A Rifle on the Hip
You won’t find Magnumitis in the dictionary. The term, coined as a derisive nickname for the tendency of shooters to go for broke in the pursuit of power, simply implies a shooter who has succumbed to Magnumitis places power above accuracy. The originator made the argument that we could do just as well in the hunting field with standard calibers as the Magnums. When it comes to rifles this is probably true, but in handgun terms, Magnums represent the much-needed improvement in standard performance.
Handguns are weak instruments compared to long guns. When compared to the .30-06 rifle or 12-gauge shotgun, the weak .38 and strong .45 are more alike than they differ. The outlook is different when we begin to move to the Magnums. These handguns often are possessed of more real world killing power at moderate ranges than high power rifles. Magnum handguns have a surplus of power in some applications. The Magnum revolver is a fine example of modern technology.
Where the Magnum Excels
Prior to the advent of the Magnum, the accepted standard for increasing handgun effectiveness was to increase the bore diameter and the weight of the projectile. Frontal area and mass still mean much, but the Magnum introduced another important factor into handgun ballistics. For the first time, handgun calibers proved capable of reaching velocity over 1,300 fps, and with full bore, heavy for the caliber bullets.
Handloaders had acquired a taste for high velocity with 1200 fps .32-20 WCF loads. Heavy bullets once were the slowest choice in each caliber, often compromising velocity for weight. With the advent of the Magnum, heavy bullets with long bearing surfaces became feasible. The advantage of the big bore had been short-range killing power, which the small bore lacked.
Magnums introduced another consideration, a product of increased velocity. Handguns now had increased range. The handgun had sufficient velocity to make long-range handgun hunting a real possibility. The projectile retained sufficient energy to retain its effectiveness at this increased range. Handgun cartridges had reached a new plateau. The Magnum gave outdoorsmen an all-around revolver. The handgun seen as a backup to a rifle was useful for taking down a bad steer at point-blank range or perhaps finishing off a wounded animal—and little else. The Magnum legitimized the serious consideration of the revolver as a hunting arm.
This was a major accomplishment.
In 1935, the newly introduced .357 Magnum shattered every existing long-range accuracy record for revolvers. Not inconsiderable was the Magnum’s effect on the handgun marketplace. The introduction of the .357 Magnum—and the deluxe revolvers that chambered it—assured the ascendancy of the revolver for over 50 years. Autoloaders could not compete. We were a nation of revolver men and the Smith and Wesson Magnums were the finest of all revolvers.
Today, we have other Magnums, from the diminutive .17 caliber Magnum to the mighty .500 Magnum. I will not sugar coat the problems inherent in mastering the Magnums and the skills needed. The principles of marksmanship are not so difficult the average shooter cannot master them. When we add bone-jarring recoil to the equation, the problem compounds considerably.
Full power Magnum loads are not pleasant to fire in long sessions. There is muzzle blast as well as recoil. There is no free lunch. These guns and loads really do the business with a good man or woman behind the sights. And, as you should know, you do not have to run the Magnums wide open all of the time. There are ammunition choices that let you to practice with pleasant, even docile, loads. The .38 Special is a great understudy for the .357 Magnum. Since the .357 was developed from the .38 Special by lengthening the .38 Special cartridge case by one-tenth of an inch. .38s are easily loaded and used in the Magnum chamber.
The .357 Magnum cartridge represents a logical progression from the .38 Colt to the .38 Special to the Magnum. The .38 Special was developed into a powerful cartridge by individual handloaders, with a sharp-shouldered, 160-grain SWC loaded to 1200 fps. No factory would offer a loading at such pressures. There were foreign revolvers chambered for the .38 Special that were barely safe for the standard RNL load.
Some are so poorly chambered they will accept the .357 Magnum cartridge. This would be like holding a hand grenade at arm’s length if you were foolish enough to fire this combination. Even the better American grade guns, in light frame versions, would wear quickly with such a loading. However, there was a strong demand for a cartridge with greater velocity, penetration, and killing power than the .38 Special. Smith and Wesson developed the .357 Magnum cartridge by the simple expedient of lengthening the cartridge case one-tenth of an inch. This prevented the cartridge from being chambered in .38 Special revolvers, but allowed the use of inexpensive and readily available .38 Special brass.
When Magnum brass was still hard to come by, shooters used heavy .38 Special loads in the new revolvers, but with confidence. More than one shooter got his first Magnum weeks or months before he could find ammunition. Many early successes were accomplished with loads put up in .38 Special brass.
So much for the current ammunition shortage—it has been worse.
When the first Magnum loads were available, they were rated at 1,550 fps. I think this may be optimistic. I have achieved 1,450 fps from a six-inch barrel with heavy Magnum loads, so perhaps 1,500 fps with the 8 3/8-inch barrel was possible. Whatever the true velocity, the loads were hotter than anything previously offered in a handgun. Factory bullets were not constructed from as hard an alloy as cast bullets and tended to lead the bore badly. You could fire a dozen shots or so before accuracy fell apart. The Magnum was a handloader’s handgun. The first Magnum was a deluxe large frame revolver with a beautiful blue finish, a checkered top strap and barrel rib, a target trigger and hammer, and excellent adjustable sights.
Smith and Wesson could build only 120 a month and demand often outstripped this modest production. Barrel lengths ranged from 3.5 to 8 3/8 inches. As for accuracy, the Model 27 is easily among the most accurate revolvers ever built. With good hand loads, it would group five shots into two inches at 50 yards. With modern high quality jacketed ammunition such as Hornady’s 140-grain XTP, the guns will do the same.
When the first Magnum is considered in the light of over seventy years of experience, we have to consider what the cartridge will and will not do. The .357 has limits. Bore size imposes these limitations. Here is a Magnum with a medium bore although many refer to the .357 as a small bore. To my way of thinking, the .32 is a small bore, but many big bore men do not recognize medium as an acceptable description. The .357 has taken game larger than many think it should be employed against, and on occasion has served to defend its users against large animals such as bears.
A realistic limit on the .357 Magnum is 200-pound game at 50 yards. Long barreled Magnums, in good hands, with deep penetrating bullets have taken large bear and even elk and moose. However, respect for the laws of physics tells us this is too large an animal for the .357 Magnum cartridge. The advantage of the .357 is that most of us can tolerate its recoil well even in lightweight revolvers. It is a fine deer load in the hands of one who has mastered the cartridge. Properly placed, the original Keith load or a modern 180-grain hollow point can be effective. Against javelina, coyote and the like, the 125- to 140-grain hollow points are quite effective.
There are those who scoff at the .357 for large deer, and their points are well taken. The larger guns are doubtless more effective. However, for any shooter, regardless of his opinion, the .357 Magnum is the place to start in the Magnum hierarchy. The .357 is the training tool needed to master the larger guns. If you cannot master the nuances of hand loading, marksmanship and game taking with the .357, you will have no chance with the .44 Magnum.
In the field, in self-defense and in police work, the .357 Magnum is legendary. Even with the original load, the Magnum proved a good man stopper. In contrast, the .38 Special round-nose bullet load once issued to peace officers produced a cessation of hostilities about one time in four with a solid hit. This is a widow maker cartridge, and the smaller cartridges are even worse. The Magnum is not just a little more effective, but several times as effective.
I have looked over both ends of a gun barrel in my lifetime, and the Magnum produces rapid effect on target and a more severe wound than even the .45 auto. The semi auto is easier to control and has many advantages, including good effect on motivated adversaries. Nevertheless, the Magnum has more wound potential. Many who used the .357 Magnum in the wild and killed animals as dangerous as Jaguars remarked that as far as killing power at short range, the Magnum was a ‘rifle on the hip.’
The .357 Magnum is available in a wide array of configurations, from two-inch barrel hideouts to hunting handguns featuring twelve-inch long barrels. Incredibly, the cartridge works well in all barrel lengths and generally gives good accuracy. The Magnum has waned in the hunting field and is primarily now considered a self-defense cartridge. After all, we have the .44 Magnum for hunting animals. Nevertheless, the first Magnum will always have a place in our heart and our deepest respect.
There are several class of loads available for the modern .357 Magnum revolver. As an example Buffalo Bore offers a Tactical line of loadings, intended for personal defense, that are sensibly less hot than the full power loads the company offers for hunting. The 125-grain Barnes bullet load in particular is an excellent choice for personal defense, brilliantly accurate. For deer-sized game at closer range the 158-grain JHP loads are acceptable. Among the best heavy hunting loads are those specialty loads that feature a 180-grain heavy cast bullet. There is no shortage of choice in the .357 Magnum and these choices range from mild to wild. The .357 Magnum is a great cartridge with an impeccable lineage.
What do you think about the .357 Magnum? Share your thoughts in the comment section.
Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooters Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.
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