Your Revolver Can Fire What? - NSSF Let's Go Shooting

Your Revolver Can Fire What?

One piece of information new handgun shooters often hear about is that they can fire .38 Special ammunition through their .357 Magnum revolver. This can be confusing, given the emphasis placed in firearms safety training on never using a cartridge in a gun that doesn’t specifically say it can use that cartridge. In fact, it seems more than a little dangerous to fire a projectile that, at first glance, appears to be bigger in caliber than the cartridge the gun for which it’s labeled.

The key to cutting through the confusion is in understanding that cartridge names and caliber designation aren’t always as clear cut as they may seem. The case of .38 Special and the similar .357 Magnum revolver cartridges are an excellent example.

If you’ve learned just a little about cartridge names and calibers since your introduction to firearms, you might think that the bullet of a .38 Special cartridge is .38-inch wide in diameter. But it’s not. Cartridge nomenclature does not require a bullet’s diameter to match its name. The .38 Special bullet is, in fact, the same diameter as a .357 Magnum bullet: .357-inch. The same is true with two other revolver cartridges, the .44 Special and .44 Magnum, which both fire bullets with diameters measuring .429-inch.

What does this mean for you if you own a revolver that has a barrel marked for either .357 Magnum or .44 Magnum? It means you can safely fire the two shorter and lower-powered cartridges, the .38 Special and .44 Special, respectively, in these revolvers. That’s good news, because you have a more flexible-use firearm with one that can safely chamber and shoot two different cartridges.

Flexibility is a great thing, but before you explore these multiple options with revolvers like the .357 and .44 Magnums, it is vitally important to remember one thing: Under no circumstances can you chamber the larger rounds—the .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum rounds—in guns marked specifically for those magnums’ shorter counterparts. In other words, if your revolver is marked “.38 Special” or “.44 Special on the barrel, you may not, should not, cannot load the larger .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum rounds, respectively, in those revolvers.

This is why instructors are so careful to emphasize you should never substitute one cartridge for another when they’re teaching new shooters the basics of firearms safety and handling. Too much information too soon can be confusing and, ultimately, produce a dangerous situation. I’m talking about this to you here because, having completed First Shots and continuing your quest to learn more about firearms and shooting, this is a subject you’re going to come across when you start visiting gun stores and talking with more experienced shooters on the range.

Why Would I Want to Shoot .38s in My .357?

As I’ve just explained, the .357 Magnum is very similar to the .38 Special, with both having bullets of the same diameter. But the .357 Magnum is .1-inch longer than the .38 Special. That may not seem like much, but the .357 Magnum represents a sizeable boost in pressures and energy. Plain and simple, .38 Special revolvers are not designed to handle that kind of power. Therefore, again, you can fire .38 Special loads in your .357 Magnum revolver, but not vice-versa. But why would you want to shoot .38s in a .357? Primarily, shooters choose to practice with .38 Special ammo in their .357 Magnum revolvers because .38s are lighter recoiling and less expensive.

What’s .38 Special “+P”?

.38 Special +P ammunition adds another layer of complexity to the issue. Ammunition designated as .38 +P loads have increased pressures—that’s what the +P stands for—over standard .38 Special loads. These +P rounds may not, should not, cannot be fired in standard .38 Special revolvers for risk of damage or injury to the gun and the shooter. These +P loads can also be fired in .357 Magnum revolvers, and, of course, they can be fired in revolvers stamped “.38 Special +P”. However, .357 Magnum loads may not, should not, cannot be fired in .38 +P handguns. Slightly confused? See the chart below, which includes a list of other cartridges that have occasional substitutes.

One thing to note: Firing cartridges that are shorter than “maximum chamber length” (such as the .38 Special in a .357 Magnum-marked revolver, the .38 Special, again, being .1-inch shorter than the .357 Magnum) creates a spray of lead, copper and other fouling on the inside of the cylinder’s chamber. This can cause a buildup inside the chambers of the cylinder just in front of where the shorter catridges were fired. If that happens and you attempt to load and fire full-length cartridges in that gun, you may notice that the spent cases stick, the mouth of the brass case stuck on that buildup. To prevent this from happening, thoroughly clean the chambers in the cylinder each time after shooting the shorter ammunition.

What Type of Ammunition Can I Fire In My Revolver?

Here’s a list of some possible combinations for shooters

If Your Revolver Is Marked … It Will Safely Fire These Cartridges …
.22 Short .22 Short
.22 Long Rifle (.22 LR) .22 Long Rifle, .22 Short
.32 S&W Long .32 S&W Long
.32 H&R Magnum .32 H&R Magnum, .32 S&W Long
.327 Federal Magnum .327 Federal Magnum, .32 H&R Magnum, .32 S&W Long
.38 Special .38 Special
.38 Special +P .38 Special +P, .38 Special
.357 Magnum .357 Magnum, .38 Special +P, .38 Special
.44 Special .44 Special
.44 Magnum .44 Magnum, .44 Special