I heard a discussion the other day about handgun deer hunting. 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, that soon found favor of handgun hunters everywhere like Elmer Keith and Phil Sharpe. Soon these legendary handloaders began working on something more, which became the .357 Magnum. This round 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 250-rounds of factory ammunition. He proceeded to blow minds with the capabilities of this mid-sized round. He shot an antelope at a distance of nearly 200-yards. This was followed by an awe-inspiring shot on a bull elk at 130-yards. The round passed through both lungs, taking the animal clean. Finally Wesson shot a bull moose with that .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson at 100-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 a rib on the other side.
Elmer Keith later tested out his Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum and the factory 158 grain bullet came out of the long 8 ⅜ inch barrel at 1,500 feet per second. He found it to be quite accurate at long ranges even on targets up to 500-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 pistoleros but, with modern handgun instruction, the world is full of shooting virtuosos today. So why the bad rap?
Well, the sad truth is that today the .357 Magnum isn’t the fire breather it once was: 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.
The culprit is, to some extent, the concealed carry craze. As newer, smaller and more compact revolvers found favor with shooters, many chambered in this once soul-punching, the .357 Magnum was watered down so shooters could actually fire these compact pistols and 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 a daily basis. Even the hottest .357 Magnum ammunition from companies like Buffalo Bore doesn’t come 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 make use of good cast lead bullets. These rounds also come with plenty of practice and I know enough to keep the range practical, usually under 75-yards for any handgun. (I recognize that there are shooters who can take game ethically at farther distances, I just prefer not to get chancy.)
Would I prefer to use a larger caliber for deer? Yes, but if all I had was my .357 on me, I would not fret to plug a shooter. It’s enough pop for the job; and it’s a job that doesn’t require as much caliber as many hunters assume. It can be done and has been done before but it’s like anything else in hunting. 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.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.
This article originally ran on Guns.com as “Is the .357 Magnum Enough for Deer Hunting” on November 17. 2011 and has been edited for content.