The .44 Magnum
A Personal Retrospective
Click on any thumbnailed image for a larger photo.
Central Texas has always been a hotbed of handgun innovation and it is not surprising that in the fledgling years of the Post War Revolver Boom, 44 Magnums began to appear fairly early after their introduction. A prominent varmint caller got one of the flat top Blackhawks and lit up the imagination of local shooters knocking over the occasional coyote and putting on impromptu long range shooting demonstrations that impressed even the local riflemen. Well before 1960 John Thorn, a Waco Policeman put a nickel plated Smith 4” in his Myers duty holster, loaded it with jugular jacket semi-wadcutters over ten grains of Unique and became quite a trend-setter in the department. He also provided a gaggle of teenage Street Arabs with their first indoctrination to the new N-Frame. The big revolver was quite a fascination for those of us who were beginning our shooting careers with flat top .357s and Colt Scout rimfires.
Old model Blackhawk
Due partially to stories of the horrendous recoil of the .44, it was some years before my first shooting experience with the round. It was 1968 when a friend came up with a “three screw" Super Blackhawk. The high-polished, tightly fitted revolver with its slick action and frame-fitting rebated cylinder was a joy to handle and behold and I was quite eager to shoot it. The load was 18 grains of 2400 under the Speer ¾ jacket semi-wadcutter cranked out on a wall-mounted Lyman Tru-line Junior. The big Ruger was completely tractable with the middling mild load and the accuracy of the combination made a lasting impression.
A few years later, the coincidence of ready cash and an available .44 made me the owner of a New Model Super Blackhawk. Shortly thereafter, I took my first handgun hunted deer. It was a five-point East Texas buck hit at bow hunting range with an RCBS 245 KT over 15 grains of WW 630- an 1150 fps load.
At that time, Handgun metallic silhouette shooting was just becoming popular and I ran the Ruger hard with the RCBS bullet over heavy charges of 296 and 2400. This went on until the game fell victim to the equipment race syndrome and became disgusting. All of this grew some perceptible end-shake in the Ruger and visible erosion on the barrel face and forcing cone. Through the middle 80’s, I continued to pound the revolver with heavy loads shooting quite a few varmints and one west Texas deer. That one fell handily to a sixty-yard shot and a load from one of the Speer Manuals using the old-tech 200- grain JHP at a listed 1500 fps. The revolver never did develop any mechanical problems or perceptible loss of accuracy. Now fitted with a stainless Shillen Barrel and tall front sight, it serves as my test revolver for the heavy bullet loads that shoot too high for the usual Ruger sighting arrangement.
The sturdy 29-2 4" before refinishing
There has also been quite a parade of other Rugers and Smith's, most of which fell victim to the occasional trading frenzy. I had a 4” 29-2, well used and abused by a prior owner and restored by Smith and Wesson at moderate cost. I didn’t keep the magna-ported nickel 6” very long. This one had minor carry up failure and I didn’t trust the nickel finish to stand up to much field use. In 1993, I got a new 29-5 that did its best work with full magnum loads. It had the Endurance Package upgrades, a very nice finish and a single action trigger that let off between 3.5 and 4 pounds. One coil off the trigger return spring reduced this to just under 3 and it was an accurate off-hand target shooter. My records show 25 yard five shot groups of 1.27 with the WW Black Talon load (1316 fps); 1.04” with the Hornady XTP over 24/ H110 (1385 fps); and, 1.41’ with the Hornady 300 grain XTP over 20.5 296(1150fps). Lighter lead -bullet target loads grouped in the 1.5” region. By any rational criteria, this was probably a better revolver than the earlier pinned and recessed revolvers and probably would have stood up to the heavy loads a lot longer than the pre-endurance models. Even so, I shot a few jackrabbits and a coon with it and traded it off.
Here in the last couple of years, with considerable hindsight under my belt and a lifetime of enduring preferences and prejudices, I set out to fix and finalize my array of .44 shooting guns. I’ve got them now and I’m not trading them off. They are in like new or new-restored condition. Because Smith and Wesson started the whole thing, I believe I will start by telling you about my Smiths:
.44 Mountain Gun
In 1995, I ran across a new in the box but already out of limited production .44 Mountain Gun. It had the overall profile of the old 1950 target series with modern touches such as a round grip frame, Endurance Package and I believe, flash chrome hammer and trigger-although I seem to recall a mottled light toned color case tone to these parts. This became a favorite carry gun with (and before) the passage of the concealed handgun act and I shot it extensively with the full range of loads. Last year, I sent it back to the factory for a full diagnostic and a custom engraving job in the factory shop. You can read the details at http://www.milesfortis.com/guests/mcump/mc05.htm. In addition to the requested embellishment, the Mountain Gun came back refit with forged, case hardened hammer and trigger. It’s still a regular shooter and favored CCW revolver. Now, I keep pressures below 30,000 psi and load the Corbon 165 defense load for serious business. Something in the combination of balance, the black front sight, the functional combat grips and the action make this revolver quite a bit easier to shoot accurately than other short barreled N -Frames I’ve used. It’s up for single action head shots at 25 yards and reliable center mass double action hits at the same distance.
Groups fired with the 4" Smith at 25 & 50 yards
My search for a prime and permanent example of the first .44’s began several months ago. Smith and Wesson clearly intended the old five -screw 29 to be the finest production handgun made. The fine finish the frame filling recessed cylinder and the desirable hand-ejector action combine form and function in a way that had a profound impact on the shooting public long before Dirty Harry saw the light of day. This fascination continued with the little changed, long-lived 29 -2.
Shot off-hand at 25 yards
These revolvers were always been in short supply and they have always been beset with a number of problems. During the late 1960’s the economy was on a war footing and the sporting revolvers were a low production item. Add to that a general lack of attention to quality assurance in the shooting industry. It was common to find a box-new 29 (or Colt Python, for that matter) set up with an undersized hand and resulting carry up shortfall. Quality concerns remained a recurring theme. Prime examples were prime indeed and the less-than-prime could be fixed. The full- impact factory magnums and reloads were considerably above the platform integrity of the design and were prone to cause premature wear to both frame and action parts.
Now, twenty years later, a really nice pinned and recessed N-44 is becoming a rare find. Once found, such examples can be long-lived, practical shooters and a delight to the senses. I set out to find some.
My first example is a 4” 29-2 of 1972-74 mintage. It was well fitted and had not developed any end float or misalignment. Carry-up, unlike other examples I saw at gun-shows or on the used shelves, was fine unless you cocked the revolver very slowly or with pressure on the cylinder. Then there was some shortfall on a couple of the chambers. Whether this was an artifact of original factory fit or of subsequent shooting is not clear.
Usually my regard for a handgun is directly proportionate to the ease with which it delivers small consistent groups off-hand one handed at 25 yards. My affection for the four- inch barrel Model 29 no doubt results from my early exposure to John Thorn’s service revolver. It certainly doesn’t have a lot to do with my ability to saturate bulls-eyes with the arm. The four-by-forty-four magnifies my errors in trigger control and sight alignment and I never fail to throw at least one round out of the black in any given five shot string. On the plus side, my example has turned in many sub-two inch groups from the 25 yard bench and is a confidence-building machine used two handed in the double or single action mode. Single action, it would do for small game hunting out to 25 yards or a bit less. Double action center-mass hits are a given with standing -on- the- hind legs 25 yard results frequently exceeding what some recent combat autos will do from the bench. I shoot it a lot, carry it a lot. Recently, I sent it back to S&W for complete action renewal and refinish. The visual and functional results equal anything out of Springfield since WWII.
8 3/8" Smith
My shooting stable of Smith .44s rounds out with another 29-2: this one with an 8 3/8” barrel and a set of ugaloid, tropical fruit wood target grips. I picked it up for a song from a local estate sale specialist who doesn’t try to get rich from every transaction. It was unfired. This one was produced in 1982 and has a darker spot on the blue barrel suggesting maybe somebody at the factory thumb printed it just prior to final finish. Otherwise, the revolver is extremely well fitted and finished with positive and consistent pre-timing on each chamber. It is the sort of handgun that forgives the less than perfect shooter many of his errors. Gratifying single action off-hand groups (with target velocity loads) are the norm. What the 4” will do in the double action mode at 25 yards, the 8 3/8” will take back to the fifty yard line making it an urban carbine of the first water should you happen to have it with you. My first shots were over a chronograph with a load of 10/Unique and the Dry Creek 255 grain SWC near-Keith bullet. I flopped down on the ground with my back against the shooting bench and the revolver rested across my upraised knees. This is a good field position and you’ve seen pictures of Elmer Keith doing the same thing. After each shot, I laid the revolver down to record the velocity. The 1125 fps load landed dead on and the fifty yard target showed a five round group of between three and four inches. The same load produced a 1.3” spread at 25 yards shooting from the bench. The long 29 now wears a set of Eagle Heritage grips that resemble the walnut target grips of the early 1950s.
Keeping the older S&W N-Frames in top shooting condition requires a strategy. This involves forgetting all about “….the most powerful handgun made and it will blow your head clean off….punk.” Most of my pleasure shooting and practice is done with full weight lead bullets from various sources over 5.5 grains of Bullseye. The lighter bullets tend to shoot in the high 700 fps range while those in the 240-255 grain range do middle 800s regardless of barrel length. The load is easy and accurate and has applications as a small game or self defense load. The only caution is “one charge to a case please, only one.” The same caution applies to the heaviest load I am willing to shoot in the 29s of dash two and earlier vintage. Ten grains of Unique will drive bullets weighing from 225 to 260 grains at velocities ranging from 1100 to 1150 fps. Barrel length is no predictor with this load and the speeds usually remain within the above range with barrels ranging from 4” to 8 3/8. Several generations of loading manuals put pressures with this charge in the 20-25,000 psi range--well within the platform parameters of the old revolvers. Speer 225 grain ¾ jacketed hollow points and 235 grain Lyman Cast Hollow Points show full expansion when recovered from wet pack at 50 yards. The load is kind to the gun and equal to any game animal native to Texas.
The Corbon 165 grain self defense load does 1300 fps from both of my 4” revolvers with 25 yard groups of under 2”. I ordered a couple of hundred rounds to serve as load of choice when carrying concealed. I do believe that this is as good an anti-personnel as can be found for a handgun. Felt recoil is not notably different from my practice loads and Corbon bullets are noted for their capacity for destruction.
In general, I regard my Ruger .44s as magnums with the Capitol M. I have taken most of my large-by-Texas-standards game with one or another Super Blackhawk. My prime hunting revolver is a stainless Super fitted with a Bowen Target Sight and a set of stag grips. I do most of my shooting with this one using factory standard loads such as 24 Grains H110 and the Hornady 240 grain XTP or the prime 260 grain Keith from Dry Creek over 21.2 / 2400 and a standard primer. These are high 1300 fps range loads. They replace my earlier penchant for 22 grains of 2400 with Magnum primers--a load that would shoot into the middle fifteen hundreds with most standard weight bullets. After some considerable shooting with heavy loads this revolver remains free of end-shake or any hint of forcing cone burn. It is one of the infrequent Ruger NMSAs that will tolerate a very light trigger pull without exhibiting back-lash or push-off. The lock work has not been modified and the only action work consists of a light trigger return spring. With a trigger pull of between one and two pounds, the Ruger prints K-38-like target scores even with the heavy loads. The trigger pull has remained constant and is a safe set-up if you keep your finger outside the guard until ready to shoot.
New Model Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum
My least used.44 at this writing is a near new Old Model Super Blackhawk that had remained unfired in the box from 1965 until I bought it in 2001. Skeeter Skelton had a few of these and he mentioned that he frequently applied a one pound trigger release to his old model Rugers. Out of respect for its age and the growing paucity of replacement parts, mine will keep its creepy 4 pound factory release- unless or until shooting smoothes it out. I plan to stay with the same loading strategy as discussed with the Smith 29s. Preliminary testing produced a best group with the lead bullet target load of less than an inch at 25 yards. Even with a factory trigger, it produces satisfactory off-hand target scores and it is a reliable hitter on gallon water jugs and telephone book wet pack at fifty yards. The frame window filling recessed cylinder, the fine and even polish and the traditional action are everything I remember from my first .44 experience in 1968.
My affection for the .44 seems to grow partially from the same sort of nostalgia that attends the strong following enjoyed by the .45 Colt. It was definitely a thing of building legend during my formative years and the production revolvers of the time seemed to mark the high point in the development of the classic revolver forms. It occurs, however, that I have never fired a .429 of the Magnum or Special variety that was not extremely accurate. By mid twentieth century the importance of cylinder/throat/barrel relationships were understood and the industry standards are well established. The cartridge is reloader-friendly and produces fine results across the full range of the large caliber handguns. Judicious load selection duplicates the performance of the other big bores and then leaves them behind well before maximum pressures occur.
When all is said and done, I have never found a more useful cartridge or any need for one more powerful.
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