The Most Versatile Handgun Caliber — The .357 Magnum

By Bob Campbell published on in Ammunition, Reloading

In the firearms world, I see much hype and overstatement. As such, the real article with genuine performance is often under appreciated. One example is comparing the latest 9mm +P or .357 SIG load to the .357 Magnum. While some of these loads are impressive for the caliber, they are no match for the true .357 Magnum. Others engage in revisionist history and attempt to downplay the great men and firearms of the past.

Ruger GP100 pistol right side

The Ruger GP100 is a formidable revolver.

The .357 Magnum was used by lawmen, adventurers, and hunters to perform tasks that were previously suitable only for rifles. As one man put it, after some experience with deadly animals in the Amazon it is ‘a rifle on the hip.’ Heavy, hard-cast bullets were developed that afforded excellent penetration and accuracy within months of the .357’s introduction. 173- to 180-grain hard-cast bullet loads still give uncanny accuracy and penetration.

Modern JHP loads give the Magnum more performance than ever. When discussing the .357 Magnum and its good points, I have to stress that the best revolvers for this cartridge are those with a heavy frame and cylinder capable of taking heavy loads. A four- to six-inch barrel and adjustable sights are best for maximizing the .357 Magnum. Short barrel, lightweight-frame revolvers are OK for personal defense, but limited in application and not my idea of a go-anywhere do-anything revolver.

The .357 Magnum is a powerful field and holster gun. Perhaps these lightweight revolvers might have been better chambered for the .38 Special +P+ or .38-44 load. With their heavy barrels and larger grips than most snub nose revolvers, they are best suited for use with heavy .38 Special loads, but that is my opinion.

Several boxes of ammunition

The author tested a stack of powerful loads in the Ruger GP100 with excellent results.

I own a number of .357 Magnum revolvers. I have owned most of the popular revolvers. The single most accurate, and perhaps the most rugged, durable, and reliable, is the Ruger GP100. The Ruger is accurate with light loads and even more accurate with magnum loads. As an example, with a .38 Special 148-grain wadcutter at 730 fps, the Ruger will cut a 1-inch 25-yard group all day. Bump the load up to a 160-grain hard cast SWC at 1,000 fps (in .38 Special cases), and you have a useful practice load that is accurate and suitable for small game hunting.

Load a 110-grain JHP in the .38 Special to 1,100 fps, and you have a good varmint load. However, the most amazing and powerful loads are the full power .357 Magnum loads. The hardcore Ruger GP100 owners among you know the GP100 often exhibits 60-90 fps more per barrel length than other revolvers for some reason. The accuracy is phenomenal!

Among the .357 Magnum loads are various reduced loads that are stronger than the .38 Special but not full-power Magnum loads. These are designed primarily for practice and personal defense. As an example, the Winchester 110-grain JHP breaks about 1230 fps and is intended as a low-recoil defense load. The Remington Golden Saber 125-grain load breaks at 1250 fps and is intended as medium power load.

That’s fine, and these loads are suited to lighter revolvers. With the Winchester 124-grain PDX 9mm +P breaking 1200 fps and the 127-grain SXT +P+ at 1250 fps, those claiming the 9mm will meet the .357 Magnum for power have a leg to stand on. Let’s look at full power loads.

Recessed barrel crown

The Ruger Magnum revolver features a recessed barrel crown.

Recently, I had occasion to take a day or two and really enjoy my Ruger GP100. I fired it from the benchrest for accuracy, taking every advantage to exhibit good groups. This revolver features excellent sights and a smooth trigger action. When you set the front sight on the target, there is little movement. If you do your part, you have a hit. Keep doing this, and you have a small group. In off hand double-action fire, the revolver is controllable.

I fired a number of factory loads and found a few that gave excellent results—fully up to the Magnum power level. Others are best suited for practice, loaded sensibly lighter than full power in order to prove accurate practice. Just the same, you would be well advised (and healthier) to stay out of the way of a 1280 fps 125-grain JHP.

My son Alan is a master handloader that has taken up experiments where I left off. Among the loads he sent was the single most accurate combination I have yet fired in the GP100—the Hornady 158-grain XTP at 1100 fps. He also sent a powerful number that we have labeled Ruger only. It would not blow a lesser handgun, but over time wear on the small parts would wreck the revolver. And then it would possibly exhibit flattened primers and hard extraction. However, it functions perfectly in the Ruger.

Using the Hornady 125-grain XTP and H 110 powder, this load breaks 1628 fps from the Ruger GP100’s 4-inch barrel. That is true .357 Magnum performance. The Ruger GP100 will take an unlimited amount of heavy loads and deliver outstanding accuracy. As the following tables show, the .357 Magnum is still the first with the most.

Practice and Reduced Magnum Loads

.38 Special Velocity 25-yard group for five shots
Winchester 158-grain SWC 835 fps 1.9 in.
Winchester 158-grain LSWCHP+P 1001 fps 2.5 in.
Remington 110-grain JHP 940 fps 2.5 in.
Buffalo Bore 158-grain LSWCHP 1040 fps 2.4 in.

Practice and Light Defense Loads

.357 Magnum Velocity 25-yard group for five shots
Winchester 110-grain JHP USA 1230 fps 2.5 in.
Remington 125-grain Golden Saber 1240 fps 1.2 in.
HPR 125-grain JHP 1280 fps 1.25 in.
Fiocchi 158-grain JHP 1135 fps 1.1 in.
Hornady 158-grain XTP True Blue Powder 1150 fps .9 in.

Full Power Loads

Heavy .357 Magnum Velocity 25-yard group for five shots
Hornady 125-grain Critical Defense 1383 fps 1.5 in.
Hornady 158-grain XTP 1250 fps 1.25 in.
SIG Sauer Elite 125-grain V Crown 1370 fps 1.2 in.
Winchester 145-grain Silvertip 1355 fps 1.9 in.
Winchester 158-grain JHP 1266 fps 1.25 in.
Hornady 140-grain XTP/H110 powder 1425 fps 1.35 in.
Hornady 125-grain XTP/H110 powder 1628 fps 1.2 in.
Matt’s Bullets 175-grain SWC/H 110 1150 fps 1.7 in.
Grizzly Cartridge 180-grain Flat Point 1140 fps 1.5 in.
Buffalo Bore 180-grain hard cast 1334 fps 1.4 in.

Are you a fan of the .357 Magnum or do your prefer another caliber? Share your top pick for caliber, load, and use in the comment section.

SLRule

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 Shooter’s 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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Comments (27)

  • Steve-O

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    I found a S&W 686+ with a 6″ barrel and absolutely love it! It will shoot the lightest .38 Special wadcutter target loads all the way up to the Buffalo Bore heavy hunting rounds with similar accuracy.

    I enjoy your articles, Bob. Have you written, or would you write, an article comparing the full size Ruger to full size S&W in .357?

    Reply

  • Vincent LaVallee

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    Bob,

    I have been an owner of a Ruger 357 blackhawk for many decades. It also shoots 38 Specal ammo, as I suspect almot all 357 Mag handguns do. But your list at the end of this article states it is a 38 Special velocity list under ‘Full Power Loads’, but it looks a lot more like a 357 velocity list. As I have mentioned to you before, I have created a ballistics file of over 23 calibers, and over 500 individual cartridges for these calibers. The fastest 38 Special I have in my list is 1,000 fps for a 125 gr bullit made by Buffalo Bore.

    Vincent (10-18-2016)

    Reply

  • Vincent LaVallee

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    Lou, I have been researching and testing (in only a few calibers) handgun ammo for some time now. I have created an Excel ballistics file that shows the ballistics of over 500 handgun ammos for 23 different calibers. After reading your post here, I had to research and add the .327 Mag to my file. After doing this, it is clear that the .327 Mag is not even close to the .357 Mag in power. I find that people in general like to make their choice of ammo look better than it is. I created this file partially because of the discussion on this forum many tiimes regarding the power of the 9 mm vs. the 45 ACP, where many people thought that the 9mm was just as powerful as the 45 ACP, which is not even close either.

    So, if you would like real proof of this, email me and I will send you my ballistics file. I have offerred and sent this file to over 15 Shooters Log members in the past few months, and now I send out a monthly mainly of this file to this group as well. This file does not only give ballistics info, but it gives costs and where to buy ammo online with hot links. This way you can get the best bang for your buck, or get the most powerful ammo, or get low power plinking ammo, for any fo the calibers I cover. Email me at vlavalle at ix.net com .com. This file is free! Since it shows a LOT of info per line, it is not really usable on smart phones, and quite linited on tablets. I have the most entries for the calibers I shoot: 38 Spec, 357 Mag, 45 ACP, 45 Colt.

    Vincent (10-18-2016).

    Reply

  • DJMILLER

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    While I will never be the shot that Mr. Campbell is I have carried and qualified with numerous. I have not had the opportunity for the Ruger 100 series.

    I started my career with a S&W mod 15, .38 Spec. I moved to a S&W mod 19, .357. I then went to a S&W mod 29, 44 mag. I had to quit the .44 mag when the sheriff said, “You can’t carry the 44’s anymore, they might hurt somebody” I am still amazed at the stupidity of the comment as I had to qualify with the 44 twice a year. I then went to a S&W 686, .357. I carried this until we had to go to Semi-Auto’s. I am sure that Mr Campbell knows more than me but I was able to shoot all factory ammo and that which I reloaded. The purpose of shooting someone is to stop the threat. My .357’s and .44 were very capable of this and the .38 was pretty good.

    Reply

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