The New .327 Federal Magnum in Ruger’s SP101 Compact Six-Shot Revolver


by Jeff Quinn

photography by Jeff Quinn & Boge Quinn

December 2nd, 2007




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In 1984, Harrington & Richardson Firearms got together with the Federal Cartridge Company and introduced a dandy little revolver cartridge called the .32 H&R Magnum. They lengthened the .32 S&W Long cartridge and loaded it to higher pressures to give a lot more power to the little .32 revolver. The factory load was advertised to propel an eighty-five grain jacketed hollowpoint bullet to around 1100 feet-per-second (fps). There was also a ninety-five grain lead bullet load at an advertised 1030 fps.  This new ammo was a significant improvement over the shorter .32 S&W and .32 S&W Long cartridges, and the new H&R revolvers could also fire the other two cartridges in addition to the .32 H&R Magnum. While never loaded to true magnum pressures like the .357, .41, and .44 Magnum cartridges, the little .32 Magnum was a step in the right direction.

About three weeks ago, Federal and Ruger introduced a new .32 caliber cartridge that promises to be all that the .32 H&R should have been, had it been loaded to magnum pressures. The problem was with the early H&R revolvers. They just would not take real magnum pressures, so the .32 H&R Magnum cartridge, while still a relatively hot .32, was never loaded to its potential. Ruger jumped on board with the .32 H&R cartridge back in 1985, and handloaders have been hot-rodding the .32 H&R in Ruger revolvers ever since, loading the cartridge to its potential using powders like Hodgdon’s Lil’Gun, WW296 and H110, among others.

To keep the new .327 Federal Magnum out of the weaker H&R and other lightweight revolvers, and to increase its powder capacity slightly, Federal lengthened the .32 H&R case by .125 inch, for a .327 Federal Magnum case length of 1.20 inches.  The first handgun on the market chambered for the .327 Federal Magnum is the tough, reliable little Ruger SP101. The little SP101, as stated above, has been chambered for the .32 H&R cartridge for over twenty years. It is also chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge in a five-shot version, but the .327 Federal Magnum version still uses the six-shot cylinder of the .32 H&R SP101. Ruger and Federal are marketing the new gun/cartridge combo towards the self defense handgun buyer at this time, but I see plenty of potential for this new cartridge as a hunting round as well.

Immediately after the new cartridge was announced, the shooting forums were filled with shooters, and some who pretend to be shooters, denouncing the new cartridge as everything from being too loud to it being almost useless; all this from people who had never seen the gun nor the cartridge, much less having ever fired one. Some of us, including myself, were almost ecstatic hearing the news of the little .327 Federal Magnum. Those whom I know personally, like my friends Terry Murbach, Al Anderson, and Fermin Garza, who got excited about the new cartridge are actually shooters. These men shoot more ammunition in one year than most shooters will ever see in their lifetimes. All three of these gentlemen, while owning and shooting many big bore revolvers, are also great fans of the little .32 H&R cartridge, and immediately recognized the potential for the new .327 Federal Magnum. These three friends are scattered geographically around the United States, but we all know each other through our love of firearms, and our inclusion in that brotherhood known as "The Shootists". I mentioned these men here because they are true experts on guns, and revolvers in particular, but also would consider themselves as students of firearms, always willing to learn and experience new advancements in cartridge design. I contrast this with the pseudo experts who sit readily by their respective keyboards anxiously awaiting the opportunity to knock any new gun or cartridge that is introduced.

Having stated the above, the question is bound to be asked; "What is the .327 Federal Magnum good for?" That is always a fair question, even if it is grammatically incorrect. The simple answer is that it can do anything and everything that the .32 H&R cartridge can do, but do it better. It has more pressure and more case capacity, resulting in more bullet speed. Lots more bullet speed. More velocity makes it hit harder and penetrate deeper, with the right bullet. The .327 Federal Magnum will probably supplant the .32 H&R in every area except for the game of Cowboy Action Shooting, where light bullets and low velocities are preferred. However, Cowboy Action Shooting is only a game. The .327 Federal Magnum is made for more serious applications.  It offers more power than the .32 H&R, with less recoil and muzzle blast than the .357 Magnum. In the SP101, you get six shots of .327 Federal as opposed to five shots of .357 magnum, but the main attraction, for defensive purposes, is that the .327 promises true magnum penetration without the recoil of the larger magnums. 

Some "experts" claim that the new cartridge is not needed, as we already have the .30 Carbine and .32 WCF (.32-20) cartridges. First, the .30 carbine is a good cartridge, but it has no rim, is slightly tapered, and would require moon clips for reliable, quick extraction in a double action revolver.  While the case capacity of the new .327 Federal Magnum and the .32-20 are close to the same, loading the .32-20 to the higher pressures required to achieve the velocities desired from a three inch barrel would destroy many of the old guns that are chambered for the cartridge. The .32-20 is also tapered, being primarily a rifle cartridge. Lengthening the .32 H&R into the brand new .327 Federal Magnum was the logical choice.

For a defensive handgun, I always lean towards penetration. I am asked everyday to recommend a defensive cartridge to those who are needing a handgun for protection. If a person can easily handle a small .357 magnum revolver, that is a good choice. However, the question of recoil often enters into the choice of cartridge. While in a service sized revolver the .357 is easily controlled, in a smaller package it can be a handful. Many times, I recommend a .22 Magnum for those who, for whatever reason, cannot handle or desire a hard-kicking gun. The .22 Magnum penetrates well, and getting the bullet to the vitals as deeply as possible damages more nerves, organs, and blood vessels. A bullet that does not penetrate does not tear up as much flesh. The new .327 Federal Magnum promises penetration, with less recoil than the .357 Magnum. That, along with good bullet design, should make for a dandy little defensive gun.

Regarding the Ruger SP101 revolver, it is probably the toughest, most reliable compact double action revolver on the planet. Weighing 28 ounces with a three and one-sixteenth inch barrel, the SP101can easily handle a steady diet of the high pressure .327 Federal Magnum. The weight is heavy enough to help tame the recoil, but light enough to carry easily and comfortably in a belt holster. I regard the SP101 as being a bit heavy for everyday carry in my pants pocket, but for wintertime carry in a coat pocket, or in a compact inside-the-pants holster, it rides easily. Made primarily of stainless steel, the SP101 is highly resistant to corrosion from sweat and damp weather, as any carry gun should be. The synthetic rubber grip is an excellent design, combining a compact size with a comfortable hold. Even in the .357 Magnum version of the SP101, the grip design is very comfortable to shoot. The barrel is of a heavy profile, and also aids in accurate rapid fire. The sights are pretty easy to see for a compact defensive weapon, and the rear is adjustable for windage correction. The trigger pull on the sample gun measured a smooth nine pounds, six ounces in  double action mode, and a crisp three and three-quarters pounds in single action mode. The sample SP101 has a very good trigger action. The barrel/cylinder gap measures five one-thousandths (.005) of an inch. The cylinder bolt notches are offset, and not directly over the chambers, making for a stronger design.

Federal is offering three factory loads for the .327 Federal Magnum at this time; a Federal Premium 85 grain Hydra-Shok hollowpoint at 1330 fps, a Speer Gold Dot 115 grain hollowpoint at 1300 fps, and an American Eagle 100 grain jacketed soft point at 1400 fps. These velocities are advertised as being fired from the 3 1/16 inch barrel of the SP101. I only had the American Eagle load for testing. It chronographed at an average velocity of 1374.9 fps at eight feet from the muzzle, so corrected to muzzle velocity, the Federal specifications are dead on accurate.

With all of the negative comments early on from folks who have never fired the cartridge, there was a few things that I particularly wanted to test; those being muzzle blast, recoil, and penetration. I compared the muzzle blast of the .327 Federal Magnum to the .357 Magnum fired from guns with equal length barrels. I used for this test two Ruger SP101 revolvers, identical except for the cartridge. Holding the decibel meter beside the shooter’s head, the readings seem close, with the .327 registering 120db and the .357 reading 124db. However, decibel readings are logarithmic instead of linear, and 124db is noticeably louder than a reading of 120db. The .327 Federal Magnum does indeed have less muzzle blast than does the .357 Magnum, at least using factory loads with the same bullets weights.

Measuring recoil was more subjective, meaning I did not have any instrument to measure the recoil. However, recoil has to abide by the laws of physics, and can be calculated. Both guns having equal barrel lengths and almost identical weights, the .357 Magnum has more recoil using equal bullet weights because it will fire a 100 grain bullet about 200 fps faster than the .327 Federal Magnum.  The difference in felt recoil to the hand is also noticeable. The fly in this ointment is that the .357 Magnum is hardly ever used with the light-for-caliber 100 grain bullet. To get better penetration, most shooters use at least a 125 grain bullet in the .357 Magnum, and recoil with that bullet is heavier than the recoil of the .327 Federal Magnum using the 100 grain bullet by a considerable margin. Keep in mind here that in all these tests, I am using factory ammunition. I will get into the handloading portion a bit later. To keep things fair and in perspective, only factory loads were used in the recoil and muzzle blast tests.

Next I moved on to testing the .327 Federal Magnum for penetration. As mentioned early on, I am a believer in penetration above all else when it comes to a cartridge that will be used against flesh. The .327 Federal Magnum is marketed as a defensive revolver, so it had to be tested in flesh. Since shooting live humans is illegal, immoral, and distasteful, and fresh cadavers are hard to come by out in the woods, I rode into town and bought a whole pork shoulder from the local butcher. I told him that I wanted the biggest one that he had. It weighed just over twenty-three pounds. Again, I used only the Federal factory American Eagle 100 grain load for this test. I had three reasons for this:  I wanted to use a load that is available to anyone who buys one of these revolvers,  most people will carry their defensive handgun loaded with factory ammunition, and meat is expensive.  Taking aim from a distance of ten feet and aiming just inside the shoulder blade, I fired into the pork shoulder from the end. The American Eagle jacketed softpoint bullet fully penetrated the shoulder. I had hoped to be able to stop the bullet and see just far it would penetrate the meat, but sixteen inches was the entire length of the shoulder.  The entrance and exit holes were very similar, with some cratering around the entrance. Opening up the shoulder, about seven inches in showed a large amount of cavitation and tissue damage. Seven inches is about optimum for this. Measure into your chest about seven inches and you will see that there is a lot of important stuff in that area. This damage started near the entrance, peaked at about seven inches, and then tapered into a channel of about one-half inch diameter through to the exit. I am very pleased at the performance of the penetration test.

Handloading for the new .327 Federal Magnum presented a slight challenge, as there is yet no load data available. I used a set of Lee carbide .32 H&R loading dies, and crimped separately from the seating operation. The dies worked perfectly for all bullet weights tried, and all loading was done on a Dillon 550B machine. I based my powder choices upon what I have learned from loading the .32 H&R Magnum to higher than factory pressures, taking advantage of the .327’s greater case capacity. My powders of choice were H110, Lil’Gun, Accurate Arms Number 9, H4227, Accurate 1680, and Winchester 571. I found H110, AA # 9, and to a limited extent Lil’Gun to work best in this particular revolver. With H4227 and AA1680, I could not achieve velocities equal to the factory load with a 100 grain bullet, so I gave up on those. I tried no light target loads in the .327, as we have the .32 S&W Long and the .32 H&R Magnum for target and mid-range loads, respectively. The .327 Federal Magnum  is a true magnum, and that is the area in which I concentrated my efforts. Using Winchester 571 was a mistake. It is an excellent powder, but not at all suited for my purposes here. I screwed up, and found out that the Ruger SP101 is even a lot stronger than I had previously believed. Brass flows at 75,000 psi, and I exceeded that. I would have badly wrecked a lesser gun.  The best powders for the .327 Federal Magnum proved to be H110 and AA # 9 for most all bullet weights, with Lil’Gun performing very well with the heavier bullets. I tested many different combinations using 60, 85, and 100 grain Hornady XTP hollowpoints, 113 grain cast lead gas check bullets from Cast Performance, 120 grain cast lead gas check bullets from Mt. Baldy Bullet Company, and a 135 grain cast lead bullet that was hand-cast by my friend John Killebrew.  John designed this bullet with the help of Jimmy Pilcher, and it is a dandy bullet for loading the .32 H&R, .32-20, and now the .327 Federal Magnum cartridges. I was able to safely achieve velocities equaling the 100 grain factory load using AA # 9 and H110. AA # 9 also proved to be the powder of choice for the 60 and 85 grain XTP hollowpoint bullets. The little 60 grain XTP screamed out of the little Ruger at over 1740 fps. Moving to the lead bullets, AA # 9, H110, and Lil’Gun did very well. One thing that I really like about lead bullets is that they give greater velocity, as compared to jacketed bullets, with equal pressures. In the Ruger SP101, with its long cylinder, I was able to seat the 135 grain Killebrew bullets out longer than usual, crimping in the top lube groove instead of the crimp groove, taking advantage of the case capacity of the .327 Federal Magnum. I was able to push the 135 grain cast lead bullet to over 1250 fps with Lil’Gun. I achieved significantly higher velocities than that, but extraction became a bit sticky over 1300 fps, so I backed off. I used CCI magnum small pistol primers in all loads tested, but I am deliberately not listing powder charges, as none of this data has been pressure tested.  By the time guns and ammunition hit the dealer’s shelves by January 2008, pressure tested load data from reputable sources should be available. I will add that handloaders can safely reach factory velocities with jacketed bullets, and exceed them with lead bullets. Later, I will get into another article dealing with handloading the .327 Federal Magnum for hunting, but as for right now, the Ruger SP101 is a dandy little defensive revolver, but its barrel length precludes it from being a legal hunting arm in most states.

For accuracy testing of the .327 SP101, I enlisted the help of my Ransom Master Rest, to eliminate as much human error as possible. I was pleasantly surprised at the accuracy of the little Ruger, with it being a brand new high pressure handgun cartridge. All ammo tested grouped into less than two and one-half inches, with both the best and worst groups fired shown in the pictures. Even the largest group at just over two inches is excellent accuracy, good enough for small game hunting, and more than enough accuracy for defense. While it is not absolutely necessary for a fighting handgun to display target grade accuracy, it is always nice when it does.

Over the course of the last three weeks, I have really given this SP101 a workout.  I have loaded and fired the weapon hundreds of times, and never cleaned it. It is filthy, but it never misses a beat.  Case life has been very good, despite my abuses. I began with one hundred factory cartridges, and used the first fifty of those that I emptied for all of the handloading. I only lost one case, and that was due to my negligence. All of the others have held up perfectly, and the primer pockets are still tight.

I carried the little Ruger around concealed in the very versatile Simply Rugged Pancake holster. This holster has detachable belt loops that allow it to be used as an inside-the-pants holster, and has slots to allow either strong side or crossdraw carry on the belt. Rob Leahy at Simply Rugged makes some fine holsters at very reasonable prices. As I have in the past, I highly recommend his work.

The little SP101 is a pleasure to shoot. The design of the synthetic rubber grip is hand filling, but compact. Recoil is very manageable, somewhat like a .38 Special, and muzzle blast is not bothersome. Penetration exceeded my expectations with the one factory load that I had available. I would suspect that the other two factory loads using the high performance hollowpoint bullets would penetrate less, and they just might be ideal for self defense. I won’t know for sure until I try them.

If you can’t tell already, I really like the new .327 Federal Magnum. It is everything that the older .32 H&R should have been. It operates at true magnum pressures to deliver true magnum performance. It has a good home in the Ruger SP101, but I also see a future for the cartridge in other handguns, and maybe even a carbine. As I type this, I know of at least one custom gunsmith that is making up a couple of single action revolvers for the .327 Federal Magnum. In the SP101, the .327 offers a good package for a self defense weapon, especially for those who want an effective weapon with good penetration and less recoil than the .357 Magnum, along with one more cartridge in the same sized handgun.  A lot of shooters opt for a semi-auto defensive pistol, but for many, the rugged reliability and simplicity of a good revolver has its advantages., and it doesn’t leave empty brass laying around on the ground.  In the world of rugged and reliable compact medium bore double action revolvers, the SP101 is king, and I will not hesitate to recommend the .327 SP101 to those needing an accurate defensive piece. It is a very versatile weapon, firing the .32 S&W, .32 S&W Long, and the .32 H&R cartridges in addition to the .327 Federal Magnum cartridge.

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Jeff Quinn

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Simply Rugged's Pancake holster is an excellent choice for the SP101. The versatile design allows the gun to be carried inside the waistband, strong-side or crossdraw.



The .327 federal Magnum is a little round that's BIG on performance!


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Click pictures for a larger version.


Ruger's SP101 in .327 Federal Magnum.



Gun comes with a hard plastic case.



Although the .357 Magnum SP101 utilizes a five-shot cylinder, the .327 Federal Magnum version features a six-shot cylinder.



Crane locks into the frame, giving the SP101 a rugged lockup at front & back of cylinder.



Front sight (top) is interchangeable to allow for elevation adjustment, while the rear blade (bottom) is screw-adjustable for windage.





Grips are soft rubber with grooved hard plastic inserts, and are excellently-designed for most shooters.



The SP101's grip stud design allows for a wide variety of custom grips.



Factory ammo uses a fine-grained flattened ball powder.



Bullets tested (left to right): Hornady 60-grain XTP hollowpoint, Hornady 85-grain XTP hollowpoint, Hornady 100-grain XTP hollowpoint, Cast Performance 113-grain lead gas-check, Mt. Baldy 120-grain lead gas-check, John Killibrew 135-grain lead plain-base with soft lube, John Killibrew 135-grain lead plain-base with hard lube.



The SP101's cylinder is long enough to accommodate the heavy John Killibrew 135-grain bullet, even when crimped into the front grease groove.




American Eagle's 100-grain factory load fully penetrated 16 inches of fresh pork shoulder.



Entrance wound (top), exit wound (center) and wound channel 7" inside entrance (bottom) show the excellent performance of the .327 Federal from the 3-1/16" barrel of the SP101.



Accuracy testing from the Ransom Rest at 25 yards showed the SP101 to be quite accurate.