The small-framed revolver has been with us as a defensive tool ever since the revolver itself was invented. Even as early as the percussion cap era of guns, people were cutting their wheelguns down to make them smaller and easier to conceal. During the Old West period, a common modification to the classic Colt SAA was to shorten the barrel to three inches and remove the ejector rod, making what was rbleeferred to as a “shopkeeper’s special.”
Post World War II up to the 1980s, the revolver was the weapon of choice for law enforcement, and to this day small revolvers remain popular with armed citizens and law enforcement for personal defense. But what happens when you take a classic example of the old school wheelgun and put it up against the latest and greatest?
Leading the way on Team Old-School is the Colt Cobra. It’s a D-frame, Colt’s small frame revolver. The Cobra was the alloy version of their incredibly popular Detective Special, and was produced from 1950 until 1981. One advantage the D-frame revolvers had over their competitors from Smith & Wesson and eventually Ruger is that the Colts hold six round, compared to five from the other guns.
The sample Cobra we have is a perfect example of the gun. It’s still in excellent condition, and is a pretty great shooter as well.
Our New School will be represented by the Ruger SP101 Wiley Clapp. This was a distributor special on the venerable SP101 design from Ruger. It features Novak sights, a very basic action job, and rubber grips with checkered wood inserts. Unlike the Cobra it is an all steel gun, making it heavier, but its capacity is only five. The SP101 is chambered in .357 Magnum, unlike the Cobra’s .38 Special.
Step One: Accuracy
Both guns were fired for accuracy at 25 yards and again at 10 yards. The 25 yard test was used to determine the gun’s maximum accuracy, and 10 yards was used for “combat” or “performance” accuracy. 25-yard groups were slow fire, 10-yard groups performed rapid fire.
Right away, the Colt had a slight problem – while it grouped very well, all of the groups were to the left of the intended point of impact (POI). Because the Colt uses old school gutter sights, correcting this POI issue would involve filing the entire rear sight notch precisely enough so that when the front sight is centered, it moves the POI back to center.
The Ruger SP101 had no point of aim/impact issues; the Novak rear sight with brass front bead was easy to find, and easy to align on the target. Additionally, should the sights have been out of whack (that is the technical term) the Novak rear on the Ruger is easily drift adjustable.
Both guns exhibited approximately the same mechanical accuracy. Best groups were in the 2.5 inch range using various types of match ammo. The Colt proved slightly easier to shoot; its spring configuration and action lends itself to a better trigger pull than even the modified SP101. The SP101 was more controllable in rapid fire, despite having smaller stocks than the Colt; this is largely due to the SP101’s weight.
The SP101 just edges out the Colt in the accuracy category though, because while the groups were largely similar at long range, at the 10 yard line the SP101’s heavier weight made rapid fire accuracy an easier proposition.
Round 1: Ruger SP101
These aren’t bullseye guns though. They’re designed as carry guns, to defend your life in the direst of situations. Which one is better as a concealed carry gun?
The Colt starts off with a lead simply because it’s lighter. The stocks on the Colt are bigger than those on the Ruger, but not so big they compromise concealability. In fact, they’re easier to grasp when drawing from concealment. Getting the gun out of the holster quickly is an important part of self-defense, and the Colt makes that easier than the Ruger.
The Ruger shines in the firepower department. While we understand that the only important handgun wounding mechanic is the permanent crush cavity, there is still something deeply comforting about a .357 Magnum wheelgun. There’s also something undeniably scary about having it fired at you, as the tiny revolver produces a fireball four feet long and a thunderclap of sound to scare Odin.
However, the Colt holds one more round. Yes, the difference between a six shooter and a five shooter isn’t that much, but no one ever wants to have fewer rounds in their gun. And the Colt is perfectly capable of shooting 158-grain LSWCHP, the famous FBI load. Lots of bad guys have met a dirt nap at the receiving end of that round.
The Colt wins the concealed carry category – it’s lighter, easier to draw in a hurry, and holds more ammo.
Round 2: Colt Cobra
The Ruger is more accurate, the Colt is easier to carry, but is one of them more shootable than the other? The Ruger’s heavier weight and good sights make it easier to get the gun back on target, but the superior trigger and ergonomics of the Colt give you better odds of getting that first hit.
Bill Drills (limited to five shots to keep things fair) conducted at seven yards from concealment had both guns running under two seconds in the hands of an IDPA Master Class revolver shooter. Using light recoiling full wadcutters, all the hits were landing square in the down zero of the target, so both guns were easy to shoot well and rapidly. This one is a draw.
Round 3: Tie
So what about the stuff that’s hard to quantify? Guns are very personal items. If they weren’t, everyone would just carry a Glock 19 with a spare magazine all the time and be done with it. While your feelings can easily mislead you, sometimes a gun just feels better.
When you look at these two revolvers side by side, the intangible becomes tangible pretty quick. You see, we love Rugers here at the office. They are durable, reliable, simple, and generally well made, sturdy pieces of American engineering.
But the Cobra says “Colt” on it. That rampant pony gives this revolver all the character it will ever need. If there was something wrong with the gun, if it wasn’t accurate, or it was broken, this would be another story. When you strap the Colt into a horsehide holster, it just feels right. The Ruger feels fine, but…it’s not special. It’s the difference between a Toyota Camry and a Mercedes C-class. They’ll both get you where you need to go, but the Benz will do it in style.
Winner of Old School vs. New School with a final score of 2-1-1 is the Colt Cobra. You can find these guns used on Gunbroker for around $500, so if you want to get a Colt revolver and not break the bank, check it out.
WINNER: Colt Cobra
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of GunUp the Magazine.