Dear readers, it is time for another one of 19FortyFive’s Top 5 Handguns/5 Best Handguns list.
Yours Truly recently wrote 5 Best lists on revolver-caliber handguns, namely the .38 Special and the .44 Magnum. (Yes, there are autopistols chambered in both of these calibers, but they’re the exception and not the rule.)
But a 5 Best List for handguns chambered for the legendary .357 Magnum revolver cartridge – which is the more powerful descendant of the .38 Special and predates the .44 Magnum by 20 years – is way overdue, so let’s make up for lost time here and now.
Those of you who’ve been regularly reading my articles for the past year shouldn’t be the least bit surprised that I put the Ruger GP-100 at the top of this list, as it’s my favorite revolver, bar none. For the umpteenth time, it’s the Timex of wheelguns, i.e. “Takes A Licking, Keeps On Ticking,” as the investment casting method of construction enables it to shrug off brutal handloads that would literally blow up a Colt or Smith & Wesson revolver.
And the heavy steel construction and rubber grips make the gun a pleasure to shoot even with the full-house Magnum loads and not just kinder, gentler .38 Specials. My 6-incher won me multiple medals at the Nevada Police & Fire Games (NPAF), which is a testament to the gun’s accuracy.
Having discussed the Timex of .357 Magnum revolvers, now it’s time to discuss the Rolex of such revolvers, i.e. the Colt Python, the classic “Snake Gun.” The first time I fired one of these, I was amazed by the glass-smooth double-action trigger…and then flat out blown away (bad pun intended) when the owner told me that it was a factory stock trigger and not a custom trigger job by a gunsmith! Oh yeah, it was super-accurate too.
Smith & Wesson Model 27
“Where it began/I can’t begin to knowin’/But then I know it’s growin’ strong…” Well, as much as I love the music of Neil Diamond, in this particular instance I must contradict his second clause there, because in the case of the .357 Magnum, we do know that it began in 1935 with the Smith & Wesson Model 27 – initially known as the Registered Magnum before being rebranded under its alphanumeric designation in 1939 – the granddaddy of all .357 Magnums. And more in accord this time with the third clause of the “Sweet Caroline” snippet, this gun is indeed still going – if not necessarily “growing” – strong, as the gun is still in production after 88 years. It’s built on Smith’s large N frame, same frame series as the Model 29 .44 Magnum and Model 57 .41 Magnum.
Smith & Wesson Model 586/686
Though not as tough as the aforementioned Ruger, the blued carbon steel M586 and stainless M686 are arguably the strongest .357s that S&W makes. This is thanks in large part to the beefed-up full-length barrel underlug. These two guns belong to S&W’s L-frame series, which the company officially calls a “Medium” frame but really are more of a “medium-large;” to use a naval analogy, if the N-frame guns are the battleships of the Smith & Wesson revolver line, then the L-frames are the heavy cruisers and K-frames (more on these in the next segment) are the light cruisers.
I fired a 6” Model 586 way back in 1991, and was impressed by the smoothness of the trigger – not quite as smooth as the Python, but still pretty goshdarn smooth – and the accuracy.
Smith & Wesson Model 19/Model 66
Originally known back in 1955 as simply the “Combat Magnum,” and designed in consultation with legendary Border Patrol Agent and gunfighter Bill Jordan, this medium-sized K-frame Smith is what made the .357 Magnum a more practical weapon for police duty carry, especially in the 4-inch barrel configuration. When the stainless steel version, the Model 66, debuted in 1971, it also became more maintenance-friendly in terms of resistance to rust, leather holster wear, and corrosion. Not as durable as the Smith 586/686 or the Ruger, but pragmatic in addition to being smooth and accurate.
As with the .38 and .44, yes there are semiautomatic pistols chambered for .357 Magnum. Most famously, there is the Desert Eagle, and unlike the .44 Magnum chambering, my lone shooting experience with the .357 Desert Eagle way back in 1990 was a positive one. There is also the Coonan, which is basically an M1911 reconfigured for the Magnum cartridge; I haven’t fired it but have read some good things about it. And the LAR Grizzly – best known for its .45 Win Mag chambering – had a .357 Magnum option as well. But none of these guns are as practical as the revolvers that made my Top 5.
Meanwhile, going back to revolvers, though I have a longtime sentimental love for the classic Colt King Cobra as both the first Magnum and first wheelgun of any kind I ever fired, the somewhat gritty trigger pull makes it just miss out on my Top 5.
And I’ve heard some less than glowing reports on the re-released version. The Smith & Wesson Model 13 is another classic that also helped establish the .357 Magnum in law enforcement circles, but in my book is edged out ever so slightly by the Model 19 (read: it lost the coin toss).
Christian D. Orr has 33 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011.