There have been many times I asked myself this question: If I survived a holocaust of some sort — like say a zombie apocalypse or a nuclear fallout — and there was only one semi-auto handgun caliber left in the world, what would that be for me?
- Would I pick the 9mm because there might be stockpiles of ammo left everywhere?
- Would I settle for the .380 acp which, with its really low SAAMI pressure limit, shouldn’t be to difficult to build a gun for as I could just use junk metal pipes?
- Would I pick the 10mm for its .41 magnum ballistics, and for the possibility of setting up a great dual-caliber system in the Glock 20 (because I could use .40 S&W in the same gun) even if it would be next to impossible to find ammo or brass for it?
- Would I pick the .45 acp because I’ve always been in love with it, and that most 1911s chambered for it can be converted to the mighty .460 Rowland with just a swap of barrels and recoil springs?
- Or would I pick the .357 SIG because… I don’t know, maybe the holocaust would leave me a little messed up in the brain and I wouldn’t mind picking it because… aargh! I probably wouldn’t because I like the .38 Super and the 9×23 Winchester better… then again maybe I would?
Maybe if I compare the most common handgun calibers two at a time and record all my thoughts, I’d be able to figure out what the answer to the above question is.
Disclaimer: I do not intend to start another argument over which caliber is better — a lot of “gun experts” have been debating on these topics since Internet gun forums and message boards started becoming popular in the early 2000s, and I will not add to anyone’s pain or pleasure. This will be a very subjective comparison based on my own logic and experience, and my opinions do not reflect those of the other contributing authors of Gun News Daily.
So please do not take this article too seriously.
The 9mm vs. The .357 SIG
In this article I will be comparing two kinds of similar but very different handgun calibers: the 9×19 Parabellum and the .357 SIG.
Both were designed for semi-automatic handguns, both use a projectile that has a diameter of 355/1000 of an inch, and with modern bullet designs, i.e. jacketed hollow points (JHPs) and jacketed soft points (JSPs) both can be great man-stoppers.
Where the two differ greatly are their bullet velocities, their case dimensions and some would argue, what they can be used for.
The 9mm’s Story
Georg Luger, an Austrian sharpeye, patented a design for a pistol he so aptly named after himself in 1898, the Luger P08.
Not long after, he designed the 9×19 Parabellum cartridge that would use a .355-inch bullet — it would later supersede the then dominant but relatively smaller .309-inch bullet in the 7.65x21mm Parabellum.
Looking at the 7.65x21mm’s and the 9x19mm’s ballistics performance, it’s obvious that the former is superior. I can only assume Georg was tasked to redesign the 7.65x21mm and come up with the 9x19mm because of a few possible reasons:
- Back in those days, hollow points for use in handguns would have been very difficult to mass-produce for war;
- Even if hollow points for handguns were easier to mass-produce, the Hague Convention of 1899 wouldn’t have allowed for such bullets to be used for war;
The 9x19mm Parabellum Today
Since its introduction in 1902, the 9x19mm Parabellum, now more commonly referred to everywhere as the 9mm, has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation.
Its tapered brass that can withstand a SAAMI pressure limit of 35,000 psi (241 MPa) is quite tiny and allows for typical single-stack magazines designed for its arguably biggest rival, the .45 acp, to hold up to 22% more ammo.
The high-pressure rating of the brass can also push the typical 115-grain .355 caliber projectile out of a 4.65-inch barrel with muzzle velocities of up to 1,180 feet per second. The relatively small cross-sectional surface area of the bullet (diameter) allows it to penetrate solid objects quite well.
And since it’s only been popular for, well, close to a hundred years (if we consider that it only really became widely accepted after World War I), guns and ammo availability for this caliber will never be an issue.
Seeing how it’s still in use today in several countries’ military and law enforcement, the 9mm would probably continue to be a popular choice for handgunners for a hundred years more, notwithstanding threats from new contenders like the wildcat .22 Tuason Craig Micromagnum (.22 TCM) and the still unnamed 7.5mm cartridge for what is arguably the most powerful semi-automatic production handgun yet, the 7.5 FK BRNO.
The .357 SIG’s Story
As Sylvester Stallone so eloquently put it in Rocky VI, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows!” This is the sad truth, and doubly more so in the case of the .357 SIG.
Elmer Keith, an Idahoan gun nut among other things, got it right when he decided to hot-load the .38 Special for use in some of Smith & Wesson’s .38-caliber revolvers built originally for the .44 S&W Special.
His experiments led to Smith & Wesson developing a powerful new cartridge capable of pushing a .357-inch 125-grain bullet out of a 4-inch barrel at speeds of at least 1,450 feet per second, producing more than double the .38 Special’s muzzle energy.
The brass was made 1/8-inch longer so it wouldn’t fit inside the weaker .38 Special revolvers’ chambers to avoid catastrophic results, and in 1935 it was christened the .357 S&W Magnum. In that same year the Smith & Wesson Registered Magnum (M27) was born.
The .357 magnum was so awesome that SIG Sauer, a Swiss-German firearms manufacturer, attempted to duplicate its ballistics when fired from a 4-inch barrel revolver by cutting the 10mm Auto’s case and necking it down to accept a .355-inch bullet (the same projectile for the 9mm).
The new cartridge was designed to be used for semi-auto pistols because of the platform’s inherent advantages over revolvers:
- More ammo capacity in the semi-auto magazine vs. 6 to 8 rounds in the revolver chamber (this is true for wide-body semi-autos that use double-stack mags);
- No forcing cone as barrel and chamber are on the same piece of metal and work as one (velocity loss in revolvers are not present in semi-autos);
- Faster reloading time (because revolver speedloaders are no match for double-stack mags);
- Easier concealment by nature of semi-autos not having the “bulging” profile of the revolver’s cylinder.
In 1994, it was introduced as the .357 SIG.
The .357 SIG Today — A Solution To A Non-existent Problem
Since its release some 23 years ago, the .357 SIG has had a small but loyal (even die-hard) fan base — “small” being the operative word.
Because it didn’t really catch on as far as popularity, partly due to it being released just a few years after the .40 S&W and partly due to it not really having any practical advantages over other more established handgun calibers, ammo availability tends to be an issue in some states.
Here are some other reasons why I think the round has yet to win the popularity contest:
- The .357 SIG pushes a 125-grain bullet out of a 4.5 inch barrel at velocities reaching up to 1,450 feet per second. This effectively duplicates factory .357 magnum loads fired from a 4-inch revolver barrel. While SIG Sauer certainly accomplished this amazing feat in a semi-auto, the .357 magnum with its longer brass can be hot-loaded to unreachable levels, e.g. Buffalo Bore’s Heavy hunting loads that can push a heavier 180-grain bullet out of a 4-inch revolver barrel at velocities of up to 1,400 feet per second. This means the .357 SIG will never be as good as the .357 magnum for hunting.
- Further on ballistics, the .357 SIG’s isn’t the only hard-hitting .355-inch bullet in the market. The 9mm loaded to the extremes can produce similar (albeit a little lower) bullet velocities, case in point Underwood’s 9mm LUGER +P+ which can push a 124-grain bullet out of a 5-inch barrel with velocity at the muzzle of 1,300 feet per second.
- The slight drawback of the 9mm +P+ having a bit of a lower velocity is mitigated by the fact that durable all-steel guns (e.g. 1911s in 9mm, and even the super-strong Norinco CZ 75 copies) are more readily available and cheaper compared to handguns chambered for the .357 SIG.
- Since durable steel handguns that can use 9mm +P+ loads are cheaper and more readily available, 9mm ammo are even cheaper and more readily available. Imagine being able to buy and use three different pressure loads (standard, +P and +P+) for your 9mm handgun vs. just one for your .357 SIG — would you still choose the SIG?
- Two other strong contenders in the .355-caliber 125-bullet weight division are the .38 Super and the 9×23 Winchester. Both use a straight brass design (the latter being a little tapered). The ancient .38 Super performs about the same as the 9mm +P+, while the newer 9×23 Winchester directly contests the .357 SIG’s ballistics performance, able to push a 125-grain bullet at 1,450 feet per second out of a 4.5-inch barrel.
- BUT the straight case design of these two calibers makes the cartridges ~6.2% thinner, allowing for one to two additional rounds in the mag. For comparison, a typical .40 S&W/.357 SIG 1911’s magazine can hold only 8 to 9 rounds, while a similar size 1911 mag for 9mm/.38 Super/9×23 Winchester can hold 9 to 10 rounds. Heck don’t even get me started on the newly-revived Coonan 1911-style pistol in .357 magnum.
- The 10mm Auto, itself the magnum-level mother cartridge of both the .40 S&W and the .357 SIG, can push a slightly heavier 135-grain bullet at a whopping 1,600 feet per second out of a 4.5-inch barrel, but its case diameter measurements are about the same as the other two’s, so as far as ammo capacity, typical 10mm 1911 single-stack mags can also hold 8 to 9 rounds. If anything, the 10mm defeats the very purpose of the .357 SIG’s existence.
- Since the ammo availability issue has plagued the .357 SIG’s for so long because its popularity didn’t catch on, handgunners would naturally resort to handloading. The problem is the .357 SIG also has a reputation for being hard to reload, so while a few are able to successfully reload, inexperienced reloaders end up getting frustrated and spreading even more bad news about the poor caliber.
- These issues have formed a vicious cycle: ammo availability/reloading issues cause frustration which causes bad rep, which in turn diminishes demand, which then pushes suppliers to sell their stock ammo at a loss, which then results to some manufacturers limiting/stopping ammo manufacture.
If life is as easy as doing ballistics comparisons, then it would be a no-brainer to state that the .357 SIG trumps the 9mm. It can send a same-size, same-weight bullet flying at much faster velocities which results to better terminal ballistics. Even the extremely hot 9mm +P+ with the same bullet weight runs about 150 feet per second slower than just the standard .357 SIG load.
Life isn’t ever going to be that easy though, and superior ballistics doesn’t necessarily mean a particular cartridge/caliber is better than another. Why, if that were the case, then I say we get rid of all types of ammo save the almighty .50 BMG, gather them and burn them all. Let’s all just get ourselves a .50 BMG rifle, gather around the bonfire with all the burning lead flying everywhere and sing Kum-ba-yah to high heavens.
I’m not dismissing the .357 SIG. I think as a concept, it works great. In a perfect world where money is never going to be an issue, I’d tell anyone who asks for a recommendation to buy any handgun chambered for this round if only to give it the chance it deserves.
I think the fine folks at SIG Sauer nailed it when they designed this cartridge. I love my Taurus 689 in .357 magnum. I’d love to have a subcompact semi-auto in .357 SIG. I’d love to have a Coonan in .357 magnum too. Ahhh so many guns, so little time.
But I digress.
So, for this handgun caliber showdown, it is with much sorrow and misery that I have to say that for all intents and purposes, the time-tested, relatively weaker but more readily available and more affordable 9mm wins over the .357 SIG.