When the .357 Magnum was introduced in 1935, it was the most powerful commercial handgun cartridge available. Since then, that title has been passed on to several other rounds, such as the .44 Magnum and the .454 Casull. Nevertheless, the .357 Magnum is still a very good round.
In our opinion, the .357 Magnum is one of the most versatile handgun cartridges. When loaded hot and topped with a 125-grain jacketed hollow point, it is an excellent self-defense round. With heavier bullets, it is capable of taking varmints and other animals smaller than deer. CCI even makes a shotshell round that can be used to dispatch snakes and birds.
The .357 Magnum utilizes a rimmed case and is intended for use in revolvers. Although there are several technical problems associated with feeding and headspacing a revolver cartridge in a semiautomatic handgun, a few companies currently make .357 Magnum pistols. Two such guns, the Magnum Research Desert Eagle and the Coonan Arms Model B, are the subject of this head-to-head test. Also, a separate evaluation of the Coonan Arms Cadet compact .357 Magnum pistol is included on pages 14-15.
The Test Pistols
The Magnum Research Desert Eagle Mark XIX is currently manufactured by Saco Defense in Maine. This very large gas-operated single-action pistol is available in four caliber’s with a 6- or 10-inch barrel. It features a rotating bolt attached to an open-top slide, an interchangeable barrel with cross slots for scope rings, Hogue rubber grips and an ambidextrous safety. The .357 Magnum model utilizes a 9-round magazine.[PDFCAP(1)]
The Coonan Arms Model B is made by K & B Custom in Minnesota. This recoil-operated .357 Magnum single-action pistol is like an enlarged 1911 pistol. It comes with a 5- or 6-inch barrel. Features include stainless steel construction, walnut grips, a rounded hammer, a grip safety and a 7-shot magazine.[PDFCAP(2)]
The $1,099 Magnum Research Desert Eagle we tested was a massive and reasonably good-looking pistol. Its enormous frame, slide and 6-inch barrel were made of steel with a uniform matte black finish. The frame had a squared trigger guard, a long beavertail and a flared magazine well. There were plenty of functional gripping serrations at the rear of the slide. The textured black rubber grips covered the sides and back of the frame. Each grip was held securely in place by one screw. The one single-column magazine provided, which had a black plastic follower and removable floorplate, was made entirely of steel with a dull black finish.
Although our $855 Coonan Model B was bigger than a 1911 pistol, it was smaller and a more practical size than the Desert Eagle. We also thought its clean styling was more appealing. The stainless steel slide and frame had brushed sides and matte gray edges. The frame had a slightly squared trigger guard and a standard size tang. The gripping serrations at the rear of the slide were deep and functional. The 6-inch steel barrel protruded about 1-1/8 inches from the front of the slide. This did nothing for the aesthetics of the pistol. The uncheckered walnut grip panels covered the sides of the frame, and were fastened in place by two screws apiece. The stainless steel single-column magazine had a removable floorplate and an orange plastic follower.
Fit and Finish
In our opinion, the Desert Eagle’s workmanship was above average. There was a slight amount of movement between the slide and the frame. The rotating bolt locked solidly into the barrel’s chamber. There was no movement of the fixed barrel. No tool marks were found, but the edges of the magazine’s feed lips were sharp. In grip-to-metal mating, no major shortcomings were found. However, we felt the grips could have fitted tighter, especially on a pistol that cost over a thousand dollars.
Overall, we considered our Coonan’s metal work to be average. There was a modest amount of movement between the slide and the frame, as well as in the barrel-to-slide fit. A few tool marks were noted on the interior of the slide. The magazine appeared to be adequately constructed, but it didn’t work properly when fully loaded (more on this later). Both grip panels were well mated to the frame. No gaps, warping or rough edges were found.
Like the rest of the Desert Eagle, its controls were very large. The slide catch was a serrated lever at the top of the left grip panel. The magazine release was a small, smooth button at the left rear of the trigger guard. Most right-handed shooters could readily operate either control with the thumb of their shooting hand, but those with small hands had to shift their grip to reach the magazine release.
The Desert Eagle’s manual safety consisted of dual two-position levers mounted on the sides of the slide. When either lever was moved downward, the safety prevented firing by blocking the sear. Unlike some slide-mounted safeties, this one had no provision for decocking the hammer. This control could be operated by right- and left-handed shooters equally well.
Shooters who were familiar with the 1911 pistol, had no problems finding their way around the Coonan Model B. The slide catch was a serrated extended lever on the left side of the frame. The magazine release was a checkered button at the left rear of the trigger guard. Right-handed shooters could operate either control with their dominant thumb, but neither was well suited for left-handed shooters.
The Coonan had two safeties. The nonambidextrous thumb safety consisted of a two-position lever at the left rear of the frame. When moved upward, it blocked the sear and the slide. So, the gun could be cocked and locked. The grip safety on the back of the frame prevented rearward movement of the trigger, and, in turn, firing if the shooter didn’t depress the safety while gripping the gun. Both safeties worked positively.
Weighing over 4-1/4 pounds and measuring 10-3/4 inches long, the Desert Eagle was definitely a two-handed gun. Even when holding this big pistol with both hands, less-muscled shooters couldn’t keep the heavy muzzle on target for more than a minute or two at a time. The up side of the gun’s great size and weight was recoil reduction. This .357 Magnum recoiled about as much as a 9mm pistol. Muzzle blast was magnum loud. The long beavertail-style tang on the back of the frame protected the shooter’s hand from the slide during its rearward movement. The tang also aided in controlling the pistol. There were no serrations on the front of the frame, but the wraparound rubber grip afforded a nonslip grasp.
The Coonan Model B was about an inch shorter and 27 ounces lighter than the Desert Eagle, making it much easier to aim and hold steady. The pistol was slightly muzzle heavy, but balance and pointability were satisfactory. Shooters with small hands found the grip to be overly large (from front to back), but those with bigger hands were able to establish a comfortable grasp. The grip safety’s standard tang prevented slide and hammer bite. The down side of this pistol’s lesser weight and size was that it recoiled a lot. Our testers felt this .357 Magnum definitely wasn’t suitable for weak or inexperienced shooters.
Our Desert Eagle came with standard fixed Combat sights. The front was a ramped blade, which was dovetailed to the front of the barrel. The rear sight, which was dovetailed to the back of the slide, was a snag-resistant blade with a 1/8-inch-wide notch. Both were drift-adjustable for windage corrections. Although neither of these matte black sights had colored lines or dots to improve visibility, this arrangement provided a very good sight picture.
The Coonan Model B we tested was equipped with optional aperture (ghost ring) sights. The front aperture had a white face, while the rear aperture’s face was black. Both sights were dovetailed to the top of the slide, and driftable for windage adjustments. Using this sighting system took some getting used to the sights, but it proved to be fairly easy to acquire and provided a well-defined sighting reference.
We considered the movement of the Desert Eagle’s trigger to be unsatisfactory, because it was three to four pounds too heavy. After a lot of creep, the pull released at 7 pounds. There was no noticeable overtravel.
In our opinion, the Coonan’s trigger movement was acceptable, but it could have been at least a pound lighter. The single-action pull released cleanly and consistently at 5-3/4 pounds. There was no creep or overtravel.
At The Range
The Desert Eagle’s manual recommended using . 357 Magnum ammunition with 158-grain or heavier jacketed hollow point bullets for reliable functioning. This gas-operated pistol needed full-power loads to provide enough gas pressure to cycle the action. The slide was under a lot of spring tension, making it very hard to pull back far enough to lock open. Our test gun mal-functioned twice with Remington 165-grain jacketed hollow points. It failed to chamber on the 8th round and failed to extract on the 17th round. Since both failures occurred within the first 100 rounds (which we consider to be the normal break-in period for a pistol), and functioning was flawless with the other two loads used, we felt the gun was reliable.
Despite its heavy trigger, the Desert Eagle’s accuracy was very good. It produced the smallest five-shot average groups of the test, 1.43 inches at 25 yards, with the Remington 165-grain load. Unfor-tunately, this ammunition impacted 4-1/2 inches high and 2 inches to the left of the pistol’s point of aim. Federal 125-grain JHPs and Winchester 158-grain JHPs also shot well, turning in group averages of 1.80 inches and 1.83 inches, respectively. Both of these loads impacted at the point of aim.
There was nothing in the Coonan’s manual about ammunition limitations. This gun’s slide was harder to retract than a .45 ACP pistol, but it was much easier than the Desert Eagle. Our Model B worked faultlessly as long as we didn’t fill the magazine to capacity. However, when the magazine was fully loaded, the guide rivet in the bottom of the magazine follower would usually jump its track, jamming the magazine and prevented its insertion into the pistol. We were able to insert a fully-loaded magazine a few times, but the magazine follower jammed before the first round was chambered. When this happened, the only way to remove the magazine was by field stripping the pistol.[PDFCAP(3)]
None of our shooters were satisfied with the Coonan Model B’s accuracy. Its best five-shot groups, 3.68 inches at 25 yards, were obtained with the Federal 125-grain load. The Winchester and the Remington ammunition averaged 4.55 inches and 4.33 inches, respectively. We expected smaller groups from a pistol in this price range.