Out of all the ammo we ran through our recent .38 Special and .357 Magnum ballistic gel tests, most of the loads that performed well were magnum loads. As I’ve explained in past articles, ballistic gel testing is just one of many factors to consider when you are choosing your self-defense ammo and with revolver ammo in particular, another major issue to think about is recoil.

The impact recoil has on our shooting varies depending on the severity of the recoil and other factors like the weight of the gun, and the physiology and experience level of the shooter. I made the video below to show one way to determine the balance between recoil and effectiveness, or you can skip the video and read most of the same information in an elegant prose form.

 

There is a cost for getting that superior bullet penetration and expansion we see with the magnum loads, and the price has to be paid in recoil. A lot of people seem to think that recoil management is simply a matter of pain tolerance. Well, you can grit your teeth and shoot your way through the discomfort, but you can’t defy the laws of physics. At some point, the recoil and muzzle flip and muzzle blast are going to have an adverse effect on your ability to hit the target.

So the question is, Where do we draw the line? How much recoil is so much that it is no longer worth the potential gain in ballistic effectiveness?

It’s going to be a little different for everybody, and to find out where that threshold is for me, I decided to shoot a quick test using four different loads and three different revolvers. The revolvers were different sizes and weights and the four loads ranged from a light-recoiling standard pressure .38 to a high-velocity magnum. Each gun and ammo combination delivered a different amount of felt recoil. The lightest revolver was the 17-ounce Ruger LCR 357. The two heavier guns were the same ones used in our gelatin tests: the 23-ounce steel-frame Kimber K6s snub nose and the full size 38-ounce Ruger GP100 Match Champion.

The test I chose is the Hardwired Tactical Snubby Super Test. It consists of 3-stages and 15 rounds using a B-8 bullseye repair center target. It’s a good test of accuracy with realistic distances and time limits. Here’s the course of fire:

Stage 1: 10 yards, 5 shots in 8 seconds or less. Two hands.
Stage 2: 5 yards, 5 shots in 5 seconds or less. Two hands.
Stage 3: 3 yards, 5 shots in 3 seconds or less. Strong hand only.

The starting position is low ready for all stages, but if you want to try the Advanced Snubby Super Test, you would draw from a concealed holster (additional details on running the test are on the Hardwired Tactical Facebook page. Greg Ellifritz has also helpfully re-published the details on his blog for you non-Facebook users).

NRA B-8 Bullseye Repair Center

The bullseye target is scored as marked. Any shots off the target or fired after the par time receive zero points. The maximum possible score is 150 points. Here are my results:

Ruger LCR Kimber K6s Ruger GP100
.38 Spl Winchester 148 gr Lead Wadcutter 143 141 147
.38 Spl +P Remington 125 gr Golden Saber 139 141 146
.357 Mag Remington 125 gr Golden Saber 132 141 147
.357 Mag Barnes 125 gr Tac-XPD nope. 130 135

The first load was the .38 Special Winchester Wadcutter. It has extremely light recoil, it’s very easy to shoot, and I had no problem getting good scores with all three guns. And I should point out here, it’s really not fair to shoot a snubby test with a full-size revolver, but I ran it with the GP100 just this once, for the sake of comparison. The standard Hardwired Revolver Super Test is normally better suited for testing your skills with a full size revolver.

Moving on to the .38 +P Golden Saber, there was a little more recoil, but not much change in the scores. Then I shot the .357 Magnum Golden Saber which is pretty mild for a magnum load, but it has significantly more recoil than the +P. My scores were holding steady with the two steel guns, but starting to slip with the LCR.

Then finally, I shot the Barnes Tac-XPD, which is a more stout magnum load with enough recoil to put a dent in my scores with the other two guns. I actually didn’t run this load through the LCR because I don’t get paid enough to do that. I have fired full power magnums through the LCR in the past and it’s not an experience I care to repeat. You can just assume my score on the snubby test would have been poor.

None of these scores were actually all that bad for this particular drill, but based on this test, I will continue to stick with +P ammo or wadcutters on the occasions when I carry the LCR. If I were to use a heavier steel frame revolver for carry or home defense, I might consider loading it with lighter magnums.

I was at the range the other day with Justin Carroll, a contributor to the Lounge and author of the excellent Revolver Guy blog. He was kind enough to humor me and run four similar .38/.357 loads through the Snubby Super Test with his S&W 640 Pro J-frame and full size 4-inch S&W 686. His results were nearly identical to mine with the GP100 and K6s. There was little change in his scores until firing the full power magnum load, which led to a slight drop with the 686 and a more significant decrease with the snubby.

Something that both Justin and I noticed that doesn’t really show up in the numbers is that with each gun, as the recoil increased, we had to put more conscious effort into recoil management. Normally, you can counteract recoil with a good grip technique. If the gun fits you correctly and you’re holding it right and you apply enough grip pressure, the muzzle should snap back onto target after every shot with no conscious thought. Recoil management happens automatically, and you can focus your attention on what’s happening in front of you instead of on running the gun.

Loading up that revolver with hyper-velocity he-man ammo might give me a slight edge in a fight, but I think there is much greater advantage to using lower recoil ammo that allows me to have better control over the gun.

But if the recoil is severe enough, for me, it feels more like I’m fighting the gun I have to actually think about how to shoot. Where did my front sight go? Why is the gun shifting in my hand? And that’s under ideal conditions, on a nice day, on a flat range with ear and eye protection — that kind of recoil is enough to slow me down and cause me to start missing.

Loading up that revolver with hyper-velocity he-man ammo might give me a slight edge in a fight, but I think there is much greater advantage to using lower recoil ammo that allows me to have better control over the gun. Maybe the ballistic performance is just “okay” but I have the peace of mind that if everything goes South and I end up half-conscious, on my back, firing that snub nose left handed, the recoil and muzzle blast is not going to further hurt my chances of hitting my target.

So before you decide to carry a magnum load in your defensive revolver, I would encourage you to get out the targets and a timer or a stopwatch and find out just how much the recoil affects your performance. You might be surprised by the results.


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  • Terry Slemons

    Good article on recoil management

  • Ruger Shooter

    While i carry Remington 38 +P loads in my .357 LCR, neither myself or a petite 120 pound female friend of mine are bothered by recoil from .357 magnum 158 gr JSP or JHP loads of various kinds in the LCR. Have the GP100, SP101’s & LCR all in .357, great guns.

  • Logan Waltz

    It’s all about the grip. I don’t plan to rapid fire 357 out of a snub with one hand. I don’t plan to rapid fire anything with one hand. Those kinds of shots are going to be aimed because rapid fire without proper aiming is how cops miss most of the time

    • Firing two handed is, of course, ideal, but we don’t always have the luxury of making that decision. Sometimes the circumstances dictate that we have no choice but to fire one handed.

      • Logan Waltz

        Firing wildly like a dipshit isn’t the answer. Aiming is what I recommend. Lol

        • Dustin Heaton

          5 shots in 3 seconds at 3 yards isn’t exactly “firing wildly like a dipshit”.

          • Logan Waltz

            Don’t know what kind of magnums you are shooting

  • kg2v

    Geez, I don’t shoot pistol all that much, but I remember the 1st time I shot a 357 (was in a colt if I remember right). Load with .38spl, shoot it, no big deal, host hands me the .357 rounds, and I expected it to be nasty. I didn’t think it is bad

    • It doesn’t really matter how it feels. That can be very deceptive. What matters is the subjective impact the recoil has on your ability to get quick and accurate hits on target.

      • Dustin Heaton

        There’s also a huge range of .357 magnum when it comes to recoil. There’s the old-fashioned defense .357 that’s basically .38 special +p+ and then there’s Buffalo Bore hunting .357 that is less than comfortable/fast even out of my 686.

      • kg2v

        Then you could say that anything more than a .22 Short, with a full recoil compensator (as in what is/was used in rapid fire pistol comp) has too much recoil

  • Duke Bradford

    I actually enjoy shooting magnums out of a j-frame. I am no expert but I manage to do pretty well with my 649 firing Remington 125gr sjhp magnums in rapid fire drills. I score about the same with my 340pd firing 38 special +p. I find that muzzle flash and the noise from the magnums to be more of a factor than recoil.

  • Sniprzkitty

    And the winner is (drum roll) …………327 federal magnum

  • Heartland Patriot

    And that is why shooting (and carrying) .38 Special +P ammo in a full-size .357 revolver makes sense. Plenty of power to “get the job done” (if you are concerned about capacity, then you will carry a semi-auto, not a revolver), manageable recoil, and the likelihood of ever wearing out the revolver is pretty darned low.

  • orca

    The author clearly has no idea what he is talking about
    In a actual confrontation you don’t even notice the recoil at all no matter what you are shooting
    It is a lot like hunting big game get a shot at a big buck you never notice the recoil
    In my moment with an attacker 20 feet away moving towards me with a k bar knife raised with murder on his face I drew and fired the model 58 smith and Wesson with 210 grain bullets magnum rounds I didn’t feel any recoil
    The Remington soft point did it’s job
    With a loud wack the bullet hit center chest taking out a part of his heart and a 2 inch part of his spine
    I saw the shocked expression for a moment on his face as he crumpled to the ground
    I remember it well as I relive it several times a year in my sleep and have for the last 25 years it doesn’t go away
    The main point is I don’t remember any recoil and never have

  • David Watson

    Try Magna-Porting your weapon – Friend did this to a red hawk 44 mag – single hand fire 6 rounds had as much kick as a 22. At night the view was spectacular.
    Before: a two had grip almost got the hammer planted in my forehead.
    After: See above

  • mike

    Found the article pretty good. .As an young patrol officer I traded my duty issue old and pretty much wore out colt official police for a S/W model 19. I found two problems with 357 mag. loads. The recoil after three rapid rounds would torque the weapon in my hand to the right-requiring hand adjustment. During low light shooting, the muzzle flash decreased my night vision. This put me back to using .38+p rounds. Less flash, more control. My size was 5’8” at about 170 lbs, with smallish hands. Time period late 70’s. Today I’m much older and and enjoy the power of the mags. When I leave the range though, .38’s go back in. As well as some IBU for the arthritis.