.357 Magnum Vs 9mm: Melee Of The Medium Bores
Handgun rounds in the .38 caliber family have always been the most popular, but since some (.38 Special, .380) are a bit weak the most popular are .357 Magnum vs 9mm. Each of these rounds has a long history and pedigree of efficacy in the realm of self-defense, so that both are good carry rounds is not in dispute.
What people argue about is that .357 Magnum is better because it's more powerful, or that 9mm is better because you can carry more of them and can be more accurate with it.
Which is better between .357 Magnum vs 9mm? Let's get into it…
.357 Magnum: The Quest For Moah Powahhhhh!
The genesis of .357 Magnum was a need for a more powerful handgun cartridge, that flew faster and hit harder than the other pistol cartridges of the day.
The impetus for it started with gunwriter Elmer Keith and his contemporaries. Keith, and his cronies, experimented with .38 Special to see if they could get more out of it given that it has a modest powder charge for its case volume and found it could be pushed quite a bit faster. The gun industry agreed, and created the .38/44 case, which has thicker case walls to withstand the extra pressure but was otherwise a .38 Special. Smith & Wesson created the .38/44 model of revolver, an N-frame (which was designed for the .44 Special cartridge) in .38 Special. The .38/44 was offered in several models, including the .38/44 Heavy Duty, Outdoorsman and a .38/44 Super Police model.
Keith (et al) then set about hot-rodding .38/44 for even MORE velocity, leading Remington to create the .357 Magnum cartridge and S&W the Registered Magnum revolver, which is a .38/44 with a longer cylinder. The longer case was necessary to keep anyone from trying to shoot .357 Magnum in revolvers chambered for .38 Special, which would be unsafe given the pressure levels.
Archetypical .357 Magnum loads are 158-grain and 125-grain loadings, with typical velocities being in the neighborhood of 1250 fps for the former and about 1450 fps in the latter, both carrying 500 to 550 ft-lbs of energy. Typical .38 Special loads of those grain weights are around 300 fps slower, and carry about 200 fewer ft-lbs of energy, so there's definitely a power advantage in a .357 revolver. .38/44 pushed a 158-grain bullet to over 1100 fps, roughly 350 fps faster than .38 Special.
The .357 Magnum became a darling of police and civilian shooters, as it proved very effective in most applications though not without some drawbacks, which we'll get to later.
357 Magnum: Formerly A Default Police Round For Good Reason...But Has Limitations
It used to be that .357 Magnum was the standard by which personal protection rounds were judged, and for some good reasons.
Ammunition of the day wasn't that good; the only expanding ammunition was jacketed soft points (aka flat tops) and lead semi-wadcutters and semi-wadcutter hollow points. Until the invention of the Metro load (158-grain lead +P semiwadcutter hollow point) .38 Special was known to be wanting for power and terminal efficacy without judicious shot placement.
The oldest trick in the book to make a projectile more effective is to just propel it faster with more powder, and darned if it didn't work. Law enforcement (which actually took a long time; few police could afford one until the first magnum K-frames and Colt medium frame guns emerged in the 1950s) found the .357 Magnum penetrated barriers better, defeated the bulletproof vests of the day and had good terminal performance for the most part, as did handgun hunters. That established it as the preferred fighting caliber in the continental US in the postwar era.
9mm: All Things To All Men
The 9mm was pretty much a boutique round in these United States until the 1950s, and even then wasn't highly regarded. It's basically halfway in terms of power between the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum.
The classic 9mm load is a 115-grain projectile propelled to somewhere around 1150 to 1200 fps (depending) and about 350 ft-lbs (again, depending) of energy. 124- and 147-grain projectiles are also common, with the former usually losing 100 fps of velocity for the increase in weight, and the latter being around 200 fps slower, with little change in muzzle energy.
Jacketed hollow points weren't invented until the 1960s, and weren't commonly available for semi-auto cartridges until the mid to late 1970s. The 9mm loadings were found wanting for penetration at times, and were frequently criticized for poor performance through heavy clothing and barriers. Some departments compensated by issuing overpressure loadings, often 115-grain or 124-grain +P+ loads or 147-grain +P. While the extra velocity did help, you can't overcome a poor projectile (the old "cup and core" bullet design) with velocity alone, which is why .40 S&W became the law enforcement cartridge du jour beginning in the 1990s.
However, modern JHP projectile designs have all but closed any gaps in terminal performance. Modern bonded hollow points like Gold Dot, HST and Ranger bullets offer excellent barrier penetration and reliable expansion to ensure against overpenetration.
Why is it so popular? Just powerful enough to be effective, just small enough to be eminently shootable. With modern ammunition, it is much more than adequate. It's so good that there's almost no reason to size up, at least for the person carrying for self-defense.
The advantage, of course, is that 9mm can be carried in almost any size of pistol, from slim subcompacts to big service pistols.
Are there any drawbacks to 9mm? Not really, except that recoil gets a bit snappy in smaller pistols like a S&W Shield or Sig P938, and some hollow point projectiles are known to expand far less reliably from pistols with barrels shorter than 4 inches. Other than that, it's cheaper than any other service caliber and easier to shoot.
9mm Is More Practical For Concealed Carry
Look, pistols in 9mm are more practical for concealed carry in basically every dimension.
It isn't so much that you can't find a compact .357 Magnum revolver; there are a good number of them available and from several different manufacturers. However, snubby revolvers in .357 Magnum and even compact medium frame pistols with round-butt frames and short barrels are known for sharing a particular attribute:
They hurt. A lot.
What this means is follow-up shots take longer. You WILL find reasons not to shoot regularly and keep up your skills. You'll find yourself flinching prior to squeezing the trigger.
Additionally, any cartridge that is more velocity-dependent (such as magnums) loses velocity in shorter barrels, eventually diminishing to the point where the extra powder is just being converted into extra noise and extra pain without any tangible benefit down range sort of like how some people say an AR pistol in 5.56mm is just silly.
So, a compact revolver in .357 Magnum hurts more and there's less (if any) benefit to the cartridge.
It's also the case that .357 Magnum doesn't guarantee a one-shot-stop. No handgun caliber does. In fact, the only cartridge or caliber that's anywhere close to an all-but-guaranteed one-shot-fight-stopper is 12-gauge 00 buckshot. While the Marshall and Sanow "studies" of the early 1980s found .357 Magnum more effective, later reviews of handgun cartridge performance have found that most handgun calibers are basically all equal in efficacy. The only difference-maker is placement.
.357 Magnum Vs 9mm: Practical Powerhouse Or The Factotum Of Firearm
The truth about .357 Magnum vs 9mm for concealed carry or self-defense is that neither is a one-shot stopper. Both have a track record of working, beyond doubt. Even in the pre-semi-auto days of police guns, the .357 Magnum was found wanting at times for power and expansion wasn't exactly always a given with factory ammo, so don't go thinking it was perfection personified. It also wasn't until the 1990s that the 9mm really came good.
Neither are a ballistic wunderkind, so don't even start. No handgun short of the really scary magnums (.480 Ruger, .475 Linebaugh, .454 Casull, .460 and .500 S&W Magnum) have serious horsepower on tap, so don't go thinking the .357 Magnum does.
The truth is that most people are best-served by the 9mm for daily carry. You easily get enough power, penetration and performance from modern ammunition to put down any hostile personnel so long as you shoot true. It just works, period. So does the .357 Magnum.
While it's also true that the perceived need for capacity for concealed carry is overblown (you aren't John Wick and you won't be taking on an entire terrorist cell at the Walmart) there is something to be said for carrying more than five or six shots.
The other thing, though, is that revolver rounds are best-served by medium- to full-size pistols to get the best performance. Recoil is lighter with, say, a Model 19 or Ruger GP100 than in a .357 snubbie and always will be. That means better control, better accuracy and better performance at long range as well. That's the kind of gun the .357 Magnum was designed for, and that's where it really shines.
The handloader can get a lot out of .357 Magnum, including more velocity and heavier projectiles; the 9mm round limits at about 147 to 150 grains but the .357 can easily go up to 200 grains.
Those of us in the lower 48 will find the .357 a handier stopper of hogs, coyotes, wolves, cougars or black bears at close range, as a 200-gr. flat nose has a lot of punch. Handgun hunting of hogs or whitetail deer at close range is possible, and you can get even more punch from a lever-action carbine in that chambering, so there are uses to the outdoorsman than 9mm just doesn't offer. Some loads rival the .30-30 for power and that's rifle round.
So, the 9mm is better for the target shooter and concealed carrier. However, the .357 Magnum shines in particular niches the 9mm is not suited for.
That's on paper. For you, however, you may find you prefer one over the other. Go shoot both. The one you like best, in a gun that you can conceal and carry comfortably, that you shoot well, is the one to have.
Have you shot these firearms? What did you like, and what didn't you?
Let us know in the comments below!