Designed in 1934, the .357 Magnum was the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world until the .44 Magnum arrived on the scene in 1955. Dirty Harry aside, the .44 Magnum has never been considered a true combat round. While the .44 Magnum eclipsed the .357 Magnum in terms of raw power, the .357 remains the most powerful combat-capable cartridge ever devised. When fired from 4-inch vented test barrels, the power of the .357 ranges from 575 foot-pounds of energy with a 130-grain bullet at 1410 fps to 774 foot-pounds of energy with a 180-grain bullet at 1485 fps. These energy levels are well out of the reach of any other commonly utilized combat rounds, including the .40 S&W and the .357 SIG.
The .357 Magnum was designed by Smith & Wesson and Winchester’s Ammunition Division as a law enforcement and sporting cartridge. It was nothing more than the .38 Special case lengthened by 1/10th of an inch to prevent chambering in lower-pressure .38 Special chambers. However, the shorter .38 Long Colt and the .38 Special can be readily chambered and fired in revolvers and derringers chambered for the .357 Magnum. .38 Specials and .357 Magnums are loaded with the same weight range of bullets, but with very different velocities. The .357 Magnum’s ballistics trounced those of the high-power pistol cartridge of the 1930s: the .38 Super Auto. The .38 Super launched a 130-grain FMJ bullet loaded to a velocity of 1300 fps and was developed as a law enforcement round that could penetrate the early body armor worn by gangsters. Yes, the .357 Magnum could do that, but had the added bonus of supposedly being able to crack the engine blocks of gangster getaway cars. Even if it couldn’t crack an engine block, the .357 Magnum could penetrate car bodies and disable the people inside, or disable critical parts within the engine compartment. The first .357 Magnum— Serial Number 1 with a 3.-inch barrel—was presented to the director of the FBI—J.Edgar Hoover—and the rest is history.
Even though .357 Magnum revolvers like the Model 19 Smith & Wesson I began my law enforcement career with no longer occupy the primary place in police duty holsters, the mighty .357 still has a place in the holsters of hunters and outdoorsmen, civilian permit holders, or as backup guns for law enforcement officers— even if a number of these are guns loaded with the less powerful .38 Special rounds.
Today’s .357 Magnums are available in platforms not conceivable in 1935. One of the first new platforms was the 22.5-ounce Smith & Wesson Model 60 stainless 5-shot J-frame revolver which appeared in 1996. The very first of these guns limited the maximum .357 bullet weight to 125 grains. If a heavier-weight .357 round was used, recoil forces could loosen the bullets in the remaining rounds, causing the cylinder to lock up. The barrels on these early guns are marked for “125-grain .357 bullets only”—there is no such restriction on bullet weight for .38 Special rounds. Those restrictions were only applicable for the first couple of years of production until the bullet jump problem was resolved. The new generation of J-frame revolvers have no such limitations.
Ultra-lightweight Scandium .357 J-frame revolvers later appeared that reduced the gun’s weight from 22.5 ounces down to an unbelievably light 11.4 ounces. I have never had a desire to test fire one of these revolvers with full-power .357 Magnum rounds. I did own a nice Scandium frame revolver that Smith & Wesson unfortunately no longer makes—the .357 Magnum Mountain Lite—which sadly, I no longer own. That gun was based on the larger L-frame, and was a seven-shooter weighing 18.5 ounces. One cylinder of .357 ammo per range session was more than enough fun for me. .38s were no problem, but .357s were attention getters. I say this only to give you an idea of what the 11-ounce Scandium J-frames might be like when touching off full-power loads. Other modern .357s not imagined in 1934 are semi-automatics, seven- and eightshot revolvers, and derringers.
The .357 Magnum has the justly-earned reputation of being the king of combat handgun rounds with regard to “stopping power” due to the massive levels of kinetic energy it can generate. Kinetic energy, if high enough, can cause a shockwave effect that increases tissue damage beyond that caused directly by the bullet itself, and the .357 has that kind of energy.
But what happens when barrel length is decreased or increased or a different action type is used? Will the .357 Magnum still remain a powerhouse defensive and outdoors carry round?
To find out, I selected three different .357 Magnum handguns that featured three basic action types. Handily, each gun also featured a different barrel length.
The first was the stainless steel Coonan Arms Classic .357 Magnum 1911. The Coonan is, in my opinion, the finest 1911 variant out there, and is an excellent field or combat pistol. I have been working with a sample for most of this year and can tell you I would not hesitate to carry this gun on duty or in the woods, concealed on my person, or secured in my nightstand for home defense. In fact, I don’t carry it on duty because security holsters aren’t available for it; it is just a tad oversized in the slide area. While grip width from front to rear is also bigger than a 1911, it is not so big as to be ungainly. All controls are standard 1911. The Coonan has never malfunctioned, is beautifully executed, and is damn fun to shoot. It is a fine whitetail deer gun for those who are skilled with it, and is an outstanding value with an MSRP of only $1375. By changing the recoil spring (included with the gun), it will also fire .38 Specials—but I don’t feel the need to, since this is a mild recoiling .357. I figured that the Coonan would be the .357 Magnum power champ with its 5-inch barrel and semi-automatic action.
For the revolver, I used a Century Arms International Pietta 1873 single-action revolver with a 4.75-inch barrel. This finely crafted Single Action Army clone is improved by a transfer bar safety system that allows it to be safely carried with all six chamber holes loaded, unlike the original. Piettas are Italian-made and the workmanship is impeccable. The Pietta 1873 shoots dead-on with .357s or .38s, cycles smoothly, locks up bank-vault-tight, has a minimal flash gap, and retails for $350. Still self-defense capable for those who prefer this type of gun or for those with hand strength issues, the Pietta represents one of the best firearm deals on the market.
For a short-barrel .357, I used the Bond Arms USA Defender with a 3-inch barrel. The USA Defender weighs 19 ounces, which helps tame recoil a bit, but the shape of the grip is what really tames the recoil. It spreads the force across the hand so you end up with a smile on your face— rather than a painful grimace—after each shot. When I first tested one at a writer’s conference in 2012, I believed the Bond sales rep’s assertion about the controllability of the .357 in a gun this small about as much as I would believe a used car salesman’s assertion that the car I was interested in was only driven to church by an elderly lady on Sundays. This sales rep was telling the truth, because I wanted to keep shooting it with full-power loads. I was amazed at the comfort. MSRP of the Bond Arms Defender is $504, with interchangeable barrels in varying calibers available for about $140 each.
With the three guns and my Shooting Chrony Beta chronograph in tow, I headed out to test the effect that barrel length and action type have on velocity. I decided to use the X357SHP 145-grain Winchester Super-X Silvertip Jacketed Hollow-Point load. While the Silvertip load is considered old tech compared to some of the more modern hollow-point designs, Silvertips are still excellent self-defense loads. The 145-grain weight bullet splits the difference between the very light 125-grain hollow- point .357 rounds and the 158-grain heavyweights, and can do a bit of every- thing. Factory listed velocity is 1290 fps from a 4-inch vented barrel, which generates a healthy 535 foot-pounds of energy.
From the Coonan, the Silvertip rounds bested the factory velocity ratings by a large margin. The highest velocity was 1454 fps; lowest was 1444; and the average was 1449 fps. The average figure yields some 675 foot-pounds of energy. What other self-defense gun/cartridge combo can match that?
I knew the Pietta would yield lower velocities than the Coonan simply because of cylinder flash gap and a .-inch shorter barrel. The Pietta’s highest velocity was 1358 fps, and the lowest was 1313, with an average speed of 1335 fps. Kinetic energy of the average speed figure is 573 foot-pounds, which blows away the factory specs.
The Bond Arms derringer was an unknown. Obviously there would be a large velocity drop—I just wasn’t sure how much. The highest speed from the Bond was 1054 fps and the lowest speed was 1041 fps. The 1047 fps average velocity yielded 352 foot-pounds of energy, which is well above the Winchester .38 Special 125-grain +P Silvertip (which is rated at 945 fps and 247 foot-pounds of energy from a 4-inch test barrel). Those who say that the .357 Magnum is no different than a .38 Special +P round out of the same short-barreled firearm are, well, mistaken. The .357 can still outclass the .38 by at least 100 foot-pounds of energy.
The .357 Magnum is still very much alive and kicking, and for those who select the right firearm for their purposes it is ideal for concealed carry, home and property defense, or as a trail or hunting arm. Even if you don’t always need the full power of the .357 Magnum , you can always keep a firearm chambered in .357 stoked with the lighter but still capable .38 Special. If you haven’t considered the .357 because of all the press surrounding “more modern” arms, take a step back and reconsider the .357. It is a very viable choice.
Written by: USCCA.com