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.

    • SCIPIO AFRICANUS

      You’re a better man than I am Gunga Din and apparently a lot younger – loads didn’t bother me that much back then either. But now as a geezer, 20 Monarch 158 gr .357 SJHP (rated at 1607 ftp, 833 ft lb) through my 2″ SP101 are hard to control even at 5″ and I can feel them an hour later. My EDC is 125 gr JHP Golden Sabre and I am sure they are adequate – especially because I can hit really well with them. I carry 3 speedloaders, one is of Monarch so I can penetrate a car. But I think the 158 Monarch is asking a lot of a 25 oz 2″ snub.

      • Ruger Shooter

        In my mid sixties. Don’t mind even slugs from 12 gauge or my friend’s 10 gauge, but absolutely hate a .308 Winchester. Go figure.

        • SCIPIO AFRICANUS

          Same age, still shotguns and rifles don’t bother me, I shoot a 7mm Magnum – at least your have a whole body to absorb it. You might be interested to know that I also carry a Ruger LCP in .380 and at 9 oz it has a funny kick to it I find a lot less, but more unpleasant than a .357 kick. It really is too small, even with a Hogue grip the kick seems to go right through to my thumb joint, very different than the satisfying all hand and arm kick from a .357. Still, in my 2″ SP101 I can’t control those Monarch 158’s and can hardly hit paper at 10 yards. But at 3′ I am sure two center mass would stop anyone.

          • Ruger Shooter

            Also carry an LCP Custom, absolutely love how it disappears as i carry in ‘unarmed victim zones’. I find the recoil mild even with real hot Fiochhi Perfecta practice loads. Use Rugert ARX .380 ACP defensive ammo if you want a lot more power with LESS recoil. These .380’s blow a water jug up like you shot ot with a 9mm JHP, unlike even .380 JHP’s that just pass thru. 9mm ARX loads are hotter in performance than 38Spl +Ps; I use them in an LC9S. Try American Eagle .357 Mag JSPs in your SP101. In my videos of different loads fired in total darkness (have my own range) there is very minimal muzzle flash, indicating a good burning powder. Magtech regular 38Spl create a huge flash. It is surprising the difference in different loads. And those AE .357s from a Ruger 77/357 rifle are absolutely devastating. Have fun, experiment.

  • 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

    • Freed Guess

      Read my post above. 98% of humanity avoids killing people. Same thing for risk avoidance. People are more likely to shoot if they think that they are going to score a knockdown and not kill the guy. In today´s post-truth society, knock down power is the new ¨cigarettes not causing cancer.¨ You would have done better with a 9mm 100 grain frangible sinterfire bullet. Granted that a high speed projectile is the best form of self defense, and you really have to get lucky in any deadly confrontation, I´m betting that you could have handled him after a 400 foot pound injection.

      Now if I could only explain luck.

    • DunRanull

      Orca. I know that you mean about not feeling recoil during a shoot… adrenaline slows everything down almost like a dream-sorta.Tunnel vision and shut-down of peripheral sensations. The report and recoil may be such that the effects are still felt days later (as in partial deafening esp shooting inside a structure) but unnoticed at the time. May God bless and keep you.

    • SCIPIO AFRICANUS

      Great story and I hope you sleep well. Having been in similar situations three times I was lucky enough that pulling my gun and trash talk stopped them every time. At the time I was totally in the right and really wanted to plug them, but I’ll never forget what went through my head every time: “you can beat the rap but you can’t beat the ride.” Knowing the consequences of that very unpleasant police car ride stopped me every time. And at my old age, I’m glad now that it did.

  • 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.

  • Keith Plymale

    I’ve recently started shooting .38 and .44 special in my two Ruger magnums and it’s just a more comfortable shooting experience.

  • Juan J Galan

    The article as usual very good. Still don’t understand why you didn’t use some S&W revolvers for the test… I know you don’t like the safety key issue… any other reason? Just curiosity. Thanks.

    • Just didn’t happen to have any handy at the time. I’m not sure if it matters much for a test like this, though. The weight of the revolver is the main attribute that will determine felt recoil, regardless of brand. For what it’s worth, both of the revolvers Justin shot when he ran the test were S&W.

      • Juan J Galan

        Thank you Christ for your time, I was not trying to be “smart”… I understand the “brand” has nothing to do with the recoil, weight yes… I was only trying to get your opinion about S&W, that’s all… Thanks again, stay safe.

  • LTC (Retired) LD

    I have two Rossi 971 revolvers in 357. One with 4″ bbl; the other with 3″ compensated. Both are full stainless steel. My wife loves the 4″ and has no problem with full power 357 rounds. In fact, she says that except for a louder report and a little more bump, she hardly notices the difference. I prefer the 3″ comp, and likewise have no issues with full power rounds. The compensated barrel has only 2 little slots on top, but it makes a world of difference; that little gun is fun to shoot.
    Costs dictate that most shooting is with .38 SPL, but I always make certain that we both fire at least one cylinder-full of 357, just to maintain familiarity with the round. With the proper revolver, firing 357 rounds is no big deal. However, I would never fire them from one of those poly frames or ultralite frames. The 357 packs a wallop on both ends, and with a lightweight weapon, you’re going to beat yourself up and sacrifice your confidence. Get a steel framed 357 with proper weight and enjoy the experience.

  • Freed Guess

    LG Chris This is stupid. The winner is the Remington 125 gr Semi-Jacketed Hollow Point. For a jockey sized person, a small, fast, fragmenting or frangible round would be best. Granted that we are talking about a given person, yourself, and three given guns, this is what you do: Use a shot counter to measure your time between shots. Pie radius squared your distance for each shot away from the bulls eye. This gives the average size of the target you are aiming at. Multiply the muzzle energy by [1/target size average]. Then multiply by [1/time between shots average]. The highest score wins. If you want to fudge the issue with math and theory, rather than range time, then also multiply by [1/power factor (=grains x velocity)] That would be(!) if you also are getting sufficient penetration.

    Most of humanity is going to score best with 357, 45ACP, 40S&W, and 9mm, and the 400-600 foot pounds that go with them. You are a little bit smaller than average, and a lot more experienced than average, so bet on 9mm not working out for you.

    We are dealing with a buffet of one, two, and three dimensional objects. For any bullet less than 42 caliber, light and fast tends to be correct. For any bullet greater than 42 caliber, heavy and slow tends to be correct.

    Knock down power does indeed exist. It is called muzzle energy. The power factor tends to get you penetration. Either one is deadly, but the knock down power is going to keep them from shooting back. The best thing that could possibly happen is to not leave an exit wound. You want them to spray blood back towards you. Look for a flash of light in the ballistic gel. It is called a ¨splash wound,¨ and it happens with high peak energy release.

    Within a reasonable range, like 30-46 caliber, bullet diameter does not matter. The turbulence in front of the bullet leaves more of a wound than the bullet itself.

    That´s the answer.

  • Patrick Mickle

    I liked the article very much, as a novice I like as much information as possible. For the reasons stated in your article I was leaning towards an LCR 327 as my next carry gun. I can find no ballistic charts or gel tests on your site with this round, your store does not even carry them. Am I wrong in thinking a low recoil high energy round would be good in a self defense situation?If I an correct do you have any plans on testing (or stocking) these rounds?

    • Patrick Mickle

      I am sorry you do stock the 327 Federal Magmun in 3 different types Sorry. still how about some testing??

      • We would like to test .327 Magnum eventually, but not sure when we’ll be able to get to it.

        • Patrick Mickle

          Thanks for the reply, Hope you do test it I am curious of its potential and have been unable to find any ballistic gel test done with the .327 Magnum.
          Keep up the good work, I think your tests and videos are the best on the web.