Educational Zone #78 – Interesting Cartridges – The .44 Magnum

As a young man, I was fascinated by the Smith & Wesson Model 29, .44 Magnum. I just had to have one.

But then the movie “Dirty Harry” came out and Clint said: 

“I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

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And with those words, my desire for a Model 29 went on a 10 year hiatus. 

It suddenly became almost impossible to find a Model 29 for sale at a reasonable price. I would have to wait years before the price came down enough for me to get one.

But it was worth the wait. 

My old hero Elmer Keith worked on “souping up” the famous .44 Special pistol round for years. He loaded it to much higher pressures and found that it was a very effective hunting round. But, sadly, he also blew up a few old revolvers with his very hot loads.

Finally, in about 1956, Elmer convinced Remington to make some cartridges called the .44 Remington Magnum, with cases slightly longer (by about 1/10th inch) than the original .44 Special. This prevented the more powerful cartridges from being mistakenly loaded into the older firearms chambered for the Special.

These new hot loads would push a 240 grain bullet at over 1,500 fps. That made it the hottest thing in hunting handguns. Modern cartridges such as the .454 Casull, .500 S&W and others have surpassed the .44 Magnum as the “most powerful” handgun round. But it is, in my humble opinion, one of the most powerful handgun rounds that most people can reasonably handle in a handgun.

Let’s take a look at this fine cartridge.

Here are some of my handloads.

To get the most out of the versatility of this fine cartridge, you just about have to load it yourself.

On the left is my “mild” load of 6.0 grains of WW 231 behind a 240 grain cast lead Semi-Wadcutter (SWC) bullet.

This load is an easy to shoot load and probably close to the one Dirty Harry actually carried, as he admitted in his second movie that he loaded a “mild .44 Special” load.

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Next is my heavy, hard cast bullet load with a 250 grain Keith SWC (gas checked) over a heavy load of Accurate Arms #9 powder. (Elmer did not prefer gas checked bullets, but I do, so I ordered a mold with the gas check on it.) This load does a little over 1,400 fps.

It is also the favorite bullet of old Elmer, who designed the cast bullet and talked Lyman into making a mold for him. It has a flat point, with a sharp, full-caliber shoulder, a wide lube grove, and a gas check to protect the base and allow hot loads without leading the barrel of the pistol.

I cast these bullets myself out of wheel weights with added tin and antimony, and apply the gas checks and lube them with Alox lubricant. They shoot very accurately and, as Elmer noted, will make a hole clean through an elk or a moose.
Next is a 240 grain JSP, which is a factory load.

Lastly, is a snake load, which I have used to good results on snakes as seen in Snake Loads O’ Truth.

The question was originally asked, “If this is the most powerful handgun made, then is it the best defensive load?” The answer is simply, No.

This round has two factors that limit its ability as a defensive round. Used on bad guys, it has very excessive penetration with hot loads, and the recoil is more than almost anyone can handle and make quick follow-up shots to good effect.

Let’s look at some of the fine pistols for this old round. Today we took three of my .44 Magnum pistols t the range.

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On the top is my Model 29 with an 8 3/8th inch barrel, next is my Model 29 with a 6 inch barrel, and bottom is my Ruger Super Blackhawk with a 7 1/2 inch barrel.

You might notice that they all have relatively long barrels. This is because I believe that to really get the most out of a Magnum cartridge, you need enough barrel to burn all of the slow burning powder they contain. If you like short barrels, fine with me. But I like longer ones for Magnum rounds.

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The Model 29 revolvers are older versions that are pinned and recessed.

S&W later stopped pinning and recessing revolvers to save money.

What does this mean?

Most revolver cylinders are not recessed.

That means that the cartridge rim rests on the face of the cylinder like this.

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A recessed cylinder has recesses for the cartridge rim and the case is flush with the surface of the cylinder.

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A barrel on a revolver is screwed into the frame (very tightly) until it is lined up correctly.

Simple pressure holds it in place.

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A barrel on an old Smith was also screwed tightly onto the frame, but then had a pin driven into a hole drilled through the frame to “lock” the barrel into position, like this.

Are “pinned and recessed” pistols “better” than those without these features?

Many would argue each side of the issue.

But one thing is sure; a “pinned and recessed” revolver commands an extra high price on the gun market.

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Let’s do some shooting. 

Here I am shooting a hot load in the long barreled Smith. 

Notice the recoil.

Not uncontrollable, but a follow-up shot would take more time. 

And, I can assure you that a long shooting session with these loads gets to be less and less “fun” after a while.

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How about the milder loads?

Here I am shooting some of them.

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Notice the comparative lack of heavy recoil.

Here I am cocking the hammer while the smoke from the last round in still in the air.

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These loads will shoot some fine groups.

Here’s mine today, not the “best”, just average for 6 shots.

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The Ruger Super Blackhawk has some large and, in my opinion, ugly, grips on it, but they sure do soak up the recoil on the heavy loads.

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Dirty Harry’s use of this pistol and cartridge might have been a Hollywood fabrication, but this fine round, with the right loads, would still be an effective defensive round, if the user is willing to practice enough to be good with it.

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Conclusion:
But one way or the other, it is always a fine day at the range when you are shooting this great round.

 

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