Throwback Thursday: Best .357 Magnum Loads for Hunting and Defense

Smith and Wesson Revolver and Ammo

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.

Target Shooting

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.

Personal Defense

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.

Buffalo Bore .38 Special Ammo
A good heavy .38 Special is a fine choice for much of your shooting.

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.

Hornady Critical Defense Ammo
Left is Federal’s 180-grain JHP. Right is Hornady’s 125-grain FTX.

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.

Colt .357 Magnum Revolvers
While the four-inch barrel packs easier, the six-inch barrel .357 Magnum is generally more accurate.

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.

Buffalo Bore .357 Magnum Ammo
A wide range of bullet weight serves the Magnum.

Animal Defense

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.

Expanded .357 Magnum Ammo
This is the Hornady Hunter bullet. Note the space-age elastomer, which ensures expansion.

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.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (18)

  1. My carry gun is a Ruger GP 100 in 4 inch. I use Underwood 125 grain loads. At 1700 fps advertised velocity. Very accurate but very loud. Be careful what you use the underwood loads in though. The GP is a 44 frame so it can take it. Others not so much.

  2. For me, self-defense against 2 leggers begins and ends with the 135 grain Speer Gold Dot in .38+p and/or .357 mag. A nice hand-loaded heavy hardcast SWCFP in 158-180 grain for any other scenario.

  3. I started in L.E. With a S$W Model 15 and a Model 38 J-frame. At the time, early 70s, the only ammo we were allowed to carry were either 158 grain Hi-Speed or 200 grain SuperPolice loads. I fired both on that J-frame without any loosening. FWIW. Nowadays I carry Glaser Safety Slugs in the grey tip variety. Nothing around Tucson that a hard cast bullet in the 15 can’t handle. No grizzly, no black bear, just javalina or coyote. I do have a Colt Trooper for larger critters, but a hot loaded 38, in the 15 works for me.

  4. There was a saying in Alaska for newbies that carried 357s or others less than 44Mag. Make sure you file down the front sight; that way it won’t hurt so much when the bear shoves it where the sun don’t shine!

  5. I have found that 38/357 loads from Buffalo Bore handle all my needs for self defense and/or hunting. Hard cast, varied weights, all good. Pricier than reg store bought but are my go-to now. Guess I’ll have a bunch of extra saved for SHTF time because the BB loads are all I want to shoot now, guns all sighted in for those loads.

  6. My go to while in a deer stand is my Taurus 608 6” ported barrel with 8rds of the horn lever-revolution, on the other hand in the center console of my truck sits the tracker 627 4” ported barrel with 7rds liberty civil defense…… if I can get done with what I’ve got I don’t need to be where I’m at

  7. For my lightweight J frame Smith, anything heavier that 110 gr is out of the question. My ignorant little friend really stings my knuckle. I should probably go to a 110 gr 38spl +P. I was carrying a G43, but I had a couple feeding problems with soft points, especially when chamber/bullet tips get too dry and dusty from carrying.

  8. I have always ascribed the Elmer Keith’s maxim: Big bullets let in a lot of air and let out a lot of blood. I live in northwestern Montana where big bears (and some little ones) live. Usually my carry piece is a 4″ .44 Magnum revolver or a 10mm auto loaded with heavy hard cast bullets but I never feel under-gunned with a 3″ or 4″ .357 loaded with 180 gr. cast lead bullets. Lately I’ve been playing around with some Underwood loads in these 3 calibers that have lighter weight solid copper bullets loaded to high velocities. The You Tube jello shot videos of these loads are truly impressive. I would reserve expanding bullets for personal protection against two-legged predators and don’t think there is a better round for this role than the 125gr JHP.

  9. When riding in the saddle, I carry the Corbon 200grn Penetrators or Grizzly 200 grn solid cast for animal defense.

  10. You completely left out the very best self defense load, the Federal HST, no matter the bullet weight, is easily the best self defense round currently being produced.

  11. Very useful article. I recently acquired a Model 94 Winchester in .357 and have been unable to decide on a cartridge for effective use in both the rifle and my 3″bbl model 65 S&W. I would be happy for any suggestions!

  12. I use my hand loads in the 357 and a 180 grain hard lead Keith style bullet and 8 grains of Unique to move it out.I have an old Model27 S&W,recessed and pinned.I seldom if ever buy loaded ammo for anything except 22:R.

  13. Where and what 38 spcl (understand only 158gr. Feed reliably), include bullet
    type please, should I buy for my Henry big boy as having troubles loading and may as well advise on 357 mag rounds. Th you. Jim

  14. When it comes to handguns the .357 magnum and/or it’s little sister the .38 special are my first lovers. My dad was a State Police Officer so handguns, especially his duty firearm, the Smith and Wesson Model 19 Combat Magnum was always present. The first handgun I ever fired was that particular Model 19, which started my love affair not only with Smith & Wesson revolvers but the .357/38 special. As noted above, the .357 can be used on virtually all small and mid size game up to and including the black bear. As also mentioned above as well as in general shot placement is all important. One of the nice things about the .357 magnum is the ability to use 38 special ammunition for target practice. 148 grain wad cutters or 158 grain semi wad cutters are not only very inexpensive but offer a fair amount of recoil as well as superb accuracy, accuracy enough to use the revolver in competition. When shooting over the National Match Course I use a Browning Buckmark for the .22 stage, a 6 inch S&W 686 for the centerfire stage and a Colt Gold Cup for the .45 stage. My most accurate is the Model 686 firing the timed and rapid fire single action. On yet another note, when bow hunting last fall I arrowed a nice 8 point, who as any respectable deer would, took off running from the bean field where I hit him, uphill into the woods for about 100 yards. Now if you have ever hunted in Wisconsin you will know that up hill is good since you can drag him downhill which is much preferable than dragging a deer uphill, especially being female and 74 years old. Anyway I followed the blood trail and found the deer about 75 yards up in the woods laying against a tree keeping it from sliding downhill. Anyway as I was field dressing the buck I noticed that there were 3 Coyotes about 25 yards away watching me intently. Now Coyotes are not known for attacking humans but there were 3 of them which made them a Pack, me…the only weapon that I had on me was a Benchmade knife. Yes I was nervous as a Blonde Chick can get when confronted out in the woods by apparently hungry coyotes. I finished field dressing the buck and started hauling it, or in some cases it hauling me downhill to my stand and waiting ATV. When I got there, with some issues loaded the buck into the dump box in back with the coyotes watching intently. I loaded my equipment into the ATV and bid the Coyotes a farewell as I headed back to the barn. So what was the lesson learned here. Never go into the woods in search of a wounded (thankfully fatally) animal unarmed. So the moral of this story is that I bought a new S&W Model 19 Classic as my new carry handgun when hunting…for anything in the woods.

  15. For many Seniors, a good .357 revolver is an ideal compromise for self defense, As example, the S&W 3″ model 60 has a nice balance of weight, power, and ease of use with ,38+P or ,357 loads. S&W “K” or “L” frame sizes, or the RUGER GP100, for Seniors without arthritis issues, are also great. Lastly, with the current crop of .357 rifles, think of how much better a 125 gr. .357 round out of a 17″ or 18″ will perform than a 9mm round. A .357 Lever action rifle doesn’t look like an evil 9mm rifle either.

  16. in bear country 180 or 200gr hard cast flat in Ruger GP100 4″.For anti-personnle:factory only 38Spec+P 158gr lhp,followed by 2 speedloaders of 357Mag 158gr jhp

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