Isn’t it funny, or perhaps the more appropriate word would be ironic, how some things come full circle with the passage of time?
This is nothing esoteric, but rather about the .44 magnum in handguns or rather, my history with the caliber. A couple of years after moving down here from Montana and finding that my Ruger .357 magnum was not legal for hunting in Wyoming, I bought a single-action Virginia Dragoon in .44 magnum.
The problem was those factory bullets, even the hollow points, simply drilled a hole clean through those skinny antelope bucks. Even lung shot, the rangy little critters could pack on the yardage before expiring and, in a sagebrush desert, it could be a hassle finding them, even with a blood trail. Actually, on prairie goats, the .357 magnum expanded faster and killed the little guys more efficiently than the bigger bores, but, like I said, it was illegal in Wyoming back then. Sometimes the rule-makers haven’t got a clue.
Despite a lack of recoil,(I thought), one problem the .357 had that made it less than popular with me was noise. It could deafen a shooter without ear plugs whereas the bigger bores, while loud, didn’t have that sonic-boom type of crack that hurts the ears. For me, the real problem with the .44 magnum in a revolver was recoil. Shooting the dang things really hurt my wrist. Since I wasn’t handloading the big .44 yet and just shooting factory ammo, I had to utilize what was on the shelf down at Jack’s Sports.
All of this was before I met George Conner and Bob Edgar. Call it a life-changing experience.
Those two pistoleros became good friends and converted me to the .45 Colt caliber for my handgun of choice. Not only because it could be hand-loaded to be more powerful than the .44 magnum (bigger bullets at the same or higher speeds with less pressure and recoil), the recoil, while still impressive, was somewhat less.
George, an excellent pistolsmith besides being a crack shot, built me a custom revolver to handle the souped up .45. Using an older three-screw-style Ruger Blackhawk in .30 Carbine as the base, he rebored the cylinder to .45 Colt with proper-sized chamber throats and installed a .454-bore, hand-lapped, Wilson slow-twist barrel. I wanted shorter and he insisted on longer. We compromised on 4 inches. It shot where it was aimed and hit hard. It became my constant companion on adventures in the backcountry.
I cast 300-grain bullets from my 45-90 mold, .458 diameter, sized the big slugs to fit and crimped them over an unseemly potent dose of H-110, which sent those bullets through the chronograph screens at a remarkably consistent 1,460 fps and never looked back. The result was several dead deer, antelope, coyotes, a bear or two, a couple of elk and a host of assorted varmints. I loved that gun and that load. For more than 30 years of backwoods bumming I never worried about encountering hostile wildlife or two-leggeds when it was on my hip. My son Greg has it now.
I gave it to him since he enjoys chasing critters with a stick-and-string type of arrangement and, in big bear country, a hip-carried backup gives both of us some peace of mind as it was purpose-built to handle those heavy loads and oversized cast-lead bullets. What with that old-style, single-action, plow-handle grip and my advancing arthritis, I felt I needed something less abusive.
Problem is, after thinking I wouldn’t ever need it again, I found myself missing it. There is nothing like touching off a truly big bore hand cannon. It’s similar to the adrenalin lift one gets from pushing a Porsche or Corvette past the century mark on the speedometer. Hard to explain, but addictive nonetheless. When it’s not there, you miss it.
Besides, I needed something big enough to knock the stuffings out of Old Ephraim, if necessary, like when bumping into a bear while fishing in the backcountry, but portable enough to be with me, not left in the pickup. Something that shooting for practice or training wouldn’t destroy my wrists anymore than they are at present.
Just so you know, during my misguided youth, both wrists and my right hand suffered from being smashed, so now arthritis is a major player in my life which makes hard-torquing recoil in a handgun a major ouch. Enter the .44 magnum again. Or, what was old is new. Almost.
Some years back, shortly after this whole idea came to fruition, Lipsy’s had a stainless steel short-barreled Ruger Bisley revolver in .44 magnum in its inventory and I figured that might work. Since it was portable and powerful, I could shoot lighter loads for practice and the Bisley frame would absorb more recoil and let these old wrists handle pretty stout loads for serious wet work to boot! Linebaugh tuned it up and, with a full house factory loads, it was minute of Coke can at 50 yards, no sweat.
For serious work I started experimenting with different bullets that were heavy for that caliber. Previously this year I wrote about using the Hornady 265-grain jacketed slug designed for the .444 Marlin. That bullet was designed to penetrate deeper at higher velocities than one could run out of a .44 magnum.
Back when the .444 Marlin came out, the only bullet they had to use was the same 240-grain slug developed for the .44 magnum handguns. That just didn’t cut it at the higher .444 Marlin rifle velocities, with the .44 magnum-designed bullets often blowing up when impacting target animals when fired from the bigger rifle.
From my revolver the results were excellent with that 265-grain bullet, with deep penetration and accuracy, but factory bullets cost more than a poor boy wants to spend just for practice! If you want to shoot handguns a lot and aren’t rich, that usually means casting your own bullets. Which is why I wanted an effective bullet I could cast and still had the attitude of a heavyweight. After some searching I found a mold for a 300 grain Keith style semi-wad cutter bullet at a gun show and brought it home.
Last week in July, Sandi and I went out into Oregon Basin and took our handguns for a walk. For the .44 I’d loaded a 300-grain cast bullet with a BHN of around 19 or 20. BHN means bullet hardness number, a method of rating the relative hardness of different bullet alloys. A BHN rating of 4 or 5 is soft lead, 8 or 9 is wheelweights, 14 or so is Lymans alloy No. 2, or so I’ve read. Those bullets I loaded were harder than woodpecker lips.
Anyway, the big slugs were loaded over enough H-110 to move them across the desert around 1,300-plus fps. Recoil was there, but not significantly objectional in the Bisley and that load was minute-of-rock accurate out to around 200 yards. Closer targets simply got pulverized.
I probably shouldn’t have been concerned about the recoil, even in that sawed off “Packin Pistol” in that caliber, even loaded heavy. After all that work with the same revolver style, albeit somewhat larger and heavier, but chambered in .475 Linebaugh, the .44 magnum is a piece of cake. Even for this old man.
And, as George has said on many occasions, “properly placed, a 300-grain bullet at over 1,000 fps will kill anything in this country!” Still, when shooting a handgun or rifle, expertise comes from practice and quality practice at that.