Since making its appearance way back in 1935, the Remington/Smith & Wesson-developed .357 Magnum has continued to enjoy a degree of popularity that, almost eight decades later, shows no sign of declining. In fact, until 1956 heralded the creation of the mighty .44 Magnum, the .357 was billed as “The World’s Most Powerful Handgun Cartridge.”
The first gun built by Smith & Wesson to handle the .357 Magnum cartridge was the now-legendary Model 27. Billed as being “Recommended only for those of above-average physical stature” (which meant that every guy who was 5 feet, two inches tall and weighed 120 pounds absolutely had to have one), the M27 saw immediate success and, for the next six decades, was considered to be the Cadillac of .357s.
The original gun, then called the Three-Fifty-Seven, featured a barrel length of 8.75-inches, later reduced to 8.375-inches to conform with, of all things, NRA competition rules. From it, the original factory load punched out a gas-checked lead 158-grain SWC at a whopping 1,510 feet per second (fps)—clearly not a load for the faint of heart!
By the mid-1950s Colt had become so impressed with the continued success of the .357, that it offered a .357 pistol of its own, the now-famous Python. Originally configured in barrel lengths similar to the M27’s, the Python at last featured a 6-inch barrel length for general use, and 4- and 2-inch barreled versions for police use.
In 1955, in response to urging from shooting expert Bill Jordan, Smith & Wesson introduced the first medium-framed .357, the 6-inch barreled Model 19 Combat Magnum. A decade and a half later, Colt unveiled its stainless-steel counterpart, the Model 66. Though the law-enforcement community instantly adopted the 4-inch version, a 2.5-inch model was also offered and it, too, received rave reviews—especially as an off-duty or plainclothes gun.
Inspired by the size, look and success of Colt’s Python, S&W introduced in the 1980s their highly successful L-frame series. Sized midway between the “K”- (medium) and “S”- or “N”- (heavy) framed .357s that preceded them, blued and stainless steel L-framed .357s offered superior recoil control and a longer service life than the K-framed versions and were faster from a holster than the larger S- or N-framed versions.
Since then, virtually all domestic and many foreign manufacturers have offered medium-framed .357s, including snubbies. In 1994, S&W even went so far as to bring a series of J-framed (small) .357 snubs, known as the Model 640, with several additional versions appearing in late 1996.
These days, it’s a rarity to find a shooting aficionado who doesn’t know about the .357 Magnum. From the casual plinker to the handgun hunter to self-defense-oriented civilians and police officers, the very mention of the .357 Magnum elicits a knowing look and a smile.
But where did the .357 come from, and why? According to Roy Jinks’ excellent book, “The History of Smith & Wesson,” it was developed from the .38-44 High Velocity cartridge to provide higher performance than was possible with the .38 Special. This may not be the only reason—though it isn’t mentioned in Jinks’ book, my old acquaintance Elmer Keith said on page 279 of his own book, “Sixguns,” that the .357 evolved by lengthening the .38-44 HV case (which was identical to the standard .38 SPL, except that it utilized a small, rather than a large, pistol primer—Magnum primers were unheard of in those days) to prevent it from being chambered in weaker .38 SPL guns. He also strongly intimates that the .357’s performance level was equal, rather than superior, to the .38-44 HV.
Yet a third story claims that the Magnum was designed to provide better penetration into the thick automobile bodywork of the day.
Which is true? Who knows, but my guess is that, as far as they go, they’re probably all legitimate.
Keith also designed the original .357 Magnum bullet, still catalogued by Lyman as the #358429 (173 grains w/#2 alloy). There is also the #358430, which weighs in at about 160 grains. In “Sixguns,” Keith also wrote that the best accuracy obtained from the new S&W .357 was with the .38-44 HV, rather than with the newer .357 Magnum cartridge, using the #358430 and 13.5 grains of #2400 powder. He stated further that this was the load that Dick Tinker used to shoot the legendary 600-yard targets for Ed McGivern’s book, “Fast And Fancy Revolver Shooting.”
There is no question that the ever-increasing popularity of the .357 Magnum was responsible for the eventual demise of the .38-44 HV and the discontinuance of the guns chambered for it. But even today, there are die-hard revolver aficionados who swear the .38-44HV is a better cartridge. An interesting thought, but academic, inasmuch as the .357 continues to flourish, while the .38-44 HV was discontinued back in 1964.
Shooting the .357 Magnum
Any serious examination of the .357 discloses that it needs bullet expansion to perform well as a man-stopper, a requirement dependent upon velocity to achieve. Unfortunately, most 2-, 2.5- and 4-inch barreled versions don’t produce sufficiently high velocities to expect reliable JHP expansion unless substantial bone mass is struck during passage. This means:
1. A small permanent wound channel and minimal tissue/nerve destruction and thus minimal shock to the central nervous system.
2. Often spectacular over-penetration, a serious criminal and civil liability concern.
To minimize the problem, careful ammunition selection is a must. And although expert opinions on this subject vary greatly, I feel that JHPs in the 110–125-grain range offer the best compromise. They can be driven in excess of 1,200 fps from a 2.5-inch barrel, thus offering at least a fair chance of expansion, and thanks to their reduced mass, they tend to penetrate less and expend more of their inherent energy in the target.
For urban dwellers, particularly those who live in apartments or condos, highly frangible bullets, such as the Glaser Safety Slug or PowerBall, offer minimal penetration and ricochet hazard, while providing good weapon control and at least reasonable stopping power.
Or … you can use a heavier-framed gun with at least a 6-inch barrel and full-house heavy bullet loads. However, if you carry it for self-defense purposes, you’ll also have to expect it to be more difficult to conceal, more fatiguing because of its greater weight and slower to present from a holster.
If you’re a handgun hunter, no barrel smaller than 6 inches should be considered. Longer barrels mean higher velocities, a longer sight radius (which enhances your shooting, especially at high speed) and less recoil. Use the heavier bullets, whether of the JHP type or your own hand-loaded SWCs.
Most game hunted with a handgun isn’t especially dangerous, but then again, one never knows. I once saw a white tail buck that had been hit with a .44 Magnum pretend to be dead so he could retaliate against anything that carelessly approached him. When the hunter did so, with his last remaining bit of strength, the buck launched himself at his antagonist, who was saved from getting a chest full of antlers by a quick-thinking companion who in the nick of time grabbed him and pulled him aside.
Zero your gun to hit point of aim at 50 meters, which will usually place the bullet strike 1 to 1.25 inches high at 25 meters. Doing so will allow you to aim pretty much point-on out to 75 meters, thus making the best use of the .357s relatively flat trajectory.
A full-house .357 Magnum load is a handful, and even with the larger-framed guns, control in high-speed shooting sequences is difficult. To mitigate the problem, be extremely careful in stock selection for your particular gun. In so doing, remember that although larger stocks provide a fair compromise between controllability and comfort, they do increase the weapon’s bulk, thus making it more difficult to conceal.
An additional point to consider is whether you retain the factory stocks or purchase an after-market design, be certain that the left-side stock panel allows enough clearance for fast speed-loader insertion and operation. If not, then relieve it until it does.
If you intend to carry your .357 on a daily basis, you’ll need to eliminate all sharp edges on the gun. To find them, simply rub your hand briskly all over it, note their location and, using 600-grit emery cloth, carefully remove them and touch up the edge with cold blue.
Modified wide, serrated target triggers by narrowing, smoothing and polishing them until their front face is mirror bright. This gives you a better “feel” of the trigger during those fast DA shooting strings and greatly enhances weapon control as a result. The same can be said of target hammers, since they tend to catch on concealment clothing during rapid weapon deployment.
Last, get yourself some real-world based professional training in tactical shooting. Too many simply shoot a few rounds downrange now and then and consider themselves competent and ready to fight. Unfortunately, this misimpression is deeply flawed and can lead to fatal accidents.
True tactical shooting is as different from any kind or target or competitive shooting as night is from day, and the tactical/criminal/civil-liability concerns that accompany any deadly altercation demand that you have a clear perspective on the subject. “Popping a cap” occasionally or entering a local contest simply will not give you a clear understanding of the issues involved.
Regardless of its size and weight or the type of ammo used, it’s important to understand that any .357 magnum with a full-house load is a handful of a gun. No matter what you do to it or how good you become with it, expect substantial recoil, muzzle blast and flash.
Most important of all, whatever its reputation, remember that in the final analysis, the .357 Magnum is a handgun, not a magic wand. As such, be realistic when you address the issues relating to weapon, ammo and equipment. Define your needs clearly before you buy and then get good, solid instruction on how to best satisfy them. Then, and only then, will you have done everything possible to get the most from your .357.
Seventy-five years have passed since the first .357 rolled off Smith & Wesson’s assembly line, and although its days as a law-enforcement gun have pretty much passed, it remains a favorite of many self-defense-oriented civilians and handgun hunters. It’s accurate, flat-shooting and sufficiently powerful to down any kind of small, medium or big game out to 100 meters or so, provided the shot is properly placed. It’s also potent enough to do the same to any human, though with heavier bullets in a short barrel, over-penetration is a serious concern.
Nonetheless, the .357’s continued popularity proves that it’s a winner. Used within its limitations, it’s one of the better handgun/cartridge combinations and will no doubt continue to be with us for many years to come.
Since making its appearance way back in 1935, the Remington/Smith & Wesson-developed .357 Magnum has…
by N.E. MacDougald / May 2, 2013