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What About the .357 Magnum? Don’t Overlook This Old Standby

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Well, it’s not Dirty Harry’s gun, but it has a very solid reputation. If it is acceptable (and, to some, the benchmark), why does it seem that it is so often overlooked?

Well, it’s not Dirty Harry’s gun, but it has a very solid reputation. If it is acceptable (and, to some, the benchmark), why does it seem that it is so often overlooked?

» I WAS PIG HUNTING in South Georgia. It was wild, swampy thicket, overrun with deer, turkeys, alligators and feral hogs. Lots of hogs, the owner claimed. Yet, for three days, there was not a single pig to be seen. Then, in the moonless dark, a pack raced across the dirt road. One of them halted and stared into the Jeep’s headlights. It weighed about 100 pounds, maybe a little more.

I slid out of the passenger side, drew my .357 Ruger revolver, touched the button for the red laser dot and moved my finger to the trigger. The dot was invisible against the glistening black bristles, but the hog was less than 15 yards away, broadside. One shot. I couldn’t miss. The pig sprung across the ditch into the brush and collapsed in seconds. The .357 round put the hog down with a single shot … but how is the .357 as a defensive cartridge?

Well, it’s not Dirty Harry’s gun, but it has a very solid reputation. If it is acceptable (and, to some, the benchmark), why does it seem that it is so often overlooked? Why do writers and editors, even manufacturers and consumers, so frequently endorse other calibers — the 9mm or the .45, even the .40 S&W — for a carry gun and so rarely mention the .357?

Even though Keith looked for bigger, heavier, faster rounds, one of his primary interests was big game hunting with his handgun.

Even though Keith looked for bigger, heavier, faster rounds, one of his primary interests was big game hunting with his handgun.

BACK IN THE DAY

The history of the .357 Magnum cartridge is well-known. In short, part-time rancher, part-time writer and full-time character Elmer Keith, of Idaho, became fed up with the .38 Special and began hand-loading hotter and hotter cartridges, often into the customary no-go safety zone for pressures. Keith, who enjoyed and promoted handgun hunting, ultimately teamed up with Phillip Sharpe and Dan Wesson to introduce the .357 Magnum in 1935.

The .357 was arguably the first of the modern era’s magnum handgun cartridges to be offered commercially. Law enforcement officers, often armed only with the .38 Special, found themselves outgunned, as both their duty-issue guns and cartridges were insufficient during the furious prohibition and motorized bandit eras.

The .357 was arguably the first of the modern era’s magnum handgun cartridges to be offered commercially.

So Keith and others pushed the limits of technology searching for more effective hand-held weaponry. Of course, a more powerful cartridge required a very sturdy chamber and frame, tooling unavailable on a remote Western ranch. So when Keith maxed out his .38 Special, he needed real engineering and manufacturing expertise. Hence the partnership with Smith & Wesson, who eventually stretched the .357 case by about 1/8 inch. This prevented the more powerful round from being fired in conventional .38 revolvers, which were not designed to handle the higher propellant pressures.

The result — the .357 Magnum — could fire .38 Special cartridges, because the cartridge diameter was the same; the .38 could not fire the .357, though, because of the .357’s length (as well as the dangerously high pressures). Otherwise, the guns were — and usually still are — identical.

Keith, by the way, eventually tired of the .357. Looking for a more powerful round with a bigger, faster bullet, he also initiated development of the .41 and .44 Magnums.

THE DEFENSIVE ROUND

Is the .357 good or even reasonable for concealed carry? Even though Keith looked for bigger, heavier, faster rounds, one of his primary interests was big game hunting with his handgun. A perfectly executed shot at close range with a heavy bullet from a .357 is sufficient to kill an elk or bear. But how often in the wilds are you able to make that perfect shot without a scope, a rest and a long, calming breath? Never.

For a hunting handgun, the .357 is suitable for small and modestly sized game — javelina or feral hogs, most whitetails, perhaps nutria tunneling through dikes along the Mississippi. For a 250-pound rutting buck in Minnesota or one of the over-fed, 400-pound cut boars on a Texas game ranch, the .357 is insufficient. For game that size, a step up to a .44 Magnum or even the .500 S&W is required.

This discussion leads inevitably to the suburban defensive scenario. It is not altogether unlike hunting the deep woods and spotting a trophy deer. You are going to experience “buck fever,” an adrenaline rush with tunnel vision, a shaking — or otherwise occupied — hand and all of the related symptoms of excitement and fear. Anything can happen, and often does.

There are three general reasons an assailant will stop: blood loss, a hit to the central nervous system or the aggressor’s personal determination.

Figure the average criminal assailant at 200 pounds. Both an assailant and a defender have adrenaline rushing into the bloodstream, perhaps a little more for the defender, since the assailant is a career criminal or pumped full of illegal chemicals and/or alcohol.

Here’s what a selected handgun cartridge table looks like:

Selected Handgun Cartridge Table

Selected Handgun Cartridge Table

Based on the numbers in the table, it appears that Keith, Sharpe and Wesson definitely achieved their goal of improving on the basic .38. Their cartridge is much faster and more than doubles the energy transfer of a bullet from a .38. (Although it can certainly be argued that, at handgun range, a shooter can miss the target, but no one can duck a bullet from a modern handgun.)

The problem is that figures such as those tabulated only tell a fraction of the story. What does it take to stop an assault? There are three general reasons an assailant will stop: blood loss, a hit to the central nervous system or the aggressor’s personal determination. Thus, a shot to the chest from a .22 Short could possibly deter continued aggression.

In addition, such details as shot placement and even one’s surroundings play major factors in determining what cartridge is the best “stopper.” In the deep gloom of a lonely parking garage, it might take several hits from a .45 to drop a carjacker, but on a busy street corner downtown, one loud bang from a .38 might be sufficient to send a nervous purse-snatcher running. But, of course, the problem is that you do not get a “do-over.” You will never know until you see the assailant’s blood or backside.

SEX AND CALIBER SIZE

It is common for women or men with slender builds to think about carrying smaller calibers, often a .32. A smaller personal defense weapon, they argue, is easier to fit into a purse and maneuver with their smallish hands. They complain about recoil and thus look for small, lightly framed handguns that have less kick or blast, which tend to frighten inexperienced shooters.

Unfortunately, small handguns deliver small self-defense performance and big recoil when compared to larger guns. One would have to be a battle-trained expert to defend against a determined attack using a handgun with a small cartridge. Law enforcement relies heavily on 9mm ammo, but given the unrest in America during 2015, that might very well change toward a much heavier round — the .45 ACP or GAP being the preferred go-to calibers. But sworn police officers, who carry any time they are on duty, are responsible for their stray shots, and bullets that hit (or miss) a criminal but then do not stop are a huge liability. And so a relatively energy-poor round like the 9mm has, for years, been just fine.

A shotgun for home defense is excellent, and even 20- and 28-gauge shotguns deliver energy at levels at or exceeding the .44 Magnum.

The average citizen and holder of a carry permit, however, will never be required to draw and use his or her firearm … or will they? If you need to defend yourself and your family just once in a lifetime, would you rather do that with a .32 or a .44? Would you rather rely on something hitting with 200+ foot-pounds or something hitting with four times that power?

Perhaps the best possible gun for self-defense is a properly fitting 12-gauge, with the shortest barrel allowed by law, loaded with double-ought buckshot or slugs. The Winchester PDX1 Defender 12-gauge, for example, in a common 2 3/4-inch load offers a velocity at 3 feet from the muzzle of 1,600 feet per second, and its 1-ounce segmenting slug delivers roughly 2,484 foot-pounds of incredible wham. (By contrast, a 150-grain .30-06 bullet has a velocity of 2,600 feet per second and delivers 2,250 foot-pounds.) Hit an assailant almost anywhere on the body, except perhaps the toe or finger, and he’s going to know it.

A shotgun for home defense is excellent, and even 20- and 28-gauge shotguns deliver energy at levels at or exceeding the .44 Magnum. For daily carry, however, a shotgun is not feasible, unless you live in grizzly bear country or have a ranch on the border with Mexico.

WHY THE .357?

With a muzzle energy floor above 500 foot-pounds, this author believes the .357 is the smallest, most effective solution for a self-defense firearm. It has the added advantage of being able to fire .38 Special ammunition, affording the shooter lower operating costs, lower recoil, softer report and less muzzle flash. This makes the .357 ideal for novice shooters, and it also has a reputation among those who reload of being economical and a consistent performer.

Today, we not only have .357s in revolver format but also in semi-auto, offering greater ammo capacity. In 1994, the .357 SIG was designed to duplicate the performance of 125-grain .357 Magnum loads fired from revolvers with 4-inch-barrels in a cartridge for semi-automatics.

Consider the following, please, as a “tale of two (or three) guns” that are typical of today’s choices in .357 for defensive carry:

Smith & Wesson’s eight-round Model 627 is typical of commercial .357s and is available in dedicated .38 Special and more versatile .357 Magnum. It has a 2.625-inch barrel, a 1.7-inch wide cylinder and an adjustable rear sight. The overall length is 7.625 inches, and it can be fired either single- or double-action. With a wood grip, stainless frame and cylinder cut for full moon clips, it weighs 2.35 pounds and has an MSRP of $1,079.

The odd look of Chiappa’s Rhino comes from placing the barrel at the bottom of the frame rather than at the top and building with a slab-sided hexagonal cylinder.

Magnum Research went out on a limb and introduced a gas-operated, rotating-bolt, semi-automatic .357 Magnum in 1982. Later, they came out with autoloaders in .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .50 Action Express — the idea being that the shooter could use a basic frame and switch between calibers with minimal effort or additional parts. Their nine-round Desert Eagle Mark XIX in .357 has a 6-inch barrel and is 10.75 inches in overall length: 6.25 high and 1.25 wide. With a single-action trigger, it comes with a full Weaver-style accessory rail and integral muzzle brake. This 4-pound, 9-ounce gun (slide, frame and barrel are steel) has an MSRP of $1,710.

The odd look of Chiappa’s Rhino comes from placing the barrel at the bottom of the frame rather than at the top and building with a slab-sided hexagonal cylinder. The Rhino moves the axis of the bore down lower, in line with the shooter’s hand, not over it, which complicates the inner mechanism and reduces muzzle rise. The six-shot Rhino in .357 comes in various sizes and frame compositions. In chrome or black, the lightweight polymer frame version can be purchased with a 2-, 4-, 5- or 6-inch barrel. With a 2-inch barrel, this gun weighs 1.5 pounds and comes with a rubber grip. With the 6-inch barrel, the gun weighs 2 pounds, 1 ounce and has an MSRP of about $980.

There are thousands of handguns available today, and surely one or two of them will suit your personal requirements. The .357 Magnum, however, should not be overlooked in the rush to larger bullets as it is both suitable for and effective as a concealed handgun.

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Looking for a new handgun for concealed carry? The team at Concealed Carry Magazine put together a list of 15 Great Guns For Concealed Carry here, check it out!

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