Top 10 Reloaded Handgun Cartridges #5: .357 Magnum
Date: Jul 15 2021
The roots of the .357 Magnum cartridge are linked to the Smith & Wesson N-frame revolver so chambered, with production beginning in 1935 in what became known as the Registered Magnum. The cartridge has had immeasurable impact and influence on the firearms industry and has proven its worth in law enforcement circles and with handgun hunters, accounting for virtually every game animal in North America and many critters from around the world.
Competitive target shooters have found it unusually accurate and possessing enough power to reliably topple the challenging steel silhouette ram targets at 200 meters. Although its use in enforcement circles is not as widespread today, it still serves in that capacity with many small departments, and with select departments in the form of alloyed, lightweight concealment revolvers.
With the above thoughts in mind, I purchased a Smith & Wesson Model 627-5 .357 Magnum revolver that is based on the N-frame and features an eight-shot cylinder. It is clearly the most durable .357 Magnum the company has ever offered, with a special heat-treated yoke, radius stud package and several other design features that will extend its life expectancy. The eight-shot cylinder lightens its weight and helps reduce the pounding that the bolt stop notch takes with the heavier six-shot version. This particular revolver is a Pro Series that effectively fills the gap between the Performance Center and regular production guns. It was built under the direction of the Performance Center with high-performance parts.
The Model 627-5 is constructed mostly of 441-series stainless steel, with the sights, hammer, trigger and select lockwork constructed of carbon steels. The barrel shape is a combination of flats and flutes (what the company refers to as “slab”) with a light taper, offering a similar balance to the pre-World War II Registered Magnums and the postwar Models 27 and 28. It may not be traditional, but it is distinctive and offers the balance I prefer for a revolver that will be worn on the belt. The crown is recessed and protects the rifling in the event of abuse or accidental damage. The rifling is five lands and grooves and is cut by a high-tech EDM system that results in an unusually smooth surface. The forcing cone is cut at 11 degrees, is uniform and flared to .373 inch. The barrel-cylinder gap is .004 inch and throats measure .357 inch, which aid in correct bullet alignment with the center of the bore. The cylinder is fluted, while chambers are not countersunk but are chamfered to aid in fast reloading. Naturally it is fitted with Smith & Wesson’s Micro rear sight that features click adjustments, while the front is a ramp with a red insert and can be interchanged with blade options. The trigger is color casehardened and smooth (excellent for double-action work) and measures .400 inch wide, while the hammer spur is considered “target.” The single-action trigger pull broke crisply at 4 pounds, 12 ounces, while the double-action pull ran 10 pounds, 8 ounces. The finish is an attractive matte that offers minimum glare in the field or in the dark.
Machining quality is excellent, which is no surprise, as Smith & Wesson is a savvy manufacturing company. A trip to that facility offered some insight into the attention to detail and quality the company demands of itself. Frames and major parts were rejected that had extremely minor flaws. In some instances the flaws were so minor that most human eyes would not even detect them.
On my 100-yard rifle range, the revolver proved accurate with two initial loads containing both cast and jacketed bullets, but before completely wringing out the gun, the factory mainspring and trigger return spring were replaced with Brownells/Wolff Gunsprings (available from Brownells, 1-800-741-0015 or www.brownells.com). The mainspring is the patented Power Rib “Reduced Power” that gave reliable ignition with the frame mounted firing pin yet reduced the double-action pull to just over 9 pounds. A 14-pound trigger rebound spring was selected. The end result was a single-action pull of just over 3 pounds. And the 1⁄8-turn cylinder rotation felt smooth and responsive. While ordering the spring kit from Brownells, I also ordered Model 627M-8 .357-caliber Moon Clips, which are a quick and easy speed loading system for the Smith & Wesson.
Since this revolver was purchased for personal use, serving as a working gun, custom stocks were ordered from Herrett’s Stocks, Inc. (PO Box 741, Twin Falls ID 83303-0741 or www.herrett-stocks.com) to my specifications. They are of the Roper style, which is a great general-purpose stock for slow-fire single-action or fast double-action work. In addition to having handsome lines, the stocks effectively change the round-butt design back to a square-butt configuration – a feel I much prefer. To further compliment the beauty and give the revolver a true custom appearance, high figure walnut was ordered and the stocks arrived with nearly flawless fit and finish.
From a seated-back position with elbows between the knees, at 25 yards the Model 627-5 would cut a nearly single ragged eight-shot hole that measured less than one inch center to center with select loads. Using the same position at 200 yards, it would ring a 10-inch steel target reliably.
By the nature of assembling and shooting many, sometimes hundreds of different handloads, from time to time there are many “leftovers” that need to be used so the cases can be reloaded. I had a batch of around 300 rounds that were right at maximum pressure levels, but the primer chosen was rather soft, and in many guns with hammer-mounted firing pins, they would often rupture, deform or flow excessively. This would make cylinder rotation difficult in some revolvers, as the deformed primers would drag on the recoil shield. The Smith & Wesson, with its frame-mounted firing pin, gobbled up these loads without piercing a single primer and never a hint of fired primers dragging on the recoil shield. In firing several thousand rounds of .38 Special and full-power .357 Magnums in both factory fodder and handloads, this revolver never had a single failure, hitch or malfunction.
A variety of .38 Special and .357 Magnum factory loads were tried, but before having the opportunity to fire them across the chronograph, the Idaho winds began blowing steadily from 30 to 55 mph for days on end, and checking velocities was not possible. In previous shooting sessions, they were checked for accuracy. Notable performance was observed with Remington 125-grain semijacketed hollowpoints with five-shot groups hovering around one to 1.25 inches at 25 yards. Hornady Custom ammunition featuring a 158-grain HP-XTP bullet produced several groups hovering around one inch at the same distance.
In developing handloads, the focus was on bullets/loads that would prove most useful for slowfire accuracy work, speed shooting, general home protection, small-game hunting as well as taking animals up to the size of deer. These loads included .38 Special and .357 Magnum with swaged lead, cast and jacketed bullets ranging in weight from 125 to 180 grains. (It is always suggested that after firing .38 Special ammunition in a .357 revolver, the chambers be thoroughly cleaned before firing the longer magnum cartridge.)
Starline +P cases were chosen for all .38 Special loads (available factory direct at 1-800-280-6660) and all were primed with CCI 500 primers. Many of the loads generate +P pressures of 20,000 psi and should only be used in revolvers so rated but are also suitable for any .357 Magnum revolver. Using the Speer 135-grain Gold Dot hollowpoint designed specifically for the .38 Special, 6.7 grains of Alliant Power Pistol produced 1,092 fps and is a respectable defense load that gives low recoil. Another great “light duty” defense load is the Hornady 158-grain swaged lead semiwadcutter hollowpoint (SWC-HP) pushed with 4.7 grains of Hodgdon Titegroup for 1,005 fps and is similar to commercial loads that have become immensely popular with law enforcement. Barrel leading was minor and did not build up with continual shooting.
Switching to Speer 148-grain lead hollowbase wadcutter bullets, 3.3 grains of Titegroup (866 fps) would cut a ragged hole at 20 yards. The 173-grain Keith/ Lyman 358429 cast bullets with either 6.0 grains of Hodgdon Longshot (995 fps) or 7.0 grains of Accurate No. 5 (982 fps) were accurate. This bullet design is roughly 90 years old but has proven itself on game by completely penetrating black bear and deer. Due to its nose length, it cannot be loaded in .357 cases and crimped in the crimp groove, which results in an overall cartridge length that is excessive for all N-frame Smith & Wessons so chambered, but in .38 Special cases it is suitable.
Moving on to .357 Magnum handloads, new Starline cases were used exclusively. Primers were CCI 500 and Winchester Small Pistol Magnum, depending on the powder being ignited. It is always interesting how the .357 Magnum changes personalities depending on the load and especially the bullet used. The high-velocity, lightweight expanding bullets offer impressive destruction to pests and other small varmints, but they often fail miserably on big game.
I recall interviewing Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Officer Louis Kis, wherein he revealed important details during a grizzly attack. He was relocating a 400-pound aggressive male that was in a cage in the back of a pickup truck. Kis stood on top of the cage and opened the door. The bear exited but instantly turned and bit the cage and pulled it, along with Kis, out of the pickup, then proceeded to maul the officer. He recalls pulling his Smith & Wesson Model 66 .357 Magnum that was loaded with department-issued ammunition containing jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) rapid expanding bullets. He was on his back while the bear bit him repeatedly, shook him and crushed bones in his lower leg from sheer jaw-power compression.
Holding the Smith & Wesson to the bear’s head, he began firing. The first four rounds were placed correctly, but the bullets flattened out when they struck the skull, then changed directions, staying under the skin and traveling over the zygomatic arches. His fifth shot went into the air. For his last shot, he held under the bear’s throat and fired upward, and that bullet made it to the axis joint, broke it and the spine, killing the bear. Had Kis been using a solid bullet, either jacketed or a properly alloyed cast, preferably in the 150- to 180-grain weights, the first shot would have killed that bear instantly.
For hunting deer, pests or serving as a home defense revolver, the various 158-grain jacketed bullets from Hornady, Nosler, Sierra and Speer offer fine all-around performance and are generally very accurate. The Smith & Wesson Model 627-5 turned in stunning accuracy with the 158-grain Sierra JHP loaded with 15.0 grains of Accurate No. 9 for 1,307 fps, as it would often place five shots into a single ragged hole at 25 yards that measured under .75 inch. The Hornady HP-XTP and Speer Gold Dot HP are the jacketed bullets I have relied on most for hunting deer-sized game.
A special favorite .357 Magnum bullet is the Thompson-designed Lyman 358156 cast bullet in both solid (162 grains) and hollowpoint (156 grains) form. It is a gas check design that prevents leading, something the .357 Magnum is notorious for being good at! Additionally this bullet is accurate and in hollowpoint form will expand as reliably as any commercial bullet. In solid form it is a great choice for general applications, including long-range shooting, hunting or busting into the brain cavity of an irritated grizzly! For use in the old “short cylinder” Smith & Wessons, including the Model 627-5, it should be crimped in the upper crimp groove for an overall cartridge length of 1.580 inches.
There were a number of proven powders used to develop .357 Magnum loads, including Accurate No. 9, Alliant 2400, Power Pistol, Hodgdon H-110 and Lil’Gun. Additionally, Alliant’s Power Pro 300-MP was tried with 125- and 158-grain bullets. It turned in good accuracy, velocity and was clean burning.