LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
“But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?'” With those immortal words, actor Clint Eastwood elevated an obscure revolver cartridge designed in 1955 to hunt deer and elk into a cult object, and changed the gun world forever.
When “Dirty Harry” debuted in 1971, most shooters and hunters considered the .45 ACP and .357 Smith & Wesson magnum the pinnacles in handgun power. The film’s script had a unique slant, thanks in part to input from uncredited screen writer and gun aficionado, John Milius. For the first time, a major motion picture did not have a human star (no offense to Mr. Eastwood). Rather, the Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver Eastwood’s character, Inspector Harry Callahan, carried became the film’s undeniable center point along with its cartridge, the .44 Remington Magnum. America’s gun owners swooned over the long-barreled, blued steel monster, and America’s gun-o-phobes shrieked in terror. Overnight, everybody just had to have one. It took years for Smith & Wesson to fill all the orders.
Today, it’s a bit hard to understand the kerfuffle if you weren’t alive back then. The .44 Rem. Mag. has long since lost its crown as world’s most powerful handgun thanks to bigger rounds such as the .454 Casull and .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum. Despite this, the .44 Magnum remains the most popular handgun cartridge for hunting, and is the largest magnum any rational person can consider fit for self-defense against human assailants.
In the Beginning
The .44 Remington Magnum got its start with famed gun tinkerer Elmer Keith. Keith had already helped birth the indispensable .357 Magnum in 1934 and would later bring forth the ill-timed .41 Magnum. Keith liked to hunt, and hunt elk, in particular. Elk are big creatures which tend to shrug off bullets even when shot in vital areas. Keith wanted a handgun round worthy enough for this tough, elusive game. He centered his research on the then popular .44 Special and pushed heavy bullets faster and faster with higher pressures until he found the best balance between power and shattered revolver cylinders.
Keith talked Remington into producing a .44 to his specifications. He then recruited Smith & Wesson to upgrade their existing N-frame revolver to handle the new firecracker. The Model 29 and the .44 Remington Magnum hit the streets in 1956. Sturm Ruger also took note and produced their single-action Blackhawk for the new round the same year. Remington made the .44 Magnum’s case longer than the .44 Special’s to ensure no one could chamber it in a weaker gun designed for the .44 Special.
The beast helped bring the nascent handgun hunting sport into the mainstream. Unlike the .357, the .44 Magnum could bring down the largest North American game at reasonable ranges. Both the S&W and Ruger revolvers enjoyed steady if not spectacular sales until the “Dirty Harry” watershed.
Big-Bore Hot Rod
The .44 Magnum is a true handheld powerhouse. Standard factory ammunition propels a 240 grain bullet at around 1200 feet per second at the muzzle which translates to almost 800 foot-pounds energy—adequate for most big game within handgun range. Even more powerful loads are now available on the market which can produce over 1600 ft-lbs! For comparison, a standard 158 grain .357 Magnum averages 500 – 550 ft-lbs. and a 210 grain .41 Magnum 700 – 750. While the much less popular .41 treads on the .44’s heels, it lacks the bullet momentum imparted by the .44’s additional weight and has a smaller bore. The .357 isn’t in the .44’s league when it comes to hunting. The fact any .44 Magnum will chamber and shoot milder .44 Specials gave it the final advantage over the .41 in the market place.
.44 Caliber cartridges are also inherently accurate. There’s just something about .429-inch diameter bullets (the .44’s true bore size) which imparts excellent stability—a desirable trait for hunting guns.
Today, hunters have a wide choice in .44 Magnum ammunition and components. Bullets are available from 125 grains up to 340. The 200 to 240 grain range is the most popular, with 250 to 300 a close second. Bullet choice is best determined by intended use, and further divided into handgun versus carbine loads.
The .44 Magnum’s raison d'etre has always been medium and large game hunting. Most people who hunt with a .44 Magnum choose 240 grain bullets for deer sized animals and black bear. Heavier weights are better for elk, moose, and larger bears. Most handguns used for this purpose have at least a six-inch long barrel. Nowadays, specialized hunting handguns often sport much longer tubes, in the eight to fourteen-inch range. As a general rule, each additional inch in barrel length yields 25 – 35 fps greater velocity.
Ammunition companies have responded to this longer barrel trend and they often quote velocity figures based on longer test barrels. The downside is some companies do not disclose the length they used to test a particular load. If barrel length is not listed in a sales brochure, contact the company for further information before you make a final selection. Loads intended for long tubes may provide inadequate results when shot from shorter guns.
For medium-sized, light-bodied game, a 240 grain hollow point or based-jacketed soft-point is the most common choice. Propelled at standard velocity or greater, and placed with precision, these will give quick, clean kills.
Bonded core hollow-points, soft-points, or hard cast lead bullets in the 270 – 300 grain range will provide good results on larger, heavy-bodied critters such as elk or moose. The ones over 300 grains are best reserved for emergency use against the biggest bears species if the brutes decide to chew on you a bit.
The original Model 29 revolvers had some durability issues when fed a steady magnum diet, although S&W has improved it over the decades and it is still a fine gun. However, even in uprated form, the good old 29 isn’t up to the punishment modern, super-heavy bullet loads dish out. Hunters are better off with stouter guns such as the Ruger Red Hawk, Thompson Center Contender, or Smith’s huge X-Frame.
Velocity Change Based on Barrel Length
The basic rules for handguns also apply to hunting with a carbine. Many gun makers offer excellent lever-action, semi-auto, and break-action rifles chambered in .44 Magnum. Carbines with their longer barrels (16 – 20 inches) give any load a significant velocity boost over most handguns. This stretches the .44’s maximum effective range from around 50 yards out to 100 yards, or so. Carbines are also excellent platforms for the heaviest bullets because increased gun weight dampens the fierce recoil these bruisers generate.
Most carbines feature tubular magazines which place the ammunition in a line with their noses pressed against the next round’s primer. For a long time this required bullets with either truncated cone or flat noses to avoid a discharge in the magazine under recoil. These limited the .44’s range due to severe aerodynamic drag. Now, a few bullets are available with slipperier spitzer profiles. They have soft plastic tips to prevent a slam-fire, and when combined with a carbine’s higher velocity they make these guns viable 150 yard deer and elk thumpers.
Carbines Improve the .44 Magnum's Capabilities.
After “Dirty Harry” premiered, people wanted a .44 Magnum not just for the prestige. Many wanted one for self-defense against both human assailants and large predators such as bears. In this role, the big forty-four has some significant drawbacks, although the right loads mitigate them to a certain extent.
For defense against miscreant people, the .44 Magnum’s biggest disadvantages are over penetration and heavy recoil. After decades-long research on this subject, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) concluded self-defense handgun bullets should penetrate between 12 and 16 inches in ballistic gelatin. Gelatin simulates human muscle tissue. This gives a bullet the best chance it will strike a vital organ in a human being with either a frontal or cross-torso shot, yet not continue beyond the assailant and strike an innocent bystander.
Since it is designed to drive deep into animals much larger than humans, the typical .44 Magnum will far exceed the FBI’s maximum penetration limit. Thus, it poses a significant hazard to anyone in the intended target’s vicinity. This could place whomever fires such a round in immense legal jeopardy. Yet, there are people who are determined to carry a .44 Magnum.
To mitigate this, numerous ammo companies have devised loads which reduce the .44’s penetration. Some notable ones are Winchester’s 210 grain Silvertip (1250 fps) and Federal’s 240 grain Hydra-Shok (1180 fps). The Federal load still has a better than fair chance it will over penetrate, though. The Winchester, with its more frangible bullet, less so.
The .44’s stout recoil is its other nadir. Most gun fights are close, fast, and violent. This favors guns which keep their muzzles on target during recoil to assure the inevitable follow up shots are accurate. The average carry-size .44 revolver with its 2.5 to 6-inch barrel is just too light to tame full house loads. Even in skilled hands, it runs the risk follow up shots will fly off into who knows where. Loads designed for social occasions try to reduce recoil as well as penetration. This lessens the supposed advantage imparted by the .44 Magnum’s raw power and begs the question if the .44 Special isn’t the better option in these guns. Speer’s 200 grain Gold Dot Short Barrel (875 fps) or Winchester’s 200 grain Silvertip (900 fps) .44 Special loads, for example, meet famed gun gurus Jeff Cooper and Elmer Keith’s ideal defensive cartridge standards: a 200 grain, large bore bullet launched at 900 – 1000 fps. Even uber-macho Inspector Callahan admitted in a sequel (“Magnum Force”) he used a reduced load.
Bear defense is a whole other universe, however. Here penetration is your friend. Select a round which drives a wide hole as deep as possible into these beasts’ heavy muscles and bones. Best options are either a bonded, based-jacketed soft-point, or hard cast lead served in 240 – 340 grain portions. Don’t worry about recoil. In most bear attacks, the victim is lucky to get in one, perhaps two, shots. Go for as much punch as you can get since those few shots will have to do much work.
Recoil Difference Between .44 Magnum and .44 Special.
The .44 Remington Magnum is powerful, accurate, versatile, available, and about as much gun as an average shooter can handle. No wonder it is, and shall remain, the most popular big-bore magnum handgun cartridge in the world. Harry Callahan would be proud.
© 2019 LJ Bonham