December 17, 2012
Like many of my contemporaries, when polymer frame pistols first hit the market, I looked upon them with a healthy dose of skepticism. But despite my initial hesitancy I eventually bought one. And liked it—to the point I found myself wishing someone would make a polymer-frame revolver.
I got my wish in 2009 when Ruger came out with the LCR (Lightweight Compact Revolver). Not to be outdone, the following year Smith & Wesson introduced its Bodyguard 38, and not too long after that the Taurus Protector made its debut. These three polymer-frame revolvers obviously share similarities, but each has its own unique features.
The Ruger LCR consists of three modular subcomponents: an upper frame assembly; a glass-filled nylon lower frame fire-control housing assembly; and a cylinder/crane assembly. The upper frame assembly is an aluminum forging that serves as a housing for the stainless steel barrel, cylinder/crane assembly and cylinder release catch.
The cylinder and crane assembly are also constructed of stainless steel, and the former features deep fluting to reduce weight further. It is locked in place by means of a titanium cylinder center pin latching into a hardened steel bushing in the recoil shield and a spring-loaded latch on the front of the ejector rod housing that mates with a cutout in the crane assembly. There is also a steel bushing for the firing pin.
The fire-control housing is constructed from glass-filled nylon, and it provides resistance to wear, abrasion, oils, solvents, salts, perspiration and environmental extremes. It contains the lockwork and all other moving parts, other than the cylinder release catch.
For the LCR's double-action-only trigger, Ruger engineers utilized a patented interface between the trigger and hammer which has a small friction-reducing cam on the toe of the trigger that positions the two parts so they operate in tandem when the trigger is pulled—rather than resisting each other on earlier double-action revolver trigger systems.
The S&W Bodyguard's alloy upper frame contains a stainless steel barrel inside a shroud that also protects the ejector rod. The lower frame is constructed of steel-reinforced polymer and contains the main spring, internal hammer and cylinder release. The lower frame flexes under recoil, which helps soften the recoil pulse.
S&W's Bodyguard 38 features a completely new double-action-only trigger mechanism, and unlike the vast majority of S&W revolvers, the cylinder rotates in a clockwise rather than counterclockwise direction.
A star-shaped stainless steel "ratchet drive hub" with a depression in its center and five star-shaped ridges located on the face of the recoil shield engage the cylinder pin and corresponding grooves on the star extractor. When the trigger is pulled, the ratchet drive hub rotates the cylinder, aligning it with the barrel and then assisting the cylinder stop to lock it in place. This innovative system also eliminates the cylinder rotating hand and its debris-admitting slot in the recoil shield.
The Bodyguard has a cylinder release located on top of frame, where it can be manipulated by either hand. I think this unique release is an eminently practical feature. Pushing the cylinder release forward retracts the ratchet drive hub, disengaging it from the cylinder, allowing the cylinder to be swung open for loading or unloading.
The construction of the Taurus Protector is similar to that of the Smith and Ruger. The alloy upper frame houses a stainless steel barrel liner, cylinder and crane unit. The polymer lower grip frame contains the lockwork, trigger, exposed hammer and cylinder release. The latter differs from the other two in that it is pushed forward to open the cylinder.
The trigger mechanism—which unlike the other two is a single-action/double-action design—is based upon that of the popular Taurus Model 85 series of small-frame revolvers. In addition, the trigger is grooved while the other two feature smooth triggers. The Protector features a transfer bar ignition system that prevents the hammer from striking the frame-mounted firing pin without a complete stroke of trigger.
As these revolvers are designed to be used at close range, all three guns employed blade front and notch rear sights, but there are differences in sighting systems. The LCR we received came with an optional Trijicon front night sight that has a tritium insert surrounded by a white ring, making it equally visible in low and bright light conditions.
The Bodyguard comes standard with an Insight Technologies laser sight on right side of the frame. It is operated by means of a button on its upper edge that can be manipulated with the thumb of either the right or left hand allowing selection of either of three modes: off, steady beam or pulsating.
The Protector features a red fiber-optic insert in the front sight that attracts the shooter's eye immediately, speeding up sight alignment and target acquisition. This setup is my favorite for iron sights, and I have it on almost all of my handguns.
Both the Protector and LCR feature key-operated internal safeties that immobilize their hammers and triggers to prevent unauthorized firing. The Taurus is located on the rear of the hammer while the Ruger requires that you remove grips to access it. S&W obviously felt that the traditional safety inherent with a DAO trigger was sufficient, so the Bodyguard has no additional safety.
All three feature recoil-absorbing synthetic grips with tacky-feeling surfaces that provide a firm purchase, although those on the Taurus and Ruger are considerably larger than the S&W's. This proved, as will be discussed later, both beneficial and a problem. Considering the revolvers' light weight, shooters will find these grips most welcome when firing .38 +P ammunition.
My good friends—fellow CCW license holders and competitive shooters Dick Cole, Butch Simpson and Dick Jones—agreed to help me run this trio of snubbies through their paces with some drills at Piedmont Handgunners Association range.
Top to bottom: Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 38, Ruger LCR and Taurus 85PFS Polymer Protector.
The LCR's Hogue Tamer grips got high scores, and the revolver's overall design, such as its deeply fluted cylinder, made it the lightest of the trio.
The Smith was easiest to unload because of the small grips. Some testers liked the ambi cylinder release, some didn't.
The Taurus was distinguished by its SA/DA operation and also by the fiber-optic front sight, which was well-liked by testers.
The four of us had discussed how to best evaluate this trio of snubbies and decided to run them through the following series of offhand drills at the real-life distances of five and seven yards.
- Five Yards—Draw revolver and engage a pair of targets with two rounds each, firing the revolver with a one-handed grip. Perform a combat reload and reengage targets. Repeat the drill twice more.
- Five Yards—Draw revolver and fire two body shots and one head shot on a target. Perform a combat reload and engage the second target in the same manner. Repeat the drill twice more.
- Seven Yards—Draw revolver and engage one target with five rounds in slow, aimed fire. Perform a combat reload and engage the second target in the same manner. Repeat the drill twice more.
In this way, each of us would fire at least 84 rounds through each revolver for a minimum of 336 per gun. Each revolver was then graded on ergonomics trigger control, recoil control, sights, grips, accuracy, ease of reloading and concealability.
Gould & Goodrich sent samples of its 801 Yaqui Slide holster and Safariland provided several of its Comp I speedloaders. Test firing fodder consisted of ammo from Winchester, Hornady and Remington, and our IPSC targets came from the Target Barn.
Prior to our meeting at the range, I had test fired and chronographed each revolver, the results of which can be seen on the accompanying chart. Accuracy testing snubby revolvers from a rest can be a humbling experience, but all three guns shot close enough to point of aim for their intended purposes.
They produced groups ranging in size from 2.25 to 3.75 inches. Surprisingly, despite being able to fire it in single-action mode, the Taurus' groups were about the same size as those produced with the two DAO revolvers.
I then cleaned and lubricated each revolver, which would be the only maintenance they would receive other than brushing off powder/lead residue if necessary. If any one of them choked during test firing we would attempt to correct the problem at the range and keep shooting.
Test firing began at 10 a.m. and continued, with a half hour lunch break, until 2 p.m. When we were finished we had three dirty revolvers and four shooters with sore hands. In the more than 1,000 rounds we fired, we had only one malfunction: a misfire with the S&W that went off with a second strike.
We all agreed that such performance from out-of-the-box snubby revolvers was extraordinary, especially when you consider how hot and dirty they got as test firing progressed. Here are some more observations from our testing.
The Ruger won in this category primarily because of its comfortable finger groove grips and easy-to-manipulate cylinder release. The Taurus was close on its heels, and only its grooved trigger and flat cylinder release kept it from tying the Ruger. The S&W's tiny grips were its downfall, along with the fact that two of the shooters found manipulation of the ambi cylinder release "unnatural."
We all felt that Ruger's engineers did it right with the LCR's trigger: a smooth, consistent pull with just a bit of staging before it broke. The Bodyguard's trigger had a consistent stroke but was a tad heaver than the Ruger's. Only one of us preferred the Protector's grooved trigger, while the other three complained of chafed trigger fingers after extensive firing.
Thanks to its large, soft Ribber grips the Taurus ran away with this category with the Ruger a runner-up. The Smith's small, hard grips relegated it to last place. All of us agreed that these snubbies just seemed to shoot "softer" than all-metal revolvers of similar size, especially with the +P loads. We attributed this to their polymer frames absorbing some of the recoil pulse.
With its fiber-optic front sight and generously sized rear notch, the Taurus garnered it the only perfect score. While the Trijicon night sight on the Ruger was easy to see, its size made for a difficult sight picture, and several of us consistently shot low with it. A fiber optic on the S&W would be a definite improvement.
No surprise here that the Polymer Protector's comfortable Ribber grips took honors. The LCR finished second with the Bodyguard a distant third. We all felt S&W could put more user-friendly grips on this revolver without compromising concealability to any degree.
Despite the criticisms we voiced about some of the features of each revolver, they all scored equally well when it came to accuracy. Yes, we shot them at close range, but that's what they were designed for.
Ease of Reloading
We did not discover until we were at the range that the large grips on the Ruger and Taurus prevented the use of speedloaders with them, so to level the playing field we reloaded by hand and based our scoring on how quickly and easily we could eject spent cases from the cylinder and reload with loose rounds from a pocket. Several spent cases always hung up when extracting them from the Ruger and Taurus, forcing the shooter to pull them out of the chambers by hand. This is likely due to the revolvers' wide grips and shorter ejector rods. Because of the Smith's narrow grips (which we disliked in other categories) and long ejector rod (7/8 inch, compared to 1/2 inch on the Ruger and Taurus), cases rarely hung up.
As mentioned before, several of the shooters did not care for the location of the S&W's cylinder release while others found the almost flush-mounted release on the Taurus difficult to manipulate positively.
The S&W finished first in this category as everyone agreed that, thanks to its smaller grips, it would be much easier to conceal under light clothing or in a pocket holster.
Except for not being able to use speedloaders with the Taurus or Ruger revolvers, the trio of revolvers—with a little help from the shooters—proved capable of handling the tasks presented to them.
Our final consensus was that all three performed their allotted tasks admirably and any one of them would be a good choice for concealed carry or home defense. But don't take our word for it. I suggest that you try them all out and see if you come to same conclusions as we did.