Magnum Melee: 357 vs 44 Magnum Calibers

  • Jack Collins
Photo Courtesy of Paularized on en.wikipedia

They’re some of the most powerful handgun calibers known to man. Both the 357 and 44 Magnum have earned their place in the annals of firearms lore as the wheelgun calibers of choice in terms of raw power. But what exactly is the difference between these two Magnum calibers? What’s more, what does the term “Magnum” even mean? We’re going to answer those questions in this edition of our Caliber Comparisons: the Magnum Melee.

Do You Feel Lucky? Do Ya, Punk? Image Courtesy of Todd Lappin

What Does Magnum Mean for Firearms?

According to Merriam-Webster, the term “Magnum” originally referred to a “large bottle of wine holding 1.5 liters.” The phrase comes from Latin (like they all do), meaning something “large,” “big,” or “great.” That’s why you’ll often hear critics refer to an artist’s greatest work as their “Magnum opus.” 

But that doesn’t exactly answer our question: what does the term “Magnum” mean in terms of firearms? Essentially, it refers to any cartridge that has more power than normal. But unfortunately, there’s no actual definition of “normal” when it comes to cartridges.

Magnum Calibers: 357 vs 44 Magnum

Okay, with all of that background info out of the way, we’re ready to get to the main event: 357 vs 44 Magnum. The two cartridges actually have a lot in common, but there’s also plenty of differences between the two. We’ll compare them below.

Comparison of 357 vs 44 Magnum (44 on Right, 357 on Left). Photo Courtesy of Jeff dean at English Wikipedia.

357 Magnum

The 357 Magnum kicked off what’s now known as the “Magnum era” in the 1930s. Based on the 38 Special, the round was actually originally designed to do one thing: turn cars from cover into concealment.

Back in the day, mobsters would use their car doors and engine blocks for cover during firefights with police officers. Lawmen found themselves severely outmatched, since their service revolvers chambered in 38 Special couldn’t pierce through car doors and engine blocks. Firearms builders Elmer Keith, Phillip B. Sharpe, and Douglas B. Wesson (of Smith & Wesson fame) created the cartridge to give law enforcement the upper hand when duking it out with the mob.

Today, the 357 still enjoys plenty of use among hunters and other firearms enthusiasts. It’s true that the 357 is technically the “weakest” Magnum round – it “only” imparts 790 joules of energy to the target, still more than double a 9×19 Parabellum. But since it features a smaller bullet than any other Magnum round, it also has great penetrative properties. It also kicks like a mule.

44 Magnum

If a 357 kicks like a mule, a 44 Magnum kicks like a bull. Although Clint Eastwood lauds it as “the most powerful handgun [cartridge] in the world” in Dirty Harry, that’s not entirely true (the 500 Magnum probably enjoys that distinction these days). However, the 44 Magnum has remained popular in spite of being overtaken by other rounds thanks to its more manageable recoil.

The 44 Magnum is based on the 44 Special cartridge. Elmer Keith – the same one behind the 357 Magnum – developed the cartridge for hunting after years of handloading 44 Special cartridges with extra powder and heavier bullets. He encouraged major gun companies like Remington and Smith & Wesson to pick up the cartridge. The latter eventually began developing a revolver around the cartridge, the Model 29, in 1955.

As a big game cartridge, the 44 Magnum has seen some serious success. The cartridge has taken game up to and including elephants. It’s also popular as a “dual use” cartridge, meaning that a hunter or outdoorsman can carry both a revolver and a lever action gun chambered in 44 magnum. The round can transfer some serious energy, imparting nearly 1,600 joules of force with a 240 grain bullet.

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