The .357 Magnum Part 2

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4

.357 Magnum

John is set for all possibilities in the field with this duo of scoped and iron sighted M97 .357s from Freedom Arms.

In the 1950s when the sixgun was still supreme among peace officers, there were many who asked for a less expensive .357 Magnum. The 1954 result was the Highway Patrolman. It was offered only in 4 and 6" versions and without the beautiful Bright Blue finish found on the original model, nor checkered top strap and barrel rib. These matte-blue sixguns were designed for heavy-duty use without worrying about the finish. The first brand-new DA sixgun I ever purchased was a 4" Highway Patrolman. In 1957 this workhorse became known as the M28.

Both the M27 and M28 are relatively heavy and by the mid-1950s, peace officers were looking for an easier-to-carry .357. Border Patrol Inspector Bill Jordan discussed the idea of a K-Frame .357 with S&W. The result? The .38 Special Combat Masterpiece was given a longer cylinder, a heavier barrel complete with an enclosed ejector rod, plus different heat treating to come up with the 4" Combat Magnum. Jordan called it “The Answer to a Peace Officer’s Dream.”

Smith soon offered a 6" version for field use and a round-butted 2-1/2" for easier concealability. In 1957 the Combat Magnum became the M19. It was discontinued in 1999. However, the stainless variant — the M66 — has come back and is available in 4-1/4" trim and as a Performance Center round-butt 3" with an efficient porting system (see the GUNS December 2018 issue).

To my eye, the most serious looking sixgun ever produced was the 3-1/2" N-Frame .357 Magnum followed very closely by the 2-1/2" M19/M66. Today the semi-auto may be king among law enforcement and other shooters but the .357 is just as good as it ever was — possibly better. The 125-gr. JHP has a reputation for stopping power and I also use it for hunting turkeys. Six shots have gotten me six of the big birds.

From time to time S&W brings back “Classic Models” such as the original .357 Magnum/ M27, the Highway Patrolman/M28 and the Combat Magnum/M19. If I had to choose the best Smith .357 with my heart, my No. 1 choice is the original N-Frame. But if I’m to be guided by my head, my choice would definitely be what is probably the best .357 ever to come from the company — the M686.

John Taffin

John rediscovers his love of the .357 with the new stainless edition of the Combat Magnum.

L-Frame Compromise

In the 1980s there was concern the K-Frame M19 Combat Magnums were not holding up well to newer .357 Magnum loadings, especially the 110- and 125-gr. JHPs. The problem seemed to be in the relatively small forcing cone area. Remember, the M19 Combat Magnums were the same size as the .38 Special Combat Masterpiece. Bill Jordan said he envisioned the K-Frame .357 as a gun to be used mainly with .38s for practice and .357s for duty. I don’t know if I agree with this philosophy as we tend to perform the way we practice — which means just practicing with .38s may not lead to efficiency with .357s on duty. For most of us this wouldn’t make any difference but it could for law enforcement personnel.

My Combat Magnum/M19s have never been a problem because I’ve mainly used them with cast bullets which are much kinder on forcing cones. But S&W looked for a better answer and this better answer was the L-Frame series packing more steel in the forcing cone area and cylinder while keeping the grip frame the same size as the M19.

These guns also had full underlug barrels basically giving a Colt Python-style sixgun at about half the price. These were offered in both blued and stainless steel with the fixed sighted versions known as the M581 and M681 respectively. The adjustable sighted L-Frames were the M586 and M686. A long list of L-Frame .357s have been offered over the past 40 years or so in 2-1/2, 4, 6 and 8-3/8" barrel lengths. Some had a seven-shot cylinder. These are now the flagship .357 Smith & Wessons. If you want an S&W .357 for the toughest possible duty, this is it.

But there are many .357s available from other makers as well. Let’s take a look at some.

colt revolver

Striking gold! John recently found this King pre-war custom Colt SAA .357 with all the King touches including cockeyed hammer, wide checkered trigger, short action and full-length rib with adjustable rear sight.

Python Colt

The Python is often acclaimed as the finest revolver Colt ever made. This 6" specimen — tuned by Fred Sadowski — was given to John by a late friend.

Colt DA and SA Offerings

After the .357 Magnum arrived Colt chambered it in both their DA New Service and the Single Action Army. Production of both models was suspended prior to WWII and after the war, both had disappeared. However, in the 1950s the .357 made a comeback at Colt. First came their .357 Magnum in the early 1950s — basically a .38 Special Officers Model Match turned .357. Then in 1955, the Python arrived. Many consider it the finest revolver ever offered by Colt!

Originally this was a very heavy sixgun chambered in .38 Special for target shooting. To cut down some of the weight, the barrel rib was ventilated and the engineers realized they had something capable of handling much more than the .38 Special — the .357 Python was born! Originally with a 6" barrel, it was offered over the years in additional barrel lengths of 2-1/2, 4 and 8". I lusted after a 4" Python in the 1960s so much it hurt.

The Python is long gone from production and my shooting examples today are a 6" tuned by Fred Sadowski and a Cylinder & Slide-sweetened 8" tackdriver. Originally offered in Colt Royal Blue, a few stainless steel versions were also produced. The Python is long out of production and probably won’t be seen again.

In late 1955 Colt resurrected the Single Action Army with the first two chamberings being .357 Magnum and .45 Colt. Three of my favorite .357 single actions are Colts. These include a 1921-vintage SAA converted to .357 Magnum prior to WWII and totally customized by King Gun Sight Company. King added a full-length rib with adjustable rear sight to the 5-1/2" barrel, shortened the action and installed the wide checkered trigger and cockeyed hammer.

The second is a New Frontier from the 1960s with a 7-1/2" barrel. The third is an SAA fitted with a 5-1/2" New Frontier barrel and an S&W adjustable rear sight.

Smith & Wesson

Bill Jordan was directly responsible for S&W’s .357 Combat Magnum — an easier-packing medium-frame option.

The Blackhawk Rollout

When Ruger decided to introduce their first centerfire they chose the most powerful cartridge available at the time, namely the .357 Magnum. The original Blackhawk — now known as the Flat-Top — was the same basic size as the Colt SAA except it had a virtually unbreakable coil spring operated action along with a heavy top strap and an adjustable rear sight. The first barrel length offered was 4-5/8" and this was later joined by a 6-1/2" version, along with a rare 10".

I acquired my first Ruger .357 in 1956. It was difficult in those days to find magnum brass so I fired thousands of rounds of the Keith .38 Special load through it, alongside my S&W Highway Patrolman. Keith’s .38 load used his 170-gr. grain bullet and enough #2400 powder to make it hotter than many of today’s .357 offerings. In 2005 Ruger resurrected the original .357 Blackhawk with the New Model Flat-Top. When Ruger went to the New Model action in the early 1970s, the .357 was chambered in the full .44 Magnum-sized frame. I never did care for it as much as the original size.

Ruger went “double action” .357 with the Security-Six which was replaced by the improved GP100, offered in both blue and stainless. The stainless version is about the toughest sixgun you could find for carrying in all kinds of weather. Until recently all GP100s had full-length underlug barrels but they are now offered as the Match Champion model with the standard barrel — my choice for everyday packin’!

Ruger GP100

The full underlug Ruger GP100 is probably the most rugged .357 available.

Ruger

This .357 Magnum Ruger Blackhawk (above) has given John excellent service for more than 60 years. A hot item during the early days of Metallic Silhouette shooting was Dan Wesson’s “purpose built” .357 Magnum (below).

Dan Wesson Handgun

The Blackhawk Rollout

When Ruger decided to introduce their first centerfire they chose the most powerful cartridge available at the time, namely the .357 Magnum. The original Blackhawk — now known as the Flat-Top — was the same basic size as the Colt SAA except it had a virtually unbreakable coil spring operated action along with a heavy top strap and an adjustable rear sight. The first barrel length offered was 4-5/8" and this was later joined by a 6-1/2" version, along with a rare 10".

I acquired my first Ruger .357 in 1956. It was difficult in those days to find magnum brass so I fired thousands of rounds of the Keith .38 Special load through it, alongside my S&W Highway Patrolman. Keith’s .38 load used his 170-gr. grain bullet and enough #2400 powder to make it hotter than many of today’s .357 offerings. In 2005 Ruger resurrected the original .357 Blackhawk with the New Model Flat-Top. When Ruger went to the New Model action in the early 1970s, the .357 was chambered in the full .44 Magnum-sized frame. I never did care for it as much as the original size.

Ruger went “double action” .357 with the Security-Six which was replaced by the improved GP100, offered in both blue and stainless. The stainless version is about the toughest sixgun you could find for carrying in all kinds of weather. Until recently all GP100s had full-length underlug barrels but they are now offered as the Match Champion model with the standard barrel — my choice for everyday packin’!

Smith & Wesson Revolver

John considers S&W’s L-Frame series — the M586/M686 — the ideal tool if you intend to do a lot of “.357 Magnum-ized” shooting. This 6" model puts John’s handloads where he wants them.

An ’80s Superstar

In the 1980s Dan Wesson literally owned silhouette shooting. The reason? They listened to the long-range shooters and gave them what they wanted — a heavy-barreled .357 with excellent adjustable rear sights and interchangeable front ones. Many of us shot the revolver category using the 8" model.

Because of the relatively short cylinder we used .38 Special brass loaded with 180- to 200-gr. cast bullets. These were slow-moving loads — under 1,000 fps — but they always got the job done. Dan Wesson recently resurrected their .357 Magnum revolver.

GP100

John’s pet 6" GP100 shoots exceptionally well.

Single-Action Supreme

Freedom Arms originally chambered their almost-custom revolvers in .454 Casull but they decided to eventually reach out to shooters who wanted the best single-action revolver possible chambered in other calibers. One of these was the .357 Magnum and silhouette shooters soon discovered it was the best sixgun available for their long-range chores.

Those first .357s from Freedom Arms were chambered in the full-sized, five-shot M83. In 1997 they brought forth the six-shot .357 M97, which is slightly smaller than the Colt SAA. The M97 — whether you choose fixed or adjustable sights — is an excellent .357 for everyday carry. Both the M83 and M97 provide superb accuracy.

Colt

John had this Colt SAA .357 Magnum fitted with an S&W adjustable rear sight and a New Frontier barrel. The results speak for themselves.

Favorite Handloads

Over the years (make that decades) I’ve shot a lot of different loads in a long list of .357 Magnum sixguns and leverguns. I’ve settled on two current most-used ones. These are the 158-gr. Lyman/Thompson #358156 gas-checked cast bullet over 14.0 grains of 2400 and the NEI #200.358 gas-checked 200-gr. bullet over 12.5 grains of IMR4227.

My current most-used .357 Ruger is the New Model Flat-Top Stainless 5-1/2". This is an excellent everyday carry piece and with the above loads clocks out at 1,335 and 1,075 fps respectively. The 200-gr. load is superbly accurate.

I must admit there was a time in my life — when I got bitten by the “big bore bug” — I looked down on the .357 Magnum. Today I’ve grown older and smarter, and now give this great cartridge its well-earned due.

GUNS May 2019

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