The .44 Special




The .44 Russian is a very fine target cartridge, but neither it nor the .44 American which is now about obsolete, needs to be discussed here, as the .44 Special will do all that either of these shorter cartridges will do and a great deal more either on the target or for more serious sixgun work. I consider the .44 Special our finest large caliber revolver cartridge by a wide margin. It will do all that any .45 Colt or .44-40 will do and more. Any weight bullet that works well in either the .44-40 or the .45 Colt will do good work in the .44 S & W Special. The .44 Special will also give higher velocities with any weight  bullet from 200 grain up to 250 grain or even 280 grain than will the thin-walled-cylinder guns chambered for either the .44-40 or the .45 Colt. The case, being straight, will withstand complete resizing and reloading a great many times. It is full as accurate as anything ever produced for use in a sixgun, not excepting the .38 S & W Special and is a great deal easier to hand load for fine accuracy than  some .38 Special guns. Some may wonder at this statement but they will find the reason if they load the two cartridges for different guns of each caliber, especially if there is any variation in groove diameter from the standard. A variation of .001" is not so much in a .44 Special, but makes quite a difference at times in a .38 Special.


In 1927 I abandoned the .45 Colt for my own use in favor of the .44 Special, and have seen no reason to change back. I soon found that I could load much more powerful cartridges for the .44 Special than for any other revolver. These powerful hand loads extracted easily and shot more accurately than any .45 Colt I have ever owned or used. The factory .44 Special load is little more than a squib, with a velocity of 800 feet or less and owing to the shape of its round-nose pointed bullet, gives very little killing power. I have shot sage hens with Western factory .44 Specials and wounded them through the bodies, and then have them run off and hide themselves in the brush. Yet if you hand load this cartridge with a properly shaped bullet of 230 to 250 grains weight then it is a killer, and if a hollow point bullet is used, the same sage hens can be scattered all over the ground and torn up too much for  table use. The 230 grain bullet can be loaded safely to 1200 feet and in long barrel guns possibly up to nearly 1300 feet with Hercules #2400 powder. The 250 grain bullet can be given a velocity of around 1100 feet with the same powder.


I once designed a 260 grain bullet for Belding & Mull, using their blunt nose shape and Croft and I also worked out a similar shape for the same firm weighing 280 grains, both for the .44 Special. These bullets were very good killers and quite accurate at reasonable ranges but did not do so well or tear as large holes as those I later designed for Lyman Gun Sight Corporation. Last, I did considerable experimenting on chucks, jacks and other pests with the .44 Special, handloaded with my 235 grain hollow point bullet and 18.5 grains of #2400 Hercules to see if it was as good or a better killer than the .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum. In all cases it proved to be a much more powerful load and gave nearly twice the amount of destruction as the .357 Magnum, even when the latter was loaded with a 160 grain Keith hollow point bullet at standard velocity for this cartridge. Jack rabbits shot in the chest had their whole hind part or rear half blown away. On rump shots the front end of the Johnnie was completely torn to ribbons. I have never before seen such destruction of tissue from any sixgun or automatic pistol cartridge and really believe it is the  most powerful handgun load in existence. I went up as high as 20 grains of #2400, but the cases showed some signs of pressure, not nearly as much, however as I had found with the #80 loads I had used for years. I found the limiting factor to be leading, the 20 grain load leading the guns badly with the bullet temper I was then using. A different alloy or grease wads might have stopped this, but at the time, I cut the charge to 18.5 grains, causing the leading to almost be eliminated. The pressure signs on both case and primer seemed less, even with 20 grains of #2400, than with the same bullet and 13 grains of duPont #80 powder. The velocities were much higher, as was clearly shown by the expansion and killing power. The recoil was heavy, although not unpleasant in a Colt Single Action or in the Smith & Wesson with the new S & W Magna grips, but after some fifty rounds was very unpleasant in the S & W gun with the standard style of grips.


I have handloaded a great many heavy .44 Special loads for friends who have killed elk, bear, moose and mule deer here, and one sportsman took some to Africa and kept twelve men supplied with antelope meat with my 250 grain handloads in a S & W .44 Special military model with 6 1/2" barrel.


The consensus of opinion among the most experienced sixgun shots of this country indicates that the .38 and .44 Special cartridges are the best of all from any standpoint for the handloader particularly. These two are made in greater quantity than any other revolver cartridges; hence, more experimenting has been done with them than with other loads, and they are held to closer tolerances in loading. The guns chambered for these two loads are also held to closer tolerances as to groove diameter and chambering than most other sixgun calibers. To get the best out of them, they have to be handloaded, as all standard factory loads for both are very light and offer a high trajectory curve with very little actual stopping and killing power. Nevertheless, they are accurate in the extreme.



Elmer Keith

Sixguns Cartridges And Loads

December 1936




Dark Canyon Home Page