September 2002

Ported Versus Nonported Revolvers: Which Is the Smarter Buy for You?

We pit a trio of “compensated” snub-nosed .357 Magnum, .38 Special, and .44 Special revolvers against the same guns with plain barrels and find bullet weight is the biggest variable.

Can porting tame the recoil of cartridges
enough to justify extra cost and trade-offs,
like flash and increased muzzle blast?

With so many new compact and subcompact semi-automatic pistols on the scene, we are not hearing as much about the snub-nosed revolver as we used to. A snubbie is generally defined as a revolver with a barrel length of 3 inches or less, and, traditionally, this term is applied to smaller-framed guns.

What’s new in “snubbie-ville?” The last time we looked in on concealable wheelguns we found that the trend towards the reduction of physical size and capacity of semi-autos had actually had a positive effect on revolver sales. Both Smith & Wesson and Taurus began to introduce models with capacities beyond the traditional five or six rounds. Larger and more powerful calibers were also making a comeback. To tame this newfound power, a number of gunsmithing houses now offer porting packages.

Naturally, we wondered if porting is a worthwhile option or just a $20 sales gimmick? To answer this question we obtained three pairs of snubbies that are available with and without ported barrels, all of them from Taurus International. This manufacturer offers the same models with the option of a ported barrel as standard equipment, so we had a true apples-to-apples matchup to compare recoil, handling, and other factors important to shooters.

Our test guns included two seven-shot .38 Specials, two seven-shot .357 Magnums, and two five-shot .44 Specials. The .38s were made with alloy parts, but the remaining revolvers were all steel. With one gun per pair fixed with a solid barrel and the other one ported, we wanted to find what effects Taurus’s recoil reduction system would have on performance. Among the questions we wanted to answer:

• Does porting really reduce muzzle flip, or just make the gun louder?
• Would the heavier steel guns benefit so little from porting that this option would prove unnecessary?
• Does drilling the barrel significantly reduce velocity?
• Would the performance of the porting system prove superior in one caliber over another?
• Is muzzle flash in nighttime use a problem?
• Does porting pose problems in close-quarters use?

Gun Tests generally avoids testing guns exclusively from a single manufacturer but we felt the Taurus lineup was custom made for this comparison. So how did Taurus fare? Here’s what we found at the range.

Taurus M445 2-445029 .44 Special, $395
Taurus M445 2-445029C .44 Special (ported), $400

The M445 revolvers are chambered in .44 Special, tame compared to the .44 Magnum. Since this is a wide bullet, capacity was only five shots compared to our .38/.357 revolvers. The true model numbers of the M445s are followed with the suffix “C” when applied to guns with a ported barrel.

Click here to view the Taurus M445 .44 Special features guide

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Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

Our .357 Magnum and .44 Special revolvers weighed just an ounce or two different. The cylinders are the same in outer diameter, but even with fewer chambers compared to our seven-shot revolvers, the total volume of the chambers is nearly the same. We’re talking about roughly 2 pounds of steel revolver, about the same weight as a lot of small semi autos.

The barrel shroud and front sight are fashioned from one solid piece of steel, and this includes a full underlug with an inset to protect the ejector rod. The barrel is stainless steel with holes drilled directly through the rifling in the ported model.

How effective was the porting in the .44s? We found only a slight difference in recoil and comfort favoring the ported gun, probably due to the gun’s weight. Across the board the reduction of velocity averaged only 28 fps. We did not judge the ported gun to be much louder than its solid barrel twin. The ported gun did shoot the only sub 1-inch group (0.8 inch), but we felt that every characteristic from comfort to function to accuracy was in this case more a function of choice of ammunition than porting. Size and weight also play into how easy they are to shoot. Recoil is a force that is tamed not just by weight but by the grip. The M445s come with a hard rubber grip that covers not only the back strap but is wider in the palm. This palmswell helps seal the grip, supposedly making the gun less likely to move in the hand.

To develop a standard grip we used the following technique. Rather than falling into the trap of readjusting our grip after each shot in reaction to recoil, we found that putting the gun down and picking it up again ensured we would have the same grip for each shot. Even after this exercise some of our staff said they would change the grip on this model. The dissenters felt the grip would not let them get their hands high enough on the back strap. The pressure point was at the very top of the grip at the rear. Everyone liked the ribbed grip that comes with the .38 Special models better.

Elsewhere, the M445s are very compact, even smaller in length and width than the alloy .38 specials in this test. This small size helps the M445s and the .357 models pack comfortably behind the hip. The finish on our .44s was bright stainless, a sheen more suitable to a trophy than a carry gun. Still, the top of the gun is finished in a subtle matte to reduce glare when using the sights. Though the rear sights are simply a square notch carved into the top of the frame, the front sight is a ramp serrated to diffuse light.

The underlug is solid and does not contain a spring detent at the end of the guide rod. The Taurus ejector rod here is capped but the lockup is strengthened by a spring detent in the crane. All the test guns offer both single and double action triggers but our test rounds were fired exclusively in double action mode. All the Taurus revolvers are powered by a coil mainspring housed inside the grip. Our two M445s functioned with very nearly the same trigger pull weights (13-14 pounds double action and 5 pounds single action. Despite the non-ported model’s double action being one pound heavier we felt it was hard to tell which trigger was heavier when firing. In our judgment the triggers of our Taurus .44s were smooth and predictable.

Our .44 Special ammunition included Hornady’s 180-grain JHP/XTP, Federal’s 200-grain SWC hollowpoint, and a 240-grain lead semi-wadcutter from PMC. From the bench we found that the 240-grain bullets from PMC would print at point of aim. Of course any difference in point impact related to elevation can be adjusted by shaving the front sight, but it is far easier to match the ammunition to the gun rather than risk going too far and ruining the front sight.

Each of the M445s displayed the characteristic of shooting lighter bullets the best. The 240-grain PMC lead semi-wadcutters were the least accurate, and the 180-grain Hornady XTP HP hollowpoints were the most accurate. The big lead PMC bullets shot best groups of 1.5 to 1.8 inches (ported and non-ported models respectively). Overall average for this round in both guns was right at 2.0 inches. The Hornady rounds averaged right at 1 inch. Since we are talking about accuracy at 30 feet, we would have to say that this is a huge difference.

Performance with the 200-grain Federal lead semi-wadcutter fell in between the Hornady and PMC rounds. However, we felt the action of our M445s lock up several times when firing the Federal rounds. This can be caused by a number of problems. First, the cylinder can be unlocking from the concussion of the last shot fired, upsetting the relationship between the hand and the ratchet. We could find no evidence of this. Another factor could be the forcing cone or face of the cylinder is being coated with lead, creating friction at the cylinder gap. We found no evidence of this either. Finally, we judged the problem to be the gap between the breach face and the rear surface of the cases.

Upon recoil the gun and cylinder move back sharply, but the unfired cartridges move rearward a short time later. If any debris has built up inside any chambers, the rounds that are along for the ride may not return to their fully forward position. This can bind the cylinder. We did see some evidence of this as a result of firing lead bullets in these revolvers.

Another factor adding to this was the cases themselves. Using a set of calipers , we found that the Federal cases were built with heavier, wider rims. Our approximate measurement of the rims found on the Federal brass cases was 0.052 inch versus only 0.050 inch for the Hornady and PMC cartridges.

Taurus 2-617021 .357 Mag., $375
Taurus 2-617021C .357 Mag. (ported), $395

The differences between the pair of .44 Special revolvers we tested and the pair of .357 Magnums are few. The M617 magnums are finished in blued steel rather than stainless. The smaller .357 round lets Taurus take advantage of available space and offers not one, but two extra rounds over and above the M445s for a capacity of seven rounds. Also, the M617s’s front sight blade had a different shape.

Click here to view the Taurus 2-617021 .357 Magnum features guide

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Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

We tested the magnum revolvers with one .38 Special round (PMC 125-grain JHP+P), a 150-grain JHP magnum round also from PMC, and an old favorite, Winchester’s 110-grain JHP. We also shot a frangible from MagSafe, the 70-grain Defender, and a multi-projectile load from Strike Three, all of which to see how the porting helped or hindered the function of the gun.

In sum, we have the same feelings about the porting in the .357s as we did in the .44s. We found only a slight difference in recoil and comfort favoring the ported gun. Like on the .44s, we did not believe the ported gun to be much louder. We also had the same complaints about the hard rubber grip.

Oddly, the ported gun had higher average velocities with two of the three ammos, the PMC 150-grain .357 Magnum JHPs (1031 fps to 1027 fps) and the PMC 125-grain .38 Special JHP+P (919 fps to 901 fps). Taking a look the difference in velocity between the ported and non-ported models we saw a smaller disparity than we expected to find. We theorize that more gases were being lost at the cylinder gap of the non-ported model. In fact we were able to coax the non-ported revolver into accepting a large 0.011 inch measuring shim, which would account for the loss of velocity. The ported gun’s gaps were substantially smaller.

The ported gun also shot more accurately with the Winchester USA 110-grain JHPs (1.3 inches to 1.6 inches) and the PMC .38 Special loading (1.7 inches to 2.1 inches). Elsewhere, however, we found big differences between the guns, but they weren’t attributable to the ports.

We suffered the only malfunctions of the test we could blame on the guns with one of our three primary test loads. Loaded with the PMC .357 Magnum JHP rounds, we suffered failures to fire due to light hits on the primer. With a coil mainspring like that found on the Taurus guns, there is no quick fix for this problem, such as increasing the impact of the hammer by turning down a strain screw. The best remedy is to change to ammunition that responds more reliably. No malfunctions of this type occurred when firing the remaining four test loads.

Also, we found a disparity in the quality of trigger feel between the ported and non-ported models. We doubt this would have anything to do with the porting feature but points out some variation in quality. The weight of the trigger on the ported model measured an acceptable 12 pounds. For some reason the other gun’s trigger weighed in at 17 pounds, a significant difference. Guess, which one suffered the failures to fire with the PMC ammo? Right, the ported model with the lighter trigger.

We also suffered through a cylinder bind like the one experienced with the .44 Specials mentioned above. Again, this occurred with the PMC ammunition, which was the heaviest in mass and in recoil. The exact cause of the stoppages was a mystery, but we need to mention that malfunctions were most likely to happen when the guns were hot. Generally, too small a cylinder gap can lead to such problems. Our ported .357 had the tightest cylinder gap of all six guns, measuring between 0.007 and 0.008 inch.

Because of the malfunctions mentioned above, we would choose the cartridges topped with lighter weight bullets. Not only was the Winchester 110-grain JHP the most accurate, but it was also the smoothest in terms of recoil and function in both guns. Our experiments with the Strike Three ammunition proved lowest in recoil, landing 15 projectiles of a five-shot group into a pattern of 5.5 inches. Velocity was only 817 fps, but the target was impressive.

Magsafe’s 70-grain Defender was louder than it was violent. Even after the bullet had fired at 1658 fps, the case showed no evidence of pressure that could expand the brass and make it difficult to eject. In terms of accuracy from the MagSafe, we spoiled a 1.2-inch group with a flyer that expanded the five shots to measure 1.9 inches. We think the .357 Magnum Defender would be the best choice for self-defense in these guns, and it largely removed the need for recoil-reducing porting, in our view.

Taurus 2-817029UL .38 Special (nonported), $420
Taurus 2-817029ULC .38 Special (ported), $440

It has been said that the .38 Special is one of the most versatile handgun cartridges. Chambered in the Taurus 817UL or 817ULC, the round proves the wisdom of that statement. While the .44 Special 445 may have been more accurate, the 817UL’s light weight and extra two rounds make it a better choice for carry.

Click here to view the Taurus 2-817029UL .38 Special features guide

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Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

In .38 Special we had planned to stay with Winchester ammunition ranging from the 150-grain lead target ammunition to two different 125-grain loads. These were the jacketed soft point (JSP) WINClean rounds and a third white box of plus “P” jacketed hollowpoints. But after we saw that even the 125-grain JHP +P loads were producing velocities well under 900 fps, we added the hottest round we could find, Cor-Bon ammunition.

The results were more to our liking for serious defense. The 110-grain hollowpoints from Corbon traveled at well over 1,000 fps and muzzle energy climbed to the 260-ft./lbs. mark. In our view, the non-ported model produced more energy and the ported model a little more comfort. With this round, we might consider buying the ported gun first, since the combination of light weight and hot load pushed more energy back into the shooter. Still, the porting isn’t necessary, as we learned, because the versatility of the .38 Special round allowed us to train with inexpensive, soft-shooting rounds yet meet our defensive needs with high-powered ammunition.

We found some other things outside the porting worth mentioning. Somehow, we acquired two 817s that were brothers, but not twins. Checking with Taurus we learned that the ported gun’s serial number prefix “SB” indicated a production run in 1999. The non-ported model’s “VA” prefix meant it was produced in 2002.

The new model from Taurus featured a crane detent that makes lockup at the end of the ejector rod unnecessary. This is important because binding of the action is often due to a slightly bent ejector rod. Ejector rods take a beating because shooters seldom eject rounds gently. Usually, the shooter is zealously pumping the ejector rod with either the thumb or mashing it with the palm. This is not to say that capping the ejector and letting it float inside its shroud will prevent it from being bent. It is just that should the rod be deformed, it has plenty of clearance inside the shroud. The newer ejector rod is also longer, making it easier to clear the chambers.

The alloy 817ULs are 9 to 10 ounces lighter than the steel .357 revolvers. (Porting seems to account for about 1 ounce in each of our three models.) The matte finish is appealing, and you will not feel obliged to wipe fingerprints from it every moment as with the bright stainless or blued-steel models. The grip is covered with very comfortable ribs that collapse and conform to your hand. Also, despite being the lightest in caliber, the 817s are physically the largest of our trio, mainly in height. We found this can make the gun easier to acquire and easier to shoot a succession of shots.

Gun Tests Recommends
One factor we mentioned above—port blast—deserves coverage here, because we didn’t consider it in our recommendations. Why? It was too dangerous for us to test.

Upward port blast undeniably affects nighttime shooting performance and close-quarters use of your gun. In our view, the first issue is less of a problem. There’s potentially blinding light created at the muzzle of both ported and nonported guns. Is it worse on the ported guns because some of the flash is directed into the sight radius, rather than all forward of the sights? Somewhat, we think. But, again, ammunition selection determines how bad this problem really is.

The other issue of upward muzzle blast affecting a shooter in close-quarters battle is potentially a life-and-death question, and we aren’t able to add much to the debate. If a ported gun is fired next to the body, some of the upward blast may certainly blind and deafen the shooter, at least on one side. Would a standard barrel make much difference? Maybe, but we’re not willing to test the assumption. And if you find yourself in this situation, you have many other problems we can’t help you with.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of other issues to consider when making a buy/don’t buy decision on these guns. Here’s our take:

Taurus 2-445029 .44 Special, $395. Buy It.
Taurus 2-445029C .44 Special (ported), $400. Conditional Buy.

Light jacketed bullets made a bigger difference in this gun’s handling than porting did. Overall, we don’t see the need to spend the extra money for porting in this cartridge, but there are few .44 Special revolvers currently available and these two fill the concealed-carry niche very well for fans of the big bullet.

Taurus 2-617021 .357 Mag., $375. Conditional Buy.
Taurus 2-617021C .357 Mag. (ported), $395. Conditional Buy.

A couple of failures to fire and some variation in quality between our two magnums downgrade them to a conditional buy rating. The ported model is not uncomfortable with even the hottest rounds. We would limit our defensive ammo to shooting light frangible bullets to ensure function, which makes the porting unneccessary, in our view.

Taurus 2-817029UL .38 Special (nonported), $420. Buy It.
Taurus 2-817029ULC .38 Special (ported), $440. Our Pick.

The light weight and versatility of these .38s will serve the most shooters. Snubbies are loud anyway, so we couldn’t say that the ported models are a detriment to hearing nor liable to spread debris any more than side blast from the typical cylinder gap. Seven shots in 24 ounces of gun is a pretty good deal, in our estimation.