Ruger SP101 Target Gray Stainless .357 Magnum

by Jeff Quinn

photography by Jeff Quinn & Boge Quinn

December 5th, 2003




It has been fourteen years since Ruger first introduced their stout little belly gun called the SP101. The SP101 is Ruger’s entry into the small frame concealed carry revolver market. Their Speed Six revolver had been phased out, and the SP101 was basically a scaled down GP100, which is Ruger’s full sized .357 Magnum service revolver. By limiting the SP capacity to five shots, Ruger was able to make the little revolver very compact. The cylinder diameter of the little Ruger is barely larger than that of a Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special, but due to the innovative design, the SP101 is much stronger than any other revolver in its class.

Most small frame revolvers on the market, whether they be five or six shot, are built on a design that is over one hundred years old. The removable frame side plates on these guns were built to handle low pressure cartridges of the period, which they do rather well. When magnum cartridges came into being, the old designs were just made larger to handle the extra intensity of firing the magnums. Still, magnum revolvers built on the removable side plate design tend to loosen with heavy use.

Ruger’s double action revolvers have always been built without a removable side plate. This adds needed strength to the frame area around the cylinder, without adding bulk to the revolver. The SP101 follows this design, and the result is a small revolver that can handle a steady diet of full power .357 Magnum ammunition.  Other gun makers have since added the magnum chambering to their pocket revolvers by beefing them up in high stress areas, but they have neither the strength nor the durability of the SP101.  The SP101 is simply the strongest small frame .357 Magnum available.

Now, lest one thinks that I do not like Smith & Wesson  J-frame revolvers, I do. I have one in my pocket as I write this. They are light and very handy, but they will not stand up to the heavy use of full power magnum loads as well as the little Ruger will. The closest comparison to the SP101 is Smith’s model 60 .357 Magnum. The Ruger is about the same size and weighs one ounce more than the Smith, but is much stronger.  S&W also has their Scandium series of small double action revolvers. They are of the same design as the stainless model 60, but weigh half as much at only twelve ounces. The Ruger SP101 weighs twenty-five ounces, which is a considerable difference if carried in a pants pocket. However, for that added weight you get a gun that is much stronger, easier to shoot well, has much less felt recoil, and will withstand years of hard use. In a good concealable belt holster, the little Ruger will ride all day comfortably, with no more of a bulge than any other small frame .38 or .357 revolver.

As stated earlier, the strength of the SP101 is due to its excellent design. The internal parts of the gun remove from either the top or bottom of the frame. Also, the ejector rod is built off-center of the cylinder, sitting lower than normal, allowing more steel on the underside of the barrel and at the frame where it joins. The cylinder locks into the frame at the rear of the extractor star and at the front of the crane, assuring positive and solid alignment of the cylinder and barrel. Being a five-shot, the bolt notches are offset, providing for a stronger chamber wall.

Ruger uses a very unique method of installing the rubber grips on the SP101. The grip slips up over a portion of the frame and is retained by a large pin that is hidden under the rosewood grip panel inserts. This makes for a very comfortable and secure grip on the handgun, resulting in greater recoil control and faster target reacquisition. The shape of the grip is actually made to fit the human hand, and is both compact and hand-filling. The grips on many handguns are too big at the bottom, where they shouldn’t be, and too small at the top, where the web receives the recoil. Ruger got the SP101 grip just right. However, for those with unusually small or large hands, the grip on the SP101 is easily exchanged for another. Recoil control is important for any handgun that is meant for social work, and especially for a small .357 Magnum. The Ruger’s grip contributes to easier control of the weapon for faster follow-up shots.

Since the introduction of the SP101, it has been offered in several variations and chamberings, the latest of which is the new .357 Magnum Target Gray revolver tested here.  The Target Gray is a special process that Ruger uses on a few of their stainless revolvers to produce a unique finish. The Target Gray retains all of the positive properties of stainless steel, such as durability and corrosion resistance, while providing a darker non-glare finish to the surface of the metal. Ruger has offered this finish in the past on some of their target rifles, hence the name. Ruger is now offering this new finish on a few of their double action revolvers in limited numbers. On these revolvers, perhaps it should be called a "Tactical Gray" finish, to best describe its useful application. Whatever it is called, it is a very good-looking finish that is much more durable that the bluing on a carbon steel gun, and is not shiny and reflective like a standard stainless finish. The result of applying the Target Gray process to the SP101 is a handsome, businesslike appearance that won’t shine like a mirror when drawn from its holster.

For testing the SP101, I assembled a quantity of various ammunition and proceeded to my firing range. Among the various loads tested were Black Hills 158 grain JHP, Cor-Bon 110 and 125 grain .38 Plus P, Glaser Safety Slugs, .Black Hills 158 grain lead SWC, and various handloaded .357 Magnums stoked with 125 grain JHP bullets, all the way up to heavily loaded Cast Performance 187 grain Flat Point Gas Check LBT bullets. The Ruger gobbled up every round without a problem. Even with the heavy 187 grain loads, recoil was quite manageable, and induced no pain at all. At a range of 25 yards, accuracy testing produced five-shot groups of between two and one-quarter and three and one-half inches. Rapid fire, it was easy to keep even the heaviest loads on a silhouette torso at thirty yards.

The trigger on this SP101 is just as it should be on a double action combat revolver: smooth and easy. The trigger surface is just over one-quarter of an inch wide, and the double action pull measured ten and one-quarter pounds, but felt much lighter due to the ergonomics of the weapon. The crisp single action pull measured three and three-quarters of a pound. The square notch rear sight and pinned on front post made target acquisition relatively quick and easy.  The SP’s ejector stroke measures just under one inch, and ejection of the empty cases was positive and simultaneous.  The barrel on this SP101 measures 2.3 inches and has a cylinder diameter of 1.348 inches, making for a compact and powerful package.

The SP101 fills a niche between the super light titanium magnums and the larger service revolvers. It has the compact size of the smaller guns, with the strength and lifelong durability of the larger guns. If you want a compact, reliable, and easy to shoot .357 Magnum that will endure many thousands of magnum loads and last a lifetime, the SP101 is the best choice available. If you want a SP101 that has the new Target Gray finish, it is only available from one distributor; and that is Lipsey’s in Louisiana. This new gun is exclusive to Lipsey’s, so have your dealer contact them to order one. The good part is, this Target Gray SP101 sells for the same price as a standard SP101, but they must be ordered from Lipsey’s.  The gun comes with a cable lock and instruction manual, and is packed in a green hard plastic case. Have your dealer contact Lipsey’s by phone at: 1-800-666-1333 or on the web at:

Check out the full line of Ruger products here.

Jeff Quinn

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Click pictures for a larger version.


Ruger's stainless steel SP101 in "Target Gray" finish is available exclusively from Lipsey's distributors.



Seen in comparison with a standard stainless steel revolver, such as the Taurus Model 941 shown here, the tactical advantage of Ruger's Target Gray finish is obvious.











A field-stripped view of the SP101 shows its modular design and rugged solid-frame construction.



The SP101 is tough enough to handle Jeff's favorite full-house .357 load featuring Cast Performance's 187-grain bullets.



While not the lightest .357 on the market, the Ruger SP101 is a compact design that is easily concealed in a belt holster, and offers the strength to take a steady diet of heavy magnum loads.