Combine the legendary stopping power of the .357 Magnum with modern bullet design and you can potentially create an amazingly effective self-defense round. That seems to be exactly what Hornady had in mind when it developed the Critical Defense load chambered for the classic Magnum.
Widener’s Reloading & Shooting Supply contacted me about reviewing the Hornady Critical Defense in .357 Magnum. As I am a happy customer of Widener’s, and they attached no strings to the review, I agreed to do an ammunition review. (Hop down to the disclosure section to read all of the details on this process.)
The Critical Defense Line
The Critical Defense line is designed for personal protection, not for law enforcement or other special purpose. It is intended for the average citizen who carries a firearm for self-defense, and the loads are intended to serve well in that role.
When designing this line, Hornady wanted to ensure that bullets would expand even after punching through leather, denim or other heavy clothing. Since these loads were not intended for military or police use, performance after penetrating laminated glass or aluminum was not emphasized.
To ensure proper expansion, Hornady uses its FTX bullet across the entire Critical Defense line. The FTX is a copper jacketed hollow point design that uses a red polymer plug in the bullet cavity. This plug acts as a mechanism to prevent other materials from clogging the hollow point while also helping to improve the reliability of bullet expansion in flesh.
The .357 Magnum load was not part of the initial offering, rather it was a follow on caliber added in late 2009. At the same time, the .40 S&W and .45 ACP were also added.
In general, the Critical Defense line enjoys a good reputation in the shooting community. I’ve shot the company’s Critical Duty line, and was pleased by its accuracy and reliability. I hoped this load would prove to be an equal performer.
For another review, I had a pair of .357 Magnum handguns available for this ammo test: a Ruger LCR and a Smith & Wesson 640. Both of these guns are small framed revolvers that are carried by thousands of citizens for personal protection. They seemed like a very good match for the Critical Defense ammunition in this ammo review.
Reliability with this ammo was perfect. Every time I pulled the trigger, it went bang. This is what I expect from any factory ammo, but doubly so for anything designed for personal protection.
Recoil was heavy. All .357 Magnum loads offer stout recoil in short barrel revolvers – that’s just life. Recoil was on par with other Magnum loads I tested with these guns. There was significant muzzle flip during recoil. My impression was that there was slightly less flip than with the 158 grain Speer Gold Dot and 125 grain Remington Golden Saber I was also shooting.
The range I used for this testing was an indoor range. While the range is well lit, it is not as bright as daylight. Muzzle flash becomes a bit more obvious in this range as compared to shooting outside.
Hornady states the Critical Defense loads use a powder that minimizes muzzle flash. Of course, the notion of low flash from a short barrel .357 Magnum revolver is a bit funny. I don’t doubt that Hornady uses such a powder, but in this case it simply isn’t going to help very much. As the photo shows, there is plenty of muzzle flash.
Accuracy was good with these rounds. At 7 yards, I measured one five shot group with the 640 as 1.780″ from outer edge to outer edge. With the LCR, I was a little better at 1.141″ from edge to edge. I credit the better (for me) front sight on the LCR for the improved accuracy more than anything else. All shots were fired from an unsupported two handed grip. Both guns are double action only.
Velocity, Energy & .38s
For this ammunition review, I was eager to see to what velocity these bullets were loaded. Like most ammo companies, Hornady lists the load’s velocity for an 8″ barrel in this caliber: 1,500 fps. Unlike many companies, Hornady also lists a velocity for 2″ barrels. In this case, Hornady shows a muzzle velocity of 1,200 fps.
The below table shows what I measured to be the actual velocity from these guns. Note that the Ruger has a 1.87″ long barrel, while the Smith is a bit longer at 2.125″.
|Ruger LCR||1,176 fps||384 ft-lbs|
|Smith & Wesson 640||1,175 fps||383 ft-lbs|
Considering that my chronograph does not measure at the muzzle, and is set up at about 15′ from the gun, the velocities seem to be in line with the stated speed from Hornady.
Compared to the .38 Special Critical Defense Lite load, the Magnum offering is much more powerful. I had some 90 grain .38 Special reduced recoil loads on hand, so I ran those through the guns as well. These clocked in at much slower speeds: 948 fps for the LCR and 933 fps for the 640.
A 200+ fps drop is significant, but so is the recoil reduction. If the recoil of a .357 is on the edge of what you are able to handle, going with the .38 is probably a better bet. Hits with a .38 are far more effective at stopping a violent attacker than misses with a Magnum.
Taking a look at Bruce’s testing at Pocket Guns & Gear, it seems that all three versions of the .38 Special load appear to expand after penetrating two layers of t-shirt, but fail to do the same through four layers of 14 oz. denim. Although he has not tested the .357 Magnum version of the Critical Defense round, I expect the additional velocity ensures proper expansion through denim.
Without a doubt, the .357 Magnum is a powerful cartridge. Shooting it from a small gun can be exhilarating for the experienced shooter, and painful for the novice. If you have decided that the cartridge makes sense for your needs, give the Hornady Critical Defense load a consideration.
I found the round to be reliable with good accuracy. Compared to a few other .357 cartridges I have fired, the Critical Defense round seemed no worse in recoil than the others, and offered a slight improvement in muzzle flip than some. But understand, there will be serious recoil with this and every other .357 load in a small framed handgun.
Would I carry the Critical Defense load in my own .357 revolver? Yes, I would. For the purposes of self-defense, I think this line from Hornady is excellent, and I would willingly carry it to defend those I love.
As I mentioned in the review, the ammunition was provided by Widener’s Reloading & Shooting Supply. Widener’s did not provide any form of compensation – money or otherwise – to me to write this article.
The company provided 125 rounds of the ammo, of which I shot 100 (50 in the S&W 640, 50 in the Ruger LCR). I kept back 25 to test in a Kimber K6 revolver that I am expecting to receive in the coming weeks. Once that gun comes in, I will update this page.
Widener’s did not ask for any links to its website or endorsement of the company.
I have done business with Widener’s in the past, buying both ammo and reloading gear. I’ve been happy with my purchases and have recommended them to others in the past. I receive no benefit from you should you decide to buy anything from them.
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Last update: June 7, 2021