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A Quartet for Carry: Reviews of Ruger SP101, CZ 83, Kel-Tec P-32, and Taurus Model 731 Ultra-Lite.

by Doug Larson   |  April 24th, 2009 3

Ed Head, the operations chief at Gunsite Academy, once told me, “The first rule of gunfighting is having a gun. If you can’t carry anything larger, carry what you can.” So if you have ever considered buying a small-caliber handgun for whatever reason—be it target shooting, general fun or self-defense—you may be interested in a small sampling of what is available.

One class of these small-caliber pocket pistols propels .32 caliber bullets from bores that are really .312 inch in diameter. Chamberings vary, but here we will include only the .32 ACP, .32 H&R Magnum and the recently introduced .327 Federal Magnum, which really can’t be described as a “mousegun.”

Thirty-twos have been around a long time and one of the oldest is the .32 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol), also known as the .32 Auto and 7.65 Browning. It was developed by John Browning in 1899 to power his first successful semi-automatic pistol. Lest one dismiss the .32 ACP round out of hand, consider that it was a widely used cartridge in Europe for police and military in such guns as the Colt Model 1903, Browning Model 1900, Spanish Ruby, Mauser HSc and Walther PPK.

We Americans generally load our .32 ACPs with 60- or 71-grain bullets. The .680-inch long semi-rimmed, straight-walled case has an almost imperceptible taper and headspaces on the rim. Nominal velocity is listed at 960 feet per second for the 60-grain load and 900 fps for the 71-grain load to produce 123 and 128 foot-pounds of energy, respectively.

Moving up the power scale a bit, Federal and Harrington & Richardson joined forces in 1983 to better the .32 S&W Long, an older handgun cartridge, and created the .32 H&R Magnum with a case length of 1.065 inches. Eighty-five and 95-grain bullets are common for this round, which has a nominal velocity of 1,120 fps for the 85-grain load and 1,020 for the 95 grain. Muzzle energies are 237 and 219 foot-pounds, respectively.

Recognizing the potential for an even higher-powered .32, Federal decided in 2008 to apply its considerable resources to the problem and came up with the .327 Federal Magnum by creating a straight-walled, higher- capacity cartridge that measures 1.200 inches long (about an eighth of an inch longer than the .32 H&R Magnum). It propels an 85-grain Federal Hydra-Shok at 1,330 fps, a 100-grain American Eagle slug at 1,400 fps and a 115-grain Speer Gold Dot at 1,300 fps for 334, 435 and 432 ft-lbs respectively. That is a huge increase over the .32 H&R Magnum, and while it can’t match the 1,400 fps and 544 ft-lbs of the 158-grain .357 Magnum load, it exceeds the 940 fps and 245 ft-lbs of a 125-grain .38 Special +P load. That is significant, making it useful for critters larger than small rodents. For any of the loads to have value, a suitable bullet launcher is needed, so four such items were obtained for testing.

The Kel-Tec P-32 is a very small, lightweight, aluminum-framed, locked-breech, modified Browning recoil-operated, semi-automatic pistol with a polymer grip that is chambered for the .32 ACP.  This double action-only gun has a square notch rear sight and small front blade that do not lend themselves to benchrest accuracy, so it was not surprising that at 10 yards, groups ranged from about 2.5 inches to a little more than five inches. The single-stack steel magazine holds seven rounds, but a 10-round magazine with a grip extension, which is a real assist to obtaining a firm hold on this mini-gun, is also available. The barrel and slide are machined from 4140 ordnance steel and the frame, which actually resides within the polymer grip and is a separate unit, is machined from 7075-T6 aluminum. Even though the .32 ACP is not a powerhouse, recoil was noticeable because of the small grip and light weight, but the gun functioned without problems during testing. Trigger pull was 8.5 pounds, and the MSRP on the blued sample is $318.

Also chambered for the .32 ACP cartridge is the CZ 83, the civilian version of the vz 82 used by the Czechoslovakian military, which is also chambered in other calibers, including the 9×18 Makarov. This is a double-action, blowback-operated semi-automatic handgun with a barrel fixed to the frame. The design contributes to accuracy, as does the luminescent three-dot sight system, which consists of a blade front sight and a drift-adjustable rear sight. The gun sports an ambidextrous frame-mounted thumb safety and magazine catch—the latter, when activated with either the thumb or trigger finger, allows the steel, double-stack, single-feed 15-round magazine to drop free. It has a hand-filling plastic grip, but this all-steel gun is not a lightweight; it weighs in at 29 ounces. The manual says the gun can be carried cocked and locked or with the hammer down on a loaded chamber, but advises caution when the hammer is lowered.

The CZ 83 proved to be a very stable, light-recoiling gun, and was pretty accurate—printing groups of less than an inch at 10 yards, and just over two inches at 25 yards. It’s comfortable to shoot despite some stacking with a double-action trigger that let off at 14 pounds, and a slightly gritty single-action break at six pounds. There were no malfunctions when fired offhand. MSRP is $495.

The next gun tested was the Taurus Model 731 Ultra-Lite, chambered for the .32 H&R Magnum. With a matte stainless-steel cylinder that holds six rounds, a stainless-steel barrel and a matching aluminum alloy frame, the gun lives up to its lightweight billing, weighing only 17 ounces. The fixed sights, a ramp front and notch rear, while better than the ones on the Kel-Tec and adequate for the job, are not as good as the ones on the CZ 83. The gun shot to point-of-aim at the short 10-yard distance that is more appropriate than 25 yards for this round.

Trigger pull was a smooth 12.5 pounds double action, with little stacking prior to let-off. In single action mode, the crisp break occurred at 6.5 pounds. Even though the .32 H&R Magnum is not a very hard-kicking round, there was considerable (but not uncontrollable) recoil in this light two-inch-barreled gun. Grips are firm rubber, but did not dampen recoil much. Average group size ran from a little over two to a little over three inches for the two loads I was able to obtain for testing. MSRP is $469.
The last gun in the line-up is Sturm Ruger’s SP101, which is a stainless-steel, rubber-gripped, six-shot revolver with a 3 1/16-inch barrel that sports a full underlug to add strength and help dampen the considerable recoil and muzzle flip generated by the .327 Federal Magnum load. The gun is stout. The cylinder locks at the rear and also at the front of the crane, and the ejector rod is offset to the bottom, allowing the frame to be thicker at the critical forcing cone. The black ramp front sight works well with the windage-adjustable black rear notch to provide a pretty good sight picture. The double action trigger pull on the sample gun was smooth with a let off at 12.25 pounds. In single action, it broke crisply at 4.5 pounds with a little overtravel. Accuracy was pretty fair as evidenced by average group sizes of three to four inches at 25 yards. At 10 yards, groups ran around 1.5 inches. MSRP is $572.

A nice feature of both the Ruger SP101 and the Taurus 731 is the ability of both to accommodate the .32 S&W and .32 S&W Long cartridges, which are older and less powerful loads that predate the .32 H&R Magnum—which the SP101 can also handle. While accuracy suffers a bit, recoil is reduced greatly, making for very enjoyable plinking.

Thirty-twos have evolved considerably since first appearing many years ago, and despite the availability of other more-potent loads, they do have their uses. That includes fun at the range.

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