Throwback Thursday: .357 Magnum — A Useful and Exciting Cartridge By: Wilburn Roberts

.357 Magnum Revolvers

There are few go-anywhere, do-anything handgun cartridges. Some are lacking in power and accuracy for personal defense and hunting. Many handguns do not have sufficient accuracy to qualify as truly versatile.

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The .357 Magnum was introduced in 1935, making it a relative newcomer in the handgun world. This cartridge gives its users many options, from the ability to load very light loads for practice and small-game hunting, to powerful loads that will take medium-size game. For those willing to master the handgun, the .357 Magnum is still the cartridge with the most versatility. In personal defense, the Magnum’s wound potential is proven beyond any question.

.357 Magnum Overview

The .357 Magnum is based on the .38 Special. The well-balanced and accurate .38 did not prove to be a good manstopper with the factory RNL loading. The advent of the automobile bandit doing his deeds and escaping in the safety of a steel and heavy wood reinforced vehicle presented a severe problem. For this reason, several European special units still deploy the .357 Magnum revolver — an automobile is the usual escape vehicle.


With new powder and bullets, the .38 Special was sharply invigorated by experimenters. Heavy loads jolted a 150 to 173-grain sharp-shouldered, flat-point semi-wadcutter bullet to 1,100 fps. When loaded with cast lead hollow-point bullets, we had a fine personal-defense load. The heavy-frame .38-44 revolver was a .38 Special on a .44 frame.


It wasn’t that the new loads would blow up a revolver, although in fact handloaders wrecked quite a few. The problem was small parts take a beating. The solution was to lengthen the .38 case by 1/10th of an inch and create the .357 Magnum. The .38 Special could be used in this revolver as a target and practice load, and the powerful Magnum load would not chamber in a .38 Special revolver. The long-range accuracy of the .357 Magnum is a great advantage of the cartridge. Many accuracy records fired by the .357 Magnum revolver at 600 yards stand today. Of course you need a heavy-frame, long-barrel revolver to equal these results.

In a strong revolver, the Magnum is a handloader’s dream. The Hornady 125-grain XTP is among my favorite bullets. The 125-grain XTP is a fine defense and varmint load, but just the same, 125-grain velocity may be equaled with the 140-grain bullet by careful handloading. If you understand powder selection and bullet pull, the 140-grain XTP may be pushed to 1,400 fps in a four-inch barrel revolver with H110 or W296 powder.

A maximum-effort loading I use sparingly, is a combination of H110 powder and the Hornady 125-grain XTP. This one will break 1,680 fps from the four-inch barrel Ruger GP100. This load demonstrates why the .357 Magnum is sometimes called a rifle on the hip. Such performance leaves the 10mm Auto, .38 Super and .357 SIG in the dirt by comparison.

The .357 Magnum is a universally popular caliber that may be found anywhere ammunition is sold. The combination of versatility, including the use of a .38 Special sub-load, makes the .357 Magnum a very desirable caliber.

Colt Python in Holster
Among the author’s favorite revolvers is this four-inch barrel Python. It is carried in a Galco Phoenix holster, and a Galco speedloader pouch is also used.

Barrel Length

If you are going to make full use of the capabilities of the .357 Magnum cartridge, you need a well-made revolver with good sights and a smooth action. There are popular .357 Magnum revolvers with two to 3.5-inch barrels. The problem is the .357 Magnum, unlike the 9mm Luger and .45 ACP, is loaded with relatively heavy charges of slow-burning powder. This powder doesn’t fully burn in a short barrel. The result is tremendous muzzle blast. Muzzle flash is simply powder burning outside the barrel. As an example, a 125-grain JHP may exhibit 1,440 fps in a four-inch barrel revolver. Velocity falls to 1,280-1,300 fps in the shorter barrel. This is with greater recoil in the lighter handgun, and also increased muzzle flash.

By comparison, it isn’t difficult to find a 9mm Luger 124-grain JHP that breaks over 1,200 fps in a Glock 19. We have reached a point of diminishing returns in a short-barrel Magnum. In a four-inch barrel revolver, the .357 Magnum far outstrips the 9mm Luger and .38 Special. Heavy .38s are useful. As an example, the .38 Special Outdoorsman loaded by Buffalo Bore jolts a 158-grain SWC to over 1,100 fps. No 9mm Luger will do this! 125 grains at 1,400 fps, 158 grains at 1,300, or the 145-grain Winchester Silvertip at 1,320 fps are good loads for different chores in the Magnum.

If you make the decision to deploy a revolver and carefully choose leather gear, a four-inch barrel Magnum is a great companion for personal defense. You don’t have to run wide open all of the time. There are powerful, but low-recoil loads designed for personal defense. As an example, the Remington 110-grain JHP breaks 1,344 fps in my Combat Magnum. Remington’s Golden Saber is intended for use in .357 Magnum revolvers with modest barrel lengths. It just averages 1,200 fps in the four-inch barrel Smith and Wesson. These are valid choices. If you are willing to master full-power loads, there are even more powerful loads. 125 grains at 1,400 fps is proven in hundreds of defense shootings. This is a useful load for protection against feral dogs and even the big cats.

.357 Magnum Revolver
You don’t have to spend a fortune on a useful revolver. The EAA Windicator is a solid piece that handles well.

For hunting, I think it is wise to choose a six-inch barrel or longer .357 Magnum. As an example, I recently tested several modern loads in a six-inch barrel Python. These are credible deer loads. The Federal 158-grain JHP breaks 1,340 fps and the proven deer-killing Federal 180-grain JHP exhibits over 1,260 fps. The hard-cast 180-grain loading from Buffalo Bore went a solid 1,449 fps. In a revolver weighing 40 ounces or more, these are excellent loads with modest recoil. It isn’t like you need to make a quick pattern on the target, what matters is the shot you are firing at the moment in hunting! While modern JHP bullets are good for many uses, a hard-cast bullet that offers excellent penetration is viable for many uses.

An important use is animal defense. Nothing short of a .375 Holland, and Holland is really useful against Grizzly, but a hard-cast, deep-penetrating bullet is a good choice for small creatures.

.357 Magnum Self-Loading

The Coonan isn’t a lightweight and it isn’t inexpensive, but it is quite a handgun. Coonan points out that their 1911 is only slightly larger than the Government Model .45. The Coonan weighs 42 ounces. Recoil isn’t as great as a revolver of comparable weight. The self-loading action soaks up some recoil.

With its 1911-like controls and features — a frame-mounted safety, a grip safety, an ergonomic slide lock and a well-shaped grip — the Coonan will run a combat course with surprising speed and accuracy. The grip is slightly smaller in cross section, but longer than the 1911 .45, which makes handling excellent. The Coonan is enjoyable to fire and, with a lightened recoil spring supplied by Coonan, it will feed and function with .38 Special ammunition. The pistol is well finished with excellent fitting. The trigger action isn’t a true 1911-type, but a pivoting trigger that allows for a clean break. The barrel is a ramped design.


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Accuracy is good with a wide variety of jacketed and cast bullets. The Coonan doesn’t have a barrel-cylinder gap, so there is significant velocity increase. You may handload a relatively light load that isn’t hard on the gun, yet this load will develop full-power velocity.  A 125-grain XTP over enough Titegroup for 1,250 fps is a joy to use and fire in a four-inch barrel Python. Fire this load in the Coonan and velocity jumps to a true 1,450 fps! Recoil is modest, perhaps in the .38 Super class.

The Federal Cartridge Company 180-grain JHP, a favorite of deer hunters, breaks 1,200 fps from the Coonan. Factory 158-grain loads gain 100 to 200 fps over the revolver. What we have is a pistol about as fast into action as a Government Model .45, but with the power of a .357 Magnum — actually more power than most revolvers are able to generate. This isn’t a handgun for the casually interested, but it is quite a Magnum!

Coonan .357 Magnum 1911
The Coonan self-loader is an interesting handgun.

.357 Magnum Long Guns

With the Rossi lever-action rifle chambered in the .357 Magnum, you have an excellent companion for the Magnum revolver. Accuracy is decent, with a four-inch group at 100 yards average. I once owned a long-barrel Rossi/Puma with octagon barrel, and it was far more accurate than the norm, with groups of 1.9 to 2.5 inches at 100 yards. It isn’t difficult to jolt a 158-grain Hornady XTP well past 1,800 fps! The .357 Magnum is among our most useful cartridges. Suitable for personal defense, hunting and general recreation, this is among our most interesting and exciting cartridges.

Do you enjoy the .357 Magnum? What do you use it for? Let us know in the comments section below!

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in September of 2020. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.