I am a fan and advocate of the .44 Remington Magnum. Not so much a fan as in “going out shooting it,” but a fan in toting one around with me—and I’ve been toting one for better than 40 years.
Not everywhere. But “out there” when a confrontation with something dangerous is a possibility. “Out there” means I’m toting a small backpack; the gun is in the backpack. My current choice is a five-shot, four-inch barrel.
To be clear: well-placed hits (especially done quickly) are the ticket, and when the well-placed hits pack a bigger punch, there won’t be as many needed. That also means a quicker, surer cessation of threat.
The reason I choose .44 Magnum is that, given readily available handguns, it’s the biggest, baddest round that can be reasonably carried.
.500 S&W, .454 Casull and the like all fit into guns that are just too doggone big to draw.
When I got my first .44 Mag. in 1976, it was (yes, of course, you guessed it) a Smith & Wesson Model 29. The prevalent (and dang near only) ammo available most places was something with a 240-grain, either flat-point or hollowpoint.
The originally favored projectile of Elmer Keith, the man responsible for Inspector Callahan’s “world’s most powerful handgun,” was a cast 250-grain “Keith Bullet,” but factory loads favor jacketed.
As with many (perhaps most) things now, there are more choices, whether it’s fast food or magnum handgun loads. Magnum handgun loads come in an array of bullet weights and, essentially, power levels.
Let’s take a closer look and compare three of them.
A Closer Look at the .44
Any magnum handgun caliber needs some barrel to exploit its full potential. Magnum rounds range from .327 Federal Mag. to .500 S&W Mag. and everything in-between. These all have relatively tall cases full of a good deal of relatively slow-burning propellant.
That’s where they get their pressure and that’s what gives them the power. It’s not complex: the longer there’s a drive to the bullet from a burning propellant, the faster the bullet gets driven.
And that’s also why something like a two-inch .357 Mag. revolver loses a belch of fire Saint George would have run from.
.44 Mag. velocity/energy figures are normally printed on the cartridge box and are therefore warranted for eight-inch vicinity barrels. When you’re down here with me and shooting half that—a 4-inch—there’s going to be less velocity and lower energy.
Because of the propellant burning rate, this difference is also about certain to be relatively greater than it would be comparing, say, a 9mm or .45 ACP through shorter or longer barrels.
Testing Three .44 Loads
I tested three different loads from Hornady to, first, see how they compared on-target and in-hand, and mostly, to answer a power question: which loading is most effective in a shorter barrel?
Also, to answer another question: which retains the most power (or loses the least power, however you want to look at it)?
Hornady is not the hottest ammo out there. H-brand has always been my “go-to” for factory ammo, rifle or pistol, and that’s come from years of experience with it.
I’m in no way taking a knock at any others, just freely admitting that I trust it, and have some insight into how it’s developed and manufactured, which makes me even more of a fan.
My idea on how to check after the power was to see how my chronographed results in my four-inch barrel compared to those listed for the 7.5-in. barrel Hornady based its velocity/energy figures on. Pretty simple, right?
Maybe too simple, because there’s a whopping lot more to actual impact effect than mathematics can provide, but it’s one objective measure to go on.
I’ll also tell which I liked the best (spoiler alert: the one that’s loaded into the cylinder).
It’s important to be honest with the self and the honest truth is that confidence and security (related) are, ultimately, the reasons why we carry what we carry, and why we carry in the first place. It’s important to be confident. Competence helps too!
In-Hand and On-Target
The 200-grain .44 load was decidedly easier on the hand, and the 300 was decidedly harsher, but the 240 was only negligibly “nicer” than the 300, despite the 300 being a relatively greater increase in bullet weight comparing steps among the three.
None of these loads are remotely pleasant when sending five continuous shots to target. That is what .44 Special is for! And that is one big reason I’m a big fan of big revolvers: they have a little brother who can play at the range all afternoon.
There was essentially zero difference in group sizes. There was, however, a screwdriver-level difference in impact locations on the target. Make double-sure to print and adjust for a new load.
There can be more difference in impact locations going from one load to another in the magnums, by my experience. Reasons, in part, have to do with the heavy recoil, which creates differing pressures and patterns against the shooter’s platform— it kicks and moves more.
There was more difference in velocity consistencies moving from the lightest to the heaviest bullet, and the 300 produced what I think is astounding consistency: low-single-digit extreme spreads.
The 200s kicked out a few 30+ fps whoppers, and the 240s were in the middle, at around 12 feet per second (fps) variation shot-to-shot.
I didn’t shoot them through another (longer) barrel, so I can’t say for sure, but I have to believe that propellant consumption efficiency might be influenced by the shorter barrel.
My pre-test suppositions were wrong. I supposed that the 300 would lose relatively less speed than the others, comparing Hornady 7.5-in. barrel figures to those I read for a 4-in., and that the 200 would lose the most, again, relatively speaking.
It was the 240 that turned out to stay the most “neutral,” and by a big margin. It seems that loading gets the most push possible from the propellant in a shorter barrel. The 200 was the biggest loser, again, relatively.
It behaved more like a .357 Magnum (that cartridge is heavily dependent on barrel length to live up to its power potential).
Why? Well, most ammo manufacturers keep their data proprietary, and that leaves us to sleuth and guess after dismantling a factory round. I have to believe that Hornady uses different propellants for these different loads, not just more or less of the same propellant.
All I can really say “for sure” about the result is that the recipe for the Hornady 240-grain load gets a more complete burn in a shorter time (distance).
Before doing this test, I had been filling the cylinder with 300s before I holstered it. Even though it has the least mathematically-derived power (muzzle energy) than the other lighter bullet options, there’s more to “it” than math.
“Momentum” isn’t a term commonly associated with ballistics, but it sure matters when something needs knocked down and kept down, and in a hurry. These 300-grain bullets have strong momentum.
Go “thump-a-stump” with some and you’ll see what I mean. I am, however, now carrying 240s. Compared to the 300-grain load, there’s a significant difference in at-target energy—it was 90 ft.lbs. and now it’s nearly 190.
So, the biggest bullet in the shorter barrel did not net the most energy. That wasn’t a shock, but it was a revelation. I think it’s good advice to test for yourself.
Always keep in mind that these are my results and yours might vary, and also that these results are for Hornady factory loadings. Other loads using different amounts of different propellants at different pressures could redistribute the hierarchy.
What’s your preferred .44 load? Let us know in the comments below.
I am a fan also of the 44 mag. Have had a ruger super blackhawk for 45 yrs. Just recently purchased a taurus tracker ss 4in barrel. Love it. Roll my own ammo. 240 gr. Xtp 25gr. 300 mp powder. It is a beast. Can’t say enough about 44mags.
Buffalo Bore +p Deer Grenade 240 gr out of a Super red hawk 7 5/8” barrel
#1 Self defense and easier on shooter, original SuperVel loading, 180gr JHP which can goo 1,800fps depending on barrel (add 15-20% in rifle like Ruger 44 Carbine ),,,
#1- Hunting load same Bullet Larry Kelly used to take down African big five and 10 FOOT Brown Bear, second largest seen and largest with handgun. HARD Cast, SSK bullet, 320gr. will chrono at 1,350 fps from 4-3/4″ Ruger Blackhawk (RUGER or Contender loading ONLY),, and REALLY really helps to have revolver Quad-Ported from MagNaPort to lower recoil,, NOT a beginner load, nice part is you can download for practice or use 240gr Hornady soft lead at 700fps fun plinking load (revolver,, semi like Desert Eagle need to be hot to funciton.
A 310 grain powder coated cast bullet from a Lee mold ahead of 15 grains of 2400 powder is my favorite load.
I don’t understand going with a hand punishing .44 and then going for a lightweight 5 shot and short barrel. That Smith isn’t that small, go with six shots and the 7 1/2 inch barrel . The trade of toting a somewhat bigger gun around is well worth the control and added punch you get, IMHO. Also, how about hand loading or having a friend hand load for you ? Out of a longer barrel you can get good punch from a tamer to shoot load. On the other hand, even a short .44 delivers more oomph than most things ! And yes, I own and lug around in the boonies a .44 mag 7 1/2 inch Super Blackhawk.
It would be interesting to see the same cartridges tested in a carbine.
All of this information is “well and good”, but I carry a S&W BackPacker 2″ and my only concern is eliminating a bad guy threat at short distance. Assuming that I compared all three of these loads in gel at five yards, will any of them NOT accomplish the job?
Very well written and nice article to read being a .44 fan myself. You did not mention what you are protecting yourself from, but if it’s big and full of bad attitude, as in a grizzly, I’m really hoping you trade in the backpack for a chest holster and the rounds for a 320 grain hardcast solid. Hollow points simply will not do the needed damage to a large, charging bear. Hollows won’t break a skull or bones whereas a harcast is designed to do so…..if you get lucky and hit it. Also, if we are talking bear defense; bear spray first, handgun or larger is your backup. Written with all due respect to the author and his data.
Way back when I was a twentysomething I found a loading for a 300 grain Hornady xtp at 1600 fps. The specs said for a Thompson contender ONLY. I decided since my piece is a Ruger super blackhawk with an unfluted cylinder it would handle this with no problem? I was right, the empties fell out without using the ejector and no signs of over pressure. The part that couldn’t handle it was my poor middle finger knuckle. After about 20 rounds I didn’t want any more. The recoil was beastly but the rounds were accurate. Now a days if I go shoot that work of art Ruger it’s factory stuff only, my very close to 50 year old, whole life of manual labor, getting arthritic hands appreciate the milder recoil. That being said, you haven’t lived until you shoot something with recoil like a sledgehammer.
Underwood 340 grain +P+ out of my Super Blackhawks, real .44 power.