Concealed Carry & Home Defense

Gun Test: Ruger GP100 .44 Special

By Massad Ayoob, GUNS Magazine

At a September writers’ conference at the Texas’ FTW Ranch, Ruger showed us the way cool Mark IV .22 pistol  with quick and easy takedown/reassembly, the soft-shooting Compact version of their American 9mm and a couple of new revolvers definitely out of the mainstream today. One of them was the GP100 rendered as a short-barreled, 5-shot .44 Special.

We all asked the same question. “Why?” Ruger’s Brandon Trevino gave the best possible answer: “Because we had customers who wanted it.”

Ruger brought out the GP100—essentially, a “.41-frame” revolver, similar to the Colt Python and S&W L-Frame series—in 1986. It was a rugged beast, very accurate, built the way Mikhail Kalashnikov would have built a revolver. (There are reasons why Kalashnikov and Bill Ruger got along so well in person.)

When Ruger had introduced their Security-Six 15 years earlier, they made great inroads into a service revolver market dominated by S&W and Colt. Then, with the GP100 in the catalog, they had eclipsed Colt and were biting on S&W’s butt for market domination when the great wave of autoloader adoption swept the police market and brought about the end of the service revolver era. But the GP100—designed for a steady diet of full-power .357 Magnum—lived up to expectations and has been a mainstay of the Ruger catalog ever since.

The .44 Special cartridge dates back to 1908, introduced with the great old large-frame S&W Triple Lock. At the time it was generally accepted the larger the bullet, the harder it hit and “got the job done.” Time marched on, however, and the “velocity vs. bullet diameter and weight” argument consumed countless forests worth of gun magazines.

These days the auto pistol is king and the 9mm cartridge is the most popular. But “revolver vs. auto” and “light and fast vs. slow and heavy” arguments continue. And folks who like large-caliber revolvers for personal defense remain “The Loyal Opposition.” And those folks make up the niche for which Ruger has built the GP100 .44 Special.

ruger1

Using Hornady 165-grain FTX Critical Defense ammo, a 6 o’clock
point-of-aim made for a 6 o’clock point-of-impact.

ruger4

The new Geep is a kinder, gentler .44. Mas tries a weak-hand hold using the
lightweight Hornady Critical Defense load and finds it to be reasonably
controllable in the 36-ounce GP100.

ruger5

The “Geep”

The ruggedness of the GP100 is more than a little akin to that of its automotive homonym. The .44 Special is the fifth cartridge for which the GP100 has been chambered. It was conceived, of course, as a super-strong holster-size .357 able to stand up to the pounding of constant training fire with magnum rounds. But some law enforcement and corrections agencies insisted on a .38 Special-only chambering, so this was added. Later came the 7-shot .327 Federal Magnum and, more recently, the 10-shot .22 Long Rifle GP100.

The new Model 1761 variant is a 5-shooter. Years ago, at least one small company produced customized Ruger Service-Six revolvers rebuilt as 5-shot .44 Specials. One of those blew up on the range in one of our classes years ago, injuring a couple of people with shrapnel from the ruined cylinder. Ruger’s engineers are confident using the larger cylinder of the GP100, providing thicker chamber walls combined with their modern metallurgy assures safety.

The barrel length is 3 inches, and weight with the sleek unfluted cylinder is spec’d at 36 ounces, unloaded. This is the same unloaded weight as the svelte old S&W Model 19/66 .357 Combat Magnum with a 4-inch barrel. Subjectively, however, the GP100 .44 seems to feel a bit chunkier in the hand. The solid heft balances well with the short, heavy barrel. Sights are standard Ruger adjustable at the rear and a green fiber-optic front. Given the range of bullet weights available in .44 Special, adjustable sights were obviously the right way to go.

Soft Hogue grips are standard, cobblestone surfaced, and cut in the Jerry Miculek style. The straight front with no fingergrooves allow them to fit a wide variety of finger widths. At FTW Ranch we had female shooters from 5-foot-nuthin’ to 6 feet tall and males from slender to bear-size. No one complained the grips did not fit their hands well. These Hogues give a generous recoil cushion to the web of your hand and contribute to the enjoyment of shooting the Geep .44.

Hornady provided the .44 Special ammo for our shooting session. The load was their Critical Duty with plastic-tip FTX jacketed hollowpoint bullet. At 165 grains, it’s light by traditional .44 Special standards. For years the only over-the-counter .44 Special load you could buy was a 246-grain lead roundnose bullet loaded to 755 feet per second, generating 308 ft-lbs. Today we have many more. Hornady also loads a 180-grain XTP JHP to 1,000 fps (400 ft-lbs). The Critical Duty load we used has a velocity of 900 fps (and 297 ft.-lbs. of energy). This shoots as light as it sounds.

As a result recoil is soft, though there is still some muzzle rise. We found, however, by the time the trigger reset back forward for the next double-action shot, the muzzle had settled back where we wanted it to be.

ruger6

A Hornady tech fires the GP100 into ballistic gelatin with Critical Defense ammo.

ruger2

Five-foot-tall Gail Pepin likes the double action on the GP100 .44 and
finds the recoil and muzzle rise unobjectionable
.

ruger3

The Hornady folks were kind enough to run an FBI protocol ballistic gel test for us. The 165-grain FTX ran true to Hornady’s catalog specs, with substantial expansion even through the heavy clothing replicator, and penetrating just under 10 inches. This is a couple inches short of what FBI demands for street use, but in a home-defense gun—where family members could get in the line of fire behind the target—I’m comfortable with it.

Our hosts ran an informal competition for us with the assorted Rugers they were introducing. For the Mark IV .22 pistol, it was a stage from the Ruger Rimfire Challenge. For the Compact American 9mm and the recently introduced 9mm Lightweight Commander SR1911, it was combat shooting formats.

For the revolvers we had dual runs on bowling pins: a 3-pin array for the 5-shot .44 Special GP100 and a 5-pin set-up for the new 8-shot snubnose Redhawk .357 Magnum. I had the good fortune to win the revolver event, just ahead of Tamara Keel, handgun editor for Shooting Illustrated and Gail Pepin, producer/editor of the ProArms Podcast. Yes, these revolvers are indeed “female friendly.” Maybe I was in touch with my feminine side…

What, exactly, is the niche for a service-size revolver firing 5 rounds of .44 Special? After all, a 6-shot GP100 loaded full with 125-grain .357 ammo puts 3,498 ft.-lbs. of energy at the tip of your trigger finger before you need a reload, while the 5-shot .44 Special with Critical Duty rounds tallies but 1,485.

The answer is, there are a lot of folks who don’t buy energy as a determinant of “stopping power” nor a supplier of confidence. Large-caliber bullets have been associated with downrange effectiveness for as long as there have been small arms and some folks are simply more confident with fewer larger bullets than an increased payload of smaller ones, regardless of velocity and energy. And recoil with this .44 Special load in the GP100 was lighter than with full power .357 Mag in my own Geep.

There is also a bit of the old “revolver vs. auto” thing going on here. Some folks (not all old geezers, either) prefer the administrative handling simplicity of the double-action revolver for defensive needs, and have seen enough autoloaders malfunction when limp-wristed or, for other reasons, to simply have more faith in wheel guns.

Confidence is a huge if mathematically unquantifiable factor in winning violent encounters. Confidence and competence intertwine. There are folks who simply want large calibers for defensive use and Ruger is happy to manufacture guns for them.

The GP100 .44 Special is a neat little gun. It works well. It’s fun to shoot. Some may find it a little on the chunky side for daily carry, but this is subjective.

One thing this new revolver symbolizes is Ruger’s commitment to listening to its end users. When Mike Fifer was CEO of Ruger, he authorized this project as a direct result of listening to folks like you. When Chris Killoy took over the Chief Executive’s desk, he kept the .44 Special GP100 project going for the same reason. The commitment to customers in itself calls for a tip of the hat to Ruger.
Oh, and the 8-shot Redhawk .357 snubbie? We’ll be getting to that a bit down the road.

ruger7

At 25 yards, Mas tested the 3-inch GP100 .44 Special with these
three high performance loads.

ruger8

Aimed at upper bull the GP100 shot the powerful Buffalo Bore .44 Special
hot loads with Barnes 200-grain bullets low and right from 25 yards.

ruger9

Hornady 165-grain Critical Defense (above) was low and right at 25 yards.
It’s a good thing the GP100 .44 comes with adjustable sights, since there
is such a wide range of bullet weights in the .44 Special now.

ruger10

The tightest group of the test, though way low right “out of the box,”
was with Gold Dot 200-grain .44 Special.

Accuracy Off the Bench

Our very own test sample of this revolver, still “as yet unannounced,” arrived in time to barely make deadline (hours, not days), and I hastened to the 25-yard concrete bench and Caldwell Matrix rest. GP100 .44 serial number 178-10876, fired single action, grouped five shots into 3.50-inch center to center, the best three in 1.30, with Hornady Critical Defense 200-grain like we’d been using at FTW Ranch.

The snappy Buffalo Bore load running the 200-grain all-copper Barnes hollowpoint to a nominal 1,100 fps (and forbidden for the Charter Arms Bulldog right there on the box) punched five wadcutter-like plugs out of the target 3.60 inches apart, the best three in 1.65. The 200-grain Speer Gold Dot .44 Special, rated for a much more sedate (and softer kicking!) 920 fps provided the best group of the test: 2.50 inches on the nose for all five shots and 1.80 for the tightest trio. Pretty decent for a 3-inch “belly gun.”

I suspect Ruger rushed this particular gun out of the factory in response to our urgent request due to deadline, which could explain why they didn’t sight it in there. This specimen shot way right and way low, as much as 10.5 inches. Fortunately, these come with adjustable sights.

I hadn’t brought a trigger pull gauge to FTW Ranch, but had one at home, and this particular GP100 .44 Special registered an average 11.48 pounds double action, with a medium-heavy but smooth pull that “pre-timed” early, a boon for those who like 2-stage “DA” pulls. In single action, measured from the center of the trigger where the finger usually lies, weight averaged 5.29 pounds, but with a clean break, and it ran 4.11 pounds from the toe, or bottom edge, of the trigger.

GP100 .44 Special

Type: Double-action revolver
Caliber: .44 Special
Capacity: 5
Barrel length: 3 inches
Overall length: 8-1/2 inches
Weight: 36 ounces
Finish: Matte stainless steel
Grips: Hogue rubber
Sights: Fully adjustable rear, green fiber-optic front
Price: $829

Thanks to GUNS Magazine for this post. Click here to visit GunsMagazine.com.

Better yet: Nothing beats a magazine in your hand. Click here to see subscription options and get GUNS Magazine delivered to your home.