The Versatile .357 Magnum

By Chuck Hawks

.357 Mag.
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The famous .357 Magnum, the original magnum pistol cartridge, was introduced in 1935 by Smith & Wesson as the world's most powerful handgun cartridge. For over 20 years it was simply known as "the Magnum," as there was no other. Newer magnum cartridges eventually surpassed it in power, but not in popularity or usefulness.

The .357 is based on a .38 Special case lengthened .135" to prevent a .357 Magnum cartridge from being chambered in a .38 Special revolver. Both cartridges actually use .357" diameter bullets. The .357 operates at very high pressure for a handgun cartridge, in excess of 40,000 cup for some loads.

In my opinion piece Firearm Favorites I wrote the following about the .357 Magnum revolver cartridge: "The original magnum is still the most versatile. You can take it hunting, protect your home, and use it for recreational shooting. It can be handloaded to almost any power level from .38 wadcutter to full throttle magnum, suitable for deer size big game. It is at the top of the stopping power lists, and its high velocity and flat trajectory make it one of the few conventional handgun cartridges useful for long range shooting."

That seems as good a synopsis as any for the famous .357 Magnum. I could have added that the .357 is now chambered in double action (DA) revolvers, single action (SA) revolvers, single shot pistols, and even autoloading pistols. For magnum handguns of any caliber I prefer a barrel of at least 6" in length to maximize velocity and minimize muzzle blast.

The .357 Mag. is also popular in certain rifles, particularly the lever action Marlin 1894, and a variety of replica lever action rifles. For years owners of .357 revolvers have wanted companion rifles in the same caliber. From the 1940's through the 1970's many Winchester 1892 rifles were converted to .357 Mag. In 1979 Marlin saw the light and re-introduced their 1894 lever action carbine in .357 Magnum. I owned one of those Marlin 1894 .357 rifles, and it was a sweet shooting little gun.

Needless to say, .357 ammunition is offered by just about every company that loads handgun cartridges. The most useful bullets for handguns are 125, 140-146, and 158 grain JHP's. For personal defense the 125 grain JHP is the standout bullet. For hunting the 125 grain JHP is a good choice for the smaller species, the 140-146 grain JHP an excellent all-around bullet, and the 158 grain JHP the favored bullet for the largest species (like deer), or for a revolver carried for protection in the field.

For rifles I like the 158 grain JHP for home defense or hunting small animals and predators, and the 158 grain JSP for deer. Jacketed bullets are most desirable in the .357, as the cartridge's high velocity will cause severe barrel leading with cast or swaged lead bullets.

Factory ballistics tables call for a muzzle velocity of 1450 fps for the 125 grain JHP with 583 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy. For the 140 grain JHP the MV is 1360 fps and the ME is 575 ft. lbs. For the 158 grain JHP the MV is 1235 fps and the ME is 535 ft. lbs. These figures are all for a 4" revolver barrel.

The trajectory for the 125, 140, and 158 grain bullets is very similar, so I am going to use the 140 grain bullet as typical. Its midrange rise is .2" over 25 yards, .7" over 50 yards, 1.6" over 75 yards, and 3.0" over 100 yards.

In a rifle barrel the 158 grain JSP bullet leaves the muzzle at a claimed 1830 fps with 1175 ft. lbs. of energy. At 100 yards the figures are 1427 fps and 715 ft. lbs. I zeroed my scoped Marlin 1894 rifle to hit dead on at 100 yards, and this gave me a point blank range (+3" or -3") of about 125 yards for hunting purposes.

Be advised that some factory load velocities are difficult to duplicate even with maximum handloads. The factories often use powders that are not sold to handloaders in cannister lots. There are 90, 110, 125, 130, 137, 140, 150, 158, 170, and 180 grain bullets available for the reloader, something for every need and desire. Most reloaders choose the 125, 140, and 158 grain weights.

I have been reloading the .357 Magnum since the middle 1960's. I have found Winchester W231 and Hodgdon HS-6 powders excellent for low and medium velocity loads and H-110, W296, and Hercules 2400 powders excellent for maximum loads with bullets from 125-158 grains.

The Handgun Reloading section of the Speer Reloading Manual Number 13 shows that 7.6 grains of W231 powder will drive their 125 grain bullets to a MV of 1129 fps, and 8.3 grains of W231 will drive the same bullets to a MV of 1168 fps. For heavy loads the Speer Reloading Manual Number 13 shows that 13.9 grains of H110 will drive their 158 grain bullets to a MV of 1151 fps, and 15.5 grains of H110 will drive those bullets to a MV of 1217 fps. These Speer velocities were measured in a 6" S&W revolver barrel using Speer cases and CCI primers.

For use in a rifle the Speer Reloading Manual Number 13 shows that 13.9 grains of H110 powder behind a 158 grain bullet gives a MV of 1473 fps, and 15.5 grains of H110 gives a MV of 1648 fps. These loads also used Speer cases and CCI primers, but were chronographed in the 18" barrel of a Marlin 1894 rifle.

The .357 will do for most deer if full power loads are used at reasonable ranges and the hunter puts the bullet directly into the heart/lung area. I like 140-158 grain JHP bullets for use in handguns and 158 grain JSP bullets for use in rifles, due to the latter's higher velocity. Do not try to penetrate large bones or shoot through a lot of tissue to reach a deer's vital area with a .357 rifle or pistol.

I would consider 50 yards a reasonable range for a handgun and 100 yards maximum for a rifle, so as a deer cartridge the .357 is best suited for use in heavy cover where shots will be short. In summation, the .357 is not an ideal deer cartridge like the .30-30, rather it is a specialty cartridge for the hunter willing to stalk within close range and place his or her bullet precisely into a vital area.

For lighter game and self defense, the 125 grain JHP is the standout handgun load. This was found to be the top load in Marshall and Sanow's famous stopping power research project, with something like a 96-97% one shot stop record. This load is effective out to at least 100 yards from revolver or rifle.

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Copyright 2001, 2015 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.