The .357 Magnum: An All-Around Survival Cartridge

Tuesday, Nov 30, 2010

As an avid reader of SurvivalBlog I know that most preppers like the .45 ACP round as their standard. That's a great choice and an excellent round. It has a long and solid history as a combat round. It falls short in the arena of woods carry and most don't consider it a hunting round. This report is not to compare the .45 to the .357 Magnum as it is an overdone conversation. Instead, I would like to outline the facts about the .357 Magnum and discuss some of the misconceptions as well as the viability of this classic as an all around survival round for everything from personal protection to hunting and woods defense. This round is very sensitive to barrel length and has many bullet options. I would like to show how using a longer barrel maximizes the round and makes it very devastating. I would also like to give a little pick-me-up to the old wheel gun guys like me who only see in cylinders.

Incapacitating power is where many discussions on the .357 go bad early. The power of the .357 is grossly misunderstood and misrepresented. The .357 is commonly over- and under-reported on power. There are a few factors that have to be considered when discussing power, they are: Bullet weight, Velocity, and Bullet diameter. One of my favorite tools to use when studying this subject is the Energy, Momentum, and Taylor KO (TKO) Calculator. This is a very cool tool to have bookmarked on your computer. Another tool that is very good is the charts made by four gentlemen who sat down with a couple of chronographs, 8,500 rounds of ammo, some Thompson Center single shot pistols. They began shooting, recording and progressively shortening their barrels by an inch at a time, and then compiling the data. Their data can be found at the Ballistics By The Inch web page. The power of the .357 is greatly affected by barrel length. The .357 seems to hit its prime at 6”. Any shorter and a lot of power is lost any longer and you are toting a gun unnecessarily to big. If you look at the charts made by the gentlemen at Ballistics by the Inch you will see that the difference between a 2” barrel and a 6” barrel is upward of 700 ft/sec of velocity. If you use this info and plug it into the calculator you will see that your values skyrocket as the barrel length increases. Using the data on a Corbon 125 grain JHP a 2” barrel yields an energy of 226 ft/lbs, momentum of 16, and a TKO of 5. Now you plug in the data from the same round out of a 6” barrel and you get an energy of 816 ft/lbs, momentum of 30, and a TKO of 10. This is huge in comparison. I have plugged in several of my favorite .357 woods carry loads and have gotten similar results each time.

To give a rough comparison most 240 grain .44 Magnum factory loads have an energy of approx. 800 ft/lbs. Now I am not comparing the two rounds in total, I am just saying that the energy reaches .44 magnum ranges when a 6” barrel is used. Now most guys who pack a .357 for woods carry opt for a 4” gun and most say “Ah, there isn't much difference between a 4” and 6” gun”, but I say nay. Using the same info here is the 4” plugged in to the calculator. Energy 621 ft/lbs, momentum is 26, and TKO is a 9. Now many say this isn't much but it really is. Another rough comparison would be like saying a full power 10mm isn't much different than a 40 S&W. Tell that to a car door with a bad guy on the other side. When developing a round most ammo manufacturers use a 6"-to-8” barrel to do their ballistics testing. There is a reason for this and it becomes very apparent in the numbers.

The .357 Magnum carries the honor of being #1 with one shot stops of two-legged threats. The bullet in this statistic is the 125 grain hollowpoint. That is a great choice for two-leggers but for those that live in areas dominated by four-legged threats a bigger bullet is better. In this example I am going to use the Double Tap 200 grain WFNGC load. Out of a 6” gun the load moves at 1,305 ft/sec. When plugged in to the calculator we get energy of 756 ft/lbs, momentum of 37, and a TKO of 13. This makes the .357 a good choice for hunting and woods carry in the lower 48 and some would argue Alaska as well but we wont have that argument here. Caliber arguments are long and never really get far, but, if you look at the data certain things fly off the page. The .357 shines in the data when you have a heavier bullet and a longer barrel. Other calibers do better when the barrel length is shorter, but for a one gun option, the .357 has great potential. As a good example the 10mm and .357 are compared quite often, when the bullet weight is 200 grain (for instance) and a standard Glock 20 is compared to a 6” .357 the .357 most often wins the numbers game hands down. As the .357 barrel length is shortened, the 10mm starts to shine. A 6” .357 blows the .45 ACP out of the water (using a M1911 with a 5" barrel), and quickly starts heading toward .44 Magnum numbers. (But it does not, however, get there).

So, here are my thoughts and advise for those who would like to make the .357 their primary gun. One of the most popular guns to purchase for self defense these days is a J-Frame .357 mag. The common barrel length is 1.87-2”, as seen with our calculator, this is a very short barrel for the .357 and a great deal of powder is burned after it leaves the barrel resulting in a large flash. When looking for a concealable carry gun a 3” barrel is much better. When the same Corbon load is used and calculated the difference in 1” amounts to a gain of 353 ft/sec. This is very significant when it comes to a self defense situation. S&W now makes several new 3” J-Frame guns and Rugers 3” SP101 has a great following.

There are many auto guys who go on and on about magazine capacity and firepower. The most common gun survivalists talk about is the M1911 .45. Without making the gun look silly, 8 rounds is the maximum capacity 9 if you keep one in the chamber. S&W makes a large frame wheel that has an 8 round capacity and even more medium frame options with 7rds. That is a fair capacity by any standard. The other gripe people have with a revolver is that reloads are slower. There are great custom shop options for moon clips and with a little practice (no more than training with autos) one can be very efficient if not lightning fast on reloads. There are several custom shops that do this machine work, one is TK Customs, he can be found online. What's great about a rimmed cartridge and moon clips is that if you don't have moon clips you don't have to use them you can just drop the cartridges in as usual and they work just fine. Another great thing about the .357 is you can shoot .38 Specials which gives you more options in a pinch as well as a cheaper training load.

Another great wheel gun characteristic is, if you run into bad ammo the next round is only a trigger pull away. Over the years I have seen very few failures with revolvers but with a little training one can learn to do repairs on their own. The wheel gun is far from washed up, it is a viable combat option that has many good survival characteristics. My personal favorites are the S&W R8 by the Performance Center guys, it holds 8 rounds, uses moon clips, has a light rail, and lightweight frame, the drawback to this option is it only has a 5” barrel (and you loose significant power in 1”) others include the 686+ in 6” or the new S&W 386 XL Hunter (only 30 ounces, 7rds, 6” barrel, & fiber optic sight) this is the one I currently own and carry. If you are a 6 shot guy and don't mind some extra bulk, the Ruger GP100 is a much less expensive and a very "bomb proof" gun. These guns maximize the capacity and power of the very relevant .357 Magnum they give you an added accuracy with the longer barrel and are very intimidating when you are on the wrong end of one.

Learning to understand the numbers is important for any survivalist. Play with the numbers yourself. Its fun and informative. This is a healthy practice when considering what works and what is hype. When considering buying any caliber or when picking a standard gun and stocking up on ammo it is worthwhile to run the numbers to see how it really stacks up.


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