January 03, 2011
The evolution and development of magnum handgun cartridges, taken as a whole, is quite interesting. This study clearly reflects the development of the American handgunner and innovations within our firearms industry. It's also a good reminder for why we should never say "never."
The First Magnum
In the 1930s, handgunners were looking for ways to extend the power of the popular .38 Special cartridge. Law enforcement officers were looking for a handgun cartridge with greater penetration to counter the use of bulletproof vests by gangsters of that era. And because cars had replaced horses as the getaway of choice, officers wanted a handgun cartridge that would penetrate the steel bodies of automobiles. These requirements resulted in the development of the .357 Magnum cartridge.
At the time, the .357 Magnum was touted, and rightly so, as the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world. Originally, it drove a 158-grain bullet at approximately 1400 fps and had in excess of 700 ft-lbs of muzzle energy. Handloaders quickly worked up a load with a 160-grain bullet that achieved some 1600 fps and 900 ft-lbs.
Some even claimed that the .357 Magnum cartridge was powerful enough to crack an engine block. Lawmen soon found that while the .357 Magnum was a good cartridge for their purposes, it was generally overrated when it came to busting engine blocks. For all that, the .357 Magnum quickly became a popular and useful handgun cartridge. Today, the ammunition industry has pretty much standardized on .357 Magnum cartridges that run about 1250 fps and produce approximately 550 ft-lbs of muzzle energy.
Up Come Bigger Magnums
In the 1950s, along came the .44 Magnum. In its earliest versions, the .44 Magnum factory round had a 240-grain bullet with a published velocity of 1400 fps and a muzzle energy of more than 1200 ft-lbs. As with the .357 Magnum, today's ammunition companies have standardized on loads for the .44 Magnum that keep velocities pretty close to the 1250 fps mark and muzzle energies in the range of 800 ft-lbs. And I'm not real sure what the companies had against engine blocks, but that old claim was trundled out again.
Magnum handgun cartridges have been evolving since the 1930s, with the most recent being the .500 and .460 S&W Magnums. Developments in how to manage their power has allowed the magnums to get bigger and bigger. (Left to Right) .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .454 Casull, .480 Ruger, .460 S&W Magnum, .500 S&W Magnum
With the introduction of the .41 Magnum in the mid-1960s, the trio of .357, .41, and .44 Magnum handgun cartridges was, at least for a while, complete. Each, in its own right, proved to be a useful handgun cartridge with plenty of power and accuracy to get the job done, whatever that job might be.
What interested me, when considering the .44 Magnum cartridge, were all those various published claims about its amazing power. One handgun writer swore that the checkered grips of the S&W Model 29 would mark the shooter's hand under the gun's severe recoil. Verily, it would often bring blood to the poor shooter's mitt. There were tales of finding like-new, used .44 Magnums for sale, along with a box of ammo with only six rounds missing, no doubt sold by some sissy. Clearly, claimed these scribes, this was the most powerful handgun that any normal human could be expected to manage.
Fortunately, there were a number of handgunners who just didn't buy into this theory. Dick Casull, for one, experimented with the .45 Colt cartridge, even to the extent of using five-shot cylinders and duplex powder charges. His experiments resulted in the development of the magnificent .454 Casull cartridge.
The .454 Casull sends a 300-grain bullet downrange with a muzzle velocity of a bit over 1600 fps; muzzle energy is approximately 1800 ft-lbs. And by the way, no .454 factory load uses a duplex powder charge--and I definitely don't recommend anyone trying it in a handload!
Another of the big-bore aficionados is my friend John Linebaugh. John's handgun experimentations led to the .475 Linebaugh cartridge. Like the .454 Casull, the .475 Linebaugh has been picked up by ammunition manufacturers. In its factory configuration, the .475 Linebaugh pushes a 400-grain bullet out of the muzzle at 1300 fps with over 1500 ft-lbs of muzzle energy.
Close on the heels of the .475 Linebaugh is the very useful .480 Ruger cartridge. The .480 Ruger uses the same-diameter bullet as the .475 Linebaugh but in a slightly shorter case. You might call it a .475 Special. But the .480 Ruger is certainly no wimp load. With a 325-grain bullet, it builds a muzzle energy of over 1300 ft-lbs and a muzzle velocity of more than 1300 fps.
The Most Powerful Magnums--So Far
Today, Smith & Wesson is the current power champ with the advent of the .500 S&W Magnum and the .460 S&W Magnum. According to Winchester's ballistics tables, the .460 S&W drives a 260-grain bullet at about 2000 fps with a muzzle energy of 2300 ft-lbs. The .500 S&W sends a 400-grain slug downrange at 1800 fps with more than 2800 ft-lbs of energy.
At one time or another, I have fired handguns chambered for all these factory magnum cartridges. I have found them to be quite accurate, relatively manageable, and very suitable for taking just about any game animal at which a fellow would want to point a handgun. What I find amazing is that the .44 Magnum, once thought to be the most powerful handgun cartridge manageable, is now just the beginning of the story on powerful big-bore handguns.
Managing The Magnums
I can't help but wonder what has happened to cause us to be able to manage this great increase in handgun power. Is it possible that we modern handgunners are just tougher than the old-time shooters? I don't for a minute think that is true. For my money, here's what I think has happened to cause this evolution of big-bore handgun cartridges:
Prior to the advent of the .44 Magnum, we thought that handgun stocks were just something you slapped on to make the gun look pretty. The .44 Magnum, especially in double-action revolvers, taught us that we had better pay attention to grip design, with some thought to managing the recoil. Walter Roper, Hogue, Herrett's, and Bear Hug led the way in designing wooden stocks that fit the shooter's hand and gave him more control.
Synthetic stocks also began to really come into their own. Hogue and Pachmayr were the leaders in this endeavor, designing soft synthetic grips that helped absorb some of the recoil. In my view, some of today's best synthetic stocks are the ones that Taurus puts on its Raging Bull series of big-bore revolvers. The Taurus synthetic stocks have an extra padded insert that runs down the gun's backstrap. It's called the Cushion Insert Grip, and it rea
lly helps tame the recoil of .454 and .500 Magnum revolvers. Take a good look at the gun company catalogs; most all of the current magnum revolvers come with synthetic stocks.
Another innovation that has really helped us manage big-bore handgun recoil is the muzzle brake. Various designs have emerged, and Larry Kelly led the way with his Mag-
Na-Port Company. By diverting the revolver's muzzle blast, the gun's felt recoil is dampened somewhat. Today, thanks to Kelly's leadership, many of the gun companies offer their big-bore guns with factory muzzle brakes. The big .500 S&W XVR revolvers and the Taurus Raging Bulls are good examples.
So, truly, the .44 Magnum was just the beginning in the world of handgun power. It's still a wonderful cartridge, and it taught us all about grip design and recoil management. Those lessons learned with the .44 Magnum have paved the way for the current crop of massive, magnum handguns. And while I really can't imagine wanting to shoot a revolver that is more powerful than the big .460 and .500, I'm not about to say that this is where it all ends. Somebody would undoubtedly come along and make a liar out of me.