As published in “Shooting Illustrated” January 2009
To be honest, it’s a bit of a surprise to me that the .32 H & R Mag. hasn’t been discontinued
Two of the big manufacturers have stopped producing revolvers chambered for this nifty little round, and to my knowledge, only Federal and Black Hills still turn out ammo. Although I refer to it as a “nifty little round,” I would be hard-pressed justifying continued production to any major gun or ammo manufacturer based on the feedback I’ve received over the last few years.
Suffice it to say I was stunned when Federal introduced the .327 Fed. Mag. and Ruger began chambering its SP101 for this hot new miniature magnum. But I recover quickly when there’s an opportunity to try a new handgun round.
I received two revolvers for testing the cartridge. The newest gun was Ruger’s all steel, six-shot, double-action SP101 with a 3 1/16-inch barrel. It’s Ruger’s small-frame gun, but it’s a beefy little guy weighing 28 ounces with a triple-locking system to hold the cylinder securely in place and in proper alignment. It also has a heavy under-barrel lug that tapers upward just before reaching the muzzle. Rubber grips with plastic panels featuring horizontal cuts improve the shooter’s ability to control the gun when firing Federal’s high-stepping .327 jacketed hollow points.
Contrary to most of the material I’ve read over the years, I’ve always rated the trigger pull on Ruger’s double-action revolvers as being quite good. Perhaps it’s a bit heavier than some other models, but the pull weight is consistent and smooth throughout the firing process. When firing a double-action revolver in a high-stress, self-defense situation, consistently smooth and heavy is better than light and erratic.
The other gun was Freedom Arms’ single-action, stainless steel, small-frame Model 97. This downsized Freedom revolver was introduced in 1997, and when chambered in .32 caliber was available with two cylinders, each with a capacity of six rounds. One cylinder fired the .32 H&R Mag. and the other handled the vintage .32-20 Win. When the new .327 Fed. Mag. cartridge appeared, company president Bob Baker simply chambered an additional six-shot cylinder that can be swapped with the other two because all three cartridges shoot the same diameter bullet. (Don’t bother trying to fire the new round in one of the other Freedom Arms cylinders because it won’t chamber.)
When the .32 H&R Mag. was introduced a few years back, it was viewed as a minimum-recoil, self-defense round for small revolvers. Keep in mind small revolvers were, and still are, a favorite self-defense handgun for many Americans. It’s a simple rationale: For those of us who don’t consider ourselves “operators,” the small revolver is easy to carry in a pocket, simple to use and incredibly reliable.
In fact, at a recent lunch with a mix of retired and active-duty cops, and gunwrit-ers, a quick tally revealed every man present was carrying a .38 Spl. J-frame Smith & Wesson in his pocket. Everyone admitted this would not be his first choice of hardware if he knew a fight was coming, but on that warm, August day in southern California, it was the first choice of carry when leaving home in the morning. All of these guys had either been police trainers or been through extensive self-defense training, and yet they chose the .38 Spl. rather than the .357 Mag. The idea of the .32 H&R Mag. was to offer a credible self-defense cartridge in a small revolver to smaller statured. less experienced personnel. The .327 Fed. Mag. takes that rationale to the next level, and in terms of performance, the next level is a huge step up.
The Ruger SP101 shot about an inch to the left at 15 yards. Looking at the white-outlined rear sight mounted in the revolver’s topstrap, it was indeed a bit left. Since the sight can be adjusted for windage, moving the point of impact slightly right was not a problem. Elevation with the 85-grain jacketed-hollow-point ammo was perfect. The rear sight notch is generously wide, leaving ample light on both sides of the black, ramped front-sight blade. A sight picture is easily and quickly acquired as long as there is adequate light. Firing double action offhand at a reasonably slow pace, six-shot groups at 15 yards ranged from 2 to 3 inches without too much concentration on my part.
While the .32 H&R Mag. loads were much milder than the .327 Fed. Mag. ammo, recoil was quite manageable with both cartridges, and I had no trouble switching from the shorter .32 H&R Mag. to the longer .327 Fed. Mag. There was no need to scrub out the cylinder after shooting the shorter cases. It might be different if one were using heavily lubricated lead bullets, but with the self-defense oriented jacketed hollow points, the two cartridges were totally interchangeable in the SP101.
I was astounded when I chronographed both cartridges. I had expected an increase in velocities, but not nearly the 50 percent I measured. The 3-inch Ruger went from 968 fps with the .32 H&R Mag. to 1,400 fps with the .327 Fed. Mag. That’s a 45-percent increase in velocity shooting an 85-grain bullet from a case that’s only 1/8 inch longer. In the longer-barreled Freedom Arms Model 97, the increase was 48 percent, from 1,000 fps to 1,480 fps. No matter how you calculate energy, we’re talking about a giant improvement in performance.
Admittedly, it’s terminal bullet performance that really determines the success or failure of a small-caliber self-defense round, and I did not conduct any tests of this nature. However, I know manufacturers have achieved excellent results in controlling bullet construction to produce a specific effect in various target media at specified velocities.
When I called Tim Brandt at Federal, he confirmed the company has done such tests with the .327 Fed. Mag., which uses an 85-grain jacketed hollow point that is different from the bullet loaded in the .32 H&R Mag. to accommodate the higher velocity of the new cartridge. Brandt cautioned handloaders against trying to achieve .327 Fed. Mag. performance using bullets designed for the .32 H&R Mag. Next year, Speer will have .32-caliber Gold Dot bullets designed specifically for the .327 Fed. Mag. available for handloaders.
Meanwhile, the bare gelatin penetration tests conducted by Federal with the .327 Fed. Mag. and 85-grain bullets fired from a 3-inch barrel yielded an average penetration of 12.75 inches and a final diameter of .520 inch. The velocities that produced these results were right around 1,300 fps, and the retained weight of recovered bullets ran from 84 to 84.6 grains. From the same barrel length, 100-grain soft points expanded to about .55 inch, and penetrated the gelatin an average of 16.75 inches. Velocities for the heavier 100-grain bullets actually averaged about 40 fps more than the 85-grain hollow points. This is impressive performance for a “small bore” in a short barrel.
There is a penalty associated with the enhanced velocity of a high-performance round in short barreled handguns, as we learned when .357 Magnums were first fired in small revolvers and when Ruger introduced the .30 Carbine in its Blackhawk. They’re noisy! Be absolutely sure you are wearing adequate ear protection when firing this round. And as usual, firing any round inside an enclosed space makes things worse.
One thing you might consider, particularly if you’ve already suffered extensive hearing loss, is to put on a pair of good electronic ear muffs if you’re awakened at night and think there may be an intruder in the house. I recognize there may not be time to do this, particularly if you don’t have hearing protection immediately available, but there are advantages. Keep in mind that electronic hearing protection functions like a hearing aid, in that it also amplifies small sounds (like an intruder might make), which you might not otherwise hear. And if you have to fire your gun, whatever the caliber, you may be overpowered by the resulting acoustic assault on your senses. If follow-up action is necessary, you’ll be much more capable of performing if you’re not trying to recover from the overwhelming shock of your first round. If you prefer in-the-ear protection, fine, but I find it’s much easier and quicker to slip on a pair of earmuffs and switch them on.
So far the two revolvers I tested are the only ones available in .327 Fed. Mag., but I’m told Taurus and Charter Arms will both have compact double-action revolvers chambered for the round in the near future, possibly by the time you read this. I don’t know whether anyone will be making a lighter-weight, alloy-frame .327 Fed. Mag. While such a gun would be preferable for carry, the steel guns are great candidates for home defense for anyone who’s recoil sensitive. Personally, I’d love an opportunity to take the Freedom Arms .327 Fed. Mag. on a small-game hunt, but then I say that about most handguns. Meanwhile, I’m not surrendering the .45 on my nightstand, but my daughter, who has kept an older .32 H&R Mag. revolver by her bedside for the last several years, probably will be looking for an upgrade. It’s nice to have choices.