Loading Down the .44 Magnum Safely
December 05, 2017
Reader Dan Hobart recently asked, "Why should any handloader be concerned about fouling caused by firing .44 Special ammo in their .44 Magnum revolver? I just load down .44 Magnum brass and get excellent accuracy in my Ruger Super Blackhawk revolver and Henry Big Boy lever action. The same applies to the .38 Special/.357 Magnum."
I fully agree with Dan's comments; however, let me offer a couple of related considerations. Until his inquiry, I'd only fired a few rounds of .44 Spl. ammo in .44 Mag. revolvers, so I didn't have enough firsthand data to offer an opinion. I have fired hundreds of .38 Spl. rounds in several .357 Mag. handguns and have never noticed any problem caused by fouling, and I did not have any problem loading and firing any of the .44-caliber rounds tested in this report.
When reloading, you should always match component selection to the handload's intended purpose. In other words, personal protection might mean a light- to medium-weight jacketed hollowpoint bullet launched at near maximum velocity. Hunting loads typically have heavy jacketed or hard-cast gaschecked bullets stepping out with the most energy you can handle. Recreational, i.e., target practice or plinking, ammo loaded with cast or plated bullets surely doesn't require maximum terminal performance.
Pick the Proper Powder
Of course, selecting an appropriate propellant is just as important as topping your ammo with the "right-purpose" bullet. Hand-
loaders need look no further than the latest editions of Hodgdon's Annual Reloading Manual or Lyman's Cast Bullets manual to get safe and reliable data for a broad range of .44 Spl. and .44 Mag. applications. I did just that to review and compare the myriad load recipes.
Factory .44 Spl. ammo is loaded to a maximum average pressure (MAP) of about 14,000 CUP, while the .44 Mag.'s MAP is about 2.5 times greater. Hodgdon's load data for the .44 Spl. comprises a half-dozen mostly flatpoint or semiwadcutter cast bullets weighing from 165 to 240 grains. Velocities are modest, typically ranging from 650 fps to around 1,000 fps. The .44 Mag. data is substantially expanded to include 17 cast and jacketed bullets weighing up to 355 grains. The substantially greater MAP allows launching light JHPs to nearly 1,900 fps and the heaviest cast gascheck bullets up to 1,250 fps.
Just as rifle powders are identified as having fast, medium, or slow burn rates, propellants for handgun cartridges are similarly classified. Typically, reduced charges of faster burn rate propellants are best for target ammo, especially when you're loading lightweight jacketed, plated, or plainbase cast bullets. Self-defense and hunting handloads deliver maximum performance when loaded with full charges (often compressed) of slower burn rate handgun propellants.
Loading down in .44 Mag. handloads does not simply mean using less of just any propellant. For example, Hodgdon typically recommends only one charge weight for 700-X and 800-X. For slower burn rate propellants like IMR 4227, H110, W296, and Lil' Gun, the start charge in both sources is only 5 percent less than the max recommend load. When loading lighter-weight cast bullets and faster burn rate powders like Universal, HP-38, W231, and others, the recommended max charges can be safely reduced by up to 20 percent.
The .44 Mag. case is only 1/8 inch longer than the .44 Spl. case, so its case capacity is not that much greater. However, you will need a bit more propellant to achieve the same velocity in your practice/target loads. Whereas a specified charge of slow burn rate powder will usually fill or almost fill a .44 Mag. case, much lighter charges of most faster burn rate propellants will not.
Please note that the comparatively lighter charge weights of faster burn rate propellants should not be called "reduced loads." They are just the "correct load" of that powder to use when loading down magnum handgun ammo.
IMR Trail Boss is a bulky fast burn rate powder, so you cannot double charge a case without noticing your mistake. Topped with a 240-grain cast bullet, the Trail Boss load yields normal .44 Spl. pressures. So does the same charge weight — not volume — of W231. However, pressures skyrocket from a double charge of the latter. You do not want to experience the results of inadvertently loading and then firing such a charge!
Federal 150, CCI 300, Remington 2½, and WLP primers are capable of reliably igniting most recommended loads for either .44-caliber cartridge. However, if you simply load down (say only half of the slow burn rate propellant of a favorite hunting load), you will likely experience erratic ignition or even a misfire, which may result in lodging the bullet in the barrel.
Some Firsthand Experience
To get some experience with Dan's inquiry, I made up 60 rounds of .44 Spl. and 40 rounds of .44 Mag. handloads (see the accompanying chart). Only two steps require special attention when reloading straight-walled revolver cartridges. First, each case must be trimmed to the same length so you can apply a uniform crimp when seating the bullet. Target loads composed of minimum charge weights of easily ignited, fast burn rate powders may be lightly crimped. Maximum charges of heavily deterred, slow burn rate powder require a much more severe crimp so the bullet resistance is adequate to ensure full combustion of the powder.
I fired two, five-shot groups for each handload in a 4.20-inch-barreled Ruger Redhawk from a sandbag benchrest. While doing so, I was careful to tilt the revolver up before firing each round to ensure the propellant was always in the same position closest to the primer flash hole.
I recommend loading .44 Spl. brass with faster burn rate handgun propellants if you're making up "target" handloads. It's more efficient, and you'll likely achieve consistent ballistic performance. The powder position of similar handloads in .44 Mag. brass may adversely affect ignition and peak pressure and, in turn, bullet velocity.