The world's most potent handgun cartridge in the year 1958, its history and development, plus notes on handloading and shooting it, by the man whose dream came true!
In 1953 while at Camp Perry, Ohio, I had several long sessions with C. G. Peterson of Remington. He was very much interested when I asked him to bring out a heavy 44 Special load with my bullet at 1200 feet. He asked me to come up to the Remington plant and handload it for pressures and velocity readings. I also had several long talks with Carl Hellstrom, President of Smith & Wesson, and he also urged me to visit his plant after Camp Perry. When I finally arrived at the Remington plant, Mr. Peterson was away on vacation, but Henry Davis took me to Gail Evans, who made notes on all my work and findings and promised to take it up with Mr. Peterson as soon as he returned. They promised me nothing, except to see what could be done about a heavy factory 44 Special load.
They were afraid that the old Triple Lock, even though it had been handling my heavy loads for many years, might, in some instances, blow up. They said, and rightly, that it was made long before the days of heat treatment or magnafluxing, and some could have dangerous flaws.
After several days at Remington, I put in a week at the Smith & Wesson plant, urging them to get together with Remington in the production of a heavy factory 44 Special load with my bullet and, if necessary, make a new gun to hold it. If they were afraid of the old gun’s strength, I said a new gun could be made with a longer, recessed-head cylinder, the amount of barrel extension through the frame cut to the minimum, but with room for a gas ring.
During my last day at the Smith & Wesson plant Mr. Hellstrom told me he could build a safe gun around any heavy 44 Special load that Remington would make. I then suggested that they could lengthen the 44 Special case until it would not enter any of the older 44 Special guns, and again strongly urged them to get together with Remington and bring out a powerful 44 gun and load. I vamosed then but continued, in letters to both companies, to urge such a load and, if necessary, a gun to handle it. Actually, all this had been covered in my book, Sixguns, years before!
From the late summer of 1953 until early in 1956 I had no word from either company on what they were doing about the heavy 44. In January, 1956, Smith & Wesson phoned me one evening to tell me they had built a big 44, and that the first one finished would be sent to me! This was great news, and I learned also that Remington would ship me some of the new “44 Magnum” ammunition with 240-grain bullet at 1570 foot seconds velocity. I immediately gave General Hatcher — he was also being sent the new gun — the good news.
Well, that’s the story behind the Smith & Wesson 44 Magnum gun and the Remington 44 Magnum cartridge, and it’s all well documented. Thousands of shooters the country over, their interest spurred by my writings and the articles of others, created the demand.
Mr. Peterson and the Remington ballisticians put in a lot of hard work designing and perfecting the load, Mr. Hellstrom and his staff of gun makers likewise did endless work on the new gun. At last my dreams of thirty years are a reality. Today we have the world’s finest big sixgun and load, and my hat is off to every man in both organizations who had anything at all to do with the development. They did a wonderful job.
First the men behind the gun. Carl Hellstrom, Bill Gunn, Harold Austin, Walt Sanborn, Fred Miller, Harold Steins and many others at the Smith & Wesson plant, had their part in the production of this fine arm.
The .44 S&W Magnum
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The new gun employs the heavy N frame regularly made for the 357 Magnum, 38/44 Heavy Duty, 44 Special and 45 Smith & Wessons, but this gun has all major parts made from a premium lot of special alloy steel, perfectly heat treated for greatest strength in the Smith & Wesson furnaces. The hammer and trigger are case hardened to a new high in this treatment, insuring a perfect and lasting, crisp, clean trigger pull. The heavy barrels are 6½” or 4″ in length with a wide rib and encased ejector rod. The top of frame and barrel are grooved along the rib and sandblasted to prevent glare and reflection.
All lockwork parts and bearing surfaces are honed to a mirror finish to insure a maximum smoothness, either single or double action. The hammer has a wide target spur and the trigger has a wide flare that perfectly contours the trigger finger for easy cocking and maximum contact area of finger to trigger. The trigger pull runs from three to four pounds, and is as clean and sharp as breaking glass.
The S. & W. rear sight, fully adjustable for both elevation and windage and of locking micrometer-construction, has a white-outlined rear notch of adequate width to insure a strip of light on each side of the front sight, a one-eighth inch red-insert ramp, when held at arms length. The red-insert ramp front shows up well on a black target or game in any shooting light. Stock straps are grooved to prevent slippage. Stocks, of Goncalo Alves fancy figured hardwood, are of the S. & W. Target shape and offer a filler behind the trigger guard as well as covering the front strap and the butt of the gun.
They are hand filling and the left stock is hollowed out for the right thumb. They are perfectly shaped to fit and fill the hand and distribute the recoil over as wide a surface as possible. They are also finely and attractively checkered. The big gun weighs 47 ounces empty. Main spring is the standard S. & W. long spring with compression screw in front strap. Cylinder and barrel clearance are held to a minimum, yet the gun has the smoothest possible action. Cylinder locks tight and lines up perfectly. The cylinder is a full 1.75″ long and has ample room for my 250 grain bullet reloaded in the one-eighth-inch longer 44 Magnum case, still leaving a sixteenth of an inch clearance when the bullet is crimped in the regular crimping groove.
Shooting the .44 Magnum
The new gun is the finest target arm I have ever fired with standard 44 Special factory ammunition or a light reload with my own, or any, accurate target bullet. It holds steadier than any gun I have used on target. Double action pull for fast work is superb and for the target shooter the broad hammer spur is ideal for fast cocking in single action, timed, and rapid fire matches.
The rear end of barrel projects through the frame about 1⁄8-inch and with the long cylinder adds strength to these, the two weakest parts of a sixgun. The 6½” barrel job is ideal for the hills, for target shooting, or for hunting with a sixgun, and a perfect gun for running cougar with hounds. It gives maximum sight radius as well as maximum velocity. It is a great two-hand weapon for game shooting, as it feels muzzle heavy and hangs well on the object.
In a 4″ barrel the weight lies more in the hand and is better balanced for emergency double action shooting, hip shooting and fast aerial double action work. The four-inch job will also be the gun for the peace officer as he can stop either man or automobile, and yet it is short enough to ride high on the waist belt where it will not poke the seat of a car or chair. It will also be the faster to get into action.
External finish of the new gun is the traditional Smith & Wesson high bright blue. A new high in polish has been attained on this gun and even the edges of the trigger guard and the hinge of the crane are polished like a mirror. The ramp front sight is pinned through the rib with two pins before polishing, so that careful examination is necessary to detect the two pins. Attractively packaged in a presentation, hinged-lid case of blue leatherette, it sells at $140.00 and is worth every cent of its cost. It all adds up to a finer gun than I thought anyone would ever build.
Remington has produced the greatest and most powerful sixgun cartridge ever made. The new case is an eighth-inch longer than the 44 Special and it will not fully enter any 44 Special chamber we have so far tried, including S. & W., Colt and Great Western. The solid head case is the heaviest sixgun brass I have ever seen. There are no worthless cannelures to cause the case to stretch when fired and resized. The new case appears to be of the same length as the 357 Magnum brass. The bullet is a modification of my design, with two narrow and shallow grease grooves instead of one heavy, wide and deep grease groove, and with the case crimped down into the soft lead of the forward band, leaving a very small full caliber band in front of the case. The crimp is heavy, and so far no bullets have jumped their crimp from recoil.
The 240-grain bullet has a shorter nose than my slug, the same wide flat point, slightly larger on the flat surface. It is made of very soft lead, a necessity because it is extruded in long ropes fed to the cutting and swaging machines. The soft bullet requires a gas check cup, not only to prevent deformation of the base but to help hold the soft slug in the rifling at high velocity. The slug upsets to fill the chamber mouths perfectly and the gas check is the best I have ever seen on a bullet, being crimped into the rear grease groove. The factory bullets do not carry as much lubricant in both grooves as my original bullet does in its one grease groove. The slug mikes .431″ and the groove diameter of my gun is 429″. Pressure is high with factory loads; I would estimate it to be at least 40,000 pounds and possibly 42,000.
The gun is made to take it, and the case is made for high pressure; fired cases fall out of my gun with a tap on the extractor rod. Accuracy is high at all ranges and the gun shoots good to a half mile. Once we managed to put five out of six bullets on a rock one foot high by 18 inches long at over 500 yards (two of us paced it), shooting with both hands out of a car window, which is plenty good enough for any sixgun. They would have hit a buck deer at that range five times out of six.
At close range it shot quite small groups on targets and, like my original bullet, cut clean full-caliber holes in the paper. My first shot at game was a big Goshawk in the top of a cottonwood 100 yards away. I used both hands, rested my left arm and shoulder against a post and shot with just his head showing over the front sight. The gas check slug caught him dead center and splattered him all over.
Handloading the .44 Magnum
The powder charge is 22 to 22.2 grains of what looks like Hercules 2400 but may be a duPont version of this powder with similar characteristics. We removed the slugs from a few loads, opened the crimp and put the original charge back in the case with my 250-grain 44 Special bullet, cast hard by Mar-Mur Bullet Co., copper plated and sized to .429″. It seemed to shoot in the same group as the factory load but clearly indicated at least 5,000 pounds less pressure, estimated from primer comparisons. With factory bullets the primer is well flattened, the firing pin indentation is not deep or full, and the primer flows around the perimeter of the firing pin indentation slightly.
When the Keith 250-grain hard .429″ slug was fired, the firing pin indentation was deep and the primer was not flattened to anything like the extent of the factory load. This clearly shows the value of one to 16 tin and lead, or harder bullets, when reloading this cartridge.
We also reloaded the fired factory cases with 22 grains No. 2400 and my 250-grain solid and 235-grain hollow base and hollow point bullets, getting, at an estimate, at least 5,000 pounds less pressure. This is a good way to leave it. Let the factory, with their pressure guns and precision instruments for managing heavy pressures, use the high pressure load. I’m well satisfied with either the factory load or my hand load, which develops far less pressure. It is on the safe side, yet a load substantially as powerful. It penetrates even better in beef, perhaps because it is harder, and gives equal accuracy.
The new 44 Magnum S. & W. does not group all loads of the same bullet weight to the same point as do many 44 Special guns. The new Magnum lighter loads print high and right at 1 o’clock; my heavy 44 Special loads a bit lower and nearer center; 20 grains No. 2400 with the Keith 250-grain slug in the Magnum case, just out of the black at 7 o’clock, while the full hand load of 22 grains 2400 and Keith 250-grain bullet print low and left at 7 o’clock. We settled for the full reload and the factory Remington (as both shoot to the same sighting) and sighted the gun for them. The target shooter wishing to use factory 44 Specials will have to sight for that load and change his sights when using the factory Magnum 44 load. Each load made small groups at all ranges tried. I have fired the big gun at least 600 times, both hand loads and factory hulls.
The factory bullet is soft enough to expand readily on impact with flesh and acts just like a soft nosed bullet from a 45–70 or 38–55. With my hollow point 235-grain bullet and 22 grains of No. 2400 expansion is even more rapid than with the factory bullet. It disintegrates on large bones and explodes jack rabbits, chucks, torn cats and similar vermin. The tests prove beyond any doubt that the 44 Magnum factory load will penetrate to the brain of the largest bear on earth or the biggest elk or moose if directed right. It will stop any mad cow or bull on the range with one well-placed shot if the cowpoke gets wound up and has to kill a critter. The fisherman or camera hunter, working the Alaskan streams, now has a gun for protection against a suddenly surprised Brownie with which he can stop the animal if he uses his head and shoots for the brain or spine. The prospector can kill all the meat he needs with this gun and factory loads or my heavy reloads.
22 grains No. 2400 and Keilh 250-grain bullet and also factory loads were tried on car bodies, old cook stoves and motor blocks. They’ll penetrate a lot of car body material and even get through the heavier steel braces. Each load cracks up motor heads and will penetrate the block and ruin a piston. One shot through a radiator un-corks it and these big heavy slugs placed almost anywhere on a motor will put it out of commission. The peace officer can stop a car with it, or stop the criminal in it by shooting through the body of the car. I only asked for a duplication of my old time tried 44 Special heavy load with 18.5 grains 2400 and the 250-grain Keith bullet, but the boys went me one better by producing a load that is even more powerful!
The big gun is, I would say, pleasant to shoot, and does not jar the hand as much as do my heavy 44 Special loads from the much lighter 4″-barrel 44 Special S. & W. guns. It is definitely not a ladies’ gun but I have known women who would enjoy shooting it. The recoil has not bothered me in the slightest, nor have several other old sixgun men complained who have fired it extensively, including Hank Benson and Don Martin. The recoil is not as severe as that of a two-inch airweight Chiefs’ Special with high speed 38 Specials. With 44 Special factory loads it is just as pleasant to shoot as a K-22 and with the 44 Magnum loads, which give heaviest recoil, it will not bother a seasoned sixgun man at all. Recoil with my heaviest loads of 22 grains of 2400 and the Keith 250 grain bullet is much less than that of the factory load. The factory load, fired with one hand, flips the barrel up almost to the vertical.
Factory load velocity is claimed to be 1570 feet with 1,314 pounds energy as against 1450 feet velocity and 690 pounds energy for the 357 Magnum factory load. We are a bit skeptical about the claimed 1570 feet velocity. Our own estimate would be somewhere nearer 1400 feet. We base this on a lot of reloading for the 44 Special with 18.5 grains 2400 which gave the Keith 250-grain slug something over 1200 feet from 6½ barrels. Pressure of the factory load is high, make no mistake on that score. Don’t rechamber any 44 Special cylinder to take the big load. Cylinders, as well as guns, should be made especially for this load, and I certainly won’t convert any of my 44 Specials to take the 44 Remington Magnum. A Model 1892 Winchester carbine, however, built to handle this load would make an excellent companion gun, especially useful to the peace officer, or to anyone in the back country.
The Remington 44 Magnum is the best case to reload I’ve seen. With the Keith 250 grain slug cast one to 16 tin and lead and sized exact groove diameter, to cut down pressures, the cartridge gives wonderful accuracy with 5 grains of Bullseye and would shoot accurately with even less of this fast powder. With 8½ grains of Unique it makes a fine medium load of around 1,000 feet or more; with 20 grains of 2400 one gets a good fairly heavy load about equal to my old 44 Special heavy load. If you don’t reload you can always buy a box of Remington factory loads and be sure of getting the most powerful and perfect sixgun ammunition ever made anywhere.
I’ve killed enough beef animals with an 85-pound yew bow, and broadheads that went entirely through the beasts, to know that an arrow gives a slow, painful death with no shock. Now we have a sixgun and load that is infinitely better in every respect as a big game weapon than any bow ever drawn. It kills two-year old steers too dead. They do not bleed well after being hit in the brain with the factory 44 Magnum load. One big porcupine, shot about dead center from the side, was killed instantly leaving a two-inch exit hole on the far side. This gun and load will kill deer just as dead as a 30-30, up to at least 100 yards, if well placed, and the big slug will leave a better blood trail, as it is so soft it expands on contact and continues to expand as it penetrates. Velocity is high enough to carry considerable shock to any animal.
Friends who returned from Korea, after fighting through that unpleasant affair, tell me that they encountered many enemy soldiers with body armor which our 45 auto ammo would not penetrate. The 44 Magnum loads go through quarter-inch dump truck beds like cheese and would penetrate any body armor a soldier would be likely to carry. Loaded with a full metal-jacketed bullet for military use, it would take care of any useful body armor.
After a lifetime of working with all manner of sixguns and loads, answering thousands of letters about them, and the writing of two books on the subject, as well as a great many magazine articles, I consider the 44 Remington Magnum Cartridge and the great Smith & Wesson gun that chambers it the greatest sixgun development of our time! I am happy to have had even a small part in its development.
This article originally appeared in the 1958 edition of Gun Digest.