Lever gun ballistics: .357 vs .30-30
Chris Dumm for TTAG
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By Chris Dumm

Elmer Keith, Phillip B. Sharpe, Colonel D. B. Wesson developed the .357 Magnum cartridge in 1934. The first of the ‘Magnum’ pistol cartridges, it was a big hit. Literally. While there’s still some debate over the cartridge’s ability to create hydrostatic shock, if you’re looking for a highly effective, commonly available handgun caliber for self-protection, .357 is a perfectly defensible choice.

Handgun hunters use the cartridge to take game up to the size of small deer. The .357’s handgun ballistics are impressive indeed, but how much more impressive does it get from an extra fourteen inches of barrel? Now what should we compare it to….

The .30-30 was once the standard North American big-game hunting cartridge. Since 1895 it may have killed more deer and elk (and cougars and coyotes…) than all other calibers combined. Hell, in Utah they use it to execute two-legged predators. It may be pretty weak sauce compared to more modern, high-velocity rounds, but it still gets the job done for most game at reasonable ranges.

In modern military terms it would be considered an ‘intermediate-caliber’ round, packing about the same punch as the 7.62×39. The .30-30’s biggest drawback: it’s a shorter-range cartridge, due to the flat-point bullets that must be used in a tubular magazine.

The Guns

Our .357 Magnum carbine: a new-production Marlin 1894C. It has an 18″ round barrel, weighs a little over six pounds, and holds 9+1 rounds.

Our .357 Magnum pistol: a 1980s Smith & Wesson Model 686 with a 4″ barrel. If you don’t own one, you should.

Our .30-30: an early-1990s Winchester Model 1894 ‘Trapper’ with a 16.5″ barrel. It weighs six pounds and holds 5+1 rounds.

The Ammunition

Through our .357s we fired the following loads:

  • 125-grain SJHP handloads filled with 17.0 grains of Vitavhouri N-110, a slow-burning magnum pistol powder.
  • 125-grain Remington SJHPs.
  • 158-grain lead SWC handloads, filled with 5.7 grains of Unique.  This load is equivalent to a .38 Special +P.
  • 158-grain Sellier & Bellot SJFPs.
  • 158-grain Magtech RNL .38 Specials.
Chris Dumm for TTAG

The .30-30 was fed the following:

  • 150-grain Sellier & Bellot JSPs.
  • 160-grain Hornady Leverevolution polymer-tipped spitzers.
  • 170-grain Remington JSPs.

The Data

It won’t be a surprise that an 18″ carbine delivers substantially higher velocities than a 4″ revolver firing the same cartridge. How substantial?

  • With 125-grain handloads, the revolver averaged an even 1300 feet per second and 469 pound-feet of energy, while the carbine delivered 1937 fps and 1041 lb-ft. That’s a 49 percent velocity increase and a 122 percent increase in energy from the same cartridge. Yowza.
  • With Remington 125-grain JHPs, the revolver got 1442 fps and 537 lb-ft. The carbine got 2038 fps (!) and 1153 lb-ft, for a 41 percent velocity gain and 98 percent boost in energy.
  • Shooting the 158-grain .38 Specials, the revolver clocked a leisurely 676 fps and 160 lb-ft. The carbine achieved 944 fps and 313 lb-ft, a 40 percent increase in velocity and a 96 percent increase in energy.
  • The S&B 158-grain JSPs gave carbine numbers of 1451 fps and 739 lb-ft, but the chrono battery died before we could measure them from the revolver.
  • My mild 158-grain lead SWC handloads produced 1176 fps and 485 lb-ft from the carbine, which was better than I’d expected since they only burn a small charge of Unique, a fast-burning pistol powder. I couldn’t measure their velocity from the revolver, because they’re so smoky and sooty that the flying particles gave false readings from the chronograph.  An old Speer reloading handbook interpolates them at about 980 fps from a pistol, which would give the carbine about a 20 percent velocity gain and a 44 percent energy gain.

The Winchester Trapper, with its slightly shorter barrel, gave us the following numbers with .30-30 ammo:

  • 150-grain S&B JSP: 2284 fps, 1737 lb-ft.
  • 160-grain Hornady Leverevolution: 2132 fps, 1615 lb-ft.
  • 170-grain Remington JSP: 1986 fps, 1489 lb-ft.

.357 Carbines Rock

With the loads we tested, the extra barrel length of the .357 carbine paid handsome dividends. With light loads, it boosted a truly anemic .38 Special cowboy load up to +P velocities, and it gave the .38 Special +P equivalent load a 20 percent velocity increase. Unique is a fast-burning powder; this light load was nearly consumed in the 4″ revolver barrel so there was only a modest gain from the carbine.

With higher-performance loads, the .357 carbine almost delivers real rifle ballistics. The 125-grain loads have not quite as much muzzle energy as NATO’s standard infantry rifle round, the 5.56x45mm. The 158-grain .357 JSP produces less energy, but it might be a better cartridge for medium-sized game at modest ranges because the bullet itself is less prone to fragmenting at these velocities.

One caveat: my .357 carbine is nicely accurate, but the point of impact varies greatly depending on the ammunition being fired.  At 15 yards, hot .357 loads printed nearly 3″ higher than mild .357 and .38 loads, and also slightly to the right. If you’ll be doing your shooting at anything but short ranges, you should find a good load and stick with it.

The .30-30 Rules

Looking at published velocity numbers from much longer test barrels, we see that cutting a .30-30 barrel down to the legal-minimum 16.5″ doesn’t inflict a debilitating penalty to velocity or energy. The Remington website lists their 170-grain .30-30 at 2200 fps and 1827 lb-ft, and the shorty Trapper averaged a real-life 1986 fps and 1489 lb-ft: that’s less than a 10 percent velocity penalty and an 18 percent energy penalty. Within the practical range of the .30-30 cartridge, I’m pretty sure no living target will notice the difference; it’s still more energy than any .223 Remington.

Even the weakest .30-30 load we tested produced almost 30 percent more energy than the most impressive .357 Magnum, and even that so-called ‘weak’ 170-grain .30-30 bullet will retain much more of its energy much farther downrange than any flat-nosed .357 slug will. And that’s with standard ammo.

The 160-grain Leverevolution will deliver the goods at ranges out to 300 yards, although it’ll cost you a buck a shot. Hornady claims that they make 2400 fps  from a 24″ test barrel, and I was pleasantly surprised that the Trapper’s 16″ barrel (literally one-third shorter) only paid a small 11.25 percent velocity penalty.

The short-barreled .30-30 did not produce obnoxious muzzle blast or excessive recoil; in fact it exhibited no particular vices at all other than its sighting apparatus. The Williams rear aperture sight was clear and precise, but the tiny front post was a challenge to pick up and the redundant rear semi-buckhorn sight blocked another 50 percent of the target.  It should have been drifted out and set aside when the Williams was installed, but it wasn’t.

lever gun ballistics
Or does it? (Chris Dumm for TTAG)

Hornady makes a .357 Magnum 140-grain Leverevolution that claims to get 1850 fps and 1064 lb-ft from an 18″ carbine. Buffalo Bore also claims that their “Heavy” .357 Magnum hard cast 158-grain loads will produce 2153 fps and 1626 lb-ft from an 18″ carbine. This would place it in the middle of the pack for .30-30 ballistics, at least within 100 yards, at a cost about equal to premium .30-30 ammo.

When and if I get some of these to test I’ll post the results, but for big game I’d still rather have a .30-30. For uses other than big-game hunting, .357 Magnum carbines have other benefits which have nothing to do with ballistics.

An 18″ .357 will hold 9+1 rounds, compared to the 6+1 of a .30-30 of the same length. Recoil is extremely mild even with the stoutest loads, so that the XS ghost ring sights never even leave the target; you just keep working the lever and blazing away until you run out of ammo (not likely) or until your tin can bounces away out of sight. You can’t ‘spray and pray’ like you might with a semi-auto, but these little guns are very quick.

Conclusions

The .357 Magnum basically doubles its kinetic energy when it’s fired from a carbine, and it almost earns a promotion to the Big Leagues of rifle ballistics. But not quite. The result is substantially more powerful than a .30 Carbine, but even on paper it takes the most exotic .357 loads to equal the most pedestrian .30-30 loadings. And the .30-30 still dramatically outperforms these exotic .357s at longer ranges.

If you plan to use your gun on bigger game or at ranges past 100 or 150 yards, the .30-30 is your clear choice. While the 16″ Trapper is very handy, consider an 18″ barrel which will give you an extra round of magazine capacity and a small ballistic increase.

If your gun is likely to be used primarily for recreational shooting, hunting medium game within 100 yards, or defensive use, the .357 is superior. Its higher capacity and lower recoil are more suited to such applications where the extra power and penetration of the .30-30 would be wasted.

 

Useful links:

Chart of .357 ballistics
Chuck Hawks rifle ballistics table
Hornady Leverevolution web page

 

This post was originally published in 2011.

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50 COMMENTS

    • I have a Marlin 336BL in the corner that’s my go to rifle. But I have an AR-15 in the next corner just in case.

  1. It’s not just the .357 that varies point of impact by ammo. I keep my .30-30 loaded with Federal 125gr. SJHPs for defensive use and they hit about 8″ high at 100 yards compared to the 150gr. loads. But that works out pretty well because I just move the rear sight up or down a notch and both loads hit right on target.

    Those Remington 125gr. SJHPs should be considered frangible out of a rifle barrel. Even for self defense I’d stick with 158s in a .357 rifle.

  2. Short summary: .30-30 is a rifle cartridge. .357 is a revolver cartridge. The reason to have a rifle in .357 is to be able to shoot the same ammunition out of both guns. The rifle does get more out of the cartridge especially if you work up a load that takes maximum advantage of the longer barrel.

    Hollow point ammunition works only in a narrow velocity range. Too slow and the bullet won’t expand. Too fast and it breaks up. That suggests you will get different terminal performance firing the same cartridge out of your revolver and your rifle. Probably, the better compromise is a bullet that holds together at rifle velocity even though it will be just a solid slug at revolver velocity.

    • Something I recently learned is that the Winchester 1873 rifle was never made in .45 Colt, but that Colt quickly came out with a .44-40 version of the Peacemaker. So I would imagine that back in the day you’d either carry matching .44-40s or carry a .45 Colt and a more powerful single shot rifle such as .45-70. Probably a Remington rolling block or Sharps.

      • Gov, according to a friend of mine that is a student of these things, the 44-40 was a favorite of the cowboys. They could carry one caliber for two weapons. Mark also said that many lawman carried a .45 revolver and a rifle caliber Winchester lever gun. I was born decades too late. Fuck the internet.

    • Kinda want to try out some of the underwood extreme defender loadings from rifle length but going to be a bit until the next gun for the family.

  3. “The .357 Magnum basically doubles its kinetic energy when it’s fired from a carbine, and it almost earns a promotion to the Big Leagues of rifle ballistics. But not quite.”

    That’s with pistol ammo.

    How about when a .357 uses powder and loading designed to exploit the extra barrel length in a carbine?

    • .357s are more suitable for rifles than non magnum rounds since they use slower burning pistol powders than say 9mm. After about 8″ there’s nothing left to gain from any longer barrel in 9mm.

      • There’s nothing to stop a hand loader from using slow powder to maximize velocity out of a 9 mm carbine. That’s the beauty of hand loading.

        • True dat, but that kind of defeats the purpose of the matching caliber pistol/rifle combo. You’d be better off with a rifle caliber rifle so you at least couldn’t get your ammo mixed up.

        • I tested this actually towards the extremes. I was shooting Titegroup and Bullseye in my 4″ SD9VE. The velocity was within about 5 FPS on a 5 shot average. Now then, you throw the same loadings into a 16″ AR9 there’s a 140fps margin in favor of the Blue Dot!

          The problem with 9mm is you’re not gonna get any farther than Blue Dot really; You’re maxed out for burn slowness. That’s where other rounds shine.

      • I’ve considered a 9×23 (Largo) PCC build for a while now. Four extra mm for a few more grains of powder or a weightier bullet. You won’t find one off the shelf, but I could take a standard 9mm barrel and find a good lathe operator to deepen the chamber.

    • You can certainly do it with .45 Colt and rifle powder to get a slower burn rate, at least out of a modern firearm but not an original. Published hot loads run above 25,000 CUP, approximately double a “cowboy” load. I can’t remember the details off the top of my head; I packed all that stuff up for a move and haven’t unpacked it since.

  4. passed on a ’60’s ’94 .30-30 for 150; felt it was too femwee a round at the time (i was stupid as a youngster as well).
    i pair a s.b’hawk with a 16″ 94ae in .44mag. the 94 shown, like mine, is a wrangler. the trapper does not have the hoop lever.
    and then there’s the marlin .444.
    i’d like a 99. and a deerslayer.

  5. Saw a similar comparison via YouTube vid back in 2014. Sold me on the only .357 mag ammo available at the LGS at the time; 180gr Remington SJHP.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzrxHjX7eWo

    .357 mag Remington 180 gr SJHP fired from S&W Model 13 4″ revolver and from Rossi M92 16″ carbine through four layers of denim into calibrated gelatin.

    BB Calibration: 597.8 fps, 3.2″

    Revolver data

    Impact velocity: 1,193 fps (569 lb-ft)
    Pentration: 17.8″
    Retained weight: 181.7 gr
    Max expansion: 0.557″
    Min expansion: 0.534″

    Carbine data

    Impact velocity: 1,563 fps (1324 lb-ft)
    Penetration: 18.1″
    Retained weight: 151.3 gr
    Max expansion: 0.600″
    Min Expansion: 0.587″

  6. You’ll laugh, but it my favorite rifle is my Rossi 1892 with a 16″ barrel. It’s delightfully accurate, and has never choked on any loads 38 or 357.

    • Not laughing…saw a trick shot guy using a Rossi as this main gun. Your 92 model. I lust for lever but I have so many other guns ahead of it!

  7. *.30 Remington has entered the chat*
    The .30-30 is the most underrated anti personnel round for general use and I will die on that hill!

  8. Have a 44mag revolver, and two 44mag carbines. One semi auto and one bolt. Never liked lever guns. Want a 357 carbine but dont want to pay $800 to $900. Pistol caliber carbines are practical, economical to feed and just plain fun to shoot.

  9. My current marlin (1998) with Ballard rifling is more accurate than my previous Marlins with microgroove rifling with any bullet type.

    Best accuracy in real 357 loadings (much of today’s 357 is anemic) is with 140+ grain bullets.

    Mine is zeroed at 75 yards with Winchester Silvertips (~1700 fps). This gives me point of aim accuracy from 50-100 yards.

    Additionally, 125 grain 38 special +P (~1250 fps) hits point of aim at 25 yards with this zero. Makes for a great defensive carbine for the family. The 1250 fps 38+p load from the rifle is waaaaay quieter than a 1250 fps 357 from a revolver.

    I think either 357 or 30-30 is a great utility rifle. My wife enjoys the 357 best of any of my rifle so it gets the nod.

    I also really enjoy my 94 Trapper in 45 Long Colt. 1500 fps Corbin 200 grain HP and 1000 fps Silvertips. I don’t really need more for Whitetails and varmints out to 100 yards.

  10. That comparison isn’t even good enough to be called lame. Go get some full-power .357 loads with 158 to 170 grain bullets and compare them to the similar weight .30-30 ones.

  11. TTAG must be hard up for subject matter. Only an idiot would need to read an article to grasp and understand that ANY 30-30 rifle cartridge is vastly more powerful and ballistically superior to ANY 357 magnum cartridge. What’s next? “300 AAC vs 9mm AR Rifle Ballistics Comparison”. Absolutely a really dumb article written for the really dumb firearms novice.

    • And you were born knowing everything about all the guns, I take it?

      I read this article back in 2011 as a mostly uninformed firearms novice and new owner of a Marlin .30-30, and learned quite a bit from it. And I’ve had a levergun in .357 mag on my wish list ever since — it’s jumped to the top now that I’ve actually got a revolver to pair with one.

      • Sounds like you’re the target audience for an article detailing why the 300 AAC Blackout rifle cartridge is ballistically superior and much more powerful than 9mm handgun ammo. Too funny!

        • chill out seal team six. he is just trying to say not everybody is as knowledgable as you. we all could learn something. or just newbies to the field exploring a rich resource.

        • I’m also a novice who is grateful for the information & the personal opinions/experiences in the comments.

  12. Personally, I prefer the 1889 Marlin lever gun in .44-40. Wish I still had mine. I mean, if we are talking cowboy chic and rifle caliber matching one’s sidearm.

    However, there’s the Marlin 336 and the Savage 99. Of which I’d say the Savage 99 is by far my top pick for accuracy in a lever gun. But then the caliber opportunities are more varied by far!

    Winchester 1894 is a classic well enough and when I had a young man’s eyes I did alright with a Williams peep on the receiver, carefully made reloads of my own in .30-30 out to 100 yards freestanding.

  13. I suppose articles like this are of great importance for the simple minded who are clueless there’s a huge difference between rifle and pistol ammunition and have never taken the time to read the specific ballistic data printed right on new ammunition boxes containing 30-30 or 357 cartridges, or notice that 30-30 brass is a lot BIGGER than 357 mag brass, or are oblivious to the abundance of ballistic info 101 that can be accessed online in seconds.

    http://ballistics101.com/30-30_winchester.php

    http://ballistics101.com/357_magnum.php

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/.30-30_Winchester

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/.357_Magnum

  14. It’s interesting that some folks who dispute the value of this article would waste their time reading it, let alone waste More of their time criticizing it. After all, the title is a fair warning of what is contained therein. Someone so knowledgeable in the area of ballistics should be smart enough to identify it as being beneath their level of expertise and just walk on by.

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