun belt. They've chambered the .357 in the massive Redhawk, but that was too much of a good thing for almost everyone who wants a general-purpose sidearm that can be worn on a daily basis. Actually, once one reaches the level that some call the .41 frame (after Colt's choice for the old .41 Colt); there seems little real need for a larger gun. The requisite mass for longevity with magnum loads has been reached, and little is gained by going to a .44 frame. The GP-100, the Colt Python, and S&W's L-frame guns all last very well in long-term shooting even with full loads. Widespread opinion is that the GP-100 is the longest-lived of the three, and the GP series will run longer without tuning than even S&W's big Models 27 and 28, both now discontinued. It may not be the most refined .357, but it is probably the strongest in common use. And it does look good, and it handles as well as anything else bigger than the medium-framed guns that don't hold up as well in heavy use. In a world of compromise, the GP-100 is a splendid selection. Not as svelte as the S&W K-frame guns or Ruger's own former Security-Six, it still feels good in hand and holster, and it lasts and lasts and lasts. A great many shooters want those qualities in a revolver. It's no wonder that the GP-100 has become a true modern classic of its type. Any serious handgunner needs at least one example.