LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
The United States in 1934 stood at the abyss. The Great Depression had ruined countless lives. Families lived in shantytowns and drifted across the Great Plains toward California or any place which held the slightest hope they could reverse their fortunes. All the while, massive, unprecedented government programs had yet to make any meaningful dent in the overall economy. Enter into this dystopian land a new criminal—the motorized bandit.
Young and old, men and women, all desperate, all with nothing to lose, found one place still existed where a person might lay their hands on some ready cash: banks. A perfect storm brewed. Prohibition had solidified the criminal underworld’s position in American society which created a supply chain for illicit guns and law-breaking know-how. The automobile had reached ascendancy over the horse. Numerous companies turned out reliable, plentiful cars, which, as some noticed, didn’t require much skill to steal.
Disaffected people, some with criminal histories, some just on a quest for money and excitement took Al Capone’s advice to heart; “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.” Almost overnight, it seemed, individuals and small gangs exploded across the country’s heartland. They robbed, grifted, and shot their way into the headlines. Many became household names: Bonnie and Clyde, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Alvin Karpis, John Dillinger, Ma Barker and her psychopathic sons, George “Machine Gun” Kelly. These outlaws held the nation’s attention and proved a major headache for law enforcement agencies.
The automobile did for these bad boys and girls what the horse had done for the Old West’s outlaws—gave them the ability to “loot and scoot.” They could storm into a small, Midwestern town, knock over the local bank, outgun the constabulary, and roar away in a dust cloud to arrive before sundown in another county or state.
Carmakers at the time used much thicker steel for auto bodies than today. The standard lead round-nose bullets fired by the average policeman’s (they were all men back then) revolver struggled to penetrate car bodywork. This often saved the desperadoes' hides in vicious shootouts. Something had to change.
A New Sheriff in Town
This situation hadn’t gone unnoticed by the firearms industry or ballistics pioneers such as Elmer Keith. By 1934, Smith & Wesson decided to design a more powerful loading for the .38 Special—then the ubiquitous police cartridge. D. B. Wesson’s design team built off Keith’s work in part, and in 1935 the company brought the .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum to the world.
While modern powders enabled the .38 Special to almost double its working pressures, S&W knew they could not trust consumers to differentiate between a standard pressure .38 and the steroid injected version so they lengthened the new round’s case to ensure it could not fit into revolvers chambered for the .38 Special.
The new cartridge proved powerful. Initial ballistics specified a 158 grain bullet fired at over 1500 feet per second (fps). Smith housed this firecracker in the only gun they deemed strong enough, their N-frame which had descended from the New Century Triple Lock. They christened it the Model 27. The gun proved heavy—and expensive. While it would indeed perforate a car, and then some, most officers hesitated to lug the beast around. The FBI, though, took notice. As the 1930s progressed, the Bureau allowed its agents to carry .357s. According to Bill Vanderpool in his 2011 American Rifleman article, A History of FBI Handguns, Smith bestowed Model 27, Serial Number One on FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover (talk about product placement).
Many factors lead to the motor bandit’s ebb: better inter-agency cooperation, radio-equipped squad cars, dedicated lawmen such as Melvin Purvis and Frank Hamer, but the powerful .357 Magnum helped in ways both tangible and intangible. The FBI didn’t give up their magnums until late in the 20th century, they proved so effective.
As time went by, more and more police agencies began to follow the FBI’s lead when it came to service weapons, a trend which continues to this day, and adopted .357 Magnum revolvers for their officers. By the 1970s, the medium frame .357 Magnum revolver became commonplace. Highway patrol agencies, in particular, liked it since their shootouts often happened in and around motor vehicles.
The .357 Magnum Today
Few, if any, U.S. law enforcement agencies now issue .357 Magnum revolvers, although they remain favored cop backup guns. High-capacity semi-auto pistols are the new norm. This doesn’t mean the round is in its sunset years; far from it. This is perhaps the most versatile handgun cartridge ever designed and produced. The .357 Magnum is as popular as ever with civilian shooters for self-defense, silhouette competition, and hunting. Here, in no particular order, are ten reasons it’s still the best overall handgun round out there.
Modern factory ballistics are a bit milder than the original, but the .357 still gets the job done, and then some. Current specs are around 1200 fps for 158 grain bullets at the muzzle and 1400+ fps for 125 grain loads—quite peppy. This translates into energy figures in the low to mid-500 foot-pounds range. For comparison, standard pressure .38 Specials generate around 200 ft-lbs. The often over-touted .45 ACP and the omnipresent 9mm Luger generate 350 to 400 ft-lbs., or so, in standard pressure loads. The mighty .44 Remington Magnum lives in the 750 – 800+ ft-lbs. neighborhood. The .357 has enough grunt to take small and medium-sized game but is not too much for defense against two-legged predators.
Despite the energy it delivers on target, the .357 is manageable when shot from a duty-sized, medium or large framed revolver. Although, if you want to touch one off in your alloy or polymer frame ultra-light snub-nose, you’ll have to comfort yourself as the ER doc sets your wrist with the knowledge of what ensued, for the most part, happened to the target. While the .357’s recoil may inhibit accurate rapid fire more than a 9 mm or .38 Special, the substantial damage it can cause with a well-placed first shot may negate the need for extra rounds.
The .357 Magnum is renowned as an accurate cartridge. So much so it is popular with silhouette shooters who reach out to 100 yards, or more, to knock down small steel targets. It is more than accurate enough for close-quarters battle and hunting at reasonable ranges.
The need to punch through tough intermediate barriers such as car bodywork is the .357 Magnum’s rasion d’etre. It still possesses this capability—for good or ill.
To the good, it will drive deep into game animals to reach vital organs and effect a quick, humane kill.
To the bad, some loads can over-penetrate human assailants to pose a clear and present danger to any person or property in line with the bullet’s trajectory. There have been many lawsuits filed against, and potential criminal prosecution for, whoever fired said bullet.
Proper load selection for the task at hand is how to control penetration to get the appropriate amount for the circumstances. In general, with a controlled expansion hollow point, expect the 158 grain and heavier bullets to penetrate deep and the 145 or lighter ones less so. For maximum penetration, use full jacketed flat-points, based jacketed soft-points, or hard cast lead bullets with wide, flat meplats.
5. Gun Selection
Just about any company which makes revolvers makes one or more models chambered for the .357 Magnum. The market covers almost every need; from tiny snubbies for deep concealment to large framed, long-barreled behemoths for hunting. .357 revolvers are everywhere, and you can find good, affordable used examples on almost any gun shop’s second-hand rack.
Hand in hand with gun selection is ammo availability. The .357 Magnum is still among the top five most popular handgun cartridges worldwide. You can find it at any retailer that stocks ammunition, no matter how remote the locale. There is a tremendous variety available; everything from reduced recoil loads to max-pressure bear loads, and everything in between. Plus, even if you couldn’t find any .357 rounds (remember the 2008 – 2014 ammo shortage?), you could still, in all likelihood, find .38 Special, and at least have something to stuff into your gun which would get you by until some magnums happened along.
7. Rifles and Carbines
The .357 is not just a handgun round. Several rifles and carbines are chambered for it. A .357 Magnum long-gun brings this cartridge into a whole other realm. The longer barrel boosts the bullet’s velocity by a substantial amount over the shorter barrels found on handguns. This allows a shooter or hunter to carry a compact rifle and a handgun that share common ammunition. The ultra-heavy bullet loads now on the market become serious deer medicine when fired from a rifle.
8. Cartridge Interchange
Like the .44 and .327 caliber magnums, the .357 Magnum has a shorter parent cartridge which will chamber in guns made for the Magnum. In the .357’s case, it is the .38 Special. This gives these guns marvelous flexibility in ammo selection. Full-house magnums too much to handle? No worries, fill your gun’s cylinder with some .38 Special or .38 +P and, voila! You now have an easy-to-shoot, yet effective weapon which won’t break your wrist and keeps its muzzle obediently on target during rapid-fire. As alluded to above, it also provides redundancy: if you can’t get magnums you can get specials and vice versa.
9. Track Record
The .357 Magnum has a stellar history as a defensive cartridge. Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow’s pioneering work during the 1980s studied real-world shootings in an effort to determine how effective handgun cartridges are at stopping human assailants. Their initial research, published in 1992 and entitled, Handgun Stopping Power: The Definitive Study, showed the .357 Magnum had the best track record in actual shootings. It delivered one-shot stops at a rate well over 90%.
Law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. relied upon—and spoke in glowing terms about—their .357s. The .357 held this position in the handgun pantheon until the early 21st century when the newest bullet designs came to market. Although both the 9x19mm and .45 ACP now have one-shot rankings equal to the veteran .357 (based on Marshall’s 2004 data), the .357 is in no way diminished in comparison. If the .357 could talk, it might say to the other rounds, “Hey, what took you so long?”
10. Court Defensible
Much is written and spoken about how handgun cartridges perform during a defensive shooting, but little gets said about the aftermath. Once you fire a shot in those circumstances, the world will look you up. The authorities may prosecute you. Your assailant, or anyone else involved in the matter, may sue you regardless of how justified the shooting may have been. A common trick among both prosecutors and trial lawyers is to vilify a defendant with the gun and or ammunition they chose. They paint the poor person who decided they’d rather fight than die that fateful day as a bloodthirsty Rambo who used the most deadly and cruel devices they could get their hands on. According to noted experts, such as Massad Ayoob, the above scenario can go much smoother if you chose a gun, caliber, and ammunition in common law enforcement usage. The .357 fits this bill based on how many agencies, including the FBI, used it for so many decades.
There it is: the .357 Magnum is the real “do it all” handgun cartridge, and has been since 1935. It is powerful, versatile, available, and accurate. It can put venison on the table or defend your life. Anyone armed with a .357 Magnum is well armed indeed.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2019 LJ Bonham
Charlie Boy NZ on June 10, 2020:
Great historical, ballistic,and overall coverage for the .357 Mag.
The Bottom Line comment sums it up .