The .357 Magnum is the original Magnum-designated handgun cartridge, dating back to 1935 with the Registered Magnum (now designated the Smith & Wesson Model 27).
Moreover, when it comes to defensive purposes – for armed private citizens and law enforcement officers alike – arguably still the best of the Magnum calibers, even better than the more powerful .41 and .41 Magnums, for reasons I will explain shortly.
So then, without further ado, let’s discuss the best defensive loads for the .357 “Maggie.”
Federal 125-Grain Jacketed Hollowpoint (JHP)
I first read about this legendary brand name/bullet weight/configuration/caliber combo in a summer 1990 issue of GUNS Magazine, wherein Massad F. Ayoob wrote something along the lines of “The Federal 125-grain .357 Magnum JHP has such a dynamic reputation as a gunfight stopper that it’s been dubbed ‘the magic bullet!’” The controversial one-shot stop statistical studies authored by Cpl. Ed Sanow and retired Sgt. Evan Marshall of the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s corroborate “Mas” Ayoob’s findings; all of the “Big Three” ammo makers’ – Federal, Remington, and Winchester – are excellent street performers in Ed & Evan’s studies, but the Federal brand consistently scores out at #1 ever so slightly – with a mind-numbing one-shot stop rating of 97 percent(!!) – which also lends credence for Mr. Ayoob’s expressed preference for that brand on account of superior quality control.
That 97 percent figure is superior to any .41 or .44 Magnum load out there! Why is this? It’s because those bigger calibers – even in expanding configuration – waste so much of their extra energy overpenetrating bad guys’ torsos and potentially endangering innocent bystanders. The 125-grain .357 load, by contrast, fully expands and stays inside the body, thus transferring its entire ballistic energy to the intended target, and sometimes even fragments to create secondary missiles for additional soft tissue damage.
In its current iteration, the Federal 125-grain load generates a muzzle velocity of 1,450 feet per second and a muzzle energy level of 584 foot-pounds out of a 4-inch service barrel. The round used to have the problem of excessive muzzle flash on top of the recoil and muzzle report factors, but in the early 1990s Federal eliminated the muzzle flash issue via a salt-curing process. I’ve fired these rounds out of my personally-owned 6” Ruger GP-100 and been wholly satisfied with their performance.
NOTE: Just to clear up any potential semantic confusion for our dear readers, Federal Ammunition, its name notwithstanding, is actually a private sector, free-market capitalist company, not a government agency.
Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel Personal Protection 135-Grain JHP
Okay then, so after that long spiel on the “magic bullet,” anything I else I write about from here on out may seem a tad anticlimactic, but eh, gotta stay consistent with my 5 Best Lists, and besides, it’s always good to have alternative products in case your #1 choice is unavailable. And as the product name hints, this Gold Dot load is particularly geared to those of you who carry a Maggie snubby such as a J-frame Smith or a Ruger SP-101.
The manufacturer’s official info page states that “At one time, packing a compact handgun meant sacrificing performance and ammunition selection. Speer® Gold Dot® Short Barrel® ammunition has changed that. It is designed to work in barrels as short as 1.9 inches while producing less felt recoil and achieving reliable expansion and penetration.” Meanwhile, Megan Kriss, in a December 2022 article for Recoil Magazine adds that “They’re not especially powerful (especially by Magnum standards), just enough to be effective, but that does mean less recoil, so Gold Dot is good for new shooters or shooters with weaker hands. If you have the strength for it, it may be worth going with something with a bit more oomph.”
Federal American Eagle 158-Grain JHP
Regarding that “bit more oomph” bit that Megan just mentioned, a lot of older shooters are more psychologically comfortable with heavier bullets, so this Federal (hey, there’s that brand name again) 158-grainer is right up their alley. Ms. (Mrs?) Kriss reports that “American Eagle is ‘Ole Reliable’ in our house, and one of the rounds we turn to when we have some testing to do, and we don’t want to break the bank…This particular round is a great choice for budget-minded defense as it’s plenty powerful, good quality, and of course, it’s still .357 Magnum, so it’s always going to leave a big hole in whatever you put it into.”
Hornady Critical Defense 125-Grain FTX
Lest anybody here think that 125-grain Mag loads are the exclusive domain of Federal Ammunition. As the manufacturer explains, “Since their inception, conventional hollow point pistol bullets have performed well, but have never delivered 100% reliability, especially in self-defense situations. The patented Flex Tip® technology used in Critical Defense® ammunition eliminates the clogging and inconsistency that often plagues hollow point bullets. Hornady® achieved this by using the same tip material used in LEVERevolution® ammunition.”
“And,” adds Megan Kriss, “it does all of this with pretty light recoil.”
Fiocchi 142-Grain Full Metal Jacket Truncated Cone (FMJTC)
Okay then, so what if you’re unable to get access to expanding ammo, whether due to (A!) supply shortages/luck of the draw, or (B) a living and/or working in a bleeding heart, criminal-coddling “woke” jurisdiction? Well then, a load such as the Fiocchi FMJTC is as good a choice as any. To quote lovely Megan one more time: “Fiocchi is my go-to for range ammo. They’ve been around since 1876 and in that time, this Italian company has certainly perfected their craft. Fiocchi ammo always fires like a dream, with manageable recoil and very consistent performance…This boxer-primed ammo is great for training or just shooting to kill time, plus the brass is corrosion-resistant. It’s even reloadable! And the price won’t drain your wallet, even if you’re spending all day at the range…What’s not to love?”
Christian D. Orr is a Senior Defense Editor for 19FortyFive. He has 34 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.
From the Vault