Apples-to-Apples Comparison: the .357 Magnum vs. the .38 Special

The SIG Sauer ammunition line continues to expand, demonstrating SIG’s commitment to providing shooters with a quality selection of self-defense, target, and hunting loads for handguns and rifles.

One of their newer additions is the 125-grain Elite Performance V-Crown .357 Magnum round. Without going into the .357 Magnum’s history again, let it suffice to say that since 1935, the .357 has been regarded as one of the finest self-defense handgun rounds available, delivering fearsomely effective stopping power. It is still regarded as THE most effective conventional combat handgun cartridge.

SIG recently added the .357 Magnum round to their Elite Performance handgun ammunition line. Topped with their V-Crown controlled-expansion bullet with a factory-quoted muzzle velocity of 1450 feet per second, it promised to be a formidable performer. I felt that an “apples to apples” comparison of .357 Magnum vs. .38 Special ammunition would be interesting, since I could now compare the new SIG .357 Magnum V-Crown load against the SIG .38 Special V-Crown load of the same bullet weight that had been introduced earlier.

The V-Crown bullet deserves some description. Designed to meet or exceed the FBI’s rigorous testing protocols for law enforcement defensive ammunition, the V-Crown features some specially engineered features to ensure excellent performance. Starting from the top, the V-Crown’s V-shaped jacket skives and scores help provide controlled, uniform expansion. Beneath the V-Crown is the stacked hollow-point bullet with an additional hollow-point cavity. Toward the base of the bullet is a unique toothed cannelure which ensures maximum weight retention and terminal expansion. If this sounds complicated, it is—and there’s a reason for it.

Defensive ammunition designed for use against dangerous human targets is a balancing act of the highest degree. Ammunition must penetrate deeply enough into an average-sized human body to cause damage to supporting organs and bone structure without over-penetrating the body and exiting on the other side (with the potential to cause damage to an innocent bystander). This may occur after the bullet first penetrates any clothing or intermediate barrier between the defending shooter and the dangerous threat. If the bullet plugs up with material and doesn’t expand, it over-penetrates. That tendency must be avoided, and with modern ammo, it often is.

Although both the .357 Magnum and .38 Special loads are topped off with a 125-grain V-Crown bullet, those bullets aren’t exactly the same. The cavity of the .38 Special’s bullet is wider and deeper than the .357 Magnum version. This is because of the velocity differential between the two rounds.

The factory-listed muzzle velocity for the .38 Special 125-grain V-Crown loading is 965 feet per second, with a resultant 258 FPE. The difference between the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum is significant. Factory ballistics give the .357 1450 feet per second at the muzzle with 583 FPE being produced. So if the .357 Magnum round was loaded with the .38 Special bullet (which is designed for optimum performance at some 485 feet per second less than the .357 Magnum produces), the impact results would be explosive, but penetration would be shallow—likely too shallow to reach vital structures within the average-sized human opponent.

In order to keep the apples to apples theme going, I tested both loads from the same gun: the Smith & Wesson Model 65 I got from Century Arms several months ago. Its 4-inch barrel is the most commonly encountered length in most full-size .357 Magnum/.38 Special defensive or service revolvers.

In firing both loads from the Model 65 (which currently wears a nice pair of hand-filling Hogue wood grips), I found that the .38 Special had very light recoil from this heavy-barreled revolver. It was extremely controllable. The .357 Magnum’s recoil was more noticeable but in no way uncomfortable. Muzzle flash was low. Back in the 1980s, the hot new 125-grain .357 Magnums from various manufacturers also doubled as flamethrowers, due to the amount of unburnt powder that exited the barrel. Modern powders have almost totally eliminated that problem. Group sizes were consistent with both loads. Firing two-handed standing (double-action) at 30 feet produced groups that ranged from 2¾ inches to 3 inches. That is excellent combat accuracy in my book, and it gives an idea of the manageability of the SIG Elite Performance .357 Magnum rounds.

In running the velocities of both loads over my chronograph, I found that velocities were a bit less than the factory-quoted ballistics, but not so much as to cause undue concern. The V-Crown .38 Special averaged 942 feet per second for a muzzle energy of 246 FPE. The .357 V-Crown averaged 1374 feet per second, which was a greater velocity loss than the .38 Special, but still produced an ample 524 FPE and improved manageability over .357s that are running over 1400 feet per second. 1374 feet per second is a well-balanced velocity.

Ok, so we can figure out on paper that the .357 Magnum produces twice the kinetic energy as the .38 Special when fired from the same gun, using the same brand of ammo and the same type and weight of bullet. But what does “twice the power” look like when each round was fired on a separate 10.5- x 8-inch block of moist modeling clay? The difference is very apparent.

I shot the first block with the .357 Magnum load at 15 feet—the next time I will be farther away! The result was spectacular and I almost shot my eye out. A chunk of clay likely about an inch or more in diameter blew straight back and whacked me partially on my eyeglass lens and partially on my eyebrow. I heard it thunk and checked for blood. I was shocked my glasses weren’t damaged. I was fine, but that forceful of a blowback was unexpected. The .357 Magnum V-Crown penetrated the entire 10.5-inch length of block and created a maximum diameter cavity of 6 ¾ inches. The block itself had expanded at the maximum cavity point to over 9 inches from its former 8-inch size. That represents potentially outstanding performance against a human target.

The .38 Special V-Crown performed very well, but was not as spectacular as the .357. The .38 did not penetrate the block, and created a cone-shaped, 4.5-inch-diameter maximum cavity, and did not blow back any clay. Depth of penetration was approximately 9 inches.

The clay test proved that while the .38 Special is an effective defense round that is easier to control than the .357 Magnum, it is nowhere near its equal, as long as it is being compared in an apples-to-apples test such as this.

Not all .357 Magnum ammunition is equal. Based on my performance tests, the SIG Sauer V-Crown Elite Performance load is among the very best. Accurate and relatively easy to control in a full-sized revolver, it represents a very balanced approach to maximizing the effectiveness of this timeless caliber. Learn more at www.sigammo.com.

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