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Blackhorn Powder
Rifle Magazine
June - July 2003
Volume 38, Number 3
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 223
On the cover...
The stainless steel Smith & Wesson Mountain Gun is chambered for the .44 magnum and features a 4-inch barrel with adjustable sights. The Springfield Armory XD-357 is chambered for the .357 Sig with a ported barrel. Alaskan Brown bear photo by Ron Spomer.
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The .357 SIG is one of the newer and more interesting 9mm cartridges on the market these days, and it is chambered in a good selection of high-tech handguns. The round is basically just a necked-down .40 S&W, although the .357 SIG case is .015 inch longer. There have been several handgun cartridges, including not a few wildcats, based on a bottleneck case, but few have been a huge hit.

The .357 SIG is a different story. While I had previously tested other 9mm cartridges (the 9x23 Winchester, Handloader No. 215; and the 9x21, Handloader No. 221) with varying degrees of success, the results with the .357 SIG indicate it is the pick of the litter. It is a very versatile round with the potential to be as mild-mannered, or as hot, and about as accurate as one could want in a .355-inch bore.

The .357 SIG was developed in 1994, a joint venture of Federal Cartridge and SIGARMS. The idea was to make a semiautomatic pistol cartridge with performance similar to that of the .357 Magnum with a 125-grain bullet in a 4-inch barreled revolver. This the .357 SIG does. With high-performance factory loads 125-grain jacketed hollowpoints (JHP) reach velocities of 1,300 to 1,350 fps. The hot Cor-Bon 125-grain factory loads top over 1,400 fps - all of this out of a semiautomatic pistol with a nominal 4-inch barrel. Many police agencies across the nation now issue handguns chambered for the .357 SIG.

Another big advantage is that the little bottleneck cartridge slides easily into the chamber. I have never had a single failure to feed with any of the thousands of .357 SIG rounds I’ve fired. It is reliability personified.

The primary test vehicle used to evaluate the .357 SIG was the new Springfield Armory XD-357 semiautomatic pistol. The other was a 1991-vintage Smith & Wesson Model 4006 with a custom Bar-Sto .357 SIG barrel.

The XD is made in Croatia and was initially developed in the early 1990s for the potential military markets in that region. The pistol was previously imported by HS America as the HS 2000, but the model never caught on. The XD has been available from Springfield Armory since early 2002, and all indications are that it is selling well. It is also offered in 9mm Luger and 40 S&W.

XD stands for X-Treme Duty, and my XD certainly looks like it could go 10 rounds with Mr. T. It has a tough polymer frame with robust frame rails that are pinned in and thus are replaceable, should the need arise. The XD has a machined steel slide, a 3.9-inch barrel with a one-in-16-inch, right-hand rifling twist and a sight radius of 5.9 inches. It is relatively lightweight, checking in at 30.1 ounces on my postal scale. The XD comes in a lockable plastic case and is supplied with two stainless steel 10-round magazines. I tote the XD in an Uncle Mike’s Sidekick Cordura size 16 holster with thumb break (Number 7116), and it fits like a glove.

The assortment of interesting features found in the new XD includes something for everyone. The pistol has what Springfield calls the “Ultra Safety Assurance” (USA) trigger system. Basically, it consists of a now-familiar lever in the front of the trigger. Both it and the grip safety have to be depressed before the gun will fire.

An indicator pin protrudes from the rear of the slide when the striker is set, and a loaded chamber indicator sticks up from the top of the slide at the rear of the chamber when there is a round in the chamber. At first glance, one would think this part is the extractor, but its only function is as a loaded chamber indicator; the extractor is a separate, slide-mounted part. Both of these features are easy to see or feel, and one quickly learns to rely on them for feedback on the status of the pistol. Another feature on the XD is the ambidextrous magazine release, and the magazine drops out drag-free when the release is depressed.

The XD also has a grip safety that, for some reason, has generated some controversy. Why, I can’t imagine, since everyone’s ne plus ultra of semiautomatic pistols, the Model 1911 .45 ACP, has one. The XD’s grip safety has to be depressed not only to fire the pistol but also to retract the slide, as it locks the action. Since the grip safety falls naturally under the web of the shooter’s hand, its use for either function is about as natural as breathing.

The XD is my only polymer-frame pistol; I call it my “pseudo-Glock.” The wonderfully innovative Glocks are fine pistols and have taken the police market by storm. However, their grip angle is (to me) different enough that when I grab one and point it, it is looking about 2 feet over the top of the target. An early article stated the grip angle of the XD is exactly the same as the Model 1911 Colt, and it certainly seems that way to me.

The XD is a short-recoil double action only (DAO) pistol with locked breech. If it’s loaded, it’s ready to go - just grip it and pull the trigger. When I first got the XD, after loading or firing, I found myself looking for a “safety” to apply to “make safe.” Of course, pistols like the XD (and the Glock) are “safe” - as long as you keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.

Speaking of triggers, the XD’s trigger pull is a revelation. It is the best stock trigger I have ever used on any DAO auto, bar none. The pull weight is about 6.5 pounds, uniform, and the trigger stroke is short and very smooth; it makes good shooting easy. For those out there who (like me) loath a heavy, rough trigger, I invite you to try an XD trigger. You will be surprised.

The XD comes with nice looking “three dot” fixed sights, and both are in dovetails in the slide. The front sight is a fat .145 inch wide, but the rear notch, at .150 inch, is wide enough to allow a good view of the front sight over the XD’s 5.9-inch sight radius.

The only glitch with the XD was with the rear sight. As received, the point of impact was about 3   to 4 inches too high. A quick call to Springfield Armory revealed (naturally) there were different rear sight heights on the various calibers of XDs. Apparently, a rear sight for the .40 caliber ended up on the .357 SIG I had received. Springfield forwarded a lower rear sight appropriate for the caliber, which slid right into the dovetail. After installation, the point of impact was dead-on with virtually all the 125-grain loads.

An excellent variety of factory loads is available for the .357 SIG these days. When the cartridge was first introduced, Federal was the only company making ammunition. Now, due to its popularity with law enforcement and shooters in general, everybody who is anybody cranks out ammunition. There are high-performance jacketed hollowpoints of several weights, full-metal-jacket (FMJ) loads and non-toxic (lead free) loads; there is even “budget” ammunition.

The .357 SIG is an easy and fun cartridge to reload. For most of the Model 4006 test loads, I used a Redding three-die set (80434) with an RCBS shellholder number 27 in my ancient RCBS Rockchucker press. These dies were moved over to a new Redding T-7 seven station turret press, and it was used for the XD loads with great success.

About the only quirk is the cases need to be lubricated for sizing in the steel dies. This is not the nightmare you might think. All you need to do is lay out a passel of cleaned cases on a large rag or old towel and give them a very light shot of one of the spray lubes from a distance of about 18 inches. Roll them over a bit and apply another very light spray of lube. Let the lube dry. I use MidwayUSA Minute Lube, so named because you just let it dry for one minute and then size away. This stuff dries with little residue; I sometimes don’t even bother to wipe it off, and the ammunition works to perfection.

Nowadays there is an abundance of good reloading data for the .357 SIG. Accurate Arms was one of the first companies to develop a comprehensive list of loads (see Handloader No. 181), and this effort is continued in its latest manual (Number Two). Accurate states the .357 SIG “is without a doubt the most ballistically uniform cartridge we have ever worked with.” The average SD was 5 fps for 10-round samples. The average SD for all my handloads tested in the XD (with five-round samples) was 15.9 fps. Hodgdon’s Manual No. 27 and its new Annual Manual, Speer Reloading Manual No. 13, Alliant’s (free) Reloading Guide and the fifth editions of the Nosler and Hornady reloading manuals also have a wealth of data.

Maximum overall loaded length (OAL) for the .357 SIG is listed in most manuals as 1.140 inches. Several sources point out that, due to its short neck (.015 inch), long, pointed 9mm bullets aren’t suitable for the .357 SIG. Not to worry. Speer makes a shorter 125-grain Gold Dot hollowpoint (4360) especially designed for this cartridge and lists an OAL for this bullet of 1.135 inches. Length concerns notwithstanding, there is a great selection of bullets suitable that run the gamut from 88 to 147 grains. In addition to the 125-grain Gold Dot mentioned above, Speer offers a 147-grain Gold Dot as well. From Hornady are the excellent 125- and 147-grain XTP bullets. Nosler lists only the 115-grain JHP in its data, but Sierra bullets up to its 125-grain JHC should be suitable for the cartridge.

Thanks to all the factory loads out there, fired cases abound. MidwayUSA has once-fired .357 SIG cases (product number 813-997) at a very good price. If memory serves, it was less than $35 per 1,000 delivered to my door. When I opened the package, I expected to find the usual “cartridge collection” of fired cases, but all were headstamped Speer and were in perfect condition. These cases, I am told, are made by Starline. After a light tumbling, they were ready to go.

Dillon Precision offers once-fired nickel-plated .357 SIG cases (A96-10499), also at about $35 per 1,000. If you want brand-new cases, Starline, Winchester and Remington produce them. While we’re on the subject of cases, you may feel the temptation to neck down .40 S&W cases to use in the .357 SIG. Resist it. Such cases will end up about .020 inch too short. The .357 SIG headspaces on the case mouth, not the shoulder, as one might expect with a bottleneck case. Proper length cases also allow a firm crimp, which helps keep jacketed bullets from being pushed back into the cases when chambering from the magazine.

Despite its name, the .357 SIG is a true 9mm cartridge, so .355-inch jacketed and .356-inch cast bullets are called for. I tested the 9mm bullets that have always given good results in the past, namely the Hornady XTPs in 124- and 147-grain weights, and the 125-grain Bushwacker Bullet Co. cast semiwadcutter (SWC) bullet. I also tried the 100-grain Speer JHP and the aforementioned 125-grain Gold Dot in the XD. To keep the playing field level, I used standard Winchester Small Pistol (WSP) primers and Starline cases for all handloads for both pistols.

Results of the load trials for the XD are shown in Table I. It proved to be an accurate and reliable handgun, and there was nary a bobble with any of the many test rounds fired in it.

A representative sampling of high performance factory loads was tested in the XD, and it clearly liked Speer’s 125-grain Gold Dot hollowpoint. Velocity, 1,328 fps, was close to the advertised speed of 1,350 fps, and accuracy was outstanding at 1.23 inches. Muzzle energy was 490 foot-pounds (ft-lbs). The Federal Classic 125-grain FMJ-FP was also accurate and fast. Its velocity of 1,300 fps translates into 469 ft-lbs of muzzle energy, and   its group average was 2.38 inches. Hornady’s 124-grain XTP factory load was third in the accuracy race, at 2.83 inches, and velocity was about on par with the other 125-grain loads at 1,331 fps. For some reason, the XD didn’t get along with the 147-grain Hornady XTP factory load. Velocity (1,236 fps) and energy (499 ft-lbs) were excellent, but groups averaged only 3.80 inches. By contrast, the most accurate factory load in the Model 4006 was the 147-grain XTP.

Handloads in the XD easily duplicated the accuracy and (with three powders) velocities of factory loads. The 125-grain Speer Gold Dot was the accuracy leader, with an overall group average of 1.34 inches. Two loads were standouts. With 8.7 grains of Longshot velocity was 1,384 fps - the highest recorded with this bullet weight - and groups averaged 1.20 inches. Close behind was 8.9 grains of Power Pistol at 1,371 fps with groups of 1.69 inches. For the power hungry, these two loads   deliver 532 and 522 ft-lbs, respectively.

Also good with the 125-grain Gold Dot was 12.7 grains of AAC-9 at 1,262 fps and groups averaging a tiny 1.19 inches. Best of all, this load hits right on point of aim in the XD. Some might think AAC-9 would be too slow in the .357 SIG, but Accurate Arms and Nosler list data for the cartridge in their manuals. Accurate notes that AAC-9 “has proven to be well suited for this round,” and so it was in the XD with the 125-grain Gold Dot.

Close behind was the superb Hornady 124-grain XTP, averaging 1.48 inches for all loads tested. The best load overall was 8.7 grains of Hodgdon’s new Longshot shotgun powder at a velocity of 1,323 fps and 482 ft-lbs of muzzle energy for great groups averaging 1.10 inches. Second best was 8.9 grains of Power Pistol with a velocity of 1,350 fps and a muzzle energy of 502 ft-lbs. While a somewhat faster load, groups averaged 2.00 inches. Both AAC-7 and Blue Dot also did well with the 124-grain XTPs. With 10.6 grains of AAC-7 velocity was a modest 1,266 fps, but groups averaged one inch. Ten grains of Blue Dot pushed this bullet to 1,291 fps and grouped well at 1.18 inches.

A surprise performer was Alliant’s Herco powder, and it was one of only two powders to outpace factory load velocities with this bullet. With the 124-grain XTP 8.0 grains produced a velocity of 1,344 fps. I should mention this is a maximum load in my XD. Accuracy wasn’t quite as good (at 2.03 inches) with numerous other powders, but it was fast and powerful (497 ft-lbs).

The heavier 147-grain Hornady XTPs turned in good performance, as well, with all loads tested averaging 1.73 inches. I have been impressed with Alliant’s Power Pistol, and it did a great job with this heavier bullet. A charge of 7.8 grains produced one of the more accurate loads with a group average of 1.57 inches, a velocity of 1,187 fps and a muzzle energy of 460 ft-lbs. A close second was 9.4 grains of AAC-7 that churned up 1,150 fps, 432 ft-lbs of energy and groups of 1.61 inches. Not to be sneezed at is 7.0 grains of Longshot, for a velocity of 1,128 fps and 415 ft-lbs.

My top velocities with the Speer 100-grain JHPs were about 1,450 fps. Recoil was relatively mild and accuracy was acceptable, averaging 2.04 inches for all loads tested. If one needed a screamer lightweight jacketed bullet load, a good candidate would be 9.0 grains of Power Pistol at 1,444 fps, groups of 1.38 inches and 463 ft-lbs of muzzle energy. As you might expect, the 100-grain JHPs hit a bit lower than the 124- and 147-grain bullets, so unless you have adjustable sights, it would probably be tough to satisfactorily regulate the point of    impact with lighter bullets.

Like most of us, I shoot cast bullets for everyday plinking and in local matches. My “minor” power match load for the XD is 5.0 grains of W-231 and the Bushwacker 125-grain SWC .356-inch cast bullet. Velocity is a modest 1,058 fps, recoil is almost nonexistent and the power factor is 132 - plenty even for those cold, early-year matches. It also hits exactly at point of aim with the XD’s new rear sight (see photos). Accuracy averaged 1.39 inches, and it never hiccuped. Another good cast bullet load was 4.8 grains of Winchester Super Lite (WSL). Velocity was 1,081 fps, and groups averaged 1.50 inches. Hodgdon’s TiteGroup was a contender with a 4.7-grain charge at a speed of 1,129 fps, and accuracy was very acceptable at 1.42 inches. So, the handloader has plenty of good powders from which to choose for mild loads.

Higher velocities with the 125-grain cast bullets were obtained with 7.3 grains of Winchester Action Pistol (1,234 fps), 8.0 grains of AAC-5 (1,257 fps) and 6.2 grains of WSF (1,205 fps). Accuracy, however, was unacceptably poor (averaging about 2.4 inches), and the recoil was unnecessarily high. Such loads, even if accurate, still produce only a minor power factor, so they just don’t buy you anything in a match.

After it’s all said and done, I really think 125-grain bullets - both jacketed and cast - are the most suitable for the .357 SIG. If one needs a heavier bullet, there are plenty of larger calibers to use.

To put the XD’s accuracy in perspective, I compared group sizes fired with it to those shot with the Model 4006 at the same range and under similar conditions. The results of the loads fired in the 4006 are shown in Table II.

It is interesting to note that the new XD was slightly more accurate than the 4006 with its lighter, single-action trigger and custom barrel. The average group size for 32 loads that have been tested over the years in the 4006 is 2.04 inches. That same statistic for 54 groups tested in the XD is 1.88 inches.

Nine-millimeter cartridges have a long and colorful history in the shooting world. They have served for war, peace and plinking. The popularity and versatility of the .357 SIG and innovative new pistols like the Springfield X-Treme Duty can only increase this presence.

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