April 2006

Big-Bore Revolvers: For Power, Choose Ruger’s Super Redhawk

A bear of a gun, the Alaskan could handle the most powerful loads, including .454 Casull. Smith & Wesson’s 21-4 .44 Special was too old fashioned for us, but we’d buy the .45 Colt M25.

In this article we evaluate three guns that make no excuses for their girth. The Smith & Wesson Model 21-4 is a straightforward, large-frame revolver chambered for .44 Special only. Its .45 Colt brother, the Smith & Wesson Model 25-13, is slightly more modern, adding adjustable sights. The Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan was fit with a longer cylinder, and together with its heavy frame, it is capable of firing .454 Casull as well as .45 Colt ammunition.

Our focus in this test was personal defense from humans and not bears, so we left the Casull rounds at home, but we did test an extra-heavy .45 Colt load from Atlanta Arms and Ammo formulated specifically for Ruger and Thompson Center firearms. The intention was to split the difference between .454 Casull and more commonly available .45 Colt ammunition. This round featured a 328-grain lead truncated-cone bullet. Our other .45 Colt test rounds were Federal’s 225-grain lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoints, Speer’s 250-grain Gold Dot Hollowpoints, and another Atlanta Arms and Ammo product topped with a 275-grain lead truncated cone.

Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan chambered for .45 Colt or .454 Casull

Ballisticians and defensive pros continue to argue the benefits of speed and shock versus size of wound canal. With a Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan chambered for .45 Colt or .454 Casull, you can have both.

For our .44 Special rounds we chose 165-grain JHP rounds from Cor-Bon, Winchester’s 200-grain Silvertip HP rounds, and 240-grain Truncated Cone Jacketed ammunition manufactured by Atlanta Arms and Ammo. Test distance was 25 yards from a sandbag rest. We fired single action only to collect hard data, but fired on steel targets double action only to evaluate rapid-fire capability. Limited to six-round capacity, we wanted to know which guns offered the right mix of power, accuracy, and speed. Here’s what we learned:

Last year Smith & Wesson started offering a Clint Smith Thunder Ranch commemorative revolver that was a blued-steel N-frame model with 4-inch barrel ($958 MSRP). According to Smith & Wesson, the model 21-4 is the very same revolver without the gold leaf trim or Thunder Ranch logo. Our 21-4 had the same tapered profile barrel, pinned half-moon service front sight and wood grip covering its round-profile grip frame, all for about $100 less than the Thunder Ranch model.

Another feature common to both guns was the rear sight notch in the top strap. This meant that windage adjustment was a factory-only repair, but elevation adjustments were possible by changing the height of the front sight blade.

Elsewhere on the 21-4, the ejector rod was fully shrouded and took part in cylinder/crane lockup by a detent at its tip. The barrel was thin walled for about the final half inch, and the taper we spoke of earlier occurred where it exited the frame. The trigger and the wide-spur hammer were colored with a case-hardened look. The grip was a two-piece wood affair that was cut high behind the trigger guard but left the back strap exposed. The grip was smooth and without finger grooves, but it was relieved at the top to make extra room for ejecting spent shells or inserting a speed loader. In our opinion the model 21-4 is a throwback, a functioning collectible perhaps. The only modern pieces we found were the cylinder latch that was contoured and flat on the bottom side to enhance loading, and the Smith & Wesson internal hammer lock, for which two keys were provided.

If the Smith & Wesson model 21 revolvers are old fashioned, then why are they still being made? We think the answer is because it is simple to use, overbuilt and capable of delivering a wide projectile at a variety of velocities in relative comfort. The N-frame revolver, although not the biggest in the Smith & Wesson catalog, is still a large gun. It has the weight to soak up recoil, and since it’s big in all aspects, you won’t have problems squeezing rounds into the cylinder even if they are crammed six at a time into a speed loader. With the latch slid forward, the heavy cylinder practically swings itself away from the frame and very little aim is necessary to fill each chamber with a fresh round. In terms of concealment, the round butt-frame helps trim the profile enough to minimize printing from underneath a sport coat, and the wood grip, unlike rubber, will not catch on clothing.

Smith & Wesson Model 21-4 .44 Special No. 161238, $855

We were reminded why the N-frame .44 Special revolver was back by popular demand. Firing single action only, all three of our test ammunitions grouped five shots inside of 2.5 inches. The most accurate was the Winchester Silvertip HP rounds, with a best overall group of 1.1 inches and an average of 1.9 inches. The supplied sights were adequate for benchrest shooting, but were otherwise difficult to pick up. Another aspect was the difference in velocity and power between our three test loads. The Silvertips were very mild, producing only about 223 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. The Atlanta Arms jacketed rounds were stronger, but average muzzle energy of 289 foot-pounds was still not evidence of a powerful defense round. Some might say that a big bullet need not move swiftly to be effective. For those who disagree with this theory, the Cor-bon 165-grain hollow points should satisfy their need for speed. Flying at an average velocity of 1219 fps, they produced 545 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. Felt or perceived recoil was, of course, heavier than the other loads, but in our estimation less violent than .357 Magnum.

Overall, what we liked best about this gun was that it offered something for everybody in the way of loads and the shooting experience they provided. But we thought there was room for improvement, and the suggestions for which were nearly unanimous among those who shot the gun. First, the 165-grain Cor-Bon ammunition was a must for carry, even if the Winchester Silvertip HP rounds provided laser-type accuracy. The most important change would be to a narrower front sight that was quicker to the eye through the rear notch. The grips look good and carry with a clean profile but a rubber grip such as a Hogue or Pachmayr design would make the gun much easier to shoot. Our model 21-4 had a smooth double-action trigger, but we would have its resistance lowered from 13 pounds. Last, because it is a foolproof modification that adds pleasure as well as precision to any revolver, we would have the chamber holes chamfered and carry extra rounds in a speed loader from HKS or Safariland. That is, unless you plan on keeping the 21-4 as a collectible — which may be the sole appeal of this gun for many shooters.

S&W Model 25-13 Mountain Gun .45 Colt No. 160929, $815

Not all Smith & Wesson products stay in constant production, and there are often changes from one run to another, be they large or small. The dash-thirteen signifies that this is the thirteenth version of the model 25, .45 Colt revolver. Since acquiring our revolver, this model has disappeared from the Smith & Wesson website. Will it return as the 25-14 with some minor change? We think so, because at the time of this writing only one other .45 Colt revolver, the stainless steel model 625 Mountain Gun, is listed on the website. Regarding the price of the 25-13, Smith & Wesson told us that their distributors set the suggested retail price on smaller run models such as these. One retail house Davidson’s, (www.galleryofguns.com) listed the gun with an MSRP of $815.

Our 25-13 was a most distinguished looking handgun. The deep-blue finish looked glossier than the bluing on our .44 Special revolver. Gold lettering spelled out “Mountain Gun” on the right side of the barrel. But unlike the model 21-4, this revolver had more modern features, including a lined and ramped front sight and a fully adjustable rear unit. The front sight was mounted upon a stanchion connected to a lined top rib that began at the frame. The lines were continued atop the stem of the rear sight base that was blended into the top strap. The surrounding surface was finished with a matte texture to reduce glare. The rear sight was a tried-and-true model. In fact, many early custom 1911 pistols featured the Smith & Wesson adjustable revolver sight adapted to the slide. The wood two-panel grip covered a square butt and seemed almost massive compared to the more concealable model 21’s grip. The grip featured finger grooves on the front strap and a channel on the rear, exposing the back strap.

We found the 25-13 very easy to shoot from the bench. We were able to settle the gun, pull the trigger, and let it recoil. The front sight was so easy to read, we just watched it rise with each shot and come back down with mechanical precision. Even when we shot this gun standing and double action, this gun offered exceptional balance well suited to its caliber. From the bench nearly all three of our ammunitions produced at least one group that measured less than 2 inches across. Final averages showed that this gun was capable of shooting a group measuring between 2.0 and 2.3 inches at 25 yards with each of the ammunitions we tried. In terms of power or muzzle energy we averaged 228 foot-pounds with the Speer Gold Dots and 278 foot-pounds with the Federal Lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoints.

All three rounds felt good coming out of the barrel of our Mountain Gun, but the Atlanta Arms and Ammo 275-grain lead truncated cone offered the most power (352 foot-pounds on average). With these rounds we also achieved the best accuracy from our two .45 Colt revolvers: a five-shot group measuring 1.6 inches across. Overall average with the Atlanta Arms and Ammo 275-grain round was 2.1 inches.

Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan No. KSRH 2454, .454Casull/.45 Colt, $860

Looking back to the year 2000, the big news on the revolver landscape was the chambering of .454 Casull ammunition. There were other big calibers before it, but the .454 Casull was the one that sparked production models from Ruger, Taurus, and Freedom Arms, to name three. Purportedly, the reason for such a weapon, which combined hideous power and portability, was protection from bears, especially in Alaska, according to advertising and letters we subsequently received. Perhaps this is why the newest Ruger Super Redhawk chambered for .454 Casull and/or the shorter-cased .45 Colt is called the Alaskan. (This gun is also available chambered for .480 Ruger.) When we first heard of the Alaskan, we thought it might be similar to a package modification available from Cylinder & Slide (www.cylinder-slide.com). This package started with shortening the barrel of a Super Redhawk to create a snub-nosed revolver. The Alaskan, with its 2.5-inch barrel, is indeed a snubby. But unlike the standard Super Redhawk, where the frame and barrel are two units, the Alaskan’s barrel shroud and frame are one piece. This is unique among the Ruger revolvers, and we can’t recall seeing similar construction elsewhere. Another first for the Ruger revolvers is the use of a rubber Hogue Monogrip. More often found on Smith & Wesson products, this was a one-piece grip, devoid of separate panels, that slides on from the bottom of the frame and connects by a yoke applied to the butt end of the frame. It features a pebbled texture, finger grooves and a palm swell on both sides.

The Ruger Alaskan is one of the sturdiest and most impressive looking production guns we have seen. In contrast with the black rubber grip (and the sights), the entire gun is stainless steel with a brushed, shiny finish. The finish looked easy to keep, but we have not been able to remove stains on the underlug beneath the muzzle. Machine polishing may be the only answer.

The sights on the Ruger Alaskan consisted of a black ramp with cross serrations at the front and a fully adjustable unit to the rear with a white outline surrounding the notch. Despite the top strap being shiny and wide, we didn’t suffer from glare when we aimed. The sight picture was easy to read. The cylinder rode on a crane that was locked by a detent inside the frame. The ejector rod did not play a part in lockup but was fully shrouded beneath the barrel. The cylinder release was a button instead of the sliding action found on the Smith & Wesson revolvers.

The trigger on the Ruger was the heaviest of our three guns, weighing in at about 15 pounds double action and 6 pounds single action — about a pound more than either the 21-4 or 25-13 in single or double action. The main difference was the Ruger’s double-action stroke seemed longer. The single-action stroke at times displayed a small measure of creep.

If we are to be chastised for not testing with full power .454 Casull rounds, then we plead guilty as charged. The Alaskan may have been designed for the backpacker or glove box for those living in bear country, but we were looking for a big-bore revolver that was easier to live with than the fire and brimstone produced by .454 Casull or even .44 Magnum. We were confident we wouldn’t be able to damage the Alaskan with .45 Colt ammunition and hoped it would be comfortable to shoot as well. We were right on both points. Weighing 6 ounces more than either Smith & Wesson revolver, it was fitted with the best grip found on a Ruger to date. As a result, firing standard-pressure .45 Colt ammunition was child’s play.

Snubbies are never the best fit for a bench rest, but we still managed to shoot an average size group of 2.3 inches with all three of the standard pressure .45 Colt rounds. One characteristic of the Ruger that we did not experience with the Smith & Wesson 25-13 was that before changing from firing a lead bullet to a jacketed round, the cylinders had to be cleaned. Otherwise groups became erratic. In terms of power the Alaskan produced almost 50 foot-pounds more than the Smith & Wesson 25-13 when firing the Speer Gold Dot rounds. We checked velocities twice, making sure that a dirty cylinder was not adding pressure. The Speer rounds were simply better suited to the Ruger. But the real star of the test was the 328-grain rounds especially loaded for Ruger revolvers and Thompson Center single shot handguns. Firing the Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan stoked with the 328-grain rounds was similar in feel to .44 Magnum but without the same blast or flame. Velocity averaged 1024 fps, producing a whopping 764 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.

Still, controlling the Alaskan with these loads was not difficult. The Hogue grip allowed us to get a high hold on the gun, and its profile helped us index straight up and down without the gun swimming out of our grasp. Groups from the bench ranged from 2.1 inches to 2.8 inches for an average of 2.5 inches overall. In terms of rapid fire capability, we felt that the Ruger Alaskan was a little slower than the Smith & Wesson guns. But when firing the heavy 328-grain loads, we doubt we could have fired the Alaskan any faster than the time it took for the sights to return after each shot.

Gun Tests Recommends

Smith & Wesson Mod. 21-4 .44 Special No. 161238, $855. Don’t Buy. The 21-4 may be concealable, but the supplied grips were uncomfortable and difficult to control. Choices of .44 Special defense rounds are limited. Adding higher visibility sights would be a must. We’d pass based on total cost.

Smith & Wesson Model 25-13 Mountain Gun .45 Colt No. 160929, $815. Buy It. Not a concealment piece, this could be a good car gun or open-carry sidearm. Controllable and accurate, it should be able to handle the most aggressive common-pressure .45 Colt ammunition. But availability is in question.

Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan KSRH 2454, .454 Casull/.45 Colt, $860. Our Pick. If you only have six shots, why not maximize power? We didn’t have to use Casull rounds to land heavy blows, but we could have. Accuracy was consistent with all variety of ammunition, and it offered a quick, natural index despite its size.

Text and photos by Roger Eckstine from Gun Tests team field and range evaluations.

Smith & Wesson Model 21-4 .44 Special No. 161238, $855

Accuracy & Chronograph Data Pt. 1

S&W Model 25-13 Mountain Gun .45 Colt No. 160929, $815

Accuracy & Chronograph Data Pt. 2

Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan No. KSRH 2454, .454Casull/.45 Colt, $860