There was a time when the .357 Magnum was more than the average shooter could stand, or so the experts said when it was introduced back in 1935. Now, to be fair to the shooters of the day, they were expected to shoot one-handed, as the Weaver stance was 20-plus years in the future.
And in those days, the original 158-grain load (sources vary on this point) exited the muzzle at around 1,500 fps. Ouch. It didn’t help that grip shapes that worked just fine with a .38, and were tolerable in a .44 or .45, were not at all suited to the snap of a .357. As a brand-new caliber, the magnum was available only as a special-order item, and S&W was back-ordered right up to WWII. Your Registered Magnum came as you specified, and there were buyers who ordered theirs as snubnose revolvers. Well, a snubbie by the standards of the day, perhaps. I don’t think anyone today would consider a 31/2-inch square-butt N-frame a “snubbie.”
It wasn’t until the late Bill Jordan talked S&W into making a K-frame .357 that we got true snubbie magnums. A round-butt K-frame with a 2½-inch barrel is compact, but still delivers magnum performance. Colt fans will no doubt protest that the Python, offered with a 2½-inch barrel (and a much rarer 3 inch) was also a snubbie magnum, but for all its panache, the Python was not the game-changer that the 2½-inch M19 (and the later M66 stainless) became.
Back in the days before disco and the eye-searing fashions it engendered, it was quite common for police officers to practice with .38s and then carry .357s. And the .357 Magnum ammo being carried back then was loaded with full-weight bullets, 158 grains. After the Newhall incident, LE agencies stepped up practice with full-power ammo, and soon after that lightweight JHPs became the norm. As a result, we all became a lot more accustomed to shooting magnums. Since the loads we shot had lighter bullets (albeit at higher velocities), we could shoot more often, becoming more accustomed to recoil.
Of course, a steady diet of 125-grain screamers was hard on the guns, leading to the beefed-up L-frame 586/686 models from S&W.
Fast-forward 75 years from the Depression-era introduction and we have true compact magnum snubbies in form as well as in name. The latest is the Ruger LCR, which, at 171/2 ounces, is lightweight by anyone’s standard. Now, when word of the LCR Magnum was first announced, shooters became apprehensive. Some talked of numb hands, fingers or sore arms. Can we stop the whining? Did you expect that Ruger, along with designing a new trigger system, could also suspend physics? Yes, it barks. Yes, it jumps. And with proper technique and practice, you can deal with it, although you don’t want to go through a five-gallon bucket of ammo in one practice session. I had occasion recently to shoot the new LCR while visiting Gunsite. How difficult was it to shoot the LCR with full-power .357 Magnum ammo? Apparently, not very, for after plowing through a couple of boxes of Hornady XTP ammo myself, I found that my fellow gunwriters had consumed all the .357 Magnum ammo available. Fed through the “too light” Ruger LCR Magnum, a couple of cases of .357 Magnum ammo evaporated. The polymer rear of the LCR, combined with the synthetic Hogue Tamer grips, does a lot to take the steam out of the recoil. And although gunwriters are known for taking full advantage of free ammo, food and shade (it’s in their DNA), none of them showed any signs of numbness afterward.
Charter Arms has been making magnum snubbies for a while now. The Pug, at 23 ounces, is a bit heavier than the LCR, but that is due to its all-steel construction. However, at an ounce less than a pound and a half, it isn’t exactly going to drag your trousers down until the waistband of your undies show. Available in blue and stainless, exposed hammer and DAO, and with a Crimson Trace grip, the Pug benefits from the extra ounces to dampen recoil. So, if you’re worried that the “too light” LCR is just going to be too much, then the extra ounces of the Pug will suit you.
Taurus has also joined the snubbie magnum fray, with no less than seven different models in .357 Magnum. You have choices between blued and stainless; five or seven shots; exposed hammer, shrouded hammer or enclosed hammer; and weights from 24 to 28 ounces. If Taurus doesn’t offer enough choices for you, ask them. They could very well have the options package you have in mind on their drawing boards.
As you might expect, Smith & Wesson is still at the forefront of magnum snubbies. The company’s 386 Night Guard has an alloy frame while weighing 241/2 ounces. The extra weight comes with an extra shot, as the Night Guard is a seven-shooter. That’s right, seven shots of .357 Magnum goodness on tap.
The latest magnum snubbie is the Rhino, coming to us from the folks at Chiappa. For a traditionalist like me, the Rhino is as ugly as a mud fence. However, I can overlook little things like aesthetics when considering a potential step forward. The Rhino is an old idea done new: The barrel is at the bottom of the frame, not the top. That gets the axis of the bore down lower, actually in line with your hand, not over it.
The result is an entirely different lever arm for recoil to act on. Now, to accomplish this, the designers had to come up with a new design for the trigger, hand and hammer. The results made me blanch when I first saw the interior.
I couldn’t imagine a complicated array of levers like that having been designed before the computer era, and I couldn’t see how it would result in a manageable trigger pull. But it does. And for a brand-new design that hasn’t been studied, polished and tuned by countless gunsmiths looking for an edge, that is remarkable.
The looks are made even stranger by the hexagonal cylinder. The flats do make it more compact and concealable, but it just looks odd (don’t get me started on the current crop of automotive designs). The “hammer” is simply the cocking lever to cock the mechanism. Thumb the lever back and you cock the mechanism, and when you let go, the lever drops back down to rest. The little red tip that stands up on the frame indicates that it is still cocked, until you press the trigger. Double action and single are both quite normal in feel—there’s nothing odd about them.
When you fire the Rhino, the muzzle doesn’t rise as it does with a regular revolver. Instead of whipping up, the Rhino shoves back. The hotter the load, the more it comes straight back. This is good for controlling muzzle rise, but hard on the hand until you get used to it. If Chiappa gets around to making the Rhino in bigger calibers, we may find that it is too much of a good thing. A .357 that comes straight back is fine, but a .44 that does might be too much.
Now, should you be considering a snubbie magnum, especially a lightweight one? Of course, but with the clear understanding that while this isn’t 1935, we may well have reached the point where a .357 Magnum can hurt you. Carry it because it is compact and light, but work your way up to full-power ammo. If you lay off practice, your skills will suffer, and when you do get back on the range it will be work at first.
The Velocity Question
The evolution of the magnum snubbie has lead us to this: a five-, six- or seven-shot revolver that is not only more compact than the Registered Magnums seen back when cars had running boards, but also one that is as much as half the weight of the magnum snubbies back then. And the ammunition we have now is so superior to what was previously available, you’d think magic were involved.
Which leads us to the question: “How much velocity do you lose for the convenience of a more compact blaster? First off, let’s forget about the mythical 1,500 fps claimed for the original magnum. I’d bet it didn’t do that from the 8⅜-inch S&W back in 1935, not with the powders available then, and it sure as heck didn’t do it from the 3½-inch FBI models.
Real-world magnum performance is robust, but not that robust. Yes, a 2½-inch barrel suffers in comparison with a 6½ inch, but a 140-grain bullet going 1,100 or 1,200 fps is not something any .38 Special +P can aspire to. Short barrels never slow down the .357 to the point that it becomes what some critics call a “loud .38.”
The other question concerns muzzle flash. I went through a period of shooting and loading .357 Magnums. Rain or shine, early morning or late dusk, I wasn’t aware that flash was a problem. For this article I shot a lot of ammo in front of the camera, trying to find something suitably “flashy” for the art department. While the photos were impressive, I never knew if the camera would have anything to work with because I didn’t notice flash, even on a day so cloudy I had to use a flash on the camera to get a good image.
Now, if you’re going to be in a shootout in a narrow alley on a moonless night, flash may be a problem. But it would likely be a problem with anything.