SSAA: Australia’s best hunting and shooting magazines

The versatile .357 Magnum

by Thomas Tabor
Australian & New Zealand Handgun 1

The versatile .357 MagnumThe development of the .357 Magnum is considered by many in the shooting community to have been a monumental turning point for handgunners throughout the world. Before Smith & Wesson brought this cartridge to market most handgun calibres fell considerably short in the area of performance. But when the .357 Magnum entered the scene it brought with it impressive increases in retained energy, flatter trajectories, deeper penetration and greater knockdown power when judged against the earlier offerings of that era.

In many countries throughout the world handgun hunters quickly began to recognise the .357 as an effective and accurate game killer. Law enforcement personnel also realised the significant benefits associated with a more powerful sidearm and welcomed this new addition wholeheartedly to their arsenal of tools against crime. And, as the Korean conflict intensified, the US military found that the .357 Magnum, then the most powerful handgun round ever produced, could be relied upon to pierce the body armour of the enemy Communist forces.

But not all people were immediately wooed by the virtues of this new cartridge. In the beginning many gun writers considered the calibre to be extreme and often wrote about its excessive, terrible, punching recoil. Some even warned that shooting the .357 could result in lacerations of the hand and cautioned that heavy leather shooting gloves should always be worn. How ironic these warnings seem today when viewed in comparison to the huge calibres currently available on the market. Handheld cannons like the .454 Casull, the .475 Linebaugh, .445 Super Mag., .50 AE and even some previously dedicated rifle calibres, like the .30-30, .7-30 Waters and .45-70 Government, have become commonplace for the shooters of today. Certainly, the .357 Magnum pales in comparison to these powerful monsters.

But, while some tried to dismiss the virtues of this innovative new cartridge, the .357 Magnum continued to grow in popularity as its promoters capitalised on the idea that it was the most powerful handgun cartridge ever produced. Before the .357 entered the shooting scene, the .45 Colt held that distinction, but it was clear that the .357 Magnum was ballistically superior to the ol’ historic Colt.

The .357 Magnum continued to hold onto the title as the ‘most powerful’ for two decades, until the .44 Remington Magnum made its debut in 1955. But even then, the 357’s popularity continued even in the shadows of the much bigger and more powerful .44. And now, after nearly seven decades of existence, the .357 continues to be one of the most popular handgun calibres.

Major Douglas B Wesson, of Smith and Wesson, and Philip B Sharpe were instrumental in designing the .357 Magnum cartridge, but Winchester, through a co-operative effort with Smith and Wesson, is largely credited for its development. The very first commercially built handgun in .357 Magnum was brought to market in 1935 by Smith & Wesson. In the beginning the heavy frame of a .44 calibre target revolver, possessing an 8 3/8-inch barrel, was used. That first ever .357 Magnum carried the serial number 45,768 and was presented to J Edgar Hoover, head of the US FBI, on May 10 of that same year.

The versatile .357 MagnumThe .357 Magnum is essentially nothing more than a stretched out version of the .38 Special cartridge. Both the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum utilise bullets of the same diameter, measuring .357 inches (9.07mm) and the same weight projectiles can be fired in either cartridge. Generally, the bullets used by both the .38 and .357 range from about 110 grains, on the low end of the spectrum, to an upper limit of more than 180 grains. There are always exceptions when it comes to bullet weight, but most shooters and bullet manufacturers seem to consider the 158 grain, in various styles and configurations, as the standard for both of these calibres.

Bullet manufacturers offer possibly more choices of bullets in .357 diameter than any other. There is a tremendous selection of metal jacketed bullets available, including such styles as full metal jackets, half jackets, flat nose, round nose, hollow points and virtually any combinations of these. For practice shooting many handgunners prefer to fire the cheaper to purchase, swaged lead bullets. These also come in many diverse shapes, styles and weights, including round and flat nose, semi-wadcutters and full wadcutters, to name a few. Some come with gas checks or seals and some without.

Possibly the most accurate bullets for either the .38 Special or .357 Magnum are those of the wadcutter designs. A wadcutter is unique in that the bullet is seated entirely inside the cartridge brass with the front of the bullet flush with the end of the brass. A shooter firing this style of bullet, or for that matter any lead bullet, should keep velocities low in an effort to minimise leading of the gun barrel. Lead bullets vary in hardness depending on how much antimony has been added. Bullets having a high antimony content will generally create less of a leading problem and those having lubricating grease built into the bullet grooves will also help to keep leading to a minimum.

Without a doubt, one of the best characteristics of a handgun chambered in .357 Magnum lies in its versatility. A shooter has the option of firing the magnum .357 round when appropriate, then switching and shooting .38 Special ammo in the same gun without the need of any modifications or adjustments to the gun.

Even though the .38 Special’s performance may pale in comparison to the .357, the .38 Special remains one of the best balanced, all-round handgun cartridges ever produced. It doesn’t really matter which bullet you choose or what weight - the .38 Special seems to respond with respectable and consistent accuracy. For this reason, as well as many others, the .38 Special has gained a long running, very favourable reputation with target shooters. In addition, the .38 Special makes an excellent choice for new handgun shooters because of its light recoil when compared to many other handgun calibres. And for those who reload their own ammo, they will find that the .38 and .357 are very easy cases to reload.

The versatile .357 MagnumThe brass of the .38 Special measures 1.155 inches in length, while the .357 Magnum is 1.290 inches long. This accounts for the .357 being a little more than 1/8 inch longer, which adds about 12 per cent more case capacity. While on the surface this may not seem like a significant increase, it amounts to a noteworthy increase in performance. Factory loaded .38 Specials possessing 158-grain bullets often travel out of the muzzle at about 900fps, while .357 Magnums exit more than 300fps faster. This level of increase is certainly noteworthy, but even faster velocities can sometimes be produced by those shooters who reload their own ammunition.

A potential problem for .38 Special shooters sometimes can be found in the area of the bullet jacket thickness. In some cases improper expansion can be experienced simply because the bullet manufacturers have designed their jackets too heavy to properly expand at the velocities and energy levels normally produced by the .38 Special. For this reason a shooter looking for good jacketed bullet performance should test their loads to determine which will generate the best results for their particular application. In addition, some target shooters feel that .38 Special loads fired from a .357 Magnum chamber may not be quite as accurate as those fired in chambers actually designed for the .38 Special. Most handgun shooters, however, would not notice this slight difference in accuracy.

Daniel B Wesson developed the .38 Special cartridge and Smith & Wesson introduced it to the public in 1902. The first guns to appear in the new calibre were S&W 1902 Military and Police Model revolvers of a rounded butt design. Originally the cartridge was intended for military use as a replacement for the much inferior .38 Long Colt. The Colt cartridge, loaded with a 158-grain lead bullet backed by 21 grains of black powder, had performed poorly during the Philippine campaign in 1899 and it was time for a change.

Smith & Wesson’s version of the .38 Special was followed in 1909 by a calibre called the .38 Colt Special, but the only distinction between the two cartridges was in the shape of the bullet. The Colt model was loaded with a flat nose bullet.

As the world moved from the black powder era into the smokeless generation, many calibres didn’t fare well in the transition. This included both rifle and handgun cartridges, but the .38 Special was an exception and made the changeover from smoke to smoke-free smoothly and without problems.

But for all of advantages inherent with the .38 Special the calibre has experienced some competition in recent years, particularly from the 9mm. This may be largely due to the 9mm being more appropriately suited for use in semi-auto handguns, whereas the .38 Special application is primarily intended for use in revolvers. It is true that there are some semi-automatics chambered in .38 Special, like the S&W Model 52, but such examples are fairly rare.

The versatile .357 MagnumIn recent years as shooters’ interest in revolvers has begun to wane slightly, in lieu of the semi-automatic’s popularity, concurrently so has the interest in the .38 Special. Certainly the 9mm fans can put up a fair argument that the 9mm and the .38 Special have similar performance capabilities. Nevertheless, in the case of handguns chambered in .357 Magnum, how can anyone argue against the virtues of owning a handgun capable of firing both .357 Magnum and .38 Special ammo? This versatility is what I believe will keep the .357 Magnum in the mainstream of shooting for many decades to come.

The .38 Special can’t usually generate the velocities or energy levels that the .357 Magnum is capable of, but a handloader can still produce some pretty impressive ultra-high performance loads for the .38. I found some pretty impressive data in a 1973 Gun Digest book that described .38 Special 110-grain handloads said to produce speeds of 1280fps at the muzzle and 1210fps velocity using a 125-grain bullet. Truly, these are pretty remarkable achievements for the calibre. Nevertheless, a word of caution is in order here. There are many older handguns still on the market today chambered in .38 Special that may not be capable of withstanding the pressure levels generated by such ultra-high performing loads. For this reason caution should always be followed with attempting to push the limits of a cartridge or firearm.

In that same Gun Digest I noted that there were loads listed for the .357 Magnum with reported muzzle velocities of 1780fps with jacketed hollow point 110-grain bullets and a 125-grain bullet going 1660fps. But again, while these speeds may be possible, caution should be observed.

Some revolvers chambered in .38 Special are built on heavy frames similar to those of the more powerful calibres. This could lead a person to incorrectly believe that .357 Magnum reloading data could be used to load for the .38 Special. It is extremely important that you do not make this assumption. The cartridge case capacity has a great deal to do with the amount of chamber pressure produced. Because the .38 Special has a smaller case capacity than that of the .357 Magnum, the pressures produced will likely be higher in the .38 than in the .357, even when the powder charge and other components are the same. For this reason, it is imperative that handloaders never attempt to interchange data intended for use in other calibres.

I believe the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum will be around for many decades to come. While some other cartridges may be more appropriately suited for specialised purposes, the versatility of being able to fire both cartridges in a firearm chambered for .357 Magnum is certainly an advantage. This ability in itself makes the .357 a cartridge of worthy significance and will without a doubt keep it in the shooting forefront for many years to come.