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Review: Ruger GP100 .44 Special – A Fistful Of Fun

by James Tarr   |  November 20th, 2017 0
Tarr isn’t much of a revolver guy, but he thinks the .44 Spl. is an underappreciated alternative to the  .45 ACP and thinks Ruger nailed it with the GP100.

Tarr isn’t much of a revolver guy, but he thinks the .44 Spl. is an underappreciated alternative to the
.45 ACP and thinks Ruger nailed it with the GP100.

In this era of high-capacity plastic-framed wondernines, it’s easy to forget that not only do a number of gun companies still manufacture revolvers, but that revolvers always sell well, thank you very much. In fact, while new product introductions aren’t as common on the wheelgun side, they do happen regularly.

Case in point: the new Ruger GP100 chambered in .44 Spl.

Ruger first introduced the GP100 in 1986. The original model was chambered in .357 Mag. Additional chamberings followed—.38 Spl., .327 Federal, and even .22 Long Rifle. This new one is both the first GP100 chambered in .44 Spl., and is the first 5-shot GP100.

Like previous GP100s, this new model features all through-hardened stainless-steel construction and a barrel with a full lug. I’ve heard some people talk about how this GP100 would be an ideal trail gun, but looking at this revolver it seems obvious to me that it was intended for the concealed carry crowd. First, you’ve got the 3-inch barrel.

A .44 Spl. with a 3-inch barrel firing a round that has .45 ACP ballistics sounds to Tarr like the perfect recipe for a revolver meant for concealed carry.

A .44 Spl. with a 3-inch barrel firing a round that has .45 ACP ballistics sounds to Tarr like the perfect recipe for a revolver meant for concealed carry.

A 3-inch barrel, to my mind, is just about ideal when talking about a revolver meant for carry. It splits the difference between the “easy to carry but hard to aim because of the short sight radius” snubbies, and the “too big to conceal easily but really easy to aim” 4- and 6-inchers. The barrel has a flat top that is also nicely
serrated.

The GP100 has always been intended as a good duty/service/self-defense revolver, and to keep more or less the same proportions as the .357 models, the engineers at Ruger went with a 5-shot cylinder.

The cylinder is 1.5 inches in diameter. Not only would they have to size up the frame if they went to a six-shot cylinder in .44, a cylinder big enough to hold six .44s is noticeably harder to conceal. It’s like a tennis ball made of steel riding on your belt.

The cylinder is not fluted, and while this does add a little recoil-absorbing weight, I think it’s done more for looks than anything else. And I have to admit that this is a darn good looking wheelgun. For a gun meant for carry, it has the right proportions.

The front sight is made by HIVIZ. It features a tall steel post with a green fiber optic insert. It is mated with a fully adjustable rear sight with a white outline.

While there will be some people who question the necessity of an adjustable sight on a gun intended for self-defense, remember that revolvers are not dependent upon recoil forces to work a reciprocating slide, so there is a much wider range of power options for most revolver calibers.

Why a five-shot? Because a cylinder large enough for six rounds of .44 would have drastically increased the revolver’s size beyond what is easily concealable.

Why a five-shot? Because a cylinder large enough for six rounds of .44 would have drastically increased the revolver’s size beyond what is easily concealable.

There is a huge velocity difference between light Cowboy Action rounds and some of the full-power .44 Spl. loads on the market that reach into .44 Mag. territory.

Velocity differences usually translate into different points of impact, with slower rounds often hitting higher. I know, that doesn’t sound right, but what happens is when you pull the trigger and the cartridge ignites is that gun starts rocking back in your hand.

The longer it takes for that bullet to exit the barrel, the more the barrel has moved upward in recoil. Having an adjustable rear sight means that you can ensure your gun hits where you’re aiming with your ammo of choice.

The .44 Spl. GP100 comes with a one-piece Hogue Tamer grip. This grip is pebbled black rubber with no finger grooves, modeled after the Ruger GP100 Match Champion grip. Grips attach to the GP100s frame by means of a screw at the bottom. The grip frame itself is rather narrow, which allows for a wide range of grip sizes and shapes.

While I will admit that there is nothing better than rubber for absorbing the recoil forces of a revolver, I find rubber too tacky. I actually prefer checkered wood grips. I like being able to slide my hand into position and then when I grip the gun, having the checkering lock my hand into place.

The grips on the GP100 Match Champion are perfect for me, and they’re available at shopruger.com. Yes, the gun recoils a bit harder with wood grips in place, but not enough to cause me issues.

Since I just mentioned it, the last GP100 I in fact tested was the Match Champion, Ruger’s dedicated competition revolver. While this .44 GP100 is its own animal, I miss the Match Champion’s tuned trigger.

The top of the 3-inch barrel is  flat and serrated. Tarr thinks it  adds a bit of style to a relatively  undecorated exterior and gives  the barrel a sturdy look.

The top of the 3-inch barrel is flat and serrated. Tarr thinks it adds a bit of style to a relatively undecorated exterior and gives the barrel a sturdy look.

GP100s are known for a lot of things, but smooth, light trigger pulls are not one of them. The double-action trigger pull on my sample was long, and I found I could stage it right near the end of the pull for more precision. Total pull weight in double-action was 12.5 pounds. The single-action pull was 3.75 lbs. and very crisp.

I’ve seen a lot of Ruger GP100s and SP101s customized for carry and IDPA competition. They all have trigger jobs, and many of them have the hammers bobbed so they don’t catch on your clothing during the draw. This GP100 does have a very sizable hammer spur, but personally I don’t know if I’d want to eliminate the one thing that allowed me to cock the pistol. Cocking a revolver to fire a shot single-action in a defensive situation seems unlikely, but I’d still like the option.

I like to tell people The Sportsman Channel puts me on their TV shows because I’ve got all my hair and teeth and don’t talk with a Southern accent, but it also might have something to do with my willingness to say outrageous things. I’ve been filmed several times stating revolvers are archaic, obsolete technology—and I don’t see how anybody could argue the truth of that statement.

Ruger revolvers use a transfer bar ignition system to prevent revolvers from going off if dropped on their hammers, a system that dates back to the Iver Johnson.

Ruger revolvers use a transfer bar ignition system to prevent revolvers from going off if dropped on their hammers, a system that dates back to the Iver Johnson.

However, that doesn’t mean I’m anti-revolver. Hammers and bicycles are archaic, obsolete technology, and yet I own both. Currently I own three revolvers, two of which I keep loaded and handy.

The first handgun I ever bought was a revolver (a S&W 586 .357 Mag.). The first handgun I ever carried on duty as a uniformed police officer was a Smith & Wesson Model 681 .357 Mag. And just a few years later I bought a Charter Arms Bulldog Pug, a 5-shot .44 Spl. like this Ruger GP100.

I no longer own the Charter Arms Bulldog Pug .44 Spl. for several reasons, but the main issue I had with the gun was directly related to its weight—21 ounces. The Ruger GP100, on the other hand, weighs 36 ounces and is significantly larger. With its smaller grip and 2.75-inch barrel the Charter Arms was nearly small and light enough to be a pocket gun.

While the Charter Arms was much easier to carry and conceal, shooting it was a true form of self-abuse. Some shooters (and gunwriters) love beating themselves up with flamethrowing handcannons. I am not one of them.

Its size and weight mean the GP100 could in no way could be considered a pocket gun; it requires a holster, but shooting it does not hurt. Recoil is controllable enough that you could actually do rapid follow-up shots in a defensive encounter.

The cylinder of this GP100 is physically long enough to contain a .44 Mag. cartridge, however each chamber of the cylinder has only been reamed out for cases the length of the .44 Spl. That means if you screw up and accidentally stick a .44 Mag. cartridge into the cylinder, you won’t be able to close the cylinder.

In case you’re wondering, both the .44 Spl. and the .44 Mag. cartridges have a rim diameter of .514″ and a rim thickness of .060″, but the .44 Spl. has a case length of 1.16″, whereas the .44 Mag. has a case stretched to 1.285″.

The 454 Casull, .44 Mag.  and .44 Spl. While it’s the  least powerful of the  three, the .44 Spl. is the  only one of them actually  suitable for self-defense.

The 454 Casull, .44 Mag. and .44 Spl. While it’s the least powerful of the three, the .44 Spl. is the only one of them actually suitable for self-defense.

Unlike many things in life, it’s not really the length that matters here—it’s the pressure. The .44 Spl. has a maximum operating pressure of 15,500 psi, and most dedicated .44 Spl. revolvers (such as this GP100) have cylinder walls designed to handle that. The .44 Mag. however, has a maximum operating pressure of 36,000 psi. If you want to know what happens when you put a high-pressure cartridge in a pistol not designed for it, do an online image search for “kaboom pistol”.

If I had to bet I am sure that there is at least one person who picked up this article and said to himself, “What’s a .44 Spl.?”.

These days the .44 Spl. is an often-overlooked cartridge, which I think is a shame. One of the first cartridges made for that newfangled smokeless powder, the .44 Spl. was introduced in 1907. Housed in a lengthened .44 Russian case, the ballistics of the .44 Spl. are nearly identical to one of America’s favorite cartridges, the .45 ACP.

Today, .44 Spl. loads are available with modern defensive projectiles like Hornady’s 180-grain XTP on the left and the 165-grain Critical Duty FTX on the right.

Today, .44 Spl. loads are available with modern defensive projectiles like Hornady’s 180-grain XTP on the left and the 165-grain Critical Duty FTX on the right.

The original .44 Spl. load was a 246-grain LRN bullet travelling at 755 fps, but subsequent offerings improved performance. Most modern .44 Spl. loads offer numbers identical to what you get with the .45 ACP—180-grain bullets at 1000 fps and 200-grainers at 900 fps.

I consider the .44 Spl. a mirror-image soulmate to the .40 S&W. Both cartridges were once far more popular than they are now and short versions of longer, more powerful cartridges. So why “mirror image”?

The .40 S&W is a weakened version of its true parent, the 10mm Auto. The FBI loved the performance of the 10mm Auto cartridge in its newly devised gel testing, but it soon became clear the powerful cartridge offered too much recoil for most FBI agents to handle.

The cartridge was tamed to produce the short-lived “10mm Lite”, which then was shortened to 9mm length to create the .40 S&W—which detractors at the time called the .40 “Short & Weak.” But for just about two decades, the .40 S&W was the go-to cartridge for law enforcement in this country.

The .44 Spl., on the other hand, experienced the reverse. A lot of revolver shooters loved the cartridge, but wished it had more oomph. Famous gunwriter Elmer Keith was one of a number of shooters who began hot-rodding the cartridge, stuffing more and more powder into the case until he could engage targets out beyond the curve of the earth. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.

Eventually Smith & Wesson standardized Elmer Keith’s hotrodded .44 Spl. handloads, sticking them in a lengthened and strengthened .44 Spl. case to create the .44 Mag. And the popularity of the .44 Spl. dropped like a stone.

While neither the .40 S&W or 10mm are as popular as they used to be, the .40 S&W is still the more common round. With the .44, however, there are far more handguns dedicated to the Magnum than the Special.

Look at all the flats and curves. There is no easy way to do all that machining, which is why all-steel revolvers are more expensive than polymer-framed pistols.

Look at all the flats and curves. There is no easy way to do all that machining, which is why all-steel revolvers are more expensive than polymer-framed pistols.

Yes, I know, you can fire .44 Spl. out of .44 Mag. cylinders, and a lot of people do for various reasons, but the people who are doing that aren’t lovers of the .44 Spl. They’re doing it because the .44 Spl. offers a less expensive and lower-recoiling option for their big boomin’ handgun.

The number of people who appreciate the .44 Spl. for its own merits is far lower than what I think it should be. America is the home of the .45 ACP, yet how many American gun owners know that the .44 Spl. delivers the very same numbers?

With a revolver dedicated to the .44 Spl., which is not just a shorter cartridge but working off lower pressures, the cylinder can be both shorter and thinner than one meant for the .44 Magnum.

Since we’ve mentioned Elmer Keith, let me repeat one of his favorite lines for you here: “Big bullets let in a lot of air and let out a lot of blood.” For those of you who subscribe to the big bullet theory of self-defense, the .44 Spl. should give you exactly what you’re looking for. 1. A caliber that starts with “4”, 2. Bullet weights near or above 200 grains, and 3. Controllable recoil.

Now that I’ve talked at length about how soft and controllable the .44 Spl. is compared to the .44 Magnum, let me throw all that out the window. If you want more oomph out of your Special and don’t feel like handloading, there are a number of companies which offer hard-hitting options.

DoubleTap Ammunition (www.doubletapammo.net) for instance, offers an Elmer Keith-style load for the .44 Spl., a 240-grain hard cast SWC loaded to 920 fps. While that’s not quite .44 Mag. performance, it is loaded to standard .44 Spl. pressures, something I doubt Elmer Keith could say about his hot handloads.

As I mentioned the original load for the .44 Spl. was a 246-grain lead round nose at 755 fps. While researching this article I discovered that Remington actually offers this very load in their Performance Wheelgun line tailored to Cowboy Action shooting.

RugerGP10044SplInfoThat velocity is out of a 6-inch barrel, so out of the GP100’s 3-inch tube, velocity will be noticeably less, which means this load will be an absolute pussycat. I swear, most Cowboy Action pistol loads are not much more than a popcorn kernel loaded over a primer. And they call us USPSA shooters gamers.

All is not SWC and LRN on the ammo side of the equation, however. If you’re looking for modern defensive projectiles in this older caliber, never fear. Just about every ammunition manufacturer makes a .44 Spl. load, and at least one of those loads features a jacketed hollow-point bullet.

Most ammo makers give you several choices. For instance, Hornady offers two very different .44 Spl. loads.

Hornady’s Critical Defense load features the FTX bullet, which is a JHP whose cavity is filled with polymer to help initiate expansion after impact. The Critical Defense line is generally loaded softer, and this 165-grain FTX has an advertised velocity of 900 fps (but check the accompanying table to see the actual velocities out of the GP100s 3-inch barrel).

Hornady also offers a 180-grain XTP load at an advertised 1000 fps. The XTP is a more traditional hollow-point, with a big cavity, and has a very successful track record. This load has significantly more recoil than the Critical Defense. Either one would be good for self-defense.

If you were thinking of using this Ruger as a trail gun in bear country, I’d probably go with the DoubleTap hard cast SWC offering for deepest penetration. My preferred method of defense against bears involves a two-ton pickup at highway speeds, but you use what you have available at the time.

The first time this revolver was actually fired was during filming for the current season of Handguns & Defensive Weapons. It worked great out of the box…and then after 30 rounds or so the trigger system ground to a near halt, as the trigger pull rose to about 25 pounds.

After another 20 pulls of the trigger, the trigger pull went back to normal and has stayed there. I am guessing that a metal piece or shaving inside the gun left over from the manufacturing process got into the exact wrong spot to gum up the trigger pull briefly, then worked its way free. Excrement occasionally happens, as they say.

RugerSP10044SplVelocityThis brings to mind, at least for me, the revolver malfunction drill: pull the trigger again. For as obsolete and archaic as they are, you don’t have to worry about stovepipe jams or failures to feed with a revolver. If you pull the trigger and it doesn’t go bang, pull the trigger again.

Because there is no reciprocating slide to soak up some of the recoil forces, recoil in a revolver is always sharper than with a pistol. However, even with full-power loads, between the weight and the very nice rubber grip this piece was not unpleasant to shoot.

After spending so much of my time reviewing handguns that are, in large part, made by pouring liquid into forms, I forget that metal costs a lot more than plastic, and machining it takes time…and time equals money in manufacturing. Which is a longwinded way of saying that revolvers take a lot more time and effort to make than a lot of newer designs, in case you’re wondering why they cost more than the average plastic pistol.

I am not one of those people who worship at the altar of the wheelgun, but after spending time with this Ruger I definitely understand the impulse.

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