Gun Review: Ruger GP-100 .357 Magnum

After nearly seven years of wedded bliss, I caught her red-handed! Red-handed at the range, that is. At my insistence, my lukewarm-to-guns wife had just fired six rounds from my tiny, palm-punishing Kel-Tec .380. Her hand hurt and her face grimaced, and it seemed as though tears weren’t far behind. Our day at the range – and any budding interest she had in firearms – was in serious jeopardy.  I had to act fast . . .

To the rental counter I ran, with the voice of Dirty Harry himself resonating in my ears:  “You’ve got to ask yourself one question, punk: What’s the biggest, heaviest handgun your wife can run a decent self-defense round through and still have an enjoyable shooting experience?” I didn’t feel lucky, but luck shined upon me anyway. The magnum force answer that saved the day? The Ruger GP-100.

Second-rate status, blue-collar provenance and XL dimensions aside, the GP-100 absolutely hits a grand slam in the appearance department, delivering perfect hand cannon aesthetics. Although it’s available in classic blued steel, you’d be nuts not to come off the extra cheese ($75) for the satin stainless finish, which contrasts beautifully with the Hogue ® Monogrip’s ® black rubbery goodness.

In four-inch guise, the GP-100, with its full under-lug barrel and shrouded ejector rod, has just the right looks to make gun owners giddy and bad guys incontinent. According to my wife, “I feel safe just looking at it . . . it’s big, powerful, and easy to use in a stressful situation.”

The one place where you will want to dance with the Ruger GP-100 is on the firing line. When I returned from the rental counter with this shooting-day-savior, my wife agreed to fire it “just once” before she washed her hands of the whole scene. I dropped in six re-loaded .38 Special wadcutters and handed it over. Instead of experiencing wrist-walloping recoil, my dearest was delighted to find that it a) kicked like a pellet gun, and b) gave her a sub-five-inch group at 21 feet. Not bad for a first-timer.

Though my wife generally stuck to shooting .38s, I longed for a Magnum fix. I proceeded to run through a bevy of different .357 FMJs. After getting used to the (considerable) difference in noise, I quickly realized that the combination of an excellent ergonomic design, good weight distribution, and a huge chunk of rubber in my paws made for recoil that wasn’t off-putting in the least.

Two hundred rounds later, I honestly believe that it kicks less than my S&W Third Generation .40-caliber semi-auto.  (It kicks a lot less than my Kel-Tec .380.)  Even with the hotter stuff, muzzle flip was miniscule, and neither my wrists nor my hands ever declared discomfort. With these types of firing dynamics, tight groups should be just around the corner, no?

No. First of all, the sights were off (the groups were consistently down and to the right).  After I fixed that, things were good as long as I stayed in the seven-to-ten yard range.  When I moved the target out to 15 yards, the black-ramp front sight kept getting lost against the B-27 target’s black background in the indoor range’s dim light. Incidentally, Smith & Wesson makes a red-ramp front sight standard on all Smith & Wesson 686s. Why Ruger doesn’t – and instead sells one as $15 accessory – is a real mystery. Would an extra fifteen bucks really keep anyone from buying this gun?

Would Obama go hunting with Dick Cheney? Lots of folks choose the Ruger GP-100 as a cheaper alternative to Smith’s 686. Both .357 Magnums are medium-to-large frame double-action revolvers with full-sized grips and a choice of several barrel lengths (three, four, and six inches in the Ruger’s case). Both the 686 and the GP-100 have adjustable front and rear sights (except for the three-inch GP-100). Both weigh about the same.

The big difference: quality. The several hundred dollars more you’ll spend on the Smith provides a smoother trigger and parts that generally fit together more precisely. If a few rough edges and a merely average trigger aren’t a big deal, the Ruger makes a compelling case for you to save some green and pocket a very good revolver—that will never fit in your pocket.

Easy to use? Yes. Easy to carry? Well, that depends on whether or not Detective Callahan’s shoulder rig is an option for you. Not to say that the GP-100 can’t be concealed, but unless you’re an anorexic supermodel with a tape worm, inside-the-pants carry is simply not gonna happen. Neither is inside-the-pocket carry. Inside-the-purse carry doesn’t seem feasible, either, though this piece may fit in your car’s glove box.

Probably, your best bet for carrying this big .357: a belt holster. But not a cheap one. Smaller, lighter guns are more tolerant of a wide variety of belt holsters; larger, heavier guns like this are famously fickle. Buy a cheap nylon job from Walmart and the big Ruger will flail around your hip like the world’s deadliest lap dancer. Not to say it’s that much better in the accuracy department when you unholster the beast.

I blame the trigger. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s just . . . average. Revolvers like this tend to have heavy double-action triggers that offer a lot of initial resistance, stack a great deal as the hammer comes up, and then smooth out just before the hammer drops. The best revolvers (Performance Center S&Ws, old Colts, and, to a slightly lesser extent, the S&W 686) defy that stereotype by exhibiting lower initial effort and less stacking.

Unfortunately, the Ruger GP-100 is not one of these. Like many Ruger revolvers, this one has a little “hitch” immediately prior to the sear release. It’s not terrible. But it’s not helpful, either. Even though I could shoot relatively tight groups with .357s and make ragged holes with .38s at distances under 15 yards, everything I did past that point was just this side of pathetic. On a brighter note, the GP-100’s single-action trigger, though not what you would call crisp, was light and predictable. It yielded results that made me and my look like pros.

The GP-100 isn’t a class leader. But many of its shortcomings can be addressed by good ol’ capitalism. Don’t like the rough edges around the inside of the frame? Harbor Freight sells a five-dollar needle file set. Think that nasty double-action trigger can’t get any smoother? Your local gunsmith and Ben Franklin say otherwise.

Several sighting options – conventional, light-gathering, and laser – can make the low-light target acquisition problem go away (how far away depends on your wallet). Also, the constraints of using a revolver for self defense become at least a little less daunting when you invest in a good speed loader (though the big rubber grips get in the way a bit).

Speaking of grips, I’m sure someone molds them in pink if that’s your thing. And now that we’re back to aesthetics, is there any better-looking canvas on which to create all manner of awesomeness? Have a look at RF’s new Gemini Custom Ruger SP101. Grant Cunningham also takes the GP-100 to a whole new level, both style- and action wise. Yes, for the price of a Smith & Wesson Model 686, you can bring your Ruger GP-100 to the Smith’s level of quality (or completely bling it out with accessories and customizations galore).

But, for just the price of a Ruger GP-100, you can have a good (if not great) revolver right out of the box. And a happy wife who likes shooting it. In my case, that seemed to be the best value.  Was a post-tax total of $572 worth having a better half who actually wants to go to the range with me? You bet it was.

Specifications

Model: Ruger GP-100
Action type: Double action/single action revolver
Caliber: .357 Magnum and .38 Special
Capacity: 6-round cylinder
Barrel length: 4.0″
Overall length: 9.5″
Weight: 40.0 oz.
Grips: Black Hogue ® Monogrip ®
Sights: Black ramp front (adjustable for windage) and black blade (with white outline) rear (adjustable for windage and elevation)
Finish: Satin Stainless Steel
Current Value: $729 Suggested Retail, $572 out-the-door at my local retailer

RATINGS

(Out of five stars)
Style  * * * * *
Do handguns look better than this?

Ergonomics (carry)  * *
If you regularly carry this, you probably drive an armored truck or spend a lot of time in the woods.

Ergonomics (firing)  * * * *
Handles recoil like Bill Clinton handles a young lady’s objections.   One star deducted for a slightly-harsh trigger and Ruger’s front-sight cheap-out.

Reliability  * * * * *
Not only is it an unbelievably robust revolver, but it doesn’t have Smith & Wesson’s annoying, failure-prone internal lock, utilizing instead a long-ass conventional pad lock that you run through one of the cylinder bores. K.I.S.S. engineering at its finest.

Customize This  * * *
Given what it is, holster and laser/light options are a bit limited. Still, there’s enough to keep you interested and help tailor the weapon to your particular needs.

OVERALL RATING  * * * *
The best dog you’ll ever own ain’t an American Kennel Club champion; it’s the decidedly average mutt you adopted from the pound. Why?  Because of core competencies, baby. Despite some significant shortcomings, he’s really, really good at just being a dog. The Ruger GP100 is really good at just being a big-ass, crap-your-pants-intimidating, rock-solid revolver.