Ruger LCR .38 Special +P - The Evolution of the Revolver

By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff

Ruger LCR .38 Special +P Revolver
LCR with Hogue grip. Illustration courtesy of Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.

The Sturm, Ruger LCR (Lightweight Compact Revolver) represents a re-thinking of handgun design and manufacture, the likes of which the firearms industry has not seen since Glock shook-up the firearms world with their original polymer framed autoloading pistol. The G-17 revolutionized service pistol design with its polymer frame and re-thinking of the auto pistol's internal lock work, and Ruger's LCR has done the same for the snub-nosed .38 revolver.

Being traditional revolver guys who strongly favor Ruger single-action and Colt double-action revolvers, we were prepared to not like the LCR, which uses stainless steel for highly stressed parts and polymer or aluminum alloy for everything else. The silhouette and configuration of the LCR is reminiscent of a shrouded Colt Detective Special or S&W Bodyguard revolver, but the silhouette, swing out cylinder and the basic revolver principle are about all that the LCR shares with these traditional, shrouded hammer, snubbies. This 13.5 ounce, small frame, double-action-only (DAO) revolver is packed with new technological advances and features a smooth, easy to control, DA trigger.

To start with, there are no sideplates. Instead, there are three major, modular, sub-assemblies. These are the Frame sub-assembly, Fire Control Housing sub-assembly and Cylinder sub-assembly.

The fire control housing (which incorporates the grip frame) is secured to the main frame by two torx screws, one at the front and the other at the upper rear of the fire control housing. All of the lock work, including the hammer, is inside of this fire control housing sub-assembly. The mechanism is accessed from the top when the fire control housing is removed from the frame sub-assembly. The swing-out cylinder is attached to the frame by a crane that pivots around the front torx screw.

The unique fire control housing sub-assembly (patent pending) contains all of the lock parts and includes the grip frame and trigger guard. It is made of a proprietary, long-glass fiber reinforced Nylon, the type of polymer used for the frames of many modern semi-automatic pistols. As far as we know, this is the first extensive use of polymer in a mass produced revolver.

The LCR's lock work is primarily based on Ruger's SP101, GP100 and Super Redhawk revolver designs, as well as introducing several new innovative features, including e-nickel Teflon on critical engagement surfaces and a small concave camming surface on the trigger where it interfaces with the hammer sub assembly. The latter is primarily responsible for the LCR's excellent DA trigger pull. The barrel, cylinder, crane, front sight blade and most of the internal mechanism are blackened or tumbled stainless steel; the hammer and trigger have been coated to increase their corrosion resistance and improve operating smoothness.

The cylinder sub-assembly includes the cylinder, crane, cylinder lock pin, star ejector, ejector rod and associated parts. The cylinder is machined from stainless steel and further protected by an advanced version of Ruger's Target Grey finish. The crane is a stainless steel investment casting. The center lock pin is made from titanium to reduce mass and inertia.

The LCR's monolithic aluminum frame sub-assembly supports the barrel and cylinder. The stainless steel barrel is threaded into the frame, which surrounds the barrel, leaving only the muzzle and forcing cone of the actual barrel visible. The frame itself is treated with a two element, "synergistic" hard-coat finish. This involves a hard-anodized bottom layer and a baked-on surface polymer. The result is an extremely hard surface finish (reportedly Rockwell C60) that is impervious to just about everything, including saltwater. According to the LCR Instruction Manual, "This revolutionary new coating gives a very hard, very slick and abrasion-resistant surface to the aluminum. The aluminum frame meets or exceeds MIL-SPEC requirements (MIL-A-8625F) for corrosion and abrasion resistance of aluminum firearms components." The finish could be chipped if an impact occurs on a corner, which would leave a bright spot. The Instruction Manual advises that you can restore a black finish to the damaged area by using an aluminum blacking compound, such as Birchwood Casey Aluminum Black touch-up.

Here are the features Ruger claims for the LCR:

  • Frame: Monolithic aluminum one-piece frame is an aerospace grade, 7000 series forging treated with a black synergistic hard coat and is extremely lightweight and durable. The synergistic hard coat offers approximately 10x the corrosion resistance of hard coat anodizing and was tested against 30 chemicals.
  • Fire Control: Polymer fire control housing holds all the fire control components in their proper dimensional relationships, reduces weight significantly and helps reduce recoil.
  • Cam: Patent pending friction reducing cam trigger is a next generation design in fire control systems with an optimized cam that results in a smooth, non-stacking, trigger pull.
  • Grip Peg: Allows for a variety of grips to be installed and the LCR's standard Hogue Tamer grip with cushioned insert reduces perceived recoil.
  • Cylinder: High strength 400 series stainless steel cylinder is extensively fluted (reducing weight) and is treated to an advanced form of Ruger's Target Grey finish for excellent durability.
  • Laser Grip: Optional Crimson Trace laser grip allows for fast and positive target acquisition and offers the advantages of a laser sighting system in a more compact grip; reduces weight to 13.0 ounces. The 2009 MSRP with laser grip is $792.

Here are the Ruger LCR's specifications as tested (with Hogue Tamer grip).

  • Model number: 5401
  • Caliber .38 Special +P
  • Capacity: 5
  • Barrel material: 17-4 PH stainless steel
  • Barrel length: 1.875 inches
  • Grooves: 6
  • Twist: 1-16 inches, right hand
  • Frame finish: Matte black, synergistic hard coat
  • Fire control housing: Long-strand, glass-fiber filled polymer
  • Cylinder finish: New - Advanced Target Grey
  • Sights: Integral, square notch rear; replaceable, pinned ramp front
  • Sight radius: 3.75 inches
  • Length: 6.5 inches
  • Height: 4.5 inches
  • Maximum width: 1.283 inches
  • Weight: 13.5 ounces
  • Grip: Hogue Tamer
  • 2009 MSRP: $525

Our first impression of the LCR was that it is very lightweight. The second was that the DAO trigger pull is exceptionally good. This trigger's pull weight increases gradually and smoothly as the trigger is pulled back. We estimate that it takes about 10 pounds of force to fire the LCR, but could not measure the trigger pull, because our trigger pull gauge only reads up to eight pounds. We can tell you that it is lighter, smoother and easier to control than ordinary DA revolver triggers.

The LCR's cylinder also deserves special mention. It is the most heavily fluted cylinder we have ever seen. Only the back portion of the cylinder, where the locking bolt cuts are, is actually full diameter, which is 1.283 inches. The entire forward half of the cylinder has been fluted and has a maximum diameter of about 1.230 inches; between chambers, the cylinder is much smaller than that. This radically fluted cylinder gives the LCR a very distinctive look, as if the polymer grip frame were not unique enough!

The patent pending swing-out cylinder release latch is the Ruger push-in type, located in the usual place on the left side of the frame. It ensures that the cylinder remains locked when firing, whether the shooter is right or left handed. The cylinder is locked in place at the rear by the cylinder lock pin and at the front of the ejector rod by a titanium spring-loaded latch imbedded in the frame's under lug. Although the cylinder revolves counter-clockwise (to the left), or out of the frame, lock-up with the trigger held all the way back is tighter than normally found in new S&W or Taurus revolvers, if not quite a solid as a Colt DA revolver.

The standard, ambidextrous Tamer rubber grip was jointly designed by Ruger and Hogue using U.S. Army data on hand size and shape and is advertised to fit a very broad range of hand sizes. The trigger reach is intentionally short enough to be comfortable for those with smaller hands, particularly women. Certainly, it seemed to fit everyone on the Guns and Shooting Online staff who tried it. There are pronounced grooves for the middle and ring fingers of the strong hand; the little finger will normally curl beneath the grip, which is slightly concave to make this comfortable. Even though most of us do not normally prefer grips with finger grooves, we felt that this is an excellent grip for a snubby revolver.

Ruger claims that the polymer grip frame and Tamer grip combine to deliver about 50% less felt recoil than other .38 Special revolvers of similar size and weight. That may be true, but the truth is that any lightweight .38 Special, including the LCR, kicks like the devil, primarily due to the very high recoil velocity inherent in lightweight guns firing powerful cartridges. In fact, due to the LCR's very high recoil velocity, titanium is used for the LCR's cylinder lock pin and front latch--instead of steel--to reduce the mass and inertia of these parts and prevent the cylinder from unlocking at the moment of firing! Despite the best advertising hype and the willingness of many gun writers to "spin" the truth, you simply cannot suspend the laws of physics.

The firing mechanism includes a Ruger transfer bar ignition system. At rest, the hammer rests directly on the frame with the transfer bar withdrawn. This means that the revolver may be safely carried with all chambers loaded.

Several notable holster manufacturers already have models available that fit the LCR. These include Blackhawk, DeSantis, Fobus, Gould & Goodrich, Safariland and Uncle Mike's. Holster styles include belt, belt slide, inside the waistband, ankle, paddle and pocket holsters. Guns and Shooting Online Owner Chuck Hawks carried the LCR for several days in the same fanny pack with the same internal holster pouch he uses for his Colt Cobra .38 snubby and very much appreciated the little Ruger's lighter weight.

All of this is well and good, but how does the LCR shoot? Oregon's rainy spring weather gave us a single sunny day in which to get to the Izaak Walton outdoor range south of Eugene and those of us who could attend jumped at the chance. Guns and Shooting's Editor Gordon Landers and Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays did the shooting for record. This was accomplished at 25 yards shooting five-shot groups from a bench rest using bull's eye targets, just like our usual handgun test shooting. Unlike most of the print magazine reviews, we did not shoot at a reduced range to minimize group sizes. Nor did we riddle humanoid silhouette targets at poker table range shooting as fast as possible, as this proves nothing about the intrinsic accuracy of any handgun.

Well, okay, Rocky did pace off 10 yards (rather than the five to seven yards we have read other testers' typically use) and put five rounds into a bull's eye target (considerably smaller than a silhouette target) as fast as he could pull the trigger, keeping the bullets on the paper. Fine for center of mass shooting at paper targets, but worthless for stopping a suicidal terrorist when a precise central nervous system shot is required.

Our .38 Special test ammunition included Remington +P 125 grain SJHP (an excellent choice for personal protection), standard velocity Remington/UMC 130 grain FMC and standard velocity Winchester 125 grain JSP factory loads. The results were about what we expected from a lightweight, concealed carry, DAO handgun at 25 yards, whether revolver or autoloading pistol.

  • Remington +P 125 grain SJHP - Rocky's groups averaged 4-3/8 inches and Gordon's averaged 5-5/8 inches
  • Remington/UMC 130 grain FMC - Rocky's groups averaged 4-3/4 inches and Gordon's averaged 6-1/8 inches
  • Winchester 125 grain JSP - Rocky's groups averaged 8-1/4" and Gordon's averaged 7-3/4"

Our test revolver clearly preferred the Remington +P ammo and did not like the Winchester ammo. Remember, all guns are different and your LCR may have different preferences.

Shooting any DAO handgun at 25 yards (or farther) is difficult. Sure, most personal defense encounters are up close and personal, but there is always the exception. We would like to see an exposed hammer on the LCR to give one the option of shooting single action with a short, crisp trigger pull. It would make the LCR more fun and rewarding to shoot at the range and, in the rare emergency that calls for precise shot placement at a distance, a single action option might save the day.

Here are the shooters' post range session comments:

"This little .38 Ruger is a wonderful gun to shoot. The trigger is absolutely the best double action trigger I have ever used. It is consistent; it's so smooth that it feels like ball bearings. The trigger is completely predictable, you can pull the trigger through right to the point of dropping the hammer and stop and hold it there before finishing the shot."

"The difference between the standard .38 rounds and the +P rounds is noticeable, but the muzzle blast and recoil of this super light gun are significant with both. After shooting 15 shot strings testing ammo, we were both done with it. This is not a gun you would take to the range and shoot a couple of boxes in one sitting. For its intended purpose as a lightweight, foolproof, self-defense gun, it is hard to beat."

Make no mistake; the Ruger LCR is not another impractical "Scamdium" revolver. It is a very serious, very practical revolver intended for concealed carry and "up close and personal" self-defense. It represents a new wave in revolvers, using the latest engineering tools in its development and production (CAD, FEA, and Lean). Guns and Shooting Online's Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays, after his initial inspection of the LCR said, "This is the first successful attempt I have seen to improve the revolver in 100 years." That pretty well sums up our collective opinion. If you are thinking about a new DAO revolver for concealed carry, our advice is simple: buy a Ruger LCR.

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