Ruger P-Series Bargain Handguns, by R.S.

Several weeks ago during a visit to my favorite gun shop I noticed a used Ruger semi-automatic handgun on the bottom shelf of the display. It had a lengthy model number that was unfamiliar, but then it has only been the last several years (coincidental with my newfound interest in prepping) that I have taken a serious interest in firearms. I could see that it had a stainless steel upper assembly with a gray (presumably metal rather than polymer) frame. I could also see that it had an exposed hammer, so I assumed it was an older design rather than a modern, striker-fired type. It came with both a 15 round and a 10 round magazine (the double-stack, relatively high capacity magazine capability was encouraging), although it had no rail to mount a light or laser. Most interesting of all, despite looking like a solid used handgun from a reliable manufacturer, it was only $280.

After returning home I consulted the modern fountain of all knowledge (YouTube) for information on this intriguing model that began, as best as I could recall, with KP93. I was soon introduced to the Ruger P-series of semi-automatic handguns. The model numbers typically correspond to the year the design was released, starting with the P85 and concluding with the P95 (although the P95 continued to be manufactured until the early 2000s). The basic design remained the same with some variations among the different models.

P-series handguns utilize a design similar to a Sig Sauer (some sources suggest the P-series was based on the Sig design), Beretta 92, and other handguns from the era of the 80s and 90s. Unlike modern striker fired designs, the first round is fired with a double-action motion as the trigger first pulls the hammer back and then releases it to fire the round. Subsequent rounds are single-action as the movement of the slide ejects the empty case, cocks the hammer, and loads the next round; the next relatively light trigger pull simply releases the hammer to fire the next round. Alternatively, the hammer may be manually pulled back for the first round so that it is also single-action. In a sense, this design represents a transition from the traditional revolver for which every round is double- or single-action depending on whether the hammer is manually pulled back before firing the round to the modern design where every round is double-action, but the striker-based double-action typically requires much less trigger effort than a traditional double-action.

Regardless of the model year and the individual idiosyncrasies associated with each, the reviewers consistently reached two conclusions: P-series handguns are an excellent example of a highly reliable, American-made firearm and with a street price for a used P-series in excellent condition of $300 or less, they are a bargain.

Convinced by the favorable reviews, I returned to the gun shop two days later but was disappointed to discover that the P-series I had seen was already gone. However, two weeks later it returned to the shop at an even lower price of $270, and I snapped it up. It went straight from the shop to the range, where it fired 50 rounds of the inexpensive, aluminum case ammo without a hiccup. Upon returning home I field-stripped the gun and discovered that the previous owner had left it in serious need of a cleaning; black crud and a brown, sticky substance coated the outside of the barrel and other internal parts, but this made it all the more impressive that it still functioned flawlessly. After a thorough cleaning, it handled another 50 rounds of practice ammo and a few rounds of hollow point with no issues, leading me to concur with the various reviewers: my Ruger P-series is a decided bargain and well worth consideration by the budget-minded prepper.

The particular model I purchased is the KP93DC. The “K” prefix indicates stainless steel upper components including the slide and barrel. (This model is also available with blued steel upper components, but I much prefer the low maintenance durability of stainless steel.) The “DC” suffix indicates “de-cocker” only as opposed to most P-series models that combine a de-cocker with a manual safety. This may be an issue for you one way or the other; I prefer a manual safety on a modern striker fired handgun since the trigger pull is typically fairly light (and I do not want to shoot myself in the foot while drawing it from the holster), but I am comfortable with excluding a manual safety on this P-series since the initial double action force is rather heavy.

As with firing a double-action revolver, I find it more difficult to keep the first round of my P-series on target when fired in double-action mode as compared to a striker-fired trigger pull. However, I also find subsequent single-action rounds to be easier to keep on target than a striker action; if I have time, I will manually cock the hammer for the first round and benefit from the increased accuracy for every shot.

P-series handguns are heavy. However, for many applications such as home defense this can be an advantage. The additional weight helps tame the recoil and is not an issue when not carried for an extended distance or period of time. This is not to suggest that a P-series is unbearably heavy (I just carried mine for several miles through the woods today while retrieving a deer stand), particularly when held in a good holster, but it is noticeably heavier than a modern, polymer frame handgun. It is worth noting that it is not the aluminum or polymer frame of a P-series that is heavy but rather the upper components and, in particular, the slide. Modern designs have slimmed the metal components considerably, thus reducing the weight.

P-series handguns utilize the three dot combat sights with small dots that are typical of Ruger handguns, while my aging eyes prefer larger dots or some other variation that improves visibility. However, there are enough of these handguns in circulation that replacement sights, including tritium sights, are readily available. The rear sight mount is a dove-tail, while the front sight is held in place by two pins. I consider this an advantage as I would rather fix one sight than have both capable of moving, and the front sight which is the smaller of the two is the one I would rather fix in place. (I have already made a mess of both the stock front sight and a replacement fiber-optic front sight on another handgun with a front dove-tail mount by performing the replacement without the use of a sight replacement tool.) A replacement front sight requires marking and drilling two holes, but this is not difficult for someone with modest mechanical skills (particularly if that someone has access to a drill press) and is trivial for a gunsmith.

The grip on my KP93DC is large. While it is still comfortable for me to hold in my average sized hands, this may be an issue for someone with smaller hands. Alternate grips are available for some models, but they do not significantly reduce the thickness, since this is largely determined by the frame. Modern designs have reduced the grip size while still accommodating double-stack magazines, but the P-series are based on an older, less streamlined design. The P95 has a different frame based on the use of reinforced polymer which may better fit some, but it remains important to consider this factor when contemplating a purchase.

Another advantage (in my opinion) of the P-series is the fact that the de-cocker/safety levers are mounted on the slide rather than the frame. They provide an excellent grip when manually actuating the slide to chamber the first round rather than relying on serrations milled into an otherwise smooth slide as is often the case with modern semi-automatics. The older P-series design greatly reduces the grip strength required to hold the slide which is often a far greater impediment for women or the elderly than the force required to overcome the slide spring. Note, also, that both the de-cocker/safety lever and magazine release (which pushes forward rather than side-to-side as with most semi-automatics) are ambidextrous; this is a real plus for me, since I am a lefty.

Most P-series designs do not have a rail integrated into the frame, making them more difficult and/or more costly to fit with a light or laser. The exception is the P95; it has a standard rail molded into the frame although it only has one stop rather than three or more as found on many modern semi-automatics. Also, most P-series handguns are chambered in 9 millimeter although there are some chambered in .40 S&W and even .45 ACP (including the closely related P345). I prefer 9 millimeter, since I can standardize on a single handgun round for my subcompact carry guns along with my full size semi-automatics, 9 mm is generally less expensive than .40 S&W and much less expensive than .45 ACP, and 9 mm is manageable for my wife (at least in a full size handgun). However, the relative scarcity of the larger calibers in the P-series may be an issue for some.

The price of a new Smith and Wesson M&P 9 (or a Ruger SR9 or pretty much any Glock) is enough to purchase two used Ruger P-series. Are there advantages to those high quality handguns using the more modern design? Certainly. However, for those on a more limited budget, for those who need additional handguns, or for those who simply prefer the advantages of the P-series design, used P-series handguns are plentiful, reliable, and represent a decided handgun bargain.