The Real Top Guns: 5 Best .357 and .38 Caliber Guns on the Planet

Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami

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The Real Top Guns: 5 Best .357 and .38 Caliber Guns on the Planet

The Magnum Research Desert Eagle is one of the most recognizable pistols today. While the Desert Eagle is best known for being chambered in .50 Action Express and .44 Magnum, a .357 Magnum version also exists.

(Note: The following is a combination of two of our most popular articles, both posted in the past.)

Top .357s

One of the most persistent handgun calibers of the past one hundred years, the .357 Magnum (9x33mmR) cartridge was for decades the most powerful commercially available round. Invented in 1934, the cartridge was developed by leading firearm authorities and quickly became the round of choice for revolver enthusiasts, law enforcement and military forces worldwide.

The .357 Magnum was originally developed from the .38 Special round and was the first “magnum” round ever invented. While the two rounds are dimensionally similar, there are clear differences between the two. The .357 Magnum round is longer than the .38 Special, preventing the more powerful round from being inserted into the cylinders of the less powerful revolvers. (On the other hand, .38 Special rounds can be loaded into .357 Magnum guns, providing a less powerful, lower recoil and less expensive shooting experience)

The .357 Magnum is considerably more powerful than its parent round the .38 Special. A .38 Special full metal jacket round will hit with the force of 189 pounds of pressure per square foot at a subsonic muzzle velocity of 810 feet per second. A similar .357 Magnum cartridge with hit with 575 pounds at 1,440 feet per second. More than doubling the force and increase of velocity—well above supersonic levels—with essentially the same cartridge was a considerable accomplishment. Here are five of the best .357 Magnum firearms in existence.

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Smith & Wesson Model 27

Smith & Wesson was one of the first gun manufacturers sell firearms in .357 Magnum, having been on the original design team for the round. The Model 27 debuted in 1935 and despite being born in the midst of the Great Depression was an immediate hit, with the average wait time for customers to receive the revolver up to four years.

Eighty-three years later, the Model 27 is still in production. Smith & Wesson has produced the Model 27 with different barrel lengths over the years, from four inches to ten-and-five-eighths, but the rest of the revolver has remained largely the same. (If anything, the revolver is even better, capable of handing “newer” high-pressure +P ammunition.) Today’s Model 27 has a four-inch barrel, but is still otherwise the same in design and performance. The 27 has a six-round cylinder, an overall length of 9.3 inches and weighs 42 ounces. It is manufactured from carbon steel with a blue finish.

The Model 27 is a double-action revolver, meaning a single pull of the trigger will cock the hammer, advance the cylinder and drop the hammer to fire the gun. This differentiates it from older revolver designs that required the hammer to be manually cocked.

Winchester 1873 Sporter

The “Gun That Won The West,” the Winchester 1873 is perhaps the most recognizable of the lever-action rifles that were popular in nineteenth-century America. Today, Winchester still makes a variety of lever actions, including the 1873 Sporter in .357 Magnum. The Sporter has a walnut grip stock with satin finish, a twenty-four-inch octagonal barrel and case hardening on the receiver. The rifle retains the 1873’s semi-buckhorn rear sights for long-range shooting combined with a gold dot bead front sight. The rifle is loaded through gate on the right side and up to fourteen rounds of .357 Magnum ammunition can be stored in the tubular magazine that runs under the barrel. (Unfortunately, this probably runs the rifle afoul of state firearms laws, particularly California’s.)

Magnum Research .357 Magnum Desert Eagle

The Magnum Research Desert Eagle is one of the most recognizable pistols today. While the Desert Eagle is best known for being chambered in .50 Action Express and .44 Magnum, a .357 Magnum version also exists.

The .357 Magnum Desert Eagle takes advantage of the Desert Eagle’s built in recoil reduction system, making it one of the softest shooting .357 Magnum firearms in existence. The lower recoil is due to the Desert Eagle’s gas piston, rotating bolt operating system similar to that used in the AK-47. As one well-known gun reviewer claims, “Shooting this .357 Magnum is no worse than pulling the trigger on a Glock 19.” Comparing a .357 Magnum to a 9mm handgun is quite a statement.

The .357 Magnum Desert Eagle comes standard with a six-inch barrel, and has an overall length of 10.75 inches. Because the pistol’s barrel, frame and slide are made out of carbon steel, the Desert Eagle weighs 4.5 pounds unloaded. The handgun takes a nine-round magazine.

Ruger LCR

The Ruger LCR was introduced in 2009 as a concealed carry, personal defense handgun. The LCR was originally chambered in .38 Special and its light weight and short barrel made it difficult to shoot. In 2010, Ruger followed up with a larger LCR chambered in .357 Magnum. The LCR 357 has the same 1.87-inch barrel, five-round cylinder and matte black finish as the original model. It also has the same overall length.

Unlike the original LCR’s aluminum frame, the LCR 357 is made with a 400 series stainless steel frame in order to withstand the higher pressures of the magnum round. This adds nearly a quarter pound to the revolver’s weight. The double-action LCR lacks a hammer, so it can only be fired in double-action mode. The lack of a protruding hammer makes for a smoother draw from under clothing.

Colt Single Action Army

One of the most recognizable handguns from the days of the Old West, the Colt Single Action Army revolvers are a staple of cowboy and western films. Nicknamed the “Peacemaker,” the revolver sits high in the hand and today’s offering from Colt is completely unchanged from versions made a hundred years ago. Offered in .357 Magnum, the Single Action Army has a 5.5-inch barrel, a six-round cylinder, a spurred trigger (reminiscent of cowboy boot spurs), a blued barrel and a colorful case-hardened frame. The .357 Magnum version weighs two pounds unloaded and nearly three pounds loaded.

Unlike modern revolvers, the Single Action Army is a single-action revolver: that is, the hammer must be cocked between shots to advance the cylinder to a fresh, unfired round and ready the hammer. This slows firing but the trigger pull is considerably lighter and shorter than double-action revolvers.

Top .38s

The .38 Special is one of the most durable cartridges in history. Introduced in 1898 as the .38 Smith & Wesson Special, it was meant to upgrade the U.S. Army’s firepower. The Army’s .38 Long Colt cartridge proved mediocre at stopping Philippine insurgents in close-quarters combat—the .38 Special was one proposed remedy.

Although the Army eventually chose a different caliber (the .45 ACP), .38 Special eventually became one of the most popular cartridges in America. The .38 Special became popular with police in the Depression era, when a heavier round that could penetrate the car bodies of motorized bandits was needed. The round was soft-shooting and easy to train police recruits on. The round reigned supreme among law enforcement until the 1970s and 1980s, when 9mm high-capacity semi-automatic handguns became popular.

Today, the .38 Special is still popular, particularly among those who prefer the simplicity and aesthetic of revolvers. It is inexpensive and available in a wide variety of configurations, from regular ball ammo to hollow points to high pressure +P rounds. Here are five of the best guns you can shoot .38 Special out of.

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Ruger SP101

Introduced in the early 1990s, the Ruger SP101 was the company’s dominant .38 Special–only platform for decades. The SP101 was similar to the larger GP100, but with a shorter barrel and more compact frame. The SP101 has a 2.25-inch barrel, slightly longer than many concealed carry barrels, and features a five-round cylinder. The revolver itself has a stainless steel frame with a satin finish. The SP101 was Ruger’s concealed carry handgun until the arrival in the mid-2000s of the Ruger LCR.

Colt Cobra

Colt’s Manufacturing Company, founded by Samuel Colt in 1855, was responsible for a great deal of the innovation in revolvers over the past three centuries. The company stepped back from double-action revolvers in the early twenty-first century but in 2017 relaunched its revolver line with the Colt Cobra. The Cobra uses the same name as an older line of Cobra revolvers; both are snub-nosed and meant for concealed carry. The stainless steel revolver features a two-inch barrel, adjustable sights, a Hogue rubber grip and is rated for powerful +P ammunition. Unlike many concealed carry revolvers—which hold five rounds—the Cobra has a six-round cylinder.

Smith & Wesson Model 10

Described as the “Glock of the (Postwar) Law Enforcement World,” the Model 10 was the most popular .38 Special revolver of its time. The revolver was originally known as the Smith & Wesson Model 38 Hand Ejector, but was renamed the Model 10 in 1957. It was one of the first revolvers with a cylinder that swung out when a latch on the frame was depressed. This made reloading much faster than using a traditional loading gate. The Model 10 was very popular with law enforcement agencies, and 500,000 were produced during World War II for Allied armies.

Smith & Wesson Model 442

Smith & Wesson assigns its revolver frames a letter designation depending on the physical size of the frame, the size of the user and the caliber used. The Model 442 is one of the company’s “J” frame guns, intended for concealed carry. The 442 has an overall length of just 6.3 inches and weighs 14.7 ounces unloaded—in large part to its aluminum alloy frame. Smith & Wesson still uses steel where it counts: the barrel is made of stainless steel and the cylinder of carbon steel. The 442 is “hammerless,” meaning the hammer is actually enclosed within the frame—so it can’t get caught on clothing in the midst of being drawn.

Smith & Wesson 686

The heavier, more powerful .357 Magnum cartridge is actually a descendant of the .38 Special round. As a result, .38 Special ammunition is readily usable in .357 Magnums, though .357 is not usable-—and does not physically fit—in .38 Special revolvers. One modern example of a .38 Special–capable revolver is the Model 686. The 686 is based off Smith & Wesson’s L (medium) revolver frame. The “L” frame accommodates a wide variety of hand sizes while still capable of handling the heavier recoil .357. The 686 is made of stainless steel, has a four inch-barrel and adjustable sights. Like the rest of the revolvers on this list it is also a double-action/single-action handgun.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.

Image: Creative Commons.

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