The .357 Magnum & Me

Still a favorite after all these years
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Today we have such .357 Magnums as Ruger’s Bisley (top) and GP100 to satisfy our shooting needs.

Most people think of sixgunners as being alike as a fresh box of factory cartridges, but let me tell you they’re not. I’ve seen ’em squabble over adding beans to chili, serving flour instead of corn tortillas or pitting the merits of hollow point slugs against solid cast bullets. However, one thing sixgunners do agree on is the value of a good .357 Magnum revolver.

The .357 Magnum is the most popular of all the Magnums. Thousands of police officers, troopers and deputies were issued one during the ’70s and ’80s. Every home with guns has one tucked away because the .357 is a known manstopper — and who doesn’t think having a manageable Magnum is cool?

It’s also the most logical step for new shooters, after learning the basics from a .22 revolver. Loaded with .38 Specials, it’s a natural progression to eventually handling full Magnum loads.

The .357 Magnum has its roots from hot loaded .38 Specials (left). Today, heavier
bullets (right) like these weighing 187 grains give the .357 Magnum more punch than ever before.

History

Elmer Keith planted the seed for the .357 Magnum with hot-loaded .38 Specials. Using heavy charges of Hercules 2400 under his Lyman/Ideal 358429 cast slug, he transformed the meek .38 Special into something entirely different in heavy, N-Frame guns. I’ve shot truckloads of this combination in my magnums, with velocity running around 1,260 FPS, and know the effectiveness of the load. You’d never know you weren’t shooting a magnum.

The .357 Magnum cartridge was designed in 1934 while the first gun was released in 1935. Douglas Wesson and Phil Sharpe are given credit for developing it after experimenting with heavy .38 Special loads in the S&W .38-44 Outdoorsman. Sound familiar?

Winchester used a case approximately 1/10″ longer than the .38 Special case, with a bullet weighing 158 grains and having a 0.357″ diameter. The longer case prevented the high-pressure cartridge from being loaded in weaker .38 Special guns.

Tank’s issued Ruger Service-Six in .38 Special (top) with his back-up S&W model 66 in .357 Magnum.

Guns

The S&W Magnums were offered in 3.5, 4, 5, 6, 6.5, 7.5 and 8.75″ barrels. Having a deluxe high-polish blue finish job, the top strap and barrel ribs were checkered, preventing glare. Adjustable rear sights and various front sights were available, as were special order “humpbacked” hammers for the new Magnum. The Magnums were well received, essentially being custom guns, built one at a time. They were registered by S&W, having a special serial number and certificate made out for the owner.

Colt got into the game with a few SAAs, New Service and Shooting Master double actions. These pre-war Colts are highly prized. The Python came out in 1955.

Evolution of the .357 Magnum (below, L to R) — Hot loaded .38 Specials, factory-swaged
158-grain .357 loads, Heavy cast .357 handloads, jacketed .357 factory loads.

Too Much?

The first factory .357 Magnum cartridges used soft, swaged semi-wadcutter bullets that caused terrible leading after shooting a few cylinders. Handloaders remedied this by using hard-cast or gas-checked bullets like those designed by Ray Thompson.

There’s plenty of great sixguns available for the .357 Magnum. Sure, there are bigger, more powerful Magnums but the .357 has just the right amount of power needed to handily get the job done when taking care of man-sized problems. Perhaps this is the reason most people shoot it better than other Magnums?

I bought my first Magnum in 1988, an S&W model 66, with 3″ barrel as a back-up to my issued .38 Special Ruger Service-Six. I may have carried Magnum loads in the 66, but you didn’t hear that here. I loved the adjustable sights and shot it very well.

Next came a slew of Rugerss, both double- and single-action. The double-actions were all Security Sixes because they had adjustable rear sights. Then came the single actions. First I acquired the New Models, followed by various older 3-screws. Add a Bisley, or two, followed by a Marlin 1894C, and I had the bases covered. When shooting Magnum loads out of the Marlin’s 18.5″ barrel, it makes the .357 a beast, easily handling deer-sized game.

One of my favorite magnum loads is a cast 187-grain WFNGC bullet over 16.0 grains of H110. It is both deadly and accurate.

Friendly Indeed

Yup, a good sixgun chambered in the .357 magnum is friendly indeed. Versatile, you can shoot .38 Specials or its intended Magnum loads. The Magnums are proven manstoppers and instill confidence. There’s much more to be said about the .357 Magnum as we’ve barely scratched the surface of its excellence. While the .357 Magnum may not be my favorite cartridge, if forced to pick just one, it would surely deserve a hard look.

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