We heard a discussion the other day about handguns for deer hunting and was caught up in the middle of a debate surrounding the .357 Magnum and if it was enough of a pistol caliber for whitetails and the consensus was that the .357 Magnum was never adequate and that the .44 Magnum was in itself a borderline cartridge for deer. When did this start?
Before the .357 Magnum arrived the top dog was the .38-44, which was a .38 Special revolver built on a .44 Magnum frame. This was a .38 Special on steroids designed for law enforcement but it found favor of handgun hunters everywhere like Elmer Keith and Phil Sharpe and soon they began working on something more. That something became the .357 Magnum. Soon it too found its way into the field, cradled in the nurturing hands of Doug Wesson and Elmer Keith. It was there, in the field, that it proved itself to be a game round.
Doug Wesson got off a train in Wyoming in 1936 with a brand new Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum and two hundred and fifty rounds of factory ammunition and proceeded to blow minds with what this mid-sized round was capable of. He shot an antelope at a distance of nearly two hundred yards. This was followed by an awe-inspiring shot on a bull elk at one hundred and thirty yards. The round passed through both lungs, taking the animal clean. Finally Wesson shot a bull moose with that .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson at one hundred yards. North America’s largest ungulate made it only forty yards before he dropped dead. Later Wesson found that the factory round had gone through the moose’s neck at the base, cut through one rib, passed through the big bull’s lungs and even had enough juice left to cut a divot in another rib.
Elmer Keith later tested out his Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum and the factory 158 grain bullet came out of the long 8 3/8 inch barrel at 1,500 feet per second. He found it to be quite accurate at long ranges even on targets up to five hundred yards.
So why all the negative press on the .357 Magnum when it comes to its reputation as a hunting round? History shows that it has performed admirably on North America’s biggest game animals? Granted, it was in the hands of some world-class pistolero’s but, with modern handgun instruction, the world is full of them today. So why the bad rap?
Well, a large part of it is that today the sad truth is that the .357 Magnum isn’t the fire breather it once was, it has had some of that flame doused. and compared to the .44 Magnum or the .500 Magnum it looks downright puny. The average velocity from a factory 158-grain bullet today is around 1,230 fps, well below what it used to be.
And the culprit is to some extent the concealabilty craze. As newer, smaller and more compact revolvers came out, many chambered in this once soul-punching, the .357 Magnum was watered down so shooters could actually fire out of compact pistols and also not batter their guns to pieces. There are only a couple of handguns like the old N-frame Smith & Wessons, the Colt Python, the Ruger Blackhawk, and the offerings from Freedom Arms that I would trust with those old loads on an everyday basis. Even the hottest .357 Magnum ammunition from companies like Buffalo Bore don’t come quite close to the old factory rounds.
So can the .357 Magnum still be counted on to take whitetail deer? Yes and no given all the variables. I would not hesitate to shoot a whitetail with a .357 Magnum if it were my handloads, which are quite warm and using good cast lead bullets and with plenty of practice. I also know enough to keep the range practical, usually under seventy five yards for any handgun. Even though there are some shooters who can do more, I prefer not to get chancy.
Would I prefer to use a larger caliber for deer, yes, but if it were all I had I would not fret to plug a shooter. It’s enough pop for the job; it can be done and has been done before and it’s just like anything else in shooting. As long as you know your limitations and use common sense and good judgment you can bring home the bacon, the backstraps and the rest of the animal.