Among my favorite cartridges is the .357 Magnum. The .357 Magnum is a versatile, hard-hitting, and effective caliber. It is useful for many roles, but proper load selection is critical for success in these roles. Among the chores the .357 Magnum may be used for is personal defense, home defense, hunting small game, hunting medium-sized game, and for animal defense. The cartridge is versatile, but without proper load selection you will have a problem with performance.
As an example, a lightweight, fast-opening bullet may simply stop in a wild boar’s shoulder blade and fail to fully penetrate. On the other hand, a hard-cast bullet intended for use against deer-sized game will over penetrate for use in the home and lacks expansion and wound potential against dedicated human threats. Let’s look at some of the possible scenarios. While there are a number of general-purpose loads that may be useful in more than one scenario, this overlap of roles should be understood.
We don’t need a full .357 Magnum load in this scenario. Magnum revolvers function well with .38 Special loads. A factory 148-grain wadcutter is wonderfully accurate. At 700 fps or so, recoil isn’t a consideration.
For long-range target practice, a handload using a hard-cast 160 to 180-grain bullet at 1,000 fps may be accurate well past 100 yards. For varmints, groundhogs and other game at long range, a hard-cast lead bullet is effective and also makes a fine long-range target bullet.
This is the use most of us put the .357 Magnum to. For the most part, the 110 to 125-grain JHP bullets are best. At 1,300 to 1,440 fps, these bullets expand quickly, fragment and produce an effective wound channel.
The Hornady Critical Defense at 1,380 fps doesn’t fragment and produces an impressive balance of expansion and penetration. The Federal 125-grain JHP is often fastest in testing at 1,440 fps. The Remington 110-grain JHP offers less recoil at about 1,400 fps and penetrates less than heavier bullets. For general defensive use and home defense, these loads have a high likelihood of effect with a single shot.
Another choice is the Remington 125-grain Golden Saber. Loaded to about 1,250 fps, in most revolvers this is a mid-power loading that is far more powerful than the .38 Special, but controllable in lighter .357 Magnum revolvers. As an example, the Smith and Wesson 640 Pro I often carry is best served with this load or a 110-grain JHP, as recoil is just too much with a full-power 125-grain loading. A full-size four-inch barrel .357 Magnum is a formidable revolver with 125-grain loads.
Another choice comes with heavier bullets in the 135 to 145-grain range. It isn’t well known, but Hornady offers a .357 Magnum version of the 135-grain bullet adopted by the FBI in 9mm. The Critical Duty 135-grain load is a well-balanced loading that offers good performance. If the revolver is carried during the winter months when heavy clothing may be worn, this load is well worth your time and effort to obtain. It is accurate and offers low muzzle flash.
Among the loads I keep on hand is the Winchester 145-grain Silvertip. This loading has a formidable reputation and offers greater penetration than lighter bullets, while maintaining its weight and avoiding fragmentation.
Hunting Small Game
The .357 Magnum is plenty accurate for small game, varmints and pests. Small animals are easily taken with .38 Special loads. When bobcat, coyote, or one of the big cats is considered, a full power .357 Magnum load is a better choice.
A handload using the Hornady 140-grain XTP or a factory-loaded Winchester Silvertip is a good choice for animals up to the mountain lion category. Coyote are not difficult to put down, but the stringy little dogs are able to soak up plenty of small-bore bullets, so the .357 Magnum is a good choice.
However, the lighter bullets are not as accurate as some of the heavier bullets at 50 yards or more. An exception is the Hornady 125-grain XTP. At 1,650 fps over a stiff charge of H110, this is a formidable coyote, bobcat, and pest load. In some ways this load puts a rifle on the hip.
Hunting Medium Game
For deer-sized game, the range is what matters. Will you be on a stand and firing at 25 yards, or might the shot be 50 yards? The .357 Magnum is powerful enough for taking deer-sized game with good shot placement, but there is no margin for error. Some of the 158-grain JHP loads are suited for this task. The factory Federal 158-grain Hydra-Shok, Winchester 158-grain JHP, or Speer Gold Dot are among these.
For use where more penetration is needed, a 180-grain JHP is useful. A shooter using the .357 must limit himself to broad-side shots on deer. Buffalo Bore offers a hard-hitting, high-velocity 180-grain JHP loading well-suited to taking deer-sized game at 50 yards or so. An alternative is the Buffalo Bore 180-grain hard-cast. This loading breaks 1,340 fps in my four-inch barrel Python. Penetration is literally twice that of some of the hollow-point loads, and accuracy is excellent. This load will completely penetrate a deer, break all but the heaviest bones, and create significant blood loss. Additionally, don’t overlook the Hornady Hunter. It is among the best designed .357 Magnum loads of the century.
When I think of animal defense, I think of the many unpleasant incidents involving dogs, including feral dogs. Animals up to 100 pounds are easily handled with normal defensive loads given good shot placement. When it comes to the big cats — and these attacks are common — a 125-grain JHP would seem ideal.
Since many animal attacks involve an unexpected attack and the animal is on your body in a flash, the only defense is to shove the revolver into the animal’s body and fire. A self-loader would jam after the first shot, the revolver will keep firing. If carrying a .357 Magnum in territory where bears are a likely problem, a hardcast 180-grain load is the only viable option.
As an example, a park ranger in a western park was badly injured by a bear. During the attack, the ranger fired several 125-grain JHP bullets into the bear’s skull. They flattened on the hard, thick bone and failed to penetrate. The final bullet did the business — after the Ranger was injured. A 180-grain flat point is a good choice. The 180-grain JHP would be a reasonable choice against bear skulls, short of the big brownies.
Conclusion: .357 Magnum Loads
The .357 Magnum is a versatile cartridge, but only with intelligent load selection. There is some room for versatility. As an example, the 145-grain Silvertip is a great choice for personal defense and would be suited to deer-sized game, at short range, with a broadside shot. For many of us the 135 to 145-grain loads would be all that is needed. For heavier game, a 160 to 180-grain bullet is mandatory.
The .357 Magnum is among the greatest of handgun cartridges. Properly understood, it will do the business in a wide range of roles.
What are your favorite .357 Magnum loads? Share your answer in the comment section.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in June of 2021. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.