Thursday, April 3, 2014

The 44 Magnum

The first centerfire firearm that I shot was a .44 Magnum. My father only had two handguns when I was young: a Ruger 3-screw Single Six (in .22) and a Ruger New Model Super Blackhawk (in .44 Magnum, of course). 
It has since become my favorite cartridge.

I started drafting this post on the anniversary of Elmer Keith's birthday. He would have been 115 on March 8th. For those that don't know, Elmer Keith is considered the "Father" of the .44 Magnum.

While he had a major impact on bringing the cartridge to market in the 1950s. The story of the .44 Magnum began about a 100 years earlier.

It all started in 1846 with a joint venture between Samuel Colt and Captain Samuel Walker. The two collaborated on a gun named the Colt Walker. The gun was chambered in .44 caliber, it was a percussion gun, using black powder, lead balls and percussion caps. 

The diameter of the bore was actually .457-.459"", much larger than the current .44 cartridges. In fact this is actually the closer to .45-70 Government, but naming conventions being what they were in America, that didn't stand for much. Some companies measured the bore by the size of the bullet (in this case .451-.457"), the size of the bore measured from bottom of groove to bottom of groove (in this case .459") or from top of the lands to top of the lands (in this case .440 +/-)  . Some even measured it by the size of the bit used to bore the barrel BEFORE it was rifled, which may be way off as the finished bore may be quite larger after the machine work was complete.

The Colt Walker was the .44 Magnum of its day. It matched the ballistics of the .357 Magnum and until the introduction of the .357 in 1929, it was regarded as the most powerful revolver available.

Colt's choice of .44 for the caliber is a bit of a mystery. The .44 was not a very popular caliber for muskets and rifles. Most of the Army muskets and rifles in the 1840s were of a larger caliber. Perhaps it filled a gap between the Colt Paterson, which was a .28 or .36 caliber and the larger muskets of the day?

1860 brought us one of the 1st metallic cartridges: the .44 Henry.  So why did they choose .44?  
We can assume that the Colt Walker had some influence on the choice of .44 as the caliber. I was not able to find any documentation stating why Benjamin Tyler Henry and the folks at New Haven Arms (the original name of Winchester) chose .44 as the caliber. The Volcanic pistol and rifle that preceded the Henry were in .31 & .41 calibers.
In those days the bullets were heeled and had external lubrication grooves. The .44 Henry bullet measured .446" in diameter. Again much larger than the modern day .44 Magnum.

In 1869 Smith & Wesson developed their own .44 cartridge, the .44 American, it was a center fire version of the .44 Henry only with a .434" diameter bullet (now we are getting closer). 

In 1870,  Rollin White's patent for the bored through revolver cylinder expired. This meant that Smith & Wesson would no longer be the only producer of revolvers that could accept metallic cartridges. The renewed competition meant that S&W had better head back to the drawing board.
Later that same year, there was a discussion at Smith & Wesson over a contract with the Imperial Russian Army. 
The attache negotiating the contract on behalf of the Ruskies asked that Smith & Wesson develop an internally lubricated version of the .44 American, as you can guess this new cartridge was dubbed the .44 Russian. The .44 Russian's bullet had a diameter of .430" (same as the .44 Mag), the case was also lengthened .02".

A non-heeled and heeled bullet:

Over at Colt's Patent Firearms Company, Colt created a .44 of their own. The year was 1871, it featured a heeled bullet with a diameter of .451" which is the same as the .45 Colt....again they didn't follow any standard when it came to naming their cartridges. This cartridge was also used for converting old percussion revolvers to modern cartridge fire (remember the Colt Walker had a bore diameter of .454").

Of course we know the .45 Colt was adopted by the U.S. Army in 1873, which spelled the end of the less powerful .44 Colt. Why have a .44 when you can have a .45?

Subsequently Winchester created their center fire .44 in 1873, they called it the .44 Winchester Center Fire, everyone else called it the "44-40", it used a bullet diameter of .427 and 40 grains of black powder.

This cartridge has seen a resurgence due to its popularity among Cowboy Action shooters. In fact the Henry Repeating Arms Company just introduced an exact copy of the model of 1860 Henry Rifle, chambered in the center fire .44-40 (rather than the now extinct .44 Henry rimfire).

It should be noted that the .44-40 is not interchangeable with modern .44 Special/.44 Magnum cartridges.

In 1874 Remington was still making revolvers, they introduced their own .44: the .44 Remington, it featured a heeled bullet that measured .447". It too was eclipsed by the 45 Colt and slipped into obscurity. It should be noted that this was not the end of Remington's involvement with the .44.

Back at Smith & Wesson......

With the introduction of smokeless powder at the turn of the century, the pressures became stronger and the .44 Russian case needed to be strengthened. At the same time Smith & Wesson had also developed a new revolver to handle the increased pressure.

In 1907 Smith & Wesson introduced the .44 Smith & Wesson Special, the .44 Russian's case was lengthened .2" to a length of 1.16". (cartridges #5 & #6 below). The pressure was increased from the Russian's 14,500 psi to 15,500 psi.

A couple of things appeared In the early part of the 20th century: Hand-loading and modern firearm carbon steel.
Gun steel had evolved to the point in which the guns were now stronger than any commercial cartridges available.

Many hand-loaders began experimenting with "Wildcat" cartridges. They also experimented with different powders and bullet designs to see what improvements could be made.  

A few fans of the .44 Special formed a group to share information on hand-loads and bullet designs. They called themselves the "44 Associates". The group included gun writers Skeeter Skelton and Elmer Keith.

Elmer Keith had been loading the .44 Special to some pretty high pressures and had urged Remington and Smith & Wesson to develop a new cartridge based on his loads.

The reason the .44 Special was chosen for experimentation instead of the stalwart .45 Colt had to due with design. The .45 Colt was originally a black powder cartridge and it was not capable of the higher pressures being created by the smokeless powder hand loads. This has since changed and companies like Starline offer brass cases that have been tested to .44 Magnum pressures (which of course should only be fired in guns capable of .44 Magnum pressure levels).

The revolver Elmer Keith used to experiment with was the Smith & Wesson .44 Hand Ejector Triple Lock (.44 Special).
It was called the triple lock because of the 3rd locking lug on the crane, Elmer Keith considered this to be the greatest revolver ever made.

The new .44 cartridge was named the .44 Remington Magnum, it had a case length of 1.285", to prevent its use in .44 Special or .44 Russian chambered guns. This followed the convention and development of the .357 Magnum from the .38 Special some 20 years earlier.

During the development of the cartridge and before it was announced to the public, Bill Ruger got his hands on at least one cartridge case.

As the story goes, a Ruger employee or acquaintance discovered some empty cartridge cases at a scrap yard and brought them to Bill for inspection. 
According to RL Wilson's book Ruger and His Guns, Bill knew what he was looking at, he called a friend at Remington, who wouldn't give up any information. 
Eventually Remington relented and provided Ruger with some loaded ammunition to inspect.

It was probably not a big secret that a .44 Magnum would be developed anyway. 

Ruger had been in communication with Elmer Keith, just as Smith & Wesson had been. Ruger also knew about Keith's loads and had probably anticipated a new Magnum cartridge in .44 caliber.

Remington ended up using a near identical case length as the .357 Magnum, making it easy for Ruger to chamber his Blackhawk revolver in the new cartridge, just as it was for Smith & Wesson to use their N frame (which was also already offered in .357 Magnum).

Ruger immediately set about to redesign his Blackhawk revolver for the new cartridge.
The larger 44 frame eventually became the pattern for the New Model Blackhawks of all calibers.

Ruger's .44 Magnum Blackhawk hit the market before Smith & Wesson's model 29. Although Smith & Wesson had notified the public about it's introduction prior to the Ruger's being available, it was the Ruger .44 Magnum Blackhawk that was available first.

Smith & Wesson did eventually get their .44 Magnum to market, although later than they had hoped. They called the new N frame the ".44 Magnum Hand Ejector", the Highway Patrolman in .357 Mag had been released just a year earlier. In 1957 when S&W assigned model numbers to these guns they became the model 29 & 28 respectively.

The Smith & Wesson model 29 got a big boost in 1971 when it was chosen to the be sidearm of a justice hungry cop in the movie Dirty Harry.

Following the release of the movie gun dealers could not keep them on the shelves and they often sold for 2 to 3 times their MSRP.

The rock artist Warren Zevon used this image of his model 29 as the inside jacket cover for his album Excitable Boy.

Smith & Wesson continues to produce the model 29 in both blued and stainless versions (629).

Ruger continues to produce guns chambered in .44 Magnum in both blued and stainless, single and double action, long and short barreled, they introduced a "heavy duty" version of the Blackhawk in 1959, called the Super Blackhawk.

Ruger's double action .44 Magnum is called the Redhawk, it wasn't introduced until 1979.

Ruger, worried about issues with the Redhawk revolver, developed a heavier duty version called the Super Redhawk in 1986.

They even made a "pocket" version called the Alaskan

Other makers like Colt, Dan Wesson, Astra and Taurus have also chambered revolvers in .44 Mag
The Colt Anaconda was introduced in 1990:

The Dan Wesson introduced their model 44 in 1981.

The Taurus

The Spanish made Astra

Another Spanish gun, the Llama Super Commanche, you may notice the similarities to the S&W. Spain has a long history of copying the S&W revolvers.

The Virginian Dragoon was another Colt SAA copy that was chambered in .44 Magnum.

The Metaba Unica 6 was also chambered in .44 Mag

Then there was this odd-ball designed by Karel Michalek from Czechoslovakia. It is a revolver, but not like any revolver you have seen before. Sadly, this gun never saw production.

There have even been some semi-autos chambered in .44, The Desert Eagle:

The LAR Grizzly is a 1911 style pistol that has been chambered in 44 Magnum as well.

When used in a long barreled revolver or in a rifle, the .44 Magnum becomes a different cartridge. The slow burning powder used in the .44 Mag produces flames when fired from a short barreled handgun. In a rifle, those flames become expanding gases giving the .44 much more energy and velocity. A shooter can expect a 20% (or more) increase in velocity and energy when shooting the same load from a rifle vs a handgun.
The ample power, combined with a heavy bullet which is deflected by brush much less than a faster moving rifle bullet, has helped make the .44 Magnum a great hunting cartridge.

Bolt action rifles, the Ruger M77-44


 Ruger made two versions of the .44 Semi-Auto Carbine the original:

and the one known briefly as the "Deerfield", it was built on the Mini-14 platform:

Ruger also made a lever action version called the model 96

Ruger's single shot Number 3 rifle was once offered in .44 Magnum as well.

 Winchester chambered their model 94 in 44 mag

As did Marlin, these carbines are highly sought after.

Henry Repeating Arms chambered their Big Boy rifle in .44 Magnum

Rossi also chambered their copy of the Winchester model 1892 rifle in .44 Mag, as well as their Ranch Hand pistol.

There was also a pump action rifle called the Timber Wolf

The Timberwolf was not the 1st pump action .44 mag carbine, the Vulcan Carbine was available in the 1960's, this advert is from 1963

The .44 Magnum remains as popular as ever. Perhaps because of its versatility, it can be used for hunting, self defense, target shooting and the wide variety of guns chambered for it are often desired by collectors.  

Chuck Hawks
NRA Museum
American Handgunner
Starline Brass
Henry Repeating Arms
The First Forty-Fours