I wasn't there, so I can't say for sure, but I've got a
feeling that marksmanship competitions have been around ever since
that second cave-man learned how to throw a rock. Almost certainly,
these competitions started off just aiming at some random target of
opportunity, but then likely evolved into a test to see who could knock something down (e.g. knock a pine cone down
out of a tree, knock over a piece of firewood, knock a deer skull off a
hillside, etc.). Mankind has long been fascinated with the accurate placement of
a projectile onto a remote target, and to have that target respond to the
impact. The roots of silhouette competition run deep through human history.
We also like to eat. Year's ago, a group of shooters
in Mexico started tethering barnyard animals (goats, chickens, pigs, etc.) out
at braggin' distances, and shooting at them as a part of a larger social event.
When an animal was killed, it was butchered and thrown on the grill for the
post-match festivities. Eventually, humanitarian concerns arose surrounding the
occasional crippled beast, leading to the animals' silhouettes being cut out of
steel and the critters left in the barn. The pigs and goats were slaughtered
cleanly and humanely back in the barn and were grilled behind the firing line
while the competitors fired their relays, and salivated over the aromas
emanating from the fire-pit.
Formal silhouette competition came about in the mid-1970s
and was led by such handgun pioneers as Lee Jurras, Hal Swiggett, Elgin Gates
and John Adams (John Adams was the first President of IHMSA, founder of LASC and
owner of SAECO Bullet Moulds). IHMSA silhouette competition experienced dramatic
growth in the 1980's, and is still an active and fun form of shooting
competition today. Some venues have even maintained the tradition of cooking
barbeque to distract the shooters olfactory senses while they concentrate on the
mantra "sight picture, trigger control.... sight picture, trigger control.... man!
that sure smells good!".
As with any form of competitive shooting, once the
game got rolling, the hardware gurus started tweaking the tools for a
competitive edge. There was a great deal of experimentation going on the in
world of silhouette handguns and cartridges in the early 1980s. The .357 Magnum
was considered an absolute minimum cartridge to be competitive, but it would
sometimes still leave full-footed rams standing. Elgin Gates was among the
silhouette pioneers building new guns and developing new wildcat cartridges at
this time. As a part of his experimentation, he developed the SuperMag series of
cartridges specifically for revolvers (he also had an extensive line of wildcats
for single-shots, like the XP-100 and T/C Contender). The idea was to increase
the downrange momentum by increasing case length to 1.6" (thereby increasing
case capacity) to drive heavier bullets faster, but still have a relatively
compact revolver, with modest recoil. Gates developed SuperMag cartridges in
.357, .375, .414 and .445 calibers. Basically, the .357 Supermag was born
specifically to knock over the stubborn full-footed rams on the 200 meter line.
Rarely has a cartridge ever been born into such a specific ballistic niche.
Usually new cartridges are developed and marketed to address multiple
applications in order to maximize sales, but the .357 SuperMag was born to bust
steel, period. No military applications, no law enforcement applications, no
bullseye or PPC, no IPSC, no cowboy action shooting, and while it is a capable
hunter, it was (and always has been) overshadowed by the tremendous success of
the .44 Magnum in the hunting fields, making the more modest hunting capability
of the .357 Maximum little more than an after-thought initially. It was born to
topple steel. It succeeded admirably.
In 1983, Elgin Gatesí SuperMag concept was
commercialized in the form of the .357 Remington Maximum cartridge, with
ammunition being made by Remington and a stout single-action revolver based on a
"stretched" Super Blackhawk frame being made by Sturm Ruger & Co. Dan Wesson
followed suit with a double-action revolver, Seville with another SA sixgun, and
Thompson/Center with their single-shot break-action Contender. Federal also made
brass for the .357 Maximum. The stage was set for success. So what happened?
The Ruger .357 Maximum Super Blackhawk
revolver, built on a stretched Super Blackhawk frame. This revolver was
available in 7 1/2" and 10 1/2" barrel lengths.
Initially, there was a surge of interest in taking
light bullets and trying to drive them as fast as possible with the .357 Max.
This is counter-productive. These short stumpy bullets are ballistically
inefficient and shed velocity quickly, and provide poor terminal performance.
These loads also tend to be the ones that accelerate top-strap cutting and
forcing cone erosion (especially with W296/H110). Like any Magnum, the reason
for the .357 Maximum's existence is not to take lightweight bullets and drive
them ultra-fast, but rather to take heavier than normal bullets and drive them
as fast (or faster) than the standard cartridge drives standard weight bullets.
The .357 Max does its best with bullets weighing 175 grains and up. The
top-strap cutting and forcing cone erosion that resulted from these experiments
rattled the folks at Ruger, and the .357 Maximum was dropped from production
after only about 9,000-10,000 were made. The negative PR also damaged the sales
of Dan Wesson revolvers. They tried to counter it by offering a second barrel
with the gun, but that didn't help much. The popularity of the .357 Maximum was
waning. Which is too bad, because all that was really needed was an
understanding of how to properly load the cartridge, and to recognize that
top-strap cutting is a self-limiting process that stops after it reaches a
In terms of hunting applications, the .357 Maximum
is far more cartridge than is needed for varmint hunting, and is too light for
elk and black bear. For the handgun hunter who prefers to hunt with a revolver
it is suitable for deer and antelope when loaded with the right bullets.
For silhouette competition, cast bullets are a
natural choice for their accuracy, higher velocities at lower pressures,
kindness to barrel steel and affordability. As with any shooting discipline, the
only way to get good is to practice. A lot. Casting allows one to do this.
However, the .357 Maximum presents an interesting situation to the handloader:
it is one of those unique revolver rounds that generates pressures in excess of
40,000 psi, along with velocities that routinely exceed 1500 fps. Plain-based
cast bullets can be severely tested under these conditions if the handloader
doesn't pay attention to all of the details. Gas-checked cast bullets are
definitely appropriate for the .357 Max.
Handloading the .357 Maximum
Ball powders have been implicated in contributing
to top-strap cutting and forcing cone erosion (especially W296/H110). If your
gun is going to be used for competition, with thousands of rounds put through it
annually, then it's probably best to stick with extruded stick powders (e.g.
4227 or even Re 7). If the gun is going to be used to hunt with, and maybe have
a couple hundred rounds a year put through it, then the damage from slow ball
powders will likely be minimal as long as heavy bullets are used. My favorite
powder for the .357 Maximum overall is IMR 4227. The now discontinued Winchester
680 is also an excellent powder for the .357 Maximum in terms of top velocities
and accuracy. I have a stash of W680 that I have held on to, specifically for
the .357 Maximum. The newer, and still available AA 1680 is similar (a little
slower), and also works nicely in the Max (keep in mind previous comments about
ball powders if you're going to be shooting your Max a lot with either 680 or
When one peruses the available loading data for the
.357 Maximum, it becomes apparent that there's a fair amount of discrepancy
between the various sources, both in terms of what a given source considers an
acceptable pressure ceiling, as well as what velocity correlates to what
pressure level. For the jacketed bullets, I have stayed within the guidelines
set forth by the manufacturer in terms of powder charges. For the cast bullets I
have worked up loads until extraction became sticky and then backed off
approximately 3/4 grain. There is about .009" clearance at the expansion ring in
the chambers of my revolver, so high pressure rounds will bulge cases and cause
sticky extraction. These loads were found to be completely safe in my guns, but
may not be in others. Pay attention to what you're doing and work up carefully.
Small rifle primers are recommended for use in the
.357 Maximum as a result of the high peak pressure encountered. I have gotten
much better consistency using the CCI 450 primer (particularly in cold weather),
so that's my default primer choice. This data uses the CCI 450 primer unless
otherwise noted. Be aware that some of the loading data you see for the .357
Maximum uses small pistol, small pistol magnum, small rifle, or small rifle
magnum primers. Using a small rifle magnum primer increases both chamber
pressures and velocities relative to "gentler" primers, but provides better
uniformity. Substituting a small rifle magnum primer with a powder charge worked
up with a small pistol primer can raise peak pressures to unacceptable levels.
Again, pay attention and work your loads up slowly if you make a primer
Jacketed bullet loads
As far as hunting loads go for the .357 Maximum,
the bullet diameter is small enough that the bullet needs to either expand well
upon impact, or have as much meplat as it can and still provide stable flight
over all hunting distances. My favorite jacketed load for the .357 Maximum is
the Hornady 180 grain XTP HP over 20.0 grains of IMR 4227. This combination
delivers about 1450 fps, and superb accuracy. 22.0 grains of Winchester 680 is
also very accurate and gives 1457 fps. Tests reveal that this bullet provides
controlled expansion at these velocities.
For hunting deer and antelope sized
game with the .357 Maximum, this bullet would be a fine choice.
The Hornady 180 is very accurate, and
makes a fine hunting bullet for the .357 Maximum.
Top-strap cutting and forcing cone erosion are obviously not an issue
with T/C Contender, so the handloader has more latitude in terms of powder
selection during load development. The fixed breech design also allows more
flexibility in terms of cartridge OAL, allowing the use of longer spitzer
bullets. Hunters have reported top-notch performance from the .357 Maximum in
the Contender using the excellent Hornady 180 grain SSP bullets on deer sized
game, approaching the velocities possible with the .357 Herrett. I have seen two
big-bodied mulie bucks dropped by the Hornady 180 SSP bullet at these speeds and
was impressed by its performance, both bucks basically folded up in their
tracks. The SSP delivered a superb combination of expansion and penetration,
exiting in both cases (in one case after penetrating almost 3 feet of mule deer
on a raking shot).
Cast bullet loads
Given the pressures and velocities that the .357 Maximum operates at,
this is definitely a case where hard bullets and GC's are called for. I
generally either cast my .357 Max bullets from straight linotype (BHN of about
22), or water-quenched WW alloy (BHN of about 18). As far as cast bullets go, my
Ruger demands that bullets be sized .357",
and that all of the bearing
surface be completely sized. It has snug .357" throats and stubbornly
will not allow .358" bullets to chamber.
Wadcutters provide the maximum possible meplat for a given
bullet diameter, but they tend to be aerodynamically unstable and start to
tumble after about 50-60 yards, not much use if that 15" antelope buck walks out
broadside at 85 yards. After much cast bullet experimentation, I believe that
the 73% meplat offers the best compromise of good aerodynamic stability and
meat-crushing meplat. Below 70% and one begins to sacrifice tissue crushing
capability, and above 75% the bullets start to lose both aerodynamic and
hydrodynamic stability and can tumble on impact (straight line penetration is
always a good thing as it allows the hunter to plan where the wound channel
goes, tumbling creates a random wound path and destroys this ability to place
the wound channel through specific vital organs). The LBT WFN meplat diameter is
arrived at by subtracting .090" from the bullet diameter, so in .357 this means
a meplat of .267", or about 74% -- excellent balance for a hunting bullet. Note
also that the time-honored .44 Keith SWC (Lyman 429421) has a meplat diameter of
.275", and since it is the combination of meplat and momentum that creates the
wound channel, it can be seen that the LBT 180 WFN is in fine company.
As a result, my favorite cast bullet for hunting in the .357 Maximum
is the LBT 180 grain WFN-GC at 1550-1600 fps. This bullet weighs 175 grains
(checked and lubed) when cast of linotype. When loaded over 23.0 grains of IMR
4227 this bullet gave 1600 fps with good accuracy.
Winchester 680 is also a good powder for this bullet, and
in 24.7 grain charges delivers 1547 fps and good accuracy over all revolver
hunting ranges. Accurate Arms 1680 delivers similar velocities (1555 fps) with
26.0 grain charges, but groups aren't quite as tight as with Winchester 680 (in
my gun). The 180 WFN-GC is a long bullet, seated well out of the case to make
lots of room for powder (in other words, do NOT use these powder charges with
other 180 grain bullets, all of which are much more deeply seated). When loaded
it comes right to the front edge of the Ruger Super Blackhawk's cylinder, so it
needs to be fully seated and well-crimped to make sure that it doesn't inch
forward and tie up the revolver. Fortunately, the .357 Max doesn't have that
Figure 3. The LBT 180 grain WFN-GC is an
excellent hunting bullet for the .357 Maximum.
In contrast to it's larger bore brethren, the .357" 180 WFN has good
flight stability and groups well at extended range. For the .357 WFN, the meplat
is 74% of bullet diameter, while for the .44 and .45 WFN's the meplat is about
80% of bullet diameter. The big bore WFN's start to lose aerodynamic stability
out about 100 yards or so, and accuracy falls off rapidly after that (much like
a wadcutter). Thus, due to the smaller aspect ratio of meplat diameter to bullet
diameter, the .357 180 WFN groups well at longer range, while the larger WFN's
generally do not.
While the .357 180 WFN may group well at the ram line, it's broad
meplat slows the bullet down to where it has lost too much momentum, and it's
momentum that knocks rams down. A shapelier form is needed for maximum retained
momentum at the 200 meter line. The truncated cone designs of SAECO and SSK (NEI
200-358-GC) satisfy this criterion nicely, as does the all-round utilitarian SWC
design from Lyman (358627), useful for both hunting and silhouette. All of these
bullets group well at 200 yards. RCBS also makes a fine-looking 180 grain
silhouette bullet, but I haven't worked with this bullet yet.
The SAECO 200 TCGC bullet weighs 196 grains when cast of
water-quenched WW alloy (199 grains checked and lubed). When loaded on top of
19.5 grains of 4227 with a CCI 450 primer, this bullet delivered exceptional
accuracy (5 shots into less than an inch at 25 yards) at 1571 fps. It grouped
well out to 200 yards. Of all the bullets tested, this one appears to be the
flattest-shooting in general.
Figure 4. The Saeco 200 grain TCGC bullet
is both accurate and flat-shooting.
The SSK cast bullet designs have given me consistently good accuracy
across the board, due to their extended bearing surface and ample lubrication.
The NEI 358-200-GC bullet is no exception, and in this case the TC ogive and the
moderate meplat make this bullet very aerodynamic, and it's added weight means
that it packs extra punch out at the ram line. When cast of water-quenched WW
alloy, it weighs 217 grains as-cast (221 grains checked and lubed). When loaded
over 18.5 grains of IMR 4227 with a CCI 450 primer, it generates 1427 fps from
the 7 1/2" Ruger Super Blackhawk and groups nicely (1 1/2" at 25 yards). This
accuracy is carried out to at least 200 yards and it groups well at this
distance. This is an accurate, stable and hard-hitting bullet; one very
well-suited for hammering steel targets.
Figure 5. The 217 grain SSK truncated
cone, a hard-hitting silhouette bullet.
Back in the late 1920's, Elmer Keith drew up what he figured was the
best all-round bullet profile for use in revolvers. Over the last 3/4 of a
century, the Keith SWC's have proven to generation after generation of sixgunners that Elmer's vision was right on the money. Lyman used the Keith SWC
as their inspiration for designing their entry into the handgun silhouette
market. Conceptually the Lyman 358627 can be envisioned as starting out with the
Keith 358429 and adding another center driving band and crimp groove, and then
adding a GC shank onto the backside. This second crimp groove has often left me
scratching my head, as it is .140" behind the first. The difference in case
length for .38 Special and .357 Magnum is .100"; and the difference between the
.357 Magnum and .357 Maximum is .310", so what is the purpose of putting a
second crimp groove .140" behind the first? It's not so one can use Special
brass in a Magnum revolver, nor does it seem to be tailored to allow the use of
Magnum brass in a Maximum revolver. Who knows? In any event, the result is a
GC-SWC that is listed at 215 grains (presumably with Lyman #2 alloy). When cast
of linotype, they weigh 208 grains after being checked and lubed. Loaded over
19.0 grains of IMR 4227, and using the CCI 450 primer, this bullet delivers 1517
fps and excellent accuracy (5 shots into less than 1 1/8" at 25 yards). As an
all-round hunting/silhouette load for the .357 Maximum, this one would be hard
Figure 6. The 208 grain
Lyman 358627 GC-SWC, an excellent all-round bullet for
the .357 Maximum, inspired by the Keith SWC.
Not all Maximum loads have to be loaded to the maximum. Previous
experience with the Lyman 358156 GC-HP from a .357 Magnum Marlin 1894 carbine at
1700 fps has shown this bullet to be an accurate and reliable varmint shredder.
I wanted to see if I could reproduce this performance with moderate pressure
loads from the .357 Maximum (max loads will easily launch this bullet in excess
of 1850 fps, which would surely vaporize this bullet on impact, not to mention
erode the forcing cone of this revolver). I also wanted to find out if this
bullet at this speed was a "varmint only" proposition, or if it might also be
useful for antelope sized critters. Ray Thompson designed the 358156 HP to have
a smaller cavity than the other .357 cast HP's, and I thought this
characteristic might be of value when paired with the higher velocities of the
Max. Bullets were cast of sweetened WW alloy, they weighed 151 grains as-cast
(154 grains checked and lubed) and had a measured BHN of 13. Loaded over 22.5
grains of 4227 and sparked with a CCI 450 primer, these bullets had a muzzle
velocity of 1647 fps and provided mediocre accuracy. Expansion testing revealed
that this bullet completely fragmented at these velocities. In fact, with the
first round tested, the fragments never even left the 2L bottle! This
combination may be adequate for vermin, but poorly suited for antelope-sized
Figure 7. The
Lyman 358156 HP is too fragile for the velocities possible with the
.357 Maximum, and fragments completely at 1650 fps.
The .357 Maximum was born a highly specialized cartridge. That hasnít
changed. For many years it was the cartridge of champions among silhouette
circles, and it is still very good at slamming steel to the ground. As a hunting
round it is also somewhat specialized -- a bit hard to find guns, ammo and
brass, and a bit overkill for routine varminting (it works just fine, but why
not just use a .357 Magnum?). Properly loaded it will do the job on antelope and
deer sized game. In this case, "properly loaded" means bullets weighing at least
175 grains and preferably using extruded powder (e.g. 4227). The Dan Wesson and
Ruger .357 Max revolvers have proven themselves to be very accurate, and recoil
is mild enough that shooters have little trouble mastering it and learning to
place their shots with precision. 50 years from now, the .357 Maximum will
likely be little more than an asterisk in the history books and an oddity in
cartridge collections, but that doesnít change the fact that they are accurate,
flat-shooting, and hard-hitting; in short, all the things that a good
silhouette/hunting revolver and round should be!