September 09, 2019
The rise of cowboy action shooting back in the late 1990s saw a number of older revolver cartridges being rediscovered. When we developed the Speer Reloading Manual #13, we added new tables with pressure-tested data for popular cowboy cartridges. There were also new data sections for the .44 Russian and the .45 S&W Schofield cartridges.
People look for an edge in competition. Modest recoil is a benefit on any rapid-fire stage. Match rules capped maximum handgun velocities to reduce damage to steel targets, but there were no minimum restrictions. People started loading lightweight bullets with light propellant charges to shoot better at speed.
Not long after the light-load trend appeared, so did a lot of damaged revolvers. Most involved revolver barrels looking like a snake that swallowed an egg. A bullet would stick in the bore, and the next one would remove the first, leaving behind a bulge.
Many arose from dimensional problems with the revolver, but plenty were attributable to loading “too little, too light.” You need a certain amount of pressure to get the bullet through the barrel in a consistent manner. We kept Speer cowboy start loads close to 10,000 psi to avoid any such issues.
Ballistically, the efficient way to control recoil is to reduce the powder charge within limits but leave the bullet weight relatively heavy. The other way is to reduce the case capacity, which is very useful with lighter bullets. Some people achieved this by deep-seating bullets in conventional cases, but others reached deeply into history to resurrect two old Smith & Wesson cartridge developments dating back almost 150 years.
In the 1870s, many centerfire revolver cartridges had outside-lubricated bullets. Then Smith & Wesson created two very good cartridges that established the inside-lubricated bullet as the standard for revolver accuracy.
About 1870 the Czarist Russian government wanted to buy S&W Model 3 revolvers but insisted on a cartridge that used inside-lubricated bullets instead of the outside-lubricated .44 S&W “American” for which the Model 3 was originally chambered. The resulting .44 S&W “Russian” pushed a heavier bullet 90 fps faster than the “American” version for a 50 percent boost in muzzle energy. The “Russian” moniker stuck and soon commercial .44 Russian revolvers established a match-winning reputation for handgun accuracy.
In 1875 S&W entered the lucrative sidearms market that was the U.S. Army. Chambering existing models for the Army’s .45 Colt cartridge would require a major and expensive retooling of the barrel, frame, and cylinder forgings, so the company developed the shorter .45 S&W to fit the existing Model 3 revolver platform. Gen. G. W. Schofield of the U.S. 10th Cavalry proposed changes to the Model 3 that made it easier for mounted soldiers to manage. Collectors refer to both the cartridge and the revolver as “Schofield.”
Although the .45 S&W Schofield cartridge held 12 grains less blackpowder than the .45 Colt and had a lighter bullet, the less-potent ammunition proved to be popular with Army supply officers in units issuing both Colt and S&W revolvers. The .45 S&W chambers in .45 Colt revolvers exactly like the .38 Special chambers in .357 Magnum revolvers.
For years handloading the .44 Russian and the .45 Schofield required shortening modern .44 Special or .45 Colt cases. Then the good folks at Starline began making new cases for both old-timers, and ammomakers like Black Hills and HSM still load both. We used Starline cases while working on Speer Reloading Manual #13.
There are no U.S. pressure standards for either cartridge, so we first had to develop a way to set safe charge weights. Starting with our piezo data for the .44 Special and the .45 Colt with cast bullets, we used volumetric ratios to generate safe charge weights to test for velocities in our lab revolvers. I was confident enough in our methods that we used my personal Cimarron .44 Special SAA for the .44 Russian velocity testing. As it turned out, we had no problems.
You can find data for these two cartridges in Speer Reloading Manual #13 and Speer Reloading Manual #14. Hodgdon has data on its Web-based reloading center and in its 2019 Annual Manual. The only atypical part of handloading is crimping. You can usually crimp the Schofield with .45 Auto/Auto Rim roll-crimp dies. The Russian needs a special die because most conventional .44 Special crimp dies won’t reach the Russian’s case mouth. I use the seater die from an RCBS Cowboy Die set designed for both .44 Russian and .44 Special.
What do you gain? Theoretically, the smaller case should produce lower variation in pressure. When we tested these, we were in the final stages of getting a new manual published and did not have the luxury of an in-depth statistical study, but our normal variation numbers told us what we needed to know: Levels of variation were acceptable. With the same 225-grain cast bullet, the .45 Schofield’s velocity ranges were clearly improved compared to the .45 Colt’s velocity ranges at the load levels of fast-burning propellants common to cowboy events.
Results for the variation comparison between the .44 Russian and .44 Special with a 200-grain cast bullet were less clear. The normal variation data showed the .44 Special was slightly better than the .44 Russian at both start and max load levels, but both were completely safe. If we’d had all the time in the world, we’d have a better answer, but the press time we’d reserved was immutable.
One thing is clear: Where too little pressure can cause as much trouble as too much pressure, the two short cases offer a compelling benefit. The .44 Russian and the .45 Schofield let you create light loads that match the modest velocities of .44 Special and .45 Colt start loads but with safe higher pressures that you know will get the bullet through the bore and downrange reliably.