Most Versatile Handgun: The .38 Special/.357 Magnum Revolver
The .38 Special, and .357 Magnum represent two distinct power levels using the same bullets and both cartridges can be fired from any .357 Magnum revolver. The cases are dimensionally identical, except that the Magnum case is 0.135" longer than the Special case. This prevents .357 Magnum cartridges from entering a .38 Special chamber, but not the reverse.
The point of this article is to illustrate two basic ammunition power levels available to anyone who owns a .357 Magnum revolver. These are very accurate cartridges, capable of shooting clover leaf groups at 25 yards from a good quality revolver.
A 6" (or longer) barrel for any .357 Magnum revolver is recommended, particular if you are seeking to maximize versatility. While a 2"-3" barrel is fine for shooting .38 Special loads at short range, it is an abomination for a cartridge that must burn the volume of powder in a .357 Magnum case.
The practical minimum barrel length for any .357 revolver is 4". The 4" barrel is easily carried in a belt holster and you should get something akin to the advertised muzzle velocity (MV), as factory ammunition is tested in a 4" vented barrel.
General purpose .357 Magnum revolvers should have 6" or 6.5" barrels. Of course, a 4" barrel is intrinsically as accurate as a longer barrel and a bit easier to carry, but the longer sight radius provided by a 6" barrel is definitely advantageous for precise sight alignment. The 6" barrel allows a more complete powder burn and thus higher muzzle velocity, more energy on target and a flatter trajectory. Its greater weight also reduces muzzle flip and moves the muzzle blast a bit farther from your face. Since factory ammunition is tested in a 4" barrel, a longer barrel should equal or exceed catalogue velocities.
An 8" barrel is very nice on a hunting revolver, offering more of the same advantages, but the long holster required to carry an 8" revolver can get in the way if you need to sit down, drive a car and so forth. For walking in the field, it is fine.
This is where the cartridge choices start. The Special was designed as a more powerful alternative to the .38 Long Colt, which had been found inadequate by the U.S. military. It was originally loaded with black powder (158 grain lead bullet at 800 fps), which explains its large case and rather low maximum average pressure of 17,000 psi. The transition to smokeless powder was rapid and the Special quickly built a reputation as an exceptionally accurate cartridge.
Standard .38 Special loads represent a step up in power and versatility and there are many from which to choose. Bullet weights range from about 125-200 grains, with 125-130 grain jacketed bullets (MV about 850 fps) and 158 grain lead bullets (MV about 800 fps) being the most popular choices. These loads are used for practice, and hunting small game.
No matter what standard pressure Special load you choose, it will provide the least muzzle blast and recoil among the two cartridge options. For new handgun shooters, standard velocity .38 Special loads are a logical step up from the .22 rimfire that should be everyone's first handgun.
The .357 Magnum was the first magnum handgun cartridge and for many years it was generally understood by shooters that the term "the Magnum" referred to the .357. Remington ballistics called for a 158 grain bullet at a MV of 1550 fps from an 8-3/8" barrel. Full power .357 Magnum loads are currently loaded to a MAP of 35,000 psi, which is similar to some medium range rifle cartridges. .357 revolvers are a handful for most shooters, especially those not used to magnum handguns. The recoil from full power loads is sharp and the muzzle blast definitely gets your attention. Fire a full power magnum load at night and the flash looks like the gun exploded. Actually, the cartridge's bark is worse than its bite.
The .357 Magnum has adequate power for hunting deer, for example at short range (50 yards maximum), providing the shooter has the skill to get a suitable hunting bullet into the vitals with the first shot. Only a magnum handgun shoots flat enough to realistically oppose even a short range rifle.
.357 field and hunting loads typically use bullets weighting 140-180 grains in front of maximum powder charges. A 158 grain jacketed bullet at a MV of 1235 fps would be typical and such factory loads are available from most ammo manufacturers.
Summary and Conclusion
As can be seen seen, a .38 Special / .357 Magnum revolver can be extremely versatile. The factory loaded ammunition options range from very mild 148 grain lead wadcutter bullets at around 700 fps to bear stopping 180 grain bullets at 1200 fps . No other single handgun offers such a wide power range of loads or the versatility to serve as a credible target revolver, service pistol, handgun for hunting . A .357 Magnum revolver with a 6" barrel really is the most versatile handgun of them all.