The .357 Magnum:

The Original High- Pressure Wheelgun!

Golden Age treasures: A trio of 5" .357s from the 1950s.

Since the .357 Magnum arrived in 1935 — heralded as the most powerful sixgun in the world — it has been followed by plenty of other hard-hitting cartridges. If you’re looking to put a serious hurt on something or someone, the choices are many: .44 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .454 Casull, .475 and .500 Linebaugh, not to mention heavy-loaded .45 Colt rounds and longer-than-standard cartridges such as the .460 and .500 S&W Magnums.

Today it’s pretty easy to look at the .357 Magnum as a shadow of its former self whenever matched against these more powerful rounds. However, the .357 is no less a great cartridge than it was in the beginning and, in fact, still is. Thanks to better bullets, more types of powder available, and stronger, better-built wheelguns, it’s even better than it was 85 years ago.

Let’s take a look at where the round came from, some early uses, the men who popularized it and some of the best .357 Magnum revolvers past and present.

The original S&W .357 Magnums were known as Registered Magnums.
This quartet features 8-3/4, 6-1/2, 5, and 4" barrels.

Motor Bandits And Big Game

During the 1920s the bad guys were winning the war against the good guys simply because gangsters were much better armed. The V8 Ford had arrived and was used to great success by bank robbers of the time. Confrontations often saw good guys armed with .38 Specials going against gangsters in fast-moving vehicles and armed with Thompson SMGs and Browning Automatic Rifles.

In the late 1920s both Colt and Smith & Wesson addressed the problem. From Colt came the .38 Super or Super .38 (depending upon who was speaking) chambered in their 1911 while Smith & Wesson used their .44 frame revolver chambered in .38 Special to handle what we now often refer to as .38/44 rounds. The special revolvers arrived in April 1930 as the .38/44 Heavy Duty using a pre- Plus P loading of a 158-gr. bullet at 1,175 fps. It was a good start but for the boys at S&W it was only the beginning.

Phil Sharpe is the main figure responsible for the .357 Magnum and to come up with the case for the ammo, he simply lengthened the standard .38 Special from 1.155" to 1.290" to prevent the more powerful round from being dropped in a .38 Special cylinder. Such mistakes could result in a disaster for the shooter or any one standing close by.

Pre-Model 27s with 8-3/8, 6-1/2 and 5" barrels.

According To Sharpe:

“The .357 Magnum cartridge was born in my mind several years ago. On a hunting trip with Col. D.B. Wesson, Vice-President of Smith & Wesson, a pair of heavy frame Outdoorsman model revolvers were used with a large assortment of handloads developed and previously tested by myself. In the field they proved entirely practical, but Col. Wesson was not content to attempt the development of a Magnum .38 Special cartridge for ordinary revolvers and set to work on a new gun planned in the field. For more than a year before the release of this gun, Col. Wesson manufactured a few pilot models, building and rebuilding each one, redesigning this and that until he found a suitable combination. I did not design the gun or the cartridge, however a number of my ideas were incorporated in the design of this gun, tested through an understanding of handloading problems, and a number of weak points in ordinary revolvers were quickly corrected.”

One of the best powders for the .357 Magnum? Still good old 2400.

The Idaho Connection

Meanwhile back at the ranch — literally — in North Fork Idaho, Elmer Keith was seeing how much he could get out the .38 Special using the S&W .38/44 Heavy Duty. His load, using his long-nosed #358429 170-gr. bullet clocks out at 1,400 fps when duplicated and fired through my 8-3/8″ Smith today. The first .357 Magnum loads from Winchester used large primers and clocked over 1,500 fps using the Sharpe bullet that’s based on the Keith bullet. It’s somewhat lighter and different in dimension from the Keith form, having been engineered to fit the S&W .357 Magnum. It has approximately 5/6 the bearing surface of the Keith bullet.

Keith used his .38/44 loads in the new sixgun and reported excellent accuracy. The 600-yard targets in Ed McGivern’s Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting were shot using the Keith .38/44 loads in an 8-3/4″ .357 Magnum.

To promote the new sixgun — simply called the .357 Magnum — and cartridge, Col. Wesson used the new combination to take antelope, elk, moose and even grizzly bear. Only the antelope required two shots! One of the first complaints we hear today is the .357 Magnum isn’t powerful enough for big game hunting but Col. Wesson obviously wouldn’t agree. I would not hesitate to use the .357 on deer-sized critters including antelope and feral pigs though I wouldn’t use it on elk, moose and grizzly bear unless it was all I had.

Most of us fire very few rounds at game. I fire approximately 300 rounds per week but in the last four years I have fired five rounds at game animals using the .454 to take an elk and a bison, the .44 Magnum for another elk and two deer-sized critters were also taken with the .44 Magnum. The latter pair could easily have been taken with the .357.

The 4" Registered Magnum became wildly popular with lawmen due in
part to the penetrative qualities of metal-piercing loads.

Registered Magnums

In 1935 the first .357 Magnums from Smith & Wesson were known as Registered Magnums as they not only had a serial number but also a special registered number signifying they were literally hand built. Wesson not only promoted the cartridge by hunting but special Registered Magnums went to the right people.

The very first 8-3/4″ barreled one went to the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover while Phil Sharpe received the second. Originally the company believed all .357 Magnums would have 8-3/4″ barrels as they would only be used for hunting. Dedicated sixgunners, however, had other ideas.

In 1935, Col. George Patton purchased his 3-1/2″-barreled .357 in Hawaii. These shorter-barreled guns became very popular with peace officers, especially FBI agents. Delf “Jelly” Bryce retired his .44 Special Smith & Wesson for a .357 Magnum and was arguably the fastest and most accurate sixgunner of all time in serious situations.

I was privileged to know Col. Walter Walsh who used the .357 Magnum as an FBI agent prior to WWII. Another FBI agent to receive an early .357 Magnum was Frank Baughman (who developed the Baughman Ramp Front Sight). Gun No. 8 went to Ed McGivern while actor Jimmy Stewart had No. 100. Roy Rogers took a short-barreled .357 Magnum to Africa but I don’t know if it was a Registered Magnum — probably not.

When I was in high school I read of Sasha Siemel, the noted jaguar hunter in South America who also had one of the early short-barreled .357s. Elmer Keith’s early prototype 6-1/2″ specimen (he didn’t care for the longer barrel length) recently sold — along with all of his guns at auction — for just under $29,000.

The Registered Magnums were all specially ordered with a number of options as to barrel length, sights and grips. Each was hand built. Barrels were pinned into the frame and cylinders had recessed case heads. Smith & Wesson soon found all this was an exceptionally expensive proposition to manufacture and within a few years dropped the idea of registering these beautiful sixguns. However, by the time World War II erupted, fewer non-Registered Magnums had been made than Registered Magnums.

Skeeter Skelton was very fond of the 5" .357 Magnum.

Pre-Model 27

After the war Smith & Wesson resumed production of the .357 Magnum but by 1949 had only completed 142 guns. Beginning in 1950 the .357 Magnum, as well as the rest of the N-Frames were changed from the pre-war long action to the shorter action we know today. From 1950 until 1957, when all Smith & Wessons received model numbers, barrel lengths were standardized at 3-1/2, 5, 6, 6-1/2 and 8-3/8″. Today all of these are known as Pre-Model 27s.The Model 27 went through various changes and can be found with model numbers from 27, 27-1 up to 27-6 before the standard model was removed from production in 1994.

All of the Registered Magnums, Pre-27s, and most of the rest of the Model 27s with their various numbers are exceptional revolvers. However, don’t think an early numbered 27 or Pre-27 shoot better than the later guns. My nickel-plated 8-3/8″ Model 27-3 outshoots my Pre-27 with the same barrel length. I have a pair of 5″ 27-5s which are some of the last production model .357 Magnums made and they routinely out-shoot my Pre-27 and early Model 27. For many years I tried to find a 6-1/2″ .357 Model 27 of any “dash” variation and never could. Then I not only found one, but two, and both proved to be Pre-27s. They are excellent shooters.

I’ll always have a passion for the .44 and .45 sixguns but I can no longer handle a steady diet of heavy loads in the big-bore revolvers. At least — as this is written — the N-Frame .357 Magnum and I are still on very close speaking terms.

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