One Splendid Cartridge
January 03, 2011
The Sheriff continues his praise of the .44 Magnum
All this year I've been celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the best handgun cartridges that anyone has ever seen. Of course, I'm talking about the magnificent .44 Magnum. The first S&W revolver chambered for it was produced in December 1955, and the first ammunition came from Remington. The announcement of that first S&W Model 29 was soon followed by Ruger's introduction of its fine .44 Magnum Blackhawk single-action revolver, the gun we now call the .44 Flattop. As most of you already know, to commemorate the cartridge's 50th anniversary Ruger brought the .44 Flattop back out and Smith & Wesson is building a special Model 29.
The introduction of the .44 Magnum was actually an evolutionary step up from the .44 Special cartridge. The .44 Special was a very accurate cartridge, but in its factory form it only drove the 246-grain bullet at a lazy 755 fps. A lot of savvy handgunners thought that this performance could be improved on quite a bit. Not the least of these was an Idaho cowboy/gun writer named Elmer Keith.
Keith was experimenting with the .44 Special cartridge in Colt single actions and N-Frame Smith & Wesson revolvers. He soon found that in these heavy handguns the .44 Special cartridge was capable of driving a 250-grain cast bullet at some 1250 fps, using the slower burning powders like Hercules 2400 (now produced by Alliant).
About the same time that Keith began to work with the .44 Special cartridge he also designed a new semiwadcutter bullet that would eventually become nearly as famous as his big .44s. Many of today's shooters have come to refer to all SWC bullets as "Keith" bullets, but this is simply not true. Keith's bullet incorporated a long nose and deep crimping and grease grooves. Most importantly, all of the bullet's angles were cut at 90 degrees. In a short time the bullet mold manufacturers realized that Keith's bullets, with their sharp angles, did not drop from gang molds quite as easily as they thought they should. So the companies solved this by reducing the angle and rounding some edges, thus reducing the big bullet's effectiveness and accuracy. Today, the closest copy of Keith's exact design is found in the RCBS 250-K bullet mold that throws some extremely good bullets and should be tried out by every .44 Magnum shooter.
Needless to say, Keith was very pleased with the power and accuracy that he was getting with his heavy .44 Special loads. He was so pleased, in fact, that he began to campaign the ammunition companies to bring out his special loads in factory form. The companies, on the other hand, were really worried that Keith's heavy loads would wreck the weaker .44 Special handguns that were on the market and in shooters' collections.
Now, I never knew Elmer Keith, but I expect that one word would best describe him. And that word would be "tenacity." Since he liked the big frame Smith & Wessons so much, Keith decided to include them in his .44 campaign, and the company decided that the smartest thing to do would be to listen to their cowboy friend.
Smith & Wesson decided to solve the problem of weak, poorly made .44 Special revolvers by bringing out a cartridge with a slightly longer case so that the new cartridges would not chamber in a .44 Special handgun. Bill Ruger Sr., getting wind of the new cartridge, soon had an upgraded version of his Blackhawk single action in the works. The .44 Magnum was born.
You'll recall that Keith's idea for his hot .44 was to be able to drive a 250-grain bullet at 1250 fps. The earliest Remington and Winchester ammo gilded the lily just a bit and produced a factory round that would drive a 240-grain bullet at some 1500 fps. These hot loads caused a good bit of leading, and .44 fans soon found that they could get the best results through handloading. Eventually, the ammunition companies decided to settle on a formula that would push a 240/250-grain bullet at 1250 fps, which was what Mr. Keith had asked for in the first place.
With the acquisition of my first fine Smith & Wesson Model 29, I quickly found out that the heavy factory ammo just hammered me too much for me to be able to do any fast, accurate shooting. When I carried my Model 29 for law enforcement work, I generally either loaded it down to about 950 fps, or purchased some of the good medium-velocity factory ammunition that was being produced. Black Hills, Remington, Winchester, and Garrett Cartridges, either produce or have produced these medium loads. They certainly helped me tame the recoil of the DA Model 29.
With the Ruger single actions, however, I didn't have a problem dealing with the recoil. The shape of the single-action grip frame lets the big gun roll in the shooting hand, and much of the felt recoil is dissipated. My own .44 Magnum shooting program involved using a Model 29 with reduced loads for law enforcement and the Ruger Blackhawk with full-house loads for hunting. Both were exceedingly accurate and a real pleasure to shoot.
About the time that Elmer Keith passed away in 1984, many .44 Magnum fans began to experiment with the use of heavier bullets. The use of a 300-grain cast bullet really increased the .44 Magnum's effectiveness on larger game animals, like bear, elk, and moose. I found that Hodgden H110 powder was an excellent choice for use with these heavier bullets and worked up some loads that would drive a 300-grain bullet at about 1300 fps out of my Ruger Super Blackhawk. Today most ammunition companies include at least one 300-grain load in their .44 Magnum batteries.
I think that some of the most interesting tales about the .44 Magnum cartridge revolve around the horrible, painful power of the cartridge and the severe damage that it could do to shooters. Numerous serious handgunners own .44 Magnums today, because they found it for sale, in brand new condition, with a partially fired box of ammo. Some would tell you that the sharp checkering on the Model 29's wooden grips would actually draw blood. The fact is that the .44 Magnum cartridge has probably taught handgunners more about proper grip design and the proper technique for holding a handgun than any other cartridge.
Once shooters found that .44 Magnum handguns could be managed and tamed, the door was opened for the development of other powerful cartridges, such as the .454 Casull, the .475 Linebaugh, and the .500 S&W. While these newer cartridges all generate more power than the .44 Magnum, it was the .44 Magnum that set the high mark for the combination of power and accuracy that they have all sought to attain.
As I contemplate the 50-year history of the .44 Magnum, I can't help but reflect on the large number of game animals I've taken with the cartridge. Deer, feral hogs, javelina, Rio Grande turkey, and numerous exotic animals have all come to my bag. I especially recall one mule deer buck that I took, on the run, during a New Mexico hunt with my friend Bart Skelton. And, while
I certainly enjoying using many of the other big-bore handgun cartridges, there's no doubt that I've taken more game with the .44 Magnum than with all of the others put together.
So, light the candles and get on with the party. My hat's off to the great .44 Magnum cartridge and the fine guns that are chambered for it.
I simply can't imagine keeping house without one.