The Versatile .44 Magnum: For Hunting, Target Shooting, and Defense
[Editor's Note - This article was originally a reply to an email from Kevin's daughter, Caitie. Caitie's boyfriend, John, was the itch for a .44 Magnum, like most testosterone-laden American males.]
Caitie and Kevin
Now this is a loaded (no pun intended) question, but it’s typical of the kinds of questions I field on a regular basis. I could have taken the cranky, exasperated curmudgeon route by firing back something with something like: “For what?”, but I really dislike when so called “experts” do that. Often, the person asking the question doesn’t totally know what they really want, otherwise they would have asked a more focused question.
Oh, and did I mention the question was from my daughter … even curmudgeons don’t often take that angle with their own offspring.
So I decided to offer up some basic foundational information to begin a dialogue on the subject. If the subject goes further, I’ll update this article with the results.
Okay, so it all depends on what he wants to do with it. If he wants to hunt with it, generally speaking he would be well served by something with a long barrel like this: Ruger Super Blackhawk – Bisley Hunter. Longer barrels add additional weight to the revolver, which is the number one factor in soaking up the very considerable recoil produced by the famous choice of Dirty Harry. Along with soaking up recoil, a longer barrel gives the user of open sights a longer sighting radius (distance from front to rear sight), which aids in greater accuracy, and a longer barrel helps the .44 magnum develop more of the velocity that gives the famous .44 it’s moniker of “Magnum”. Less recoil, greater accuracy, and more velocity; what’s not to like here? The revolver in the link is the Ruger Bisley Hunter single action .44 mag, and a huge favorite of mine for a dedicated hunting .44. Being single action, it is a very strong gun; simple and utterly reliable. On a dedicated hunting revolver, you’re really never going to use double action anyhow, because to do so risks less accuracy. Since hunting involves the killing of game we hold in high regard, ethically speaking, a hunter would never risk a shot that would potentially end up in a wounded and suffering animal. Clean, quick kills are what we’re after above all else.
You know, it’s probably time to define single and double action:
Single Action (SA)
Single action means the gun will do one thing when you pull the trigger: fire the gun. You have to manually cock the hammer before you can fire. The advantage here is simplicity, and when you pull that hammer back you’ll have a really sweet trigger pull, short and light. Your typical SA trigger pull on a revolver is in the 2.5 – 4.5 pound are most comrange. Single actions are most closely associated with the old cowboy guns, and the Ruger Bisley Hunter is just a very up to date and refined version of what Wyatt Earp carried in the 1870s. If I were back in California hunting pigs again, this would be my first stop. When handled properly, single actions soak up recoil better, especially the Bisley versions of the Ruger single action revolvers. I’ve never held anything in my hand that handled heavy handgun recoil (and a .44′s recoil is heavy, make no mistake about it) than the Ruger Bisley grip frame. Even with the super magnums like the .470 Linebaugh, the Ruger Bisley grip is nothing short of awesome in how it deals with that “like a mule” kick. I like open sights, but as you can see from the scope rings and the rib on top of the barrel, the gun in the picture can easily accommodate a scope.
Kevin's S&W Model 29
Double Action (DA)
Means the gun will do two things when you pull the trigger, cock the gun and fire the gun. Double action shooting takes much more to master, because when you pull the trigger you have a very long, heavy trigger pull, typically in the 10 – 14 pound range. You have to work against the resistance of the hammer spring and rotate the cylinder to the next chamber in order to complete the firing cycle. Double action revolvers were created to make a gun faster into action, primarily for military and law enforcement use. Double action triggers make for a faster second and third (and so on) shot, and the swing out cylinder makes reloads much faster – all elements that make for a much more user friendly combat gun. For the hunter, double action has very little to offer in the hunting fields unless you’re carrying the gun as backup in areas with cantankerous bears or under-fed large kitty cats, where fast follow up shots are a necessity. An example of a double action is the Smith & Wesson Model 629. This is a 6-inch version, which splits the difference between something for self defense and hunting.
The History of the .44 Remington Magnum
Let’s talk briefly about the cartridge.
Rewind to the 1920s and ’30s, where a young cow puncher, gun writer, and all around pistolero named Elmer Keith was in love with Smith & Wesson’s extremely accurate large bore cartridge, the .44 Special. In fact, Elmer wasn’t alone by a long shot, and many lovers of the great .44 Special were pen pals, including another well known gun writer named John Lachuk. Elmer loved the killing power of large bore bullets, but felt the .44 Special needed some help in the velocity department. The .44 Special was born in the tail end of the black powder era where revolver cartridge velocities were on the low end compared to today. But even for the day, the .44 Special was a touch low on the velocity side, generally pushing a 240 grain (gr) round nose lead bullet a turtle-like 680 feet per second (fps). If you were close and placed your shot well, it was just fine. But since most creatures in the woods are savvy enough to keep a two-legger well beyond arms distance, the .44 Special had a lot of room to grow. Elmer Keith originally thought the best choice for a more powerful revolver cartridge was the time honored .45 Colt; another black powder era cartridge, but this one would push a 250 grain round nose flat point bullet to an honest 900 feet per second with black powder loads out of a 7.5” barrel, and was the most powerful handgun cartridge generally available until the .357 Magnum came along in 1935. So the .45 Colt seemed like the obvious place to start, but disaster was waiting in the wings.
During the development of higher and higher velocity loads for the .45 Colt, Elmer eventually blew up one of his Colt Single Action revolvers, which caused him to re-think the whole idea. Elmer took a good close look at the .44 Special and noticed it was only slightly smaller than the .45 Colt. The .44 Special was .429 in diameter and generally threw a bullet weighing around 240 to 246 grains in weight. The .45 Colt was .454 in diameter (at that time – most are now .451) and pushed a 250 grain bullet; so there similiarities were very close. And while .025 of an inch (that’s 2 and a half hundredths of an inch) is almost nothing where bullets are concerned, the story changes significantly when we’re talking steel. Basically, the .44 Special could shoot almost the same size bullet, yet allow the revolver to have .025 of an inch more steel supporting the cartridge – this is a big deal where safety is concerned. Elmer had come across the right combination, and eventually settled on a load that pushed his famous “Keith style” semi-wadcutter bullet weighing 250 grains at a velocity of around 1,200 fps from a 5 ½ inch barreled gun. The cartridge proved to be an outstanding killer of game, and quickly became Elmer’s favorite cartridge and load, whether it was in a single action Colt revolver or a double action Smith & Wesson.
There’s a lot more to the story, but to make a long story short, it took a couple of decades of Elmer hounding them at every opportunity, but Smith & Wesson finally agreed to make the revolver, and Remington agreed to manufacture the ammunition, and the .44 magnum became official around 1956.
The .44 in the Field
When I was a teenager, my grandfather and I spent a lot of time in the Sierra Nevadas in pursuit of black bear. I started out using a .30-30 rifle, but since we hunted with dogs and it often devolved into a foot race, I switched to a .357 revolver after a few years. After a stand-up fight with a bear where I gave it 6 shots right through the engine room and he still had a bit of fight in him, I switched to the .44 Magnum [We will bring you this story. Soon. -Ed]. Where the .30-30′s 170 grain bullet at short range just took the fight right out of a California black bear, the .357 magnum just didn’t close the deal with anywhere near the authority. Now don’t get me wrong, the .357 did a whole lot better job than many internet pundits would have you believe (and pundits whom I believe often haven’t actually tried it). Given good circumstances and good field position, you could count on the .357 getting the job done, but there was one major difference. Where the .357 was a good killer, it wasn’t a fight stopper and the .30-30 and .44 magnum were.
Hit a black bear well with a .44 magnum and the difference is easy to tell. With the .357, the bear would bite at the wound, spin around a couple of times and run off, only to die 25-75 yards later. A solid hit with the .44 magnum registered a much more impressive response. Nearly every hit with the .44 mag at close range (generally less than 50 yards) gave very impressive results. Often you would watch the muscle tone of the bear go semi-flaccid. Now obviously, I cant see the muscle through all the hair, but the before and after were stark. Before, the bear would be in a state of heightened awareness, being scared but willing to fight if it came down to it. The hair was generally on end and glistening in the sun. Upon impact though, you would see the hit because it physically nudged the bear, but the coat was the most impressive and eerie thing of all. Immediately it was as if all the hairs that were standing on end just drooped over limp, and the “fight or flight” state that the bear was in before, instantly became “flight only”, and that flight rarely made it past 25 yards.
Coming from someone who’s most cherished parts (the family jewels) were once less than an inch away from the sharp end of a bear’s swipe, this gives one a warm fuzzy (no pun on the bear intended). The .44 magnum was a hunting revolver, but if called upon, it could be a fight stopper, and that’s reassuring when hunting a large predator.
Back to the Guns
If he’s considering a .44 Magnum for maybe some hunting, but primarily for self defense and target practice, then I would recommend a DA S&W Model 29 (blued carbon steel) or 629 (stainless steel) with a 4-inch barrel. Here are the pros and cons of such a suggestion:
Maybe it’s just that I’m set in my ways, but I really have a strong preference for the S&W double action (DA) revolvers. Yeah, Taurus and Ruger both make excellent DA revolvers too, but to this guy at least, a S&W DA revolver in hand is like shaking hands with an old friend, and that’s hard for me to get over; I’m just so used to the feel of a S&W DA revolver. Quality is top notch, trigger pulls are excellent, and accuracy is better than 99% of shooters are capable of shooting it. The basic S&W .44 frame has been made for around a century now, so it’s extremely proven (in fact, the first .44 mag was a S&W 29). There are a wide variety of accessories available for the S&W, such as grips, sights, holsters, etc. And being a S&W, resale value will hold up very well unless he really trashes the gun. Being that John is a hard working Blue Collar type like myself, it’s not likely he’ll trash a fine revolver that cost so much of his hard earned cash. All .44 magnums can also fire the .44 special cartridge which is really good for light target practice (it won’t stomp your guts out like the magnum) and home defense. Power wise, the .44 Special is very similar to a .45 auto, so it’s the perfect compromise between power delivered and manageable recoil for a quick follow up shot.
They’re not cheap, running from around $600 used and in the $900 range new. With the 4 inch barrel, recoil will be very stout, and it will take quite a bit of practice before he’s connecting consistently with full power magnum rounds. And of course, a box of 50 rounds of full magnum loads will be just a tad under $40.00 which makes even rich guys wince.
Side note #1
Never go shorter than a 4-inch barrel on any of the magnum revolvers. The gunpowder these cartridges use to generate those magnum velocities is very slow burning and require some barrel length to achieve the desired velocity. Below 4 inches and you have lost enough velocity to where the term “magnum” doesn’t really apply unless you’re talking about muzzle flash and increased kick. The trade off for barrel length is recoil and muzzle blast (flash and noise), and for me the trade off becomes unacceptable below 4 inches. Just too much increased recoil and blast, while at the same time, losing too much velocity and performance from the cartridge.
Side note #2
Also, for a first .44 magnum I would strongly recommend against any sort of lightweight .44 magnum unless John is a sadistic SOB that likes to have his arse kicked thoroughly on a regular basis. The ultralight .44 magnums are a handful even for the experts. Now if I were buying a .44 magnum because I plan on shooting 99.9% .44 Special, then something like the S&W 329PD would be the cats-arse. But honestly, most people who buy something like the 329PD thinks they’re getting a lightweight gun for backup in bear country that’s easy to carry. It’s not until they touch these ultralights off with a full power magnum load that they realize that shooting the gun is only slightly less painful than just being eaten by the bear.
Okay, there you have it. Without knowing much more about what he wants to do with a .44 hand howitzer, that’s about all I can tell you about .44s. If a person takes the time to learn to effectively use a .44 magnum (and it does take time and practice), it can be one of the most versatile and effective handguns you’ll ever own; especially if you’re smart enough to make good use of .44 special ammunition for practice and home defense.
Toss this e-mail to John and tell him to digest this info, then come at me with some questions.
Love you my Angel.