Range Report: Ruger SP101 — Light, Handy, Powerful

Ruger SP101 101 with cylinder partially open

Over the years, among the most useful handguns I have used have been five-shot revolvers. Light, handy and powerful enough for most chores, these are excellent defensive revolvers. Another idiom I have used has been the 4-inch barrel kit gun—usually in .22 caliber. A favorite recreational shooter has been the Smith and Wesson Regulation Police, a five-shot .38 with 4-inch barrel.

Ruger SP101 right side with wood grips
The SP101 is one rugged and reliable revolver.

A few weeks ago, I had my first experience with a revolver that combines the best attributes of the Kit Gun and the light carrying five-shot revolver. The Ruger SP101 with 4-inch barrel is chambered in .357 Magnum. This 30-ounce revolver packs a lot of punch—up to 560 foot-pounds. The SP101 is easily among the most versatile handguns in my gun safe. My first concern is the worst case scenario. For use in personal defense against two- or four-legged threats, the SP101 is a great choice for the trail. For recreational shooting, small game hunting and informal target shooting, the SP101 is also a great handgun.

The Ruger features all stainless construction, an underlugged 4-inch barrel and fully adjustable rear sights. The front sight is a fiber optic type that aids in visibility and rapid sight acquisition. While many small frame handguns are not well suited to the .357 Magnum cartridge, this handgun is an exception. The combination of heavy 4-inch barrel and recoil dampening grips make for good control. Is the Ruger SP101 the handgun to test maximum effort handloads? Of course not, but for the occasional saving shot, the ratio of weight and power is unbeatable.

Revolvers such as the SP101 are at their best when regarded as nice .38 Special revolvers. With target grade loads such as the Winchester 158-grain SWC at about 800 fps the revolver is docile to use and fire. Accuracy is more than adequate for taking rabbit, squirrel, and other small game. A treed possum or raccoon might be better taken with a good quality hollow point such as the Winchester .38 Special 125-grain JHP offered in the white box USA line.

Ruger SP101 101 with cylinder partially open
The Ruger locks up vault tough. This is one rugged revolver.

Target loads are mild and pleasant. Move to a .38 Special +P such as the 125-grain Silvertip and you have a reasonably powerful home defense loading. The .38 Special is widely regarded as the most powerful cartridge the occasional shooter may handle well, and I agree. With the Ruger’s hand-filling grips and well-distributed weight, you have an excellent all-around handgun.

A Superior Design

A few years ago, Ruger introduced the SP101 revolver with a heavy-duty frame and a cylinder strong enough to remove any doubt as to the strength of the revolver. The SP101 is regarded as the strongest five-shot .357 Magnum revolver ever made. Ruger currently offers the revolver with fixed sights and a 3-inch barrel for use in concealed carry. This is an excellent concealed carry revolver.

Ruger SP101 with green sights
The green fiber optic front sight is a great aid in rapidly finding the target and keeping the front sight on target.

The 4-inch barrel version with adjustable sights, however, is a personal favorite. This revolver is among a very few in the size and weight class with sufficient accuracy and power to make the addition of adjustable sights worthwhile. While intended as a field gun, it is clearly a good choice for home defense and by no means too large for concealed carry in a proper holster. The double-action trigger is smooth and controllable making good defense shooting possible. The single action press is crisp, which allows for good long-range results.

The revolver handles the .38 Special cartridge with excellent accuracy. The .357 Magnum cartridge is 1/10th-inch longer and will not chamber in a .38 Special revolver, while the .38 will chamber and fire normally in a Magnum cylinder. This makes for great versatility. Powder-puff loads and snake shot may be used. The revolver doesn’t rely upon recoil energy for operation and a wide range of power levels are available.

While the SP 101 has many good features, the ball indent that aids in locking the chamber is a good addition to the revolver. A custom grade feature of this additional lockup is part of the reason for the Ruger’s accuracy potential. The grips are another outstanding feature. Likewise, the fiber optic front sight is especially attractive.

When firing the Ruger, I tested quite a few .38 Special cartridges. A ratio of 20 .38s for every .357 Magnum is a good practice regiment. However, I also fired several Magnum loads. I will carry these loads when hiking, taking long walks and for personal defense. The first was a very interesting load from Liberty Ammunition. Using a frangible 50-grain bullet this load demonstrated a startling 2,050 fps. Works for me! This is an ideal low penetration load for home defense.

Ruger SP101 with target in background
Accuracy with the Ruger was excellent with every load tested.

Next was Cor Bon’s 110-grain JHP. This is going to be the carry load. This load exhibited 1,410 fps from the Ruger’s 4-inch barrel. Ruger has a reputation for demonstrating greater velocity than other handguns of a similar barrel length, and this revolver is no exception. A 15-yard five-shot group with the Cor Bon 110-grain JHP went into 1.25 inches.

As a heavier load for use in personal defense, the Winchester 158-grain JHP was loaded. Average velocity was 1250 fps. This is a load with deep penetration that also shows good expansion. I also used a number of my own handloads using the Matt’s Bullets ( 178-grain Keith-style bullet at 1,020 fps with a heavy load in the .38 Special case—not for .38 revolvers. This is my big dog and small bear load. At a long 100 yards this, load gives the trainer shooter excellent accuracy.

Packing the Ruger

I was surprised to find the Ruger fit my Don Hume 721 holster (molded for the K frame Smith and Wesson) perfectly. The Don Hume is famously tight, and a slight break in is needed, so the Ruger worked fine. The strong belt clip allows good concealed carry. For carrying in the field, the thumbreak H 721 Don Hume is a great holster. The Ruger packs light and offers plenty of power. As a go-anywhere do-anything revolver, the Ruger is hard to beat.

Are you a fan of Ruger’s rugged revolvers? Share your best Ruger story in the comment section.

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About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (27)

  1. Lake County Examiner: Lakeview, Oregon: Wednesday, March 24, 2021/Letters To The Editor

    Best general-purpose handgun

    For a general-purpose handgun consider Ruger’s SP-101 .357 Magnum revolver: “stainless steel”, 5 shot swing out cylinder (double-action), with 4.2” barrel and target sights for the citizen owning only one handgun. Versatile for “self-defense/house protection/concealed carry”, as a kit and trail gun for the outdoorsman/ sportsman, and for urban metro vs. wilderness rural use. At 30 oz. unloaded lightweight (for the hiker, backpacker, trapper), yet heavy enough to handle the .357 Magnum. Loaded with .38 Special 148 grain lead target wad-cutter ammo (next to a .22 or .32) practical for hunting small game: rabbit, squirrel, and grouse (for the campfire skillet), for dispatching vermin such as raccoon, skunk, possum, etc. Even for butchering livestock such as cattle with a head shot. Loaded with CCI’s classic .38 Special shot or snake load of No. 9 shot highly effective in killing rattlesnakes. Readily and instantly accessible in reach via a nightstand, dresser or bureau drawer, or next to a sleeping bag inside a tent is very comforting armed security to have, especially at night!

    This handgun would also be great for a long-haul trucker, or hay hauler, to carry. Even for the motorist traveling on a road trip. Yes, bear in mind being broken down, stranded, and having to spend the night alone in your vehicle. This .38/.357 revolver combination along with an Atomic Beam Flashlight, survival knife, fresh drinking water, food, toilet paper, shovel, matches, wool blanket, etc. could certainly take back the night. Even for a woman it’s smaller frame and size would still fit her smaller hands. And firing.38 Special ammo in this .*357 Magnum could
    still be handled by a female. Double action revolvers can be improved with aftermarket combat rubber grips.

    I recommend reading, “Meet Ruger’s SP-101 Revolver: The Ideal Gun For Self Defense”, by Kyle Mizokan via the April 2019 issue of The National Interest.

    -James A. Farmer
    Merrill, Oregon (Klamath County)
    Long Live The State of Jefferson!

    *.357 Magnum revolvers will chamber and fire .38 Special ammo, but not the reverse. Also….”SP-101 Like Physics, Only Practical” by Law Officer for January 3, 2009 is well worth reading.

  2. Ruger’s 4.2″ 101 when picked up for the first time has a solid feel to it that makes it feel like it will be around for a while. Its beautiful grips have been changed out to Hogues – just so the feel more like my other handguns. It rides in a “Simply Rugged” holster. When it comes out the grip seems to fit quite well and the fiber optic front sight gets to where it needs be and doesn’t “halo” too badly. It is a really good size for carrying, it is accurate (usually practice at 40 yds. – that way closer targets look really BIG) and with the 4.2″ barrel the velocity reads the same as my heavier revolvers on the chronograph.

  3. @ FYI.

    I’ve been running into a Lot of Questions of the Ruger Mk. III’s NOT being Available in California. Ruger Mk. III’s were DROPPED from the California Ban List in 20 August 2014, alone with 37 other Weapons…

  4. I prefer the balance of the 3″ myself. The SP101 has to be one of the greatest handgun designs ever. I’m a huge K frame fan, but the SP101 is often overlooked. When my wife went through her handgun training she outshot all the men in her class who had Sigs, S&W, and Glock autos. She hit 30 and 40 yard drop targets without a miss. Now she was using .38+Ps, but she doesn’t mind the recoil of .357s. (She actually likes it!) It handles all .357 rounds up to 158 grains very well. I love the grip, and I think it was a big mistake for Ruger to change grips on the GP100.

  5. Glock, “Started, Is, Possibly, or Just Plain Maybe”. Is offering a .45ACP Revolver called the G-21R. I’m starting to have DOUBT’s of it’s Actual Existence, or JUST a Marketing Ploy to Drum Up Sales of Existing GLOCK Models.

  6. Sorry Mikial, but I still own my first ever gun purchased – a Security Six 4-inch .357mag in stainless steel. It is my go to gun for hogs, javelina n rattlesnakes down here in Texas. I’ve even taken a nice White-tailed Deer with it, once.
    I also own a stainless SP-101, chambered in .327mag. It is a very sweet shooting gun and is highly accurate too. The only problem is finding ammunition for it!!!
    You can’t beat Ruger for a quality wheelgun!

    1. I willingly bow to a smarter man than I was. I am nor looking for another nice Ruger wheel gun. Reliable. Accurate. Fun. Powerful. They have all the necessary requisites, 😉

    2. I’ve mentioned this previously to you Mikial but I have a brand new Security Six revolver I’ve been looking to give a good home too, reply to this if you want to know the details.

    3. Hi Matthew . I am interested in your Ruger Security Six . Please send me some information about it please Thank You David R O’Neal

  7. Apologies to all who have heard this before.

    My first handgun ever was a Ruger Security Six Stainless with a 4 inch barrel. One helluva handgun. Sold it to a friend who was an Oglala Sioux and a Smoke Jumper working in Montana so he’d have a good gun to carry when he jumped in to fight fires.

    I wish I’d never sold it, but this is also a beautiful gun. May have to get one as a Christmas present. After all, my wife said to get whatever I want. 😉

    1. I happen to be in possession of a brand spankin new Security Six stainless steel revolver that was given to me as a gift. I’ve never fired so as not to reduce the value of the gun and have been looking to for good home for it, preferably to someone that would really appreciate it. If your interested then let me know.

  8. My 3″ SP101 loaded weighs the same as my 6″ Security Six, also loaded. The old Security Six is significantly more accurate and delivers much higher velocities. It’s the one I carry in the woods. Ruger was crazy to replace it with something so much heavier but no more capable as the GP100.

    The SP101 is a fine concealed gun but isn’t in that class for performance.

  9. Blued 6-inch GP-100 in .357 Magnum for me. I like six-shooters, not 5-shot revolvers. The GP-100 shoots great, whether .38 Specials or full load .357 Magnums. I did do a trigger job on it to smooth it out on double action. Single action was just fine. I picked up a pair of HKS Model 586A speed loaders and double carrying case. The pistol rides in an Uncle Mikes thumb break holster on a 1.75″ wide tactical instructors belt. I like to think of it as a modern cowboy rig, and strap it on whenever I head out into the woods.

  10. i had a set of redhawks 357,41 and44 a gp100 and 2 sp101s in 32 h&r mag. i loved all of them and wish i had kept them. when i get the cash im buying an sp101 in the 327 mag neat little round and a 6 shot in the sp. you cant do a trigger job on the rugers to match what you can do with a smith but you would be hard pressed to ever wear one out.

  11. I enjoy firing FULL power 357 loads in my Taurus Tracker 6″ ported barrel. I fired a 7 shot 7/8″ group @ 50 yards the last time I fired it. But FULL power 357 loads in a smaller revolver are not as much fun.
    So I purchased the Ruger SP101 327 Federal magnum with 4″ barrel. It is truly FUN to fire with full power loads. It is a more modern cartridge and loaded at higher pressures. Therefore it has almost the same power as the 357 but with far less recoil. Also I get 6 shots instead of 5.
    I also can use it to train children and woman who do not like recoil because I can also fire 32 S&W, 32 S&W long, 32 H&R mag, and 32 auto.
    I have a full size 357 revolver and will keep it. But I am very happy with the Ruger SP 101 in 327 Federal magnum. Almost the same power as the 357 with far less recoil and one more shot.

  12. I purchased a GP100 Match Champion a few months back and I couldn’t be more pleased. It’s my first revolver and not meaning to boast, but I made a darned good choice. The ergonomics of this pistol, once the wooden grips are replaced with some nice rubbery Hogues, are excellent. The front fiber optic puts me on target in no time flat, and the excellent trigger is a snap to pull. I … LOVE … THIS … PISTOL!

  13. The SP 101 in 327 Federal Magnum is no slouch and very pleasant to shoot. I have shot most of the 327 and this and the S&W are my favorites.

  14. I have a 6 inch GP 100, 6.5 inch Blackhawk in 357, and a 5.5 inch Super Blackhawk in 44 mag and I would not part with any of them for anything. The 44 is the best balanced, most natural pointer I have ever shot. Ruger makes the best firearms money can buy and I will look at there products first every time.

  15. I had an SP101 and I couldn’t shoot it worth a damn. Never could figure out what it was about it that discombobulated me, but I had no such problems with my Super Redhawk, in spite of it being a larger caliber.
    I sold it to someone who could shoot it better double action than I could single action.

    1. @ Rick.

      Did you have SOLID Grips or Rubberized Grips? Rubberized Gripe, act like a Shock Reducer. Absorbing much of the Recoil Kinetic Energy to sent back into the Hand. It called the “Izod” Effect. People that use SOLID Grips, are more likely to get Rheumatoid Arthritis. Then people that use Rubberized Grips…

  16. Never had a revolver before buying the SP101 Talo .357 for my wife. I’ve since fallen in love with revolvers. Bought myself a S&W642 for EDC as I prefer the size/weight benefit to more powerful load. I still prefer the look and feel of the SP101 though.

  17. Still got a Ruger Security Six 4 inch .357 Mag bought in the 70’s. It remains a Dang Decent revolver for me and would only give it up for an across the board trade for a likewise condition 8 inch Colt Python ! ! !

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