January 03, 2011
By G&A Staff
The polymer revolution has finally reached revolvers.
By Dick Metcalf
The new polymer Judge from Taurus demonstrates just how far the burgeoning trend in revolvers can go.
2010 is shaping up as the "Year of the Plastic Revolver." Technically, of course, I should say "polymer" instead of "plastic," since the words are not truly synonymous. But the point remains. Nearly 30 years after the now-ubiquitous polymer-frame Glock semiauto first impacted the American handgun market, turning all previous conceptions about firearms fabrication materials on their heads, the polymer revolution has finally reached revolvers. As was inevitable. Modern polymer materials are even stronger and more durable than steel or aluminum for many firearms design applications and can offer superior benefits when properly applied.
Ruger's Lightweight Compact Revolver (LCR), announced in 2009, was the first of this new handgun category to reach the market, and it was quickly followed at the January 2010 SHOT Show by offerings from both Taurus and Smith & Wesson. Here's a quick look at their essential qualities.
The 13.5-ounce Ruger LCR's construction consists of three major modular subcomponents: an upper cylinder frame/barrel assembly, a lower frame fire control housing assembly, and a cylinder/crane assembly. The cylinder frame/barrel assembly is constructed of a 7000-series aluminum forging with a 1714 stainless-steel barrel sleeve threaded into the barrel shroud. There are no moving parts in the cylinder frame/barrel assembly except for the cylinder release latch mechanism; it merely serves as a housing for the cylinder crane assembly and interfaces with the lower frame/fire control housing.
The heart of the LCR design is the polymer lower frame assembly. Sideplate free, it is constructed of a high-intensity proprietary composition glass-filled polymer and contains all the revolver's operating parts--trigger mechanism, hammer/sear mechanism, cylinder-rotation mechanism, and cylinder locking bolt system. The design originates from the Ruger Security-Six/Speed-Six revolver format, which (like subsequent GP100, Redhawk, and SP101 designs) featured a modular steel trigger assembly that could be removed as a unit from the bottom of the sideplate-free upper frame. However, in these earlier designs, the hammer mechanism remained contained in the upper frame. In the LCR everything is contained in the polymer lower unit.
Currently, polymer revolvers are available chambered for three types of ammo depending on model: from right, .38 Special, .45 Colt, and .410 shotshell.
The interface/fit between the aluminum cylinder frame assembly and the lower frame fire control housing functions as a "trapped V-block," which is reinforced by the direction of recoil. The two attachment points consist of a small black stainless torx-head cross screw and captive nut at the top of the frame behind the fixed-notch rear sight and a larger torx-head attachment screw at the lower front of the combined frame assemblies, which serves both to attach the aluminum cylinder frame to the polymer lower frame and to hold the crane/cylinder assembly into the cylinder frame. The screw is secured by a threaded titanium insert imbedded in the polymer of the lower frame/fire control housing.
Strength? Individual LCR prototypes were fired in excess of 10,000 rounds of 158-grain +P .38 Special ammunition with no malfunctions or loosening in the polymer/metal interfaces--essentially zero effect at all. Should be no surprise. Polymer-frame autoloaders have been in service for decades, and revolvers don't have to deal with a slide slamming around on top.
The standard LCR grip is Hogue's soft rubber "Tamer" monogrip design, which slides up over the grip stud extension of the lower fire control housing and features a cushion insert in the wraparound behind the rear of the frame. The LCR is also catalog-available with a Crimson Trace LaserGrip that is made from a harder polymer material and has an open-backstrap design without wraparound. Softer Hogue monogrip or performance enhancing LaserGrip, your choice.
Ruger's LCR was the first polymer revolver on the scene. (top)
The polymer-frame Bodyguard from Smith & Wesson has innovative features such as an ambidextrous cylinder latch and a built-in laser.(bottom)
Smith & Wesson's entry into the polymer revolver field is its new, compact, lightweight Bodyguard 38--engineered in conjunction with Insight Technology--featuring a unique built-in laser sight. Chambered in .38 S&W Special +P, the five-shot Bodyguard 38 has a hammerless, double-action-only trigger mechanism for snag-free presentation and easily concealed discreet carry; a short, 1.9-inch barrel; and a compact overall length of 6.6 inches. It features a one-piece aluminum-alloy upper frame housing the cylinder and barrel and a steel-reinforced polymer lower frame containing the trigger/hammer mechanism. Total weight is just 14.3 ounces. The barrel and cylinder on the revolver are both stainless steel. The stainless-steel cylinder is coated with a durable, nonreflective, matte black PVD finish for long-term carry and low-light presentation.
Designed to accommodate both left- and right-handed shooters, the revolver features an easily manipulated ambidextrous cylinder release on the top of the frame. This is the first truly ambidextrous revolver I've seen since the days of the old S&W top-breaks that were so beloved by 19th-century cavalry troopers, and it is a welcome return of a "good old idea" too long abandoned. The revolver is further enhanced with an ergonomic one-piece rubber grip and a smooth trigger pull.
A key element of the Bodyguard package is an integral Insight laser on the right side of the frame, which allows precise shot placement in low-light conditions. For target acquisition without the use of the laser, the revolver sports a notch-style rear sight and a pinned black blade front sight. Allowing for optimal accuracy, the red laser sight was produced in conjunction with Insight Technology to perfectly mate with the new Bodyguard system.
To activate the laser, users simply operate the push-button design located on top of the laser sight. Ambidextrous and easily manipulated while holding the firearm in the shooting position, the laser sight features three modes. By pushing the button once, the laser is on a constant-on mod
e. A second push of the button enables the laser to go into pulse mode. A third press turns the laser off. The Insight laser is equipped with an automatic five-minute auto off timer to preserve battery life. In constant-on mode, the laser provides three hours of continuous run time. The laser sight can be adjusted for both windage and elevation, and no assembly is required. Two Energizer 357 or equivalent batteries power the laser.
Taurus Protector & Public Defender Poly
Last but certainly not least on the emerging list of polymer revolver introductions, Taurus International has also jumped into the emerging polymer revolver market with both feet. And, as is typical of Taurus, there's a twist. Not only is Taurus offering a small, polymer-frame, five-shot, .38 Special +P Protector Polymer revolver analogous in size and format to the Ruger LCR and S&W Bodyguard, but also a polymer-frame, .45 Colt/.410 Public Defender compact version of the company's hugely popular long-cylinder Judge revolver.
Both revolvers utilize a patent-pending frame design that is structurally quite different from the Ruger and S&W designs. Instead of a metal upper frame/barrel assembly seated into a polymer-based lower frame containing the operating mechanisms, the Taurus polymer revolvers are one piece with a skeletonized aluminum-alloy support structure for the operating parts integrally molded into an overall polymer sheathing that completely encloses both the lower and upper frame areas as well as the barrel. This creates a monolithic structure that can be viewed as loosely analogous to the manner in which the metal slide rails of a Glock pistol are "molded into" its polymer lower frame. The Public Defender Polymer .45/.410 revolver weighs 27 ounces and features Taurus's cushioning Ribber grips; the Protector Polymer weighs just 18.5 ounces and is available with Ribber grips or smooth "wood-grain" hard polymer grips.
The popular Judge .45 Colt/.410 shotshell revolver is now available in a compact, polymer-frame model that provides attention-grabbing firepower in a cutting-edge package.
So why use polymer in revolvers at all? Aside from the obvious advantages in weight, polymer has specific recoil-reaction characteristics uniquely suited for extremely lightweight handguns. Its inherent elasticity flexes, compresses, and distributes recoil energy in a fashion quite different from metal-frame designs.
There are numerous other .38 Special +P (even .357 Magnum) metal-frame revolvers out there in this same dimension and weight class from these and other manufacturers. I've fired sub-20-ounce .38 Special all-metal small-frame snubnoses before--more than a few times. I even carry them. But they're not fun to shoot. They bounce, and they hurt. Polymer-frame snubnoses are different.
For example, Ruger states that with the LCR, with the same ammo loads, you can expect "up to 50 percent less subjective recoil" than any comparable-dimension/weight revolver. There are two reasons. First, the inherent elasticity of the polymer lower frame/fire control housing/grip stud extension measurably diffuses the recoil impulse in a fashion unlike any metal fabrication. Second, the standard Hogue grips on the Ruger LCR, as well as the wraparound rubber grips on the S&W Bodyguard and the Ribber grips on the Taurus revolvers, are remarkably well designed and very effective at distributing recoil throughout the grasping hand's entire surface instead of just impacting the thumb/trigger finger web.
I have not yet had the opportunity to extensively fire the new Taurus or S&W guns, but I have taken two Ruger LCR revolvers loaded with 158-grain +P ammunition, rapid-fired all five shots from the first, quickly set it down on the bench, and fired all five shots through the second--100 rounds, alternating the guns in less than 15 minutes. My shooting hand felt no punishment at all. The gun was entirely controllable, and the recoil I could only call "mild"--certainly no more than standard .38 Special loads through an all-steel small-frame revolver. As far as I'm concerned, the polymer-frame LCR is a "shoot all day" gun unlike any other ultralightweight revolver previously made. I fully expect the same result from the new polymer-frame Taurus and S&W revolvers for the same reason.