Ugly is as Ugly Does- The Chiappa Rhino

OK, I don’t think the Chiappa Rhino is ugly– though I seem to be in the minority in that opinion. I think it’s cool, but then I have been a sucker for upside-down revolvers since the first time I saw a Mateba and some customized S&Ws clear back in the… a long time ago. The thing is I knew a better mousetrap when I saw one. I got to handle a prototype of the Rhino at SHOT show a good few years back, and I eagerly waited for them to come on sale. Unfortunately when I saw the price my dreams came crashing down- they were seriously expensive by my standards at $800 and up. I pretty much gave up on the idea of owning one. Then a little while ago a friend purchased one and gave it a good report, but since he’s going to spend the next several years overseas it was going to go into storage even though he’d barely had a chance to shoot it. To make a long story short we did a little horse-trading, with mutually satisfactory results. Quite unexpectedly I became the proud owner of one of these unconventional revolvers.

Compared to normal revolvers, well, let’s be charitable and call it ‘odd looking.’ But it’s odd-looking for a reason, and it’s a damn good reason. If you missed it the barrel is located at the 6 o’clock position relative to the cylinder, which  places the bore in line with the large bones of your arm. In the normal twelve o’clock position the bore is above the line of your wrist-joint, so when the gun recoils it rotates upward; what we call muzzle-rise. Then for the next shot you must bring the muzzle back down to re-aquire your sight picture. That’s OK, we’re used to it and have adapted. It’s not a huge hardship, but in a small, powerful gun it does slow down follow-up shots.

Placing the bore-line beneath the joint means the gun pushes straight back into your hand and basically eliminates muzzle rise, making it that much quicker to re-aquire the sights for follow-up shots. It also reduces your perception of the recoil. It doesn’t  change the laws of physics; the recoil force is exactly the same as always. But the lack of muzzle-rise fools your brain into thinking it recoils less.

Aside from having the barrel in the wrong– or perhaps right– place it’s weird in other ways. For example the cylinder is hexagonal with rounded corners rather than round. This is at one time the elimination of un-needed material and it makes the gun ever-so-slightly thinner across the cylinder, which is supposed to make it more concealable. I suppose every little bit helps.

Then there is the cylinder release- it’s the black lever to the left of the thing that looks like a hammer but isn’t. We’ll get back to that. Usually revolvers have a button that you push forward (S&W, Taurus, Rossi, Astra etc.,)  push in (Ruger) or a fake recoil shield that you pull back (Colt or Armscor.)  This one you push down. It’s ergonomic, it works well and easily, it’s just… odd.

Then there are the sights. The front is a fiber optic sight, which isn’t really weird anymore. The rear sight however, in a feature not generally not seen on guns made after the mid-1870s, is cut into the top of the hammer. Actually the thing that looks like a hammer but isn’t. We’ll get back to that.  It’s a nice, big square notch and it’s easy to pick up the front sight. You’re probably not going to win any Bullseye matches with it, but it’s more than adequate for self-defense use.

OK, about that hammer that isn’t. Because the barrel is located at the bottom of the cylinder the hammer has to also be quite low. In a position where you couldn’t possibly cock it manually, in fact. The thing that appears to be a hammer (and is the rear sight) is actually a cocking/decocking lever. Pull it all the way back and the hammer is cocked for single-action. The lever returns to its rest position so you can use the rear sight. Usefully when cocked a small red button pops up out of the frame next to the cocking lever so you know the weapon is cocked. The lever’s operation is pretty stiff; I have no difficulty with it but a lot of people do. My wife Linda can barely operate it, but that doesn’t bother her. “I’ll just shoot it double-action,” she says. To de-cock the gun simply pull the lever all of the way to the rear, pull the trigger and lower the lever. The instruction manual advises that you should practice this with an empty gun, a notion that I endorse.

Which brings us to the trigger. The single action is brilliant- suitably light with no creep and a super-crisp break. No real over-travel either. The double action is good but a bit odd. What a shock. It’s not heavy, it’s not long but it feels notably different than the double action revolver triggers I’m accustomed to. It takes a bit of getting used to but it works.

The alloy frame is very thick compared to conventional revolvers. 7/8 inch thick in fact. Despite this it’s not particularly heavy. I haven’t weighed it or looked it up, but it seems about the same as my steel J-frame. In terms of height and length it’s about the size of a J-frame with a 1-3/4 inch barrel, but it’s much, much bulkier in appearance. Interestingly those flats mean that the six-shot Rhino cylinder is the same width as a J-frame cylinder, so I guess they really do make a difference.

The final bit of weirdness is the synthetic handle. The shape looks unlike any other revolver, but it’s comfortable and for me at least makes the gun point very intuitively. The grip is softer than you might be used to, but that’s all to the good when shooting full-power .357 magnum loads.

Ugly is as ugly does, so the question is ‘How does it shoot?’ Let’s say that  all that weirdness is greater than the sum of it’s parts. It’s brilliant. Double-action rapid fire is a doddle even with full-house .357 magnum loads. With .38 Special +p it’s sweet and with standard-pressure .38s it feels like you’re shooting a .22. As I said before the laws of physics are not magically suspended; it recoils just as much as any .357 of it’s size and weight. It’s just that the gun’s design manages that recoil so well you don’t notice it as much. The soft, wide grip also does an excellent job of distributing that force too.

I fired the gun at seven yards and accuracy was, uh, interesting. Fired single action the gun shot one-hole groups a couple of inches low. Fired double action I had a tendency to shoot 3-4 inch groups slightly low and to the left. Oddly it didn’t matter if I were firing slowly and deliberately or as fast as I could pull the trigger; the results were the same each time. I’m pretty sure that it’s me rather than the gun; the double action trigger has a unique feel that I am not adapted to. Additionally the trigger is exceptionally wide; much wider than I normally prefer.  I’m pretty sure that will improve as I get used to it.

The original owner told me that I would need to alter my grip as the cylinder is so far back in the gun that I’d get powder stains on my left hand otherwise. I’m not sure why but this was not the case for me; I gripped it as I would any other revolver and had no issues.

The fact that the gun is lightly used meant it came with some extras- A rather nice belt-slide holster manufactured by RADAR in Italy for Chiappa. The holster has two slots at the leading edge, allowing you to select the amount of cant you want. He also provided two speed loaders, one Safariland and one HKS. I’m an HKS guy from way back, but I really like the Safariland speed loader. I don’t know if these are specific to the gun, but it works very well.

The gun comes stock with a nylon bore-brush and a red plastic disk that you can insert behind the cylinder as a visual cue that the gun is unloaded. It also comes with something we’re starting to see more often; despite the fact that it fires rimmed cartridges it comes with three moon-clips, eliminating the need for speed loaders and insuring that all rounds eject properly. I’m of a mixed mind about these- they are certainly convenient but they are not as robust as speed loaders. I’ll try them out and see how it goes. They do seem to be well- made but they don’t hold the rounds as securely as I would like for carrying them loose in a pocket. Perhaps the thing to do is to use the clip for the rounds in the cylinder to insure positive and complete ejection, but carry the reloads in speed loaders for security and positive location of the shells.

One issue with moon clips has been that they are relatively easy to bend when removing the expended shells. That would not be an issue with these, but this gun also came with a tubular unloading tool for removing the spent cartridges. I should note that casings vary slightly with different manufacturers; another brand of shells might be more or less secure than the loads I have selected.

So a lot of weirdness in a small package, but it’s all there for a reason and it comes together to make a fantastic, if unconventional, revolver. If my wife doesn’t abscond with it I can see it becoming a favorite.

Addenda to my Rhino review:

*This particular gun is a Model 200 DS, with the ‘200’ indicating that it has a 2″ barrel and the ‘DS’ indicating that it can be fired either double or single action. There are a variety of models, some double-action only, some with longer barrels and larger grips, adjustable sights etc. There is even a light-weight polymer-framed version now.

*It has been pointed out that fixed-sight models are probably designed to hit point of aim at 25 meters- with the sight so high above the plane of the barrel it would naturally shoot low at 7 yards. This makes sense to me. Adjustable sight models are a different matter, of course.

*I was baffled by why my slow-fire groups were no smaller than my rapid-fire groups when firing double-action. Experimentation this evening and comparison to a Taurus revolver and my S&W revolvers showed that the trigger ‘stages’ at different points than the other guns, so it was throwing me off- but when the trigger is given a rapid, consistent stroke the staging seems to vanish. This was confirmed by a reviewer that Chiappa told to not try to stage the trigger. He did anyway, with results comparable to mine.

*Research shows that early guns experienced significant problems with reliability and durability- worst before serial number RH01900- but that by 2014 the guns had improved enough that they exhibited excellent reliability, even over the course of 1000+ rounds of magnum ammunition. One range rental gun (Serial number over RH10000) was reported to be still going strong after 4000+ rounds of mixed .38 Special and .357 Magnum. This is anecdotal but seems to indicate the issues have been largely ironed out. My serial number is over 13000, so hopefully it will be issue free. We’ll see.

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