.357 Magnum as a Personal Defense Load

.357 Magnum for Personal Defense

By Syd

There is little dispute that the .357 Magnum works. After all, there aren’t many handgun cartridges that can claim to have brought down moose, elk, and grizzly bears. Most of the other handguns that can lay claim to felling large game are generally considered to be too large and have too much recoil for practical self-defense applications. The .44 Magnum would be a good example. (Yes, I know the .41 Magnum has done it, but I have yet to run into a person packing a .41 for personal protection?) Yet, the .357 Magnum has done it while remaining manageable in a personal defense sized handgun. It’s a tail kicker, but it has its downside. The sound of a .357 going off is tremendously loud, even when wearing ear protection. Setting off a .357 indoors without ear protection would most certainly do damage to one’s hearing which could be permanent. The muzzle flash is very bright in the dark and could cause temporary vision impairment.

Controllability is a concern with the .357 Magnum. It was originally introduced for large-frame guns. In a smaller gun, the recoil is stiff. Follow-up shots could be difficult or at least slower as the shooter struggles to regain control of the gun after the recoil. You can control it if your hands and arms are strong, you can control it, but I think that even for a strong person who is used to powerful handguns, shooting performance would be improved by using .38 +p, especially on follow-up shots.

An issue with .357 Magnum ammo is its penetration. (It won’t go through the block of a ‘49 Buick unless you are firing steel core ammunition). A normal 158g .357 hollowpoint can penetrate about a yard in ballistic gelatin. This means it’s going to slice like a hot knife in butter through walls and siding. It can also shoot through large animals and emerge on the other side with enough velocity to hurt someone else. Over-penetration is a definite possibility. These are serious considerations that should be weighed before adopting the .357 Magnum as a carry load. For most situations, and especially in an urban setting, a solid .38 Special +P would be a better choice for personal defense. Its more controllable for follow-up shots, less prone to over-penetration, and less damaging to the sensory organs.

If, on the other hand, your primary area of operation is rural and wilderness, places where you are more likely to come across a mean pig or a hungry bear than you are the human variety of predators, and be outside during the encounter, the .357 Magnum with its greater power and penetration would be highly desirable. Sadly the range of a .357, one of its best features, is wasted and may be a liability in an urban environment. The .357 is a flat-shooting cartridge that retains better terminal ballistics at 150 yards than most other personal defense handgun cartridges. The mid-range trajectory of the .357 Magnum at 100 yards is only 3.5. At 50 yards it is only .8. At 100 yards, the 158g JHP .357 retains about 67% of the energy it had when leaving the muzzle (this means 360 foot-pounds of energy with a velocity of 1,015 feet per second). It’s easy to see why the range and ballistics of the .357 would be an asset in the country and a liability in the city.

.357 Magnum History

The 1920s launched an era that would change firearms history forever. Prohibition sent the United States into a tizzy. Illegal gin mills, moonshiners, bootleggers and speakeasies secretly fought against the new law, refusing to be forced into a dry nation. Along with the illegal operations came organized crime. Law enforcement struggled to battle gangsters with their inadequate .32 and .38 double-action revolvers. Cops demanded better guns and more firepower. Their weapons simply could not penetrate the bulletproof (ballistics) vests worn by the gangsters, nor could it combat the steel and glass of the automobiles that were coming into common use.

Elmer Keith, Idaho rancher and firearms enthusiast, began to work on a new type of ammunition that would surpass the commonly used .38 ammo. At the same time, Phil Sharpe, a gun writer and NRA technical adviser, set out to design a new type of ammo with higher velocity and more stopping power. The goal was to hit a muzzle velocity of 1,400 feet per second (FPS) using a 150g bullet. Sharpe approached Smith and Wesson Vice President Dan Wesson with the idea of creating the new ammo. Wesson saw the need for the new round and jumped on board. The three men pooled their talents. Smith & Wesson joined up with the ammunition division of Winchester Repeating Arms, and by 1934, the design had been completed. The design modified a .38 Special case, lengthening it by .125-inch. The cartridge held a 158g bullet that fired at 1,515 FPS. The following year, Smith & Wesson launched the .357 Magnum Revolver.

The .357 is credited with introducing the “Magnum Era.” Despite ups and downs, it remains a superior self-defense round often used by law enforcement. Law enforcement, military personnel, and Special Forces teams still use .357 Magnum handguns, mostly as backup and clutch pieces.

New Developments in the .357 Magnum

The impact of the .357 has not waned over time. However, the round isn’t limited to a revolver. It can be used in a small number of semi-auto pistols, lever-action rifles, and carbines. Applications include law enforcement, self-defense, target shooting, competition shooting, and hunting.

Today’s .357 Magnums are a far cry from what was available in 1935. One example of a new platform is the Smith & Wesson Model 60 5-shot revolver that was introduced in 1996. The gun couldn’t compete with the original since it could only shoot bullets 125g or less. Fortunately, newer styles don’t have such limitations. Several models have come and gone but the basic framework remains the same. The .357 Magnum continues to offer a high level of stopping power. Its levels of kinetic energy are enough to cause hydrostatic shock, a true benefit when a target needs to be put down.

A significant advantage of the .357 Magnum over other handguns is the ability to chamber a .38 Spl cartridge, although the .38 round is shorter. The same cannot be said for the .38. A .357 round is too long to fit in the chamber and a .38 Spl cannot withstand the pressure of the more powerful .357 Magnum round. This allows .357 users to load the lighter ammo, save money at the range, and enjoy the benefits of lighter recoil and less muzzle flash.

The introduction of semi-automatic weapons caused the .357 to lose popularity.

Semi-automatic pistols have a higher capacity and faster reloading times. Some believe that semi-autos are more powerful than a .357 Mag, but that’s not necessarily true.

.357 Magnum in the Prepper Community

It’s difficult to pigeonhole the type of weapon preferred by all preppers. Prepping has come into vogue in recent years, so the opinions of the new school and old school don’t always mesh. A .45 Magnum revolver is a sound choice in some instances but overkill in others. It’s readily available and adaptable to many situations. However, it isn’t a good choice for home defense, self-defense, or hunting. There is a good chance of overpenetration and collateral damage if used in the home or other tight spaces. In hunting, a .45 may leave nothing behind which often defeats the purpose.

There is also an issue of the “us vs. them” mentality. Revolvers vs. semi-automatics. Good points can be made on both sides. At the core, pros recommend a revolver to beginners or those that don’t fire guns regularly. A revolver has the intimidation factor for the target but doesn’t overcomplicate the process with unnecessary bells and whistles. Semi-autos share the intimidation factor, have higher capacity, are readily available in more styles, and offer many of those bells and whistles.

There is further division. In the revolver community, the argument centers on long barrel length vs. short barrel length handguns. Again, there are good points on both sides. If a person wants to carry concealed or keep a gun in the bedside table, then a short barrel snubby is probably your best choice. Serious preppers often choose a long barrel revolver because of the power and level of accuracy. In the end, it comes down to which gun meets the majority of your needs and makes you the most comfortable.

When it comes to traditional hunting, many preppers will use a .357 as a backup weapon. An old fashioned rifle may be a better bet if you’re going up against big game. The same can be said for the mythical angry bear that invades your camp in the middle of the night. (Sure, bears do enter camps but it’s usually because they are hungry, not angry. They aren’t hard to scare off.) If you’re hunting small to medium game, a .357 has more than enough power to do the job.

.357 Magnum for Concealed Carry

Using a .357 for concealed carry usually conjures images of long barrel length. While the weapon is a good choice in some instances, it is not ideal for concealed carry. It’s simply too heavy and too large to carry in an ankle holster or tuck into a pocket or purse. If you are considering a .357 for a concealed carry gun, your best bet is to latch onto one of the Smith & Wesson short barrel, or J-frame models. The 2- to 3-inch barrel makes the gun easy to handle and carry. It is still powerful and will provide the necessary stopping power in a home defense or self-defense situation. You could also go for a compact K-frame or a Ruger SP101 snub nose. Keep in mind that although the gun is small enough for concealed carry, it will be heavier than a typical .38 Spl. You should also be aware that ammo selection is critical for accuracy and recoil. Check out popular styles like JHP and FMJ (easy to reload)  from top manufacturers like Smith & Wesson, Speer Gold Dot, Hornady, Buffalo Bore, or Taurus.

Here are some other things to keep in mind when choosing a .357 for CCW. The pressure of a .357 is significantly stronger than a .38 Special. That means you will experience heavier recoil which can affect your accuracy. The bonus to carrying a .357 is that it can also be used with .38 Special and .38 Special +P ammo. However, a .38 Special cannot fire a .357 because of the high pressure. Doing so can cause a misfire, jam, damage the gun, or worse, injure the shooter.


The .357 Magnum has been popular since its introduction in the 1930s and shows no sign of vanishing from the military, law enforcement, and/or civilian use. Regardless of which camp you’re in, the revolver or semi-auto camp, there is a .357 Mag ammo to fit your needs. Proper training is key to find the gun and ammo that are right for you.

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