Rethinking the .357 SIG
November 11, 2015
I have to admit there have been times when I've been overly snarky when it comes to writing about the .357 SIG. I've called it blasty, touchy, hard to reload and not worth the cost to gain the performance.
Unveiled in 1994, the .357 SIG was not new in its basic design. Bottlenecked pistol cartridges are as old as the self-loading pistol, which has been around since the late 1800s. The .357 SIG is, for all intents and purposes, a .40 S&W necked down to 9mm, although the case has to be longer than a .40 just to have the dimensions work out properly. What was new was that it allowed a semiauto pistol cartridge to match a revolver—specifically the .357 Magnum with a 125-grain jacketed hollowpoint—in performance and stopping power.
All during the 9mm vs. .45 wars and the stopping power arguments, everyone pretty much agreed that a .357 Magnum loaded with 125-grain jacketed hollowpoints was the ne plus ultra of handgun stopping power. What a lot of people liked to forget was the .357's performance came with a six-inch barrel and lots of blast and recoil.
As a result of the SIG Sauer engineers' work, the .357 SIG has an increase in velocity over the 9mm Luger of up to 300 fps. Please note the "up to." There are a number of variables entering into this. You might think the increase in velocity is due to a higher operating pressure. Not so. It runs in the same general pressure range as the 9mm, .38 Super and .357 Magnum, give or take a 1,000 psi. No, the larger internal volume allows ammunition companies a wider range of powders to choose from, powders giving them more acceleration without exceeding pressure limits.
The initial unveiling of the .357 SIG was not without problems, but brand-new cartridges, computers and cars all sometimes suffer teething problems. Reloaders also had trouble with it because it is unforgiving of neck-tension variances. What you can get away with neck tension in many other cartridges, the SIG will punish you for—and harshly.
There is no such thing as a free lunch, and to hurl a bullet 300 fps faster, you have to put up with increased recoil. Sir Isaac wins all arguments. But in the process of using powders with more-progressive burn rates, you also increase the pressure at the muzzle—which means you increase muzzle blast. And if you shorten the barrel for ease of daily carry, then you lose some of the wondrous speed and gain even more of the blast. But how much?
To that end, I tested a fistful of loads in .357 SIG in my Colt Delta, with an Ed Brown .357 SIG conversion barrel in it. It is heavy, at 38 ounces, and with a five-inch barrel, it will wring all the speed out of the .357 SIG there is to be had. However, it is not a friendly carry gun due to its size and weight.
If you want speed, it is easy to find it in the .357 SIG, although not all .357 SIG loads run at warp speed. The new Hornady Critical Duty load generated just over 1,200 fps out of my Colt. I asked the guys at Hornady about the load, and they told me that since this .357 SIG load aces the FBI tests at its 1,225 fps catalog velocity, why subject their customers to a lot more abuse by trying to generate more than 1,300 fps? The blast and recoil would far outweigh any benefits of extra expansion or penetration.
One of my fellow club members who helped me in chronographing the Critical Duty load questioned its lack of speed, commenting that a 9mm can be pushed to 1,200 fps. Yes, but you can't do it with a 135-grain bullet and still meet SAAMI 9mm pressure specs. (As an aside, the performance of the .357 SIG Critical Duty load encourages me for the future of the .38 Super, a cartridge I'm quite fond of. Getting a 135-grain bullet up to 1,225 fps out of the Super is a piece of cake compared to doing it in a 9mm.)
In talking to SIG, I find it sells a lot of pistols to state wildlife resource agencies as well as state police agencies (the Texas Rangers carry SIGs in .357 SIG). This makes sense. When you work around automobiles or have to dispatch injured animals, it is difficult to have too much performance or velocity.
The problem with the .357 SIG is not so much the cartridge but with the bureaucrats who choose it. Selecting a warp-speed cartridge and then issuing it in pistols with four-inch barrels, you lose some of that speed. Of course, issuing those same pistols in 9mm, you'd lose speed from the Luger, too. And since the 9mm doesn't exactly start out with a stunning surplus of speed, cutting it back is more of a problem.
For reloaders, the problem of the .357 SIG involves its short neck. You simply must use a neck expander with a diameter small enough to ensure a weasel-like grip on the bullet. Failing that, you'll have feeding problems from mangled necks and set-back bullets. Well, that and bullet length. You'll have to be careful to use only bullets that can be seated short enough to stay under overall length. A good reloading manual can help here.
With a carry load such as the Critical Duty as the trump card, the only complaint I can muster against the .357 SIG is the case shape cuts down on magazine capacity. Coming from someone who is quite comfortable packing an eight-shot pistol, this is a pretty faint damning of a cartridge that delivers what it promises. I really can't fault it there. And the use of the Hornady load in a four-inch barrel means you are still a step ahead of a 9mm—without the oppressive muzzle blast of the hot loads in the SIG.
The more I consider this, the more I think I should own more than just a single firearm in .357 SIG. The cartridge is starting to grow on me. It is sort of like Scarlett Johansson: short, curvy and more than a bit exciting.