What’s the most versatile revolver cartridge? We decided to (subjectively) pick our most versatile revolver cartridge, and do some show and tell in the process!
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We concluded the .357 Magnum claimed the title. It can fire .38 Special loads and can handle anything from mild target loads to heavy self-defense cartridges. This cartridge is available in a wide variety of guns from small, light revolvers to big, heavy ones. Versatility of reloading equipment is also a plus. The fact that this is a revolver cartridge already speaks to its capabilities. You don’t have to worry about having a certain power level to cycle the slide on a semi-automatic.
Gavin initially wanted to vote for the .44 Magnum because it can do everything the .357 Magnum and .38 Special can do but with more power. He ultimately decided against it because .44 Special and .44 Magnum ammunition is more expensive and harder to find. The frame is also very heavy and big — they aren’t easily concealable guns. In conclusion, the .44 Magnum is more of a specialty gun for hunting and self-defense, though it’s also a great target gun.
Gavin and I both especially value the small, concealable revolvers in .357 Magnum and .38 Special.
About the .38 Special
Introduced in 1898, the .38 Special became very popular with law enforcement, sportsmen and with private citizens for self defense. It has outstanding accuracy capability and is used in match shooting to this day.
As the cartridge matured, it provided a springboard for the .38 Special +P, the .38/44 Outdoorsman and eventually the .357 Magnum.
The .38 Special excels as a target cartridge. A very popular bullet for this is a 148 grain wadcutter at about 650 fps velocity. This is very mild, easy to shoot, and accurate.
There is a famous “FBI load” for the .38 Special, which sends a soft lead 158 grain hollow point at about 800 fps. It’s known as an effective man-stopper, as long as barrier penetration isn’t required. The soft bullet isn’t well suited for that task, however variants of this load offer tougher cast bullets as well as jacketed bullets. Generations of American police officers have carried versions of this load.
The .38 Special +P designates ammunition loaded to higher pressure in an effort to gain higher velocity and greater stopping power.
Like many others, I tend to handload mostly 148 and 158 grain lead bullets at modest velocities for target practice. I’ve also effectively taken small game with such loads.
One drawback to using .38 Special ammunition in a .357 Magnum revolver is that a carbon ring can build up in the chambers, making it difficult to chamber the longer .357 Magnum cases. A handloader can easily avoid this ring becoming a problem by building .38 Special level loads, using the longer .357 Magnum cases. With either length of case, the revolver chambers should be cleaned regularly.
About the .357 Magnum
None other than Phillip Sharpe, D.B. Wesson, and Elmer Keith worked at getting more velocity from the .38 Special. Sharpe in particular carried the torch for a more powerful version, eventually convincing Smith & Wesson to introduce the .357 Magnum in a case .125” longer than .38 Special cases. This was to prevent the new cartridge from being chambered in older, weaker .38 Special revolvers.
The 357 Magnum could easily be loaded to double the power level of the .38 Special, placing its effectiveness above the .38 Special. The first S&W .357 Magnum revolver was delivered to J. Edgar Hoover in 1935, firmly attaching the new magnum to law enforcement. Prohibition (1920 – 1933) saw a rise in gang activity around the manufacture and distribution of illegal alcohol. During that time, police learned that their .32 and .38 revolvers weren’t enough.
Smith & Wesson must have also felt the need to offer handgun ballistics which could compete with the .38 Super cartridge Colt had developed for their 1911 semi-automatic pistol. The .38 Super was an updated version of Colt’s older .38 Auto. Introduced in 1929, the .38 Super offered a flat point 147 grain FMJ bullet at roughly 1225 fps and 490 ft lbs of energy. This was capable of penetrating automobile doors. Interestingly, those ballistics are the same as Hornady ammo currently offered for the .357 SIG.
DB Wesson took the new .357 Magnum on many hunts and took a variety of big game. It’s reported he took the new revolver to Wyoming in 1935, killing elk, antelope, moose and even a grizzly bear with it! At the time, the .357 Magnum was considered the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world. (Personally, I wouldn’t want to use a .357 Magnum against a 1,000 pound grizzly, but it’s a great cartridge for deer hunting.)
Initially, those .357 Magnums were built on the large N frame and beautifully finished. Smith & Wesson later increased production and eventually designated these models Model 27 and Model 28 (the more plainly equipped law enforcement version).
Smith & Wesson soon saw the law enforcement market wanted a lighter, handier version that didn’t sacrifice magnum power. Eventually the intermediate sized K-frame .38 Special was built as a 357 Magnum, and the diminutive J-frame five-shot revolvers followed. It’s worth noting the smaller, lighter .357’s have a vicious recoil when firing heavy .357 Magnum ammo. Heavy use of magnum loads may batter K-frame .357’s and cause issues. L-frame revolvers were introduced as a stronger alternative.
Ruger, Colt, and other manufacturers have all made great .357 Magnum revolvers.
Our .38/.357 Revolvers
Gavin and I combined our collections for a day of shooting and experimentation.
Gavin brought two great revolvers:
Smith & Wesson .38 Special Model 1905
This six-shot “snub nose” revolver is an early K-frame six shot and a survivor. Gavin’s model is a rare version, with a 1 ⅞” barrel. Most other Model 1905’s have a 4” barrel. It shot surprisingly well at 18 yards with the short barrel and rudimentary sights. The trigger pull is rather nice and typical of S&W. Gavin and I were impressed with the quality of this wonderful old gun.
- .38 Special 130 grain FMJ Remington: 737 fps
.357 Magnum 6” Model 586
This beautifully blued L-frame revolver is an excellent platform for a powerful cartridge. The L-frame was introduced as smaller and easier to carry than the hefty N-frame revolvers yet stronger than the K-frame revolvers which could get beat-up pretty badly by magnum ammunition. We’ve found Gavin’s six-shot 586 to be smooth to shoot and very accurate. The full-length underlug made the heavy recoil manageable.
- .38 Special, 130 grain FMJ Remington: 811 fps
- .357 Magnum, 170 grain Federal Hammer Down: 1205 fps
I brought several .38 and .357 revolvers.
.38 Special 5” Colt SAA/Bisley
Somewhere along the line, this fine, old revolver had a new .38 Special barrel and cylinder installed. The change was made long before this beauty came into my life, nearly 50 years ago now. Outwardly it’s quite nice but is showing evidence of mechanical issues. We had a few failures to fire, and a “glitchy” cylinder. A trip to a good SAA gunsmith seems in order.
.357 Magnum 4 ⅝” Ruger Blackhawk
This old six-shot, three-screw Ruger has a gorgeous and practical brass grip frame. I don’t know if the brass frame is original to the gun or if it’s an aftermarket item. It was on the gun when I first saw it in the 1970’s or 1980’s. I do like single-action revolvers and Ruger has long built nicely finished, accurate & reliable Blackhawks. I personally love the way it looks, handles, and feels. The weight and grip design make this sturdy gun easy to shoot even with the heaviest loads. Gavin appreciated the Old West look of the hemispherical back portion of the receiver. It’s got a bit of a kick.
.38 Special 3” S&W 36-1
This nickel plated, five-shot, J-frame revolver has a pinned barrel and has been very lightly used. It’s in excellent condition. It’s light, handy, easy to carry, shoots accurately and is completely reliable. It also has no transfer bar. This .38 Special doesn’t accept .357 cartridges, so you don’t need to worry about the crud rings shooting .38 Specials in a .357 Magnum generate.
.357 Magnum 3” S&W 60-15
This gun is an updated stainless-steel version of the five-shot J-frame. This one has adjustable sights and a full underlug barrel, making it pretty easy to shoot well. It does have the undesirable trigger lock hole, which is said to reduce reliability. I’ve shot lighter 2” J-frame 357 Magnums, but this is as light as I want to go with a .357 Magnum. I often carry it while hiking, fishing, and anywhere I could bump into a bear or mountain lion. Both of the loads we tested in this small frame revolver are powerful .357 Magnum rounds intended for hunting or self-defense purposes.
- .357 Magnum, 170 grain Federal Hammer Down 1125 fps
- .357 Magnum, 180 grain Buffalo Bore 1245 fps
.357 Magnum 2.5” S&W Model 19
This gun’s design was influenced by famed Marine and Border Patrolman Bill Jordan and the Model 19 was initially known as the Combat Magnum. A mid-size K-frame revolver, it quickly became a favorite of police officers and outdoorsmen as it offered good portability along with the power of the .357 Magnum. My revolver is “pinned and recessed,” marking it as an earlier version with a pinned barrel and recessed chambers. Sadly, it was in poor condition when I purchased it with some pitting and rust. Eventually, I had it tuned up and treated to a Cerakote finish which is wearing a bit after years of hiking and fishing trips.
As much as I appreciate single action revolvers, I have found double-action revolvers have the advantage in defense situations. Double actions are easier to shoot quickly and have a huge time advantage during reloads.
We also brought out the .357 Magnum Henry All-Weather Lever Action rifle with a 20” barrel. A handy rifle like this is a great compliment to a revolver, and adds 300 to 400 fps in velocity. It is also easier to shoot quickly and accurately. This .357 Mag rifle also shoots .38 Special rounds!
- 357 magnum, 170 grain Federal Hammer Down: 1731 fps
- 38 Special, 130 grain Remington FMJ: 976 fps
We chronographed three shots from several of the revolvers in both .38 Special and .357 Magnum where applicable and compared them to the Henry.
My personal acquaintance with the .357 Magnum came through reading and re-reading my grandfather’s 1955 edition of Sixguns by Keith. I’ve had a .357 Magnum revolver since the mid-1970’s. I mostly handload lead bullet .38 Special ammunition for practice and reserve .357 Magnum ammo for hiking in bear and mountain lion country. After over nearly 50 years of using a .357 Magnum, I’ve come to appreciate both the .38 and .357 cartridges more and more.
We decided, a bit reluctantly, that the double action .38/.357’s out-shone the 41, 44 and 45 revolvers as the most versatile. Both of us are fans of big bore revolvers, but the compact carry and easy shootability of the .38 & .357 revolvers tipped the scales in their direction.
The smaller .32’s were just too small for either of us to view as versatile. Although they are fine cartridges, I couldn’t see myself choosing one for big game hunting or for self defense against man or beast.
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