Home Defense: Ruger LCR .38 Special
November 21, 2017
I admit it: There are quite a lot of firearms in our house. Never mind exactly how many. Most of them live in gun safes. I'll admit this, too: After a disastrous burglary of our house nearly 30 years ago, I'm obsessive about keeping guns in safes. There's a sharp limit on how many safes I have room for, so when I run out of space in the Cannons for my cannons, it's time to cull the herd. One firearm that doesn't live in the safe — and isn't going to be culled — is our Ruger LCR in .38 Special. That's our house gun, and it stays handy.
A REVOLVER AS A HOUSE PISTOL?
The LCR has only been out for three years, so of course it isn't the first handgun I've called the "house gun." In fact, over the years there have been quite a few. My first was a Walther PP, still one of my favorite handguns. Another personal favorite is the good old Colt 1911, always hard to beat. But in the specific mode of a "house gun" I tend to think that a double-action revolver makes the most sensible choice.
Please understand that I'm not talking about a carry handgun. In that mode, the best choice depends a lot on who you are, what you're wearing and where you're going. In some cases the best choice might be the smallest, lightest, most compact pistol there is; in other situations a full-size 1911 might fill the bill. But for me — and my wife — it's a moot point, because we live in a jurisdiction where a concealed carry permit is simply impossible to obtain. So the only way I carry a handgun is exposed, and the only time is in the field. Sometimes that pistol is a small-game gun like a .22 or .32 H&R; sometimes it's a 1911 for fun and nostalgia. Most often, I suppose, it's a full-size revolver, a Smith and Wesson Model 29 or a Colt.45.
The house gun is a different animal. It's the pistol you hope you'll never need, but it might be reached for in the middle of the night, when you're groggy with sleep. Perhaps more important, it might be reached for by my wife rather than me. She's a good hand with a rifle, and I don't want her shooting at me with a pistol, but she doesn't have a lifelong history with firearms, and she doesn't shoot all the time. Switching back and forth from one firearm to another is thus challenging, and if dire circumstances should ever come, she doesn't need a split-second wasted on the mechanics of operation.
Over the years, I've come to believe that the double-action revolver made the most sensible "reach for in the middle of the night" handgun. Personal favorites have included a 1917 Colt in .45 ACP and a Charter Arms Bulldog in .44 Special. Realistically, however, the former is too big for small hands and the latter, though devastatingly effective, is a real handful to learn to shoot. In any case, for the specific purpose we're talking about, double-action only is probably the simplest and most goof- proof approach.
A small double-action-only revolver is definitely not the easiest handgun to learn to shoot, but it is probably the most operator-error-free of any handgun I know. It's simply ready, a point-and-shoot court of last resort. And while its small size makes it more difficult to master, it's also easy to store and safeguard. We're long past having young children around, but we still have teenagers in and out. A small double-action revolver fits nicely in the smallest key-lock pistol safe, easy to store in complete safety.
WHY THE LCR?
Honestly, it was not love at first sight. I was at a SHOT Show when Mike Fifer, Ruger's CEO, pulled out an LCR and showed it to me with obvious pride. Of course, I made much of it, but my tastes run toward blued steel and checkered walnut, and this polymer- frame pipsqueak didn't do much for me — that is, until I had a chance to shoot it a few weeks later. In operation, the LCR is just plain impressive. It's about as light as a .38 Special revolver can be, weighing just 13½ ounces with the Hogue Tamer grips. Overall length is just 6½ inches, with total height (with Hogue grips) just 4½ inches. Perhaps most impressive of all, the width of the five-shot cylinder is just 1.28 inches, making it the slimmest .38 Special revolver on the market. And yet it's controllable and shootable. This is saying quite a lot about such a small handgun chambered to a full-size cartridge.
The LCR, Ruger's first compact personal defense revolver, was not a downsizing of an existing model. It was designed from the ground up for both ease of manufacturing (keeping the price down) and optimum performance on such a small frame.
There are essentially three major assemblies: The polymer fire control group, containing the trigger, hammer and grip-housed mainspring; the aluminum frame, containing the crane, recoil shield and stainless steel barrel; and the stainless steel cylinder.
Generally speaking, the smaller the revolver, the worse the double-action trigger pull, simply because of space limitations. Designed with cammed surfaces, the LCR actually has one of the best trigger pulls I've seen on a compact revolver. It isn't light, breaking at about 10 pounds, but the pull increases smoothly and gradually, and I'd actually call it crisp. It's probably absurd to call any double-action-only revolver with a 1-inch barrel accurate, but I can shoot tighter groups with the LCR than I have ever shot with any other compact revolver. Close manufacturing tolerances and firm lockup with a titanium lug un undoubtedly help, and there's nothing in the world wrong with Ruger barrels. But I think the primary contributor to accuracy is the smooth, consistent trigger pull. After shooting the LCR, I ordered one immediately and it's been our house gun ever since.
RECOIL MANAGEMENT AND FEEDING
The pistol is rated for +P .38 Special ammo, and one of the prototypes was fired more than 10,000 times with full-house +P loads without a hiccup. The LCR is rugged and built to last. The Hogue grip soaks up a lot of recoil, and the polymer frame absorbs quite a bit more. It is easier to shoot and more controllable than conventional, metal-frame .38s weighing several ounces more. That said, I would never tell anyone that it's a fun gun to shoot all day long with +P loads. There is now a .357 Magnum version weighing just 3.6 ounces more. I've shot it, and I can shoot it all right, but it's a bit of a beast. I wouldn't want my wife, Donna, to shoot it, but she has no problems shooting our .38 Special version, and in fact she shoots it very well.
I suppose one could argue that the .357 version, with a few extra ounces, would be even more comfortable with .38 Special ammo, and you don't really have to shoot .357 loads at all. Maybe, but the temptation would be there, and the original .38 version is not only easy enough to shoot, but also amazingly capable. This is truer today than ever before, thanks to aggressive new developments in personal defense bullets and loads such as Winchester's PDX1 and Hornady's Critical Defense line. These new bullets are designed to deliver, and they do deliver devastating performance without overpenetration, which is also a concern in any home defense situation.
Ultimately, however, recoil, controllability and the fun factor in shooting do depend on what you feed it. Plus-P loads aren't easy to shoot. We don't shoot them much on the range. Target wadcutter loads are a whole different kettle of fish, but I don't handload for the .38 Special and our local gunshop doesn't carry them. So I hit upon a wonderful secret: Cowboy Action loads. On the range, we shoot a lot of Black Hills 158-grain lead semi-wadcutters, inexpensive and fun to shoot. Velocity out of that short barrel is only 700 fps, but that turns a panther into a pussycat, and you can plink away with the LCR all day long, which, by the way, is the only way to get good with it.
Upgrade to +P and the fun meter pegs out quickly. Just the other day I shot three different levels of loads through the LCR: the Black Hills 158-grain Cowboy Action loads, Double Tap's +P load with 125-grain semi-jacketed hollowpoint and Hornady's Critical Defense .38 Special load with 110-grain FTX bullet. I shot all three loads over a chronograph with both the LCR with 1.875-inch barrel and my grandfather's old Official Police with four-inch barrel.
The results were interesting. The Black Hills load — intended to be slow, accurate and shootable — clocked 804 fps from the four-inch barrel but averaged just 703 fps from the LCR. No wonder it was such a pleasant load to shoot. The Double Tap 125-grain +P load was a whole lot less fun, also not surprising. This is a stout load, rated at 1,175 fps in a four-inch barrel and delivering 1,181 fps in my granddad's old Colt. It was still moving at 1,026 fps in the LCR, and you could feel it. That's not a load you want to shoot all day, but you could certainly load up with it at night.
Of the three loads in this revolver, not necessarily in general, most desirable to me was Hornady's Critical Defense load. This is not a +P load; rather, it's a straight .38 Special load, but with Hornady's light 110-grain FTX (Flex Tip Expanding) bullet designed for rapid expansion and limited penetration. The box rates the load at 1,010 fps — not especially fast for a 110-grain load. In my four-inch gun it was pretty good, averaging just over 1,000 fps. In the stubby one-inch LCR barrel, it lost a fair amount of velocity but still clocked an average of 907 fps.
The interesting thing to me was that, because of the light bullet, recoil was about the same as the much slower 158-grain semi-wadcutter. This load was accurate, controllable and easy to shoot. So there are choices. You can go with a slow, heavy bullet, and because of the low velocity, penetration will probably be limited. Old Elmer Keith would have approved; the semi-wadcutter on that particular Black Hills load is almost like the old Keith-type hardcast bullet. Or you can go with a modern, quick-expanding, light-for-caliber bullet designed specifically for its lethal purpose. Either way, you'll find the LCR a bit of a handful, but work your way into it and you'll have no trouble getting more than adequate close-quarter accuracy. Or you can practice with light loads and step up to the heaviest +P loads when you put your LCR to bed.
The old .38 Special isn't perfect, but one of the great things about it is the incredible range of loads that are readily available. There's just one thing. In the Marines we had two very conflicting sayings. One was "You don't have to practice to be miserable." The LCR actually is a fun gun to shoot'¦with light loads. With heavy +P loads, well, you won't enjoy shooting it nearly as much, and unless you really want to acquire facial tics or a permanent flinch, you probably shouldn't. But then there's the other saying: "Train the way you intend to fight." It's OK to do most of your practicing with light loads and save the (more expensive) heavy loads for your next few gunfights, but if you intend to actually use heavy loads, you'd best shoot a few of them, sparingly, so you know what to expect. Honestly, the LCR handles recoil so well that there is no .38 Special load that is uncontrollable, but there's a big difference between shooting the mildest and the heaviest. Practice at least a bit with the heaviest load you intend to use, instilling enough muscle memory to preclude a nasty surprise.