A successful heritage and a bit of good fortune often assure success. When the .44 S&W Special cartridge was introduced, it fit that category to a tee. Yet after more than a century, the mild-mannered, big-bore round has never achieved “mainstream” status. Only because one and then another manufacturer sporadically introduced new handgun models has it managed to survive at all.
The .44 Special’s pedigree begins with the evolution of Smith & Wesson’s earlier model revolvers. The good luck occurred in 1871 when Russia ordered several thousand S&W No. 3 single-action revolvers to equip the Czar’s army. I say that was good luck because the developments that S&W undertook to please the Russians led directly to the creation of the .44 Spl. You see, the Russian Czar’s agent specified several changes to the existing S&W .44 American Army model, including an improved cartridge (.44 Russian).
By 1877 S&W had shipped more than 100,000 guns to Russia. The company also made another 20,000 for the domestic market, and most of them were chambered for the .44 S&W Russian cartridge.
The Russians also instigated S&W’s interest in “self-cocking” revolvers. None were ever ordered; however, S&W introduced several new double-action models by the early 1880s. These guns still featured a top-break frame and, along with the improved New Model No. 3 single-action revolvers, comprised much of the firm’s production until the turn of the century. The .44 Russian cartridge became the accuracy standard for that era’s target shooters.
Colt introduced its solid-frame, single-action Model P in 1873. It was soon accepted by the U.S. military, and the SAA quickly dominated the domestic single-action market. By the 1890s, S&W began developing solid-frame, double-action revolvers. The first Hand Ejector models with a swing-out cylinder evolved rapidly. In 1899 the improved Military & Police model chambered for the then-new .38 S&W Special (a stretched .38 Long Colt) arrived.
S&W introduced a large-frame, .44-caliber Hand Ejector in 1908, which became popularly known as the Triple Lock because of its unique, three-point cylinder-latching design. It was chambered for the new .44 S&W Special round. The .44 Special’s case was approximately 0.2 inch longer than the .44 Russian’s case, and it duplicated the Russian’s ballistics.
During the next 50 years or so, S&W introduced additional service and target .44 Spl. revolvers. Colt also chambered the cartridge in it’s New Service double action, and a few SAAs in .44 Spl. were made before World War II. When the war ended, Colt stopped making the SAA, and S&W made only a few service and target revolvers. By the early 1950s, nostalgia for the Old West and anything related to cowboys returned. Bill Ruger sensed an opportunity and designed his famous single-action Single-Six revolver chambered in .22 rimfire.
Two years later (1955), Ruger introduced a scaled-up, centerfire single-action and called it the Blackhawk. It was almost identical to Colt’s vintage SAA except it was a more robust design and offered improved sights. The first ones were chambered in .357 Magnum, but gun writers reported that Ruger would soon offer revolvers chambered in .44 Spl. and .45 Colt. But that was not to be. Just a few months later, Smith & Wesson announced the powerful .44 Magnum, and those .44 Spl. expectations were quickly forgotten by most handgunners.
The .44 Mag. is a stretched .44 Spl. case loaded to magnum handgun pressures. So, just like .38 Specials can be fired in a .357 Mag. revolver, a .44 Mag. revolver will readily accept .44 Spl. loads. Ruger scaled up the original Blackhawk to accommodate the much larger and more powerful Magnum cartridge, and any plans for a .44 Spl. Blackhawk were promptly abandoned–until recently.
Champions Of The .44 Special
Elmer Keith is probably the most well-known proponent of the .44 Spl. He experimented extensively handloading the cartridge. For more than 25 years, he implored the major ammunition manufacturers to produce a factory load that duplicated his handloads’ extraordinary performance. Keith loaded heavy charges of DuPont #80 and later Hercules 2400 propellant that launched 250-grain cast slugs at approximately 1,200 fps.
Acknowledging the relatively weak design and construction of most of the existing .44 Spl. revolvers, the ammo makers appropriately declined. Keith’s wish was finally fulfilled when S&W introduced the .44 Mag.; however, even “bigger-is-better” Elmer protested when the earlier factory fodder (240-grain bullets) was loaded to excessive velocities (1,500+ fps).
The .44 Spl. was one of Skeeter Skelton’s (whose reprised columns have graced ST’s pages of late) favorite cartridges. Born Charles A. Skelton, “Skeeter” was one of the most knowledgeable and entertaining gun writers that ever graced the pages of any gun magazine. When the .44 Mag. debuted, he gave it a try like everyone else. He concluded it was too much of a good thing, and he soon rejoined the .44 Spl. fans. He often lamented that Ruger never chambered the old model Blackhawk in .44 Spl.
Keith and Skelton have passed on, but there’s one old-timer still with us who is a stalwart fan of the .44 Spl. I’m referring to John Taffin. Although Taffin is li
sted as the “Very Old Senior Field Editor” in two competing publications, he deserves tribute in this report. His prolific and informative articles about shooting and handloading both factory and custom .44 Spl. handguns rank right along with Keith’s and Skelton’s.
Some Special .44 Specials
The .44 Spl. never regained its limited pre-.44 Mag. popularity, and just a few new handguns have been offered since then. Colt reintroduced the SAA in 1956, and also made a few New Frontier target models in .44 Spl. Several Italian-made SAA clones have been marketed. S&W made limited production runs of N-Frame Model 24 and Model 624 revolvers and a five-shot L-Frame Model 696. Most recently, S&W offered a service and a target model .44 Spl. in its Heritage series revolver line. Charter Arms made its snubnosed, .44 Spl. Bulldog off and on for many years. And Taurus once offered several variations of dedicated .44 Spl. double-action revolvers called the Models 431, 441, and 445.
I have owned several of those .44 Spl. revolvers (some I even bought twice), but except for an S&W Model 696, a Colt .44-40/.44 Spl. convertible, and a beautiful Cimarron single action, I traded them for other shooting irons that caught my eye.
When the larger-frame Ruger New Model Super Blackhawks replaced the old model Blackhawk in 1973, I figured Skeeter’s oft-repeated wish for a .44 Spl. single action would never be fulfilled, so I had an old model .357 Blackhawk converted into an exact copy of a .44 Spl. that Skeeter had featured in one of his ST articles. It shoots as great as it looks.
I found another .44 Spl. Blackhawk at Mason’s Gun Shop while traveling through the foothills of North Carolina. At first glance, I mistook it for a factory gun, but, of course, that wasn’t possible. I snapped it up anyway.
When Ruger introduced the New Vaquero and the 50th Anniversary .357 Magnum Blackhawk just a few years ago, the company built both on the old model Blackhawk’s mid-size frame, which is the ideal platform for finally realizing Skeeter’s .44 Spl. dream. Many of us old-timers asked the folks at Ruger to offer the gun in .44 Spl., but they didn’t seem interested.
More time passed by. Finally, new for 2009, there’s a factory-built Ruger .44 Spl. Blackhawk Flattop. It is a special-production run for one of Ruger’s distributors (Lipsey’s), and when I found out about it, I immediately put in an order for one.
Better Late Than Never
The New Model Blackhawk .44 Spl. (shown in the opening photo of this article) is everything Skelton could have wished for. It has the classic feel of a Colt SAA–solid yet agile, with just the right heft. Production is limited to 1,000 4⅝-inch models and 1,000 5½-inch models.
The New Model Blackhawk is strong and inherently safe to carry and shoot. It will handle any reasonable load you care to assemble. There are plenty of factory loads that perform quite satisfactorily, but industry pressure standards established a century ago yield less than stellar ballistic performance, so the .44 Spl. is a prime candidate for handloading. (See page 56 for a list of my favorite handloads.)
When I received my gun, I gathered up a bunch of handloads and factory loads and found a box of Keith-style SWC bullets I’d cast several years ago. I loaded up some ammo with three classic .44 Spl. propellants: Unique, 2400, and IMR-4227. As you can see by the chart on page 51, some loads performed better than others, but I assure you, you can’t imagine the fun I had shooting the .44 Spl. Blackhawk.
Rumor has it that Ruger may offer a 7½-inch-barreled model if demand is strong enough. I hope that it comes to be, and the .44 Spl. gets yet another lease on life.