Key point: Invented in 1934, the cartridge was developed by leading firearm authorities and quickly became the round of choice for revolver enthusiasts, law enforcement and military forces worldwide.
One of the most persistent handgun calibers of the past one hundred years, the .357 Magnum (9x33mmR) cartridge was for decades the most powerful commercially available round. Invented in 1934, the cartridge was developed by leading firearm authorities and quickly became the round of choice for revolver enthusiasts, law enforcement and military forces worldwide.
The .357 Magnum was originally developed from the .38 Special round and was the first “magnum” round ever invented. While the two rounds are dimensionally similar, there are clear differences between the two. The .357 Magnum round is longer than the .38 Special, preventing the more powerful round from being inserted into the cylinders of the less powerful revolvers. (On the other hand, .38 Special rounds can be loaded into .357 Magnum guns, providing a less powerful, lower recoil and less expensive shooting experience)
The .357 Magnum is considerably more powerful than its parent round the .38 Special. A .38 Special full metal jacket round will hit with the force of 189 pounds of pressure per square foot at a subsonic muzzle velocity of 810 feet per second. A similar .357 Magnum cartridge with hit with 575 pounds at 1,440 feet per second. More than doubling the force and increase of velocity—well above supersonic levels—with essentially the same cartridge was a considerable accomplishment. Here are five of the best .357 Magnum firearms in existence.
Smith & Wesson Model 27
Smith & Wesson was one of the first gun manufacturers sell firearms in .357 Magnum, having been on the original design team for the round. The Model 27 debuted in 1935 and despite being born in the midst of the Great Depression was an immediate hit, with the average wait time for customers to receive the revolver up to four years.
Eighty-three years later, the Model 27 is still in production. Smith & Wesson has produced the Model 27 with different barrel lengths over the years, from four inches to ten-and-five-eighths, but the rest of the revolver has remained largely the same. (If anything, the revolver is even better, capable of handing “newer” high-pressure +P ammunition.) Today’s Model 27 has a four-inch barrel, but is still otherwise the same in design and performance. The 27 has a six-round cylinder, an overall length of 9.3 inches and weighs 42 ounces. It is manufactured from carbon steel with a blue finish.
The Model 27 is a double-action revolver, meaning a single pull of the trigger will cock the hammer, advance the cylinder and drop the hammer to fire the gun. This differentiates it from older revolver designs that required the hammer to be manually cocked.
Winchester 1873 Sporter
The “Gun That Won The West,” the Winchester 1873 is perhaps the most recognizable of the lever-action rifles that were popular in nineteenth-century America. Today, Winchester still makes a variety of lever actions, including the 1873 Sporter in .357 Magnum. The Sporter has a walnut grip stock with satin finish, a twenty-four-inch octagonal barrel and case hardening on the receiver. The rifle retains the 1873’s semi-buckhorn rear sights for long-range shooting combined with a gold dot bead front sight. The rifle is loaded through gate on the right side and up to fourteen rounds of .357 Magnum ammunition can be stored in the tubular magazine that runs under the barrel. (Unfortunately, this probably runs the rifle afoul of state firearms laws, particularly California’s.)
Magnum Research .357 Magnum Desert Eagle
The Magnum Research Desert Eagle is one of the most recognizable pistols today. While the Desert Eagle is best known for being chambered in .50 Action Express and .44 Magnum, a .357 Magnum version also exists.
The .357 Magnum Desert Eagle takes advantage of the Desert Eagle’s built in recoil reduction system, making it one of the softest shooting .357 Magnum firearms in existence. The lower recoil is due to the Desert Eagle’s gas piston, rotating bolt operating system similar to that used in the AK-47. As one well-known gun reviewer claims, “Shooting this .357 Magnum is no worse than pulling the trigger on a Glock 19.” Comparing a .357 Magnum to a 9mm handgun is quite a statement.
The .357 Magnum Desert Eagle comes standard with a six-inch barrel, and has an overall length of 10.75 inches. Because the pistol’s barrel, frame and slide are made out of carbon steel, the Desert Eagle weighs 4.5 pounds unloaded. The handgun takes a nine-round magazine.
The Ruger LCR was introduced in 2009 as a concealed carry, personal defense handgun. The LCR was originally chambered in .38 Special and its light weight and short barrel made it difficult to shoot. In 2010, Ruger followed up with a larger LCR chambered in .357 Magnum. The LCR 357 has the same 1.87-inch barrel, five-round cylinder and matte black finish as the original model. It also has the same overall length.
Unlike the original LCR’s aluminum frame, the LCR 357 is made with a 400 series stainless steel frame in order to withstand the higher pressures of the magnum round. This adds nearly a quarter pound to the revolver’s weight. The double-action LCR lacks a hammer, so it can only be fired in double-action mode. The lack of a protruding hammer makes for a smoother draw from under clothing.
Colt Single Action Army
One of the most recognizable handguns from the days of the Old West, the Colt Single Action Army revolvers are a staple of cowboy and western films. Nicknamed the “Peacemaker,” the revolver sits high in the hand and today’s offering from Colt is completely unchanged from versions made a hundred years ago. Offered in .357 Magnum, the Single Action Army has a 5.5-inch barrel, a six-round cylinder, a spurred trigger (reminiscent of cowboy boot spurs), a blued barrel and a colorful case-hardened frame. The .357 Magnum version weighs two pounds unloaded and nearly three pounds loaded.
Unlike modern revolvers, the Single Action Army is a single-action revolver: that is, the hammer must be cocked between shots to advance the cylinder to a fresh, unfired round and ready the hammer. This slows firing but the trigger pull is considerably lighter and shorter than double-action revolvers.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami. (This first appeared in 2018.)