General George S. Patton famously — or perhaps infamously — fought World War II carrying an ivory-handled Smith & Wesson Model 27 chambered in the world’s first magnum pistol cartridge: the 357 Magnum. He was a big fan of the cartridge and followed its development. He had ordered and received his famous “Registered Magnum” double-action S&W the first month it was available.
Patton carried several ivory-handled pistols during WWII, including twin Single Action Army revolvers in .45 Colt and a 1911 on rare occasions. But it was his .357 that he referred to as his “Killing Gun.” Smith & Wesson would later create a similar .357 called the Combat Magnum for a reason.
The 357 Magnum was a product of the shootouts of Prohibition America; police officers and FBI agents badly needed it to combat the sometimes bold and ever-better-armed outlaws of the era. The .38 Specials issued to officers of the law just weren’t cutting it.
They were severely outgunned by the .45 ACP Tommy Guns and pistols, pump-action and semi-auto shotguns, highly customized firearms, and even .30-06 full-auto BARs some criminals of the era carried, especially famous ones who were involved in equally famous and bloody shootouts.
Law enforcement needed a more powerful handgun, plain and simple. On April 8, 1935, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was the first to receive a factory 357 Magnum revolver from Smith & Wesson.
The new round the revolver was chambered for was basically a high-powered version of the .38 Special cartridge that boasted nearly twice the velocity and three times the energy of the .38 loads of the time.
It was an immediate success.
Crime-fighting aside, the 357 Magnum is widely accepted as the best all-around handgun hunting cartridge, and it’s perfect for small- and medium-sized game. Its flat trajectory, deep penetration, and wide selection of bullets make it an extremely versatile cartridge for the outdoorsman and woman for hunting with handguns and carbines — typically lever guns.
The History of the 357 Magnum
When the .357 hit the scene, the .38 Special loads of the day were extremely mild because the S&W Military & Police revolvers that were in wide use had lightweight frames that couldn’t stand up to higher pressures.
In 1930, S&W tried to remedy this by bringing out the .38/44 Heavy Duty revolver, which was renamed the .38/44 Outdoorsman a year later. The Outdoorsman was a .38 Special built on the larger and stronger S&W N-Frame that usually housed the .44 Special. This was the first handgun that specifically targeted the hunting market.
The more robust design allowed the .38 Special to be loaded to higher pressures and velocities. Many achieved muzzle velocities up to 1,100 fps — about 300 fps faster than the standard .38 Special loads. It was a very important beginning in the history of handgun ammunition.
Elmer Keith, a prolific gun writer often referred to as the father of the magnum handgun cartridges we use today, loved the .38/44 Outdoorsman and wrote extensively about it in his books Hell, I Was There, and Sixguns. Keith and noted gun writer Philip Sharpe thought they could push the envelope and make the round even faster. They created hand loads that approached 1,400 fps with a 158-grain bullet.
Keith lost interest in the .38s and moved on to getting the most out of the .44 Special; his efforts eventually created the .44 Magnum in 1955. Sharpe continued to press Smith & Wesson to further develop a harder-hitting .38, and eventually, he won over the S&W brass. Sharpe and Maj. Douglas B. Wesson worked with Winchester to create the new 357 Magnum.
S&W introduced the new magnum cartridge in 1935, and a new heavy-framed revolver chambered for it. At the time, the .357 was the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world and became the first factory magnum pistol cartridge.
Even though it was a massive success out of the gate, production ceased in 1941 when the gunmaker shifted its resources to produce weapons and ammo for the war effort. Production resumed after WWII in 1948, and it has been loaded every year since. It became undeniably one of the most popular revolver cartridges of all time.
The 357 held the title of the World’s Most Powerful Revolver Cartridge for 20 years — that’s a long run. While it’s no .44 Magnum, the 357 is highly versatile and shouldn’t be overlooked, even today, with so many powerful magnum loads available.
Loaded with a 158-grain copper-jacketed bullet, the .357 is capable of velocities up to 1,400 fps out of a revolver while still producing manageable recoil for most shooters. That same bullet loaded in the .38 Special moves at 800 fps. This is just one of the many examples of why the 357 Magnum eclipsed its parent cartridge.
Additionally, the above load produces 688 foot pounds of muzzle energy — nearly twice as much as the popular 9mm. The bullet diameter is 0.357 inches, and they are available in weights ranging from 110 to 180 grains. Heavier bullet weights, up to 240 grains, can be used by careful and experienced handloaders.
The cartridge was designed with superior penetration in mind; specifically, it was made to bust through car doors. Mobster warfare of the 1920s showed that the .38 Special was incapable of punching through car doors of the day, which were often used as cover by bad guys while making a getaway. The 357 changed that, and it still penetrates car doors very well.
When compared directly to the 9mm, the 357 Magnum comes out ahead in most fields. The magnum shoots a heavier bullet at a higher velocity than the 9mm, and therefore hits with more energy and has a flatter trajectory. However, the 357 does have more felt recoil with most loads.
The 9mm is a rimless cartridge tailored for semi-auto and automatic firearms with high-capacity magazines, while the rimmed 357 is better suited as a wheel gun and lever gun cartridge. However, the .357 SIG, introduced in 1994, has similar ballistics to the 357 Magnum in a rimless cartridge for automatics.
.38 Special vs. 357 Magnum
The 357 Magnum is, essentially, a lengthened .38 Special — with a casing that’s exactly 1/8 inch longer. This slight difference was an intentional design choice that eliminates the possibility of higher-pressure .357 rounds being loaded in a revolver made for much lighter .38 Special loads.
Simply put, a 357 Magnum cartridge will not fit in a .38 Special gun’s chamber or cylinder, so the .38s don’t blow up. But a firearm chambered in 357 Magnum can safely shoot .38 Specials all day.
Why was this necessary? The .357 has a chamber pressure of 45,000 psi, compared to the .38 Special’s 17,000 psi. That’s why. Even the .38 Special +P — a hot-loaded .38 Special — only has a chamber pressure of about 20,000 psi. Be aware: +P, or “Plus-P,” loads aren’t safe in all .38 revolvers and may cause damage to guns not rated for it. These hot-loaded .38 Special +Ps are entirely safe to fire in a .357.
All of this talk about how great the .357 is doesn’t mean the .38 Special doesn’t deserve respect, and there’s a reason it’s still around, too. The .38 produces significantly less recoil and makes much less noise than a .357. With current self-defense loadings on the market, the .38 Special has impressive ballistics-gelatin performance results.
All of these factors still make it an excellent option for self-defense, and target loads make cheap-range ammo for 357 Magnums that won’t make shooters develop a flinch.
Modern Uses for a Versatile Cartridge
In today’s world, with an ammo market that offers factory rounds like the .500 S&W and .454 Casull, not to mention an array of .44 Magnum loads, what is the 357 Magnum good for? In short, the .357 is still as versatile as it has always been, and that’s its strength. It’s still used across the United States by law enforcement, hunters, and even competition shooters.
Law enforcement personnel who prefer a revolver in the line of duty typically go with a 357 simply because it’s the right balance between power and manageable recoil. Whether it’s a classic Smith & Wesson Model 27 carried as a primary duty gun or one of the many lightweight aluminum and titanium-alloy framed snub-nosed revolvers carried as a backup, 357 revolvers are relied upon by plenty of professionals.
Every year, hunters take to the woods chasing after the plethora of wild game North America offers. A select few challenge themselves even further by taking nothing more than a revolver, and many choose the 357 Magnum. It’s an excellent whitetail deer cartridge for shorter-range kills and areas with dense foliage and few opportunities for shots beyond 50 to 100 yards. While it may be capable of taking larger game with excellent shot placement, it’s best to step up to something like the mighty .454 Casull for that kind of work.
The .357 is also used in a couple of different shooting competitions. It’s an excellent choice for Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS), as many lever-action rifles and revolvers can be found in the chambering, and their ability to shoot low-recoil .38s makes them a CAS favorite. Also, the International Defense Pistol Association (IDPA) has a revolver division where many .357s fill the ranks.
The 357 Magnum Lives On
The 357 Magnum isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It has cemented itself as a powerhouse of a revolver cartridge and is carried daily by countless law enforcement officers, outdoorsmen and women, and concealed carry holders.
Today, manufacturers continue to make rifles and handguns chambered in the cartridge. As magnum ammunition technology improves, this cartridge will become even more capable and versatile than it already is.