March 06, 2020
We ballistics types all know sad stories about cartridges that showed great potential but failed shortly after leaving the launch pad. One, intended as a “super” revolver cartridge, failed to make the grade in firearms with cylinders but is a fine performer in other platforms. It is the .357 Remington Maximum.
The cartridge made its debut in 1983 in the Ruger New Model Blackhawk single-action revolver. Later, Dan Wesson Firearms made double-action revolvers, and Thompson/Center offered single-shot Contender pistol barrels. H&R and Savage both chambered the .357 Maximum in single-shot rifles or combo guns.
The .357 Maximum is a “stretched” .357 Magnum case; it’s about 0.315 inch longer than its parent. Maximum average pressure (MAP) was set at 40,000 psi/48,000 CUP, substantially higher than the .357 Magnum. Industry specs call out a 158-grain bullet at a velocity of 1,800 fps and a 180-grain bullet at 1,530 fps, both from a 10.5-inch vented test barrel.
The original factory loading was a relatively fragile 158-grain JHP similar to those Remington loaded in the .357 Magnum. A 180-grain version was added, but it was also a hollowpoint. Even if production revolvers missed the test barrel velocities by 200 fps, they produced enough muzzle velocity to achieve good terminal performance from softpoints giving better penetration.
Wear issues in revolvers appeared early. In addition to the rapid erosion of the barrel face adjacent to the cylinder, the topstrap was being grooved by a combination of hot gas and partially burned propellant granules. Through my industry connections, I heard plenty of finger-pointing about metallurgy and propellant choices, but the ultimate outcome was that the revolver market for this cartridge simply dried up. SAAMI documents dated 2005 list it as “inactive.”
Considering that there are no problems with this cartridge in single-shot pistols and rifles, it is unfortunate that the revolver problems sullied the reputation of an otherwise fine cartridge. Put the .357 Maximum in a rifle or a single-shot pistol, and you see a new picture of this cartridge.
While visiting Ruger’s New Hampshire facility in 1985, I learned that when the company built the California Highway Patrol Commemorative model of the No. 1 single-shot rifle in .357 Magnum, extra rifles without the CHP markings were offered through employee sales. A number of employees punched these rifles out to .357 Maximum and were very happy with the field results. In a rifle, this cartridge is easy on the shoulder, making it a natural for new shooters.
T/C’s Contender pistol was also a natural for this cartridge, and it was a popular chambering. Metallic silhouette shooters found it both accurate and very good at taking steel plates off a rail. I believe I’ve had more fun with my .357 Maximum barrel than any other in my T/C stable with the possible exception of the .22 Hornet barrel.
The first loads I worked up were with Speer’s 0.358-inch 180-grain FNSP intended for the .35 Remington. From pressure data with this specific bullet, we knew there were no safety issues with the slightly oversize bullet as along as handloaders used Speer data for the Speer bullet. It loads “long,” with a cartridge overall length (COL) of 2.145 inches, well over the published max COL of 1.990 inches. This is not an issue for single-shot firearms, and the long bullet cleared the rifling in the pressure barrel and our T/C barrels.
I settled on Accurate 1680 propellant. It worked well in T/C barrels with bullets over 158 grains, and as near-max loads are usually compressed, it eliminated propellant position issues. A max charge of 27.0 grains posted roughly 1,875 fps with the Speer 180-grain .35 Remington bullet and shot under 1 MOA in my 14-inch Contender.
Because the .357 Maximum in a Contender comes close to .35 Rem. rifle velocities, rifle bullets for the .35 Rem. tend to do quite well in the .357 Maximum. I prefer flatnose or roundnose designs in this velocity range because they typically demonstrate better expansion than Spitzers at the same velocity. In addition to the 180-grain bullet, Speer makes a 220-grain FN that will exceed 1,500 fps in a 14-inch Contender, and Hornady and Sierra both make 200-grain RN versions that should reach 1,600 to 1,650 fps.
Most 158-grain and lighter bullets usually lack the jacket thickness for use on big game in a Contender. Velocities can exceed 2,000 fps in a 14-inch barrel, and that could make a hollowpoint bullet intended for .357 Magnum velocities behave like a varmint bullet. If you use 158-grain bullets on game, I highly recommend softpoints over hollowpoints.
The long narrow case is not well suited to propellants much faster than the 2400-class propellants. The resulting airspace does no good. We used Small Rifle primers for all load data, and they did fine with the propellants we tested. At pressures in the 40,000-psi range, they helped avoid primer flowback that can tie up a break-action firearm.
I use regular .38 Special/.357 Magnum dies to load my .357 Maximum ammo. Although a crimp is not required for a single-shot firearm, I crimp anyway. I think it helps ballistic uniformity in this long, skinny case and slow propellants. If you hand-load long bullets that seat deeply in the case, you may need a longer expander plug to avoid crumpling the case. Most reloading die manufacturers can supply this accessory for your current dies set. Factory .357 Maximum ammo is no longer sold by the big manufacturers, but the folks at Starline offer new brass cases for reloaders.