Used 38 Sp. Revolver Contest: Colt, Smith & Wesson, Ruger

We tested four double-action revolvers and found that all had appeal, but some made more sense than others - in particular, we think the S&W Military and Police is a working classic.

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38 special revolvers

Revolvers make excellent home-defense handguns. They are simple to use and reliable and will come up shooting after long periods of storage. There are no springs compressed when the revolver is loaded, and no magazines to keep up with. The revolver may be chambered for powerful and efficient cartridges, such as the 38 Special +P and the 357 Magnum. For shooters able to engage in only minimal training, the revolver makes a lot of sense. Conversely, many very experienced shooters trust the revolver and little else. The smooth-rolling double-action trigger helps avoid flinch and the rhythm, once learned, allows excellent hit probability.

38 Special Range Data

Black Hills 38 Special D38N3 148-gr. Hollow Base Wadcutter (HBWC) Colt PPS 38 Special Ruger SP101 357 Mag. S&W M&P 38 Special S&W M19 357 Mag.
Average velocity 740 fps 755 fps 770 fps 726 fps
Muzzle energy 179 ft.-lbs. 187 ft.-lbs. 194 ft.-lbs. 173 ft.-lbs.
Smallest group 2.8 in. 2.5 in. 1.8 in. 2.3 in.
Largest group 3.6 in. 3.3 in. 2.3 in. 2.6 in.
Average group size 3.3 in. 2.9 in. 2 in. 2.4 in.
Winchester Super-X Cowboy Action 158-gr. Lead Flat Nose USA38CB
Average velocity 739 fps 788 fps 801 fps 760 fps
Muzzle energy 191 ft.-lbs. 217 ft.-lbs. 225 ft.-lbs. 202 ft.-lbs.
Smallest group 3.8 in. 2.5 in. 2.3 in. 2.6 in.
Largest group 4.5 in. 3.5 in. 2.8 in. 3.4 in.
Average group size 4 in. 3 in. 2.5 in. 2.9 in.
Hornady Critical Defense 38 Sp. +P 110-gr. FTX Hollowpoint 90311
Average velocity 955 fps 970 fps 1038 fps 998 fps
Muzzle energy 222 ft.-lbs. 229 ft.-lbs. 263 ft.-lbs. 243 ft.-lbs.
Smallest group 3 in. 2.3 in. 1.9 in. 2 in.
Largest group 3.8 in. 2.7 in. 2.5 in. 2.7 in.
Average group size 3.4 in. 2.4 in. 2.3 in. 2.4 in.
To collect accuracy data, we fired five-shot groups off a solid benchrest. Distance: 25 yards. We recorded velocities with a Competition Electronics Chrony Chronograph. The first sky screen was set 10 feet from the muzzle.
Ammunition notes: Black Hills Ammunition 148-grain HBWC D38N3, $27/50 @ LuckyGunner.com; Hornady Critical Defense 38 Sp. +P 110-gr. FTX Hollowpoint 90311, $19/25 @ MidwayUSA.com; Winchester Super-X Cowboy Action 158-gr. Lead Flat Nose USA38CB, $37/50 @ TombstoneTactical.com.

Ruger SP101

We set out to find four used revolvers for this Bargain Hunter segment. They had to be high quality and chambered for either the 38 Special or 357 Magnum cartridge, with the emphasis on 38 Special. While most homeowners will load these revolvers with 38 Special ammunition, the 357 Magnum is certainly a viable option, so we tested the revolvers chambered for the Magnum cartridge with these heavy loads as well. Because we were looking for bargains, we limited the used cost to a maximum of $500 counter price. We found one revolver at that maximum and three for considerably less, including two revolvers at $300. We chose medium-frame revolvers for two of the handguns and small frames for the other two handguns. Three were six-shot revolvers and one was a five-shooter. We elected not to pursue heavy-frame revolvers, such as the Smith & Wesson L frame or Ruger GP100, and we also did not look for J-frame type snubnose revolvers. Basically, we were looking for affordable houseguns that would do a credible job of home defense if called upon. The contenders were as follows:

Smith & Wesson Military and Police 38 Special

1. Colt Police Positive Special 38 Special, $300. The Colt PPS is a 4-inch-barrel double-action revolver. This revolver was introduced as a more powerful version of the Police Positive. The earlier revolver was chambered for various 32- and short 38-caliber cartridges. We turned down a similar Colt for less money that was much nicer, but which was chambered for the less powerful 38 Smith & Wesson cartridge. This old fat round lobs a 146-grain bullet at about 600 fps with modern loads, so we passed on it for home defense.

2. Smith & Wesson Military and Police 38 Special, ~$300. Smith & Wesson’s double-action medium-frame revolver has been in production for more than 115 years. It is easily the most popular double-action revolver ever manufactured. The revolver is typical of handguns issued to harness cops from 1900 to the late 1980s. Our example was made in 1957. The revolver featured a 4-inch barrel, and at some point, it had been fitted with plastic Safariland grips. These grips are no longer available. The grips were at least the equal of modern rubber grips in control and fit. A Hogue MonoGrip should give similar results if you want to regrip a Military and Police revolver for yourself.

opening 38 special revolvers

3. Smith & Wesson Model 19 357 Magnum, $500. This is a powerful revolver in a now-uncommon barrel length. We thought that based on utility, the revolver was pricey, but then it was manufactured in 1977 and is very smooth — smoother than all the other revolvers. This revolver operated in the same manner as the Military and Police revolver; indeed, it is simply a Military and Police revolver with nice sights and a longer cylinder.

4. Ruger SP101 5718 357 Magnum, $450. This revolver lists new for $719, and we saw a price for a new one at BudsGunShop.com for $500. Our test revolver was purchased used at SCGunCo.com for $450, making it the second-most expensive revolver tested. Considering we did not pay shipping and the revolver was as new, we probably saved about $100. We saved a lot more with the Smith & Wesson revolvers over new price of comparable revolvers, but then they are well used. The Ruger was the only stainless-steel handgun in this test. Here’s how they performed:

Colt Police Positive Special 38 Special, ~$300

GUN TESTS GRADE: C

Colt Police Positive Special 38 Special

If you like history, the Colt Police Positive Special is a cool gun. This revolver appeared original in all respects and has been operating since 1933. One of our raters writes for American Gunsmith, a sister publication to Gun Tests, and he inspected the revolver. He believed all springs and parts in this wheelgun were original. As it turns out, research conducted after our shoot-out shows that the grip design was criticized even back in the day. Recoil was a problem, with the revolver squirming in the hand. Accuracy was less than the other handguns. This is a handgun best left in the showcase.

ACTION Double action
OVERALL HEIGHT 5.3 in.
OVERALL LENGTH 7 in.
MAX WIDTH 1.4 in.
WEIGHT UNLOADED 26 oz.
WEIGHT LOADED 28.5 oz.
BARREL LENGTH 4 in.
CAPACITY 6
FRAME Steel
CYLINDER Steel
FRAME FRONT STRAP HEIGHT 2.4 in.
FRAME BACK STRAP HEIGHT 3.3 in.
GRIPS Plastic
GRIP THICKNESS (max) 1.5 in.
GRIP CIRCUMFERENCE (max) 5.1 in.
FRONT SIGHT Fixed half moon
REAR SIGHT Fixed notch
SIGHT RADIUS 6 in.
TRIGGER PULL WEIGHT (SA) 3.9 lbs.
TRIGGER PULL WEIGHT (DA) 13.5 lbs.
TRIGGER SPAN (SA) 2.6 in.
TRIGGER SPAN (DA) 3 in.
SAFETY None
WARRANTY Used gun
TELEPHONE (800) 962-COLT
WEBSITE Colt.com
MADE IN USA

Colt Police Positive Special 38 Special

The Colt PPS is a small-frame handgun. The finish of this revolver rated perhaps 50%. There was no corrosion, but little bluing was left. The bore and chambers were inspected and found to be functional. The action was smooth and even with no hitches. The Colt was fitted with special-order Colt grips with a thumb rest on the left grip. These are not super rare, but neither are they common. The grips were okay for shooting by righties, but they would be bad news for a left-handed shooter, we thought.

The Colt cylinder release pulls to the rear to disengage the cylinder for loading. The Colt indexes the cartridge to the left of the hammer, while the Smith & Wesson and Ruger revolvers index the cartridge to the right of the hammer first. This is something to be aware of if, like one of our raters, you keep a Glaser Safety Slug up first and then follow with standard JHP loads. In other words, the Colt rotates left to right, while the others rotate right to left when viewed from the rear.

Colt Police Positive Special 38 Special

The Colt had broad rear sights that were easily picked up in rapid fire. The front post was a half-round type typical of 1930s production. The Colt was manufactured in 1933. The question was, where is the top of the sight? This isn’t the best front sight for precision use. The action was smooth, maybe even very smooth, but with a different feel than the other revolvers. The grip fit small hands well. While handfit was fine for most testers, as we learned during firing, this wasn’t the best angle for firing heavy loads. During the firing test, we used three loads. These included the Black Hills Ammunition 148-grain wadcutter, the Hornady 110-grain Critical Defense FTX bullet, and the Winchester 158-grain cowboy load with a flat lead tip. The revolver was originally rated for High Speed loads, and we had no qualm in firing +P loads. With the wadcutter loads, recoil was mild and manageable and remained so with the Winchester loads. With the +P load, recoil was more abrupt than the other handguns. The thin grips and light weight of the Colt were the culprits. We fired the Colt at silhouette targets at 5, 7, and 10 yards with five rounds of each load at each distance, for a total of 45 cartridges. By the last string, the +P loads began to sting a little. A set of Hogue or Pachmayr grips would have been a good addition. (Order for the Colt D frame or Detective Special.) Combat groups were acceptable, but they were the largest of the test. The times were slow as we recovered from recoil.

Colt Police Positive Special 38 Special

The sights were well regulated for 158-grain loads, and fired an inch or so low at 10 yards with the 110-grain JHP and a dead-on hold. Fired from a supported benchrest position, we learned the Colt was acceptably accurate for personal defense, but we would have liked better accuracy for hiking or field use and taking care of a dangerous reptile or perhaps potting small game. The best group of the day was 2.75 inches at 25 yards, but the average was much larger, with one load averaging 4 inches.

Our Team Said: Three years ago, we tested a PPS in better condition, but our evaluation then was similar to our opinions today: “The Colt was an interesting piece of history, but it has had its day. No doubt the revolver is quality construction made in bygone era, and it proved its accuracy. But testers felt they would rather have the S&W.” This time around, we bought the Colt with a budget in mind, and we found it was light enough for concealed carry as well as a home-defense handgun. It was more difficult to use well than the short-barrel revolvers tested, and we found it was much more difficult to fire well than the Smith & Wesson Military and Police revolver. We rated the Colt down for its recoil and poor accuracy in comparison to the others.

Smith & Wesson Military and Police 38 Special, ~$300

GUN TESTS GRADE: A (Best Buy)

Smith & Wesson Military and Police 38 Special

This revolver is large enough to soak up the recoil of +P loads but remains light enough for fast handling. It delivered better combat accuracy and better slow-fire accuracy than any other revolver in this test. At less than half the price of a new Model 10, the Military and Police 38 is a great revolver. If you find one at a fair price, grab it.

ACTION Double action
OVERALL LENGTH 8.9 in.
OVERALL HEIGHT 5.8 in.
MAX WIDTH 1.5 in.
WEIGHT UNLOADED 34 oz.
WEIGHT LOADED 36.5 oz.
BARREL LENGTH 4 in.
CAPACITY 6
FRAME Steel, K-frame
CYLINDER Steel
FRAME FRONT STRAP HEIGHT 2.2 in.
FRAME BACK STRAP HEIGHT 4.2 in.
GRIPS Plastic aftermarket (obsolete)
GRIP THICKNESS (max) 1.2 in.
GRIP CIRCUMFERENCE (max) 5.5 in.
FRONT SIGHT Ramp type, fixed
REAR SIGHT Fixed
SIGHT RADIUS 6.1 in.
TRIGGER PULL WEIGHT (SA) 3.5 lbs.
TRIGGER PULL WEIGHT (DA) 12 lbs.
TRIGGER SPAN (SA) 2.6 in.
TRIGGER SPAN (DA) 3.25 in.
SAFETY None
WARRANTY None
TELEPHONE (800) 331-0852
WEBSITE Smith-Wesson.com
MADE IN USA

Smith & Wesson Military and Police 38 Special

The action was very tight and smooth in operation. The bore and chambers were in excellent condition. The sights were good examples of fixed sights. The front sight was a ramp that allows accurate fire. The Smith & Wesson action lends itself well to staging, bringing the hammer almost to the firing point and then continuing with the press.

Smith & Wesson Military and Police 38 Special

The cylinder release presses forward to open the cylinder. The cylinder rotated right to left. The finish of the Military and Police revolver was generally good, with a bit of muzzle wear. The Smith & Wesson weighed more than the Colt, but this is an advantage in home defense use versus concealed carry. It is recoil-soaking weight, and 34 ounces isn’t heavy for occasional carry. With good weight and balance, a 4-inch barrel and a smooth action, we expected the Smith & Wesson to be a good shooter.

On the firing range results were excellent in combat fire. The revolver was more comfortable to fire than the Colt, the Ruger, or the other Smith & Wesson revolver. Combat accuracy was excellent. The single smallest grouping was with the Black Hills Ammunition 148-grain wadcutter. At a long 25 yards, the Military and Police settled five shots into 1.75 inches.

Smith & Wesson Military and Police 38 Special

Our Team Said: Easy to use well but powerful enough for personal defense, the Smith & Wesson Military and Police impressed all raters. Absolute accuracy was the best of the test, despite the excellent sights and smooth action of the Model 19 we also fired. Other guns, such as the Combat Masterpiece and other target-sighted 38s, may offer better accuracy, but the practical Military and Police revolver is more affordable and its intrinsic accuracy just as good. This revolver is a Best Buy and is our pick of the four revolvers tested here.

Smith & Wesson Model 19 357 Magnum, ~$500

GUN TESTS GRADE: C

Smith & Wesson Model 19 357 Magnum

The Model 19 is a great-shooting short-barrel revolver, but the short barrel is a drawback compared to the Military and Police revolver. The square-butt frame of the larger 38 Special also gave better control than the 357 Magnum Model 19’s round butt. When we fired Magnums in the Model 19, the situation became worse. While the Model 19 Combat Magnum is a fine revolver, it is a specialist’s handgun, and one most of us will find too expensive for the performance delivered.

ACTION Double action
OVERALL LENGTH 7.4 in.
OVERALL HEIGHT 5.8 in.
MAX WIDTH 1.5 in.
WEIGHT UNLOADED 35 oz.
WEIGHT LOADED 37.5 oz.
BARREL LENGTH 2.5 in.
CAPACITY 6
FRAME Steel, K-frame
CYLINDER MATERIAL Steel
FRAME FRONT STRAP HEIGHT 2.2 in.
FRAME BACK STRAP HEIGHT 4.2 in.
GRIPS Wood
GRIP THICKNESS (max) 1.2 in.
GRIP CIRCUMFERENCE (max) 5.2 in.
FRONT SIGHT Ramp type, fixed w/ orange insert
REAR SIGHT Adjustable
SIGHT RADIUS 4.6 in.
TRIGGER PULL WEIGHT (SA) 4 lbs.
TRIGGER PULL WEIGHT (DA) 12 lbs.
TRIGGER SPAN (SA) 2.6 in.
TRIGGER SPAN (DA) 3.25 in.
SAFETY None
WARRANTY None
TELEPHONE (800) 331-0852
WEBSITE Smith-Wesson.com

Smith & Wesson Model 19 357 Magnum

The Smith & Wesson adjustable sights were very nice, allowing perfect sighting in with proper adjustment. That is a good feature, because, as purchased, the sights were ramped up so far the revolver fired 4 inches high at 7 yards. It was a simple matter to adjust them for the proper elevation. The ramp front-post sight allows excellent accuracy and a high hit probability. For all-round use, these are the best sights ever fitted to a revolver, in the opinion of our raters.

Smith & Wesson Model 19 357 Magnum

This revolver was finished in nickel. While it was overall nice in appearance, the nickel was flaking in some areas. The revolver featured a round-butt frame and came fitted with the original grips. The grips were adequate when firing 38 Special loads, but squirmed when firing the Magnum load tested on a limited basis. Both the Ruger SP101 and the Smith & Wesson Military and Police revolver were easier to control with 38 Special +P loads. The short barrel proved plenty accurate for slow-fire work. During the firing stage, we added a 357 Magnum load for comparison in the Ruger SP101. The Cor-Bon 110-grain JHP is intended as a personal-defense load and offers less recoil than heavier 125- to 158-grain Magnum loads. During the firing string, we fired the same loads in 38 Special on the combat course. The results were good, equal to the Military and Police revolver with all three loads. However, the 357 Magnum load was a bear. The skinny grips were not the best for this type of work. The revolver shifted in the hands. Some raters had to adjust the grip after every shot. This is the personal gun of one of the raters, and he added a set of custom grips from Brownells.com. The Hideout revolver grips are only $19, but they add much more control to the revolver. And this modification was needed. But we did not figure these grips into the rating because the revolver was purchased without these grips.

Smith & Wesson Model 19 357 Magnum

In absolute accuracy, the Smith & Wesson Model 19 came in second behind the Military and Police revolver. The Model 19’s best group was 1.9 inches with the Hornady 110-grain Critical Defense load.

Our Team Said: We rated the Model 19 down a full grade based on its price as tested. We do not feel that $500 for a used revolver is a good deal compared to the modest cost of the 38 Special revolvers and a new Ruger 357 Magnum revolver. We did not rate performance with the 357 Magnum rounds because the test centered upon the 38 Special cartridge, but the Ruger offered better control with the Magnum load. Also, during the test, the Model 19’s ejector rod became loose and had to be tightened, standard operating procedure for used Smith & Wesson revolvers and more common problem with 357 Magnum revolvers than 38 Special-only versions.

Ruger SP101 5718 357 Magnum, $450

GUN TESTS GRADE: B-

Ruger SP101 5718 KSP321X 357 Magnum

The Ruger SP101 is a light handgun, but it gave a firing impressions similar to the larger revolvers. Powerful and accurate, the Ruger has a lot going for it. It is the only revolver tested currently in production in its original form. For a combination of carry and home defense, the Ruger gets high marks. The larger revolvers simply outshot it. For those with small hands, it is a very good choice.

ACTION Double action
OVERALL HEIGHT 4.8 in.
OVERALL LENGTH 7.2 in.
MAX WIDTH 1.35 in.
WEIGHT UNLOADED 26 oz.
WEIGHT LOADED 28.2 oz.
BARREL LENGTH 2.25 in.
CAPACITY 5
FRAME Stainless, small frame
CYLINDER Stainless steel
FRAME FRONT STRAP HEIGHT 1.8 in.
FRAME BACK STRAP HEIGHT 3.3 in.
GRIPS Rubber and plastic, ribbed sides
GRIP THICKNESS (max) 1.24 in.
GRIP CIRCUMFERENCE (max) 4.5 in.
FRONT SIGHT Fixed
REAR SIGHT Fixed
SIGHT RADIUS 3.6 in.
TRIGGER PULL WEIGHT (SA) 5 lbs.
TRIGGER PULL WEIGHT (DA) 14 lbs.
TRIGGER SPAN (SA) 2.4 in.
TRIGGER SPAN (DA) 2.95 in.
SAFETY None
WARRANTY None written
TELEPHONE (336) 949-5200
WEBSITE Ruger.com
MADE IN USA

Ruger SP101 5718 KSP321X 357 Magnum

We feel that stainless is a big plus if you can get it in a handgun you like. The Ruger was fairly compact, the smallest revolver tested, although the Police Positive Special was close. The Ruger featured a cylinder latch that must be pressed in to release the cylinder. We had no real preferences in cylinder-latch operation, all worked well. The Ruger seemed to be the most modern revolver, with less to go wrong. The Ruger cylinder rotated in Smith & Wesson fashion. The sights were good, broad shapes well suited to personal defense. The front sight was pinned into place and may be replaced if desired.

The Ruger was handled and safely dry fired, along with the other revolvers, before heading to the range. The Ruger had a different feel to the action. It was sturdy but not as smooth as the Smith & Wesson revolvers. The heavy barrel was a plus. There was a spring-loaded pin in the crane that aids in locking the cylinder tight. This is a Ruger design that we feel adds to the accuracy of some Ruger handguns, such as the Ruger GP100. It was nice to have in the compact SP101 as well.

Ruger SP101 5718 KSP321X 357 Magnum

During firing strings, the Ruger was much more comfortable to fire than the Colt and was as comfortable to fire as either Smith & Wesson revolver, though some felt the larger Smith & Wesson with its Safariland grips was easier to shoot well. During the combat course, the Ruger did well, with results we rated better than the Colt. It was close to the heavier target-sighted Model 19. The Smith & Wesson Military and Police outshot the Ruger SP101, in our estimation.

We fired the Ruger with the Cor-Bon 110-grain defense load and came to a surprising conclusion. The short, stout Ruger was more controllable than the larger Smith & Wesson Model 19. Grip design has a lot to do with this, but the Ruger was simply more comfortable to fire with Magnum loads due to its geometry and design.

Firing from a solid benchrest firing position, the Ruger SP101 proved accurate enough for any foreseeable chore. It was more accurate than the Colt. The Ruger lagged behind each Smith & Wesson revolver for accuracy. This is to be expected considering the advantages of the target-sighted Model 19 and the longer-barreled Military and Police revolver.

Our Team Said: We rated the Ruger down a grade because it had only a five-shot capacity versus six shots in the others, a sizable edge for a home-defense firearm. We demoted it another half grade on accuracy.

Written and photographed by R.K. Campbell, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers.

1 COMMENT

  1. I really enjoy these kind of reviews as they speak to the real world conditions that not all of us have the resourses to pick up a quality handgun at new market prices. This proves that a quality gun can be had at a reasonable price and these reviews help teach us “what to look for” in a pistol and “what to look OUT for”. Also I agree with the point that finish isn’t ‘THE’ important thing. Solid bones are.

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