March 1999

Airweight Revolvers: +P Power Versus .357 Magnum Punch

For compact power, choose Rugerís $443 Ruger SP101 KSP321 .357 Magnum. For ultra-lightweight performance, buy Smith & Wessonís new $499 S&W 342Ti Titanium .38 Special +P.

Terminology to describe lighter-framed concealable revolvers seems to be tracking changes in professional boxing. In the sweet science, no longer does a fighter compete merely as a bantamweight, middleweight or heavyweight. Now the prefixes light, for just under a given weight-class structure, and super, meaning a little heavier than a certain poundage range, are divvying up the match-ups so tightly that we may soon see 170-pound guys whacking only 171-pound opponents.

Likewise, in gun terms, we’re confronted with evermore descriptive language for heft, such as Air-Weight, Air-Lite, and Ultra-Light—most often labeling snubbies demanded by today’s CHL holder. These airy words are designed to convey how easy and comfortable these guns are to wear as civilian self-defense items, a refinement of their original purpose as primary undercover guns or as back-up guns. To make light undercover guns even lighter, manufacturers shrunk the guns’ capacity from six to five shots, which allowed for a thinner cylinder diameter and reduced profile. Moreover, the introduction of aluminum-alloy frames brought us guns that were much lighter, but which were also less durable and more uncomfortable to shoot because of their recoil. Even for those who enjoy shooting, regular practice sessions of any duration with these guns wasn’t pleasant. They were even tougher to shoot when they were beefed up to accept +P ammo.

Since manufacturers seem to be building guns that we as customers want—that is, lighter and more powerful—we wanted to compare some of the +P featherweights currently being offered to slightly beefier .357 Magnum guns to see how these wheelguns carried and shot. To this end, we acquired a recently released stainless-steel Taurus 605 2.5-inch .357 Magnum, $364, a $443 Ruger SP101 KSP321 .357 Magnum (one of the original five-shot .357 Magnums), a $330 2-inch Taurus 85UL .38 Special +P, an S&W 642 Centennial .38 Special +P, $460, and a new $499 S&W 342Ti (Titanium) .38 Special +P. We wanted to know how light, how strong, how accurate—and most of all—how usable five-shot revolvers in their lightest configurations can be.

Based on our testing, we think two of the aforementioned guns are easy winners over the others. The Ruger SP101 .357 Magnum is more powerful than, but also heavier than, S&W’s 342Ti +P gun. Which one you ultimately pick depends on many factors, which we sort through below.

Range Session Results
Overall, the +P 125-grain Speer Gold Dots shot the best in all the guns, but the 342Ti shooting the American Eagles developed the best average group, 1.9 inches. The 642 was second with an average group size of 2 inches even with this same ammo. Then came the Ruger shooting 2.1 inches with the PMC 160-grain RNL, followed by the Taurus 85UL at 2.2 inches with 130-grain FMJs. We decided not to test the 342Ti with the lead +P ammo after reading a warning in the S&W manual. Due to the decreased mass and increased recoil, the use of lead bullets over a +P charge is not recommended, it said. This is because the softer lead might give up its crimp and allow the bullets to shift forward in their cases and jam the cylinder.

Click here to view the Accuracy and Chronograph Data for .38 Special Ammunition

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Click here to view the Accuracy and Chronograph Data for .357 Magnum Ammunition

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The Ruger and the 342Ti were the only guns that ran trouble-free throughout the test, although the Taurus 85UL cured itself along the way. The Taurus 605’s action became too stiff and unpredictable to work safely, in our judgment. Also, the Smith & Wesson 642 exhibited a timing problem that adversely affected groups. Actually, the 642 consistently shot two groups in each string. We could not understand why it would produce a 1.2-inch group with two shots and then a 1.5-inch group of three shots some distance away. On a hunch, we turned up our Peltor electronic ears and listened carefully to the revolver’s inner mechanism as the gun went into battery for each shot. Sure enough, we could hear the timing engage only twice over the span of five shots. With so little barrel available to correct the deflection caused by the misalignment of the chambers and the forcing cone, it was creating two separate points of impact. This reminded us of advice self-defense instructors give when introducing airweights to his students: “You can carry it loaded with +P, but it’s best to do all your practicing with standard .38 Special ammo.”

Ruger SP101 KSP321 .357 Magnum
Gun Tests Recommends: Buy it. This gun delivers a lot of shootable power in a package that weighs only as much as a loaf of bread.

Click here to view the Ruger SP101 KSP321 .357 Magnum features guide

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SP101s have been in production since 1988, and all the guns in the series, .22 LRs, .38 Specials, .32 H&Rs, 9mms, and .357s, sell for MSRPs of $443.

Shooting these lightweight snubbies from a bench left our testers with bruised and swollen thumbs and forefingers. It got so bad with the light titanium gun that we cheated and swapped the Uncle Mike’s grip from Smith’s standard Airweight to the Ti to save some skin. But the 342Ti wasn’t the only abuser. The Ruger SP101 managed to carve a nice divot on the inside of the shooter’s index finger, the result of an unforgiving edge on the trigger. Also, the Ruger’s action was a little heavier than desired, but it was predictable. Had this gun been treated to some action work and a contoured trigger, it would have performed even better. As it was, the SP101 was still the most accurate and reliable of all the guns tested. Capable of chambering full-house .357 Magnum loads, it was clearly at or near the top of the chart in producing pressure and velocity no matter what round was used.

At 25.5 ounces, an SP101 lets you know it’s there, but sometimes a little heft can be comforting. While the other revolvers say they are capable of handling +P ammunition or even the .357 Magnum load, the Ruger SP101 was the only gun in the test we felt completely comfortable with when loading the hot stuff. We were confident it could take whatever pounding we dished out. Ruger, like no other company, has been able to produce strong handguns with cast construction. Steel inlays at critical points include bolstering at the firing pin hole and breech face and where the crane seats against the inside of the frame. The long ejector rod, which is fully shrouded, does not turn with the cylinder, nor is it a supporting arm to the bolt. This avoids the common malady in revolvers where the rod is bent with heavy use and begins to drag on the inside of the shroud. Ruger uses a short, fully supported bolt running from the breech face to the crane. The ejector rod floats until it is pushed through the cylinder to eject the rounds. A hand that seats more than 0.1 inch forward into the frame provides lock-up at the front of the crane.

For a shooting iron we felt was tough enough to double as a ball-peen hammer, the SP101’s looks and finish are well above average. The stainless finish shows signs of genuine craftsmanship at all seams, and angles and the engravings are proud and deep. The cylinder release is unique to Ruger; its operation is akin to a push-button design. We find this easier to operate than sliding forward the release commonly found on other revolvers. The grip is a two-piece construction with hard-plastic panels set in soft rubber. As with other parts of this revolver, even the method of retaining the grip appears to be heavy duty.

We noted a few niggling problems as well. Though it seats well out of the way, the bobbed hammer is just below the rear sight notch and could be distracting. However, with so much power available in this small package, watching it work could also be considered a source of comfort. We thought the Ruger’s sight picture could also be improved. The front blade, although blackened, still reflected a lot of glare.

S&W 342Ti .38 Special +P
Gun Tests Recommends: This new $499 titanium Smith & Wesson five-shooter is so light and small—yet shootable—that you might misplace it. If you like your cellphone to fit in your shirt pocket, then the 342Ti is the right pick to go in your pants pocket.

Click here to view the S&W 342Ti .38 Special +P features guide

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The 342Ti is so light we thought of trying to photograph it as an earring. But the truth is, our most embarrassing moment in testing this gun came during the range session. When it was the Ti’s turn at the bench, we looked and looked but couldn’t find it anywhere. Finally, one of our staffers remembered it was in his pocket!

The 342Ti weighs less than 12 ounces, and it will shoot .38 Special +P ammo all day long. It achieves its trim weight through the use of titanium, a metal often referred to as “hard aluminum.” Titanium reduces the weight of the cylinder 60 percent below what a stainless-steel wheel would weigh. Some of the ultra-light bolstering of this pocket rocket launcher are a special heavy-duty nitrided center pin, a special titanium bushing where the center pin passes through the bolster face, and four heavy-duty titanium studs that carry the trigger, hammer, rebound, and cylinder stop. The titanium gray ends of the studs can be observed on the left side of the gun. Additional weight reduction can be seen with areas of slimmed and fluted surfaces on the barrel shroud, under the trigger guard, and on the back strap.

The Smith & Wesson Model 342Ti comes in a padded presentation case like the one your first stethoscope came in when you graduated from medical school. You say you didn’t go to med-school? That’s okay, you can still buy a 342Ti for $499 list, or about $100 a round. And there are other signs that this is not your father’s Smith & Wesson. The owner is warned against removing or adjusting the barrel assembly in any way. The barrel is an aluminum-and-stainless steel hybrid, and it is assembled in such a way that it seats itself throughout the life of the gun. A special tool is needed to work on the tube, and nothing is served by fooling with it yourself. Also, the exposed titanium surfaces are polished and treated with a protective finish. Otherwise, the exposed metal in the individual chambers and cylinder face are susceptible to abrasion from common items such as sandpaper, crocus cloth, and Scotch Brite wheels.

Taurus 85UL .38 Special +P
Gun Tests Recommends: Like the Taurus 605, the 85UL’s action locked up during testing, but the Ultra-Lite’s problem went away as it broke in. If you can’t afford the lighter Smiths, this gun is worth a look.

Click here to view the Taurus 85UL .38 Special +P features guide

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In the hand, the Taurus 85UL feels small. Its overall height is less than 4.5 inches, and the grip is very short. The grip measures 3 inches at the back and only 2 inches in the front. We found it can be hard to keep the same grip for more than one shot.

When we first got the 85UL, the action seemed flawed, sometimes failing to release the hammer and trigger. This is reflected in the accuracy test results reported in the nearby tables. Still, by the end of the test this problem had disappeared. A burr or debris floating somewhere behind the sideplate likely caused this problem. The Taurus catalog says it is rated for +P ammunition. On the barrel it merely reads .38 Special, but the gun seemed to handle hotter ammo just fine.

At 17 ounces the $330 Taurus 85UL is almost a half-pound lighter than the Taurus 605—but two S&W guns were even lighter. This gun, rated for .38 Special +P rounds, is handsome, with two different textures of satin stainless. The frame has a sand-blasted look with raised lettering, and the full-lug shroud, crane, and cylinder share a smoother texture. The 2-inch barrel is obviously of different material than the shroud. Lighter guns provide the necessary strength at the “hot points,” that is the barrel, cylinder, and breechface. They save weight by surrounding these crucial areas with the latest alloy technology. Taurus refers to it as hammer-forged alloy. All together this is a very nice package with workmanship well above what would be considered acceptable at its price. The 85UL comes with a key lock that freezes the hammer, and this is the only gun in the test with single-action capability. The double action is the quick paced, damn-the-lock up action we have come to expect from Taurus revolvers. The action works against a coiled mainspring that gives very little feedback between resisting the trigger stroke and breaking the shot. Anyone pressing carefully, expecting to hear a chorus of lockup sounds before let-off, will be sadly disappointed.

To shoot any revolver well, the trick is to steady the sights throughout the trigger squeeze. A blackened front sight, which would have defined the blade in the rear sight-notch, would have helped us shoot the gun better, in our estimation.

S&W 642 .38 Special +P
Gun Tests Recommends: If any gun in this test is the reigning champion of concealment guns, this is it. We think the hammerless 642, $460, is a good gun, though we would spend $39 more to get the 342Ti.

Click here to view the S&W 642 .38 Special +P features guide

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Behind the Ti, the next-lightest revolver was the Smith & Wesson 642, which differs from the earlier 442 because it is rated for +P ammunition. Its 2-inch barrel looks longer because it is not shrouded, and there is only enough lug to capture the short ejector rod. The action in this Centennial Series gun is often referred to as hammerless, but this is only because the hammer does its work behind a closed frame that is perfect for deep concealment. Its finish is brushed stainless with a black anodized trigger. The ejector star is of the CNC variety Smith now uses that does away with the peg and hole lock up that was ultimately jeopardized when the pegs finally broke off after extended use.

S&W solves the problem of a short grip by applying a palm-swell grip by Uncle Mike that feels like a trailer-hitch ball in your hand. This works quite well, and we found it is just about the only way you can hold on to a 15.5-ounce revolver and recover for a consistent second shot. The trigger action is very long, but it was more predictable than the others. You can pull straight through very quickly, and the length of pull will serve to smooth out any tendency you have to yank the trigger. Or you can stage the trigger and, in effect, shoot in the single-action mode without having to pull back an external hammer.

Taurus 605 .357 Magnum
Gun Tests Recommends: We think the other guns are better choices either in terms of power or portability. The 605’s action locked up with most of our test ammos. The only ammo the 605 digested properly was the Federal American Eagle 130-grain FMJ. We don’t think this is acceptable in a self-defense gun.

Click here to view the Taurus 605 .357 Magnum features guide

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Even at 24 ounces, the $364 Taurus 605 .357 Magnum is light enough to be carried in comfort. Its 2.25-inch stainless barrel looks longer due to this gun’s narrow profile. The tall, thin front sight (which is serrated and ramped to avoid snagging) makes the gun appear even longer, adding to the 605’s ability to point quickly and naturally. Though the rear sight is a simple notch at the top of the frame, the front sight gives the impression it has been looking for you instead of the other way around. The hammer is completely bobbed and disappears neatly into the frame. The rubber grip offers a pleasing palm swell and very good support beneath the trigger guard. Indeed, this revolver felt far and away the best in our hands, and its trigger was eager to cycle.

The high-gloss finish is not necessarily our choice for stealth, but it is handsome and highly resistant to moisture and hand-borne acids. The Taurus 605 is chambered for full .357 Magnum loads, but it will also accommodate .38 Special and .38 Special +P loads as well. The ejector rod is nearly full length (about 75 percent of what you would find on a 6-inch target revolver), and little more than an enthusiastic pump is needed to cleanly eject magnum shells.

Gun Tests Quick-Buy Advice
Which of these guns you buy depends on your needs. The Ruger is heavy, but with a holster placed on heavy bone mass (small of the back or on the hip), this extra bulk becomes far less noticeable. In terms of power, however, the SP101 .357 Magnum badly outclasses the 342Ti +P .38 Special. Nonetheless, we like both guns better than the others, with the qualifications and amplifications noted:

Ruger SP101 KSP321, $443. Solid, powerful, reliable, easy to shoot. If weight isn’t a crucial factor for you, buy it first.

Smith & Wesson 342Ti, $499. The new titanium Smith & Wesson five-shot snubby is a superb deep-concealment gun, in our view. No other guns in this test may be carried in a pocket without their weight or size giving them away. The 342Ti, being as light as a feather and snag-free to boot, does not require its owner to wear a holster.

Smith & Wesson 642, $460. This hammerless gun makes a great backup, even though the Ti is our first pick.

Taurus 85UL, $330. We think this gun is a bargain, despite it not coming out on top. We’d buy it at its current price. We’d buy it even sooner if a more sensitive, precise action were available.

Taurus 605, $364. Don’t buy it. We sense that Taurus has turned the corner in making better, lighter guns (such as the 85UL). In our view, the Model 605’s time is past.