Intro: What caliber a person feels is the “best” for any particular usage in a handgun is a very complicated and touchy subject for firearms geeks. It is a potentially confusing topic to those who are just getting into firearms. It is arguable that there is already a good caliber or two (or three) for every philosophy of use. However, emotions get involved in the discussion at times and opinions run strong. Any handgun is a compromise; carrying around a rifle would be better. But it is impractical to take your AR out on the town. So the question with a handgun becomes ‘what weapon can I comfortably carry and still have an effective means of defense?’ The decisions one has to make when carrying a handgun are the compromises between power, portability, fit, and capacity. Everything is a tradeoff…
So, What so great about the .357 Magnum?
You can’t really tell the story of the .357 Magnum, without telling at least part of the story of the .38 Special. The two cartridges are forever intertwined. The .38 Special is an old cartridge. It is older than the 9 mm or the .45 ACP. It was introduced in 1898 as further development of the .38 Long Colt which, as a military service cartridge, was found lacking against the charges of suicidal Muslim Filipino warriors during the Philippine–American War. (Readers may recall this was the whole reason for the development of the .45 acp.) Upon its introduction, the .38 Special was briefly loaded with black powder, hence the large case, but within a year of its’ introduction started being loaded with smokeless powder (which resulted in some wasted case space, more on that later). The .38 Special was the standard service cartridge of most law enforcement agencies in the United States from the 1920s to the early 1990s, and was also a common sidearm cartridge used by soldiers in World War I.
In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s cars had become popular in the United States, and we were in the beginning of the Depression and in the middle of Prohibition. A new style criminal had been developed, auto bandits and bootleggers who used high speed automobiles, high powered guns, and a quirk of US law enforcement to evade capture. Back in those days, there was no law enforcement agency that could cross state lines to deal with these gangsters. These criminals used their automobiles as get away vehicles and also used high powered weapons like the Browning BAR and the Thompson submachine gun against pursuers to effect their high speed escapes across state lines. In some cases they “up armored” their vehicles and some wore early types of body armor.
The police were ill equipped to deal with this threat, they were out run and out gunned. Law Enforcement’s cries for help along with advances in bullets, propellants, and revolvers, led from the original .38 Special loadings, to an updated load called the .38 special super police, to the .38 special Hi-Speed…and eventually the .357 Magnum.
There is and was a rivalry between Smith & Wesson and Colt that goes back to the mid 1800’s. Because of various business decisions, S&W had most of the law enforcement business covered and Colt had the military business. But Colt had also responded to the Auto Bandit threat with the development of the .38 Super for use in its’ semi auto 1911 pistol. The .38 Super was a higher pressure, higher velocity cartridge with more penetration capability than a .45 acp. It was powerful enough to penetrate the car bodies and body armor used by the auto bandits & moonshine runners. Colt was attempting to lure the police market to its’ semi auto designs and gain Law Enforcement market share; S&W was not about to take that lying down.
In order to reassert itself as the leading law-enforcement provider, Smith & Wesson developed the .357 Magnum. Elmer Keith gets most of the credit for the testing and evaluation, with Joseph Wesson leading the design effort at Smith & Wesson, and considerable technical assistance from Phillip B. Sharpe, firearms writer and a member of the Technical Division of the National Rifle Association.
Elmer Keith was a rancher, outdoorsman, author, and wizard of the handgun. What he and the others did was take a large frame revolver, originally made for a .44 caliber cartridge and rebarrel and re-chamber the gun for .38 Special. This made the gun extraordinarily strong, from there they kept testing and upping the power of the .38 Special cartridge until they had more than doubled its’ power.
Ultimately the case was extended by 1⁄8 inch (3.2 mm) for safety sake rather than of necessity. Because the .38 Special and the early experimental .357 Magnum cartridges loaded by Keith were identical in size, it was possible to load an experimental .357 Magnum cartridge into a .38 Special revolver, which could be very bad; Smith & Wesson’s solution, of extending the case slightly, made it impossible to chamber the magnum-power round in a gun not designed for the additional pressure. The Magnum was a huge ballistic leap forward, and much more attractive to an American law enforcement culture that was accustomed to revolvers in general and Smith and Wesson in particular. Law Enforcement Agencies would not be ready to embrace automatic pistols for another half century. So cops kept their wheel guns for a few more decades, some began carrying the new .357 magnum, but most, especially plain clothes and high ranking officers, stuck with their .38 Specials. Even those that started carrying the .357 Magnum revolvers, often loaded them with .38 Specials, more on that later.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover received the first .357 Mag. on April 8, 1935. It was the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world. Statistics show today that it has the highest probability of one shot stoppages in defensive situations of any cartridge that has been used enough to develop statistics. Initially the guns were called Registered Magnums, and they were each custom built to customer specifications. By the 1950s many patrol officers were carrying .357 Magnums, even if they were loaded with .38 Special ammunition. This is just one more benefit of the .357 revolver/cartridge combination; it is safe, accurate, and more comfortable to shoot .38 special ammunition when appropriate. With this capability the .357 can go from shooting .38 specials and being very mild, to being pretty wild with hot loaded .357 Magnum rounds. Muzzle energy of a typical load is around 575 ft lbs of muzzle energy, which is significantly higher than most other handgun rounds.
As popular as it became with law enforcement, the .357 was a huge hit with the personal defense and outdoorsman crowds. Deer, hogs, and similar game animals can be harvested with a .357, and it is extremely effective for things that go bump in the night and for anything less than a brown bear. You can’t do much better than having a .357 on your hip when strolling through the wild outdoors.. Another benefit to the outdoorsman is the ability to have a revolver and a quick handling lever action carbine both chambered in the same round, like the cowboys used to do it. A stout .357 loaded in a lever action carbine can achieve performance approaching that of a .30-30.
The .44 Magnum came out several years later and took the title of “most powerful handgun in the world” but it never really eclipsed .357 sales, and does not come close to its’ utility. The .357 is pretty much the pinnacle of useful revolver cartridges. The semi auto pistol now dominates the self defense, military, and law enforcement market, but there is still no substitute for a .357’s versatility. It has been with us 75 years and will be with us for probably at least another 75 years.
If this has peaked your interest, swing on over to Liberty Tree, they would be glad to help you.