March 17, 2022
Three decades ago, if you asked anyone who was a handgunner or firearm enthusiast, "What’s the best handgun for self-defense or woods carry?" the majority of the time the .357 Magnum would have been their reply. Its high velocity, impressive terminal performance and deep penetration provides stellar performance not only in terms of self-defense, but also medium game hunting and steel silhouette shooting. Yet, in a duty-size revolver it was still controllable while also being capable of excellent accuracy. So, the topic I’m pondering today is, in a world of high capacity, double-stack semi-autos, does the .357 Mag wheelgun still have a place? Or has the king been dethroned?
The .357 Magnum was designed by Elmer Keith, Philip Sharp and D.B. Wesson of Smith and Wesson in the 1930s and made its introduction to the market in 1934. The cartridge was based on the 1898 vintage .38 Special and took advantage of its excess case capacity stemming from its introduction during the black powder era. Yes, the .38 Special was initially loaded with black powder, although smokeless powder loads were introduced within a year.
Upon the introduction of smokeless powder, many original black powder cartridges took a spike in performance. The .30 WCF (more commonly known as the .30-30 Winchester) and the .303 British are prime and popular examples of this performance upgrade. Some cartridges, while switched from black powder to smokeless, remained relatively the same in terms of performance. This was largely found in handgun cartridges and due to so many fragile black powder cartridge guns and black powder conversion guns in existence (see Richard/Mason conversions for an example).
During the early 1930s, Smith and Wesson released the .38/44 Heavy Duty Outdoorsman revolver. This was a large frame, six-shot revolver that was based off of the .44 caliber offering of the time. The .38/44 Heavy Duty revolver is representative of the modern N-frame, commonly found in .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44 Special, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt. Elmer Keith is credited heavily for the development of the .357 Magnum, with his testing of modern smokeless propellants in the .38 Special case. The initial result was a heavily loaded .38 Special cartridge designated .38 High Speed (.38/44 High Velocity), which had performance on par with modern .357 Magnums. The frame and cylinder of the .38/44 Heavy Duty revolver was robust enough to handle the massive spike in chamber pressures and performance.
The development of the .357 Magnum continued during the prohibition times, as a response to Colt’s .38 Super introduced in 1929. At this time, handgun cartridges were sometimes stopped by automobile doors and bodies, as well as early and rudimentary pre-World War II ballistic vests. The .38 Super drove a 130-grain FMJ projectile at 1,280 fps, thus defeating these barriers. The .357 Magnum offered police offers both higher velocities and heavier bullets and it proved to be an outstanding performer, with deadly results.
Since its introduction, the .357 Magnum has continued to be synonymous with high velocity and impressive terminal performance. It is a highly adaptable firearm/cartridge combination and very versatile for handloaders. Speaking of handloading, the .357 Magnum can be loaded from "mild to wild", from gentle target loads to heavy magnum cartridges for long-distance steel silhouette shooting and even bear or dangerous game repellent. The .357 Magnum can accept a wide array of powders from Hodgdon Titegroup to the flame-throwing H110 magnum pistol powder with ease. The .357 Magnum utilizes a wide array of projectiles as well, ranging from 110- to 200-grains, making it an acceptable choice for both two-legged and four-legged foes in the lower 48.
With all of this impressive history and versatility, does it have a place in a modern world, where self-loading pistols hold three times more ammunition? I personally believe it does. For firearm collectors, firearm enthusiasts and multi-firearm households, the .357 Magnum may fall to the wayside as simply a target gun or collector’s piece. For the singular handgun owner, the .357 Magnum may likely be the best choice however. For starters, the .357 Magnum revolver can be a perfect training tool for a new shooter, especially to learn fundamentals on. While many will scoff at this opinion, the all-steel .357 revolver can also fire the mild-mannered .38 Special. The heavier, all-steel frame of a K or L-frame Smith and Wesson revolver will soak up like a sponge what little bit of recoil a .38 Special 148-grain mid-range wadcutter can muster. This will result in minimal recoil, a high degree of accuracy and the ability to work a person into the world of handguns without introducing bad habits (such as "flinching").
The .357 Magnum Combat Magnum or Distinguished Combat Magnum offerings from Smith and Wesson (such as the Bill Jordan designed Model 19 K-frame or the beefy 686 Plus L-frame) offer ultimately two firearms (mild-mannered .38 Special and hard-hitting .357 Magnum) in one. This can be especially useful to recoil-sensitive people, who may choose the .38 Special for self-defense. While many modern loads exist for the .38 Special, many times ammunition companies try to overcomplicate the design (see my .38 Special article here for more information). My preferred carry and defensive load for the three- to four-inch "duty length" revolver is the 110-grain +P+ semi-jacketed hollow point (more commonly known as the "Treasury load") or the 158-grain LSWC (Lead Semi-Wadcutter) hollow point +P (known as the "FBI Load" or "Chicago Load"). Both are mild recoiling options, with good terminal performance.
For the serious hand gunner or the well-trained, the 125-grain SJHP (Semi-Jacketed Hollow Point) .357 Magnum loads are often considered the "king of the hill" in terms of self-defense. Standard offerings from Federal and Remington will advertise a highly conservative 1,450 feet per second muzzle velocity, but in reality the velocity spikes to a chronographed 1,536 to 1,550 feet per second at 10 feet (from a four-inch Combat Magnum). This takes the muzzle energy from the highly respectable 585 foot pounds, to an impressive 667. This is knocking on the door of serious full power 10mm loads, with superior velocity.
This 1,500 fps mark is easily broken by handloaders or ammunition companies such as Buffalo Bore or Underwood Ammunition Company. For outrageously loaded .357 Magnums, a chronographed velocity of mid-1,600 to low 1,700 feet per second numbers is not uncommon. The Buffalo Bore “Heavy” 125-grain JHC load has chronographed ballistics of 1,710 feet per second at 811 foot pounds of energy. This is not only meeting the performance of the high-velocity big-bore .41 Magnum, but also knocking on the door of light rifles and carbine cartridges. While this may not be a popular opinion, it also offers equal terminal performance at close range. The drawback to loads such as this is severe and often painful recoil, especially from K and L-frames. Muzzle blast and flash is also an issue, especially for a self-defense load. This can cause temporary blindness or deafness in low-light and enclosed spaces.
For medium game and "woods protection", the 158- to 180-grain projectiles are typically desired. Usually in a semi-jacketed soft point or gas check hard cast flat point, these projectiles are designed to drive extremely deep and produce consistent, straight wound paths. With penetration levels well exceeding the FBI's maximum 18 inches, projectiles and loads such as these are heavily disregarded as defensive loads against two-legged foes. The Buffalo Bore "Outdoorsman" 180-grain flat point is a heavy offering and produces staggering numbers, with equally staggering recoil. Chronographed from 10 feet, the 180-grain Outdoorsman produces 1,380 feet per second average velocities from a four-inch N-frame Model 28, equating to 761 foot pounds of muzzle energy. From a six-inch Model 27 N-frame, 1,422 feet per second at 808 foot pounds of energy.
The Winchester 16-inch barrel Trapper carbine produced the most impressive numbers however. It propelled the Buffalo Bore 180-grain to a sizzling 1,781 feet per second at 1,267 foot pounds of energy. From the Winchester's 16-inch barrel, it is enough to effectively drop most things in the lower 48 states. In the state of Kentucky, our woods threats are fairly mild (in comparison to Alaska or Canada). The most dangerous animal ran into here is a buck in rut or a well-fed black bear. While both are potentially dangerous animals, my personal choice for a "backpacking" .357 Magnum load is the 158-grain Hornady XTP. While not known for massive numbers in expansion, what it does offer is controlled, consistent and very deep penetration. For "big bore" offerings, XTPs have always struck me as being a hollow point/soft point hybrid.
From targets to varmints, two-legged foes to bear repellent. The .357 Magnum is likely one of the most versatile handgun offerings in existence. Its power and terminal performance speaks for itself and is often considered the handgun cartridge in which all others are measured by. The ability to use mild-mannered .38 Special makes it essentially two firearms in one. Even though it is nearly 90, the .357 Magnum has aged like fine wine. The power, the performance and the velocity potential are nearly unrivaled with equal bullet weights and while duty caliber handguns typically offer mediocre terminal performance, the .357 Magnum is in a class of its own.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@OutdoorSG.com.
About the Author: Michelle Hamilton has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice/Homeland Security, is a serious student of wound ballistics, military history, small arms design and manufacturing and is a competitive shooter.