The .38 Special, .357 Magnum, and .357 Maximum

Some of the oldest and, yes, still among the most popular revolver cartridges in existence, these can trace their origins back to the blackpowder cap & ball revolvers that were widely-used in America's Civil War. The two most widely-used revolvers in that conflict were the Colt Models of 1851 and 1860 (and many copies, of course). The 1860 was a .44 calibre arm and the 1851 was a .36 calibre piece.

How the .36 calibre revolver eventually became the .38 Special and even the .357 Magnum is a tale of the strange ways that firearms have been measured and named over the years. Don't look too hard for logic here; it doesn't play a big part in this story.

Early firearms were generally named after the diameter of the bore of the barrel. With smoothbore arms that was pretty straightforward. The appropriate lead ball for a given arm was usually just a very little bit smaller that that bore. A ball that fit the bore perfectly was also very hard to ram down that same bore -- especially after a shot or two when the bore became fouled with the residue from burnt blackpowder. A common practice then was to use a ball that was a bit undersize and wrap it with a cloth patch to make it fit itself to the bore. That worked well for smoothbore arms. Enter rifling, stage right (or left -- it doesn't matter).

Rifling as is widely known, even among the non-shooting populace, is the practice of cutting shallow spiral grooves into the bore of a firearn in order to impart spin to the projectile. This greatly enhances the accuracy of the arm. A rifled barrel has two different measurements for the inside diameter of the bore. There is the so-called "land diameter" which is basically the diameter of the bore before it has been rifled. This is often also called the "bore diameter." There is also the "groove diameter" which is the diameter across the bore from the bottom of one groove to the bottom of the opposite groove. Yes, most rifled barrels use an even number of grooves. In the few cases where an odd number of grooves are actually used, the groove diameter is calculated rather than measured directly. The mathematical relationship is (Groove Diameter) = (Land Diameter) + 2x(Groove Depth). Common depths for rifling grooves are in the vicinity of .005" to .01" so that the groove diameter is usually .01" to .02" more than the land diameter

Ok, back to the 1851 Colt Navy .36 caliber revolver. It fired a lead ball of .375" diameter. "Why did they call it a .36 calibre then?" I can hear you asking. The revolver had a rifled barrel that measured just about .375" for the groove diameter. We can round that off to .38" (seeing something yet?). The ball fit just fine. With a groove depth of .01" the land diameter (often called the bore diameter) was only .36" and the name usually came from the "bore diameter." So we had a ".36 calibre" revolver that fired .38" balls. Nobody thought anything about it except fpr a few OCD gunsmiths.

The Civil War came to a long-awaited end, but firearms development continued at a breakneck pace. As of 1865 it was obvious that the self-contained metallic cartridge was the way of the future. There were plenty of perfectly serviceable revolvers left over after "The Late Unpleasantness" as the war was called by some. Many of these were 1851 Colt Navy revolvers. A number of gunsmiths set up a thriving business converting the old cap & ball revolvers to use the more modern metallic cartridges. The existing revolvers couldn't easily be changed in any major way (such as calibre) so the new cartridges were designed around the existing guns. The new cartridge featured a .38" diameter bullet that was about .02" smaller at the base (this is called a "heeled" bullet and is still used in the common .22 rimfire of today) so that it could be pressed into the brass case -- the brass case walls were about .01" thick. Thus, the bullet diameter and the brass case diameter were both about .38" -- everything worked. When newer revolvers were designed and made for these cartridges, they just called them .38s. Things went on this way pretty much until the introduction of smokeless powder at the end of the 18th century.

One of the things that changed about that time was that the practice of using heeled bullets fell out of favour for a number of reasons. The new way of doing things was to simply make the cartridge case large enough so that the bullet would fit snugly inside the case without needing a heeled base. When new .38s were made they used the same sized cases but with a smaller bullet. The barrels of the new guns were made to fit these smaller bullets. Everything worked, but the gunmakers wanted to keep the old ".38 calibre" name and they did -- even though the bullet fired was a .36" diameter bullet and the barrel was a .36" bore diameter. To be more exact, the bullet and bore diameters were (and still are) .357" but the cartridge cases measure nearly .38".

Of course the demand for more powerful cartridges never let up. The old .38 calibre revolvers weren't particularly powerful. There were many of them. One was the .38 Long Colt which was adopted by the US Army and used against the Moro insurgents in the Phillippines following the Spanish-American War. It failed to stop the determined Moros at a very alarming rate. The US Army went back to a .45 calibre handgun, but gun and ammunition makers kept working on a better .38 cartridge. In 1898, the Smith & Wesson company introduced a lengthened .38 S&W cartridge that was loaded with smokeless powder to a significantly higher power. The called this the ".38 Smith & Wesson Special" but everyone was soon calling it the ".38 Special" since shooters don't particularly like long cartridge names. It was an instant success. It bacame the dominant police revolver round and kept that position, only being partailly eclipsed by the .357 Magnum and later falling victim to the shift to autoloading pistols in the 1980s. The .38 Special is still a good choice for a defensive revolver.

In the 1930s a fellow named Elmer Kieth (and a few other pioneers) loaded .38 Special cartridges to much higher than normal pressures and used them in special heavy-frame revolvers. They called these ".38-44" rounds. Elmer worked with Smith & Wesson to get this new round standardized. S&W lengthened the case slightly (about .1") to make it too long to fit into a standard .38 Special chamber (there were many older .38 Special revolvers that just weren't strong enough for the new cartridge). In a flash of marketing genius Smith & Wesson named it after an oversize wine bottle -- the "magnum." Since it still used a .357" diameter bullet the name settled on was the ".357 S&W Magnum" or just ".357 Magnum"-- it was introduced in 1934. Guns chambered for the .357 Magnum can safely fire the .38 Special ammunition, but not the other way around. The .357 Magnum is a good, but possibly overpowered, round for personal defense. It has been used by many law-enforcement agencies, and with good results. It is viable for taking deer-sized game at moderate ranges if the shooter has the discipline to wait and make an accurate shot.

That's where things stood until 1983. Metallic silhouette shooting was then a fast-growing and popular shooting sport. There was a desire to have a revolver with the knock-down power of the .44 Magnum and the flat trajectory of the .357 Magnum. Remington and Ruger came to the rescue. Ruger was willing to make a version of their Blackhawk revolver with a longer cylinder and Remington lengthened the .357 Magnum cartridge case by an additional .3" and loaded it to some very impressive velocities. Remington called it the ".357 Remington Maximum" and it certainly performed as advertised. It was accurate and those heavy steel silhouette rams at 200 metres fell quickly with any hit from one. But it was perhaps a case of too much performance. Recoil was heavy, but not exceptionally so for the sport. The main perceived problem was that the Ruger revolver soon exhibited flame-cutting of the top-strap just above the front face of the cylinder. This was found to be primarily a cosmetic effect, but the damage was done. The .357 Maximum soon faded into obsolescence. I owned one of the first .357 Max Ruger Blackhawks and sometimes I wish I still had it. The .357 Maximum is way too much for practical defensive use. It is a great handgun hunting cartridge. I do not know if anyone is still making ammunition for it.