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$400 Snubnose Revolvers: Rossi, RIA, and Charter Arms

We felt all of these were well made, and we believe these revolvers will perform their designed task of self defense. They are also safe to carry fully loaded and concealed, since they are equipped with internal safety systems that require the trigger to be pulled fully to the rear to fire a round. If accidentally dropped, none of them will fire.

Snubnose revolvers like these three offer the user simplicity since there are no manual safeties, magazine-release buttons, slide stops or any other controls on the revolver other that the cycler latch. There is no magazine to lose since the revolver feeds off an attached cylinder. The double-action trigger pull on all three revolvers provided enough resistance — some were easier to press than others — so that in a high-stress situation, we felt they would be quite adequate and be less likely to be accidentally discharged.

All were metal-frame revolvers chambered in 38 Special and sported 2-inch barrels. The Rossi and Charter Arms models have 5-round capacities, while the RIA can carry 6 rounds. Because we also wanted to carry these revolvers, we looked at spurless and concealed-hammer models, which were the RIA and Charter Arms, respectively. The Rossi was a traditional SA/DA revolver with an exposed hammer with spur.

After running these revolvers, we found we liked a lot about all of them, but, as always, we noted some specific details about them we did not like. Our biggest gripes were the trigger pulls and grips, as we note below. Accuracy with some of these short-barrel protectors was a pleasant surprise.

All three were marked 38 Special, and we read the manuals to see if the guns were safe to use +P ammo. The Rossi manual stated it was compatible with +P ammo, but not to use +P frequently. We decided to test with 38 Special regular-pressure ammunition only, and acquired some Federal Champion 158-grain lead roundnose (LRN) cartridges, some Armscor 158-grain Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) rounds, and Hornady Custom fodder loaded with 158-grain XTP hollowpoints. Felt recoil with this ammunition varied widely.

A $400 revolver will exhibit some characteristics, such as fit and finish, that are not going to be nearly as nice as a revolver costing twice as much because finishing a firearm can be labor intensive and costly. What we concentrated on were the functional aspects: triggers, sights, grips, accuracy, concealability, and ease of use. Here is what we discovered.

Bisley Revolvers Revisited

In 1894 Colt debuted a target variation of its Single Action Army pistol (SAA) called the Bisley. This new revolver was named after the famous British shooting range in Surry, England. Colt manufactured more than 44,000 Bilsey revolvers in 18 different chamberings, with barrel lengths of 4.75, 5.5, and 7.5 inches, until 1915, when the company discontinued the line. A very small number had adjustable sights, but most had fixed sights like the SAA. The Bisley used the same frame, barrel, ejector-rod system, and cylinder, as well as the basic mechanism of the SAA, but the new gun also offered some distinct differences — namely the hammer, trigger, and grip, which were designed for the late-19th-century target shooter. Some internal parts like the mainspring, hand, racket, and others were also different.

The shape of the Bisley grip is swept under and appears more vertical than the traditional SAA, and that's for a reason: To accommodate a bent-arm single-hand hold, which for today's shooter looks and feels archaic. Obviously, one can shoot a Bisley like any modern pistol by keeping the wrist locked with a one-hand or two-hand grip, like with modern semi-automatic pistols such as the 1911, Glock, and the ilk. But the Bisley's grip doesn't lend itself to this modern hold.

Also, the Bisley's trigger is wider than the traditional SAA, the trigger guard is shaped differently, and the hammer spur was lowered to make it easier to cock without a shooter needing to loosen his grip.

The shape of the Bisley grip is swept under and appears more vertical than the traditional SAA, and that's for a reason: To accommodate a bent-arm single-hand hold, which for today's shooter looks and feels archaic. Obviously, one can shoot a Bisley like any modern pistol by keeping the wrist locked with a one-hand or two-hand grip, like with modern semi-automatic pistols such as the 1911, Glock, and the ilk. But the Bisley's grip doesn't lend itself to this modern hold.

Also, the Bisley's trigger is wider than the traditional SAA, the trigger guard is shaped differently, and the hammer spur was lowered to make it easier to cock without a shooter needing to loosen his grip.

Ruger refreshed the Bisley in 1984, introducing the Ruger Blackhawk Bisley with a similar unique grip, but not as tucked as the original Colt, and with target sights and an engraved unfluted cylinder. The Ruger Bisley grip design allows for less movement of the grip in hand when firing hot loads. Unlike a SAA grip style, which curls up in your hand when firing hot loads, the Bisley transfers the recoil into the palm of the hand, a more comfortable experience when shooting hot loads. A Bisley of one type or another has been in Ruger's catalog ever since.

We wanted to take a look at an old-school Bisley and a modern Bisley to compare them side by side, so we acquired an Uberti Cattleman Bisley, which is a spitting image of an original Colt, and the more modern variant in a Ruger Bisley Vaquero, built on the New Vaquero frame. Our first task was to use a revolver range rod and rod-head combo from Brownells in 38 Special/357 Magnum (080-617-038WB, $40) to check each chamber for alignment with the bore, and we found everything to be in spec. Some older replica revolvers might have had the throat of a chamber opened up to accept a range rod during factory inspection, which means that particular chamber will shave and spit lead and be less accurate than other chambers. The range rod won't pick up this issue.

Handgun Stats: Uberti Cattleman Bisley 346040

If holding to tradition is important to you, then the Uberti Cattleman Bisley has a place in your gun safe. This is a well-made, beautiful revolver that offers good performance at $200 less than the Ruger. The barrel, cylinder, and grip frame are all deeply blued with a rich case-hardened frame color. The smooth walnut grips had nice figuring and were well fitted to the metal.

The blue-blood Colt collectors winced at the Uberti because it was not truly a clone of a Colt, but it was a darned good replica. Small touches, such as the checkered hammer spur, help redeem it in their eyes, though the firing pin was obviously not the cone-shaped firing pin of an original. The Uberti made the same music when cocking as does a traditional SAA. It uses the same type of mechanism, with a half cock notch for loading and unloading. As a result, the Uberti needs to have the hammer rest on an empty chamber when carried.

What was modernized on the Uberti was the elongated cylinder base pin, which has two notches in lieu of one. The shooter can press the base pin screw and push in the cylinder base pin to the first notch to block the hammer from fully moving forward and firing a round. This is not a solution for carrying the Uberti fully loaded, we believe. Instead, we recommend using the "load one, skip one" method like a shooter does with a traditional SAA.

Handgun Stats: Ruger Bisley Vaquero, Model No. 5130 38 Special/357 Magnum, $835

The Ruger Bisley New Model Vaquero offers the unique Bisley look plus many modern refinements that make shooting these revolvers safer and more user friendly. Our Ruger Bisley featured a 5.5-inch barrel, simulated ivory grip, and a polished stainless-steel finish that resembled nickel plating, but with none of the wear and maintenance requirements that finish requires. If the glossy, bright finish has a drawback, it is sun glare when shooting under a clear sky. On the other hand, the stainless finish made it easy to clean the revolver after extended shooting sessions. Testers agreed they would darken the shooter-facing position of the front blade and the semi-circular cutout just to the rear of the groove on the top strap.

The grip is reminiscent of the original Bisley, but it felt more friendly to the modern shooter, in our view. It is not as swept under as it is on an original Colt, so in hand, the Ruger Bisley felt much like a modern semi-automatic pistol. Shot one- or two-handed, the Ruger felt comfortable. We found it delightfully addictive to shoot with mild 38 Special loads, and quite comfortable and easy to manage with hot 357 Magnum loads.

The grip panels were an off-white polymer that looked like ivory. The Ruger medallion was inset in each grip panel. The panels were not flush with the frame like on the Uberti, but the edges were smooth, so no chafing occurred during live-fire testing. In hand, the Ruger had a bit of heft to it — 45 ounces — compared to the 7.5-inch barrel Uberti that weighed 47.7 ounces. The Ruger was a natural pointer that we found comfortable to hold, grip, and cock, due to the Bisley's lowered hammer. Testers did not have to break their grips to cock the piece like with a traditional SAA.

Range Data

To test for function, feel, and accuracy, we tried a variety of standard 38 Special and 38 Special +P loads as well as a 357 Magnum set. What we found was that these old-style revolvers shot well. Across all ammo brands and types, we averaged about 1.5-inch 5-shot groups at 25 yards using a rest. Those older-style sights may not be as easy to use as more modern sights, but with some practice by the shooter, they sure can get the job done.

Depending on what you prefer, you will either like the more traditionally styled revolver or the modern update, but for most of our shooters, the Ruger Bisley came out on top, and you will see why shortly. Here's more on the Bisley match up.

Snubnose Revolvers from S&W And Ruger: Which One To Carry?

The 357 Magnum is an excellent defensive cartridge. Pair it with a lightweight, compact revolver, and that is what we would call an excellent choice as a conceal-carry handgun. Our team has tested variants of the Ruger SP101 and S&W Model 60, but the S&W Model 60 Pro Series in 357 Magnum is a variant we have wanted to get our hands on for a while. We also wanted to see if the caliber choice would sway our recommendation on the established Ruger SP101 model.

The second Ruger SP101 we tested was chambered in 327 Federal Magnum, which was cataloged by Ruger from 2007 to 2011. As we noted in our first look at the gun in the April 2008 issue, Ruger and Federal teamed up to produce a cartridge/handgun combination that provided the power of the 357 Magnum but with less recoil and in a compact revolver that holds six shots rather than five shots. As a bonus, the 327 Fed Mag-chambered Ruger also accepts 32 H&R Mag, 32 S&W, and 32 S&W Long ammo. The footprint of the Ruger SP101 in 327 Fed Mag is basically same as the Ruger SP101 in 357 Mag, with a few exceptions.

All three double-action revolvers are built from stainless steel with similar barrel lengths, give or take three-quarters of an inch. All had exposed hammers, so single-action firing is possible. A transfer bar was built into the revolvers for safety. All three were built to last, even under a steady diet of hot loads. The lock up was tight on all three, and the chambers were all aligned with the bore, which we assumed but also verified. Fit and finish was very good on all three revolvers and that was exactly what we expected. The workmanship in these guns make them worth the cost.

S&W Bodyguards: Revolver Or Semiauto for Self Defense?

In this report we look at S&Ws two so-called Bodyguards, one a revolver in 38 Special, the other a semiautomatic pistol in 380 ACP. Both were fitted with adjustable laser sights. The first thing we found was the lasers are useless outdoors in bright daylight, no matter what youve been led to believe by various TV shows. On an overcast day, the lasers on these two pistols might be of some value, but we much prefer to use iron sights when we can see em. With them, theres nothing to turn on, no buttons to push.If you like the idea of using a laser indoors at night, these setups might be okay for you. Weve said before we dont like giving our location away by the glow of a laser sight to anyone who might be in our house whos not supposed to be there. However, a good laser - and these seem to be excellent - is a reasonable aiming device in conditions when you just cant see your iron sights and dont - or cant - have tritium inserts. Both of these handguns have adjustments so you can put the laser dots right at the impact point of your chosen ammo. One push of a button turns on the laser. A second push puts the laser into a pulsing mode, and a third turns it off, same for both guns, though they have different button setups. We shot with the ammo available, which for the 38 Special was one handload with 158-grain lead SWC and some CCI Blazer 125-grain JHP. For the 380 we used brass-case CCI Blazer with 95-grain FMJ bullets. Heres what we found.

S&W Bodyguards: Revolver Or Semiauto for Self Defense?

In this report we look at S&Ws two so-called Bodyguards, one a revolver in 38 Special, the other a semiautomatic pistol in 380 ACP. Both were fitted with adjustable laser sights. The first thing we found was the lasers are useless outdoors in bright daylight, no matter what youve been led to believe by various TV shows. On an overcast day, the lasers on these two pistols might be of some value, but we much prefer to use iron sights when we can see em. With them, theres nothing to turn on, no buttons to push.If you like the idea of using a laser indoors at night, these setups might be okay for you. Weve said before we dont like giving our location away by the glow of a laser sight to anyone who might be in our house whos not supposed to be there. However, a good laser - and these seem to be excellent - is a reasonable aiming device in conditions when you just cant see your iron sights and dont - or cant - have tritium inserts. Both of these handguns have adjustments so you can put the laser dots right at the impact point of your chosen ammo. One push of a button turns on the laser. A second push puts the laser into a pulsing mode, and a third turns it off, same for both guns, though they have different button setups. We shot with the ammo available, which for the 38 Special was one handload with 158-grain lead SWC and some CCI Blazer 125-grain JHP. For the 380 we used brass-case CCI Blazer with 95-grain FMJ bullets. Heres what we found.

Ruger or S&W Battery Mates: Which Would You Rather?

In this test we will evaluate two 6-inch heavy-barreled revolvers and two lightweight 2-inch-barreled revolvers, each paired by manufacturers. Both the $701 Ruger GP100 revolver KGP161 and the $829 686 Smith & Wesson 164224 feature stainless-steel construction, rubber grips, single- and double-action capability and weigh about 45 ounces. Both accept six rounds of 357 Magnum and/or 38 Special ammunition. Given their adjustable rear sights and generous sight radii, these guns were suitable for target competition as well as for self defense.

The little brothers were much lighter and slim enough to fit inside a pants pocket or purse. They were the $575 Ruger LCR LCR-BGXS with Hogue boot grip, and the $509 Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 38 103038, complete with built-in laser. Both of these guns were chambered for 38 Special, but similar models capable of firing the longer-cased 357 Magnum ammunition are available. Special features that make these revolvers similar were their lightweight alloy-and-polymer construction and fully enclosed "hammerless" firing mechanism, which made them snag-free and nearly impervious to being fouled by lint or other debris.

38 Special S&W Snubnose Showdown: Whos the Top Dog?

The 38 snubnose revolver is a staple of murder mysteries, cop TV shows for many decades, and of real-life cops who need a good, light backup. Everyone over the age of, say, 40 has seen a snubby at one time or another. Todays TV cops favor all manner of automatic pistols, so the snub 38 is not often seen. But that doesnt mean its no good. The bottom line is, if all you have is a 38 Special snubnose with only five shots, you are a very long way from being unarmed. If you carry five more in a speed loader, well, what more could you want?Its clear that Smith & Wesson figures theres still a viable market for the snubnose 38, because it has come out with a new revolver called the Bodyguard 38, usurping the name of the previous Bodyguard with shrouded hammer. The new Bodyguard 38 comes with an "integral" laser sight, and the gun vies with the Centennial Airweight for looks, charm, effectiveness, concealability, and price. We acquired a new Bodyguard 38 No. 103038, $625, with an eye toward pitting it against two good wheelguns already in the S&W arsenal, a used, older Centennial Airweight (street price around $400) and a Chiefs Special Model 36 with square butt (street price about $300) that had its hammer bobbed, so it was essentially a double-action-only gun like the other two, though it was still possible to cock the hammer. All the guns were S&W five-shot 38 Specials, and all had 1.9-inch barrels. Our prime interest was to see if the newer, more expensive Bodyguard was worth the money when proven, perfectly servicable older guns are readily available at gun stores, pawn shops, and gun shows.The snubby has a lot of advantages and not many disadvantages. The snub 38 is not a target revolver, so dont expect it to make small groups for you, despite the fact that some have been fitted with adjustable sights. In this test, we looked at these guns as self-defense choices, and nothing else. We noted its not particularly easy to conceal a snub 38. In fact, many 45 autos are slimmer, thus more easily hidden. But you can simply put the 38 revolver into your pocket, no holster, and no one will know what that odd bulge really is. The absence of a hammer on this trio of test guns makes them easy to get out of the pocket, too.We tested the trio with four types of ammunition, and tried several more types of loads, which are unreported. Our official test loads were Winchester 130-grain flat-nose FMJ, PMCs 132-grain round-nose FMJ, and Blazer 125-grain +P JHP. We were unable to obtain any heavy-bullet factory loads, so we used a handload featuring a 158-grain cast SWC. Heres what we found.

Three Stainless Snubbies: Wed Pass On Charters Undercover

Despite many competing autoloading pistols, the five-shot snubnose revolver still has lots of fans. In fact, some of those fans are among our test crew. Once limited to .38 Special, the snubby may now be found chambered in .357 Magnum. A small 2-inch revolver has a lot going for it in self-defense situations. Its irregular shape is often easier to conceal than the relentless slab of an autoloader. There are no magazines to fall out. As Elmer Keith put it, if you have any part of a revolver, you have it all. They are generally reliable for five shots, and can be recharged quickly with a speed loader. Despite what you see in the movies, most gunfights are over with the firing of only a shot or two. Though snubbies had pretty bad sights in the past, recent ones have excellent sights. The guns can be extremely accurate, though you may have to work to prove it. Of course a revolver will handle any level of ammunition, from primer-propelled wax bullets to the hottest loads. And there are no failures to feed. Not ever.

Many snubbies are made with hidden hammers, and we've looked at some of those over the past months, but it's been awhile since we looked at the old standby with its protruding, easily cocked hammer. These may not work all that well out of the pocket, but work fine from a holster. With fixed sights and a short sight radius, these are not among the best plinkers, but well suited for self defense. The three test guns we acquired were the Ruger SP101 ($530), the Charter Arms Undercover ($325), and the S&W Model 60 ($623). All three are stainless-steel five-shooters with fixed sights.

The Smith and the Ruger handle .357 Magnum ammo. For this test we chose the Charter Undercover, which is .38 Special only. Charter makes a .357 version called the Mag Pug, which is similar to the Smith and Ruger, but is much heavier than the Undercover and has a ported barrel which we didn't care for. So we gave the lighter Undercover a chance, with an eye toward easier carry. Because of the limitation of the Charter to .38 Special, we did most of our testing with .38 Special ammo, but did try some .357 loads in the other two. That doesn't mean we stuck with light loads. Far from it. Our most interesting test ammo was the heavy-bullet Buffalo Bore load designed to be similar to the old FBI round with lead bullet, but this time featuring a soft, Elmer-Keith-type, 158-grain cast hollowpoint lead SWC with a gas check to prevent leading. (See sidebar.) These loads are put together with flash-free powder, and gave little visible blast at night from these snubby revolvers. We also tested with Black Hills cowboy-level cast-bullet loads, with Winchester's Super-X 130-grain JHP, and — in the two .357s — Federal's Hi-Shok 130-grain JHP. Here's what we found.

Cowboy .38 Specials: EMF Is Our Pick, Ruger Gets A Buy Nod

Those who are most serious about Cowboy Action shooting tend to favor lighter-recoiling firearms so they can cut their times down, never mind that bigger guns like .45s tend to be more authentic, especially when stoked with black powder. Not that it takes any less skill to do well with lighter recoiling equipment, but it can give an edge, or so we've been told. This means .38 Special loads in handguns and rifles, and probably 20-gauge shotguns. How much benefit does a .38 Special offer over, say, a .45 Colt? There's a huge difference in recoil, even if the .45 shoots only light cowboy loads.

To find out more, we gathered a trio of .38 Special single-action six-shooters to see how well they'd do for us, and to find out how much we liked ‘em. All were .357 Mag-capable, and all had 4.75-inch barrels. The guns were a Ruger New Model 50th Anniversary Flat Top Blackhawk ($583), a Taurus Gaucho M38SA ($499), and from EMF Co., a resurrection of the old Great Western revolvers, the Great Western II "Californian" model ($450). We tested with three main types of ammo, Black Hills Cowboy loads, Federal 110-grain JHP .357 Mag, and with a modest handload in .38 Special cases that approximated Cowboy loads. Here's what we found.

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