It has been our belief that there are enough different calibers and types of handguns currently on the market to satisfy the security needs of just about anybody. As an example, on the periphery cartridges such as the .32 have survived in unusual niches, in one case as a target round in guns such as the Walther GSP, built specifically for International Rapid-Fire competition. So the inquiring shooter has to wonder why he needs another .32, the H&R Magnum, as a carry gun when the venerable .38 Special is around as an effective mainstay.
One answer: Capacity. Downsizing and the use of featherweight materials have lead to the creation of S&W’s 342Ti, the first and arguably the most successful configuration of an ultralight gun. This is a very small J-frame carrying five shots of .38 Special +P rounds. To get seven rounds in a cylinder, Smith created the 242, also chambered for .38 +P. But the L-frame-based 242, although snag free, is considerably larger than the 342Ti. Likewise, adding a sixth shot means the cylinder circumference increases, unless smaller rounds are used. Enter the .32 Magnum.
We wondered what, if any, advantage the carry shooter might have with an extra round of .32 H&R Magnum in a concealable package, so we acquired two Smith guns, the 331 with exposed hammer, offering single action as well as double action capability, and the 332, a Centennial design. Elsewhere in this thin segment, we were able to locate two other .32 Magnum revolvers, the New England Firearms (NEF) Lady Ultra and Ruger’s SP101 KSP-3231. Our goal was to shoot these guns to determine which product we liked the best, and to investigate if the .32 Magnum is worth considering as a self-defense round in the first place. On the latter point, we were surprised to find that with the right round, the .32 Magnum can indeed stake a claim to being a self-defense load. On the former point, we learned that we liked the reliability of a steel-frame gun, the Ruger, better than the others. Here’s why.
Gun Tests was able to secure four different types of rounds for our battery of .32 H&R Magnum revolvers. These were the 85-grain Hi-Shok JHP and 95-grain lead semi-wadcutter from Federal plus a lower-pressured lead roundnose cartridge (.32 S&W Long) by Lapua, and finally a frangible or “pre-fragmented” defense round from MagSafe called the Defender (50 grains). Tests were conducted by firing five five-shot groups off-hand at targets 12 yards downrange.
In terms of pure accuracy the Federal Hi-Shok round was champ. In the S&W guns all groups measured less than 2 inches. The Ruger produced a 0.6-inch group with all rounds touching. In fact the SP101 averaged groups of less than 2 inches for all four choices of ammo. The Smith 331 had trouble generating tight groups with the lead rounds on a consistent basis. This may have been because the barrel fit was deteriorating. The 331 comes with a warning not to shoot lead bullets for fear of overcoming the crimp and causing a stoppage. We didn’t see any hint of this type of malfunction developing.
Even at the longest barrel length of 3 inches, not one of these guns should be considered a target pistol. Looking at chronograph numbers you have to wonder where they stand in terms of being able to deliver a fight-stopping blow. Looking at the .32 Magnum’s ballistics, it would seem you are not getting much for your money. But with proper shot placement, a power factor of only 70 or 80 is plenty, so an accurate shot can overcome the odds, which gives a big advantage to the Ruger’s accuracy.
Still, we wanted to find out just how the .32 Magnum would stack up in the event we weren’t the greatest marksmen and were just lucky enough to get off the first shot. This is why we included the MagSafe Defender round. It moves fast. High velocities for this round in each gun were 1,519 fps in the Lady Ultra, 1,534 fps in the little 2-inch Smith, and 1,626 fps in the Ruger’s 3-inch barrel. But weighing in at only 50 grains, that speed generates a measly power factor of 81. Standard .38 Special beats it by 20 to 30 points. That lead to the next question: How would it perform on meat?
No one volunteered to stand still and let us find out, so we bought two eye of round roasts and fired the MagSafe Defender in one and a standard velocity .38 Special lead bullet in the other. The .38 penetrated the roast with little disruption. You could cleanly push a pencil through the wound canal. In contrast, the multi-projectile .32 Magnum not only passed through the meat but left a gaping exit hole. We were very impressed with the Defender’s performance and suddenly realized we shouldn’t underestimate the .32 Mag’s oomph. In the right hands, with the right load, in the right gun, we accepted that the round could indeed serve a defense role effectively. The question was, which one was the right gun?
New England Firearms Lady Ultra
Our recommendation: Disappointing. This $170 product quit during testing. We can’t recommend it as a result.
The NEF Lady Ultra resembles the gun a ‘Lady’ might take from her purse to defend her honor on the streets of Tombstone (double action notwithstanding). We liked the undercut and dovetailed front sight with lined top strap, pinned construction, adjustable rear sight, bull-type barrel with recessed crown, a nicely polished finish, walnut grips and Old West profile. But we didn’t like its dreadful action, crude breech face, and an ejector rod that only moves about 1/8 inch. The rest of the time this mechanism argues with you when you ask to simply reset the cylinder into the frame. All this gun needs is an acceptable trigger and modern ejector and it would be a fun revolver with real charm. But, after only five rounds of each ammo for the purpose of recording velocity data and 15 rounds of Lapua .32 S&W Long cartridges on target, the main spring gave up. From then on, the hammer would only leave faint imprints on the face of the primers.
Smith & Wesson 331, 332
Our recommendation: Fashioned from titanium alloy, each gun is as light as a feather with all the modern revolver features.
We focused on the $375 331 because it more closely matched the other guns in this test with the choice of single and double action modes of fire. In our opinion, all that can be said of the 331 goes for the $389 332, but the Centennial 332 is more snag free and concealable.
The Smith’s grips were lovely but proved too slippery, even sharp. This resulted in poor control even when firing the less powerful .32 Long cartridge. When Smith designed its .38 +P 342, it included a steel barrel that appears to be of better quality than the one found in the .32s. Overall construction of the .38s was heavier, not necessarily in ounces but in stress resistance. If only they’d built the .32s the way they fashioned the stronger 342.
Our first hint of a problem was when the guns appeared inordinately hot after only a few rounds. While the barrel of the 342 reads .38 Special +P right on the side, the 331 and 332 say only .32 Magnum. Perhaps the MagSafe.32 Magnum loads were too hot. But what use is a 2-inch barrel if it cannot handle defense-oriented loads? After only two cylinders of either the MagSafe or Federal JHPs, neither the 331 nor the 332 wanted to eject the empty shells. Simple thumb pressure at the ejector rod was enough to push the cylinder past the frame and almost completely off the ejector rod, a malady shared by both guns. Letting the guns cool was no help and conditioning the chambers with Hoppe’s and BreakFree CLP did nothing to ease ejection of subsequent rounds. Only the lower-pressure rounds, which not only lacked firepower but accuracy as well, allowed for smooth operation. After a total of 80 test rounds, we noticed the barrel and shroud on the 331 were ready to come off, so we retired it.
Our recommendation: This is a solid choice if you want to pack the .32 Mag. Buy it. While S&W obviously underestimated the strength necessary for a .32 Magnum revolver, Ruger stayed very close to its original small pistol design. This $443 SP101 seems lighter than its fire-breathing .357 Magnum cousin, but its all-steel design certainly handles the hottest .32 Mags with ease. The stainless finish is just this side of incomparable, the grips are as good as any aftermarket product, the lock up (with full-length ejector) is strong enough for .357 Magnum, and we feel it has the best cylinder latch design of all and solidly built adjustable sights. Perhaps its only down sides are its overall size and weight.
Gun Tests Recommends
NEF Lady Ultra, $170. Pass on this one. Although aesthetically appealing and available at a low price, it failed in our testing.
Smith & Wesson Models 331 and 332, $375 and $389 respectively. Pass on these two as well. The concept is right on. With a round like the MagSafe Defender on board, these guns would be just right for close-quarters battle and deep concealment. Unfortunately, we think Smith underestimated the durability aspect. A simple upgrade to the structural integrity of the company’s heavier-duty models would do the trick. Until then, we can’t recommend them.
Ruger SP101, $443. If you want a .32 Magnum revolver, buy this one. For those who need lower recoil, this is a fine choice of defensive weapon.