Cartridge Discussion: The .44 Magnum
The .44 Magnum held the title as the worlds most powerful handgun for a number of years and fired the imaginations of a generation of shooters. Though this wasn't strictly true within the firearms fraternity, and several proprietary handgun cartridges were available on a limited basis that could out-muscle the big .44, it remained the most powerful commercial cartridge offered for a handgun for many years.
Fifty Two Years Young
Introduced by Smith & Wesson in partners with Remington in 1955, the cartridge was almost immediately taken up by Ruger as a chambering in the company's single action Blackhawk revolver. The story is told that a Ruger scout found some experimental .44 cartridge cases in some of Remington's trash. This is suppose to be how they got their .44 Magnum revolver on the market so soon after the arrival of the S&W revolver. The .44 Magnum has since been offered in a number of handguns including at least one semi-auto, and in many rifles including lever actions, semi-auto, and at least one bolt action.
Putting the .44 Magnum to Work
I was a relative latecomer to the .44 scene, purchasing my first revolver so chambered in 1979. By that time many of us were more influenced by the adventures of the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum that Harry Callahan toted through the "Dirty Harry" series of movies than we were by the exploits of Elmer Keith, John Lachuk, Bob Peterson, and others who originally popularized the round. I purchased my first .44 Magnum handgun mainly to get on the .44 bandwagon and had no thoughts of just what I'd use the thing for. Handgun hunting articles were all the rage so I figured on deer hunting with my new .44 Magnum acquisition. Our local gun club began hosting hunter pistol silhouette matches about the same time so I jumped into that game as well.
My very first .44 Magnum was not a howling success. I'd ventured to try a new Virginian Dragoon, an attractively finished, oversized single action design produced by Hammerli and imported by Interarms. It was marketed as a competitor to the Ruger Super Blackhawk. Both were much less pricey than the Model 29 was at that time. This revolver proved to be a turkey for me. One had to tighten each screw after very few cylinders-full of ammunition were fired. Even worse, it flattened primers badly. It did this no matter how the ammunition was loaded and even with factory .44 Specials. The lock time was slow which is normal for single action design, but was off-putting to someone used to Smith & Wesson revolvers and Colt 1911's. It was quickly traded and, with an obscene amount of additional cash thrown in, I became the owner of a Smith and Wesson 8 3/8-inch Model 29. This was in the day when new Model 29's could only be had by paying hefty premiums over list price. I left the gun shop with my tail between my legs but in possession of the original .44 Magnum.
The new Model 29 proved to be worth the expense as it was subjected to heavy use with full charges of H 110 and 240 grain bullets for the next four years. I spent many hours honing my silhouette skills on the club's set of silhouette targets and attended local matches on the weekends. The .44 Magnum was very effective for silhouette use as it was flat shooting and slapped down the rams at 100 yards with authority. A retrospective examination of my silhouette-shooting career makes me wonder if I was as inured to the recoil as I'd assumed, or if all the belting I took aggravated my already "flinchy" disposition. During that time my scores gradually improved until I flirted with 30 out of 40 possible but I never could consistently stay in the 30+ range. In the last year I seriously pursued silhouettes I experimented with reduced loads in the .44 Magnum and a 6-inch S&W Model 27. I even tried the .38 Special with a new .357 diameter 170 grain FMJ round nose bullet that Sierra had introduced for the silhouette shooter. I used this 170 grain bullet in an 8 3/8-inch S&W Model 14 .38 Special of all things. Loaded over a near maximum charge of IMR 4227 it clocked 1002 fps and shot like a rifle. It showed a lot of promise, though I fared best with the Model 29 and reduced loads using cast SWC's.
The .44 Magnum was an early cartridge that I subjected to my own quirky series of handloading and ballistic experiments. Now unlike the handloading articles one reads in various publications I don't pretend that I'm a ballistician. I don't even pretend to have a lot of common sense. After consulting the handloading manuals available I gathered cans of the powders that seemed to be most suitable (that is yielded the highest velocities with maximum charges). After working up loads with the powders, I chronographed them and spent range time with paper targets determining relative accuracy. I find this to be entertaining and a good excuse to shoot guns. Some good comes out of this as one can determine what load gives the measure of performance one desires in a particular gun or cartridge. A couple of loads really stood out as useful in .44 Magnum applications.
Favorite .44 Magnum Handload
Sierra 240 grain JHC, Max* less 1.7grains/H110: MV 1478 ME 1168 ES 38
Favorite .44 Magnum Light Handload
245 grain lead SWC (Lyman No. 429421), mild charge/Unique: MV 949 ME 490 ES 39
The most notable advantage of the use of H110 in my particular .44 Magnum is its ability to run off and hide from the velocity performance of the next best powder and with lower APPARENT pressure. This is all to the good as one can back off of the maximum load and still have really high performance. Like havin' one's cake and eatin' it too. Below, find the remaining loads I tested in the series. By observing the velocities recorded with the heaviest charge of each powder used it may be seen why I chose the H110 load listed above.
.44 Magnum Handload Tests
245 grain cast (Lyman No. 429421) Moderate charge/ Unique MV 1161 ME 780 ES 34
240 Grain Sierra JHC, Max/H110: MV 1542 ME 1267 ES 25
" ", Max/W296: MV 1510 ME 1215 ES 49
" ", Max/Bluedot: MV 1461 ME 1135 ES 28
" ", Max/AL8: MV 1430 ME 1090 ES 30
" ", Max/2400: MV 1419 ME 1075 ES 71
" ", Max/Unique MV 1246 ME 841 ES 32
" ", Max/IMR4227 MV 1238 ME 817 ES 18
225 grain Speer Half-Jacket, IMR4227: MV 1310 ME 804 ES 56
200 grain Speer JHP, H110: MV 1526 ME 1032 ES 58
" ", IMR4227: MV 1390 ME 963 ES 73
180 grain Sierra JHC, Max/H110: MV 1814 ME 1316 ES 62
" ", Max less 2.3 grains/H110 MV 1757 ME 1049 ES 40
" ", Max/W296 MV 1766 ME 1247 ES 49
" ", Max/BlueDot MV 1762 ME 1241 ES 33
" ", Max/AL8 MV 1694 ME 1147 ES 54
" ", Max/2400 MV 1620 ME 1049 ES 81
" ", Max/Unique MV 1548 ME 946 ES 37
All loads fired over a Oehler Model 12 chronograph from a Smith & Wesson Model 29 with 8 3/8-inch barrel
*Max means the maximum listed load as published in the 1978 edition of the Sierra Loading Manual
All loads used Remington cases and Remington 2 1/2 primers
Of course the mild Unique load with a cast bullet is a powder puff in .44 Magnum but gives really good performance for a lot of .44 shooting chores. It's very accurate out of my revolver. I never ran a series with any of the other faster burning powders to challenge the Unique load on which I settled.
The Smith & Wesson Model 29 will go the distance when using full power .44 Magnum loads in my experience. My revolver is near new externally with only a whiff of holster wear but the forcing cone and throat does show the erosive effects of the large number of heavy handloads that have been fired through it. Nothing out of line though and it is still as accurate as ever. I'm aware of other Model 29 revolvers that have been extensively used by their owners and are none the worse for wear. I've never played with bullets heavier than 265 grains. Some say that the heavy 300 grain and over bullets are best employed in .44 Magnum revolvers with longer cylinders.
Handgun Hunting With the .44 Magnum
I can't offer much experience gleaned from hunting with my Model 29 as I've taken exactly two whitetail deer with it. In both cases the favored 240 grain Sierra/H110 load was used. One was a broadside shot on a doe at 15 yards. I settled the sights just behind her left shoulder and squeezed the trigger. After the revolver spoke she ran maybe 60 yards down a hill into a ravine before expiring. Both lungs were well holed with a decent exit hole and large blood loss.
On another occasion I took a 6-point buck almost as an afterthought one bright November day at noon. I'd come down out of the deer stand and wandered around at the bottom of this same ravine exploring a tangle of very old junk. You see, this was the sight of an old city dump, which had been in use until around 1960. I was looking for some "treasure" amongst the decayed rusty cans, grimy glass shards, and rotten tires. I unearthed a head gasket off of an old straight eight-cylinder engine and was examining it when I heard a heavy sound come from a stand of what we call "salt cedar" in Texas. I figured it was an armadillo or perhaps a squirrel but it had a little too much "presence" about it to be a small critter. Some additional rustling made me think it was perhaps my hunting partner. Instead, stepping out of the salt cedar came a medium sized buck, at only 30 yards and I'm standing there like a doofus with my teeth in my mouth and my revolver in its belt holster! I was caught flat-footed so just quickly and smoothly drew the long-barreled Model 29. The buck stood there like a doofus too and allowed me to place the red-ramp front sight on the center of his neck as he faced me. The revolver gave a deep "crack" and he sat down on his haunches and fell over sideways. The bullet exited the base of his neck just above his back.
My nephew just took his first handgun-hunted deer during the season before last with a Ruger Super Blackhawk. He used a 240 grain Remington JHP component bullet with a full charge of H110 to accomplish this task. He shot from a rested position and sent the bullet through the deer broadside, breaking both shoulder bones just beneath the shoulder blades along with hitting the front of the lungs. The deer was 70 steps from his position. He’s eighteen and a good sized lad who has unlimited opportunity to hone his handgunning skills as he can just go out in his back yard and practice any time and at all ranges. He's pretty well appropriated that Super Blackhawk from his dad.
I had one other deer hunting experience with the Model 29 that needs telling. For several years I'd carry the Model 29 on my hip along with my chosen rifle, harboring the notion that I would use the revolver if a deer came in close enough. I always ended up using the rifle and didn't wait on one to come in close. On one of these outings I wore the .44 while carrying my favorite scoped .30-06 for an afternoon hunt in a part of my hunting lease that I'd not yet hunted. The cool, clear autumn afternoon was spent pleasantly watching the chickadees' antics as they fussed about the scrub oak. A gangly ol' jackrabbit ambled by. The sunset was vivid pink and orange with deep purple wisps of clouds as I got out of the stand having never laid eyes on a deer. I removed the cartridge from the chamber of the rifle, slung it over my shoulder, and gathered my jacket to walk back to camp. My route took me along a cattle trail that led through a thick tangle of briars, which loomed up on either side. Looking down the trail about 40 yards in the dusky light of the setting sun I realized that an object was crouched in the middle of the path with tufted ears and large yellow eyes. A bobcat! Ooo... I'd like to take a nice bobcat, I thought. I let the jacket gently down to the ground while drawing the Smith & Wesson and thumbing the hammer. He didn't move and appeared to be sitting on his haunches. The red ramp front sight seemed to positively glow in the fading light as it settled just below his eyes. A caress of that sweet trigger and his fate was sealed. The impact of the bullet created the grandest cloud of fur you ever saw. I'd never seen anything like it. I was perplexed as I hoofed it up to where he lay in a heap because that fur seemed to hang in the air, slowly dissipating. Walking up I found that I'd actually hammered a great horned owl with a .44 Magnum. This was most illegal, not to mention dismaying to me as my old high school mascot had been the owl. I'd always enjoyed finding an old owl taking his daytime nap when I was a young 'un in my wanderings afield and hadn't wished to harm one.
Save the .44 Magnum for Big Game or Varmints
The McGilvray household occasionally enjoys partaking of the abundance of small game available around these parts. My wife is an excellent cook and can make some tasty dishes when I bring in a dressed rabbit or squirrel. Just a few weeks ago my youngest son and I grilled a squirrel while I was grilling steaks. He took it right out of the yard with a .22 CB cap.
A big bore revolver may not be the very best choice for taking small game for the pot. On one occasion I took a squirrel with the Model 29, cleanly trimming off his head. I’ve gathered a few cottontails in the same way with the big .44. On one occasion my attempt to head-shoot a rabbit was off and the 180 grain bullet from a fully-charged handload struck the rabbit in the body with dire consequences. One will go hungry making such hits on small game. Even my favorite cast bullet load using Unique will bruise too much meat to be a good choice for small game hunting. I’ve found that any .38 Special or larger handgun cartridge is inefficient for small game except for head shots. It’s best to employ the .22 rim fire or a low power .32 round for small game for the pot.
When Does Big and Powerful Become Big Enough and Powerful Enough?
The .44 Magnum is the most powerful handgun cartridge I choose to own. I’ve fired a semi-auto .50 AE and I’d be tickled to shoot the .460 and .500 S&W chambered revolvers but don’t intend to acquire one. The .44 Magnum is fully adequate for any chore requiring a powerful handgun in my view. If I require more power I’ll select a rife. The .44 Magnum is an easy cartridge to handload and responds well to a wide variety of handloaded combinations. Most full power loads produce tight groups with this cartridge when used in a good quality revolver. The recoil is substantial but manageable. Some shooters prefer to shoot .44 Magnum in a single action revolver and some prefer it in a double action revolver. Under recoil the single action rolls back in one’s hand, and many shooters say it is less stressful to shoot. Generally the shooter must re-grip the single action revolver between shots. The .44 Magnum chambered double action revolver generally stays put when fired but pounds the ball of the hand beneath the thumb a bit. One should take the opportunity to find out which revolver style suits him when acquiring a .44 Magnum.
My brother-in-law recently acquired a batch of various .44 Magnum handloads from a church member whose husband had to be placed in an an assisted living arrangement. These loads featured both 240 grain JHP and the Hornady 265 grain JSP bullets and were stoked with book max charge weights of either Win 296 or 2400. We committed the cardinal sin of shooting them instead of dismantling them, placing our trust in the goodness of the S&W design. We lit these off in his 4-inch Model 29 and what a bear they were to shoot! Especially that 265 grain Hornady load. I've still got a knot in my hand that was raised by the heavy recoil and we fired these perhaps a month and a half ago. Bo split the web of his hand on the loads. I've fired the .50 AE, and .35 Remington and other rifle concoctions in the Thompson Center Contender and nothing was as punishing to me as that 4-inch Model 29 with those loads. The revolver handled them fine.
The .44 Magnum is still a glorious round to own and shoot. It will serve well the shooter who needs an extra powerful handgun that is still within a reasonable size and weight. Its accuracy is gratifying to behold. My .44 Magnum really scratched a gun itch 28 years ago and still does.