The Birth of the .44 Mag. Cartridge

By Dave Dolbee published on in Ammunition

Ever hear of the Smith & Wesson NT-430? Maybe not by that name, but the easiest description would probably be to use a famous movie quote, “Go ahead, make my day.” Yep, the NT-430—later dubbed the Model 29—was famous long before Inspector Callahan wielded it in back in ’71. However, “Dirty Harry” ensured it would always have a place in firearm history, but he wasn’t the only champion of the Model 29 and the .44 Mag.

Ammunition selection ranging from .44 Mag to 9mm

L to R: Hornady .44 Mag. 225 gr. FTX, .44 SPCL 180 gr. JHP/XTP, .357 Mag. 140 gr. JHP/XTP, Critical Defense .40 S&W 165 gr. FTX and 9mm Luger 115 gr. JHP/XTP.

The .44 Mag. was a follow on to the .357 Mag., which (officially) saw its genus back in 1935. The development of the .357 Mag. is credited as the brainchild of gun enthusiasts Doug Wesson, Phil Sharpe and Elmer Keith. Keith, however, and a small group of big-bore pistoleros, had been documenting their efforts to work up experimental loads based on the .44 Spl. back as far as the 1920s.

The .44 was a logical choice over the .45 Colt. The iconic .45 used a thinner case and the cylinder walls were not as stout. Loading it with an over pressure load of Hercules 2400 touched off with a magnum primer had serious potential to cross into the red zone. Besides, the .44 offered more bullet designs and options for Keith and others to tinker with.

Elmer Keith should be a familiar name to gun enthusiast, but perhaps I am just dating myself. His works were prolific for many years on the pages of Guns & Ammo and American Rifleman as well as a few other notable publications. Keith was anything but silent about his thoughts and made good use of his literary abilities to beat Smith & Wesson and Remington into submission.

This was a case where the pen was mightier than the revolver and Remington responded in 1954 with a new cartridge that was an eighth-inch longer than the .44 Spl. cartridge. Within a couple of months of receiving the new cartridge, S&W had four N-frame Hand Ejector models that were specially heat-treated and chambered for the new round.

Hornady LeverEvolution Ammunition in .44 Magnum

The .44 Mag., is not limited to handguns and thanks to offerings such as Hornady’s LeverEvolution runs great in lever guns. However, it is not recommended for long-term storage in tubular magazines.

Guns were exchanged for cartridges and both sides went through an evaluation period. The new round had promise for both power and accuracy, but more work was necessary. Engineers went back to the drawing board and made a new revolver that was more stout—adding about 7.5 ounces to the mass weight.

Just before the New Year, on December 15, 1954, a new revolver was born with the first production .44 Mag. wearing serial number S130927. S&W dubbed this model the NT-430 for N-frame, Target, .430 bore diameter. Smith & Wesson finished the next production model just before the end of the year and presented it to R.H. Coleman of the Remington Arms Company (S130806). January 1956 saw five more of the new hand cannons produced. The third (S130942) went to Julian Hatcher of the NRA and the fourth, serial number S147220—the Holy Grail of the .44 Mag.—went to none other than the hero of our story, Elmer Keith.

On January 19, 1954, during a special telecast from Springfield, MA, the “Most Powerful Handgun in the World” was announced to shooting enthusiasts. The NT-430 was offered in 4- and 6-inch barrels, with either a blue or nickel finish and initially retailed for $135. 1956 saw the manufacture of the first 3,000-plus of the new hand cannons and handgun history has never been quite the same since.

Do you own a .44 Mag. or ever wished you had? Let us know in the comment section.

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Comments (26)

  • Steve Hebert

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    I was fishing on the situk river in yakutat ak. And was standing on a boulder that was at the end of a log jam. Everything got real quiet. I was all alone, I had gotten dropped off for the day. I had my 629 with a 6 inch barrel and a Franchi Spas-12 loaded with 9 slugs with me. A brown bear came off he bank and went under the water under the logs that were between me and the bank. I was scared I guess, but it happened so fast. I didn’t even think to drop my rod and grab a gun. Anyway, the bear swam to the other side of the river, about 25 feet at that point, took a big dump, turned and looked at me straight in he eyes. He grunted and kicked his back feet like a dog does after he takes a crap, and disappeared into the Forest. I heard that the next day the fish and game warden got accosted by a bear and had to give up his salmon. That was considered too aggressive, and they killed him. It’s easy to say what you would do, but you never really know until you do it. I don’t think the .44 would have done it, but 9 slugs would have slowed him down. I’m glad I didn’t have to find out either way.

    Reply

  • curtis payne

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    Greetings from the left coast of CA.
    One fact that you left out of this “GREAT” story about my favorite pistol round the .44 magnum, is that Ruger actually beat Smith & Wesson into production with their BKH4 3 screw flat top single action .44 by nearly 8 months!!
    Just thought some of the readers might get a kick out of that little fact!

    Thanks for the story !! Great reading!

    Curt Payne
    Long beach, CA.

    Reply

  • montewhiteowl

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    I would like to share one more thought with you.my wife was giving me a hard time because I don’t use the computer that often and she brought up an experience that she teases me about.here it is.my uncle who was inww2 said that his platoon knocked the tracks off of a couple pannzers with rifle fire.so I took a 3ft long piece of railrod track and some friends and we blasted it just under the top where it is thinnest.30-06 with 147grn fmj,223 55grn fmj,243 win 100grn jsp,30-30 170 jsp,25-06jsp,22-250 jsp about a 50 grn I think.the iron is still in her rose garden.all left a mark,the 06 made a half insh splash about 1/8 inch deep.the 223 went about same but saller around.the 243 went deepest.almost 1/2in deep and same dia.the 25-06 was just any deeper and same dia.the 22-250 hit so hard the bullet just removed the paint with only a smalls dent.none of these rounds toppeled the heavy steel.the 30-30 knocked it over everytime but little did it dent.now I say take it as you will.but there is a knock down for these old heavy slow bullets.the range was 60yrds…

    Reply

  • montewhiteowl

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    I too like a 338 mag or something in this category when hunting at longer ranges but I also like my timber carbine with heavy hardcast wadcuuters.i load the same heavy bullets in my smith and ruger revolvers.444marlin and 44mag and I believe these heavy blunt bullets kill as well as anything I have tried.moose ,elk ,deer,hogs,blackbear and in one test my old Kevlar vest.they cut a full diameter hole every time.i will use what kills quickest,and have no fear of a giant bear if he shreads my tent and comes face to muzzle with a 320gn wadcutter.i really like you guys who like smart conversations about these subjects.besides it is fun right.semper fi.monte…..

    Reply

  • Owen McCullen

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    For V Clark:

    Thank you for the kind words. When one gets to an advanced age, most of what we have is our memories. I encourage young people to do adventuresome things — with a margin of safety — to build memories. I seldom said no to an opportunity and have seldom regretted it. Now, mostly it is my memories, most of which are good.

    Yes, I think you thought the bear’s behavior was a bit unusual. Animals are much like people and there are few normative behaviors you can always count on.

    I was never intrigued by Africa but was always fascinated by the brown bear. Given a choice between bear hunting in Alaska or lion hunting in Africa, I would go bear hunting. However, tiger hunting might be a different deal.

    I have had several experiences with cougars and in 3 cases, I felt I was, or a good friend, was being stalked by a cougar. But, cougars are hardly the same as tigers now are they.

    Reply

  • V Clark

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    Mr, McCullen, Just the thought of going after a bear the size of a Kodiak tests the strength of my sphincter muscles. I give you credit, sir. I have enjoyed reading your input from the technical to your personal experiences afield. And, yes, when hunting dangerous game like bear always hunt in pairs.

    One must remember that even with the perfectly placed kill shot, there is still the time needed for the animal to bleed out. To me, the only shot that will drop an animal immediately is a spine shot directly behind the head with a follow up kill shot as necessary.

    As an aside: If memory serves me correctly, in the story I related the bear’s behavior was not normal.

    Reply

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