When it comes to revolvers, there is probably no more practical cartridge than the .357 Magnum. The .357 Mag offers a number of benefits and today we are going to be looking at a few of the best revolvers that chamber it and what makes them special.
To cover some quick ground for newcomers, the .357 Magnum (it used to be knowns as the .357 Remington Magnum) is essentially just a longer .38 Special. You can fire .38 Special rounds in a .357 Magnum gun, but not the other way around. How is that possible since one is .35 caliber and the other is a .38? Well, they are actually both .35 caliber.
The .38 Special name comes from back in the days when we were transitioning away from muzzleloading black powder revolvers like the Colt 1860 Army. The bored-through cylinder that we are all familiar with today was brand new in the years coming out of the Civil War. As a result of changing technology, the original ammunition was measured differently and was classified as a .38 on converted .36 cal Navy revolvers.
There’s a little more to it, but the ‘.38’ designation stuck and eventually the .38 Special was born.
Famous names like Elmer Keith eventually began to push the .38 Special harder and harder and it was necessary to come up with a new cartridge that was dimensionally different and capable of handling the greater pressures generated by these powerful new loads.
The .357 Magnum cartridge was the result and its name is correct in that it typically uses .357” diameter bullets. While some of the experienced wheelgunners in the audience will know that there is more to be said here, you can get the general idea.
The .357 Magnum is one of the most powerful conventional guns that most people carry and use on a regular basis. It’s available in a full spectrum of sizes and features from very small to huge. I will divide this list into three categories: carry, midsize, and field, plus a commentary on ammunition.
The carry gun that I recommend is the Ruger LCR. This is a very lightweight, compact, and easy-to-maintain five-shot revolver. The gun is available as a both a double action only model and as a double/single action (the LCRx) with an exposed hammer. Various other calibers and barrel lengths in the LCR are also available.
The small frame LCR has become something of a modern classic. When it was first introduced, it was greeted with some odd glances and skepticism. The LCR featured radical thinking in terms of how it was constructed and what it’s made of. But once skeptics tried the gun, its good ergonomics and excellent trigger pull won them over.
The original models were made primarily of aluminum and polymer, which was pretty much unheard of in terms of carry revolvers. The 1.87-inch barrel .357 version has a stainless steel frame, which adds a bit of heft over the lighter .38 Special-only models.
The next revolver on my list, and my choice in midsize revolvers, is the Smith & Wesson Model 19. This revolver is something of a revised classic. S&W released the 19 in the late 1950’s and recently resumed production of a near-clone model and a fully modernized carry version.
The Model 19 features a slim build and a six shot cylinder. These guns are on the heavy end for everyday carry, but are excellent for home defense and are still small enough to be easily concealed.
The version I have the most familiarity with had a ported barrel, an adjustable rear sight, a tritium front sight, and two sets of grips – one a wood boot grip style and the other overmolded rubber grips. This is a great revolver that truly had everything you could hope to have in a carry/utility gun. The Model 686 and the Ruger SP101 are also a good choices in this category.
When it comes to field use, there are a few options for the .357 Magnum aficionado. The first that always comes to mind for me is the Ruger Redhawk (top of page). This a large, heavy gun that holds eight .357 rounds and is virtually indestructible.
The huge mass of the Redhawk allows it to handle nearly any load made, including high-pressured ammunition that would destroy most other guns. In fact, there are types of ammunition out there that warn against use in any guns except the Redhawk and similarly overbuilt guns.
The nice part about the Redhawk, with its attractive wood grips, is that it gives you a self-defense gun for the outdoors loaded with the heaviest, most powerful loads. You have the same capacity as a standard 1911, but with potent .357 Magnum rounds instead of .45 ACP. I have lots of trigger time on the Redhawk and can say that it’s built like a tank and is meant for use in the field.
When it comes to ammunition, there are a lot of options with the .357 Mag. When it comes to small guns, like the Ruger LCR and Smith and Wesson J-Frame, I would recommend sticking to the 125gr bullet class as the recoil of heavier loads in these guns is savage and you’ll never want to touch the gun again after firing one.
Shooting .38 Specials in these small guns is recommended for training, but with some .357 Mag mixed in. A 1:10 ratio favoring .38 Special is what I believe will get you good practice without causing too much pain.
As far as the mid-sized gun is concerned, be it a Ruger GP100 or a Model 19, you have your pick of the litter. These mid-sized guns can shoot 125-135gr loads all day at full horsepower and you won’t break a sweat.
When it comes to the heavy 158gr JHP and the like, you’ll be feeling it more. The .357 Mag with a 3-4” barrel is best served with lighter bullets to take advantage of the excellent velocities the cartridge is capable of generating.
The field-type gun is best with the heaviest, most powerful loads your gun can safely shoot. An added benefit to these heavy guns is that they are downright pleasant with .38 Specials and lighter loads. You can also train new shooters on a gun like the Redhawk using light .38 loads, which feel like shooting a .22LR, and then work up to more powerful loads as the new shooter matures.
You have a world of options with the .357 Magnum. The guns that chamber it have a huge amount of flexibility when it come to ammunition. You’ll be able to find .357 Magnum revolvers that weigh less than a pound and can fit in your pocket and guns that are so large you’ll carry them in a chest rig and strain to hold them steady.
There’s a .357 Magnum for everyone out there and I would encourage you to go take a look at one today.