Can You Handle The .44 Magnum?

By Skeeter Skelton



Shooting Times Magazine

July 1972


These guns have undeservedly earned and unsavory reputation for being brutal hand busters. This is not true. Theyíre excellent hunterís handguns, and while they have tremendous muzzle blast and howitzer-like recoil, any sixgunner can adapt to them and take varmints and even big game.


There is a truth about the .44 Magnum. A great many lies have been told about it, but there remains a truth. It is the most powerful revolver cartridge yet produced, and the sixguns made for it by Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger are the finest revolvers available today.

If you are mulling over the purchase of one of these big handguns, you are probably fretting about some of the reports youíve heard or read. There have been more bullchips spread in the trail of the .44 Magnum than perhaps any other contemporary firearm, and until youíve used one for a while you wonít be able to separate the gas from the gospel.

The next prevalent of the malicious rumors that plague the .44 is that it kicks so viciously that no one but a masochist can take pleasure in shooting it. I am always perplexed when otherwise virile, outdoor types Ė some of them gun writers, and presumably experts in the use of arms Ė tell me they just canít handle the .44 Magnum

Some of these guys are rifle and shotgun men who infrequently fire handguns, especially big-bore handguns. I suspect that their examination of the .44 Magnum has been perfunctory. After their writings and their candid conversations were bandied around gun circles a few times, it is small wonder that the average handgunner doubted his own ability to control the brute.

It was reported that firing the Smith & Wesson with factory magnum loads would split the web of your hand. The checkering on the Smith stocks, they said, made your palm feel that it was being given the electric chair.

The smooth-gripped Ruger was called uncontrollable, and the barrel went skyward as the handle slithered down through your grasp, letting the hammer spur gouge a steak out of the top of your thumb. The Rugerís trigger guard was indicted for chewing a hole in the front of the shooterís middle finger, with malice aforethought. Eardrums were damaged and eyeballs glazed over by the tremendous muzzle blast and flash.

The rifle and shotgun men decided that you would be better off with a compact rifle. The tables showed the .44 Magnum revolver to have less energy than a .30-30 Winchester.

The handgunners who didnít care to devote themselves to learning the new gun pronounced the .357 Magnum, at about half the power of the magnum .44 to be adequate for any task a reasonable man would assign to a handgun.

As a result, a large segment of the shooting world believes the user of a .44 Magnum is a showoff who substitutes for virility, cool, and the understanding of the finer points of sportsmanship.

I havenít been around a great many .44 Mag shooters, maybe because many of my sixshooting friends have been spooked by irresponsible pap like that Iíve just quoted. What I write now is based on my own experience, and that of two or three others who like to make up their own minds.

I have owned about 10 .44 Magnum revolvers, all the products of S&W or Ruger. In these guns I have fired perhaps 3000 or 4000 factory loads of various makes, and followed them with an estimated 15,000 or 20,000 heavy handloads. I have never loaded any large quantity of light loads for the magnum, reserving this class of cartridge for my .44 Spl. Guns.

At no time has a .44 Magnum revolver broken the skin of my hand or caused me any pain when I fired it. I have never seen one of these guns injure any other shooter in even the mildest way, and this includes my son, who first fired a Ruger .44 when he was six.

This doesnít mean that my associates or I are any tougher than you are. Fifty rounds of hardball from an unaltered .45 Colt automatic will let its grip safety and hammer spur chew a hole in the web of my gun hand that will require a month to heal.

With factory ammunition, the .44 Magnum has a recoil of about 18.5 foot pounds (ft./lbs.). The .357 is listed at 11.58 ft./lbs., and the old .45 Colt at 9.9. None of these revolvers causes me any distress. The .45 ACP is tabled at 4.5 ft/ lbs. And this softy eats me alive unless I alter the gun to de-fang it.

This indicates to me that the target-type Smith & Wesson stocks and the 19th century Ruger grip frame are admirably suited to the cushioning of heavy recoil. They do their jobs in different way.

To my notion the Smith .44 Magnum kicks more. This is to say that more of the recoil energy is transmitted into the shooterís hand and arm. The sawhandle hump at the top of the S&W backstrap is designed to keep the hand in place during recoil, and does its work perfectly. The thrust of the kick comes more or less straight back into the palm and forearm because the hand does not move on the grip.

The historic SA grip of the Ruger allows the barrel to turn up and the stocks to slip down slightly in the hand. Much of the recoil force is dispelled as the handle rubs through the gripping palm and fingers.

Without realizing it, most shooters find shooting the .44 Magnum unpleasant because of muzzle blast, rather than actual recoil. This is especially true in the case of short barrels, which allow great gobs of the slow-burning powder used in magnums to pass through the big muzzle and flash noisily in front of the gun.

The Smith Magnum is produced in three different barrel lengths: Four-inch, 6 Ĺ -inch, and 8 3/8 Ėinch. Rugerís super Blackhawk comes only with a 7 Ĺ -inch tube, althought he discontinued ďstandardĒ Blackhawk, a somewhat lighter gun of which I am fond, was offered in 6 Ĺ, 7 Ĺ, and 10-inch lengths. Both Ruger models are sometimes encountered with barrels cut to 4 5/8, and I consider these, like the four-inch Smith & Wesson, a mistake, since the shooter pays a high price in discomfort for the sake of a small increase in portability.

Although you will probably find shooting a short-barreled.44 more taxing than a long one, itís not because the short gun kicks more. True recoil in the longer-tube models is a bit greater because the powder is burned more completely, and pressures and velocities are increased. The long guns are more powerful, more accurate because of their longer sight radius, and infinitely more friendly to the gun-shy shooter.

The .44 Magnum is not a policemanís gun. I am told that Clint Eastwood is the hero of a new, gutsy cop movie call, Dirty Harry, and that in it he totes around a 6 Ĺ -inch Smith .44 Maggie under a sports jacket. Eastwood, if I recall, did a bunch of spaghetti westerns in which he would shoot 11 men and water buffalo without reloading his sixshooter.

I enjoy the raunchy Eastwood entertainment, but I separate it from my work as a police officer. There are no retakes in back alley confrontations between the law and the lawless.

The muzzle blast and recoil of the .44 Magnum do not lend it to fast repeat shots. To a degree I accept the theory that a big caliber revolver is the best medicine in a gun fight, because one well placed shot will stop the hostilities. This is true Ė only if you have one armed opponent. If you have several, you must move faster.

There is also the possibility, even the probability, that the officer might miss his first shot in the stress of combat. Iíve seen it happen. Pulling the .44 Magnum down out of recoil for a second shot can use up a lot of time. A combat  handgunner doesnít have any spare time.

This leaves the .44 Magnum way out by itself. It is a hunterís gun, pure and simple, and in this role it is beautiful, and Iíve used it as such for 16 years.

The .44 is an excellent varmint killer, especially with hollow-point bullets. Even with nonexisting solid lead slugs it is too much for rabbit- or squirrel-sized game intended for the kitchen. Holding way to the front, you will be lucky to take home the hindquarters of meat animals this size.

It shines on bobcat, javelina, coyotes, and the little Texas whitetail, and will take this game handily with just about any bullet style you care to load in it. Although I donít ordinarily go big-game hunting armed only with a handgun, circumstances have permitted me to take mule deer, whitetail, antelope, and on mouflon sheep with the .44 Magnum. I wouldnít hesitate to shoot an elk or medium-sized bear with this cartridge if I were close enough to be sure of placing my shot.

Although good shooting has been done with it at considerably longer ranges, it is best to call the .44 Magnum a 100-yard gun. A good, calm sixgunner who is familiar with the trajectory of the load he is using will have little trouble staying in the heart-lung area of a deer-sized target at this range. This presupposes that he will use the steady two-handed hold, and try for a one-shot kill.

The old .44-40 Winchester load, a 200-grain, conical lead slug at about 1500 fps from a saddle carbine, took a hell of a lot of game in this country, fired from í73 and í92 Winchesters and a wide selection of Colt pumps and Marlin lever actions. Everyone thought it was just fine in its time, even though infinitely more powerful cartridges were available.

The long-barrelled .44 Magnum revolver is more powerful than the .44-40 rifle. It shoots heavier bullets, better designed for expansion and resultant killing power, at the same or higher velocities. I, for one, can do about as well on a game target with the .44 Magnum sixgun as I can with an iron sighted, lever-action carbine. Although the .30-30 carbine has paper velocity and energy figures that would make you think it is more potent than the .44, I donít believe this is the case. Game shot at similar ranges with expanding bullets from the .30-30 long gun and the .44 Magnum revolver seems to me to be equally well killed.

The .44 Magnum is the brainchild of Elmer Keith and when it first became available he reported on tests he had made on heavy slaughter bulls, using the half-jacket lead Remington load. His tests indicated that the soft lead bullets expanded to almost an inch on the thick hide and frontal bone of the bullís skulls, and yet retained enough penetration to range deeply into the neck muscles.

Knowing how proud Elmer was of his new cartridge, I ran similar test of my own. I found that Keith was, if anything, understanding the case for the stopping power of the factory .44 Magnum load. At a friendís slaughter plant I compared the effect of the Remington load, a handload comprised of the Lyman 429421 bullet cast hard over 22 grains of 2400 powder, and some blackpowder, and some black-tipped, armor piercing .30-06 stuff fired from a bolt-action rifle.

The factory and handloaded .44ís naturally, cut larger holes in the skills of the butcher cattle than the .30-06 military ammunition. The unexpected result was that both the factory and the cast-bullet handloads penetrated much deeper into the neck area of the steers.

In the case of the .44 handload, bullets were uniformly found some three to four inches farther into the heavy neck muscle, after having completely penetrated the skull and spinal areas, than the .30 caliber rifle bullets that had been designed to shoot through armor plate.

Since that time a number of jacketed, soft-nosed and hollow-pointed .44 bullets have become available. Remington and Winchester both have both JSP and JHP loaded rounds and component bullets that are improvements on their original .44 Mag slugs in the expansion department.

Super Vel Cartridge Co. offers lightweight, 180-grain JHP and JSP numbers that can be kicked up to 1700 fps. I bagged the aforementioned mouflon sheep with these, and they performed perfectly.

Speer, Sierra, and Hornady all offer their own ideas of the perfect .44 bullet, and are excellent. Norma Precision imports a load, as well as steel jacketed raw bullets, that will probably give deeper penetration than any of its counterparts, at the cost of extreme expansion.

To really learn your .44 Magnum you must shoot it a great deal. If your income places you in the great American middle class, you must reload. Factory ammunition is simply too expensive to permit the 50 or more rounds you should shoot each week to become proficient. Even the purchase of enough factory-formed, jacketed bullet for reloading can become an economic burden if you are shooting seriously.

The answer to you financial problem is to cast your own bullet. The three best .44 Magnum slugs are typified by Lymanís Keith style 429421, their gas checked  429244, and the similar, gas checked Lyman 429215 bullet that casts out at approximately 215 grains, opposed to the nominal 250 grains of the former two.

The Ohaus Scale Corp. is now producing moulds of very similar designs that are excellent in quality, and Lee Precision Manufacturing offers a new line of inexpensive casting equipment that will make good .44 slugs..

Donít be afraid of cast bullet in your .44 Magnum. One affluent rancher friend of mine has carried a .44 Smith every day for many years. He can afford to use whatever bullet or cartridge that catches his fancy, but he prefers a gas checked 429244 bull, hollow pointed or solid, depending on his quarry, for all his hunting. His standard powder charge with either bullet is 22 grains of 2400, which gives him 1400-fps loads.

The gas-checked bullets are superb, and shoot clean over any powder charge. Fitting the copper gas check to their base constitutes a modicum of extra work and expense, and I have always gotten fine results, with no barrel leading, with plain-based bullets of the Keith type.

The .44 Magnum is hairsplittingly accurate, in spite of its great striking power. This is a natural condition, since it is simply a slightly elongated .44 Special, the most accurate centerfire round weíve ever had.

Some shooters keep their magnums sighted for 50 or 100 yards. I never have, since most of my sixgun shots come at 20 to 35 yards. My .44s are sighted to hit the exact point of aim at 25 yards. At 50 yards, only a minute holdover of the front sight is necessary for center hits, and as a practical matter I hold right on.

There is some drop at 100. Holding something like 1/8 inch of the front blade above the level of the rear sight leaf will put you center at this range, depending on your load, and very little practice is necessary to learn how much front blade to hold up for consistent hits. Longer ranges require more visible front blade and out to 500 yard it gets real interesting.

For this kind of shooting a light, clean trigger pull is necessary. Smith & Wesson magnums uniformly have this attribute. The less expensive Rugers sometimes have a bit of creep, but the attainment of a crisp-let off on your Ruger single action is a simple and inexpensive assignment for any capable smith.

Donít be afraid of the .44 Magnum. There is nothing magical, supernatural, mysterious, forbidding, or even sexy about it. It is simply an honest, big gun that will do you a job if you will bother to become familiar with it.

And thatís the truth.






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