Converting .357s to .44 Specials

by Skeeter Skelton

 

Shooting Times Magazine

April 1972

When Skeeter said he wanted to transform a .357 Ruger Blackhawk to .44Spl., his friends told him he was crackers. But we thought it was worth a try - and came up with another suggestion: Do the same with a S&W .357. Result? After many complicated problems and much work, came two fine .44 Spl. conversions. And accuracy from both revolvers was superb!

The .44 S&W Special is the finest all-around handgun cartridge ever loaded, and in my experience, it is a bit more accurate than the ballyhooed .38 Spl. The soft factory loading throws a 246-grain round-nosed lead bullet at a relaxed 750 feet per second (fps), and is virtually without recoil, considering its power. It is a superb small-game load.

This hull is an extremely easy one to reload and a wide array of cast and jacketed bullets are also available. Handloaded, the .44 Spl. was our most powerful sixgun cartridge prior to the coming of the .44 Magnum in 1956. It is interesting to note that many, if not most, .44 Mag. owners load down to .44 Spl. velocities to escape heavy recoil and muzzle blast.

I have published observations similar to these on several occasions. When I did so in an article in the September 1971 issue of Shooting Times, noting that .44 Spl. revolvers had been discontinued by both Smith & Wesson and Colt plants, a stampede started.

Dozens of letters came in, some telling of a choice but not-for-sale .44 Spl. the writer owned, most asking where to find a used one at a reasonable price, a few suggesting a letter-writing campaign to force the factories to resume production of these good guns. Two or three readers inquired as to the feasibility of converting large-frame sixguns in other calibers to the .44 Spl.

I wasn't of much help. If I had known of any bargain .44 Spls. laying around, I would have bought them myself. They're just not to be had. Talks with officials of both Colt and Smith & Wesson  elicited the information that neither company can keep abreast of orders for their more popular models, and since .44 Specials' sales had never been high, they weren't interested in tooling for small runs of guns that might stay in inventory for an inordinate period.

Barring the unlikely happening of your finding a little old widow lady who has kept her late husband's 1926 Target Model in a trunkful of cosmolene for the last 30 years, your best chance of laying hands on a Cuarenta Y Cuatro Especial is to make one.

In the case of the Colt Model P single action, this isn't too difficult. I've built several of them, starting with good solid guns in .32-20, .38-40, .41 Colt, .44-40, or .45 Colt. All that is usually necessary is to unscrew the old barrel and replace it with a .44 Spl. Cylinder. A bit of filing at the rear of the new barrel is required to regulate the space between it and the cylinder face, and sometimes the ratchet must be fitted to the hand or a new hand installed.

If your Colt SA happens to be in .44-40, and the barrel is good, you don't need to replace it. Bore dimensions are the same as the .44 Spl., and a new cylinder in that chambering will put you in business.

Colt made replacement barrels and cylinders in this caliber for as long as they manufactured the Mode P .44 Spl. Production of parts in this caliber apparently ceased when they discontinued the .44 a few years back, and Colt now informs me that the factory's supply of barrels and cylinders for this cartridge is exhausted.

Christy Gun Works (875-57th. St., Sacramento, Calif. 95831), manufactures very good barrels and cylinders to fit the Colt Thumb-buster, along with several other replacement parts. Their catalog includes the .44 Spl.

Another way of getting a barrel for the Colt is to have one turned down from a .44 blank offered by Numrich Arms (209 Broadway, W. Hurley, N.Y. 12491). Failing to obtain a new cylinder, one may be rechambered from a Colt .32-20, .38 Spl., .357, or .41 Colt Cylinder.

While I knew that the Colt was an easy gun to convert, I became curious about the feasibility of overhauling other revolvers for my favorite cartridge. My first thought was for the Ruger .357 Blackhawk.

Everyone who reads the gun magazines should know that when the .44 Mag. cartridge came out Bill Ruger adapted his then-new .357 to it. Tests showed that the Blackhawk was of minimal strength when enough chamber metal was removed to handle the enormous new shell, so Ruger played it safe and redesigned the gun, giving extra length and height to the frame to accommodate a longer, thicker cylinder.

This expensive change was made, mind you, to adapt the gun to the 40,000-pound-per-square-inch .44 Magnum loads, and not because the old .44 Spl. with pressures of less than 10,000 psi would strain the smaller .357 cylinder or receiver.

When I discussed the idea of converting a .357 Blackhawk with knowledgeable friends, they uniformly told me I was crackers. Why go to all that work and expense, they said. Get yourself a Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 Mag. It will shoot .44 Spls., and if you want a short holster gun all you have to do is cut the barrel off.

I wouldn't buy it. The Super Blackhawk is a big, heavy brute, made for hunting. I wanted a fairly light, slick-handling sixgun to handle .44 Spl. loads of less than maximum pressure and velocity. A 250-grain cast bullet at 1000 fps would be the raunchiest load I intended to put through it. The Super Blackhawk was not the answer.

Some years back, before Ruger introduced their Blackhawk in .45 Colt caliber, I became interested in chambering and barreling a .357 Blackhawk to .45. When I mentioned the idea in a column, I got several letters from experimenters who had tried this alteration, and they all warned me away from it.

The sum of their findings was that while the outside diameter of the Ruger .357 cylinder was very close to the Colt .45 SA, the bolt notches of the Ruger were cut deeper. This left a thinner wall of metal under the bolt notch, and all of my correspondents had suffered bulged or split cylinders shooting heavy .45 loads.

The .45 Colt case is ostensibly a straight one, its body measuring .477 inch. The .44 Spl. is almost imperceptibly tapered, and mikes .457 inch on its body at the rim. After a session of gauging and measuring with a machinist friend, I decided the extra .020 inch of steel over the bolt cuts would probably make the rechambering of a Ruger .357 cylinder to .44 Spl. a workable proposition.

Alex Bartimo, helmsman of Shooting Time, and George Nonte, its resident technician, agreed it was worth a try. They had a further suggestion: Let's do the same thing with a Smith & Wesson .357.

We ordered out a new Ruger .357 Blackhawk with a 4 5/8-inch barrel and an extra cylinder in 9mm Luger, along with a new S&W M28 Highway Patrolman with 4-inch barrel, also .357 caliber. Then it fell to me to solve some problems.

The first was barrels. Neither of these factories normally sell barrels to individuals. For that matter the Smith & Wesson people advised that they had no more barrels in stock for the 1950 Target Model, this being the tube that would be needed to replace the .357 Highway Patrolman barrel.

I had a 4-inch .44 Magnum barrel on hand for the Smith, but its wide rib, large diameter, and short length (it is shorter at its shank than the .44 Spl. or .357 barrels because the .44 Mag. cylinder is longer) would require a great deal of milling machine and lathe work to make it fit the Highway Patrolman.

The Ruger barrel would be less of a problem. Nonte had Numrich Arms ship me a 12-inch length of blank .44 barrel, which could be cut to length and turned down to proper diameter, threaded, a front sight fitted, and a hole drilled and tapped to hold the ejector-rod housing. This blank would not be readily adapted to the S&W because of the extractor-rod lug and rib to be duplicated on the S&W barrel.

As it developed I got lucky. A pack-rat Texas friend of mine, informed of my projects, dug in his warbag and came up with a used but excellent 6-inch .44 Spl. Smith Barrel, along with a 7-inch Ruger Super Blackhawk pipe in new condition.

Threads on these barrels were correct for the .357 receivers in their respective trademarks. It was only left to devise cylinders.

A Telephone conversation with Max Clymer, ramrod of Clymer Mfg. Co. (14241-E W. Eleven Mile Road, Oak Park 37, Mich.), brought through a rush delivery of the reamers necessary to bore out the .357 cylinders to .44 Spl. The first of the two-reamer set was a special cylinder-sizing reamer, with a guide at its tip that fit the .357 chamber, and led the body of the reamer through the hole. This was followed by a chamber-finishing reamer which chambered the cylinder to the correct depth, leaving the shoulder necessary to prevent acceptance of the longer and potentially dangerous .44 Mag. cartridge.

Clymer is probably the best known manufacturer of chambering reamers, and the tools he makes are works of art.

By no stretch of the imagination is the .357 to .44 Spl. conversion a home workshop job. I requires a skilled machinist, a lather, and really needs a milling machine to handle a phase or two. I was able to strap these jobs onto a machinist friend who had more important things to do.

We started with the cylinders. He had on hand a cylinder from a Smith M27 .357 that a local policeman had overloaded, bulging one chamber. Thinking to rechamber by hand with the Clymer reamers, we used the damaged M27 cylinder as a test and found it so hard as to cause chattering when the sizing reamer was hand-turned.

It was then decided to set the cylinder up in a lathe and insert the reamer mechanically up to its rear face. When that depth was reached, the cylinder of the M28 Highway Patrolman, extractor in place, was held in a vise and the counterbores that contain the cartridge rims were finished by hand.

These countersunk chamber chambers are standard on the Smith .357, but not on their .44 Spl., and it is necessary to countersink the .357 cylinder to contain the rims of the .44 cases to allow for proper headspacing.

The .357 barrel was unscrewed after removing the crosspin at the front of the receiver. A bit of lathe work was necessary to get the .44 Spl. barrel to line up properly. Not wanting the 6 inch length, I requested that the barrel be cut to 4 inches. This is not a standard S&W length, but matches the Colt New Service heavy-frame DA guns that I carried years ago, and is a compromise between extra-long and extra-short barrels.

Cutting the barrel caused problems in refitting the ramp that held the front-sight blade. I had never noticed it before, but the rib on the top of some S&W Target barrels tapers to the front. It does on the 1950 .44 Target. This means that if you cut the barrel and move the sight ramp to the rear for reinstallation, the ramp will be more narrow than the rib, requiring some milling to bring the rib down to size. This was done on my Smith, and a new, ramped .100-inch blade installed.

The Ruger was a simpler job. Just in case something went wrong, I elected to rechamber the 9mm cylinder and save the .357 cylinder and barrel so the Blackhawk could be reconverted to .357 if the experiment failed. The Clymer reamers worked perfectly in the 9mm chambers, giving smooth chambers that needed no finish polishing.

The 7-inch Super Blackhawk barrel was cut to 4 5/8 inches, and the front sight removed from the cut-off portion by heating it with a torch. It was then silver-soldered in place on the shortened tube, which was polished for rebluing before installation.

Not liking the anodized aluminum ejector-rod housing that came on the Blackhawk, I dug an old steel one from my spare parts bag. It required some fitting to mate with the Super barrel, which is of somewhat larger diameter than that of the Blackhawk.

I also replaced the news Ruger's grip frame and stocks. The new design, called the XR3-RED by the factory, does not feel as good to me as the old Colt-style XR3 grip frame, and I used my last one on this new .44 Spl.

At the same time I replaced the standard Magna style stocks of the Smith with an old comfortable pair of custom handles made years ago by Walter Roper.

Before going to the trouble of bluing these revamped six shooters, I fired 50 rounds through each of them, the load being a handload of the 215-grain Lyman-Thompson gas-check bullet sized .429 inch, over a charge of 7.5 grains Unique in new Winchester-Western brass with CCI standard primers. With this load, which is in the 950 to 1000 fps range, empties fell freely from the chambers of the Ruger without so much as a nudge from the ejector. Simultaneous extraction of six fired hulls from the Smith was exceptionally smooth and easy.

Wanting to proof test the .44s before continuing, I discussed the project with George Nonte, and Dave Andrews, the ballistics expert of Speer, Inc. Figuring the factory load's chamber pressure to be around 8000 psi, and the factory proof load to be approximately 25 per cent above that figure, it was decided that a proof load generating approximately 25,000 psi would be a more than adequate test of the strength of the rechambered cylinders.

This happens to be the pressure whomped up by a popular, if maximum, hunting load used by many .44 Spl. addicts using a 250-grain cast bullet and a large dose of 2400 powder. I loaded a mess of these chili peppers and fired 12 in each gun. Extraction of the proof cases was a bit stiffer than that of the working load, but was accomplished with no undue sweating.

Since proofing, I have fired about 300 rounds of various handloads through the two guns, staying with a powder charge of 7.5 grains of Unique, and using both the Lyman-Keith 429421 250-grain cast bullet and the jacketed Speer 235-grain HP.

Accuracy from either revolver is superb.

Rebluing was simple. Only the cuttdown barrels and the Ruger's ejector-rod housing were polished to remove tool marks. Then the half blue, half shiny guns were hot blued in a nitrate solution and came out looking as good as they did when they left New England.

How practical a project this has been is debatable. I feel sure that neither Ruger nor S&W would endorse or assist in such conversions, since they could exercise no control over the work and would not want to be held responsible for unsatisfactory results. Several hours of skilled machine work are required, and there is the cost of the reamers which must be absorbed by the pistolsmith. The gun owner must be prepared to pay a stiff price for all this, plus furnishing a Ruger or S&W .357 revolver in excellent or new condition.

Barrels for the S&W could be a real problem. While a .44 Mag. barrel could be adapted, much expensive machine work would be necessary. It might be possible to rebore a .357 barrel, but I know of no one doing this work on pistol barrels at present.

Even at inflated prices it would likely be less expensive today to buy a used original .44 Spl. if one could be found. If you can't find one, this is one way to own  a .44 Spl.

Neither I nor Shooting Times can be responsible for the results should you try to duplicate these conversions. Based on the admittedly small amount of shooting I've done with my two guns, I have every confidence that they will stand up and continue to perform well.

If they don't, I'll let you know.

 

 

Dark Canyon Home Page