The .357 Magnum: An appreciation for the ‘first magnum.’
In these days of mega-magnum handguns like the 454 Casull, 475 Linebaugh, 500 Smith & Wesson and 480 Ruger, the .357 Magnum seems like a weak sister to a lot of folks. Why get a .357 when you can get a .41 or .44 Magnum? There are plenty of reasons for going with the .357, in fact if I could have only one gun, it would be a .357.
The .357 Magnum is now 78 years old, having come to fruition in 1935, right in the middle of the Great Depression. Even at the then exorbitant price of $60, Smith & Wesson sold every one they made. At the time, each one was hand made, and could be ordered with pretty much any option the customer wanted.
The cartridge itself is an extended .38 Special case, stretched out an extra 1/10”. This was to prevent the hot loaded round from accidentally being chambered in the weaker .38 Special Military & Police model. The new .357 Magnum was chambered in the N frame size gun, as it was believed that only the larger framed gun could handle the pressures of the new powerhouse, which were upwards of 47.000 psi. It was, at the time, the most powerful factory handgun round available.
Handgun authorities of the time, including Elmer Keith, Phil Sharpe and Douglas Wesson, were quick to extol the virtues of the round. In fact, Doug Wesson used the new handgun and cartridge to take many head of game, including antelope, elk, moose and grizzly bear, to prove it’s superiority to any other factory round available. The head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, authorized it for carry by his agents.
Fast forward 20 years to 1955. A Border Patrolman named Bill Jordan liked the .357 Magnum round, but didn’t like carrying the weight of the heavy N-frame. He asked Carl Hellstrom, then president of Smith & Wesson, if it would be possible to package the power of the .357 round in a revolver the size of the K-frame Military & Police. This resulted in the creation of the .357 Combat Magnum, later to be known as the Model 19. At 35 ounces with a 4” barrel, Jordan called it ‘the peace officer’s dream,’ combining portability and power.
One of the biggest fans of the .357 Magnum round, and one of my top 3 favorite gun writers, was Charles A. “Skeeter” Skelton. He wrote many articles praising the .357, and his use of the Lyman bullet mold #358156, a gas checked 158 grain semi wadcutter bullet available as either a solid point or hollowpoint, has made that particular bullet a classic along the same lines as Elmer Keith made the Lyman #429421 250 grain bullet famous for the .44 Magnum.
For a long time, I wrote off the .357 as being more of an annoying little brother to the .44 Magnum. As I’ve gotten older, and done more study, I’ve come to realize that the .357 Magnum may be a better choice, for most people, than any of the larger rounds available. The acquisition of several hundred .357 and .38 +P cases allowed me to experiment with different powders and bullets, and I have settled on one or two loads for all my needs.
I have 2 .357 revolvers that I normally use, a Smith & Wesson Model 19 with 4” barrel, and a Ruger Blackhawk single action revolver with a 6 ½” barrel. The Model 19 is a favorite for defense and field use. I have a set of Herrett’s Roper style grips on it, made to fit my hand perfectly. They are not too terribly expensive, running about $100. They are worth the money, as good fitting grips are worth their weight in gold.
My normal working load is a handload of the Oregon Trail Bullet Company 158gr semi-wadcutter bullet, with 7.5grs of Unique. This gives me around 1200 fps or so, which is adequate for most of what I use it for. It is powerful enough for lighter, thin skinned critters, and I can load up a pile of them to shoot and practice with on a regular basis. Getting out and shooting is the only way you’re going to get good with a pistol.
I carry this sixgun in one of 2 holsters, depending on what I’m doing. For concealed carry, I’ll use a Range Master Holster from Rob Leahy at Simply Rugged. It pulls the gun butt in close, yet allows a speedy draw. I’ll carry extra ammo in a belt carrier on my left hand side.
For field carry, where concealment isn’t a concern, I use a tanker-style holster I picked up in the local Cabelas Bargain Cave for $12. It is made for the 4” K frame, and is slung from the right shoulder to the left hip. It also has a canvas cartridge slide on it for holding 12 extra rounds. It is extremely comfortable, and it is reassuring to have the extra ammo where it is easy to get to.
The Ruger Blackhawk .357 Magnum single action revolver has been in production since 1955, with a few improvements along the way. They are just about indestructible, and are offered in blue or stainless steel. Mine was picked up new in 2007, and has been toted around quite a bit in the time since. It has been a hunting revolver for the last two seasons. With the 6 ½” barrel, it balances nicely for long range shooting, but is not ungainly like some guns with longer barrels. It wears a set of Ruger synthetic ivory grips, which give it a little bit of personality, along with a Belt Mountain #5 base pin for the cylinder. Patterned after an Elmer Keith design that he had on his #5 revolver, hence the name, it is a tighter fit than the factory part, and reduces the wobble in the cylinder, giving a little bit tighter lock up It also lends a touch of class to the gun.
Normal shooting loads are made up of the Cast Performance Bullet Company 180 grain Lead Flat Nose-Gas Check bullet with a healthy dose of Alliant 2400 powder behind it. This is my hunting, walking around, do-all load for the Blackhawk. Sighted in at 50 yards, I am entirely confident in it to do whatever I need it to. For a light practice load, the above mentioned Laser Cast 158gr semi wadcutter bullet and 3 grains of Bullseye in .38 Special cases fills the bill.
It is usually carried in another holster made by Simply Rugged, a #120 with an extra long retention strap. The holster rides on a 2 ½” cartridge belt with 28 cartridge loops, and the whole thing is carved in a floral pattern. It’s a beautiful rig, made for showing off or heavy work. It is quick to draw from, should the need arise, and keeps the gun safe and secure. I asked Rob to make me one just like Skeeter Skelton’s, and he came through! If I want to carry it concealed, I have a Simply Rugged Pancake holster for it. It’s a big gun, but under a cold weather parka or rain jacket, it’s doable.
Even with its heaviest loadings, the .357 Magnum is still much easier to shoot than its larger siblings. The Blackhawk is the best value in a hunting handgun today, and will last forever if cared for properly. For someone who is doubtful of their ability to handle the bigger calibers, the .357 is still effective on nearly everything 4 legged in the lower 48, except that bullet placement is a little more critical. We owe this to any game animal we shoot, anyway.
The Smith & Wesson Model 19 is a classic sixgun, and is lightweight to carry while still being easy to shoot. One can carry it all day, and not be tired or sore when the sun goes down. Six rounds of .357 is still pretty potent, and I’ve never felt undergunned by having “only” 6 rounds.
So, don’t be ashamed of having a .357 Magnum; embrace it, make it your own, live with it, shoot it every day. You’ll be far better off than your friends who have their bigger toys, but can’t hit the broad side of the proverbial barn!
Steve Collins is the Lead Instructor for S & L Training in Missouri, teaching concealed carry and defensive firearms and tactics classes. He is a former member of the US Army Marksmanship Unit, and an NRA Certified Instructor. For more information on training opportunities, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit
Simply Rugged Holsters: www.simplyrugged.com
Herrett’s Roper-style grips: www.herrett-stocks.com
Laser Cast bullets: www.laser-cast.com
Cast Performance bullets: www.castperformance.com
Belt Mountain Base Pins: www.beltmountain.com
Pic1: You can’t have a Model 19 without having a copy of Bill Jordan’s book “No Second Place Winner.” Custom Herrett’s grips don’t make me shoot as good as Bill, but they do look good!
Pic2: Favorite loads for the Blackhawk and the Smith & Wesson include the Cast Performance 180gr LFN-GC on the left, and the Laser Cast 158gr SWC on the right. The Cast Performance load is for the Blackhawk only, but the Laser Cast load is good for either one.
Pic3: Fancy carved #120 holster and cartridge belt from Simply Rugged for the Ruger Blackhawk make for a good looking, but practical and comfortable, every day carry rig.
Pic4: Simply Rugged Pancake holster for the Blackhawk. While it’s not what you would think of first in a concealment piece, it is certainly doable with the right gear.
Pic5: Smith & Wesson Model 19 .357 Magnum in Simply Rugged Range Master holster along with ammo pouch, both with border stamping.
Pic6: Belt Mountain #5 Base Pin adds a touch of class to this great working gun.
Pic7: Smith & Wesson Model 19 in tanker-style holster for field use.