Gun Review: S&W Governor (Take Three)

When Smith & Wesson introduced their ‘Governor’ .410/.45 Colt/.45 ACP revolver at the 2011 SHOT show, many gun guys assumed Hell had frozen over. Smith & Wesson imitating Taurus? More specifically, the Taurus Judge, a shotshell revolver widely panned for its dismal accuracy and poor DA trigger pull. And? As Elvis said, Smith & Wesson was takin’ care of business baby. The gunmaker saw a huge new market opening up. Not being idiots, they wanted a piece of it. So, has Smith evolved and improved the shotgun-revolver concept, or have they merely hitched their caboose to the Taurus gravy train?

TTAG’s Armed Intelligentsia will know this isn’t our first take on the Governor, or even the second. Farago & Friends blasted paper targets at his indoor range. Roy Hill used it to make fruit salad at his private shooting spot. I was eager to do some accuracy testing and shotshell patterning on my own, and I’ve also been dying to learn just how much velocity and energy the Governor sacrifices with its short barrel and elongated cylinder. After long hours baking in a hot shooting quarry, here’s what I learned . . .

Overview:

Smith & Wesson Governor: They almost ran out of space for all those calibers. (courtesy Chris Dumm for The Truth About Guns)The Governor is an alloy-framed revolver chambered in the 2.5″ .410, .45 Long Colt, and .45 ACP. Though it shares the same basic concept as the Taurus shotshell revolver, the Governor is not (quite) a Judge by another name. For one thing, the Judge gives you five shots. The Governor is a true six-shooter, yielding an impressive-sounding 20 percent firepower advantage over the Brazilian Jurist.

The Governor’s Aluminum/Scandium alloy frame packs this added firepower into the same 29.5 oz. weight as the original all-steel (and five-shot) Judge. The Governor is 8.5″ long, with a 1.75″ diameter cylinder. Discreet carry is impossible, even if it weren’t inadvisable.

The Governor’s cylinder locks into the frame with the traditional cylinder-release latch at the rear, and with a spring-loaded ball bearing at the front of the cylinder crane (above).  The ball bearing locks into a detent at the bottom of the ejector shroud. Most other Smith & Wesson revolvers use a spring-loaded plunger that engages the hollow tip of the ejector rod to lock the front of the cylinder.

I don’t know if the Governor’s design is more positive than the usual method, but the broad, flat end of the ejector rod is more comfortable to use; it doesn’t try to take a core sample from your palm when you rap it to punch out the empties.

The Governor also adds versatility by chambering the .45 ACP in addition to the now-standard .410 and .45 Colt. Using full-moon clips as speedloaders, the .45 ACP gives the Governor the fastest reloads of this entire class of revolvers. It also makes the Governor a big-bore Swiss Army Gun, hurling everything from .410 snake shot to budget-priced .45 ACP hardball to thundering 255-grain, 950 fps .45 Long Colts. [Note: only use standard pressure loads. We'll get back to that later.]

For comparison, Taurus sells a six-shot ‘Raging Judge’ which fires the .454 Casull/.410/.45 Colt. The Brazilian all-steel behemoth tips the scales at nearly four pounds—- double the Governor’s heft.

To move the ‘shotgun revolver’ concept forward with .45 ACP functionality, Smith & Wesson reached back in time to the .45 ACP Model 1917 revolver. The Model 1917 [above] was produced in large numbers for World War I by both Colt and Smith & Wesson. It fired the same .45 ACP ammo as the (then) new and scarce 1911, using half-moon clips to headspace and eject the cartridges.

The half-moon clips never caught on, but the Model 1917 proved so popular with civilians that the oddball .45 Auto Rim cartridge was introduced in 1920 specifically for it. If you have a supply of .45 Auto Rim ammunition, you should probably keep it for its collector value. I have no idea if it will function properly in the Governor.

Aesthetics:

In profile the Governor reminds me slightly of Harrison Ford’s pistol from Blade Runner, but without the Steyr butter-knife bolt handle on the side. The big Smith’s distorted dimensions make it ugly and cool at the same time, kind of like the Chiappa Rhino. IMHO, the Governor’s best viewing angle is from the front. The stretched cylinder is foreshortened and the cavernous bore takes front-and-center, giving it the frontal appearance of a Brobdingnagian snubnose. And no, I didn’t point a gun at a photographer. I used a mirror: you can tell by the reversed left-side shirt pocket.

In high contrast to the matte-black finish of the rest of the gun, the Governor’s stainless-steel barrel and gaping muzzle together present an extremely intimidating image to anyone on its business end. This “Welcome To Hell” statement might or might not induce spontaneous defecation in your potential target, but I wouldn’t count on it. By the time you’ve leveled this cannon at a threat and put your finger in the trigger guard, you won’t be thinking about jokes like these anyway.

Ergonomics:

The Governor is a big revolver, and its trigger has a big job: cocking the hammer and rotating a cylinder that’s nearly the size of a can of Red Bull. I exaggerate (slightly). But the question remains: is the trigger up to the task? Yes, and then some.  It’s simply the best trigger I’ve ever felt on a factory-stock revolver, buttery smooth and consistent in its takeup and utterly crisp in its release.

The DA pull is in the neighborhood of 10-11 lbs. This is an estimate, as my trigger gauge only goes to eight. But the Smith & Wesson Governor’s long pull is deceptively smooth and steady and it doesn’t stack at all. The target-worthy SA pull breaks like Swarovski crystal at a hair over four pounds, with barely a millimeter of overtravel. Many Smith & Wessons need a trigger job before they feel this good.

The sights are almost excellent, with a large Tritium front post dovetailed into the barrel. The rear fixed notch is all black. I would have appreciated at least some high-contrast white dots on either side. Compared to most fixed-sight snubbies, the Governor’s sights are fabulous: quick to acquire in daylight or darkness, and reasonably precise to boot.

The Governor’s grip features a slim rounded grip that seems borrowed from a round-butt K-frame. It’s much more comfortable than the manly-looking square butt frame with which most large Smith & Wesson revolvers are cursed. Harry Callahan’s square-butt Model 29 may be perfect for pistol-whipping recalcitrant San Francisco serial killers, but it forces shooters to choose between two grip sizes: Too Big and *Much* Too Big.

Not so the Governor.  Its rounded butt and soft grips fit my hands perfectly, like I’d squished a handful of Silly Putty and mounted the resulting Henry Moore sculpture on a pistol grip frame. The bottom finger-groove also slightly overhangs the end of the grip frame, giving you a full-fisted grip you’ll definitely appreciate when riding the recoil of  those Buffalo Bore .45 Long Colts.

Recoil is mild with all .45 ACP loads and all ‘Cowboy’ .45 Colt offerings. The .410 loads we tested produced only moderate perceived recoil; they gave the gun a decent shove, but it wasn’t violent or snappy. Anyone who can tolerate the recoil of a subcompact 9mm (even if they don’t like it) will think the Governor’s a real pussycat with .45 ACP, .410s, or ‘Cowboy’ .45 Long Colts.

Full-power .45 Colts (e.g. our 230-grain JHP) produce vigorous recoil and there’s no way around it. Any time you generate nearly 500 lb-ft. of energy from a snubnose 30-ounce revolver, Sir Isaac Newton tells you that you’re definitely going to feel it.

Carry Options:

I really can’t imagine any reason (or means) to CCW with a gun this size. Any sensible carry gun will weigh half of the Governor’s loaded weight and carry much more firepower. Tiny subcompact 9mm are exactly half the length, half the width and half the weight of the mighty Governor.

Most .410 shotgun-revolvers are purchased to be ‘nightstand’ guns and never carried outside the home. I suppose the Governor could be pressed into that role, but I think it’s true niche is as a backwoods tool for survival hunting and defense against predators. Since I don’t usually take my nightstand with me when I go camping or hunting, I’d need a good holster.

Anything IWB is a complete non-starter; I don’t want my trousers four inches too large just to fit this Yosemite Sam revolver. Good luck yanking that soda-can cylinder clear of your reinforced carry belt. At 30+ ounces loaded, you WILL need a reinforced carry belt. The Governor would work best as a wilderness gun in a pancake holster or even a cross-draw. The venerable Bianchi X-15 vertical shoulder holster can sheathe this beast comfortably (at the price of looking fairly ridiculous) but the snub-nosed Governor leaves a lot of empty space at the bottom of the holster.

Multi-Caliber Design:

To accommodate the moon clips needed for the .45 ACP, Smith & Wesson had to machine a .025″ recess into the rear of the cylinder.  The moon clips themselves are .035″ thick. They headspace the rimless .45 ACP cases and grip them for ejection. If you try to load .45 ACPs without the clips, they just slide forward into the chamber and will not fire. You have to [carefully] eject them with a pencil, dowel or cleaning rod.

.45 Long Colt and .410 shells headspace and eject from the Governor’s case rim; you load them normally into the cylinder. The big Smith’s ejector rod is much too short to completely eject spent shotshells, which are about 2.75″ long. Reload of .410 shells under stress/fire would be something of an issue; most of the the empties must be manually cleared from the cylinder before fresh shells can be singly loaded. .410s don’t fit in .45 Colt speedloaders.

Crescent or Whole?

The .45 ACP moon clips present an unfamiliar complication for revolver shooters: spare magazines. A Glock without a magazine is a single-shot. A .45 ACP Governor without a moon clip is a Scandium-Aluminum cudgel. Despite its size, you’ll wish it were a steel cudgel.

Luckily, the Governor’s moon clips are widely available and as cheap as canned soda. By luck or by design, all contemporary .45 ACP revolvers use the same full-moon clips and cost less than $1 each in small batches. In bulk, they’re less than $.45 each.

The Governor’s full-moon clips provide the quickest reloads of any Judge-type revolver, but they’re a minor hassle to load with fresh rounds. When it’s time to remove the empties using only your fingers they can be a real bee-hotch. Cheaper Than Dirt! sells a $4 tool to speed up the process,. If you’re cheap like me you can make like a mathematician and work it out with a pencil.

The third-moon clips don’t provide quite as rapid reloading, but they load easily with fresh .45 ACP rounds and they carry flat in your pocket or pouch. Unlike the full-moon clips, they’re a snap to empty and reload with fresh rounds. They’re cheaper than the full-moon clips, but you’ll need three times as many of them.

These smaller clips really shine for ‘mix-and-match’ cylinder loadings with, say, two .410 birdshot loads for snakes or pests, followed by four .45 ACP rounds for two-legged predators. With .45 ACP ammo, only the third-moon clips give this versatility.

Smith & Wesson does not recommend using any type of half-moon clips in the Governor, because they’ll ride up on the raised rim around the cylinder and jam the works up tight.

Fit And Finish:

The Smith & Wesson Governor boasts an exceptionally refined level of workmanship, even by the high standards of Smith & Wesson revolvers. The machining and finish is damn-near flawless, although the magnified photo of the cylinder crane does show some of the very few (and microscopically tiny) toolmarks just above the ejector rod.

The Governor’s fit and finish is slightly better than the .357 Magnum Model 60 I’m currently testing, and possibly superior to the finest revolver I’ve ever owned, a 1980’s Model 686. The Governor’s exterior is finished in a matte-black PVD (physical vapor deposition) coating which has weathered press use and abuse with hardly a scratch or dull spot. This coating is tough, attractive, and OCD-friendly: it cleans easily and hides fingerprints well.

In these days of polymer frames and investment-cast slides, we rarely see frame components fit together with the extreme precision shown in this picture. Yes, that tiny hairline is where the sideplate fits into the frame. The whole gun fits together like that.

Functioning:

I tested the Governor with a variety of jacketed and lead .45 Colt and .45 ACP, along with .410 #6 Birdshot, 1/5-oz. slugs, Federal “Handgun” 000 Buckshot and Winchester PDX loads. I put about 250 rounds through the gun in total. All spent cases showed solid, centered primer hits.

Extraction and ejection was also completely reliable with both types of .45, but a bit “challenging” with .410 shells.  The Governor is no John Holmes in the ejector-rod department, but it’s more than long enough to toss .45 ACP cases completely out of the cylinder. With the clips tightly gripping the cases, .45 ACP ejection was a dead cert whether the muzzle was up, down or sideways. The oversized rubber grips sometimes prevent the empties from literally flying out, but they don’t get hung up on the grips or cylinder release. They just fall to the ground when you release the ejector.

I was pleasantly surprised when .45 Long Colt cases ejected properly from the Governor. Shotshell ejection . . . doesn’t always happen, although PDX shells come pretty close. Remington slugs locked up the cylinder and had to be punched out with a cleaning rod (see below). Fired Winchester birdshot hulls swelled out to fit the chambers very tightly, and they were a major PITA to empty with your fingers.

The Federal 000 Buck ‘Revolver’ loads were easy to get started with the ejector, and fairly easy to pull the rest of the way out with your fingers. But you still have to pull them out with your fingers, which makes emptying and reloading the Governor about as slow as emptying and reloading a single-action revolver with a loading gate and ejector rod.

Winchester’s PDX rounds gave the best ejection of any .410 shotshells. Their plastic hulls are smoother than those of other brands; they seem to be manufactured with particular care for smooth ejection and feeding. Using good revolver ejection technique (muzzle up, with two quick raps on the ejector rod), three or four fired PDX hulls drop completely free of the cylinder. The other two typically shake free when you shake the gun or try to grab them. Not perfect, but surprisingly good.

We experienced our only malfunction when some fired Remington slug shells ‘set back’ in the cylinders after firing. After three shots, they’d jammed against the frame and seized up the cylinder, the trigger and the hammer. A few solid blows from my palm allowed the cylinder to swing free, but the ejector rod was powerless to push the solidly-wedged shells clear. I rammed the spent shells out with a pistol cleaning rod and checked for damage (none).

I consider this to be an ammo malfunction; it only happened with one type of shell (and all from the same box) out of the many flavors of .410 we fired. Nonetheless, it reminded me how incredibly important it is to function-test your defensive ammunition. If this kind of failure occurred during a gunfight, your only choices would be to transition to another weapon or to throw the gun at the threat and run like hell. You might even escape while he bends over to pick up his fancy new gun.

Accuracy:

I’ve learned not to expect much accuracy from any snubnose revolver, but the Governor proved to be a welcome surprise.  I don’t have a Ransom Rest, although I probably ought to get one (hint hint). I achieved acceptable accuracy firing the Governor from a padded rest atop my folding picnic table.

Including the occasional fudged shot on my part (which I will not call a ‘flyer’ this time), the Governor consistently shot these low-cost (and low-quality) .45 ACP lead roundnose bullets into sub-3 inch groups at 15 yards. It shot about four inches high and just slightly to the left of the point of aim, which is about perfect for a ‘Six O’Clock Hold.’

With two different brands of 255-grain lead roundnose ‘Cowboy’ .45 Long Colt, the Governor was equally happy drilling out the center of the target. The point of impact was precisely the same with .45 ACP and .45 Long Colts, so I used the same hold. I’m not sure why the .45 Long Colt bullets make neater round holes, though.  (Ask Leghorn?)

I was pretty stoked by accuracy like this, and I even dared some offhand 100-yard shots at Joe’s spinning groundhog target.  After I got the Kentucky windage, I dropped several rounds right on top of the thing, but I doubt I actually hit it. Then we switched to the full-power 230-grain .45 Long Colt JHPs. What a difference a load makes:

Recoil was snappier than a Schnauzer. This disappointing group was my best effort with the more powerful .45 Long Colt load.  The point of impact also moved down about three inches, and left about an inch.

The JHP’s jacket material is a lot harder than lead. It may not be engaging the Governor’s somewhat shallow, slow-twist rifling. Or it could just be that this particular pistol doesn’t like this particular load. Whatever the reason, the Governor patterned the PDX “Defense Discs” from a single shot almost as tightly as it ‘grouped’ a cylinder full of .45 Long Colt JHPs. Given the choice, I’d use the PDX—unless my target was a bear, cougar or moose.

Shotshell Patterning: Birdshot

Many people talk about .410 pistols as ‘Snake Guns.” We wanted to see just how well the Governor could ventilate a simulated, PETA-approved, paper serpent. This non-solid snake (artwork courtesy Joe Grine) is about three feet long and fairly plump for his species.  I aimed at its head and gave it a round of #6 birdshot from about ten feet.

As you can see, birdshot does not pattern too well from a 2.5-inch snubnose barrel. At ten feet, this snake would be badly wounded—and could still bite you. You could tighten up the pattern by moving in for a closer shot, but how stupid is that? If you’re close enough to kill a snake with a dose of the Governor’ birdshot, make some noise and let him slither away instead. If you’ve got an aggressive water moccasin coming at you, fire repeatedly while you retreat.

A birdshot equipped Governor would work reasonably well for small pest control, but .410 birdshot loads are useless for defense or hunting. The pellets are small in size and few in number, and they spread so rapidly that they can’t reliably kill a snake or a rabbit at ten yards. On the other hand, the ammo’s pretty cheap and the gun doesn’t recoil much. More to the point, the set-up lets you practice your pistol skeet.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNsUWusbXlw

I apologize for the ridiculous-looking Dirty Harry shoulder holster; in my entire ‘holster box’ it was the only thing large enough to fit the Governor’s huge cylinder. My deep shame at making such a dreadful fashion statement did not prevent me from busting about 60 percent of the clays, however. It was very important to shoot the clay pigeons quickly, before they got more than 10 yards away. Beyond that, the #6 birdshot pattern isn’t dense enough to guarantee that even a single pellet will strike them.

Shotshell Patterning: Buckshot and PDX

At $10 per box of 20, Federal’s “Revolver” 000 Buckshot loads are both effective and cost-efficient. With a center hold, groups like this single headshot can be yours at dining-room distances. The four 73-grain .36 caliber pellets consistently hit within four inches of each other. Traveling at 850 fps from a 2.5-inch barrel, they collectively deliver about 468 lb-feet of energy with multiple wound channels.

This single round would produce nearly the same trauma and incapacitation as a half-magazine full of .380 ACP hardball. No wonder some people look to the Smith & Wesson Governor (or Taurus Judge) as a bedside home-defense gun. But why stop with a single shot when your cylinder holds six?  If your target holds still long enough, you can multiply the mayhem with additional shots.

That kind of trauma is what terminal ballistics experts call a “Disgusting Mess.” These 7-yard groups are nice, but how quickly does the pattern open up at longer ranges? Here’s the same ammo at 15 yards:

Within fifty feet, one center-mass shot with Federal “Revolver” 000 Buckshot will put all four projectiles into their vitals. Basically, your Tango is going Down. Unless they’re wearing body armor, of course, but who’s that paranoid? With the right ammo at relatively short range, the .410 revolver is a devastating defensive weapon.

We also tested Winchester’s innovative PDX .410 self-defense ammunition. Instead of traditional birdshot, buckshot or slugs, 2.5-inch PDX shells are loaded with three copper “Defense Discs” and twelve plated BB shot traveling at 750 fps.

The three copper discs seem to engage the Governor’s rifling, at least a little bit. They consistently grouped much more tightly than the Federal 000 Buckshot. Unfortunately, the 12 BBs go all over the place. From seven yards away this paper perp took a BB on the forehead, one in the neck, and another in the ear. And had most of his brains blown out by the three “Defense Discs”, of course. That leaves nine BBs unaccounted for.

This target shows the impact of four rounds of PDX, fired quickly from seven yards. Once again, the “Defense Discs” pattern perfectly. Once again the BBs spray all over the place.  This picture doesn’t show the full width of the silhouette target, but the BBs spread about 18 inches across at this range. At 15 yards (not pictured) a good percentage of the BBs didn’t hit the target at all.

I’m excited by the performance of the PDX “Defense Discs”, but I found myself wishing they’d skipped the BBs and added one more disc to each cartridge, or skipped the BBs and increased the discs’ velocity a bit. A few stray BBs at 850 fps won’t penetrate more than a single layer of drywall if you’re shooting them inside your home, but you wouldn’t want to fire them on the street. No matter the velocity or the size, you’re still responsible for every bullet and every pellet you fire.

We only tested a handful of slugs in the Governor, and for good reason: they’re less effective and less accurate than good standard-pressure .45 Colt loads, and they’re difficult to empty after firing. They’re also more expensive, so what’s the point?

Attention: Handloaders

The Governor shoots three different cartridges with an amazing variety of loads, making it more versatile and much more economical than the .410/.45 Colt Judges. Handloaders can stretch this economy and versatility even further, but not too far.

.410 shotshells are at least $10 for 25 rounds; twice the cost of larger shotgun shells. .410 buckshot runs about a buck a shot. Handloaders with dedicated .410 reloading presses can reduce their unit cost by maybe two-thirds. If they experiment with shot sizes and cup designs, they can find loads that pattern more densely than the limited variety of commercial hunting loads. Handloaders are still constrained by the 2.5 inch .410’s limited payload and low SAAMI pressure limit of 12,700 PSI. And they’re never going to beat the impressive performance of the custom PDX or Federal “Revolver” .410 loads.

The .45 ACP and .45 Colt can be extremely cheap to reload using lead or plated lead bullets. Governor handloaders shouldn’t try to push these loads to “+P” performance levels. Only daredevils try to push the performance of the .45 ACP. The .45 Long Colt has a lot of untapped ballistic potential—if your gun can handle the high pressures that these hotrod handloads produce.

Ruger Blackhawks and Redhawks, T/C single-shots, and Marlin lever-actions can handle high pressures. The Governor–until somebody proves otherwise– cannot. [I contacted Smith & Wesson to find out what the Governor's case pressure limit is. I never got an answer.]

The SAAMI-standard .45 Long Colt is limited to 14,000 PSI, and the SAAMI-standard .45 ACP pressure is 21,000 PSI.  I *suspect* that one could safely handload the .45 Long Colt up to the same pressure as the .45 ACP, but since I don’t know I’m not going to try it. Maybe somebody with a pressure testing rig will carefully work up some 21,000 PSI .45 Long Colt loads and carefully test them in several Governors to prove they’re safe. But that person won’t be me and it better not be you, either.

Until Smith & Wesson or the major handloading manuals tell you otherwise, stick to SAAMI-standard .45 Long Colt loads. If you really need them, Buffalo Bore sells three different flavors of standard-pressure .45 Long Colt that will put a world of hurt on anything that walks, crawls or stomps the Lower 48. Their 225-grain wadcutter ‘anti-personnel’ .45 Long Colt is advertised at 1050 fps, and the guys at www.gunblast.com have chronographed it at an honest 930 fps.  At $2.25 a shot (delivered) they’ll also put a world of hurt on your wallet but who’s counting?

Conclusion

The Governor isn’t outstanding in any single role. If you like big-bore revolvers, or if you’re looking for a versatile backwoods survival pistol, the Governor might be for you. It’s slow to reload, but with the right ammunition it will also deliver decisive on-target performance as a home defense weapon. With a street price of about $550, the big Smith costs about $100 more than a similar Judge. By shooting cheap .45 ACPs, you can make up that difference in less than 500 rounds.

The Governor is much more refined and accurate than the Judges I’ve handled and shot. The Smith’s got a feel of quality and durability that many Tauruses are lacking. It’s a truly fun gun to shoot, no matter what you load it with.

RATINGS (out of five)

Accuracy * * *
Amazingly good for a snubnose, but fixed sights not well regulated for the soft-shooting loads it seems to prefer.

Reliability ****
One ammunition malfunction in the course of three different evaluations is pretty good but not perfect.  Subtract one star for the infernal ‘safety lock.’

Ergonomics * * * *
Excellent trigger and comfortable grips.

Customize This *
You can change the grips but you probably won’t want to.  Very limited holster options.

Overall Rating * * * 1/2
A Jack-of-all-trades, even when very well executed, is the master of none.  It’s still great fun to shoot.  If Smith & Wesson builds a dedicated .45 Long Colt /.45 ACP  that’s as well-made as the Governor (and with a shorter cylinder, longer barrel and adjustable sights) I’d give it four and a half stars.