By Mike “Duke” Venturino, American Handgunner Magazine
Live long enough and you’ll see many changes. For example I just read at least two Apache warriors who rode with Geronimo died in car wrecks in later life. Who’d a thought? When guys like me and John Taffin and Clint Smith were young, the .357 Magnum was by far the most famous of revolver cartridges. Times and things change, don’t they?
Younger folks today may not realize it, but in the 1960s you couldn’t just walk into any gun store and have your pick of all the handguns listed in manufacturers’ catalogs. Perhaps the shortage was caused by the Vietnam War, but new double-action Colt and Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolvers were nigh on impossible to find. That made me crave one. Finally in 1969, I bought a used S&W Model 28 “Highway Patrolman” with 6″ barrel.
In the early 1970s, and joyfully free from college, I began traveling about the west and actually packing a handgun on my person at times. That caused me to replace the heavy Model 28 with a lighter Model 19 .357, also with 6″ barrel. That .357 traveled thousands of miles with me, both on horseback and in vehicles, and was fired tens of thousands of rounds. I don’t think I have shot any handgun more accurately. At one cow-pasture turkey shoot in 1977 I came away with four “Butterballs.” I’m ashamed today because I cannot remember what eventually became of it.
The .357 Magnum was developed primarily as a result of troubled times in this country. Introduced in 1935 by Smith & Wesson, it actually had its roots about 5 years earlier. During prohibition and the Great Depression crime became an epidemic. Much of it entailed automobiles chases. Most cops in 1930 carried .38 Special revolvers and their 158-gr. lead roundnose bullets at about 850 fps were near helpless against stout steel as then used in vehicle construction. Those bullets often did not even penetrate car window glass.
Higher velocity for handguns was considered the answer. As early as 1929 Colt put the .38 Super with 130-gr. FMJ bullet at over 1,200 fps in their Model 1911 autoloader. Smith & Wesson’s tact was to make the .38 Special better. They introduced .38 Special caliber revolvers built on their large N-frame, normally used for .44 and .45 caliber rounds. For those big .38s a factory load headstamped “.38-44” was introduced. They looked exactly like ordinary .38 Special loads, even the same 158-gr. lead bullet, but were moving 300 fps faster. They were not meant for firing in smaller .38 Special handguns made by either S&W or Colt, but the latter company’s New Service and Single Action Army .38 Special sixguns were strong enough for them. What a wonderful era it must have been when gun manufacturers could rely on the cognitive ability of their customers to put the proper ammunition in their revolvers!
Still, the .38 Super and .38-44 were simply not enough. There was a general consensus handguns needed more power. Not only so law enforcement would have better results fighting crime, but also because somebody even got the far-fetched idea handguns could be used for big-game hunting. Smith & Wesson had the perfect vehicle for such a cartridge with their N-frames.
Winchester was put to work developing the new cartridge. Not wanting to trust too much in cognitive ability factors, the .38 Special’s case length was increased from 1.16″ to 1.29″ precluding their entering chambers of weaker guns. The new cartridge was named .357 S&W Magnum and initial velocity was rated at 1,515 fps with 158-gr. bullets, according to the History of Smith & Wesson by Roy Jinks.
The .357 Magnum
From its introduction in 1935, this revolver was simply known as the “.357 Magnum.” When the company adopted model numbers in 1957 it became the Model 27. The idea at the Smith & Wesson factory between 1935 and 1938 was for .357 Magnum revolvers to be special handguns. They got extra finish, and buyers could order any length barrel between 3½” and 8¾”. Each revolver was registered with the company and sold with a certificate saying so. Price was also special at $60, when no other S&W handgun sold for more than $45. That did not stop purchasers, even in the midst of a depression. By 1938 S&W had sold 5,500 Registered Magnums. In that year they stopped the “registered” gambit, but still manufactured .357 Magnums to the highest standards. Another 1,100 were made before production ceased due to World War II.
Colt was quick to recognize a good thing and soon began chambering both New Service and SAA models for the .357 Magnum. Colt dropped SAAs in 1941 and New Services in 1944, but got back on the .357 Magnum track in 1953, first with a model named Trooper. In 1955 the Python appeared. It was considered Colt’s top-of-the-line sixgun for decades. SAA reintroduction happened in 1955, but .357 Magnum wasn’t offered again until 1960. By the time I could walk into a gun store, plunk down money and my driver’s license to prove I was 21 years of age, Colt only made SAAs as .45s and .357s. The very first handgun I ever acquired over a gun store counter was a Colt .357 Magnum SAA with 4¾” barrel. I sold that Colt .357 Magnum twice, but bought it back twice.
The “.357 Magnum” was reintroduced in 1948, and Smith & Wesson eventually saw some folks were more interested in shooting than paying for exquisite finish. In 1954 they introduced the Highway Patrolman, which was merely a less finished version of the “.357 Magnum.” Also at that time they decided .357 Magnums could be accommodated in a slightly beefed-up K-frame revolver, which they named Combat Magnum. These two newer .357s became Model 28s and Model 19s in 1957.
It’s been written by others early .357 Magnum factory loads were responsible for more new handloaders than any other cartridge development. I think it’s true because the soft-lead-swaged bullets used by ammunition factories lead-fouled revolver barrels horribly. Good cast bullets poured of a reasonably hard alloy and gas checked easily alleviated the problem. From my very first day as a .357 Magnum shooter I was a .357 Magnum handloader using my own homecast bullets. Quite a bit of my shooting was also done with .38 Special loads, although eventually I decided best accuracy came with full length .357 cases because bullets didn’t have so far to travel before engaging the barrel’s forcing cone.
In fact, the very first article I wrote for American Handgunner, appearing in the spring of 1981, concerned building target loads for .357 Magnum revolvers. What I did was couple deep-seated 148-grain full wadcutter bullets (Lyman #358091) with 4.0 grains of Bullseye powder. Seated deeply, wadcutter bullets ate up case capacity, in turn making ballistics very consistent with light powder charges. Groups from a variety of Smith & Wesson pistols were mere ragged holes at 25 yards.
Other than for the purpose of supplying data for magazine articles, there was only one other .357 Magnum handload for me. It used any 150- to 160-grain semiwadcutter bullet over 14.5 grs. of 2400. Velocity from 4″ to 6″ barrels ran about 1,250 to 1,350 fps.
Duke’s .357s Today
Scanning my lifelong notes I found over two-dozen .357 Magnum handguns have passed through my hands in the past 44 years — only three stuck. One is the Colt SAA mentioned before, which brings us to an interesting tidbit on Colt .38/.357 barrels. I have a Colt factory specification sheet dated 1922. It gives groove diameter of .38 Special barrels as minimum of .353″ and maximum of .354″. Slugging my 1970 vintage SAA’s barrel revealed it to be exactly .354″. No wonder it spit lead with those .358″ bullets I always shot!
Another of my .357s should never have been one in the first place. That is S&W’s little Model 360, a 12-ounce, scandium-frame 5-shooter. Shooting .357s in it will damage your hand! Then there’s one given to me by a friend a few years back. It’s one of those exquisite S&W .357 Magnums, factory lettering to 1939. It even has someone’s name engraved on it. The factory letter says he ordered an identical pair. Its barrel length is 6½” and its custom hammer is cocked slightly to the left, making it easier to reach when firing single action.
As things stand now, I’ll not be buying anymore .357 Magnum revolvers. Mine cover my needs and desires. In essence, I grew up with .357 Magnum revolvers so I’ll never turn my back on them.
Photos By Yvonne Venturino