The .357 Magnum is a powerful handgun. In fact, when loaded with 125-grain jacketed hollow points, it is considered to be one of the most effective handguns for self defense. However, some ammunition in this caliber is better than others.
To test the effectiveness of different brands, we bought every kind of .357 Magnum self-defense ammunition we could find. Fifteen different loads were purchased from four different sources. None of it was limited to law enforcement agencies. None of it was advertised to penetrate Kevlar body armor. Six loads were positively excellent. None were unsatisfactory. All shooting was done with a Smith & Wesson Model 586 revolver with a six-inch barrel.
We tested for accuracy by shooting five-shot groups at 25 yards, using a padded rest. A chronograph was used to measure the actual bullet velocities. We tested bullet performance by shooting into a cylinder of ballistic gelatin and catching the bullet in a water trap. A free-standing muffler was used to control noise in our populated area.
Our chronograph was an Oehler Model 35. It’s really two chronographs set up to check each other. The sky screens were set two feet apart. We also chronographed this ammunition during the expansion tests and averaged the results.
Our test medium was Kind and Knox Ordnance Gelatin. It’s the closest practical medium to human flesh and blood. A live goat might have been better, but that is expensive, impractical, and performance would vary with internal bullet paths. Ballistic gelatin provides the same expansion medium for each bullet so that relative performance can be judged. It also provides a means to measure performance. The cavity, or wound channel, that the bullet leaves in the gelatin can be seen easily, photographed, and measured.
The gelatin was mixed at a 10 percent ratio by weight according to instructions furnished by Kind and Knox. It was cast in a 9-inch by 9-inch cylinder. When firm, it was set on end about 6 feet in front of the sky screens, 12 feet in front of the muzzle. The bullets penetrated the gelatin on a diameter line and exited into the water trap.
Our water trap is about 6 inches behind the gelatin. It’s 54 inches long and has a 14-inch square cross section. The front end is sealed with a neoprene diaphragm that can be replaced easily when it gets too full of bullet holes. After 10 or 15 shots, the leaks get annoying. Water trapping allows us to recover the bullet, after it passes through the gelatin, without any further deformation. Thus we can measure the amount of mushrooming and photograph the spent bullet.
When a bullet is shot through the gelatin it creates a temporary cavity, which promptly collapses. The whole cylinder can be seen to bulge. This cavity can’t be measured directly, but the disturbed gelatin is clearly visible and can be photographed.
The condensed results of the top six loads are shown in the summary table [PDFCAP(1)]). Here are the observations and test results for those loads listed in descending order of performance:
•Federal Classic 125-grain Hi-Shok Jacketed Hollow Point. This was the best solid core bullet of the test. It had the highest velocity, muzzle energy, and largest gelatin cavity. All three seem to work together. Its expansion ratio and retained weight are also among the best. Best of all, with one exception, it was the cheapest ammunition of the test. Our rating: Best of Test.
•Hornady XTP 125-grain Jacketed Hollow Point. Remington 125-grain Semi-Jacketed Hollow Point. Winchester Super-X 125-grain Jacketed Hollow Point. Cor-Bon 125-grain Jacketed Hollow Point. These four loads were too similar to be differentiated. All produced about the same cavities and muzzle energies. Their position in the summary table was determined by the cavity size produced by only one shot. We expect a five-shot test would have put them even closer together. Our rating of all four: Excellent.
•Federal Premium 158-grain Hydra-Shok Jacketed Hollow Point. If you prefer a heavier bullet, this was our first choice. Its muzzle energy and gelatin cavity size were nearly as good as the lighter and faster 125-grain bullets in the excellent category. If you need deep penetration, this is your bullet. Ours penetrated over five feet of water and gelatin when it hit the rear end of the water tank. Our rating: Excellent.
We don’t think you can go wrong with any of the six excellent loads included in this review.
How We Rated
Our primary measurement of bullet efficiency was the size of the cavity. We measured it by scaling an enlargement of the photograph of the gelatin. Muzzle energy was also considered. We calculated it from the actual weights and measured velocities. The expansion ratio was calculated by dividing the cross section area of the mushroom by the area of the undistorted bullet. This and the retained weight were also considered in our rating of bullets.
Total penetration—the distance in both gelatin and water that the bullet traveled—was also measured and reported, but it was not considered in our rating. All bullets penetrated further than necessary. In general, the energy expended after a bullet exits is wasted. Note that the bullets with shorter penetration generally created bigger cavities in the gelatin. The cost of the bullets, while reported, was also ignored.