Anyone who stays in the shooting game long enough will usually get around to favoring certain cartridges. I am no exception.
When it comes to full-size revolvers, I enjoy shooting the .357 Magnum, I am saddened by the lack of success of the .41 Magnum, I am impressed by the power of the .460 Magnum, and I have taken more game with the .44 Magnum than any other. Still, if I could own only one revolver for hunting deer, black bear, and even larger game, it would be chambered for none of those cartridges.
My pick of the bunch has long been the .454 Casull. I favor it because of its performance as well as my fondness for the revolver long chambered for it: the Freedom Arms Model 83.
The Model 83 revolver in .454 Casull celebrated its 25th birthday last year, and while I cannot describe it with authority as the world’s finest revolver, I will say it is the finest and most accurate centerfire revolver I have ever held in my hands. As far as I know, no other builder of big-bore revolvers of any type has managed to duplicate its precision, its quality, and its ability to shoot a handful of bullets as close together on a distant target.
The Model 83 is capable of averaging 3 to 4 inches at 100 yards with full-power loads, and it is not uncommon for individual groups to measure even smaller. This is about what we expect from top-of-the-line revolvers of other makes at half that distance. Of course, such accuracy comes at a price; the last time I looked, the Premiere Grade was priced at $2,100 and the Field Grade would set you back $1,600.
There was a time when it was common to see horror stories written about .454 Casull recoil, but editors stopped buying those tales of woe with the introduction of other cartridges such as the .475 Linebaugh and .500 S&W Magnum. Truth of the matter is, while the .454 does churn up plenty of recoil, it has never been as difficult to shoot as some might have us believe. Here’s an example.
A few years back, Tom, a quail-hunting friend of mine who is a pathologist at a local hospital, read an article on the .454 Casull and shortly thereafter mentioned that he would like to do some long-range shooting with that cartridge. One of the best all-around athletes I have ever known, Tom excels at about anything he tries, including shotgunning, but he had practically no experience with handguns. So one day, he and I headed to the gun club with my Freedom Arms single-action in .454 Casull equipped with a Bausch & Lomb 3X scope. At the time, bowling-pin competition was all the rage among action pistol shooters in our club, so after zeroing the gun at 300 yards, I set up bowling pins at that distance. Shooting from a sandbag rest, my friend fired 50 rounds of full-power handloads and missed exactly three bowling pins. Like I said, he’s a natural at about anything he tries.
Another great thing about owning a revolver in .454 Casull is the option of reducing recoil by shooting .45 Colt ammo. This is especially important to those who shoot factory ammunition. Options there range from mild loads from Remington, Federal, and Winchester intended for use in Colt single-actions and other guns chambered specifically for the cartridge to a couple of CorBon loads that pretty much duplicate the performance of the .44 Magnum.
There isn’t a scarcity of full-power .454 Casull ammunition either because CorBon, Hornady, Federal, Winchester, and Buffalo Bore now load the cartridge. The latter offers loads with extremely hard cast bullets.
How It All Started
The .454 Casull was officially unveiled to the world in 1959, but Dick Casull and Jack Fulmer started experimenting with hot .45 Colt loads long before that. Early on, they had experienced erratic ignition of huge duplex and triplex charges of slow-burning powders with the large-pistol primer. Not only that, but the primer cup was too soft to reliably contain the chamber pressures they were working with. When used in a gun strong enough to handle it, the .45 Colt could be handloaded to equal and sometimes exceed the power of the .44 Magnum, but a stronger case was needed in order to reach even higher levels of performance.
What they came up with is the .45 Colt case with its web section thickened for greater strength. And to make sure .454 Casull ammo could not be chambered in a gun in .45 Colt, the case was made about 1/10 inch longer. They also shrank the primer pocket of the case in order to use the hotter Small Rifle primer, which also has a thicker and tougher cup. The then-new case was made for Freedom Arms by Federal.
There was also the matter of bullets. I don’t recall exactly what year it was when I added a Freedom Arms revolver in .454 Casull to my battery, but I do remember that at the time, only Freedom Arms offered bullets suitable for full-power handloads in the cartridge.
Other readily available bullets designed to withstand the stress and strain of damn-the-torpedo handloads are the 225-, 300-, and 325-grain A-Frames from Swift; the Nosler 260- and 300-grain Partition HGs; and the various X-Bullets from Barnes. When contemplating bullets for the .454, keep this in mind: If the manufacturer of a particular bullet does not publish full-powder loads for it in the .454 Casull, that bullet should not be used for that purpose. If in doubt, contact the maker of the bullet.
The jackets of bullets made for the .45 Colt by other companies were–and still are–thin enough to allow expansion at relatively low velocities. Maximum recommended velocity for those bullets is around 1,400 fps, and when pushed faster in the .454 Casull, they can cause chamber pressure to go through the roof by obturating excessively in the forcing cone of the barrel. The jackets of bullets once sold by Freedom Arms were considerably thicker at the base, and t
he lead they contained was a bit harder.
The .454 Today
Freedom Arms no longer sells ammo or bullets, but other companies have responded by offering bullets designed specifically for loading to maximum velocities in the .454 Casull. As examples, the jacket of the 240- and 300-grain XTP-MAG bullets from Hornady are thicker at the base than is the jacket of the standard XTP, and a higher antimony content makes the lead core harder. When loaded to .45 Colt-equivalent velocities, the standard bullet works great in the .454, but anytime higher velocities are needed, the XTP-MAG is the way to go.
The pointed 200-grain SST loaded by Hornady in the .460 Magnum is presently available only in loaded ammunition, but once it becomes available as a reloading component, I plan to try it in the .454 Casull. It won’t work in the full-length case due to excessive overall length for the cylinder of the Model 83 revolver, but my guess is it can be loaded to 1,500 fps or so in the .45 Colt case and considerably faster in the .454 case shortened by 1/10 inch.
Early on, Dick Casull loaded the .454 with triplex charges of powders. A charge of relatively quick-burning powder went into the case first, which was followed by a powder with a slightly slower burn rate, and then it was capped off with an even slower-burning powder. Compression by the seated bullet kept the three layers of powders somewhat separated in a loaded round.
Lucky for handloaders like you and me who want to keep all of our fingers, that practice was abandoned once slow-burning pistol powders, such as W296 and H110, became available. In fact, to this day, those propellants remain two of the very best choices for .454 handloads.
Other powders work as well for reduced-velocity loadings, but if the goal is to squeeze maximum speed from the .454 Casull at acceptable chamber pressures, W296, H110, and a new kid on the block called Lil’Gun are kings of the hill. Also suitable are AA No. 9, AA No. 7, H4227, IMR-4227, and VV N110, but those previously mentioned three are my picks of the bunch.
There was a time when the .454 was available only in single-actions built by Freedom Arms, and while those are still in production, other options now include the Ruger Super Redhawk, Taurus Model 454, and Magnum Research BFR revolvers, as well as the T/C Encore and the MOA Maximum single-shots. One of the more interesting firearms chambered for this cartridge is the Puma M-92 lever-action rifle imported by Legacy Sports International. Basically a copy of the Winchester Model 92, its 20-inch barrel should squeeze an additional 200 to 300 fps in velocity from Dick Casull’s cartridge.
The .454 Casull was originally designed to operate at a maximum chamber pressure of 60,000 psi, but ammunition companies and those who publish reloading data for the cartridge usually hold it to less than 55,000 psi. This puts maximum velocity for a 300-grain bullet in the 7.5-inch barrel of a revolver at about 1,700 fps. The reloading manual published by Swift Bullets shows close to 2,000 fps from a 20-inch barrel, which is basically .45-70 Government performance from the Puma lever-action, a rifle that’s lighter and more compact than those in which the .45-70 is commonly available.
Regardless of whether the gun you decide on is a lever-action carbine, a single-action sixgun, a double-action revolver, or a single-shot pistol, I am sure you will quickly discover why the .454 Casull is one of our all-time great close- to medium-range big-game cartridges. My guess is you will probably also kick yourself for not buying one a lot sooner.