A lthough it’s considered a modern cartridge, the .357 Magnum, was actually introduced in 1935. At that time it was a giant step up from the preceding .38 caliber cartridges such as the .38 S&W, and .38 Special.
To add glitz to the cartridge’s introduction, Major Doug Wesson took it all across North America, using it on almost every large game animal he could find. Deer, elk, grizzly bears, and many others bit the dirt courtesy of the new magnum.
Not only was the cartridge more powerful than any that preceded it, the gun was a magnificent example of the art of firearms manufacturing. In the beginning all of them were practically handmade, fitted and finished.
This was the era of the Model .357 Magnum, before it became the Model 27. Since that day, there have been many different models and brands of .357 Magnums, even some semi-autos and not a few carbines. Even at this date, 84 years after its introduction, the .357 Magnum is one of the most effective self-defense rounds on the market.
When the .357 was introduced, it was loaded a lot hotter than it is today. In the beginning, if we are to believe the literature, the load that initiated the wave of wonder was a 158-grain bullet at better than 1,500 feet per second.
Today we can only approach that level of performance by handloading for a very strong, long-barreled handgun, using the most modern, slow-burning powders and the best brass. Even then, you have to load it to the top of the charts, or even over the top—something that’s never recommended.
The loads generally seen on dealers’ shelves in that bullet weight are more likely to produce velocities of around 1,250 feet per second. My hunting load generates about 1350 fps from a 6-inch Model 27 S&W– and it is absolutely maximum in that very strong gun. To achieve the 1500 fps we read about it is usually necessary to reduce bullet weight, and even then it isn’t easy. For instance, my current Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading shows only one load with 158-grain bullets that exceeds 1250 fps, and it does not reach 1,500.
I have used the .357 Magnum to take a number of deer, javelina, coyotes, raccoons, and such. For the smaller animals it was great, but the deer sometimes needed extra killing. I have never killed a whitetail in its tracks with a .357, and I have never misplaced a shot. Most of the time some trailing was involved.
That’s in spite of the fact that every shot I have ever fired at a deer was a complete pass-through shot. The reason is that the First Magnum is a bit light in the pockets for animals over about 70 pounds. It produces less than 1,000 ft-lbs of impact energy, even with the stiffest loads I am aware of, and most won’t reach 750.
On the other hand, strange as it sounds, for personal protection the .357 is one of the best. With lighter bullets designed to expand rapidly, it gives good one-shot stopping potential, is not badly inclined to over-penetrate, and is still easy to shoot well.
Even in this era of the semi-auto, I still occasionally carry a very well-preserved old 2 1/2-inch Model 19. With six 125-grain hollow points in the gun and a speed loader in my pocket, I feel quite well armed for almost any situation. Besides, any situation I can’t handle with the wheel gun, I probably couldn’t handle with any other handgun.
It took some little time after its introduction to displace the .38 Special, but eventually the .357 became the sine qua non of law enforcement handguns. The first handgun I was issued as a police officer was a Model 19 S&W. When I joined the Border Patrol I was issued a Colt Border Patrol Model in .357.
I didn’t like the trigger pull of the Colt, so I eventually bought a Smith & Wesson Model 686 (L-frame) .357, which I carried until the Border Patrol began to allow its officers to carry semi-autos.
During the era of the revolver the Texas Highway Patrol issued the S&W Model 28 Highway Patrol to its troopers. The Model 28 is simply a less fancy Model 27, which is the large .44-frame (N-frame) gun in .357. It is heavier than the Model 19, but much more robust.
The Model 19, based on the smaller K-38 (K-frame), but much strengthened, was preferred by most officers because of its lighter weight, even though it would not stand up to as many heavy magnum loads. Also popular was the Colt Python, a beautiful handgun renowned for its accuracy.
The .357 is still popular, and is still a solid choice for self-defense. If you like revolvers, and many still do, there are few cartridges out there with the abilities of the .357 Magnum. Most handgun manufacturers offer several different models to fit almost any scenario and every need.
Email Steve LaMascus at
Email Steve LaMascus at [email protected]