It’s that time again, friends. Yes, that’s right, it’s time for a faceoff between two of the most popular magnum revolver rounds out there: the .44 Magnum and .357 Magnum. This is bound to be an interesting edition of State Your Case because there’s a very wide division between faithful shooters of each of these venerable rounds.
Despite being brothers in nearly every way, including who came up with them and the way they were designed, the .357 and .44 Magnum have come to occupy very distinct niches in the shooting world. Both emerged, essentially, as the result Elmer Keith’s tinkering with hunting revolvers. For the uninitiated, Elmer Keith is considered the father of handgun hunting and was a famous author, arms inspector, rancher, and general gun enthusiast. Keith is, in my opinion, a more significant contributor to the gun world than almost anyone. Even, yes, John Moses Browning.
While I’m sure I’d ruffle every feather in the coop by writing a John Browning vs. Elmer Keith article, I stand behind this opinion as, while Browning did a great deal, most of his work was centered around mass manufacturing and government needs. Keith, on the other hand, was primarily concerned with the practical use of guns for everyday life. Keith’s opinions influenced gun design and public thought, which has created a lasting legacy, especially in the hunting world.
The .357 Magnum was the result of Keith’s desire to improve the power of the .38 Special cartridge. I have fired the .38 Special extensively and it’s my favorite handgun cartridge. Keith pushed the .38 Special very hard with what was available in his day, but he wanted to go beyond those limits. The .38 case was extended and heavy, and fast bullets were loaded in the new brass. Thus the .357 Magnum was born.
About as soon as it was introduced a myriad of famous people began to use it, including General George Patton and Skeeter Skelton. It achieved pop culture status as a result. It has starred in hundreds of films and TV shows as well as books and comics. The .357 Magnum is a widely recognized symbol of propriety and class and is probably the most powerful cartridge in common use by the general public. I will go so far as to say that it’s the most powerful ‘normal’ handgun round out there.
In contrast, I believe based on my experience with it, that the .44 Magnum is the most powerful handgun round the average person will typically fire in their life. It was developed by Keith after his experiments with hotrodding the .44 Special. The .44 S&W Special is an excellent and severely underrated cartridge even today, but unlike the .38 Special, it faded into obscurity as the .44 Magnum became more famous.
The fame of the .44 Magnum and its reputation are the undeniable result of the movies, to the point that it is almost impossible to think of the .44 Mag without thinking about how lucky a given punk is feeling that day. This cultural link has established the .44 Magnum in the minds of the public and it’s still widely viewed, although erroneously, as the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world.
While it has never actually held the title of the most powerful, it certainly is in practice due to the fact that most people have no interest in shooting anything bigger and consider many of those upper-end rounds to be excessive and unnecessary. Is the .44 Mag as powerful as the .500 Smith & Wesson? Not at all. Is the .500 too powerful to be practical? Probably, but that’s up to the individual shooter.
When it come to a head-to-head comparison, there’s a world of difference between these two brother cartridges. The .357 is categorically less powerful in terms of available foot-pounds and bullet mass. But the .44 is almost too much to handle when it comes to the same two criteria. Given a similar gun and barrel length, the .357 will always be easier to shoot and generally more accurate. It could be said that the .357 has a slight edge in terms of firearm weight and capacity, with some models weighing only a bit over a pound and holding eight rounds.
A lightweight .44 Magnum is downright painful to shoot and hard to control. I know that most people, myself included, take no joy in firing a cylinder of Hornady 300 grain XTPs from a Smith & Wesson Model 69, but would happily shoot it with 200 grain .44 Specials all day long. The .357 never really gets painful to shoot, even in higher ft-lbs loads.
As far as general performance in a revolver, I have to give the edge to the .357 Magnum. The average person is much better suited to it and can practice readily with both 38 Special loads for less recoil and full-house .357 Mag hollow points. The practical end uses of the .357 are many and varied, such as hunting, self-defense (plenty of stopping power), home defense and target shooting. It’s also very forgiving to make handloads for. Guns as small as the S&W J-Frame are readily available and carry easily.
The .44 Magnum, on the other hand, struggles greatly in small guns. The aforementioned Model 69, shown above, isn’t even remotely fun to fire with anything .44 Magnum. It’s essentially a .44 Special revolver as a result. Bigger handguns do well with .44 Mag, but they lose practicality rapidly for every ounce gained. Where the .44 Mag excels is in rifles, such as the Ruger 77/44 I reviewed here. Even the most savage .44 Mag +P rounds are docile in a gun like that.
Still, neither of these great rounds will lose popularity any time soon. If anything they will continue to specialize, with the .44 Mag swaying towards the hunting crowd and the .357 dominating the streets.
If I had to only pick one, I’d probably choose the .357 Magnum. It is suitable for the woods and daily carry alike and can be had in fast-handling lever action rifles as well as some bolt actions. There’s very little that can’t be done with it, but there are certainly rounds that can do a given thing better.
Don’t agree with my assessment? Tell me what you think in the comments.