Ruger SP101 Revolver Review
A rugged, reliable revolver that remains relevant in a world packed with semi-autos!
By Joshua D. Silverman
Photography by Joshua D. Silverman and Jennifer Silverman
When you really stop and think about it, we’re living in the future. Okay, I admit it, we’re not quite to world peace, flying cars or even spandex jumpsuits yet, but we’re living in times that some of the most famous science fiction writers only dreamed of just a few short decades ago. What the heck does that have to do with anything? It means that in this twenty-first century world, there are almost countless companies making all shapes and sizes of high-tech, high-speed, low-drag semiautomatic handguns boasting all sorts of new bells and whistles designed to take slinging lead to the next level before we all switch over to phasers and set for “stun.” In such a world, packed to near-overflowing with futuristic, feature-packed semiautomatic pistols, a shooter can easily get caught up in the hype and start looking at the revolver as a thing of the past, destined to be relegated to western movies or the top drawer of grandpa’s nightstand. However, I’m pleased to report that the revolver, as a relevant means of sending lead downrange for any number of reasons, is alive and well and that a prime example comes from one of the great names in American firearms manufacturing, Ruger. The Ruger SP101 remains relevant in a semiautomatic world thanks to its unique mix of durability, reliability, simplicity and performance.
Around since the late nineteen eighties, the Ruger SP101 has grown to become a robust family of revolvers in calibers ranging from .22 long rifle to .357 Magnum, with barrel lengths from two to four inches and basic ramp or fiber optic sights. What they all have in common is stainless steel construction, a triple-locking cylinder, Ruger’s transfer bar mechanism and various takes on a rubber grip that is comfortable in the hand. Picking up a Ruger SP101 for the first time is an experience, as even the smallest models have a heft that only a stainless steel revolver can boast – not necessarily heavy, but certainly not light and definitely confidence-inspiring. With an extremely thick top strap and a cylinder that locks up tight each and every time, the truth is that the SP101 is built like a brick shit-house. This is the kind of revolver that can take the punishment of the legendary .357 Magnum caliber round shot after shot, day after day, year after year with little more than a wipe-down and barrel swab after a long day at the range and keep asking for more.
The Ruger SP101 revolver family includes models firing .22 long rifle, .327 Federal Magnum, .38 Special and .357 Magnum ammunition. All are built entirely from satin-finished stainless steel. While the .22 long rifle model holds eight rounds in the cylinder and the .327 is a six-shooter, the majority of the SP101 models I’ve run across at the local gun store or big-box retailer all brought five rounds to the show. Barrel lengths vary from two-and-a-quarter to a shade over four inches, but the most common models feature the 2.25 inch barrel. Some offer adjustable rear sights and some offer fiber optic front sights, but, yet again, the most common models offer simple, rudimentary but entirely adequate-for-what-they’re-meant-for black front blades and a fixed rear sight notched into the top strap. Small enough for daily concealed carry duty (ask me how I know) yet powerful enough for off-duty use, a hiker or hunter’s backpack companion or standing vigilant watch as a home defense weapon, the Ruger SP101 can be ordered to suit practically any owner’s need.
Thanks to their all-stainless steel construction, the SP101 family has collectively scratched the word “light” from their vocabulary in favor of the word “strong.” This means they tip the scales at a manageable but hefty 26-30 ounces, depending on caliber and barrel length. This puts them decidedly on the heavy side when compared apples-to-apples with other popular revolvers. In fact, when compared with a five-shot Charter Arms Undercover chambered in .38 Special and holding five rounds, with a similar barrel length, the SP101 fully doubles the Charter in weight. By further comparison, the famous Smith & Wesson Model 36, a .38 Special with a two-inch barrel, weighs in at approximately twenty ounces, while the Taurus Model 605 .357 Magnum revolver with a two-inch barrel weighs 24 ounces. While not the lightest revolver on the planet (especially with newer polymer framed revolvers around, including those from Ruger like the LCR), the hefty SP101 helps the shooter control the weapon while shooting, especially when used with the .357 Magnum load.
The Ruger SP101 model used for all testing is a .357 Magnum model with a three-inch barrel and a factory Hogue-like grip. The stock rubber grip included with most SP101 models that a prospective buyer will encounter is an excellent one, offering a solid grip that helps dissipate felt recoil but this particular model, with its Hogue-like texture and finger grooves, appealed to me due to its increased grip area, allowing my pinky plenty of room, and its slimmer profile. Carried daily in a Blackhawk inside-the-waistband holster on the right hip, my Ruger SP101 is easily concealed beneath as little as a slightly baggy t-shirt in warmer weather, and disappears entirely under a sweatshirt, jacket or coat when temperatures in Virginia cool off. While most small-framed revolvers, especially those chambered for .357 Magnum, aren’t exactly fun to shoot throughout a day at the range, my SP101 makes the trip every time and rarely leaves without at least a box of ammunition fired through it. Able to digest either .38 Special or .357 Magnum rounds, my SP101 has yet to fail in any way and accuracy, thanks in no small part to its three inch barrel, is excellent even out to ranges where longer barrels and better sights are the norm. At ranges of seven to ten yards, fist-sized groups of five rounds are easily held, whether fired in single or double action, from a two-handed, unsupported stance. Reloading with readily-available speed loaders or quick strips requires constant practice, but an experienced shooter who regularly hones their reloading skills can get their empty revolver back in the fight in just a few seconds.
Though certainly not the lightest revolver in the world (heck, it’s not even the lightest revolver I own), the Ruger SP101 has proven, in well over a year of daily service as a concealed carry handgun, completely reliable, extremely accurate and even enjoyable to shoot recreationally. Operation is simple and the revolver concept is proven by decade upon decade of manufacture by some of the most influential and legendary firearms companies in history. For home defense, concealed carry or as an addition to an outdoorsman’s kit, there simply isn’t much better out there. Even in a futuristic world packed with affordable, high-tech semi-automatics (including those from Ruger like the SR9, SR40 or LC9), there is certainly room for a sturdy and powerful small revolver. Accurate, reliable, simple, available in an array of calibers and barrel lengths and built like a tank, the Ruger SP101 is a fine example of American firearms craftsmanship to which I regularly entrust the safety of my life, my home and my family.