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The Best Handgun Cartridges of the 20th Century (1900s)
The 20th Century's Top Handgun Cartridges - By Dick Metcalf, Technical Editor, Shooting Times.

Shooting Times' Technical Editor rates the 9mm Luger and .357 Magnum as the most influential and important autoloader and revolver cartridges of the century.

s part of my share of responsibility for our turn-of-the-century, end-of-the-millennium issue, Shooting Times' editors asked me to pick and briefly discuss my choices for the top pistol cartridge and top revolver cartridge of the 20th century. It was not as easy a job as naming the top auto pistol of the century for my other article; the Government Model 1911 was a no-brainer. But the more I thought, the more clear it became. The autoloader and revolver cartridges that have been more influential, more widely used, and progenitors for more cartridge concepts and developments than any other are the 9mm Luger and the .357 Magnum. Here's why.

9mm Luger (Parabellum)
First let me say right off that it's a bit hard for me to give such high recognition to the 9mm Luger (Parabellum), as it is a long way from being my "favorite" auto pistol cartridge, and it is certainly not the autoloader cartridge I think is the "best." The grand old .45 ACP, or perhaps the powerful 10mm Auto, would much sooner be my choices for either of those two labels. But the objective, impartial choice to be made here is for the "top" autoloader cartridge of the century, not a subjective favorite. For fans of other, perhaps more effective cartridges, forcing ourselves to acknowledge that the 9mm is more important, more widely used, and more influential than those we personally think are better is much like thinking about politics. We may not like it that Bill Clinton is President, but the fact remains he got more votes than the other guys. Twice.

The 9mm Luger is the most widely used centerfire autoloader cartridge in the United States, and it has been the most vastly popular handgun cartridge of any type ever invented, worldwide, for a long time. On a global scale nearly twice as many 9mm Luger cartridges are manufactured each year than any other single cartridge caliber.

The 9mm Luger was originally introduced for the Luger Model of 1902 military pistol, adopted as the standard service sidearm by the German Navy in 1904 and by the German Army in 1908. It is the oldest of all of today's mainstream auto pistol loads, but because of its comparatively recent surge to popularity in the United States, most American shooters think of the 9mm as a relatively "modern" invention in comparison to other popular autoloader cartridges like the .45 ACP-which John Browning did not develop until 1905 and which did not find its classic home until the introduction of the Government Model in 1911.

By contrast, in Europe and everywhere else, the 9mm Luger cartridge (also correctly termed the 9mm Parabellum, i.e., "for war" and also widely known as the 9mm NATO and 9x19mm) was already firmly established by 1910. And it began spawning offspring and stimulating the development of 9mm variants almost from the moment of its birth. Such subsequent autoloader cartridges as the 9mm Browning Long (1903), the 9mm Mauser (1908), the 9mm Bergman-Bayard (1910; recently offered in the U.S. by CCI as the 9mm Largo), 9mm Glisenti (1910), the .380 Auto (1912; originally called the 9mm Browning Short, or 9mm Kurtz), and the 9mm Steyr (1912) were all offshoots or descendants in one way or another of the 9mm Luger. More recently came the Soviet-developed .364-caliber 9x18mm Makarov (1951), the standard pistol load for the communist world's military and police. The .355-caliber 9mm Ultra was introduced in the Walther PP Super pistol in 1972. On our side of the ocean, the 9mm Winchester Magnum (1977) was the first 9mm-by-name cartridge variant developed by a US ammunition maker. In the late 1980s and early '90s difficulties in reaching safe-pressure "Major Power" 9mm Luger and .38 Super loads for USPSA/IPSC competition led to the .356 TSW, 9mm Federal, and 9x23mm Winchester. And the recent (1994) .357 SIG is also actually a high-performance bottlenecked 9mm.

The 9mm's greatest impact, of course, was the role it played in changing the tastes of US shooters (the largest handgun market in the world) from revolvers to auto pistols during the 1980s. This was a direct consequence of the US Department of Defense's (DOD) decision soon after World War II to standardize with NATO by adopting the 9mm as our duty-issue military sidearm cartridge. In 1985, after decades of tortuous selection, the DOD finally chose the Beretta Model 92FS 9mm pistol to replace the venerable .45 ACP Government Model 1911A1. In pursuit of that contract, every major handgun manufacturer in the United States, as well as many already-established 9mm pistol manufacturers abroad, poured huge investments of time and money into 9mm pistol development. The result of this effort, and of the attention given to the military's 9mm pistol program by the firearms press and mainstream news media, was the development of a large and unprecedented reservoir of U.S.-based 9mm manufacturing expertise and production capability, which then combined with the consequent heightened interest in autoloader pistols among law enforcement agencies and civilian consumers alike to spark a major shift in US handgun preferences from revolvers to autoloaders. By 1990 "wondernine" DA auto pistols were outselling revolvers in the US handgun market by a more than two-to-one margin.

The 9mm cartridge has several distinct benefits. In terms of terminal ballistic effect it sits about halfway between the .38 Special and .357 Magnum revolver cartridges, which were America's previously predominant law enforcement and personal-defense cartridge choices. The 9mm's moderate recoil in comparison to heavy-caliber revolvers or .45 semiautos makes it easy for shooters and police officers to master and control. And the new-generation autoloaders for which it is chambered offer many refined modern design and performance characteristics, including, most notably, a firepower capacity of more than twice any revolver. Most full-size 9mm pistols carried 15 rounds fully loaded; many even more. After the 1994 federal law limiting commercial magazine capacity to 10 rounds, this factor is not as significant for civilians as before, but when a pocket-size 9mm pistol can hold 11 rounds (10 in the magazine and one in the chamber), it's still an important consideration.

.357 Magnum
Choosing the .357 Magnum as top revolver cartridge of the 20th century was not as difficult as selecting the 9mm for auto pistols, and it will probably provoke a bit less objection or criticism. As they say of Yellowstone National Park, the .357 is "first and still best" in many handgunners' eyes when it comes to magnum revolvers.

It was almost exactly 65 years ago, on April 8, 1935, that the very first ".357 Magnum" revolver was completed by Smith & Wesson and presented to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. It was a seminal moment. The .357 Magnum was the first American cartridge of any kind-handgun, rifle, or shotgun-to bear the label "Magnum." It was the first of many-to-come, extra-power cartridges to be based on a slightly lengthened version of a previously standard load. For more than two decades after its introduction-until eclipsed by the .44 Magnum-it was the most powerful handgun cartridge produced anywhere in the world, and even today it is still the largest selling and most widely used of all the many handgun cartridges to bear that evocative "Magnum" label.

The .357 had its origins in the roaring days of the 1920s, when Prohibition Era gangsters like the Dillinger bunch and Bonnie and Clyde confronted law enforcement agencies with a new situation in history: highway vehicle pursuit. Police departments began pressuring handgun and ammunition companies for a revolver cartridge that would have more power and penetration than the standard .38 Special that was then the near-universal "major" police round. So in 1930 S&W introduced a new .38/44 Heavy Duty .38 Special revolver built on the company's .44-size N-Frame, and Remington and Winchester began loading a special high-velocity .38 Special cartridge called the .38/44 S&W Special. This load was contained in an ordinary .38 Special case but was about one-third more powerful than a standard 158-grain roundnose lead .38 Special load. It was recommended for use only in the heavy-frame S&W .38 Special revolvers.

After these products appeared, one of the renowned firearms authorities of the day, Philip B. Sharpe, began working on even more powerful .38 Special handloads and repeatedly urged S&W to develop a special revolver to handle them. Sharpe's loads were fine to shoot in the big N-Frame S&W but could damage or substantially shorten the use-life of typical smaller frame .38 Special revolvers. The solution, reached by Sharpe and S&W's Major Douglas B. Wesson, was to slightly lengthen the standard .38 Special case and make a new revolver specially for it. The new gun would be able to chamber both the longer, more powerful loads as well as the shorter, standard-length .38 Special, while regular .38 Special revolvers would not be able to chamber the new, longer load.

By mid-1934 Winchester had completed specifications for the cartridge, which had a case length 1/8 inch longer than the .38 Special and powered a 158-grain semiwadcutter lead bullet to a muzzle velocity of 1515 fps-nearly twice the velocity of the same-weight bullet from an ordinary .38 Special. It was called the .357 Magnum. The name is interesting. Why .357 instead of .38? Actually, .357 inch is the true caliber diameter of nearly all cartridges commonly called .38s, and Doug Wesson and the Winchester designers felt that using the .357 designation would make it easier to keep people from reaming out their .38 Special revolver chambers so it would fit. And why are .38s actually closer to .36s instead of real .38s in the first place? Primarily because when people first started loading .36-caliber lead balls into self-contained metallic cartridges in the 19th century, the result could be chambered in bored-through .38-caliber cap and ball revolver cylinders. So the .38 designation actually refers more to chamber diameter than bore diameter, and a .38 Special is actually a .36 Special.

And where did the Magnum come from? Again, it was Doug Wesson who made the call. The Major was a renowned connoisseur of fine champagne, and in the vintner's world the term "magnum" refers to a slightly larger than standard bottle. When Wesson went out to dine, he never ordered anything less than a magnum bottle, and it seemed to him a natural extension of the term to the slightly larger than standard case of the new cartridge. And so was coined one of the most enduring-and misunderstood-labels in firearms and ammunition history.

The .357 Magnum cartridge (and S&W gun) was an instant runaway success. S&W had originally conceived a very limited demand, with individual registered revolvers being individually built to individual customer's specifications. That lasted for only about two years. Not only did every cop in the nation want one, but Major Wesson also made the new revolver a sportsman's choice by setting out on a highly publicized hunting trip to take nearly every major species of big game in North America with an eight-inch version of the new revolver. And he did it. For the next 20 years, until Elmer Keith's heavy-loaded .44 Specials became the second ammo recipe to be poured from a magnum bottle, the .357 was the cartridge that every serious handgun shooter had to have. Even today, nearly three generations later, the .357 Magnum remains second to none in popularity for general-purpose sport, hunting, and law enforcement/personal-defense use in a revolver.

So there you have them-Dick's picks. And oh, one last thing. The award for top pistol and revolver cartridge of the 20th century by any standard should really go to the .22 Long Rifle rimfire for both. Think about it.

This article was originally published in Shooting Times magazine in February, 2000.

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