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Ruger P97 45 ACP Polymer Semi-Automatic Pistol Review
By Dick Metcalf, Technical Editor, Shooting Times.

The Ruger P97 semi-automatic pistol is much more than merely a continuation of the P-Series; it offers the time-proven effectiveness of the .45 ACP cartridge in an innovative, high-tech, polymer-frame, double-action design.

uger continued its 50th anniversary-year handgun introductions with the P97 polymer-frame/stainless-steel .45 ACP semi-auto pistol. It is the ninth specific model to be issued in the famed Ruger P-Series line and brings the total of centerfire autoloader variations in the current Ruger catalog to 25. Although it is a direct descendent of the original P85 9mm auto design (introduced in 1987) via the aluminum-frame/stainless-slide P90 .45 ACP (introduced in 1991), the P97 is a product unto itself, containing several novel features and original design aspects with all major and most minor components designed and built specifically for it.

It is also, I will tell you right up front, the most durably accurate service-grade .45 auto I've ever reviewed, delivering average 25-yard full-magazine groups under 2.5 inches at 25 yards, even after 5000 rounds of military-style hardball ammunition. It is a damned fine sidearm.

Not Just A Continuation Of The P-Series
In overall visual appearance the P97 looks very much like all other Ruger P-Series guns, with the same basic configuration aspects and profile, and it closely resembles the polymer-frame P95 9mm introduced in 1996. In case you're wondering, the number appearing in P-Series model designations refers to the year the product was developed, not to the year it was introduced. The standard P-Series three-dot drift-adjustable rear sight and pinned-in front blade are there, as is the ambidextrous magazine release. And like other current P-Series guns, the P97 comes supplied with two magazines, a comprehensive instruction manual, and a lockable storage case with padlock.

The P97 is available in two functional variations: a decock-only version and a double-action-only (DAO) model. In the decock-only version a cocked hammer can be safely lowered by depressing either of the ambidextrous slide-mounted decocking levers. When released, these levers spring back to the "Fire" position. At the same time, the firing pin is blocked in position, preventing forward movement. After decocking, the pistol can be fired by a double-action pull of the trigger without further manipulation of the decocking lever, and only when the trigger is held fully rearward is the internal firing pin block deactivated.

SPECS
Ruger Model P97
.45 ACP Semiauto Pistol
Manufacturer ...Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc.
200 Ruger Rd.
Prescott, AZ 86301
Model ...............................................P97
Operation .....................Recoil operated;
short-recoil tilting barrel
Caliber....................................... .45 ACP
Barrel length .....................4.203 inches
Overall length .......................7.6 inches
Weight, empty ...................30.5 ounces
Safety ................................Ambidextrous
45-degree-arc short-throw
decocking levers;
internal firing pin block
Sights .........................Three-dot system;
drift-adjustable rear;
pinned-in semi-Patridge front
Sight radius ......................5.188 inches
Rifling ................6 grooves; 1:16 RH twist
Stocks ..............Integral injection-molded
fiberglass-fill Urethane
Magazine capacity ................8 rounds
Finish .....................................Semi-gloss
black polymer frame;
bead-blasted stainless-steel slide
Price ...............................................$460

By contrast, the DAO P97 has no external safety lever, decock lever, or fullcock hammer position at all. After firing, the gun is always automatically "at rest" with the firing pin blocked from forward movement by the internal safety. Only when the trigger is pulled completely to the rear (long-action DA-revolver style) for each shot can the gun fire. All DAO versions have a spurless hammer.

The P97 slide and barrel are constructed of Ruger's well-known 400-series stainless steel, but the most interesting aspect of the P97 is its injection-molded polymer frame, which is not yet a common design feature for .45 ACP pistols in the firearms industry. There are a lot of 9mm and .40 S&W polymer-frame guns (and smaller calibers) on the market, but there certainly are not nearly as many polymer .45s. The reason is that polymer-frame .45 design implications are not an easy or direct carry-over from the 9mm/.40 platform (which employs same-geometry frame configurations for both chamberings). Plus lightweight .45 ACP pistols offer more apparent recoil (in user terms). Most observers thus assumed that when Ruger got around to introducing its second P-Series polymer pistol model, it would be a .40, not a .45. Typically, Ruger surprised us.

The P97 frame material itself is a custom compounded, high-strength polymer with a long-strand fiberglass filler, which, as the company says, serves as "a natural shock absorber." This filler interweaves during molding to produce some of the highest tensile and stiffness strengths available in an injection-molded material. The urethane-based resin that binds the filler together is corrosion and solvent resistant, lightweight, and compatible with most gun oils and lubricants.

The actual handgrip area of the frame is slimmer than any previous P-Series pistol. In fact, the frame overall is the same width as the slide; on all other P-Series pistols, metal-frame and polymer-frame alike, the frame is wider than the slide. This makes the P97 even more comfortable and controllable to the average- size hand, yet it is still wide enough at the rear to allow recoil to be spread into the palm of the hand. Additionally, both the front- and backstraps as well as the sides of the frame are grooved to provide a controlled grip. Along with this narrower grip frame and shorter barrel (4.2 inches compared to 4.5 on most other P-Series guns), the decocking levers have also been reduced in width.

It's lighter, slimmer, and shorter than most other P-Series guns, so Ruger refers to the P97 as a compact, midsize service pistol. In firing, I was surprised by how comfortable the gun was, even with hot +P .45 ACP commercial loads, despite its relatively low-end 30.5-ounce weight.

Mechanically Novel
In terms of mechanical operation, the P97 barrel tilts to lock and unlock, Browning-style-as do all P-Series pistols. However, the P97 uses a camblock system to cause this motion instead of the Model 1911-type toggle link employed on metal-frame P-Series guns. During the firing cycle the P97 barrel is accelerated to a high speed as it moves back and down to unlock from the slide. Once it leaves contact with the slide, the barrel must be brought to a stop. As Ruger puts it in the P97 information release, "a novel system allows us to do so without impact damage to the polymer frame." Novel, indeed. "Unique" or "innovative" would be more how I would put it since the P97 system is different from any other metal or polymer .45 ACP pistol on the market.

The effect of barrel (and slide) impact has been a major engineering problem for polymer-frame autoloader designers since the moment Gaston Glock woke up from the middle of a good night's sleep with the original "plastic gun" idea in his head. Many different ideas have been tried and discarded, and a wide variety of different solutions are used by various manufacturers for their varying-caliber, current-production polymer-frame pistols. For high slide/barrel-acceleration loads like the .45 ACP, the most common systems involve either a separate metal recoil block or camblock of some sort set into the polymer frame or some type of cushioning system involving the recoil spring/guide rod assembly (or a combination of both). The P97 takes those concepts a step further.

On the P97 the linkless camming surfaces that guide and pull the unlocking barrel downward from the slide and absorb the impact of the barrel's rearward recoil acceleration are an integral part of the rear portion of the recoil spring guide rod itself. In fact, this part-which on any other autoloader would be called the guide rod-Ruger calls the camblock (there is no part actually called a guide rod anywhere in the P97). The thing looks like an ordinary full-length guide rod with a big, cam-ramped lug on the end, and it's a really neat design. The camblock is held in the frame by the crosspin of the slide stop. In firing, the barrel comes backward, is pulled away from the slide by the camming ramp, and is stopped by the recoil-spring-enclosed camblock with no direct impact against the frame at all. It's a slick idea, originally developed and patented by Ruger in slightly different form for the polymer-frame 9mm P95. And it works. Plus the P97 still disassembles and reassembles in a completely conventional manner, just like any other Ruger P-Series pistol.

Able To Stand Up To 5000 Rounds
Shooting Times received a review sample P97 from Ruger's initial production run last April, and I submitted it to a performance review program devised to assess the new polymer-frame design's ability to digest varied and different types of current commercial .45 ACP ammunition and to demonstrate how well it would stand up to extended use. The core of the program would be 4000 rounds of Winchester/USA 230-grain FMJ military-type ammunition generously provided by Winchester, supplemented by 100 function-test rounds each of nine different other commercial .45 ACP ammunition loads, plus an accuracy review with a selected half-dozen of those load variations representing different bullet weights, bullet configurations, and loading levels-all of which would amount to just over 5000 rounds total shooting.

The nine additional function-test loads included CCI Blazer 200-grain TMJ Combat Match, Cor-Bon 165-grain JHP +P, Federal 180-grain Hydra-Shok JHP, Hornady 185-grain HP/XTP, PMC 230-grain Starfire JHP, Remington 185-grain BJHP (+P) Golden Saber, Speer 185-grain Gold Dot HP, Winchester 170-grain JSP SuperClean NT, and Winchester 230-grain SXT.

"In more than 5000 total rounds fired with 10 different loads, the Ruger P97 experienced no failures to feed, fire, extract, eject, cycle, or function. None. "

I began by firing the review sample Model P97 with several magazines of the military-style Winchester/USA 230-grain FMJ control load to check function and establish an initial velocity baseline, creating an initial accuracy profile with an average of five full-magazine groups at 25 yards from benchrest (all shooting was done with open sights). I was startled by the first group. Eight rounds into the target measured only 2 1/8 inches center to center. That's very good for a duty/service-grade centerfire pistol, and for .45 ACP factory-production pistols is equaled in my experience only by the results I've obtained from semi-custom Model 1911-type autoloaders such as the Kimber Gold Match models. After nine more full-magazine groups, my combined start-point average with this GI-type FMJ load was a trim 2.25 inches.

I next shot up the remainder of the first 100 rounds of the Winchester/USA control ammo and proceeded to fire 100 rounds each of the nine other sample load types. At the 500-round point, I interrupted this process to record another velocity and group-average series with the 230-grain Winchester/USA ammo before going on to complete the firing with 100 rounds each of the remaining different loads.

Then, with 1000 rounds total through the gun, I fired it for group and velocity again with the Winchester/USA load, and I also fired a series of accuracy groups with the selected six load-design variations illustrated in an accompanying photo and listed in the accompanying 1000-round performance chart. The process was completed by firing the remaining 4000 rounds of Winchester/USA 230-grain FMJ with a velocity and accuracy-firing series at each 1000-round mark. The gun was fired only about 250 to 300 rounds in each series (which amounts to a typical practice session for any serious handgun shooter), allowing the gun plenty of time to cool down between extended firings. This was an accelerated normal use test, not a torture test, and it provides a quick avenue to see how healthy a gun remains while aging without stressing it beyond the design parameters for its intended use.

The outcome of all this shooting is summarized in the chart below. The key result is simple: In more than 5000 total rounds fired with 10 different loads, the Ruger P97 experienced no failures to feed, fire, extract, eject, cycle, or function. None. And if you trace through the firing profile as illustrated, you'll see something interesting. To wit: The gun essentially shot just as well after 5000 record rounds as it did when new.

This is not a typical pattern. I've conducted several dozen extended 5000-round and 10,000-round reviews of various makes, models, and chamberings of quality-made centerfire auto pistols over the past decade. In general, given a basically sound, well-made gun, accuracy performance will usually improve, sometimes dramatically, during an initial wear-in period of several hundred rounds, while velocity will often improve as a consequence of actual bore polishing from the bullets (if you don't think "soft" copper-alloy bullet-jacket metal has any polishing effect on a tough steel bore, explain how dripping water erodes stone).

Then, if the design is sound and the material is strong, things will remain at a fairly even performance plateau on out. Poorly constructed guns will wear and deteriorate. The P97 stayed right where it started-very, very good-all the way though, with remarkable consistency. I'd stake my life on the reliability and accuracy of this gun any day of the week. The P97 gets two thumbs up, for sure.

When I called to communicate my experience with the P97 to Ruger's Bob Stutler, his mild response was, "Well, yeah, we make 'em strong." He also politely allowed as how my 5000-round review (of which I had been so proud in the telling) was only a piddling portion of the extended endurance testing Ruger puts all its pistols through during development. So nothing I had to say was going to impress or hold any surprise for him. Still, I could tell he was particularly happy about how the P97 project had worked out for the Ruger design and production teams. "Yeah," he chuckled, "this one really shoots good, doesn't it?"

The American shooter's long love affair with the .45 ACP auto pistol goes on unabated, even as the 21st century looms on the horizon. Originally developed for and favored by the U.S. Military for nearly 90 years, .45-caliber autoloaders are compact, accurate, and powerful and continue to be favorites of sportsmen, law enforcement officers, and military units the world over-in the field, on duty, and at the target range. The new Ruger P97 adds yet another strong column of support to the .45 legend.

.45 ACP Ruger P97 1000-Round Performance

Factory Load

Velocity (fps)

Velocity Deviation (fps)
25-Yard Accuracy (inches)
Federal
180-gr. Hydra-Shok
1071
34
2.50
Hornady
185-gr. HP/XTP
873
19
2.25
Remington 185-gr.
Golden Saber +P
1092
30
2.25
CCI Blazer 200-gr.
TMJ Combat Match
936
3
2.75
PMC 230-gr.
Starfire
801
17
3.13
Winchester
230-gr. SXT
828
29
2.33
Overall
average accuracy
2.54
NOTES: Accuracy is the average of five eight-round
groups fired from a sandbag benchrest at 25 yards.
Velocity is the average of eight rounds measured
10 feet from the gun's muzzle.

.45 ACP Ruger P97 5000-Round Performance

Initial

500
Rounds
1000 Rounds
2000 Rounds
3000 Rounds
4000 Rounds
5000 Rounds
Winchester/USA 230-Grain FMJ
25-Yard
Accuracy
(Inches)
2.25
2.25
2.38
2.13
2.33
2.25
2.18
Velocity
(fps)
796
789
781
779
785
775
781
Velocity
Variation
(fps)
23
16
8
22
25
23
20
Overall
average
accuracy
(Inches)
2.25
Overall
average
velocity
(fps)
784
NOTES: Accuracy is the average of five eight-round groups fired from a
sandbag benchrest at 25 yards. Velocity is the average of eight rounds
measured 10 feet from the gun's muzzle.

This article was originally published in Shooting Times magazine in August, 1999.

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