Ruger SP101

[Review] Ruger SP101: One Fun Handful Of A .357

A two-and-a-half-inch barrel on a .357 Magnum revolver. Huh? Well, if you have read many of my small-revolver reviews, you will notice that I have reviewed more than a few small revolvers that were in .357 Magnum. I like those abbreviated big boomers…they work. Here are a few of them for you to peruse when you’re done reading here…this list of reviews also includes .38 Spl. and 9mm guns. I do like subbies!

As you read those reviews, you will arrive at the conclusion that I like such weapons. Snub-nosed guns are quickly brought into action, easily operated and effective.

But what are some advantages and disadvantages of a small-frame magnum revolver? Let’s look at just a few of the basics. I will stick to information gleaned from guns I’ve reviewed and am familiar with.

Advantages

Size. The guns tend to be small. The very lightweight guns are easily carried in a pocket holster. The other, heavier guns able to be toted effortlessly in a belt holster of some type, either IWB or OWB.

Caliber. All .357 Magnum revolvers will also shoot the .38 Spl., which tends to be less costly and easier in the recoil and muzzle blast departments. This is versatility that can’t be discounted.

Strength. All of the guns I’ve tested were overbuilt for their purpose, even the lighter-weight ones. They all had beefy frames and cylinders where it counted.

Sights. Most of the guns I’ve tested use the tried-and-true front ramp with a gutter-style rear notch. It’s hard to knock those sights out of alignment. A few even included a fully adjustable rear sight, something I deem necessary if you are going to practice with different loads. We handloaders appreciate adjustable rear sights – that way we can develop both light practice loads and heavier thumpers to simulate carry loads. The adjustability allows you to zero the gun for each load, although in my experience zeros are not radically different between loads…it’s just that every little bit of adjustability helps.

OK, we see that a small magnum has some usefulness. But what about negatives? Are there downsides to carrying one?

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Disadvantages

Some of the disadvantages are listed in the Advantages column but let’s go at it from another angle.

Size. Sometimes a .357 snubby can be too light. I have shot a couple of lightweights that whack your palm with authority.

Muzzle Blast/Recoil. The bounce, blast and roar of a full-strength .357 Magnum round going off in a two- or three-inch barreled revolver is not for the faint of heart. If you shoot indoors for whatever reason without hearing protection, you have effectively deafened yourself and taken away whatever night vision you had built up with the tremendous report and muzzle flash. Unless a load is made specifically for a short-barreled gun, there will be a huge, blinding flash with each trigger pull as the unburned powder exits the muzzle and is lit up. Recoil is another issue. Shooting magnums out of a non-ported gun (see below) can be an experience one doesn’t want to repeat very often. But…if you carry one, you definitely need to practice with loads that approximate your carry load, recoil and blast notwithstanding. If you want to know exactly how much recoil these loads produce check out our 9mm vs .357 magnum comparison.

My Experience With Mr. .357 Snubby

So, we see that these little guns are powerful on both sides of the muzzle and can have a downside. But – does that mean we don’t even look at them as a carry gun? Here are a few thoughts from my experiences with these guns.

First of all, you need to remember that I am a reloader. I load for .38 Special and .357 Magnum, along with many other calibers. I can custom tailor a load that is easy on the ears and hands, or go with a load that will light up the night if it’s shot at dusk with a healthy roar and flash. That makes it easy to customize loads for a specific gun.

My go-to .357 load is a Lee cast 160-grain semi-wadcutter over 7.1 of Hodgdon Long Shot powder. It gives me almost 1200 fps out of a 4-inch-plus barrel, and around 1100 out of a three-incher. It lets you know you’ve touched off something more than a target load.

I have shot that load out of all the .357s I’ve reviewed, even one or two not on the list above. It’s a good, accurate load (I once took a squirrel out of the top of a tall hickory tree, standing, with my Rossi 6-inch .357 and that load. Too bad they quit making that gun!). And, in this day and age of non-existent ammo at the store, my handloads are becoming more important. What tends to happen when I shoot this load in a standard, non-ported-barrel snubby revolver is that my palm feels like somebody just whacked it with a 2×4. Not terrible, mind you, just a good, stout “thump” in my hand. After shooting a few cylinders of it, I’m ready to go to a .38 load or even .22…I’m no hero. It‘s just that I enjoy having feeling in my hand. OK, seriously, if I were to carry one of these short thumpers, I would practice with a stiff-ish .38 load and then end my session with a couple of cylinders of the full-bore stuff in order to keep my hand in and stay familiar with it. Plus, you need to know where your carry load hits on the target – you need to shoot at least some of it every time you practice.

All that changes when I shoot a ported-barrel revolver. The Taurus 692 (review above) is one prime example.

ports on Taurus 692
Taurus 692 port close-up. Four on each side really tames recoil.

Those four ports on each side of the barrel really work in dissipating recoil. Shooting full charge loads through that little 5-shooter was downright enjoyable. Do you get the muzzle blast and flash? Sure, maybe even a bit more due to the ports but the recoil is tamed way down. Those gases venting upward really help+ keep the muzzle down and the grip from trying to remove your hand at the wrist. If you’ve shot a ported magnum (.357, .44, .454, etc.), you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you need to try one. As I said above, they do tend to seem louder than non-ported guns but in my book it’s worth it to quell the recoil.

To Port Or Not To Port?

I think if I were to adopt a snubby .357 to carry, I would get one with ports. Taurus has manufactured several guns with ports, along with some other gun makers, including Smith & Wesson. If you have a gun you want to add ports to, there’s always Mag-na-port in Michigan – they’ve been cutting ports in barrels for decades.

As this is a review of the Ruger SP101 and not a treatise on ported barrels, we will move on. I just think they make sense on a heavy-recoiling revolver like a lightweight .357 snubby.

SP101 Build Quality and History

The SP101 was introduced in 1989 when Ruger replaced their Security-Six line of duty revolvers. These were guns made to be carried by police, security guards, payroll truck employees and similarly employed individuals. They weren’t lost on the common civilian, either – Ruger sold a lot of them to guys like me. They were considered plain-jane, “B-flat” .357 and .38 revolvers. They were built very solidly and tended to hold up under a lot of firing. When they were replaced, it took two different models of Rugers to do that. We know about the 5-shot SP101 series, but the GP100 line of revolvers was introduced at the same time as the SPs. The GPs were the larger-framed, six-shot guns (for the most part. There are exceptions). Both lines are going very strong today.

Variations

You can get an SP101 with a 2.25-, 3- or 4-inch barrel. Calibers include .357 Magnum, .38 Spl. +P, .327 Federal Magnum and .22 Long Rifle. Want one in blue? No problem. Stainless steel is the default material, however. Need fancier wooden grips? They have you covered. Adjustable rear sight? Sure. Even specialized distributor models are listed on the website. MSRP ranges from $719 (the one we have here) to $769 (longer barrel, wooden-insert grips, adjustable rear sight). Speaking of the grips, Ruger uses a one-piece frame that allows some disassembly without tools and also provides an easy grip swap if you want to do that. The grip covers the front and back of the grip frame – it slips on from the bottom and allows your hand total purchase on the grip. Grips that are available from the factory are made of either hard rubber or a black synthetic material. You can get a rubber grip with wood inserts – those look great (below).

Here’s a shot of the longer barreled (four inch) gun. Adjustable rear and fiber optic front sights are standard on this model.

Ruger SP101 in 4 inch

Note the caliber etched on the barrel – .327 Fed Mag. Interesting round, to be sure. That smaller-diameter round allows the gun’s cylinder to hold six rounds. The .22 version holds eight, while the .38/.357/9mm guns hold five. Add in the distributor special editions (one of which places an adjustable rear sight on a three-inch-barreled gun, really handy in my book) and you have fifteen versions in those five calibers to choose from. Not too shabby.

Let’s look at some photos of our subject du jour…

Ruger SP101 left side

Ruger SP101 right side

Ruger SP101 barrel engraving

Ruger SP101 cylinder latch

Cylinder latches, rear and front. The lock-up is very secure. The rear latch releases with an inward push, not forward.

rear sight transfer bar on the SP101

Ruger SP101 hammer spur

Transfer bar, rear sight and hammer spur. No slipping off this one!

Ruger SP101 muzzle

Ruger SP101 front sight

Ruger SP101 grip frame

Ruger SP101 grips taken apart
Grip frame and grips removed.

Note the coil mainspring – this configuration allows many different sizes and styles of grip panels. The grip accommodates three fingers.

Shooting The SP101

I’ve already mentioned my ammo woes above…in terms of factory ammo, suffice it to say I was pretty much limited to just one .38 Special loads and no .357 at all. So, my handloads will have to be an acceptable stand-in. At least I had something to shoot – I know folks (non-handloaders) who are high and dry right now. Anyway, the gun was fun to shoot, if a bit of a handful at times.

The .38 load was OK. It was a Fiocchi factory load, a 158-grain JHP. My one and only .357 load was a handload, the Lee 160-grain SWC over 7.1 grains of Long Shot powder load that I described above. Conditions were such that I did not have a chance to chronograph either load, but experience tells me that’s the case in terms of velocity out of a short barrel. Other snubby .357s I’ve put that load through usually recorded around 1100 f.p.s. – not too bad for a 160-grain bullet. I shot at 15 yards on a drizzly, snowy day – that’s all we’re getting here now, it seems – so these were not necessarily my best efforts but were the best I could do at the time. Anyway, the photos below tell the tale, such as it is.

target 38 shot with SP101
Fiocchi .38 Special load.

The gun shot pretty far right with both loads. I used two different aim points for this load – I know, I needed to start over but the weather hurried me up – with the two shots on the right coming from a center target hold and the other coming from a hold on the far-left center middle line at its edge. The low one was pulled, for sure. The trigger really was decent – under three pounds single action and under nine, double action with no take-up or creep.

target 357 shot with SP101
A centered, 6-o’clock hold produced this group to the right of center.

I am not proud of either of these – I can do better, and we all know it ain’t the gun’s fault, for sure. I’m not sure why the groups went right – this gun’s sights are about as basic as they can get. Evidently my eyes just pushed things to the right.

I’m not sure why I even included these targets, embarrassing as they are – I guess I just wanted to prove I actually shot the gun. As always, more experimentation would yield better results, for sure. Today wasn’t the best day for that. Allow me to explain why these targets are so terrible… they are so bad that I jokingly made up some excuses (gotta find some humor somewhere in all this!):

  1. The snow was swirling around the target and the wind was blowing.
  2. The sun was hidden behind clouds.
  3. It would help if I had more factory ammo to shoot but that’s the way it is right now.
  4. My hands were cold.
  5. My bench was wet along with my seat and target stand.
  6. My feet were cold.
  7. My Walker Game Ear hearing protectors made my ears cold.
  8. The bullets didn’t go where they were aimed.

OK – have I made enough excuses? Want some cheese with my whine?

Seriously, folks… this gun works. Don’t let my poor shooting put you off this gun – it’s a winner, for sure. It’s a typical Ruger – well-built, reliable and (usually) accurate.

Speaking of shooting this little gun, it handled both loads well. I’ve had that particular .357 handload generate some pretty significant recoil in lighter .357s but this 26-ounce gun handled it well. It was actually fun to shoot – I enjoyed it, even given the “pattern” aspect of my groups.

Specs

Before we end this little composition, let’s look at some specifications and features of our test SP101…

Length:7.2”
Weight:26 oz.
Barrel:2.25”
Capacity:5
Action:DA/SA, transfer bar
Trigger Pull:SA: 3 lbs., 12 oz. DA: 8 lbs., 14 oz.
Sights:Fixed rear gutter, pinned, replaceable front black ramp
Material:Stainless steel
Cylinder:Triple-locking (front, rear, bottom)
Grips:Black Rubber or Black Synthetic... completely covers metal grip frame
MSRP:$719

Conclusion

Would I carry this gun? You betcha. It was accurate enough (humorous excuses aside), handy enough, powerful enough… what’s not to like? I own two .38 snubbies – a S&W 638 and a Taurus 85. Each of those guns are 5-shooters, the same as the SP101. On paper, the three compare (except for weight) … five shots is five shots, right? The difference is that the .38 is limited from the get-go, while the .357 has more oomph. (For an interesting video on shooting the .38 and the .357 out of short-barreled revolvers – is it worth it to go to the .357? – go here). Most experts agree that, even though you are not getting velocities out of the .357’s two- or three-inch barrel compared to the six-incher in your gun safe, it is worthwhile to carry the magnum. You will get increased velocity (and therefore, energy) out of the .357, most things being equal. It does come with a price, of course… anyone who’s had basic physics could tell you that the more energy that comes out of the barrel, more recoil energy will be generated as well.

But… if you are into revolvers (guilty here), you might want to take a look at one of these. Given Ruger’s build quality reputation and the popularity of the .357 Magnum in a small package, I don’t think you’d go too far wrong. Taking this gun with you (and a reload in a speed loader or speed strip), you would be decently well-armed. Just make sure you practice at least part of the time with your carry ammo as opposed to lighter .38 ammo. There is a difference between the .357 Magnum and .38 Spl. +P, so practice accordingly. Please chime in below if you own one of these Rugers or similar gun. As always, keep ‘em in the black and stay safe!

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18 comments
  1. Another Good Review Mike. I’ve never had the opportunity to shoot any of Ruger’s Duty Line Revolvers (Security, SP or GP), only their various SAA guns. Simply because I don’t know anyone that owns any of those models. As I mentioned in another comment, I’m seriously looking at a DA/SA .357. Though I don’t have a lot of interest in a snubby. 357, as I’m looking at 4″ or 6″ for my intended use.
    As I’ve aged I’m more sensitive to recoil now, so a ported gun is very tempting. Like you, I shoot a lot more Specials than Magnums in .357, simply because it’s less abusive, and because accuracy is what I’m aiming for for Target loads. So even when I’m reloading .357, I load on the conservative side of load data
    My usual LGS doesn’t stock any Rugers, so I’ll have to shop a little further afield to find one to check out.
    You’ve given me food for thought, and I appreciate that.
    Thank you

    1. Bemused, I totally get it in terms of putting together lighter loads…it only makes sense unless you’re crafting something to hunt with. Here’s a thought – Taurus makes several ported revolvers – I’ve had really experiences with their wheelguns. You might want to look at a Tracker 627 (either 4″ or 6.5″) – those are ported. There’s always their old standby, the 66 – 4″ or 6″. Anyway, like I said, just a thought. The Ruger GP-100 is hard to beat. Keep us posted on your search, OK? Thanks for writing again.

  2. Thank you for the Ruger SP-101 review, Mike. I own two iterations of this revolver, both with 3″ barrels. One is chambered in .327 Federal Magnum and holds six rounds, while the other is the .357 Magnum 5 shot model you wrote about.

    As I’m sure you know, Rugers are casted rather than forged, so they tend to be a bit more robust. Overbuilt is the most common description. That said, neither trigger of the two SP-101’s that I own are as smooth as the trigger action of my J frame S&W Model 60 .357 Magnum that also wears a 3” barrel. The Smith has superior trigger action in both double and single action modes as well as an adjustable rear sight. But it’s a few ounces lighter and kicks a bit more, recoil wise, than the SP-101 in .357 Magnum.

    Between the five round Ruger SP-101 in .357 Magnum and the model in .327 Federal Magnum with six rounds, I prefer the latter. The .327 Federal Magnum cartridge shoots flat at high velocity, and doesn’t quite have the kick of a .357 Magnum. Buffalo Bore makes 100 grain JHP cartridges that will achieve 1,300-1,400 feet per second velocity out of this 3″ barrel. These are hot rounds that make excellent self-defense loads, and they are what I carry when I use this revolver as my concealed weapon. The extra round is also an advantage.

    I’m not a huge fan of the rubber sleeve grips that fit over the butt tang that both the SP-101 and GP-100 line uses. I have replaced the plastic inserts with wood panels on both the SP-101’s that I own and one of the two GP-100’s. The remaining GP-100 (in .44 Special) I re-gripped with a full wooden model. I find the wooden grip to be much more comfortable, though it is appreciably larger than the original.

    In terms of accuracy, no short barreled revolver is going to be as accurate as a model with a 6” or even 4” barrel. But for close-in social work, say out to about 15 yards, I find I can place rounds from both 3” barrel SP-101’s I own in the black.

    Ruger has a very estimable warranty policy if anything ever goes awry with function, but chance are that won’t happen. Anyone who owns any Ruger revolver will be passing it down to successive generations because it will most certainly outlive the original owner. The SP-101 is a well built small frame, but substantial revolver that has stood the test of time for over three decades. For those who favor wheel-guns, this double action revolver is highly recommended.

    1. John D., wow – you sure have my attention! I truly enjoyed being educated on the .327. I’ve not ever owned a gun in that caliber but it is very interesting, from your description. You sealed the deal when you said you had a GP in .44 Special – I’d love to find one of those. I’ve loaded for that caliber since my late-70’s Charter Arms Bulldog days. I enjoyed your post – stay in touch. Thanks for wrirting!

  3. I traded mine and wish I still had it. The recoil never bothered me. As a nightstand gun my guess is that if I missed I’d have burned the bad guy.?

    1. Larry, yeah, that tiny flamethrower would get his attention, for sure. Maybe you can find another one soon. Thanks for writing!

  4. Great review, Mike! The SP101 is a crackerjack of a revolver. They can be carry guns, kit guns, home defense, etc. The various calibers and barrel lengths make them quite versatile, as you pointed out. I have one in .327 Federal Magnum (I’d love to see you review that caliber some time!) — that caliber successfully addresses most of negatives that you mentioned in this article.

    1. John, yup, the .327 is a good caliber. Maybe when ammo is available again I might be able to procure a revolver and give it a try. Sounds like a great small-game caliber…the handloader in me would want to cast bullets for it and go after bushytails, but that’s another article! Thanks for writing!

      1. Mike, the .327 Fed Mag almost demands handloading to get the most out of this caliber. I’d be interested to see what you think if you try it. I suspect you’ll be blown away with its versatility.

        1. John, I have no doubt that I would really like it. I would like to get into that caliber (buy the gun, dies, etc.) – maybe some day. Thanks for writing!

  5. Own all three, terrific guns. These things are built to last at least 500 years. I have heard of a range owned SP101 that has over 1 million rounds thru it; nice to know if that was true. The snub nose was a woods gun that saved me a few times. Put the Pachmayr laminated rose wood grips on the 4 inch and Wolff springs for the hammer and trigger both; an absolutely amazing trigger. Did just the hammer springs on the other two. Since i have my own range I do night shooting at times, taking videos of muzzle flash; for whatever reason the American Eagle .357 158g SHSP produces almost no muzzle flash, even with using a Ruger LCR 1 7/8″s barrel. This is a full power load with a stated 540″#s muzzle energy. Of course others look like cannon fire. The 3 inch is my wife”s, won”t have anything else. I truly enjoy my firearms.

    1. Just Me, that’s great…you upgrading your SPs. I’ll be they are better shooters now. Interesting about the A.E. ammo – when it re-appears, I’ll have to try some. Thanks for writing!

  6. Mike,
    Another great article. I can’t say much about snubbbies and I did carry a Snubby S&W for a short period of time and another S&W Both in .38 Special when I was active Duty.

    No issues with either one that comes with firing Snubbies…. From what I can recall The S&W Snubbies I carried were a large frame with a 2″barrel.

    I carried the Ruger Single Six .38 Special with 4 inch barrel and iron Sights,
    I had a Colt ..38 Official Police in .38 Special with 4 Inch barrel and iron sights.

    I also have an Early Moel Ruger KGP-100 with 4 inch Bull Barrel /full Shroud. Front sight has been replaced with “Tru Glo” interchangeable Light Tubes..

    It has the original rubber grips and wooden inserts.. Looks BEAUTIFUL in my opinion and I have seen no need or want to replace the original grips! I know I can replace the wooden inserts if I see anything that tells me THESE ARE AMUST HAVE!” . So far I have not seen anything I like or care for to replace them.

    I don’t have a way to measure the Trigger pull but I can and will say this. One can put dime om top of the barrel and dryfire it both DA and SA and the dime will not move.
    Some people look down or Rugers or put them down. I have no issues with putting it up against S&W/Taurus/Colt or any other manufacturer .

    The KGP/GP-100s are BLEEPING NEAR Impossible to destroy! As you have noted about Ruger Revolvers being probably the Toughest and accurate and RELIABLE Revolvers on the market.

    1. Bingo, Yeah, Rugers are hard to hurt, for sure! You’ve had some interesting guns – sounds like your GP is a thing of beauty! Glad you enjoy it so much. As always, thanks for writing!

  7. I sold my Ruger 357 and bought a Ruger Blackhawk 5.5 inch barrel stainless .44 magnum . I have never looked back as I live in grizzley country. I prefer the extra power in my hand should I ever encounter a big mad bear .

    1. Rob, for you that makes sense. The .44 seems to be very popular in bear country, from what I read. We don’t have bears around where I live, but if we did, I’d have a .44 with me, loaded with hard-cast bullets. Thanks for writing!

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