Sometimes I’m a little slow in catching on . . .
When the Ruger LCR revolver debuted in 2009, I quickly dismissed it. It’s radical looks were a turnoff, and although I had grown to accept the use of polymers in self-chuckers, I was not ready to see them incorporated into revolvers yet.
Let’s face it. I’m a conservative guy in every sense of the word, and the LCR hit all the wrong keys for me. To a guy who was raised on blue steel and wood, with graceful lines and checkering in all the right places, the LCR looked all wrong. The frame was bolted together like a piece of industrial equipment, the finish was three different shades of matte black, and the cylinder looked like it went halfway down the garbage disposal before it was fished out. The trigger guard’s lines didn’t look “right” to my eyes, and some guy with no aesthetic taste decided to write the first half of the owner’s manual on the side of the barrel.
Yuck. Outside of the Nagant, I never thought I’d see a wheelgun that made a Webley look elegant, but yet, here it was. The scribes in the gun rags told me the styling was “space age” and “modern,” but I just thought it was homely. If this was the future of revolvers, you could leave me behind in the past, thank you very much. I’ll be over here with the polished steel, walnut, and dust in the corner . . .
Beauty is more than skin deep
The thing is though, the ugly little duckling started to grow on me. The gun began to work its charm the first time I had the chance to shoot it. Without benefit of a warm up on paper, I found myself trotting through a Donga-like course in the desert with an LCR in my hand and a pocketful of speedloaders, trying to hit scattered steel that was partly hidden in the dunes and brush. Although I struggled at times to find the right elevation with the unfamiliar gun and ammo, I was immediately impressed by the smooth trigger, the recoil-absorbing grips, and the improved sight picture. I walked away from the experience grudgingly admitting that the gun actually shot better than my beloved (and simultaneously hated) Centennial J-Frames.
After that maiden voyage with the plastic fantastic, I no longer turned the pages on reviews of the gun. My appreciation for it slowly grew, as I read the positive things that people had to say about its ergonomics and performance. When some friends—whose opinions and experience I greatly respected—gave the gun solid reviews and traded their carry Smiths for one, it really gave me pause.
Maybe I had been to hasty in my rejection of this gun? I still thought it looked unattractive, but performance generates its own kind of beauty, and there was no escaping the fact this gun could shoot.
As my respect for the gun’s capabilities grew, my resistance to the gun’s appearance faded away. I don’t know if the initial shock effect just wore off and I got used to it, or if I actually started to like the edgy look a little bit, but the gun started to have a rough charm of its own. It wasn’t pretty or graceful, but it did exude a certain, pug-nosed, utilitarian, aggressiveness that befit its role as a self defense gun. A few more range trips with the gun sealed the deal for me. Radical looking or not, this snubby was a shooter, and it deserved more of my attention.
With this, I took a closer look at what makes the LCR tick, and discovered along the way that the LCR represents an important step in the development of the revolver. So, I’d like to go inside this gun with the RevolverGuy audience and share what I’ve learned about it’s unique design.
We’ll start by going back a decade, to the birth of the gun.
The snubby revolver market had grown a little stale by the time the LCR appeared in 2009. Although other makes were available, the lion’s share of the snubby revolver market was owned by Smith & Wesson, with Ruger and Taurus bringing up the rear (1.) Colt’s had long ago abandoned the commercial market, turning its back on it like a panicked groom leaving his bride behind at the altar, and their excellent D-Frame snubs were already being mourned by RevolverGuys and commanding inflated prices.
Although the catalog was diverse, the Smith & Wesson line looked much as it did a decade or two before. After the introduction of the popular Centennial models in 1989 (Model 640) and 1990 (Model 642), Smith & Wesson stretched the J-Frame to accommodate the .357 Magnum in 1996. Although S&W had been creative and kept things fresh with the use of new materials like Titanium (1998) and Scandium (2001) in their snubs, the basic Centennial design was now almost two decades old, and the external hammer J-Frames were senior citizens, at more than six decades of age. Sadly, the popular K-Frame snubbies had disappeared, with the termination of the Model 19 in 1999, and Model 66 in 2004.
Taurus was still occupied cranking out several versions of their popular Model 85 snubby, but the quality of these economy guns didn’t approach the guns from Springfield, and they weren’t seen as equal competitors. Instead, the Brazilian guns were viewed as budget substitutes for folks who didn’t have the money to spend (or didn’t want to pay the premium) on the Smith & Wessons.
For their part, Ruger had but one snub design in the catalog—the chunky SP101 which had been introduced in 1988 as a .38 Special. The gun had its roots in the 1985 launch of the Medium-Large frame GP100, and was essentially a fixed sight, 5-shot version of that gun with a smaller frame and barrel. The “mini-GP” was typical Ruger though, in that it was overbuilt for the job—so much so, that gunsmiths like Rick Devoid were successfully boring out the cylinders to handle 125 grain .357 Magnums (the heavier weights were too long for the .38 Special-length cylinder). The “Pocket Rockets” (H/T Mike Izumi) handled the powerful cartridge with aplomb, leading Mas Ayoob to pressure Bill Ruger to offer the gun in the Magnum chambering as a factory item. Ruger Sr. eventually gave in, and the gun showed up with a longer, .357-length cylinder in 1991.
So, the SP101 was Ruger’s “small” gun, but at 26 ounces and 7.2 inches overall length, it was still a good chunk of steel, and was still appreciably larger than the snub offerings from S&W. Ruger needed a trim and lightweight snub to break Smith & Wesson’s monopoly on the lower weight class, and the LCR would be it.
Ruger’s chief revolver engineer, Joe Zajk, led the effort to design the LCR, and from the start it was obvious that the gun would be different than anything Ruger had ever made before.
The Ruger LCR team worked with several main objectives in mind:
Keep the gun light. They didn’t need another SP101-type brute;
Give it a good trigger. The overriding goal was to make this gun easier to shoot than others of the breed, and that would start with designing an improved trigger;
Make it easy to produce. It’s a hallmark of Ruger’s philosophy to design guns that are suited for modern day, mass production methods, which don’t involve a lot of hand fitting and detail work;
Keep the gun affordable. Also a Ruger hallmark, the gun had to be economical and provide a competitive value.
It was a daunting task for the team, but Ruger was up to the challenge.
To accomplish these objectives, Joe Zajk started with a look at the materials involved. Since the cylinder and barrel required the use of steel to contain pressures, the only real place to consider different materials was in the frame.
Aluminum alloys had been successfully used by S&W to save weight in their Airweight line of snubs for many years, but Zajk’s team knew that they couldn’t achieve their desired weight reduction goals with that material, and it would still require some machining (and thus, expense) to produce an aluminum frame. Instead, they looked to use polymer, which would be both cheaper and lighter than metal, and would simplify manufacturing, since complex, intricate shapes could easily be produced straight from a mold.
The difficulty with polymer was that it wasn’t strong enough for the part of the frame surrounding the cylinder. Both the barrel and cylinder needed a stronger material to attach to—one that could withstand the recoil forces and the hot jet of high pressure/temperature gas that leaked out from the barrel-cylinder gap. Polymer wouldn’t stand up, and an aluminum alloy was the best, lightweight substitute for steel, here.
Some traditional revolver designs incorporated a separate grip frame that was mounted to the upper frame that held the cylinder, and it was possible to use polymer in this application to shed weight. However, Ruger knew that the savings would be minimal compared to an aluminum part, because the grip portion was such a small piece of the overall design. As a result, a more radical approach was required to take advantage of their chosen material.
In previous revolver designs from Ruger and others, the frame was designed to house the hammer and its associated action parts. This meant the metal frame had to be extended past the rear of the cylinder to provide the space to mount these parts. Likewise, the frame was extended below the cylinder to house the trigger lock work and hold it in alignment with the hammer and cylinder.
Zajk reasoned that extending the metal frame was unnecessary to house these action parts, and that a polymer structure could do it and save weight. A reduced size, aluminum alloy frame could support the cylinder and barrel, without being larger than necessary. This upper frame would provide the strength required to handle gas pressures and recoil forces, and resist flame cutting. Meanwhile, an increased size, polymer grip frame—the so-called “fire control unit”—could host the entirety of the trigger and hammer assemblies in one housing.
Ruger had been clever in designing its former Security/Service/Speed-Six line of revolvers to incorporate a trigger assembly that was easily removable as a single package from the metal frame, but the hammer assembly remained a separate unit, which was also pinned to the frame. The same method of design had been incorporated into the metal GP100 and SP101 frames as well, but Ruger had never built a revolver where both the trigger and hammer assemblies could be removed from the frame as a single, combined unit. Actually, nobody had.
Besides the potential weight savings, there were other advantages to the polymer fire control design. The action parts could be held in close and consistent alignment by placing them into the same, rigid structure, which reduced minor fitting requirements during assembly and reduced some inherent slop in the marriage between the frame and the removable assemblies. This would both make the gun easier to produce, and increase the potential for an improved trigger action, due to better tolerances and fit.
The modular frame concept, with a lower, polymer fire control unit that incorporated all the action parts in one assembly, was so novel that Zajk and Ruger (as the assignee) were granted a patent for it. (2.) Part of the patent included Ruger’s strategic use of a metal insert in the polymer frame, and their clever use of rounded bearing surfaces between the metal and polymer frames to accommodate the recoil forces generated during firing. It’s simple to slap a polymer lower onto an aluminum upper, but if it’s not done carefully, the recoil can damage the polymer lower along stress risers (as some AR-15 lower builders have discovered). Ruger avoided this by pinning an aluminum block into the fire control unit near the yoke, which provided a metal-to- metal contact between upper and lower. Additionally, the rounded rear profile of the aluminum upper helped to distribute recoil forces without creating damaging stress risers in the polymer frame behind it, ensuring the durability of the lightweight design.
Ruger accomplished a similar tradeoff between strength and weight in its barrel design. Unlike the SP101, in which the bore is drilled through a solid piece of stainless steel, the LCR’s barrel is constructed of multiple pieces. A low profile, stainless steel barrel liner is fitted to the frame to provide the necessary strength in this high stress application, but it’s surrounded by a full profile aluminum shroud, which is part of the upper cylinder frame. The lightweight shroud houses both the ejector rod lockup components and the front sight assembly, and saves considerable weight over a one piece, steel barrel.
As in the S&W design, the tip of the LCR’s ejector rod is locked with a spring-loaded plunger in the barrel shroud, but the Ruger advances on the standard J-Frame sights by pinning a removable blade into place, instead of machining it as part of the barrel. This allows the user to replace the front sight with a different height or design, to suit his needs. The OEM LCR sight is much improved over the typical J-Frame blade (it’s wider, with a white insert), but it’s nice to have the option to change it if desired.
While the polymer fire control unit, aluminum upper frame, and two-piece barrel all combine to save weight on the LCR, they’re not the only ways that Ruger saved ounces on the gun.
The backside of the trigger face, for example, was hollowed out to save some weight, but you’d have to look for it to see it. What’s more noticeable is the radical relief of the cylinder’s diameter.
The forward portion of the cylinder has been reduced to the minimum necessary to contain pressures, while the rear portion (particularly the area where the bolt notches are) remains at full diameter. This gives the revolver an unusual appearance that can trigger strong reactions from potential consumers. I definitely fell into the camp that disliked the look early on, but as my appreciation for the gun grew, I found it less objectionable. Besides the advantage of weight savings, the smaller cross section probably aids a bit in holstering, by eliminating a large corner to catch on the mouth of the holster.
I mentioned previously that the modular frame design, which keeps trigger and hammer parts together in the polymer fire control unit, is protected by a patent. It’s not the only patent earned by Ruger for the LCR, however, and for my money, it’s not the most significant one, either.
The polymer fire control unit is a notable achievement. It shaves nearly a full ounce off the weight of the aluminum-framed, S&W Airweight 642, making the LCR lighter to carry. More importantly, it costs Ruger less to make the gun, giving them a competitive lightweight with a larger profit margin. However, the attribute which attracted me most to the gun was not it’s feathery weight, but the quality of its action, and that’s where a second patent comes in.
In S&W-like double action designs, an extension on the trigger acts on a lever attached to the hammer that Ruger calls the “hammer dog” (and S&W just calls the “sear”). Movement of the hammer dog by the trigger extension starts the hammer back against mainspring tension, and rotates the hammer into a position where it can be handed off to the trigger directly. Further movement of the trigger continues to rotate the hammer until the double action sear trips, releasing the hammer to fly forward.
The system has worked well for over a century, but due to the springs and geometry involved, there’s a relatively heavy resistance (from trigger return spring, mainspring, and friction) to start the hammer dog moving and get the hammer rotating. The required trigger force peaks very quickly over a short distance of trigger travel, and can be uneven due to friction as the parts slide against each other.
If you graphed the movement of the trigger versus trigger pull force, you’d see that in the Smith & Wesson-type action, the trigger force continuously increases until a peak is achieved, then levels off for a while. This level off is where some shooters have learned to pause, and “stage” the trigger.
As the trigger pull continues, the weight of pull increases again for the second stage, then decreases a bit (like hitting a “speed bump” in the road), just before sear release. Unfortunately, fighting the rapidly increasing weight of pull tends to encourage trigger control issues, and the inter-stage “speed bump” near the end of the Smith’s pull does the same, often leading to a trigger jerk right before sear release.
Zajk saw room for improvement here. He reasoned that if he could make the trigger pull more linear, and reduce the force required to trip the sear, it would make the gun easier to shoot and it would be less disruptive to the alignment of the gun on target. Instead of a trigger that ran in fits and starts, and peaked at a high pull weight, Zajk wanted a trigger that acted more consistently, and didn’t require as much muscle to move it.
He accomplished the goal with some subtle changes to the action’s geometry. Without trying to stretch the limits of my engineering knowledge, I’ll try to explain.
Zajk modified the surfaces on the trigger extension, hammer dog, and hammer in a way that maximized the leverage applied by the trigger. The mating surfaces were curved (some concave, some convex), and the force generated by the rotation of the trigger was applied to the hammer dog and hammer more evenly (Zajk said, “tangentially”), where they met. This application of tangential force maximized the leverage in the system and reduced the friction between moving parts.
Imagine trying to pass through a large, heavy revolving door in a hotel lobby. If you push on the door in the center, close to the hub, it will require much more force to rotate the door than if you pushed at the outer edge. By applying your force at the outside edge of the door’s arc, you are maximizing your mechanical advantage. Zajk’s team essentially modified their trigger and hammer parts to interact in a similar fashion, instead of “pushing on the center of the door” like other makers had before.
In the LCR, initial movement of the trigger causes the concave portion of the trigger extension to bear on the hammer dog, and start it pivoting, which in turn starts the hammer rotating. As the trigger pull is continued, the convex portion of the trigger extension bears on the hammer dog, and continues hammer rotation to the point where another shelf on the trigger begins to bear on the convex lower portion of the hammer. Further trigger rotation brings the hammer to its full cock position and releases it when the sear trips.
The modified geometry maximizes mechanical advantage, which requires a lower input force to make everything work (Factory specs for the centerfire guns call for an 8 – 14 pound trigger pull, 13 – 17 pounds for the .22LR, and 14 – 18 pounds for the .22 Magnum, but you can expect to hover around the low end of those ranges). It also reduces the stall or binding that happens at the beginning of a trigger pull on other designs, which means that the shooter doesn’t have to rapidly apply a large amount of force (read: “jerk the trigger”) to break things loose and get things started in motion. The rolling, curved surfaces create less friction than found in other designs, which makes the pull more consistent, or “linear,” and reduces the amount of force required to keep things moving. Additionally, the curved surfaces eliminate the “speed bump” after the first stage, near the end of some trigger pulls, as the hammer is handed off to the trigger shelf.
In sum, the modifications incorporated by Zajk made the trigger easier to pull, more consistent, and didn’t encourage yanking or jerking the trigger, particularly at the end of the stroke.
It’s worth noting that Zajk wasn’t the first to incorporate modifications like these. Gunsmiths had been playing with subtle changes to the four cam surfaces in S&W-type actions for many years, in pursuit of improved trigger pulls. The real genius of Zajk’s contribution, and the basis for the patent he was awarded, is that his modifications made it possible to get an improved trigger on a mass production gun. The previous attempts by custom ‘smiths arguably resulted in better trigger pulls than the LCR’s, but they required a lot of individual attention from a skilled craftsman. In contrast, the LCR got close to those actions straight from the box, without the need for careful fitting and polishing during assembly. This allowed Ruger to deliver an improved product at a low cost, which is the goal of any corporation, but an essential element of Ruger’s corporate identity.
The only criticism I have of the trigger is that it suffers from a weak, or sluggish return compared to a S&W or Colt’s action, or even to the company’s own SP101/GP100. In the S&W design, a hearty rebound slide spring resets the trigger after sear release, but in the LCR, a small mousetrap spring returns the trigger, and it’s just not powerful enough to do it with the same authority. Of course, this is part of why the LCR’s pull weight is lower than that of the Smith’s. There’s no free lunch in physics.
Quite a turnaround
I didn’t get off to a good start with the LCR. The radical cosmetics were a turnoff to my conservative tastes and I foolishly didn’t look past them to see the amazing design that lurked behind the scenes.
It wasn’t until I put rounds downrange through the gun that I recognized there was something I had missed about the LCR. The excellent, stock trigger was hard to ignore, and it turned out to be the gateway to a better understanding of the genius that went into the design of this featherweight snub.
The LCR is celebrating it’s 10th anniversary this year, and I missed out on most of the first decade with this gun, but I’m making up for it now. A brace of LCRs reside in my stable and they’re getting a good workout. The more I work with these guns, the more impressed I am with them.
I still have to admit a slight bias against the cosmetics, but they’re looking more and more handsome to me all the time. In any case, the looks won’t keep me from enjoying these wonderful snubbies, and appreciating all they are capable of doing. Standby for a more detailed field report on the LCR in these pages, soon.
(1.) Per the BATFE, Smith & Wesson manufactured 221,895 revolvers in 2009 and Ruger manufactured 163,825. The BATFE didn’t report imports by manufacturer or type, but the sum of Brazilian manufacturers (including Rossi, Taurus, and possibly others) were responsible for sending 526,011 handguns to our shores in 2010. It’s a safe bet that the majority of those were Taurus autopistols, particularly their popular clones of the Beretta 92. It’s highly doubtful that Taurus revolver sales exceeded the Ruger total;
(2.) On the .357 Magnum and 9mm guns that followed, the fire control unit was made of stainless steel, to handle the increased pressures and forces developed by those cartridges. The added weight helps to mitigate the effects of recoil, as well.
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