The effectiveness of the .357 Magnum is all but legendary. Taken within context, one can see why. It was introduced back in 1935, when choices for controllable yet more powerful revolver cartridges were slim.

Although prolific, the .38 Special was anything but a barnstormer. Even given today’s advancements in ballistics, the .38 Special is considered by most experts as a base minimum for self-defense, let alone for use through intermediate barriers. Colt’s .38 Super Automatic was the “penetrator” of the day, with claims of being able to penetrate early body armor and vehicles with a velocity a tad over 1,000 fps. Based on this effectiveness, it started to chip away at the law enforcement market. But revolvers still prevailed as a rule, requiring something to compete, and the .357 Magnum was designed to do just that.

As heavier-framed revolvers became available, innovative hunters like Elmer Keith began successfully pushing the .38 Special to its limits. This prompted Smith & Wesson to try and recover some of the law enforcement market by developing the .357 Magnum. And, as you probably already know, it proved very successful, essentially ruling the law enforcement market for decades.

Semi-Auto .357s

Coonan Classic 1911 mag release
Unlike a traditional 1911, the Coonan Classic uses a pivoting trigger. It takes some getting used to, but it’s light, crisp and perfect for rapid-fire shooting.

Most attempts at making .357 Magnum semi-autos have been less than successful, and those that are tend to be rather large and heavy. The .357 Magnum’s case is long by comparison, so it’s difficult to make it work in most recoil-operated pistols. While the Magnum Research Desert Eagle in this chambering has garnered some attention, it weighs about 4.5 pounds thanks to its gas-operated rotating bolt—hardly viable for daily carry.

AutoMag even experimented with a .357 AutoMag Pistol (AMP) version that was a necked-down .44 AMP case using a .357 Magnum bullet. The ballistics were impressive, but the gun was 11.5 inches long and weighed in at just under 4 pounds. It never went beyond the prototype stage.

Only Coonan Inc. has provided .357 Magnum semi-autos that are viable for self-defense and everyday carry. Patterned off the 1911, the Coonan designs use pivoting triggers, link-less barrels and external extractors. These guns also use slightly larger magazines.

Coonan Classic

Coonan Classic 1911 muzzle
The Classic comes with a 5-inch barrel, a 24-pound recoil spring for .357 Magnum rounds and a 10-pound spring for .38 Special ammo.

The Coonan Classic is a full-sized fighting pistol. The slide and frame are both CNC-machined from 17-4 PH steel, and the former houses a 5-inch, carbon-steel, link-less barrel that has been chrome plated. Also, the Coonan Classic is designed to run .357 Magnum rounds using a 24-pound recoil spring along with the stainless steel guide rod within the full-length dust cover. A 10-pound recoil spring is also included so you can run .38 Special rounds.

The external extractor works in conjunction with a longer ejection port shaped to accommodate the longer .357 Magnum rounds. On top of the slide, my test pistol came with fixed three-dot sights, though you can choose tritium units when you purchase the gun.

The grip frame is longer front to back than a standard .45 ACP 1911’s. The smooth frontstrap is cut high, and the triggerguard is squared to offer plenty of room for shooters wearing gloves.

Coonan Classic 1911 safety
The gun sports a single-sided thumb safety and a skeletonized hammer.

Coonan has adorned this stainless steel version with smooth walnut grip panels that look really nice. An extended grip safety is mated to the smooth mainspring housing (checkered versions are available), and the Coonan Classic features a single-sided thumb safety. The slide release is extended for easy operation.

While much of the internals are compatible with a .45 ACP 1911’s, the Coonan Classic uses a pivoting trigger. Most modern pistols, including the Browning Hi-Power, use similar designs. My test pistol’s trigger pull weighed about 4.25 pounds on average.

Finally, the Coonan Classic I evaluated came in a nice custom nylon case with two proprietary seven-round magazines.

Carrying The Coonan Classic

Conan Classic 1911 kneeling

Coonan lists several companies that make custom leather holsters for this pistol. Blade-Tech lists a few in Kydex. As far as custom pistols go, there is quite the selection here.

I have an assortment of 1911 holsters, and I found one that worked with the Coonan Classic: a Sourdough Pancake rig from Simply Rugged Holsters. It worked nicely despite being a little tight. Designed for a Commander-sized 1911, the barrel extended a bit outside the holster, but the gun still drew smoothly. I didn’t have any magazine pouches for the gun, so I carried spare magazines in my pocket, which isn’t very uncommon for me anyway.

I received a few extra magazines for the testing so I could practice reloading. After firing 100 rounds of Hornady’s 125-grain Critical Defense FTX ammo to ensure it worked properly, I loaded the Coonan Classic and carried it for a while. Simply Rugged’s Sourdough Pancake holster can be carried either IWB or OWB, so I tried both. In short, the gun carried well and was easy to draw.

On The Range

Conan Classic 1911 action
Despite being chambered for the powerful .357 Magnum, the Classic’s size and design helped absorb most of the felt recoil. The gun was very easy to handle on the range.

Having carried 10mm 1911s for years, I am anything but recoil sensitive. But running .357 Magnum rounds through this gun wasn’t intense at all. In fact, it was actually quite pleasant. Sig Sauer’s 125-grain FMJs, for example, were an absolute joy to shoot. Every 125-grain load was the same—controllable, accurate and anything but punishing. It really was a ton of fun to shoot time and time again.

With its 5-inch barrel, the Coonan Classic makes for a very controllable and accurate .357 Magnum. And if you swap out the springs and load some .38 Special rounds, the gun is as soft or softer than some 9mm 1911s. In fact, the recoil was so light I had to check to be sure the gun worked for the first few rounds. Still, the gun was accurate and didn’t miss a beat.

The extended grip length allowed me to wrap both of my hands around this pistol, providing excellent control. But I have larger hands, so this was just about perfect for me. My trigger finger fell into a natural position every time I gripped the gun. However, those with smaller hands may have an issue. A friend of mine with average-sized hands said it “felt a bit big.” That’s just the joy of pistols, though, so just be aware. For me, even the most powerful loads were comfortable to shoot, which allowed for some respectable rapid-fire groups at 7 yards. At 15 yards, my rapid-fire shots all fell inside a fist-sized group.

The accuracy was excellent, with the Sig Sauer load producing my best 25-yard group of the day at 1.4 inches. For this portion of the evaluation, I fired five-shot groups over the hood of my truck using a Wiebad bag as a rest. Every group was near 2 inches, even with the heavier loads. Moving back to 50 yards, the Classic was still very flat-shooting using the Sig load on an IPSC silhouette steel target. My best five-shot group at 50 yards was only 4 inches. At 100 yards, I was able to get five shots out of seven on the center-mass of a steel target.

Several range sessions occurred without a single failure to feed, and the slide locked back after firing the last round with every .357 Magnum load and all but the weakest .38 Special loads. Also, the pivoting trigger resets like a typical 1911’s. It felt excellent, like a properly tuned Hi-Power’s. It facilitated rapid fire at close range as well as controlled accuracy at distance.

Going Further

Conan Classic 1911 slide
Note the pistol’s extended slide release, walnut grip panels and smooth frontstrap.

While the thumb safety is just like a 1911’s, the extended slide release did provide an issue for me initially when I tested the Compact version of this gun. My tendency is to shoot with what is considered a standard thumbs-forward grip—something I have been doing for over three decades now. My support-side thump would occasionally ride the slide release during rapid fire, preventing the slide from locking open after the last round. Once I found the right spot, the issue stopped, but it might be something to consider for those of us with big hands and thick fingers. Conversely, it was possible for me to release the magazine and slide with my strong hand without shifting the pistol, so once I was dialed in, the gun was very fast.

I’ve preferred checkering for years, so I assumed the smooth front- and backstraps would create an issue at first. But I was wrong, maybe because the grip fit so well. You can get a checkered mainspring housing, but the gun never felt loose in my hands, and the grip helped in the concealment department.

Magnum Fighter

Coonan Classic 1911 mag well
The magazine well is slightly beveled for smooth reloads, and the grip is a bit longer to accomodate .357 Magnum rounds.

Shooting the full-sized .357 Magnum Classic was very pleasant. I had a hard time putting it down. And while it was pleasant with .357 Magnum rounds, it was a downright joy in .38 Special. It would make a very good primer for those being introduced to a 1911-style pistol. It’s a viable self-defense pistol in either caliber, but the .357 Magnum is a proven fighting and hunting cartridge. My first duty revolver was a .357 Magnum, and my Smith & Wesson Performance Center Model 627 is often close at hand, so it’s a caliber I believe in and have experience with. This just adds to the choices for carrying this long-proven caliber. The fit and finish are great—what you’d expect for a 1911 or similar pistol in this price range.

If you are looking for something a bit different in what can be described as a venerable caliber for self-defense, you may want to take a close look at the Coonan Classic or one of the company’s other models. Coonan also offers threaded barrels, various finish options and a few other choices. So check it out. You might just find what you’re looking for.

Caliber: .357 Magnum

Barrel: 5 inches

OA Length: 8.7 inches

Weight: 42 ounces (empty)

Grips: Walnut

Sights: Fixed three-dot

Action: SA

Finish: Stainless

Capacity: 7+1

MSRP: $1,540

This article was originally published in “Combat Handguns” July/August 2017. To order a copy, visit

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