The .357 Magnum is a relatively misunderstood cartridge in today’s shooting world. It’s powerful, wonderfully effective, and probably one of the best all-around calibers ever made. But it’s both a great and a terrible beginner’s cartridge, depending on the load and the gun that it’s used in.
On the plus side, a novice has the advantage of being able to fire virtually any power level of ammo in a revolver, which will be the only type of gun considered in this article. There are a few semi-auto .357 guns out there, but they’re rare and expensive for the most part so we won’t worry about them here. There are also lever action rifles chambered for the .357 for use on medium game and deer.
Revolvers chambered for the powerful .357 round have the ability to chamber anything of the same diameter, which includes .38 Special. Lower powered ammunition used in a .357 revolver makes for a very versatile gun, and light or cowboy-type handloads can make it feel almost like shooting a .22LR.
For the beginner, owning a revolver chambered for .357 Magnum opens the door to a slew of ammunition types that allows easy and relatively inexpensive practice. This is an ability that cartridges like 9mm, .45ACP and others can’t match.
Since those calibers are made for (mostly) semiautomatic pistols, they have to have a minimum amount of oomph to ensure enough power to cycle the action reliably. In a revolver, your finger is the power source and thus there are generally no restrictions on high or low power ends of the ammo (within reason).
Some of the great advantages of the .357 Magnum as a standalone cartridge are:
Excellent, powerful factory loads. When I say ‘Buffalo Bore’, you think ‘hell yeah.’ Buffalo Bore makes some of the most powerful and devastating ammo out there. I have been testing some of their ammo in various calibers and I am, no pun intended, blown away. You’re able to get some real heavy-duty stuff from them in .357 Mag, including 180gr Hardcast Lead Outdoorsman that’s rated for 1,400fps from a four-inch barrel.
Easy reloading. Beginners usually become experienced shooters eventually and handloaders have long recognized that straight-walled cases are simple to work with. Most dies out there can be used to load both .38 Special and .357 Mag, which is a great thing for the guy or gal who wants to practice on the cheap.
Advanced bullet designs and perfected classics. The .357 has had the luxury of being around for close to a century and it has enjoyed great, effective bullet designs almost from day one. It has benefitted, especially in small carry guns, from recent advanced bullets that offer far better expansion.That said, there’s nothing at all wrong with 158gr of classic cast lead. Bullets may have gotten better, but bad guys haven’t gotten any tougher.
Readily available and in common use. Virtually anywhere that sells guns and some places that sell groceries will sell a .357 load that is suitable for your daily use. In terms of expense, the .357 is not necessarily cheap, but it is in the same range as most other pistol rounds, if not a touch more.
A few great guns that are chambered for .357 Magnum are:
Ruger Blackhawk, Redhawk, Super Redhawk, and Super Blackhawk. These are beefy, heavy guns that are the very definition of the word ‘robust’. They’re some of the most durable and ‘I-Don’t-Give-A-S**t’ revolvers in the world and can withstand brutal use and abuse. The heaviest and most powerful .357 Magnum loads available can be safely fired in these tanks.
Smith & Wesson 66 Combat Magnum. This is a recently released revolver that’s about as large as most people would consider in a regular carry gun. It’s handy, holds six rounds, and is relatively light at about 34 ounces. With full-house loads this gun may be a bit much for a new shooter, but lighter loads can always be used until a level of comfort is reached.
Uberti Single Actions. For those looking for a taste of the historical, the Uberti SAA clones are fantastic and rewarding. I have used these guns on and off for years and I love their look and feel. As an added bonus, cowboy action shooting is a growing and popular sport that really makes for a fun weekend at the range.
I do need to address an issue with the .357 Mag, especially for beginners and especially when used in small guns. The .357 Mag in what’s commonly called a ‘snubby’ or ‘snubnose’ revolver isn’t an experience even seasoned shooters enjoy. The recoil is extremely stout to say the least.
I know that there will be some crusty curmudgeons in the comments who want to play macho and tell even newbies to man-up, but don’t take them seriously. Aside from actually getting shot, there’s probably no faster way to turn off a new shooter than by putting a featherweight .357 double action in their hand and tell them to ‘have fun.’
The common argument I’ve heard in favor of arming new shooters with a snubby .357 is that it ‘only takes one shot’ and ‘the noise will scare them off.’ That is, frankly, bull$hit. If you are a new shooter or new to concealed carry and a gun store employee or range chump tells you to get a gun like that, he’s an idiot. Literally walk out of the store and find another one that hires experts and not knuckleheads.
If you’re a beginner and want to know why you shouldn’t consider going the .357 snubby route, I will sum it up by saying that they’re loud, their recoil is painful, and it’s hard to learn to use effectively. The trope that you’ll only have to fire it once is, as stated, a pile of hot garbage.
The .357 is a great cartridge and very powerful, but it’s not by any means a be-all, end-all for self-defense. It, like any cartridge and bullet, is not a guaranteed one-shot kill. You must apply the same rules for technique and shot placement as you would with any caliber. I’d rather a new or inexperienced shooter have a .22LR in a snubby revolver than a .357.
A lot of great .357 Mag ammo is available from virtually all ammo makers, but here are a few notables:
Hornady. My favorite .357 from this company is their simply awesome 135gr Critical Duty load. I’ve done a fair bit of testing with it and I trust it in a self-defense revolver.
Speer 135gr Gold Dot. This is a reliable, powerful, and accurate duty and carry load that won’t quit.
Buffalo Bore. I could go down the list, but virtually everything these guys make is Grade A.
Great practice and self defense ammo is also available from Remington, Winchester, Fiocchi, S&B, Federal, PMC, HSM, and many others.
So there you have it. The .357 is a great cartridge and, as a bonus, guns chambered for it will also fire .38 Special. It’s a good beginner’s caliber — in the right guns — as .357 revolvers can be very versatile with proper ammo selection.
A new shooter will have to look hard to find a more versatile cartridge, one that can be used for self-defense, target, range and hunting, in both rifles and pistols, and allows for a graduated power scale.