From the frontier to the front line, American history is in many ways the story of achieving superior firepower. The .357 Magnum holds a unique place in American history and culture. Born out of necessity, the .357 Magnum gave law enforcement an edge over gangsters of the Prohibition era. It was created by genius innovators whose names have become synonymous with gun craft. Its creation led to the large 6- and 8-inch barrels that would eventually attract attention on the silver screen. Though eclipsed, the .357 remains a popular round for a variety of applications.
The .357 Magnum is a revolver cartridge first released by Smith & Wesson in 1935. It consists of a rimmed, straight case 1.29 inches in length and a bullet with diameter .357 inches. The .357 was the first "magnum" ammunition, a term referring to the relatively large case size necessary to house the requisite black powder. The round is extremely versatile, and is used in hunting midsize game, target shooting and self-defense. Though it has since been eclipsed by more powerful and efficient ammunition, most notably the .44 Magnum and the 9mm, it is still a round known for its stopping power and reliability.
The .357 cartridge was developed in the early 1930s by Elmer Keith and Philip B. Sharpe. In post-World War I era, gangsters and bootleggers were increasingly using car doors and ballistic vests as cover, because they could stop convention handgun fire. The first armor-piercing round of the time was Colt's .38 Super Automatic. The .357 was made by extending by 1/8 inch the casing of Smith & Wesson's .38 (the bullet from which had a diameter of .357 inches) and increasing the mass of the bullet outside the cartridge, leaving more room for powder. First introduced in 1935, Smith & Wesson's .357 Magnum was the most powerful handgun cartridge of its time and quickly became the predominant law-enforcement ammunition.
The .357 Magnum was one of the first cartridges to be associated with the phenomenon (some call it a theory) of hydrostatic shock. This term refers to an explanation for remote damage caused by high-powered rounds. Because the body is composed of fluid-filled tissue, the sudden penetration of a bullet sends out an omnidirectional shock wave through the fluid medium of the surrounding tissue. The result is incapacitating effects, like neural damage, that are more immediately felt than the eventual blood loss that results from the wound. It is this hydrostatic shock phenomenon that was, at least for a time, commonly credited for the stopping power of rounds like the .357 Magnum.
Because it was based on the older .38 Special round, the early .357 Magnum prototypes could be chambered in pistols designed for the .38 Special. This would be disastrous, however, because the 357 Magnum round produced far greater pressure. The extension of the case by 1/8 inch made it impossible to chamber the round in a firearm not designed for the higher pressure, which prompted the creation of stronger handguns chambered for .357. The longer case also made the .357 suitable for longer-barreled weapons like rifles, which only increased its popularity as a "dual use" round. Additionally, revolvers in the .357 caliber are capable of firing the lower-pressure .38 Special rounds that produce less muzzle flash and recoil.
Bigger Rounds and Smaller Guns
Though the dominance of the .357 Magnum cartridge was relatively short-lived, it remains a popular cartridge among outdoorsmen and security guards, and is a common backup for law enforcement. Remington's .44 Magnum (also a Keith creation), the caliber made famous by Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, appeared in the 1950s with stopping power superior to the .357. But both rounds were eclipsed by the transition to smaller guns chambered for 9mm rounds powered by smokeless powder. The less-efficient black powder in the .357 and .44 required large cartridges and firearms, but 9mm rounds can produce high velocities with a much smaller cartridge, out of a smaller pistol, avoiding the need for law enforcement to carry the bulky Magnum revolvers.
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