January 03, 2011
By G&A Staff
New, more powerful and more efficient magnum cartridges; new bullet and propellant technology; and new revolver designs and materials have extended the magnum revolver world into territory we'd never have expected only a decade past.
By Dick Metcalf
When I fired my first magnum revolver more than 40 years ago, the king of magnum revolvers was indisputably the .44 Magnum. It was, as Clint Eastwood so famously put it, " ... the most powerful handgun in the world."
Today, the .44 Mag. is almost a pipsqueak compared to the top end of the spectrum, and at the lower end, even the lowly .32 caliber has now been effectively "magnumized." Today's mainstream handgun makers are offering more standard-production big-bore magnum revolvers than ever before.
If you remain a fan of the classic .44 Mag., Ruger, Taurus, and Smith & Wesson continue to offer ever-increasing new variations. The S&W Performance Center produces an ongoing series of highly tuned Model 629s, with a variety of special barrel configurations and lengths, all set up to accept Weaver-standard optics mounts. And all adjustable-sight S&W big-frame factory-issue revolvers are drilled and tapped for optics mounts under their rear sight assemblies.
For its part, Ruger has reintroduced the Blackhawk Hunter single-action .44 Mag., with Ruger's integral ring-mount dovetails in the barrel's flat-top rib. And, of course, Ruger continues to offer its ring-equipped .44 Mag. versions of the Redhawk and Super Redhawk.
Also "new" to the current magnum field is CZ-USA's reintroduction of the Dan Wesson interchangeable-barrel revolver in .445 SuperMag, originally developed by IHMSA founder Elgin Gates in the 1980s. The .445 SuperMag has a 0.3-inch longer case than a conventional .44 Mag., with approximately 25 to 35 percent more performance, giving it knock-down performance surpassing 200 yards for Metallic Silhouette and 150 yards for hunting applications. Plus, you can also use .44 Special and 44 Mag. ammunition in a .445 SuperMag gun. The standard version of the Dan Wesson SuperMag is 8 inches, and additional vent-heavy and compensated barrel assemblies are available in lengths stretching from 4 to 10 inches. They are easily changed by the customer. Also noteworthy is the Dan Wesson Alaskan Guide Special .445 SuperMag, designed to be a wilderness survival companion for dangerous game hunters, with a 4-inch compensated barrel and a matte-black "Yukon Coat" finish.
Moving up the caliber spectrum to the .454 Casull, the Freedom Arms single-action has long defined this cartridge in most shooters' minds; it's available in two grades and several barrel lengths. More recently, it has been joined in the single-action revolver field by Magnum Research's BFR. Two double-action side-swing .454 Casull revolvers are also currently marketed: first, the five-shot Taurus Raging Bull with a two-point cylinder latch (similar to the Dan Wesson design), integral barrel porting, and shock-absorbing grips; and second, a regular-configuration six-shot .454 Casull version of the Ruger Super Redhawk, which also offers the added strength of a front locking latch in the cylinder yoke.
Next in caliber size among traditional-format magnum revolvers is the .480 Ruger--actual caliber is .475--that was introduced in 2001 as a joint Ruger/Hornady development. It is essentially a shortened version of the .475 Linebaugh and sits midway in power and recoil between the .44 Mag. and the .454 Casull, even though it's a larger caliber than either.
The .480 Ruger cartridge, which falls between the .44 Mag. and the .454 Casull in power,
is currently being offered in magnum revolvers from Ruger and Taurus.
The Taurus Raging Bull and the Ruger Super Redhawk are presently offered in .480 Ruger chambering. Until 2003, the top of the factory- production big-bore handgun and ammo list was the full-length .475 Linebaugh offered in single-action versions by Freedom Arms and Magnum Research. Both guns will also chamber and fire the .480 Ruger as well, though the Taurus and Ruger DA .480s will not chamber the longer .475 Linebaugh. Commercial ammunition for all these chamberings is readily available from major-brand ammo makers, some in bullet weights up to 425 grains that deliver nearly a ton of muzzle energy. Today the .44 Mag. itself is available in 300-grain-plus loadings by such specialty ammo houses as Garrett Cartridge and Buffalo Bore at energy levels that make the original Elmer Keith versions look mild by comparison. Plus, leading major ammo makers like Hornady are continuing to create new .44 Mag. loads with new bullet technologies that dramatically improve its accuracy and range.
And now, of course, we have the new X-Frame .500 S&W Magnum and .460 S&W Magnum from Smith & Wesson--two new guns that have redefined the big-bore magnum universe with a massive, entirely new-design revolver and completely new cartridges that eclipse everything that has come before.
The more recently announced .460 Mag. is a conventional-format, straight-wall cartridge that sends a 200-grain bullet out the muzzle of a new S&W Model 460XVR X-Frame 83/8-inch revolver at more than twice the speed of sound. It's the fastest, flattest-shooting big-bore revolver cartridge ever developed, develops a ton-and-a-quarter of muzzle energy, carries more of that energy 300 yards downrange than a .44 Mag. offers at the muzzle, but has no worse recoil than you'd experience with that same conventional .44 Mag. It makes a revolver into a true, reliable, 200-yard-plus big-game hunting tool in the hands of a responsible shooter, and it leaves every other big-bore handgun hunting cartridge far behind.
The .460 S&W Mag. is actually a .45-caliber load, same as the shorter .454 Casull and .45 Colt cartridges, both of which can be chambered and fired in a .460 chamber.
For a revolver, the .460's trajectory profile is simply unprecedented: With a fast 2340 fps CorBon 200-grain XPB Spitzer .460 Mag. load and a 200-yard zero, the maximum point-blank trajectory for the vital zone of a whitetail stretches to 260 yards. That's with a real revolver, not a test barrel.
Several high-performance innovations in the S&W Model 460XVR revolver make this possible. For one, the breech end of the M460XVR barrel has a radiused and polished surface to eliminate any file marks or tool scars that could become erosion channels for gas flow that would create metal deterioration and flame-cutting. For another, the Model 460XVR employs 1:100-1:20 gain-twist rifling in the 7.5-inch bore behind the integrated compensator.
Gain-twist rifling essentially starts out with a very slow twist and then "spins up" to the desired rate for the specific caliber/bullet configuration as the bullet passes down the bore. The gain-twist benefit for a high-velocity revolver cartridge is that it allows the bullet to transition more slowly from a non-rotating state when it crosses the barrel/cylinder gap under extreme pressure and slams into the rifling at the rear of the barrel. This allows a much more concentric and consistent alignment of the bullet with the bore axis, a more positive and non-distorted land/groove engagement, consequent enhanced accuracy, and less wear and tear on the bore itself. Plus, "peak torque" is reduced, lessening the abrupt sideways twist a shooter feels when firing other high-pressure big-bore handguns. Accuracy is exceptional. Most revolver shooters are happy with a gun that will hold a 21/2-inch group at 50 yards. With factory ammunition, the Model 460XVR easily delivers that at twice the distance, and with some loads, it approaches minute of angle.
Excellent 100-yard groups like these are not unusual from today's state-of-the-art magnum revolvers and modernized magnum ammunition.
Of course, if you really want revolver hunting power, page up to the .500 S&W Mag. that Smith & Wesson introduced with the original Model 500 X-Frame revolver in 2003. It's currently available in several factory-issue and Performance Center barrel lengths and configurations. This .50-caliber monsterpiece has commercial loads now available from a half-dozen ammo makers that range from 275-grain deer loads to 500-grain elephant killers with energy levels approaching 3000 ft-lbs, which is about the same as a 150-grain .30-06 rifle cartridge. That makes it the most powerful factory ammunition ever developed specifically for handgun use, but all loads operate under a 60,000 psi limit, same as the .454 Casull.
The only other double-action revolver currently capable of chambering the .500 S&W cartridge is the Taurus M500 Raging Bull with 10-, 61/2-, 4-, and 21/4-inch barrels. All are manufactured on what Taurus terms the "XL" (Extra Large) version of its Raging Bull frame design, the M500 featuring a 2.437-inch frame window and a long 2.25-inch cylinder to accommodate the huge .500-caliber cartridge. Shorter and lighter frame versions of the Taurus Raging Bull line are available in .41 Magnum, .44 Mag., .454 Casull, and .480 Ruger.
The cylinder-lock system on the Taurus Raging Bull magnum design is worth a closer look. The strongest previous DA revolver designs have been those with both front- and rear-cylinder-latch points, like the Ruger Redhawk and Super Redhawk or the classic old S&W "Triple Lock" design. The problem with hyper-power cartridges such as the .500 Mag. is that these older dual mechanisms still required an operating link between the front and rear latch points to allow function by a single release point. Such a linkage must necessarily pass through the cylinder's internal axis support, which is inherently weakened. The Taurus Raging Bull system uses two separate and independently operated manual latch points: a Dan Wesson-type yoke/ frame latch at the front and an S&W-type frame/cylinder-pin latch at the rear. It provides a stronger cylinder mechanism than any other double-action revolver made.
The basic BFR mechanical action is derived directly from the classic .44 Mag. Ruger New Model Super Blackhawk (SBH). Mechanically, the BFR incorporates a typical Ruger transfer-bar ignition system with a frame-mounted, spring-loaded firing pin that can be actioned only when the trigger is pulled fully to the rear to lift the bar into place between the pin and the falling hammer's face. The loading system is also the same as the Ruger New Model single-action revolver design, in that opening the loading gate frees the cylinder to rotate while the chambers are being charged. A loading-gate interlock prevents the hammer being pulled back with the gate open or the gate being opened while the hammer is back. In other words, except for being much bigger and chambered for much-more-powerful cartridges, the BFR operates exactly the same as the familiar and popular SBH.
The .500 Mag. and the .460 Mag. are both also available in the long-cylinder, single-action Magnum Research BFR ("Biggest, Finest Revolver"), which is by far the most cartridge-versatile magnum revolver design in existence. It's available in two basic forms, both of all-stainless-steel construction. The 2.75-inch, long-cylinder version is for extended-length chamberings, while the 1.75-inch, standard-cylinder version is for cartridges of more traditional revolver length such as .454 Casull, .480 Ruger, and .475 Linebaugh. The bigger BFR's cylinder is almost 60 percent longer than the typical cylinder of any other conventional big-bore, large-frame, magnum-power revolver, which gives it the size to handle not only the .500 Mag. and .460 Mag. but also such rifle-length loads as the .45-70 and .444 Marlin.
The Freedom Arms .454 Casull single-action revolver sparked today's trend toward more powerful magnum revolvers
At The Other Extreme
Recent significant developments in the magnum revolvers are far from limited to the monster side, both in terms of new traditional magnum loads and new smaller magnum cartridges, as well as new materials for magnum-revolver construction that are allowing much lighter, smaller guns for the powerhouse calibers. The primary beneficiary of these developments has been the .357 Magnum, which has long been the most popular and most general-purpose of the magnum-revolver group.
In the late 1990s, both S&W and Taurus began fabricating medium- and small-frame magnum revolvers using all-titanium components (Taurus's Total Titanium series), and/or advanced aluminum/scandium-alloy frames (S&W's AirLite Sc series), which allowed cartridges as powerful as even the .44 Mag. to be contained in smaller and lighter-weight revolvers than ever before.
The first round of S&W's AirLite Sc introductions in 2000 included such still-available models as the Model 386 Mountain Lite--a 3.2-inch-barreled, adjustable-sight, seven-shot L-Frame .357 Mag. revolver for field and sport that weighed just 18.7 ounces in the hand. Accompanying it on the same L-Frame dimension was the Model 386 AirLite Sc PD Carry (PD for Personal Defense), a 21/2-inch, 18-ounce version of the same basic seven-shot .357 Mag. gun with a shorter barrel and special dark finish that was specifically intended for plainclothes law enforcement and licensed civilian concealed carry.
Then came the N-Frame 4-inch Model 329 and Model 357 .44 Mag. and .41 Mag. AirLite Sc revolvers weighing 24 ounces. All these magnum revolvers feature scandium/ aluminum-alloy frames, stainless-steel barrel sleeves with aluminum shrouds, and titanium cylinders.
er J-Frame offerings in the AirLite Sc model list include the five-shot .357 Mag. Model 360 Chiefs Special double-action and .357 Mag. Model 340 Centennial double-action-only (DAO), which, at 11.2 ounces and 11.4 ounces respectively, are now the lightest .357 Mag. revolvers in the world.
The driving force behind all these things is weight. Law-enforcement officers are always seeking less of a downward tug on their all-day-duty belts, and increasing numbers of licensed-carry citizens are seeking a personal-defense gun as convenient and easy to carry as a wallet. With these ultra-lightweight magnum tools, we now approach the level where the ammo weighs more than the gun. Has the limit been reached?
Well, very nearly.
The really big question for any of the current surge of hyper-lightweight magnum revolvers appearing on the market in response to the dramatic nationwide increase in licensed civilian concealed-carry is: What are they like to shoot? What does shooting full-power loads in a small-frame, 11-ounce .357 Mag. revolver feel like?
Well, it's not something to do all day long. In terms of basic accuracy and ballistic performance, all these new-generation super-lightweight magnum revolvers function and shoot basically the same as any other same-configuration guns and chamberings made from any other material. They provide the same level of average group sizes, same order of generated bullet velocities. No reason why they shouldn't. But they feel different. They all really jump. Some, like the Taurus Total Titanium revolver line, feature integrated recoil-management features such as porting and cushioned grips. Others, like the S&W AirLite Sc magnums, come in straight-out traditional configuration formats with unvented barrels and exposed backstrap grips.
Dan Wesson's large-frame .445 SuperMag revolvers are designed specifically for big-game hunting.
Chambering and frame size makes a difference. You could easily spend a whole day shooting a Taurus Total Titanium .357 Mag. M627 with its cushioned grips and ported barrel with no problem at all--as you can with a new all-steel, small-frame Ruger SP101 .327 Federal Magnum. On the other hand, the straight-issue 11.2- and 11.4-ounce S&W J-Frame AirLite Sc Model 360 and Model 340 .357s with full-power ammunition simply hurt.
The situation moderates as you go down the power and bullet-weight scales. Firing a 125-grain .357 Mag. load in the M360 and M340 is not nearly as abrupt as the 158-grain loads, and a 110-grain .357 Mag. load is almost manageable. The solution, of course, is for the weight-conscious customer simply to buy the lightest gun available in the chambering desired and select the load that tops out his or her ability to manage it.
Bottom line? From the heaviest 10-inch monster .500 Mag. to the tiniest snubnose .357 Mag., and with all the compact, big-bore "survival" magnums in between, if you ever really need to use one in a life-critical situation, you will likely never even notice the recoil.