17 September 2023

357 Magnum Rifles - An Underappreciated Hunting Rifle and A Little History

I think the 357 Magnum rifle is highly underappreciated as a hunting rifle. The likes of writers and hunters such as Paco Kelly and Skeeter Skelton have written about their use of rifles in 357 magnum to take deer. Maybe some people will claim 357 Magnum just isn't enough but I disagree.  

I got to wondering about when was the first rifles offered in 357 Magnum. Today, I take for granted that lever actions come in the cartridge but before then, the old Winchester cartridges were the standard. Those 44-40, 38-40, 32-20 and 25-20 Winchester Center Fires would have been the pistol caliber of choice. Today, we have the 44 Magnum, 357 Magnum and 45 Colt as our standard options. Occasionally, you'll run into the odd rifle in 327 Federal Magnum / 32 H&R Magnum or something like 454 Casull or the 460 and 500 S&W Magnums. As it turns out, the cartridges we think of today as being the standard didn't become the standards until not all that recently. 

So far, I can't speak toward single shot rifles or bolt action platforms where the only thing I've found have been modern rifles like Ruger's M77/357 that was released in 2011 per the Ruger serial number website. What I have found so far is that factory lever action rifles started being offered in 357 Magnum around the late 1970's. I have not reached out to either Rossi or Marlin to confirm these details but what I'm finding I think is a bit shocking. Marlin had rereleased the 1894 back in 1969 and did so in 44 Mag. They followed up with the 357 version around 1979. The dates on the Winchester, Browning and Rossi rifles has been harder to find but it appears that the rest finally got the memo around the 1980's. Browning with the B92 in 1982 according to the Browning website. Interestingly, there is anecdotal Internet data to support that Rossi was the first to have a factory 357 Mag lever action in the US in the mid 1970's when they were imported by Interarms. I can't prove that at this time. I'm still working on Winchester and Rossi years but I think we get the gist of it. 357 Magnum was not the standard lever action rifle cartridge it is today until the late 1970's and early to mid 1980's. That blows my mind. 

That said, 357 Mag caliber lever action rifles have been around much longer. From what I dug up, gunsmiths have been converting Winchester 1892 rifles over to caliber for decades. Usually from a 32-20 based rifle. The widely read gun writer, Skeeter Skelton, says he got his 357 Mag Winchester sometime in the mid to late 1940's, early 1950's from Ward Koozer, a gunsmith down in Douglas, Arizona. His article Rifleman was got me started on the history side of things. Based on what Paco Kelly wrote about in his article 357 Magnum and the Literature, that's about how he got his rifle too, though not likely from Mr. Koozer. It surprises my that the consumer market didn't have a lever action 357 Magnum rifle sooner than the late 1970's. 

What makes a rifle in 357 Magnum such a great choice? Barrel length, plus case capacity and pressure rating. The 357 Magnum case can hold a good bit of powder and the pressure rating is high enough to handle more pressure than the old WCF cartridges. Combine those two with a longer barrel and a good slow burning powder and you get velocity.

Generally speaking, when you load a given cartridge into two firearms with different barrel lengths, the velocity will change. A shorter barrel such as 4 inches will result in one velocity then from a 18 inch barrel you should see a bump in performance. In many cases, the increase will only be around 200 to 400 feet per second with various calibers but with the Magnums and how you load the cartridge, you can pick up more. Paco Kelly wrote as such that he neared 500 fps in once instance. That's a huge increase. 

Let me give you an example. My current go-to factory loading is the Remington brand High Terminal Performance 158 grain semi-jacketed hollow point. This is a lead hollow point where the copper jacket comes up around 2/3rds of the bullet. The edge of the copper jacket has almost these curved leaves supporting the lead. From a 2 inch barrel, that load is pushing around 1125 fps. From a 4 inch barrel, you can expect around 1250 fps. From my 16 inch barrel rifle, I'm getting right at 1800 fps with my chronograph. Those are huge gains. If you care about muzzle energy, the 2 inch barrel is getting 464 foot pounds with my rifle getting over 1100 ft/lbs. Those are impressive results from factory ammunition in such a small case. The powder's burn rate has a lot to do with that but I have no idea what powder Remington is using.

Where this helps us is the velocity window where a bullet will expand. From a revolver, we may only be able to get reliable expansion from a specific load out to 50 yards but from the rifle, we can push that window out to 125 yards or so. You might be able to change the bullet construction and materials (cast lead hollow point) and velocities toward the 200 yard range. You can tune the bullet weight higher and lower to match which animal you are hunting. Going after coyotes or jackrabbits? Try a fast 125 grain jacketed hollow point. Going after bear? Feel free to load up a 180 grain cast bullet if you like. I use the 158 gr SJHP for deer and just general use. Using the correct bullet is critical as the bullet can underperform but Paco Kelly noted that he didn't have too much issue with bullets breaking up. 

That enlargement in the window allows a hunter who only operates in the shorter ranges, say under 200 yards, to use a 357 rifle successfully. No need for a 270 Winchester or a 7mm Remington Magnum for those short ranges. If you're going to hunt a deer stand with a shot no longer than 100 yards, then why bother to shoot the heavier recoiling, more expensive and louder rounds? I can understand if you only have the one rifle but having a smaller rifle makes for a better experience in general. 

Additionally, expansion of 357 bullets works well as there is usually enough material and can push into the .60 caliber range when they expand. In gel, those bullets may not penetrate but the Remington HTP 158 grain seems to penetrate nicely and expand with Lucky Gunner Labs getting around 19 inches with .53 inch worth of expansion. I'm very confident that those Remington's really perform well. I would like to see how they test at 100 yards. 

So far, I've never had a place to hunt where I needed to be able to take shots past 100 yards. The longest shot I've taken in my short experience with hunting has been around 87 to 90 yards according to estimations I made after taking a specific deer.  In most cases, I've waited for them to come in closer or I've closed the distance to them for much shorter shots. That would put all of my hunting within the distances a 357 Magnum rifle is capable of handling. 

The only downsides that I can think up are accuracy and ammunition selection. If you want a sub-MOA rifle then a lever action rifle just isn't your choice period. Maybe the Henry Long Ranger or a Browning BLR can help you but in the pistol calibers you're going to see larger groups. I've never sat my rifle down and tried to shoot small groups in earnest. When zeroing my Marlin 357, I was able to consistently hit a 6 inch target at 100 yards. Even if my rifle is 4 MOA, which it's probably better than that, the vital zone of a deer is much bigger than 4 inches. It's closer to 8 inches. In my situation, the accuracy is more than enough to do what I need it to do. The other size of this is making sure you have chosen good bullets for the velocities the rifle barrel will generate. With the traditional rifle calibers for hunting, the manufacturers have figured out how to make bullets. I like to make the equation of hunting ammunition selection to the ring toss carnival game. Take all the big name boxes in your favorite caliber and put them into a grid. Close your eyes and throw the ring. Whatever the ring lands on with probably work in most hunter's situations. While that notion is a bit callous, I wouldn't do that with 357 Magnum. Federal is working on lever action specific loads in calibers like 357 Magnum and 44 Magnum such as the HammerDown line up. I have not yet seen them on the market or anyone testing them in gel at distance but I'm sure they would perform well enough to kill a deer. 

All in all, I think 357 Magnum is a fine caliber and in a rifle, the cartridge is transformed into something more capable. Also, I've found that I love hunting down old articles and reading what the Old Guys did.

Here are some of the links to just a few of the Old Guys articles I've read. 

Paco Kelly 



Dark Horse's Host of the Skeeter Skelton on 357


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