Ruger's LCR: The Best .38 Pocket Revolver Ever?

By Randy Wakeman

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

Ruger's new for 2009 Lightweight Compact Revolver has been billed as the “Evolution of the Revolver.” It has proved to be at least that, if not more. Weighing in at roughly three quarters of a pound, it is hard not to notice how light this wheelgun is for a .38 Special +P revolver and how well it fits the hand. The barrel is only 1-7/8 in. long, the 5-shot revolver itself 1-1/4 inches wide. This is essentially in the J-frame genre of compact revolver, a bit lighter and less costly than the clunky S&W 642 series and the many variants of the platform, including the S&W Model 438 Bodyguard.

Here are the Ruger LCR's specifications:

  • 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
  • 2009 MSRP: $525

What quickly and dramatically sets the Ruger LCR apart from and ahead of the many old 5-shot, double action .38 Specials is the wondrous double-action trigger pull. While the trigger gauge shows it as about a nine pound trigger, Ruger has refined the trigger geometry and spring rates so it feels much lighter. The LCR has a smooth and consistent trigger pull that makes it relatively easy to cycle the cylinder and fire this revolver while maintaining a constant sight picture. As that is the whole idea with a personal defense pistol, Ruger can't be commended too highly for pulling this one off. It has an out-of-the box feel as if it had been tuned by the likes of Jack Weigand. The LCR is that smooth.

The primary ammo used was the Stars & Stripes Custom Ammo 125 grain Speer Gold Dot combat rounds. Shooting through the CED M2 chrono screens, the 5 foot velocity ranged from 767 – 796 fps, which is formidable, especially taking into consideration the diminutive 1-1/8 inch LCR barrel. After shooting fifty rounds of this ammo through the Ruger LCR, I can't call this revolver the ideal plinker by any means, but calling the recoil quite manageable is a fair assessment. It was surprisingly manageable considering the light weight of this handgun. For comparison, let me mention one of my least favorite type of handguns, the common .380 blowback semi-auto. Many of them are just nasty little palm-slappers, with crummy trigger pulls and an unfortunate propensity to stovepipe. Often you'll find them with merciless hard plastic crucifix type grips and slides that find new ways to slice the top of your hand, as well.

It's not true of all .380s, to be sure, but palm-slapping, hand-slicing stove-piping little monsters with snag-o-matic external hammers are something I genuinely revile. It is the exact opposite of what I'd want to rely on in a high-stress, self-defense situation. In fact, the only .380 that I personally consider fun to shoot for extended periods is a Makarov IJ-70 and even the IJ-70 wears a set of of Pearce grips.

The .380 genre of pistol, even with good ammo like Speer Gold Dot, suffers in penetration compared to a .38 Special revolver. You need only compare the sectional densities of a 90-95 grain .380 bullet to a 125-158 grain .38 Special bullet to see why.

The benefits of a wheelgun for personal defense are straightforward and well known. Stove-piping and failures to feed are not a possible and cycling past a dead round requires only a second pull of the trigger. Anything that is tethered to the function of the ammo to work is going to be less reliable than an action that is not.

Setting up at 10 yards, I emptied the LCR as fast as I could into a Shoot-N-C target. The results were more than adequate to neutralize most intimate threats, with actual use likely to be at less than half that distance. Published studies vary a bit, but most self-defense applications are measured in feet, not yards. A friend of mine likes to put it this way, “If I was purposely going to a gunfight, I'd use something else.” So would I, as a matter of fact. However, that isn't the point. We aren't going to gunfights, we simply want the ability to defend ourselves and our families should we be unexpectedly forced to do so. In this regard, the Ruger LCR shines. It is easily carried, swift to deploy, manageable in recoil allowing for confident initial shot and follow-up shot placement, is clearly a well-built, and fundamentally reliable protection piece.

For in the home only defense, certainly a 12 gauge pump like the current Ithaca Model 37 Home Defense gun with a 20 inch barrel and a moderate load of #1 buck could be considered a more forgiving, effective approach. When conceal-ability and portability are paramount, the only form of self-defense that matters is the one you have access to at that precise moment.

The LCR is available with laser grips, but the approach I prefer has just been announced by XS Sight Systems for 2010, an improved standard dot Tritium front sight for the Ruger Part Number: RP-0008N-4. I'll get one installed as soon as I can.

The Ruger LCR is a rare revolver, one that is optimized for a specific application, and fulfills the fast handling, ease of use, speed of use, outstanding build quality with a mass produced, double-action trigger pull that has never before been equaled in this personal self-defense platform. It is a home-run for Ruger and a winner in this category of this revolver with no question in my mind. Ruger has extended and improved the breed with their little LCR .38 Special +P.

Note: A complete review of the Ruger LCR revolver can be found on the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2009, 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.