March 2011

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

Rugerís GP100 or the Smith & Wesson 686; Rugerís LCR-BGXS or the S&W Bodyguard 38? Our team says the GP100/LCR make the better pair, but feel free to mix and match.

The pairing of similar weapons for self defense is not a new concept—rock and stick and sword and dagger could be two early examples. For today’s concerned citizen, it might be wise to build a battery of firearms for home and personal defense that are as close as possible to each other in terms of manual operation. Familiarity can go a long way towards preventing confusion under stress. One way for the modern gun owner to build a personal battery is to choose a concealable sidearm of the same design as a larger gun. In semi-automatic pistols, it is easy enough to find a full-size gun and subcompact version of the same model by the same manufacturer. Revolvers, on the other hand, are more often divided by frame size rather than by model, which makes pairing them up a little trickier.

revolver pistols

One simple equation for home and personal defense would a big magnum for the house and a small gun in the pocket when roaming the wilds. Itís possible to mix and match either the Ruger GP100 or Smith & Wesson 686 to either the Ruger LCR-BGXS or the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 38. But for cross training with one large gun and one small gun, we think pairing the two Ruger revolvers would provide greater continuity and better preparation for the shooter in terms of trigger control and general operation.

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.

Both pairs were close enough in design that we can quickly run down a comparison before focusing on each gun individually. First, let’s compare the two 6-inch revolvers. Each gun finished off its rifling with a crown that angled inward, affording a measure of protection to the circumference at the final edges of the rifling. This is where the bullet "uncorks" from the expanding gases. A recessed crown can prevent damage that can cause the propellant to jet prematurely and push the bullet off line. The Smith & Wesson 686 crown was steeply cut, but the Ruger GP100’s crown was deeper and more funnel like. Both revolver barrels carried a full underlug with shielded ejector rod. This means a solid line of steel was placed directly below the bore. A cavity was machined from the underlug to enclose the ejector rod. This protected the rod from debris and impact. A bent ejector rod can hinder or stall cylinder rotation and make it impossible to eject spent cases. Described as full length, both ejector rods were capable of pushing the longer magnum shells from the chambers. The tip of the 686 ejector rod connected with a detent loaded from inside the underlug to assist locking the cylinder in place. The GP100 ejector rod did not play a part in lockup, but there was a detent on the crane.

revolver pistols

Cylinder release for the Smith consisted of a slide with checkered surface located on the left side of the frame that moved forward. The Ruger cylinder latch was also on the left side directly behind the cylinder but was operated by pushing inward. On top of each barrel was additional material that created a stanchion for the front sight and a flat rib with lines to diffuse glare that ran all the way back to the frame. The Ruger front sight was dovetailed in from the side and pinned from the front. The Smith & Wesson front sight blade was press fit from the top and pinned from the side. Both guns offered a ramped-profile front-sight blade, but the Smith & Wesson added a red color insert. The Ruger front sight was black and grooved sideways to soak up light. The top strap of the Ruger frame was anvil flat and shiny. The 686 top strap was finished with a frosted texture to soak up glare. Much of the Smith & Wesson top strap was taken up with a mounting tang of the rear sight assembly. This assembly was blackened and grooved parallel to the bore. Removing the rear sight revealed holes drilled and tapped for a scope mount. The only scope mounts we found aftermarket for the GP100 required drilling and tapping the frame.

Both rear sights on our 6-inch revolver offered windage and elevation screws. The screw for elevation on both guns moved the entire sight assembly up or down, as a unit. Both rear notches offered a white outline. The rear face of the Ruger sight assembly was flat black, but the Smith & Wesson assembly was grooved horizontally to further reduce glare. Both the windage and elevation screws on the 686 required the same size flat-blade screwdriver. Turning the windage adjustment screw of the 686 clockwise brought the rear notch and the point of impact to the right. Turning the Ruger’s smaller windage adjustment screw clockwise moved the rear notch and the point of impact to the left. The Ruger required two different screwdrivers, including one commonly found in an eyeglass repair kit. Both 6-inch revolvers rotated their cylinders counter-clockwise. The hammer spur on the Ruger was slightly narrower than the Smith & Wesson. Long gone from the Smith & Wesson revolvers was the nose pin—a firing pin mounted directly on the hammer face. In fact, both revolvers delivered impact to spring-loaded firing pins by way of a transfer bar.

Both 6-inch guns were fit with different versions of the Hogue Monogrip. Both grips were rubber and filled the void between the frame and the trigger guard. Both grips offered their smallest circumference where the middle finger of the strong hand wrapped around the gun. The grip on the Ruger put extra padding on the backstrap. The backstrap of the 686 was left bare.

Turning to the smaller guns, Smith & Wesson has been producing a line of compact J-frame revolvers for decades. But the Bodyguard 38 is a completely new product. And Ruger’s LCR revolvers are just a year old. Both guns were full-time double-action five-shot revolvers made of aluminum alloy and polymer. By our scale, the actual unloaded weights of the LCR and Bodyguard revolvers were 13.0 ounces and 14.4 ounces, respectively. Both guns essentially consisted of a polymer grip frame attached to an alloy upper frame that held the barrel, cylinder assembly, and breechface. Ruger specifies aerospace-quality 7000-series aluminum for the upper frame, but was not specific about the synthetic grip frame. Smith & Wesson says the Bodyguard 38 grip frame was made from aluminum-reinforced polymer, but merely refers to the upper as aluminum alloy. Both guns utilized a stainless-steel cylinder and one-piece frame and barrel shroud.

Each revolver used a notch in the top strap that extended across the forcing cone to form a rear sight, and both guns offered an upgrade from the standard notch and post sight picture. The Ruger LCR featured a self-luminous enhanced dot that was oversized in our view, but was listed as the XS Standard Dot Tritium. The Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 38 boasted a bright two-stage laser.

How We Tested

To test for accuracy, we fired each gun from a sandbag rest at an outdoor range. Test distance for the small guns was 10 yards. The bigger guns were tested from the 25-yard line. In testing the 6-inch revolvers, we had the option of manually pulling back the hammer and firing each shot single-action only. But we chose to shoot all our accuracy tests double-action only because, as we saw it, one function of the bigger gun was to serve as a training device for the smaller guns, which were DAO. We’ve found that most people put in only minimal practice time with small revolvers because their light weight and limited grip can make them uncomfortable to shoot. In comparison, we found shooting the 6-inch revolvers to be a joy. Mastering double-action shooting by practicing with the heavier, more durable full-size revolvers was in our view, a more effective plan. To measure velocity, we fired one shot from each chamber (six shots from the big guns and five from the small framed models) and chronographed the bullets.

Test ammunition for the small-framed 38 Special guns consisted of Remington 130-gr MC (a roundnose metal-cased bullet), Black Hills 125-gr jacketed hollowpoint, (remanufactured, comes in a blue box with exposed lead tip), and Hornady Custom 125-gr XTP hollowpoints. The 6-inch revolvers were also tested with the Hornady ammunition along with Black Hills (new manufacture, red box), 148-gr lead wadcutter rounds. These were soft-shooting high-quality 38 Special target rounds. Popular with competitive shooters the sharp leading edge of the wadcutter produced a full-diameter hole for easy scoring on paper targets. Our choice of 357 Magnum was the classic combination, featuring a 125-gr JHP bullet by Black Hills ammunition. Our initial impressions of each gun were that they were each competent and formidable. Our only question was would we choose a pair from only one manufacturer, or would we prefer a team of mixed origin? Let’s go shooting and see which guns make the better duo.

Ruger GP100 KGP161 357 Magnum, $701

The GP100 was dressed in brushed stainless steel cut in a manner that projected strength—as if the relief for the ejector rod might have required a mighty auger. Adding to this was the buildup on the left side of the frame to accommodate the cylinder latch. Whereas a muzzle heavy feel to a 6-inch revolver was to be expected, the grip helped the shooter balance the GP100 easily in the hand. Characteristics of the double-action trigger were a rapid rotation of the cylinder to audible point of lockup. Slow fire from the bench encouraged a press-lockup-press technique, but offhand, a fast steady pull made this characteristic much less noticeable. We found we could work the 14-pound double-action trigger with accuracy using both methods. The 4.25-pound single-action trigger was a short and heavy break with little or no hesitation.

We liked the cylinder latch because there was no way to deflect its motion and stall the release. The lockup of the cylinder was also very solid, with just a small amount of play forward and back between the forcing cone and breech face. Nevertheless, we thought we were going to have to tag our GP100 with a D grade because the ejector rod would not fully return to its forward rest position. We used some light machine oil and made sure it was kept clean. It felt like there were some rough spots on the rod, but none were visible. We also noticed that the return spring was rather weak, especially when compared to this same part on the Smith & Wesson. This condition continued until we had shot the gun about 200 rounds and worked it back and forth manually. But we would still prefer a heavier return spring.

The need for two different screwdrivers to adjust the rear sight elevation and windage sounds like an inconvenience but we thought the precision offered by this system was quite refined. Elevation can be a matter of ammunition, but most windage adjustments we find are in response to shooter technique. Our GP100 was dead on in terms of windage and groups centered nicely on our targets. Point of aim was 6 o’clock on our 4-inch Caldwell Front-N-Back targets ($22 per pad of 250, from www.battenfeldtechnologies.com), and that’s exactly where our shots landed. Firing the Black Hills 125-gr 357 Magnum rounds, the greatest distance between any two shots (Maximum Spread) measured 2.42 inches. The longest line from the center of our 10-shot group measured 1.25 inches, but the average length (Average Group Radius) was 0.81 inches.

Results firing the Magnum rounds from the Ruger actually eclipsed the accuracy of our 38 Special ammunition. Lighter-recoiling ammunition generally lends itself to a more controlled follow through by the shooter. But some experts say that the greater distance a bullet fired from the shorter 38 Special case must travel through the unrifled walls of a magnum length chamber can penalize accuracy. In terms of velocity, we did find some significant variation but still managed an average velocity of 1445 fps for the 125-gr hollowpoints. Recoil management was outstanding. We felt we could comfortably put in all the practice time necessary to master the GP100.

Our Team Said: More accurate with magnum rounds than lighter loads, the GP100 was comfortable to shoot when firing full-house defense loads. That adds up to more valuable practice time with the actual ammunition we’d choose for defense. The only glitch was temporary, a stall in the ejector rod that worked itself out.

Smith & Wesson 686 164224 357 Magnum, $829

The 686 Series revolvers are large, L-frame revolvers that offer a satin stainless-steel frame and cylinder. The L frame was developed to address an inherent problem with the K-frame series that was a mainstay for S&W for many years. The problem was that the height of the K frame surrounding the cylinder did not permit a full-diameter forcing cone. The forcing cone is the end of the barrel that receives the bullet from the individual chambers, and as such absorbs a tremendous amount of punishment. By making the L frame taller, the funnel-like mouth of the forcing cone could be produced with a much thicker wall. Attractive for their handling characteristics, the K-frame revolvers are still being produced, but in smaller quantity. Originally, the L-frame revolvers were available in blue steel (dubbed the 586), but now the primary variation in L-frame revolvers is in barrel length, of which there are several. In addition, the 686 Plus revolvers sport seven instead of six chambers.

We decided to test the six-shooter version to keep things even between our test guns. Our 686 differed from the Ruger GP100 immediately, at the grip. The 686 had a narrower, almost sharp, feel in the hand. This was partially because of the open-style-backstrap of the Hogue Monogrip. But one advantage to owning a revolver is that technique can be immediately improved by simply choosing the correct grip from the huge variety currently on the market.

The lines of the 686 were less squared than the Ruger, making it appear lighter, but that was not the case. The cylinder release was checkered and sculpted to stay clear of ammunition coming out of, or going into, the chambers. Release was smooth and sure. A sweep of the right-hand thumb was caught smartly by the checkering, and the cylinder swung in and out of the frame like it was already broken in. The gap between the face of the cylinder and the forcing cone was narrow, and we detected no play whatsoever forward and back. The ejector rod was smooth and straight, working briskly against a heavy return spring. The double-action trigger felt heavy (about 13 pounds), but without the sensation of the trigger weight increasing or decreasing. The action was without grit or any takeup. It moved forward and back without hesitation. The trigger on our revolver was smooth with a flattened face, but the corners were rounded. The single-action trigger offered no perceptible movement before letoff.

In terms of shooter comfort, firing the magnum rounds was not uncomfortable, but the sense of control was different than that of the Ruger. We think due to the open backstrap grip, the force of recoil was less spread out over our hands. We found that the trigger could be operated at any speed without affecting accuracy. We could shoot a controlled press and take our time or press quickly, so long as we didn’t give up on the sights. But no matter how we fired our 357 Magnum groups, we came up with what should be considered exactly the same results as when shooting the Ruger GP100 for record. Average Group Radius and Maximum Shot Radius computed to just 0.01 inch greater than the Ruger. Maximum Spread was about 0.1 inch wider.

Firing the 38 Special ammunition did, however, produce groups that were superior. The Hornday 125-gr XTP hollowpoints were best, producing an AGR of 0.65 inch. But comparing the 38 Special performance of both 6-inch revolvers, the difference was no more than about 0.25 inch overall.

Our Team Said: Our staff thought that improving upon the single-action trigger might be impossible. But since our test focused on double-action capability to match the action of the pocket revolvers, the 686 wasn’t able to shine as brightly as it might have. Nevertheless, the double-action feel of the 686 offered a flat line curve of resistance that could make this gun more suitable for rapid fire.

Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 38 103038 38 Special, $509

One of the reasons why integrating polymer into the revolver design is becoming increasingly popular is that weight can be reduced without using more expensive metals such as scandium and titanium. The Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 38 is not the first alloy-and-polymer revolver, but it is groundbreaking nonetheless. The most obvious reason could be the integrated laser, but the ambidextrous cylinder release was unique. The cylinder still cantilevered from the left side of the frame but now the release can be initiated from either side. In a departure from Smith & Wesson tradition, cylinder rotation was clockwise and movement was not initiated by a hand, (the lever that reaches through the breech face), to stir the cylinder. Rotation was driven from behind the breech face by way of a star-shaped gear meshed with a receiving gear mounted in the center of the cylinder. The ejector rod itself was fully shrouded by a brief underlug. It did not play a part in lockup, but it was longer than any we’ve seen on a J-frame revolver to date. This made it more efficient in pushing spent shells from the chambers, our team said.

The grip of the Bodyguard felt like a material somewhere between rubber and hard plastic. It had a thin arching profile that reflected Smith & Wesson revolvers of the past like the Model 36 or others now being offered on the www.smith-wesson.com website under the Classic Revolvers tab. The grip was one piece, slipping onto the butt from the bottom and held in place by a roll pin. We know of no alternate grips available. Some of our staff missed the larger palm swell found on older 442s.

The matte-black coating was closely matched to the polymer, so it was not easy to determine where the aluminum-reinforced polymer ended and the metal began. The butt of the frame, the area behind the alloy breechface, and the trigger guard were polymer. A section of polymer extended along the right side of the alloy frame, but the cylinder was surrounded by alloy. The barrel was a steel tube fixed within the shroud.

Found among the personal stable of our staff were several J-frame revolvers that were double-action only with enclosed hammers. Originally, these guns were then referred to as Centennial models (442 and 642 revolvers). The trigger action on these revolvers was very long with a hint of stacking (mounting resistance as a spring reaches full compression). The movement of the Bodyguard 38’s trigger felt much different. The cylinder rotated quickly with little torque-over (the lurch that can be felt when a rotating object comes to rest). The sensation of stacking was reached sooner than on the J-frames we tried, but the stroke was completed in a shorter period of time. Actual measurement of the Bodyguard 38 trigger stroke from rest to ignition was about 0.3 inch in length. Two vintage Smith & Wesson Model 442 revolvers were measured, resulting in a longer press of about 0.45 inch overall on average.

The Insight brand laser unit was hung on the right side of the frame. The beam projected over the 1 o’clock chamber. The unit was windage and elevation adjustable with a pushbutton switch. Push once for on, twice for a pulsing beam, and a third time for off. The rubber flex button was rather small, and sometimes we had trouble getting it to respond. We found that holding the gun in our left hand and pushing straight down on the button with the left hand thumb was the most efficient way to operate the button. Switching back to holding the gun in the right hand, we found the best way to operate the laser was by reaching over the top of the gun with the support-hand thumb. The key was to move the left hand far enough over the gun so that the press was directly downward. We think it is possible that with use, the resistance presented by the button will fade and make it easier to operate.

The Insight laser unit was powered by two number 357 silver-oxide batteries. Maximum run time was listed as 3 hours, but left unattended it will turn itself off after 5 minutes. The unit was held to the gun by one Allen screw and two locating pins. The red laser beam was amazingly sharp. Neither Smith & Wesson nor Insight Technology was able to substantiate any advantage to the pulsating beam over the solid laser projection. We think the solid beam was easier to find after recoil or moving from target to target. But the pulsing beam could make it more difficult for an adversary to pinpoint your location. In our view the greatest value of laser-guided pistol fire was the ability to accurately decipher a point of aim without having to acquire a traditional shooting stance. For example, within the tight confines of an automobile, outstretching the arms to take aim with proper sight alignment may be impossible.

The nearest we could get to finding a glitch on the new Bodyguard 38 was the cylinder release. The release straddled the top of the frame directly behind where it sloped downward away from the rear sight. Sometimes when pushing the latch forward the cylinder would stick before being pushed from the frame. One theory was that we weren’t getting enough forward thrust because the surface of the polymer despite being textured was too slippery. We remembered how efficiently the checkered cylinder latch on our Smith & Wesson 686 grabbed our thumb. To test our theory we applied grip tape to the surface of the cylinder release. The result was an improvement in service, but we still thought that the release was a little sticky.

At the bench the shorter trigger movement made firing groups by way of controlled press easier, in our view. Perhaps that is why from the 10-yard line the Bodyguard 38 was a real demon. Best maximum spread, the greatest distance between any two shots in a 10-shot group, measured just 1.52 inches firing the Black Hills remanufactured 125-gr jacketed hollowpoints. If we were to average all shots of record fired as one group, the results would read, maximum spread, 1.68 inches; maximum shot radius, 0.90 inch, and average group radius, 0.56 inch. This was very satisfying performance.

Our Team Said: Accuracy using the standard sights was outstanding. So was the Insight Technology laser, which we think could pay off by providing a point of aim even when a traditional shooting stance becomes impossible. We’d like to see a cleaner cylinder release, however. Five-shot snubbies are rarely thought of as being reloaded quickly, but the ambidextrous release and extra long ejector rod encouraged us to try. Thanks to bypassing expensive materials, the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard should be affordable enough to tempt shooters to add a second gun to their defense budget.

Ruger Lightweight Compact Revolver LCR-BGXS 38 Special, $575

Our first test of a Ruger LCR was of the original-issue model in July 2009. Since then two more models had been added, plus the KCR chambered for 357 Magnum. The LCR was the first revolver to connect a polymer lower with an aluminum frame. The lower, or grip frame, housed all parts of the triggering mechanism sans the firing pin. The upper frame housed the cylinder and the barrel. Another unique feature was the cut of the steel cylinder. The rear half maintained a full diameter to support ignition pressure and provide for locking lugs. But the forward half of the cylinder was reduced in mass to a collection of five tubes arranged in a pentagon. The LCR utilized Ruger’s proprietary press-button cylinder latch, but this time the ejector rod played a part in lockup with a detent at the forward tip. The ejector rod was short, but we never had any problem ejecting spent shells. The release latch worked without being sticky, but when the cylinder was swung back into place, it didn’t always pick up the proper index right away. Nevertheless, pressing the trigger cued up the next chamber without fail.

Two distinct features separated the LCR-BGXS from the other Ruger LCRs, and the code says it all: Boot Grip, XS sight. Our fear was that the Hogue Boot Grip, designed for maximum concealment, would leave too little room for our hands. And we weren’t sure how quickly we’d adapt to the front sight. Listed as standard size, the tritium dot seemed large and perched well above the sight rib. How well these parts would coordinate was our first concern.

With the Hogue Boot Grip in place, the trigger was closer, and we were able to put our index finger further across the trigger. Those with larger hands and longer fingers had to be more conscious of keeping the index finger no further across the trigger than the first joint. Otherwise we found that the Boot Grip, though small in appearance, was wholly adequate in usable grip area. In fact, we grew to prefer it over the original grip because it allowed us to get the highest possible hold on the gun. A higher hold means better recoil control because the bore is closer in line with the forearm, and the wrist becomes easier to lock.

From behind the grip, the front sight was a big ball. In both dim light and sunshine, we found the XS front sight very easy to pick up. Our first shots were fired with the top of the ball leveled across the rear notch. This resulted in shots hitting well below our point of aim. The correct point of impact was achieved by centering the round front sight directly atop the notch in the rear sight. Indeed, simply pinning the big dot on the desired point of aim was the natural way to shoot and also the most accurate. From the 10-yard bench the best performer was the 125-gr Hornady XTP ammunition. Average group radius was 0.68 inches. The Remington 130-gr MC ammunition was slightly better at this measurement, but the Hornady rounds landed in a tighter overall spread.

The difference between the Smith & Wesson trigger and that of the LCR was quite noticeable. The strongest sensation of compressing the spring happened right away in the first half of stroke. Then, there was a smooth period of travel in which the cylinder remained locked and we waited for the break. This reminded us of the larger GP100, but just as the LCR was scaled down in size, this waiting period was shorter in time and distance.

Our Team Said: Since our original idea was to pair two guns, one for the range and one for concealment, we think the GP100 and the LCR was the better matched pair. With the boot grip encouraging a high hold, we found it very easy to initiate a natural aim with our forearm leveled in a traditional point shooting stance. We were also able to pick up additional feedback from the luminous front sight. This makes the LCR-BGXS a good tool for close encounters. Regarding matching up with the larger GP100, we think the actions were close enough so that training with one gun would naturally enhance one’s ability to shoot the other.

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA

Ruger GP100 No. KGP161 357 Magnum

Smith & Wesson 686 No. 164224 357 Magnum

Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 38 No. 103038 38 Special

GUN TESTS VALUE GUIDE: SMALL 38 SP/357 MAGNUM REVOLVERS

GUN TESTS VALUE GUIDE: LARGE REVOLVERS

Ruger LCR-BGXS 38 Special

GUN TESTS REPORT CARD SUMMARY