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-inch 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’ as you might with a semi-auto, but these little guns are very quick.

Conclusions

The .357 Magnum round 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 The .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 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

 

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42 COMMENTS

  1. ‘…packing about the same punch as the 7.62×39.’

    At the muzzle a .30-30 packs about 50% more punch than a 7.62×39. Downrange the 7.62 can surpass the older less aerodynamic .30-30 bullets by 300 yards but still can’t touch the more modern loads.

    I was disappointed to see Ruger get rid of the micro-groove barrels on the new Marlins. My Remlin 336BL gets roughly advertised (24″ barrel) velocities out of an 18-1/2″ barrel.

      • I bought the .30-30 for an open sighted rifle and decided the .30-30 will do anything a reasonable person would want to do with open sights. Good for deer out to 200-300 yards with the right ammo, much stronger than .357 at close range and shoots much flatter than .44 mag or .45-70 at longer ranges. That said, I want that 1894c. The .357’s greater capacity probably makes it a better choice for home defense, at least if you have neighbors.

        • Lever guns are a ton of fun, but for the price of a lever action .357 or 30-30, one could buy BOTH a basic AR15 for plinking and defense, and a basic bolt action hunting rifle in .308, 30-06, .270, or 6.5CM and have a superior hunting rifle.

          The AR and bolt gun are both superior to the lever gun for their particular applications.

          The lever rifle just has a certain coolness that we all love. Many of us own all three categories.☺️

  2. I stay with better quality 357 ammo especially in the long gun. As stated, at the end, these types of ammo put it right there with the 30/30 and at 10+1 in my Henry and the same type of ammo I can carry a handgun in it fits my needs. Mine really likes the Underwood 158s and 180s in accuracy

  3. I knew what the answer to question would be when I read the title, but I still read the article. I enjoyed it. I especially enjoyed the firearms used. Tried to buy a 4″ L frame a while back. Early revolver in the box from an estate. Price was settled. The seller went up $100 the day of sale. Hadn’t even seen it. Left a bad taste in my mouth. Walked away. Thing is I had bought about 20 GI M-14 mags in the wrap from her a few weeks earlier. Everyone was happy.

    • The .357 is designed to burn in what, a 4-inch barrel?

      And the .30-.30 in what? 12 inches? No duh the .30 .30 hits harder…

  4. Still would prefer a Marlin lever gun in .41 mag. Ballistics comparable to a .30-30, but more rounds.

    Please, Ruger . . . reintroduce the 1894 in .41 mag!

      • My preferred hand cannon is a Dan Wesson .41 mag, so I’d like a lever gun to go with it.

        I just like .41 mag. More powerful than .357 but not as much of a handful as .44. Elmer Keith knew what he was doing.

        • …and with .41 mag, one extra round fits in the revolver’s cylinder.

          Makes *perfect* sense… 😉

  5. Nicely done. Magnum cartridges looooove longer barrels. The .357 is an incredible cartridge, if used with enough barrel to let it breathe.

    The 4″ revolver is the minimum anyone should use with a .357 if they expect it to perform like the legendary .357 of old. Wish you would have thrown the 2″ snubby in there too, so people would see just how ass it is, when you chop a .357 down to 2″ it loses all the .357 “goodness”.

  6. .44mag and 30-30 are pretty similar.
    Dont know about using 125gr .357 for deer.
    .44 180gr soft point has killed a few deer for me. Mostly one hop dead.

    • 158 jsp does fine on Illinois deer. Took a deer with my Henry Carbine. One shot, didn’t get far before she went down. Broadside shot in the heart.

    • ‘.44mag and 30-30 are pretty similar.’

      At short ranges, yes. If you plan on stretching it out passed 100 yards the .30-30 is better. However in Iowa hunting deer with a .30-30 is verboten but .44 mag is A-OK.

      • Governor Le Petomane,

        Your comment is spot-on as always.

        Regular readers on this site are probably well-aware that I love the .44 Magnum cartridge and use a break-action rifle chambered in .44 Magnum to hunt white-tailed deer. As much as I love .44 Magnum, I agree that its maximum ethical hunting range is 100 yards.

        I touched-upon the idea that .357 Magnum has a limited range for ethical deer hunting: that very same reasoning compels my self-imposed 100 yard range limit with .44 Magnum. Limiting my shots to 100 yards maximizes my odds of incapacitating a white-tailed deer quick enough that I should be able to recover it within a “short” distance (less than 120 yards typically). Once you start reaching out beyond 100 yards, the .44 Magnum bullet is slowing down rapidly and is starting to drop rapidly. Unless you know the exact range to your deer and your exact bullet drop at that distance, you risk placing a poor shot on your deer (or a shot that does not cause enough damage) which leads to a deer that you don’t recover.

  7. Hydrostatic shock is allegedly generated by bullets traveling through carcasses at supersonic velocities. Any ultrasound imaging technician can explain that the speed of sound in most soft tissues is about 1,500 meters per second. The speed of sound in bone can be as high as 5,000 meters per second. In contrast, most handgun cartridges have a muzzle velocity of about 300 to 500 meters per second. Most modern rifles have muzzle velocities of about a thousand meters per second. Among the highest velocity rifle rounds that people might encounter are .50 BMG rifles loaded with saboted, sub caliber projectiles which have a muzzle velocity of about 1,500 meters per second.

  8. Excellent article, scholarly in fact.

    I recently fired 9mm carbine against a .357 carbine, just for fun, lots of Chrono work.

    357 ate up the 9mm.
    As for 7.62 x 39mm==== equal to the .30-30 in every way if fired in a bolt gun like the new CZ but thats another story.
    Good job

    • 9mm doesn’t seem to gain much after about 6″ of barrel. And the case just doesn’t have the capacity to make use of slower burning powders.

      • “9mm doesn’t seem to gain much after about 6″ of barrel.”

        No real surprise, if memory serves, 9mm was developed for handguns.

        I do know the Israelis have an special hot load for the Uzi, the ‘black tip’, developed to make the cycling of sub guns more reliable…

        • I started handloading a couple years ago and one thing I’ve learned is that you can use much slower burning powders in .357 than 9mm. Both have the same max pressure but the .357 literally has twice the case capacity. And those slower burning powders produce great results even in my 3″ GP100, but at rifle lengths the difference is huge.

  9. I always wondered why .357 long gun never took off till after WW2. Did they not realize how powerful it was?

    How about an article with chronographing of BP .38 Special in short and long barrels?

      • “I would say the depression would make that a hard thing for many to afford.”

        For all practical purposes, WW2 ended the depression, as industry shifted to a war footing. Pretty much anyone who wanted a job could find one, and lots of overtime meant many had extra cash…

    • S&W only sold about 7500 .357 magnums before the war, so the cartridge in general didn’t really take off until after the war. Mostly because they (S&W Registered Magnum) cost $60 at a time when an ounce of gold was $35. That would be around $3500 today.

    • “I always wondered why .357 long gun never took off till after WW2.”

      Likely the barrel length in revolvers was fine for fast-burning powders, but not long enough to develop the pressure needed for longer barrels…

  10. Don’t really know much about .357 rifles, but I know from experience that a 30-30 will take down a 200lb buck at 150 yards. Dead in it’s tracks.

  11. Looking at current price tags on lever guns I’m damn glad I bought most of mine back when a second hand 30-30 could be had for $75.00. Don’t use my lever guns much anymore. The AR rifles have taken their place as working rifles for me. The AR-10 handles the larger game, and the AR 15 gets the varmint and lighter work.
    Not to say I would be willing to part with any of the lever guns anytime soon. Pairing up an old Colt revolver and a Winchester carbine is just fun. Don’t have a lever rifle in .357. Never needed nor desired one. Only 357 revolver I have currently is the original Python in blue with the 6 inch tube.
    Put several white tail deer in the freezer with the old top eject 30-30.

  12. Think what a lever gun would do in 357 with about 5/16″ more powder. I gave up waiting on a lever gun in 357 Max, and built an AR pistol in 350 Legend–pretty much the same ballistics. I would still buy one if someone did it, but it’s even less likely now.☹️

    • hawkeye,

      Now there is an interesting idea: a lever-gun in .350 Legend. Does anyone make such a contraption?

      I imagine the only other way to get amped-up .357 Magnum out of a carbine is to hand load some cartridges beyond the official SAAMI maximum pressure levels. While it would be a really BAD idea to shoot those out of a revolver, I have to believe that any lever-action rifle would be totally fine shooting a .357 Magnum cartridge WAY beyond the official handgun pressure limit. (The chamber walls on a .357 Magnum carbine are incredibly thick compared to the thinnest dimension of a revolver’s cylinder walls.)

      The fun question in the above scenario is whether or not .357 Magnum brass and primers could handle significantly greater pressure.

      • Isn’t there a wildcat 44 necked down to 357 magnum? Not sure if the extra case volume would help with lower pressure but could have more slower burning powder.

      • “… a lever-gun in .350 Legend…”

        Not that I’m aware of. Remington and Henry recently collaborated on the 360 Buckhammer based on the 30-30 case. Similar ballistics, but with a true .357 bore unlike the .355 bore of the 350. That one is another coffin nail for the 357 Max. As for hot 357 Mag loads, maybe. Could begin with small rifle primers (like we use in the Max, to handle the pressure) and play with different powders, but case capacity will be a hard limit.

        “…44 necked down to 357…”

        That would be interesting, but wouldn’t meet the Midwestern “straight-walled case” requirement that they are wanting to accommodate.

  13. Unfortunately in my state you can’t hunt deer with necked cartridges, so lots of people are using .357 magnum, .44 magnum or .45-70 carbines*. I live in very hilly country, so the majority of my good shots are less than 100 yards, so those are okay for me.

    *Or shotgun slugs or muzzleloaders

  14. Even the hottest .357 Magnum loads out of a carbine fall short of .30-30 Winchester.

    Nevertheless, hot .357 Magnum loads out of a carbine are very respectable at limited ranges. And certainly at home defense distances .357 Magnum carbine platform is pretty fantastic in my opinion.

    I am comfortable using hot .357 Magnum loads out of a carbine to hunt white-tailed deer out to 50 yards in general and probably 75 yards with one or two very specific loads/bullets. Beyond that range is pushing it in my humble opinion. Can a hot load kill a white-tailed deer at 100 yards? Of course. The relevant question is whether or not that deer drops within a reasonable distance–or a half-mile away never to be found.

    If your maximum range is 50 yards, then by all means use .357 Magnum to hunt white-tailed deer. If you want to reach out to 100 yards with confidence, then step up to .41 Magnum or even better .44 Magnum, especially if you are fortunate enough to have 250 pound class bucks.

  15. You don’t have to shoot good with a full house 357 in a 2″ barrel revolver for self defense!
    The muzzled blast will get them before the bullet does!

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