Your Revolver Can Fire What? Possible Cartridge Combinations for Wheelguns...

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. [However, for new shooters,] 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.

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