Legendary stopping power

Everyone who’s ever been on the gun section of the internet knows two things. The first is that you carry a .45 because they don’t make a .46, and the second is that you carry a .357 Magnum because shooting twice is silly.

Sorry, I know you probably caught the derp from that opening statement, but bear with me here. A forum thread got me thinking about something, specifically the “legendary stopping power” associated with the classic 125 grain .357 Magnum loads. If you’ve read the internet, these are very well regarded for producing rapid incapacitation in badguys, and truth be told do produce some pretty impressive wound trauma in obstructed shots. But the question that ran though my mind this morning was whether or not the .357 Magnum did anything in those situations that a modern JHP wouldn’t have done?

cougar magnum (300x225)

This is the problem when we talk about “stopping power” because what causes a human being to stop can be complicated. Physically, there are only two ways to actually stop the human body: make it stop pumping blood, or disrupt the central nervous system. However, there are lots of document cases of people being “stopped” whose wounds were not incapacitating in any way. Similarly, there are lots of documented cases of people with serious wounds fighting well past when conventional logic says they should have stopped.

One of the more interesting areas of self-defense shootings is the concept of the “psychological stop” – where the person who has been shot realizes they’ve been shot, and decides that regardless of the severity of the wound, it’s time to rethink their life choices up to that point. I’ve seen gun articles that suggest that this could be part of the reputation of the .357 Magnum for putting dudes down – the tremendous muzzle blast and concussion associated with cooking off a 125 grain magnum out of a 4 inch gun makes it somewhat difficult to ignore the fact that you’re being shot at.

Ultimately, I think a lot of the legend of the .357 Magnum’s “stopping power” is just that: a legend. Yes, there are tales of it producing incredible one-shot stops, but you can find those with any round. There are also plenty of stories about it failing to stop badguys, which are also common with plenty of other rounds. It seems that the common thread in all of these stories is simple: marksmanship matters.


    1. I think that it’s incredibly flawed and basically useless for anything other than internet dick measuring caliber wars.

  1. I do recall an interview Mas Ayoob did for his podcast with an Illinois state trooper. According to the interview subject, his unit was killing *fewer* perps when they switched from .38 to .357 because they apparently needed fewer rounds to stop them.

  2. In the days of us policemen carrying 38 spl round nose lead bullet loads, the 357 JHP was a force to be considered, especially if the bad guy was hiding behind a car. Things have changed a lot since then.

    1. I also think that’s something people don’t really think about a lot. At the time, the most popular LE round was the FBI load, the .38 Special LSWC HP, which to be fair has put a lot of fools in the dirt. But there’s no magical energy transfer or anything that happens with high velocity pistol rounds.

      1. Anecdotes definitely aren’t data, but whenever people start talking about energy in pistols (or one-shot kills for that matter) I have to think about the story my dad told me about one of his troopers shooting an armed badguy in the head with a .357 and the badguy waking up about the time the trooper walked over to him.

  3. I’ve always thought the “psychological stop” was a valid variable. Even at the range, with people shooting various firearms, when there is a big boom everyone looks to see what it was. people get stabbed and don’t know it until afterwards because the didn’t see the knife. I could only imagine what it would look like and sound like on the other end. Idea for a video series? Various calibers. Just don’t shoot the camera.

  4. I’ve always wondered whow much of it was selection bias, based on the fact that cops who didn;t care about shooting would just take the standard department issue (a .38Spl Model 10 4″, almost universally), while guys who cared about shooting often “upgunned”, frequently choosing a .357 Magnum. Since the guys who voluntarily chose to buy personal guns and ammo were more likely to be the guys that spent time practising beyond department minimums, they might have a statistically significant shift in shot placement. (It wouldn’t take much to shift the numbers to make the .357 look like a manstopping beast compared to .38 Spl, especially the God-awful 158gr LRN.)

  5. Reliable Legendary one shot stopping power belongs to the 50 BMG and Canons .Anything less may require more shots to stop the threat and with handguns one would be quite safe to say almost always more than one eh .

  6. Since there was a time that the vast majority of lawmen carried a .357mag, I suppose a legend was inevitable. Hard to avoid when all the bad guys of an era were ventilated to 0.358″.

  7. Great piece and comments. I suspect that two things are in play. First, when hollow points first became popular, 357 mag velocities would more reliably expand. Second, never discount psychological effect. Movies to books, a “MAGNUM” is king. I read a book (not very good IMHO) where a crook, having stolen a “MAGNUM” has an orgasm. Really! And many movies including “Dirty Harry” show exaggerated muzzle jump. In “Magnum Force” he explains he uses handloads equal to a “special” yet still uses the exaggerated flip. And the muzzle blast from 357/44 magnums, even in a 6″ bbl is quite impressive. Oh yes. Just thought of another. Many shooters, handgun, rifle and shotgun, claim that because a gun hurts more to shoot than others, if it hurts more on the shooting end it must be more effective at the target end.

  8. I had an uncle who was a detective in the Philadelphia police. He told two shooting stories. The first was a mugger, a guy the size of a pro football linebacker who tried to mug a woman and was shot – in the upper arm – with her .25ACP pistol.

    He sat down on the sidewalk, repeating “I’ve been shot!!” Cops showed up. Ambulance showed up. He went to the hospital, where he died. Bullet never touched a major blood vessel, did no damage to the bone. Minor through-and-through. But he was convinced that getting shot meant he would die, and he did.

    The second story was the robbery of a cabbie. Fare flagged down the cab, climbed inside and tried to stick up the driver. Perp was armed with a 1911. Cabbie was armed with a .38. When my uncle arrived at the scene he described the cab as looking like a colander, with multiple bullet holes in the roof and windshield. Perp was dead in the back seat from gunshot wounds to the chest. Cabbie was sitting on the curb, holding his head and rocking back and forth, moaning. “Probably deaf from the noise,” my uncle thought, but when the ambulance crew arrived they found an entry and exit would on the driver’s head – entry on the right temple, exit on the left.

    According to the report after the doctors got through with him, the 230 grain hardball entered his right temple from almost directly in front. The bullet then traveled around the inside of his skull before exiting from his left temple. There was no significant brain injury other than a mild concussion, and of course, skull fractures. After a couple of days in the hospital for observation, he went home.

    “Stopping power” of a handgun? Not much.

  9. There was an incident in the Midwest where two officers were firing at perp who was inside the sleeper cab of a semi-tractor. One had .45, the other had .357. The .45 just dented the metal where the .357 penetrated. I don’t think it’s a round you take lightly.

  10. However you want a round to stop something in its tracks? 12gauge or 50bmg should do the trick.

  11. The .357 magnum does have better ballistics than the .38 Spl, however look up South Carolina Trooper Coates shooting on Youtube.

    After regaining his feet from being knocked down he puts 5 of 6 .357 magnum shots center mass on his murderer. The fat scumbag fires A .25 auto round the hits Coates in his exposed arm pit when he radios for help.

    Result: Coates dies, scumbag lives and goes on death row

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