.357 Magnum Stopping Power

I grew up during the golden age of the wondernine. Every big PD in America was switching from wheelguns to Berettas and 3rd Gen S&W pistols. The gun rags of the era were filled with “9mm vs. 38” and “9mm vs. .357” articles. As is to be expected, most of the articles decried the downgrade in “stopping power” that the 9mm offered vs. the legendary .357 Magnum. The more sordid gun rags were filled with stories of bad guys going down after one hit from a .357 Magnum, reduced to a shower of gore by the powerful “man-stopper.”

cougar magnum (300x225)

Probably the most legendary of the .357 Magnum rounds was the famous Remington 125 grain jacketed hollowpoint. Pushing an old school bullet at 1400+ FPS, the 125 grain JHP would frequently expand violently, but would have limited penetration. Testing of that old school load in ballistic gel generally produces about 10 inches of penetration and considerable expansion.

As bullet technology has advanced, the .357 has come along with it. Winchester offers a .357 Magnum load with their bonded PDX/Ranger bullet, and Hornady offers multiple .357 loadings with their FTX and XTP bullets. But the question is whether or not the .357 Magnum is really worth it any more? Back in the 70s and 80s, the Magnum made sense. The extra velocity when coupled with older bullet technology really did provide a bullet with better terminal ballistics than the .38 Specials riding in most police department holsters. But now? Not so much. I love my magnums, and I’ll never get rid of them, but if I’m being honest with myself? There’s not much of a place for .357 Magnums in the self-defense world. Now, if you want to talk hunting handguns and lightweight carbines, that’s another story entirely. But the .357 Magnum is sort of like the .40 S&W now: it doesn’t really offer enough of a performance upgrade out of a service sized handgun to be worth the extra muzzle blast and recoil you get for it.

If I’m going to carry a wheelgun, it’s going to have .38 Special +P loaded in it. Modern .38 Special loads have come a long way since the 1980s. For new shooters, despite my deep and abiding love for the wheelgun, you should probably just get a Glock 19 or something like that. So for the .357 Magnum, its era of legendary stopping power is over. Unless you’re going hunting, in which case by all means continue. I’ll probably bring a magnum with me on a coyote hunt I have coming up later this year, but that’s because rolling up coyotes with Hornady’s lever gun .357 Magnum round is hilarious.


  1. Personal opinion alert…but I’ve always wondered if the reputed ‘stopping power’ of the .357 Magnum might have largely been psychological. As most of us know, there are plenty of stories about people fighting through being shot multiple times with handguns, while others seem to just give up. But when faced with the rather impressive concussion (and in darkness, a pretty darn big flash) of a .357 going of in their direction, I wonder if peoples’ brains decide that they’re going down.

    Of course my whole theory gets blown out of the water when a specific load seems to be performing better than others!

  2. You know, I’ve shot animals for food and for pest control, but I’ve never found it “hilarious”.

        1. Sur you do Joe, just like you are being now. Christ, haven’t you ever shot a varmint (do you eat those pests you control?) and have it put a smile on your face? I guess I’m just wired like most men and not pining over the coyote’s death.

      1. Hunting is fun. Killing is intrinsic to hunting. I can’t see any wisdom in wringing one’s hands over – “love to hunt, just wish there wasn’t killing in it.” And considering what the coyotes are doing to the fawn crop in the South . . . no problem.

  3. In response to the power of a 357 magnum. It would seem a projectile packing anywhere from 150 to 300 pounds more Energy (ft-lbs) would be more effective in stopping a threat. Yes it is true, shot placement is important as is follow up speed and accuracy. But, if you were to punch me with 350lbs of force vs 500lbs, I think the difference would provide a noticeable effect.

  4. I have migrated to a 1911 in 38 Super. Handloaded Gold Dots (Sig variety) @ 1400 fps and 10+1 capacity. As well as this load has worked on coyotes and small whitetails, it gives me confidence on the street.

  5. Do you have a link to data supporting that conclusion? I believe it to be accurate, especially out of carry-sized pistols, but I’d like to see the numbers myself.

  6. When I point folks toward suggested defense guns, I ask them how much they’re going to practice (then I cut that in half, because I know they have no real idea how time-consuming training and skills maintenance is). 8/10 times, I point folks toward a .38, because a revolver is a better choice for them, because malfunctions are easier to clear and it’s just as forgiving on maintenance as a polymer gun (maybe even more).

  7. Caleb you should see some of the velocities of good 357 out of a lever gun. In a non gun friendly state, it’s really a pretty good option for home defense with small statured/ recoil sensitive shooters. I can get my 64 year old mom shooting groups At 25 and pretty quick and very accurate at 7-10 yards with 357 18in marlin lever gun with 1600+ FPS

  8. Coyotes eat my cats on the farm, and though I don’t laugh when shooting a coyote, I do crack a big smile. .357 is great for shooting skunks, and that action will be coming up soon as the skunks will be coming out for their winter mating rituals. My Blackhawk has killed a pile of skunks over the years.

    I have had game wardens out in my neighborhood for over thirty years because of deer poaching, and learned a valuable lesson about revolvers from a warden packing a S & W Model 66. He pulled it out of his holster to show it to me, and found that it wouldn’t open; in fact, it was totally frozen up. He had degreased it for an upcoming inspection, and nothing would move on that gun.

  9. Reminds me of the cop who sprayed his duty ammo every week with WD-40 to keep the brass shiny. When it came time to use it, not a one of them would go off. Luckily it was just at the range.

  10. Likewise, I have wondered for many years if there wasn’t an external factor skewing the Marsall-Sanow numbers regarding teh .357 Magnum 125gr JHP.

    Like, maybe, since almost ALL the shoots were from police officers, there was a slight (but statistically significant) advantage to the .357 light bullet combo NOT so much because it was that much better objectively, but because the kind of cop who would buy and carry a .357 instead of the ubiquitous “company gun” his department provided (which was almost AWAYS a .38 Spl) AND who put enough thought into bullet performance to rationalize that the 158gr load performance may not be best for thin skinned primates — trading expansion for penetration. Such an officer is also slightly (albeit statistically significant) more interested in gettng more practice in, even at his own expence and time. Thus, slightly better shot placement.

    Given teh numbers in the M-S study, it wouldn;t take a whole lot of data skewing to result in a rather large apparnant effectiveness advantage.

  11. Using a 3″ or shorter barrel there is no advantage to using .357 over .38+P or +P+ ammo in terms of terminal ballistics on humans with modern ammunition. All that flash you see from the end of the barrel is just propellant that has no effect on the projectile whatsoever once its out of the gun. On the other hand, if watching the BGs hair catch fire after you shoot him puts a smile on your face then by all means go for it. The other consideration is if your using .38 ammo in a .357 chamber you’re losing on both velocity and accuracy due to the unrifled chamber space the bullet has to travel through. This is specifically why Talo produced the S&W Model 60 Pro Series in .38 Special +P, IMHO. I bought one last week and its without a doubt the best revolver I’ve ever owned or fired, just outstanding on all fronts.

    1. True. Since terminal ballistics pro’s do say that psychological stops are a thing; cj above may have a point – launching a flash bang out in front of the barrel as the targets gets its dose of 125, 140 or 158 grains of magnum force 😉

      1. Sometimes all you have to do is present, thank God, and the scrotes get the message. I’d rather not light someones hair on fire but if that’s what it takes …

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