It’s difficult to do anything truly new in the world of handgun design. Since the days of Carl Walther and John Browning, the great innovations have not been in mechanical function, which in many ways peaked in the 1930s, but in materials. For some brief highlights, there’s the introduction of stainless steel (and the subsequent struggle to make it work); mastering the notoriously difficult-to-manage titanium; scandium, which toughened up crack-prone aluminum; and polymer, which has now become ubiquitous in modern auto pistols.

Even so, it was a coup when Ruger introduced its polymer-framed LCR revolver at the 2009 SHOT Show. Unlike the Glock 17 that popularized the polymer pistol frame pioneered over a decade before by HK’s VP70, the Ruger LCR was, to the best of my knowledge, the first polymer-framed wheelgun.

In some ways, it’s unsurprising that this leap came from Ruger, whose Pine Tree foundry has long led the way in casting technology (even producing OEM parts for other gunmakers), and whose .22s — the Mark III pistol and 10/22 rifle — are the industry standards. Nor are Ruger’s innovations limited to rimfires. Features such as the use of coil springs instead of the more fragile leaf springs for added reliability make its single-action six-guns highly valued out in the field, either for hunting or large animal defense, and its double-actions use an innovative grip stem in place of the usual full-profile revolver frame, allowing far greater freedom in grip selection.

Wisely not resting on its laurels (competitors Smith & Wesson and Taurus both quickly followed suit, introducing their polymer Bodyguard and Protector models), Ruger has expanded the calibers offered beyond the original .38 Special +P, with LCR models now available in .357 Magnum, .22 LR, .22 Magnum, and most recently, 9mm Parabellum.

The latest expansion of the line is the LCRX-3, which comes with a 3-inch barrel in place of the customary 1.875-inch snout and adjustable sights instead of the fixed sights found on the original LCR. It’s available in .38 Special +P. The five-shot capacity is unchanged and frame size remains the same, with a slightly longer grip that omits the finger grooves typically found on the LCR’s Hogue rubber grips.

Our test gun arrived with a cylinder cloaked in a satin black Ionbond finish that’s appropriate for a serious defensive piece, with a dull silver trigger and hammer adding a touch of contrast. The trigger guard, with its decreasing radius as it approaches the front of the gun, is one of the LCR’s most distinctive visual cues and lends it a sleeker look than the bulbous curvature we usually associate with six-guns. The distinctive scalloping on the cylinder, another trademark, also tells you immediately you’re looking at an LCR — doubtless no accident on Ruger’s part. The pebbled Hogue grip, which is narrow front to rear, gives the appearance of being closer to vertical than usual, lending the grip angle a certain Bisley-like quality. It came in a compact, boldly-marked zippered case along with a manual, safety lock, and the obligatory fired casing, all in a cardboard package. Before we get into how it shot though, we need to talk a little theory to put the gun in context.

The idea of a 3-inch barrel didn’t come out of thin air: there are many of us who consider it the ideal length for a defensive revolver, and not only because it’s easier to carry than a 4-inch. The addition of an inch of barrel length helps ameliorate two of the features that plague small revolvers. Snubbies are not innately inaccurate: They’re just hard to shoot, and this is mostly due to their recoil and blast and short sight radius. Improving the first is easy, and logical — the longer the barrel, the greater the weight to resist muzzle flip, and the more room the powder has to be consumed, reducing the ball of flame that results from unburned powder following the bullet out of the muzzle. There’s a bit more to the sights, however.

The closer the front and rear sights are, the more the front sight tends to fill the rear notch. The farther out it gets, however, the easier it is to see when the sights are misaligned. Similarly, length amplifies wobble, as the now-small front sight seems to wander around promiscuously in that huge-looking rear notch. Ever wonder why shorter guns seem so much more solid than longer ones when you line up the sights? It’s deceiving, and it’s a function of how sight radius either obscures or magnifies errors in sight alignment.

That also explains why shooters may be frustrated with their inability to hit with a snubby, believing that they had the sights lined up correctly when the results on the target clearly show otherwise. Add enough barrel length, and the excessive daylight on either side of the sight can create its own problems, but adding an inch to the classic 2-inch snubby length seems to create a sweet spot for a smaller revolver that’s still easy to shoot well.

Contrary to popular opinion, however, it will not appreciably increase velocity. Due to the massive gas leakage inherent in revolver design, barrel length has less effect on velocity in revolvers than in semi-autos: When I tested identical full-power .357 Magnum loads in 2-inch, 3-inch and 4-inch revolvers from the same maker, the velocity difference between the 2-inch and 4-inch barrels averaged a mere 100 feet per second or so.

Just out of curiosity, I put the LCRX alongside two other 3-inch revolvers I had on hand to see how they compared: a custom Smith & Wesson M65 .357 Magnum and Ruger’s Wiley Clapp-designed model 1753, a GP100-based .357 Magnum distributed exclusively by Talo.

Aside from the obvious weight difference — made of stainless, even the compact, 2-pound K-frame M65 is no lightweight next to the airy-feeling LCRX, which weighs literally half as much — there were some other surprising dissimilarities. Although overall length was basically the same, the grip of the LCRX was taller than that of the M65, a tradeoff in concealabilty that many may wish to make in exchange for the reduction in recoil that comes from having more to hang on to.

For those who aren’t inclined to accept the added length, though, with the grip removed, the frame stem of the LCRX is about a half-inch shorter than the M65, so if you’re willing to change grips, there’s plenty of opportunity to make the gun smaller. Compared to the far beefier Wiley Clapp pistol and its GP100 frame (similar in size to S&W’s L frame), the more vertical angle of the LCRX’s grip made it noticeably shorter, front to rear, than the Clapp gun. Tipping my postal scale at 2 pounds, 4 ounces, the Clapp pistol is the heaviest by a comfortable margin. Perhaps bad on the belt, but the recoil-absorbing weight is a tremendous advantage once the shooting starts.

The look and feel of a gun are important, but what ultimately matters most is how it shoots. Testing ammo was provided by Black Hills and by Winchester, which sent its 130-grain Train & Defend ammo in both full metal jacket (“train”) and jacketed hollowpoint (“defend”). Primarily oriented toward beginning shooters and available in .38 Special, .380 ACP, 9mm Parabellum and .40 S&W, the Train & Defend line pairs ballistically matched training and carry ammo so that the two loads’ critical shooting characteristics — such as recoil and point of impact — are as close to one another as possible. While this might seem like a minor concern, familiarity with the actual load you’ll be shooting during a real fight is enough of an issue that there’s caselaw addressing whether it’s negligent for law enforcement officers not to have qualified with their duty ammunition. The dynamic nature of a defensive shooting will provide enough surprises without experiencing the recoil and blast of your +P+ carry loads for the first time.

Train & Defend ammo is also designed to deliver minimum recoil, not only for training purposes, but also in tacit acknowledgement that sometimes a fast second shot is better than having an extra 50 fps behind just one shot. Parenthetically, this school of thought also partially accounts for the recent resurgence of the 9mm Parabellum in law enforcement circles. In keeping with the focus on defense, however, the Defend rounds are still designed to deliver significant power on impact by using a bonded bullet featuring elements of the reverse-tapered jacket design that made Winchester’s early second-generation hollowpoints so effective.

In testing the LRCX, we fired 315 rounds of standard-pressure .38 Special, including 150 of the Train FMJ load, 55 rounds of the Defend JHP, and 110 rounds of Black Hill’s soft-shooting 148-grain hollow base wadcutter. Lightweight revolvers, especially those in .357 Magnum, are justly feared for their vicious recoil: I distinctly remember being at one shooting event where I put 20 rounds of .357 through a lightweight Magnum and then had to leave the stage because my hand didn’t work anymore. To this unpleasant memory, the LCRX provides a much milder counterpoint. While you will no doubt notice when the gun goes off, it was not painful to shoot, even when shooting 100 or more rounds at a time.

For the record, although a truncated testing schedule kept me from shooting +P ammo through it, with standard .38 loads the Hogue Tamer grips did their job, and the LCRX is nothing I would dread taking out to practice. With the Black Hills wadcutters, it was quite comfortable. It was also surprisingly accurate. While the bulk of my shooting is done with guns that do not have the long stroke of a double-action trigger, I quickly found that while the LCR didn’t have the traditional “stack” of say, a long Colt DA trigger pull, it had a predictable lull in the pull between cylinder rotation and hammer release that lets you stage the shot with just a bit of roll left in the pull. In single-action, the trigger pull averaged 5 pounds, 15 ounces on my Lyman digital trigger pull gauge.

Due to the nature of the gun (polymer generally doesn’t respond well to the Ransom Rest) and its intended use, we did not do a formal accuracy test with the LCRX, opting instead to shoot it by hand, as it would be used. Shooting either single- or double-action from a modified Weaver position, groups at 7 yards printed nice little clusters in the 1-inch range, with little appreciable difference in group size whether the hammer was cocked first or not. At 25 yards, shooting standing and unsupported I could ring my steel plate monotonously (I never got it all five times, but usually four), also either double- or single-action. Resting my hands on the bench and shooting single action, it printed groups around 4 inches at that distance. While the Train & Defend loads were close with their points of impact, at 25 yards the Defend hit about an inch lower and 2 inches to the left of the Train loads. If that sort of impact shift is a deal-breaker for you, then you’re probably not carrying a compact revolver for a primary weapon anyway.

A word of caution on shooting the LCRX single-action: While I chose to do it in order to wring the best possible mechanical accuracy out of it, a defensive revolver should virtually never be fired anything but double-action, due to the risk of accidental discharge once it’s cocked, and likelihood of short-stroking the trigger when firing the follow-up shot. I feel strongly enough about this that all of my defensive double-action revolvers have had their hammer spurs cut off so they cannot be fired single-action. There’s even more reason with the LCRX: Shooting single-action, if you have not allowed the trigger to fully reset after firing a shot, the hammer can still be manually cocked, but the cylinder will not advance, so pulling the trigger will drop the hammer again on the now-empty round you just fired. I did this by accident and was able to re-create the malfunction intentionally to verify what had just happened. Of course, if you don’t fire the gun single-action, you won’t encounter this problem.

While I initially looked askance at the white square on the front sight, since most of us are used to something round on the front sight — be it a white dot, gold bead, tritium insert or the glowing end of a fiber-optic rod — the sights worked well on the range. They also make a lot of sense if you think about it: The eye has an easier time lining up similar things (square in a square notch) than it does dissimilar things (round in a square notch, or vice versa). This is probably part of the reason round-bottom notches in sights, while popular for certain purposes, have never really caught on in the mainstream.

On the question of shooting quickly, for those of us trained to look for the “front sight — press” the bold white square stands out well from its perch on the end of the barrel, allowing you to look through the plain black rear without distraction, and this is how it should be: Too much contrast on the rear sight draws your eye to it, instead of the front where it ought to be. As it was, pulling the gun quickly up on target, I found I had no trouble keeping the critical first shot in a 4-inch circle at 7 yards, and while I’m not an accomplished revolver man, I could shoot about two rounds per second, comfortably placing them in the circle.

Ruger’s cylinder release is distinctive: Colts pull back, Smiths push forward, and Rugers pivot inwards toward the receiver. On the test gun, it was a bit sticky (especially in comparison with the Clapp GP100), which, of the two problems you can have with a cylinder release, is by far the preferable one. That said, I still never had trouble running it quickly when I wanted to. The only complaint I have about the gun is the ejector rod, which, after ejecting the empties, occasionally re-seated a bit askew, blocking the new cartridges from loading until the road was plunged again and allowed to re-seat.

It was also too short to fully eject spent cases. Doubtless a holdover from the original LCR (and likely a case of parts commonality to reduce overhead), the short little rod has a mere .66-inches or so of throw, about a half inch less than the length of the empty .38 case it’s supposed to eject. For comparison, that’s about a quarter inch shorter than the ejector rod of the Clapp GP100 and a 2-inch Colt Detective Special .38 I had on hand, and a half inch shorter than the Smith M65. While every user won’t need to speed-reload the LCRX, those who do will need to do so very, very badly. With over an inch and a half of unused space in the barrel’s underlug for it to fit, there’s plenty of room for a longer ejector rod, and hopefully Ruger will see fit to incorporate one in later production models.

The LCRX-3 has taken Ruger’s innovative — and now proven — polymer-framed revolver and, with an extra inch of barrel length, minimized the effect of the human factors that usually limit snubnose performance, making it easier for shooters to extract the most they can out of it. It’ll be interesting to see what they intend as a follow-up to this one.

Specs:

  • Manufacturer: Ruger
  • Model: LCRX-3
  • Model Number: 5431
  • Action: Double-action revolver
  • Caliber: .38 Special +P
  • Barrel: 3-inch
  • Sights: Adjustable, white ramp front, plain black rear
  • Grips: pebbled rubber Hogue Tamer monogrip
  • Weight: 15.7 ounces
  • Finish: Cylinder, Ion Bond, rest of gun, matte black synergistic hard coat
  • MSRP: $545