We recently posted a review of the Smith & Wesson Airweight J-frame, a very popular revolver for concealed carry. Today we take a step up in both power and weight, and turn our attention to the Ruger SP101 in .357 Magnum. The SP101 is offered in .357, .38 Special +P, and .22 LR. While the .38 and .357 versions hold 5 rounds, the .22 LR model holds 8. Three different barrel lengths are available; 2.25″, 3.06″, and 4.20″. This review will concentrate on the Model No. 5720, which is a .357 Magnum with a 2.25″ barrel and double action only (DAO) operation. The hammer spur has been removed, leaving the hammer flush with the rear of the frame. Weight is 25 oz. The grip is molded of rubber with two plastic insert panels. Although this grip does a pretty good job of absorbing the recoil of .357 Magnum loads, it is too short to allow a full three-finger grip for someone with average to large hands. This makes the gun a bit difficult to control. Many shooters will prefer to upgrade to an aftermarket grip which fits their hand and which may cushion the recoil a bit better. My personal SP101 wears a Hogue Monogrip® which comes with finger grooves. The material soaks up the recoil very well and I can get a good grip with all three fingers of my firing hand. With 125 grain JHP loads, the recoil can be described as stiff, but not punishing. The weight of the gun also helps deal with the recoil of the powerful .357 Magnum.
Built Like a Tank
Construction is very solid. This gun is built like the proverbial tank. The frame, cylinder, and barrel are all solid stainless steel with a brushed finish. Unlike other revolvers, where the grip frame defines the shape of the factory grip, the Ruger has a straight stub projecting downward from the frame. This holds the coil mainspring. In fact, coil springs are used throughout. Internal parts are few in number and very robust. The frame has no side-plate, so the steel is full thickness throughout.
The 5-shot cylinder locks into place both front and rear. Note the swinging locking block which is visible where the crane engages the front of the frame.
Sights are fixed, which is adequate for close-in defensive use. The rear sight is a groove milled into the top of the frame, while the front sight is pinned to the barrel. The ejector rod is fully enclosed. Finish is brushed stainless.
In spite of all its good features, the Ruger SP101 is not perfect. As it comes from the factory, there are some sharp edges and rough corners on the gun. The edges of the trigger guard in particular are fairly sharp and rough. On models with an exposed hammer spur, that spur has some sharp corners which may wear on clothing. The other weakness is the trigger. As it comes from the factory, the DAO trigger pull is around 14 lb. For a gun to be used at contact distance, this is not a show stopper, but I tend to like my triggers somewhat lighter and smoother. A competent gunsmith can install lighter springs and stone the internal engagement surfaces of the lockwork to bring the trigger pull down to a smooth and slick 10 lbs. I do not recommend going lighter than this, because you want to have reliable ignition with all types of ammunition. After having any work done on the action, it is a good idea to test fire with a number of different brands of ammunition, including the exact type you plan to carry.
It is also possible to smooth out all the external surfaces with #400 wet or dry emery paper, followed by polishing with fine valve grinding compound. This can be done either by you or your gunsmith.
A Diamond in the Rough
Custom modifications for the SP101 are quite popular, due to the excellent design and reliability of the base gun. Gemini Customs is one shop who does excellent work on Ruger revolvers. They offer packages of modifications which range from utilitarian to ultra deluxe, at appropriate price points. They have had long experience with the SP101 and offer many popular modifications. Different types of front sights are offered, as well as action packages, glass-bead blasting and porting. If the SP101 is your primary carry piece, I would definitely look into some of the options available. Porting, or cutting channels into the barrel to direct some of the powder gas upward, reduces recoil and allows better control in rapid fire. The tradeoff is some loss in velocity, and hot gas spewing straight up from your defensive handgun. This may not be desirable in a contact distance encounter. My personal preference is to go without porting, but everyone should make their own choice.
Although compact enough to fit in a pocket (if you are a large person and wear baggy pants) the 25 oz., all stainless SP101 is much more comfortable riding on the belt. I find that a small OWB strong-side holster makes the SP101 very easy to conceal under an untucked shirt or sweater. This rig also works when wearing a jacket or suitcoat. For those seated in a car for long periods, an OWB crossdraw holster allows very rapid access. Other users, particularly petite women, many find the SP101 too heavy for belt carry. There is a wide variety of options available, inlcuding shoulder holsters, underwear holsters, thigh holsters, etc. As for off-body carry, there are a number of concealed carry purses available which will keep the gun ready and available. The choice of a concealed carry purse should be made with care. Websites such as The Well Armed Woman and The Cornered Cat have detailed articles which break down the different carry options available to women and discuss the pros and cons of each.
The author’s personal SP101 in a Mitch Rosen OWB holster with speed strip carrier for extra ammunition.
When I first purchased my SP101, I was impressed with its performance at the range. I was not looking for extreme accuracy. Rapid fire control was excellent. In fact, the SP101 is the softest shooting .357 of its size available anywhere. I did find the heavy trigger pull to be somewhat annoying, so I sent the gun off to Gemini Customs for a tune up. The gun came back with a smooth 10 lb. trigger pull, gold bead front sight, all rough edges smoothed out, bead-blasted finish and with the cylinder relieved for full-moon clips which allow for quick loading. Due to the lighter and smoother trigger, rapid fire control was significantly improved.
If you like the reliability and simplicity of a revolver, combined with the raw power of the .357 Magnum, all wrapped up in a compact and concealable package, the Ruger SP101 is for you. The little revolver is reliable and built to last. It is truly a firearm you can carry everywhere everyday and never feel under-gunned. If your job is busting crack houses, you may feel the need for more capacity, but for the majority of civilians, the SP101 represents a solid choice for concealed carry. Stay safe.