Gun Review: Ruger SP101 3″

I’m scripting a ’50’s style instructional video for shooters who’ve never fired/owned a gun. Think Handguns for Dummies without the copyright infringement. I’m trying to choose one gun to unite them all. While there’s a Smith & Wesson waiting in the wings for its shot at TTAG immortality, I’m currently evaluating the Ruger SP101 3″ Is it the perfect first gun for brand new shooters? Not quite. On the way to revealing the SP101’s drawbacks, here’s my selection criteria . . .

1. It has to be a revolver

Semi-automatic handguns are far easier to shoot accurately than double action revolvers. But they are not for newbies. There’s too much that can go wrong: loading the magazine, loading the magazine into the gun, racking the slide, remembering to rack the slide, remembering if you’ve racked the slide, remembering to deactivate a safety (where applicable), knowing when the gun is empty and knowing how to release the magazine.

Not to mention knowing how to clear the chamber if you remove the magazine before the gun’s empty, remembering to clear the chamber, keeping track of the muzzle while you reload a new magazine, remembering to reactivate the safety when you’re done (where applicable), gripping the gun tightly enough to avoid limp wristing and knowing how to clear the chamber if you do.

A revolver is WYSIWYG. Once a new shooter understands the safety rules, all they need is someone to show them how to open the revolver’s cylinder, how to check that it’s closed properly and how to hold the gun with an effective grip and stance. They already know which end of the gun to point at the target and what to do with the trigger (generally speaking) when they want the bullet to come out.

A new shooter with a new revolver can be up and running—well, standing still and shooting at paper—-in less than a minute. Sure, they won’t hit much, but voila! They can shoot a gun.

The semi’s steep learning curve requires patience and perseverance—two qualities that the average person doesn’t have in spades. The revolver’s idiot-friendly mechanical operation builds quick confidence. It allows the new shooter to concentrate on, and take pleasure in, acquiring the skill of marksmanship.

2. It has to be a heavy revolver

A large part of the newbie’s ability to hit what they’re aiming at depends on the revolver’s weight. Unfortunately, new shooters take to small, lightweight handguns like size queens take to porn stars (in reverse). Small handguns aren’t as psychologically intimidating as larger guns. A newbie can easily imagine themselves doing the stow and go; they know the gun won’t mandate a change in wardrobe or lifestyle. In fact, owning a small gun’s almost like not owning a gun at all! Which is more true than the small gun buying newbie will ever know . . .

Because there’s a good chance they’ll fire their awww isn’t it cute little lightweight handgun once and . . . never again. Small guns are painful to shoot. Unless they’ve got a kink, most humans have a tendency to avoid pain. A snubbie may be the ideal back-up gun (I’m still wondering about why you’d want a smaller second gun after the first one failed to git ‘er done), but it’s for sure not a good weapon with which to introduce newbies to the fun of guns.

The $629 Ruger SP101 is the poster child for The Joy of Shooting. The revolver encourages practice by not punishing the person practicing. The more the newbie shoots, the better they’ll be at shooting. The better they are at shooting, the more they’ll want to shoot. A virtuous circle. Only more so. The better they are and the more they shoot, the more self-defense capability they’ll achieve.

So we need a weapon with minimal recoil. Sure, a newbie could buy a small gun in a small caliber. But I’m assuming that the average new shooter is buying a handgun for self-defense. I reckon a .38 is the most effective easiest caliber for a newbie to handle. A revolver that shoots .38s with the possibility of upgrading to the Mother of All Manstoppers (.357) is an ideal solution. Again, as long as the gun has enough heft to tame the recoil.

The Ruger SP101 tips the scales at 27 ounces. New Hampshire’s finest stainless steel revolver is sufficiently heavy to make shooting .38s a breeze. Getting the gun back on target is quick and easy. Low-recoil .357s are a tad more challenging, but not as punishing as a increasingly experienced new shooter might imagine.

Full-on self-defense .357s are for sure a handful, but why wouldn’t they be? Newbies can gradually graduate to the most potent of popular handgun rounds, feeling safe and secure with their favorite (only?) handgun as they go.

Granted, the SP101’s a pretty portly pistol to pack. But it is pretty; the stainless Ruger revolver is a handsome beast with perfect proportions. Anyway, there’s no getting around the trade-off between future firearms facility and current concealed carryability. If a new shooter wants to be able to hit their target, and increase that ability over time, they need every one of those ounces.

3. It has to have a long(ish) barrel

The only thing harder to shoot than a lightweight revolver is a lightweight revolver with a short barrel. There’s a reason why snubbies are also called belly guns; it’s not because they’re easy to shoot accurately at targets beyond bad breath distance. The old saw that “most gunfights happen at 10 yards” is entirely misleading; the stat is heavily skewed by police gunfights.

Anecdotally, a woman who’s alone and sees a gun or knife-wielding rapist heading her way would be well-advised to shoot earlier rather than later. Which means further rather than closer. Which is a good rule of thumb generally. Assuming you can hit your target.

Which is damn difficult with a snubbie. The 3″ Ruger has enough barrel length to give a bullet a proper send-off. Longer would be better, but I’m trying to keep concealed carry within the realm of possibility. Which brings us straight to one of the Ruger SP101’s main deficiencies for the role of beginner’s first gun . . .

4. It has to work as a concealed carry gun

While the Ruger SP101 3″‘s size and weight make it a bit of a PITA to carry, the fact that the revolver has an exposed hammer is a definite disqualifier. It’s possible to extract the SP101 from your pants pocket without the hammer catching on the material, but it’s more likely that this unfortunate event will occur. Unfortunate as in deadly. For the owner.

Ruger offers the shorter-barreled SP101s with a shrouded hammer. But not the 3″. Bummer.

5. It has to have great sights

Mastering a revolver’s trigger pull, even one as crisp and clean as the Ruger SP101’s, ain’t no walk in the park. But that skill’s for nought if you can’t aim the gun properly. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Ruger SP101’s sights suck.

The rear sight channel works OK when the gun’s aimed at a light-colored target. It pretty much disappears when the target’s dark or wandering around in low light.

The Ruger’s front sight is a black ramped blade. There’s nowhere near enough color contrast with the rear sight. The front sight also disappears against a dark target. You could coat the blade in neon nail polish, but the gap on either side of the sight (between the rear channel) is still too small.

Some might assert that the SP101 is a point-and-shoot piece. And they’d be right—in a self-defense situation. To achieve the skill-set needed to be a good point shooter, you need to practice with proper sights. These are not the proper sights you’re looking for.

While we’re here, why not an SP101 with Crimson Trace laser sights? Because beginning shooters get the idea that if the laser’s on the target, that’s where the bullet will go—failing to realize that it will only go there if you hold the gun steady and pull the trigger smoothly. Laser sights also lead newbies to think they don’t need to practice. Which they do.

So, other than points four and five, the Ruger SP101 3″ is the ideal gun for beginning shooters.

I’ve contacted Ruger about the possibility of fixing this and other drawbacks. I’d like them to offer a TTAG Beginner’s Gun. But then I’d like to have five million dollars in the bank, too. I’ll report back ASAP. Meanwhile, I’m contacting Smith about checking out the Model 60. (A head-to-head comparo is in the works.)

Do I have the right recipe? Any other candidates?


Model: Ruger SP101
Action: Revolver
Capacity: 5 rounds
Caliber: .38/.357
Material: Stainless Steel
Barrel Length: 3.06″
Overall Length: 8″
Weight Unloaded: 27 ounces
Price: $629 msrp

RATINGS (out of five):

Style * * * * *
It’s the revolver a revolver would carry.

Ergonomics * * * *
The SP101 feels wonderfully balanced and accommodates all four non-shooting fingers (a big plus with a smaller revolver). The thumb indentation in the rubber grip panel should extend all the way to the rear of the grip.

Ergonomics Firing * * * * *
Shooting .38s are a joy. Full-strength .357s not so much. Practice with the first a lot, practice with the second a little, carry the big ass man stoppers and you’re good to stow.

Reliability * * * * *
Built like a brick shithouse. No problems.

Customize this * * *
Grip options are legion and sight replacement is highly recommended.

Overall Rating * * * * 1/2
At this price, it should be perfect. And it almost is.