Today we’re going to take a look at two of what I feel are the best revolvers made today. The Smith & Wesson Model 29 and the Ruger Super Redhawk, both of which are in the most unpopular form: short-barreled, or snubnose. In their larger form both guns enjoy considerable popularity. The S&W 29 was developed by Elmer Keith and carried by Dirty Harry, making it the most iconic revolver of the twentieth century. The standard Super Redhawk offered by Ruger with either a 7½ or 9½-inch barrel is a perennial favorite among handgun hunters or shooters who enjoy big bore revolvers that deliver solid accuracy without exorbitant price tags.
So what makes these guns less popular when you cut the barrels back? Shortening these revolvers makes them lighter and easier to carry, so shouldn’t the stumpy versions be more popular? As it turns out, chopping most of the barrel off of a magnum revolver results in significantly increased recoil and muzzle blast (if you have enough ammunition you’ll never need a flashlight to walk home with a snubnose). Both of these guns are rather large and require a big set of mitts to hang onto them with. In their longer-barreled, lower recoil forms, people with smaller hands can operate them rather well, which opens them up to a larger market. Short revolvers also have a reputation for being inaccurate. Besides the increased recoil, this reputation is a result of the decreased distance between the sights (sight radius) as the barrel gets shorter, which means that small deviations in the alignment of the sights result in larger groups. Neither of the guns featured here are inaccurate, but they are hard to shoot well.
The first revolver in our lineup is an awfully classic blued S&W Model 29 with a three-inch barrel. This revolver was given to me by my parents as a high school graduation gift (some people get luggage, I got a .44 Magnum. Small wonder about my career path), and I’ve used it over the years as a concealed carry weapon and to hunt whitetail deer in the brush. This smooth action and excellent ergonomics on this revolver are a great example of the workmanship people have come to expect from Smith & Wesson. The original grip has been replaced with one that allows the shooter to get his hand closer to the bore line and a red insert has been notched into the front sight. If your hand is big enough to properly grip this gun, the rest of the work is practically done for you.
The second revolver tested here is a stainless steel Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan with a 2½-barrel chambered for .44 Magnum. These guns are marketed in their various chamberings specifically for bear protection, but real-world uses vary considerably. I purchased this revolver a few years ago to serve double duty as for both concealed carry and handgun hunting. I had high hopes that the tank-like Alaskan design would finally give me a handgun that wouldn’t ever break. So far, this revolver has exceeded all expectations. It is a functional carry weapon, extremely durable and useful as a hunting tool out to roughly seventy-five-yards. Although a shooter truly devoted to revolvers of this make could undoubtedly stretch that distance. I’ve replaced the factory Hogue Tamer Monogrip with an original Ruger Super Redhawk grip that allows the hand to creep up closer to the bore line and have notched a red insert into the front sight. The Alaskan will probably never be considered a pretty gun, but carrying one offers wonderful peace of mind.
Both these guns were test fired with handloads that I’ve found to be a good compromise for both concealed carry ammunition and hunting fodder: 240gr Laser-Cast semiwadcutter bullet, 8gr Unique powder and a large pistol primer which result in a muzzle velocity of around 1000 fps. This load apes Elmer Keith’s original “police special” load and brings muzzle blast and recoil down to more manageable levels, but still does not require holdover at 100-yards. It is powerful enough for deer hunting at reasonable ranges but still allows for relatively fast backup shots in a self-defense situation. If you’re not into handloading, .44 Special ammo shoots just fine out of a .44 Magnum, although I’d recommend staying away from the “Cowboy Action” stuff and instead sticking to one of the various factory 240gr loads available today. The loads with heavier bullets burn cleaner and cause less leading of the barrel over time. If you want magnum ammo, Federal, PMC and Norma offer factory loads that more or less mimic Keith’s handload. It’s important to do some research and know what you’re buying beforehand, as shooting hot factory ammo out of a snubnose can be quite unpleasant, while firing lighter loads out of them results in a great shooting experience.
In the accuracy department both of these revolvers did very well. The S&W is a bit easier to work with shooting fast double-action groups. S&W makes a very smooth action and this is extremely helpful when it comes to speed shooting. The double-action of the Ruger takes some getting used to, but once a shooter gets the hang of it the Alaskan’s extra weight helps bring the gun back on target very quickly. For longer shots that are usually performed single-action, it is hard to tell the difference between them. They both have clean breaking triggers and can be used effectively out to 100-yards with enough practice.
In assessing the overall usefulness of these two guns the Ruger definitely comes out on top. Setting aside the fact that the Alaskan’s all stainless construction makes for much lower maintenance and a gun that is considerably easier to clean, the Ruger is simply overbuilt; the Alaskan is the Mack truck of revolvers with an action that is almost impossible to wear out or break. A shooter or hunter can really be rough on an Alaskan without noticeable changes. The S&W is a far more aesthetically pleasing package with tons of cachet, but owners will feel genuinely bad about treating it in the same manner as the Alaskan.
Price is also a factor when choosing between these two firearms. The Ruger is currently available at an MSRP of $1079, although they usually sell for closer to $900 (a price that doesn’t significantly decrease on the used market due to their incredible durability). While the Alaskan is rather expensive, the S&W tested here is currently only available from Smith & Wesson’s custom shop. Their 4 inch model has an MSRP of $969, but having that extra inch trimmed off will probably bring the price up to roughly $1200. On the used market the Smith, due to the fact it is no longer in production, actually goes up in price.
While I have to declare the Ruger Alaskan to be the winner of this competition for the affections of prospective buyers, I should mention that I never intend to sell either of these revolvers. I’m honestly addicted to shooting the Smith and Wesson. I know I should stop playing with it because it goes up in value every year, but it just shoots so well that I can’t help it. The Alaskan is my great, unbreakable, utility handgun. I can count on it to always function and am able to treat it like dirt if necessary. These two revolvers might be some of the least popular guns on the market, but I’ve found a wide variety of uses for them, which makes them two of my favorites.