My Friend, The .357
January 03, 2011
Written by Skeeter in the mid-1960s, the following article was found by his wife Sally shortly after his death in January 1988. It was published for the first time in the June 1988 issue of Shooting Times in its unedited version. We present it again unedited in two parts as a special tribute to Skeeter.
-- The Editors
You can make remarks about the ancestry of my dog. Have your doubts about the gas mileage toted up by my family sedan. Spread the story, if you wish, that my backyard barbecues could best be digested by a brood of Arkansas razorbacks. But if you cast aspersions on my .357 Magnum sixgun, get somebody to hold your coat. We'll continue the discussion in the alley.
I can hoist on his own petard the writer who claimed that the .357 cartridge has never achieved significance as a hunting round. The police brass who deny the usefulness of this gun and cartridge for law-enforcement purposes can be set straight with a few terse observations. Experts who say the load is too powerful and experts who proclaim it is less potent than a river rock from little David's slingshot will scurry for their ballistics tables if confronted by factual data on the private life of this great load.
It was conceived as a hunting cartridge by Douglas B. Wesson, one of the heirs to the giant Smith & Wesson firm. With the aid of ballistician Phil Sharpe, Wesson discovered that the S&W .38-44 Outdoorsman, a .38 Special mounted on the old .44 Special frame, would withstand extraordinarily high pressures. This quality was not a mysterious one; it was the simple sum of the thick cylinder walls and modern metals that made up the handsome, target-sighted Outdoorsman.
Sharpe's handloads, featuring a semiwadcutter cast bullet over a heavy helping of Hercules 2400 rifle powder, gave velocity and long-range accuracy that had never before been realized in a revolver. During the experimental stages, Wesson killed almost every type of North American big game with his brainchild, justifying it as a hunting arm even before it went into production.
The .357 Magnum was formally introduced in 1935, along with a cartridge by Winchester. Bullet weight was 158 grains and diameter .357 inch--same as the .38 Special. The .357 cartridge case was approximately 1/10 inch longer than that of the .38 Special to prevent the more powerful round from being chambered in skimpier .38 Special cylinders.
The Smith & Wesson Magnum was initially offered with a selection of 31â„2-, four-, five-, six-, 61â„2-, 71â„2-, and 83â„4-inch barrels. It featured a deluxe, high-polish blue job and checkering along its topstrap and barrel rib. The rear sight, slightly different from the S&W micrometer design of today, was adjustable for windage and elevation by means of opposing setscrews. A selection of front sight styles was available, including bead insert Patridge types and the then-new sloping Baughman quick-draw model mounted on a King ramp. The action was of the pre-World War II type, which had a longer hammer throw than the short-action S&W revolver of today. A "humpbacked" hammer was offered on a special-order basis and was preferred by many who had difficulty in manipulating the rather small, standard hammer spur.
The first Winchester cartridges were hot as a depot stove, with pressures running higher than 40,000 ft-lbs. Velocity of these powerhouses ran around 1,425 fps when fired from an 83â„4-inch revolver, higher in unvented pressure barrels. Today's factory loadings generally fall short of the initial Winchester offerings, both in the velocity and pressure departments.
The factory .357 cartridge has done a lot to encourage handloading. It is a notorious barrel leader, leaving thick, accuracy-spoiling deposits of bullet metal scabbed up in the rifling after a very few shots. Serious shooters who want to be able to fire long strings without scrubbing the bore after every eight or 10 rounds have turned to putting together their own loads. These feature well-lubricated cast bullets of extra-hard bullet metal. My favorite answer to the .357 leading bugaboo has been the use of Lyman's 358156 gascheck bullet, a Ray Thompson design. Properly cast, sized, and lubricated, this semiwadcutter slug approximates the shape of the Phil Sharpe original and sports a copper-shielded base that resists the hot gases of the magnum powder charges. It is an exceptionally clean-shooting, accurate bullet for both light and heavily stoked .357 cartridges.
With this bullet, in both solid and hollowpoint form, I have proven to my own satisfaction that the .357 is a fine hunting pistol. Shooting a variety of Smith & Wesson, Ruger, and Colt magnums, I have killed mule deer and javelina in Mexico, antelope and turkey in Texas. My .357 has put the coup de grace to a great many head of heavy slaughter steers and hamburger bulls, top hogs, sheep, and goats. With proper bullets, I have put ducks, Canadian geese, cottontail rabbits, and bullfrogs on my table.
I once ate a tough old White Leghorn rooster who had the misfortune to be left at an abandoned farmhouse where I made a dry camp. My .357 took his head off.
Turning to varmint hunting, I can testify that the .357 Magnum loaded with hollowpoint bullets offers all the destructive qualities needed at ranges up to 100 yards. Jackrabbits hit solidly with such a load are turned to mush. The plains coyotes I have killed with it have required no second shot when the first was placed anywhere in the thorax or abdominal cavity. One eagle and perhaps a hundred chicken hawks have dropped to my magnum bullets.
And my experience with this cartridge is by no means unusual. My friend, the late Dewey Hicks, was a fine pistol shot and avid hunter. Dewey killed both deer and coyotes with my .357 handloads. He once took an outing with a northern New Mexico rancher. Dewey wanted an elk, but the cowboy was looking for a muley buck for camp meat. He toted a worn, six-inch Smith .357 in a brush-scarred hip holster but was a little worried about his ability to kill a deer with the only loads he had: six rounds of .38 Special wadcutters.
My friend presented him with a double handful of my favorite handloads, made from a recipe of the 358156 hollowpoint bullet held in its lower crimping groove by a Remington .38 Special case. The powder charge was 13.5 grains of 2400 fused with CCI Small Pistol primers. A few hours after loading up with these homebrews, the cowboy tumbled a running buck with a single shot through the spine at 50 yards.
These tall-but-true tales could continue, but for what? Saying the .357 is insignificant as a hunting round is like saying that sourmash bourbon constitutes an unimportant factor in the diet of man. Maybe, but ain't there lots of it being put to use?
Be sure to check this space again next month for Skeeter's iron-clad reasoning for his unparalleled fondness for this great cartridge as well as a chart of his bes