The Magnum Pistol Cartridges from .22 WMR to .454 Casull
By Chuck Hawks
You feel the need for a handgun that shoots flatter, farther and harder than normal. Perhaps you are a small game or varmint hunter, a big game hunter, or an outdoor enthusiast seeking protection in the field and the rainbow trajectory and limited power of most pistol cartridges just won't get the job done. You want to zero your handgun at 100 yards, not 25 yards or 50 yards, without worrying about the midrange bullet rise.
Fortunately, you have some good choices and they work in normal revolvers you can carry in a holster. You don't need a single shot pistol that is really a rifle sawed-off at both ends to enjoy the benefits of a magnum handgun.
You do, however, need a barrel long enough to burn the extra powder contained in a magnum case and provide a sight radius sufficient to take advantage of the increased range potential. For shooting at 100 yards or more with iron sights, a barrel six to eight inches long is the ticket, providing a reasonable balance between ballistics, sight radius and portability.
You don't have to pay a ridiculous price for an exotic Unobtainium revolver, or buy a gun custom chambered for a wildcat cartridge. Shucks, you don't even have to be a reloader, although most high volume shooters are, for economic reasons if nothing else.
Depending on your purpose, there are six common magnum revolver cartridges worth considering; six easy steps. These are the .22 Magnum, .327 Magnum, .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .454 Casull Magnum.
All provide the flat trajectory, high velocity and increased energy that make them true magnum cartridges in their respective calibers. All can be zeroed at 100 yards with a midrange trajectory of approximately three inches.
There is surprisingly little difference in the velocity and trajectory of these cartridge with standard for caliber weight bullets. The bigger calibers merely provide more energy downrange and make a bigger hole in the target, at the cost of increased recoil. Let's take a look at each of the magnum calibers.
.22 WMR (Winchester Magnum Rimfire)
Introduced by Winchester in the 1950s, the .22 WMR is an excellent small game, varmint and small predator (Class 1 game) cartridge. It is loaded by all of the major rimfire ammunition manufacturers.
Common bullet weights run from 30 to 50 grains. Originally designed to launch a 40 grain jacketed bullet (SD .114) at 1550 fps from an eight inch barrel, current ballistics with a 40 grain JHP bullet achieve a muzzle velocity (MV) of about 1400 fps and 174 ft. lb. muzzle energy (ME) from a 6.5 inch barrel. The bullet diameter is .224 inch, the same as centerfire .22s.
This is still a potent load. For comparison, the 40 grain .22 LR high velocity bullet has a ME of 108 ft. lb. from a six inch barrel, the .32 Auto 129 ft. lb. from a four inch barrel and the .38 S&W 150 ft. lb. from a four inch barrel.
Here is the trajectory per the Federal ballistics calculator for the 40 grain .22 Magnum bullet at a MV of 1400 fps zeroed at 100 yards (iron sights with .75 inch sight height):
Fired from a standard size revolver, such as a Ruger Single Six Convertible or S&W Model 48 Masterpiece, the recoil of the .22 WMR is minimal, not much more noticeable than a .22 LR. The muzzle blast from a six inch barrel, however, is noticeably greater.
For personal defense, a .22 Magnum revolver provides reasonable protection from coyotes and the like in the field. If you have the skill, it has the flat trajectory required to be a serious threat to human predators with a .22 rifle. It easily out ranges handgun cartridges in the .38 Special and .45 ACP class. My subjective impression is the 40 grain JHP .22 Mag. bullet causes more tissue damage than standard velocity centerfire handgun cartridges up to at least .32 caliber.
Being a rimfire cartridge, .22 WMR ammo is substantially less expensive than any centerfire handgun cartridge. Shoot more, have more fun, pay less!
.327 Federal Magnum
The .327 Federal Magnum, introduced in 2007, is our newest magnum revolver cartridge. It is also the flattest shooting of our magnum revolver cartridges and touted as approaching the .357 Magnum in power, with less recoil.
ATK (Federal, Fusion, American Eagle and Speer brand) factory loads are available with 85, 100 and 115 grain bullets. The 100 grain bullet (SD .147) has a MV of 1500 fps from a four inch barrel and ME of 500 ft. lb. It really isn't that far behind the .357 Magnum's 540 ft. lb. ME (158 grain bullet at 1240 fps).
The lineage of the .327 Mag. is interesting. The old .32 Short case was lengthened to make the .32 S&W Long in 1896, which in turn was lengthened to form the .32 H&R Magnum in 1984. The .327, which like all other ".32s" actually shoots .312 inch diameter bullets, is based on a lengthened .32 H&R Mag. case.
The result is that any .327 revolver can safely shoot all of these earlier revolver cartridges and even the semi-rimmed .32 Auto cartridge, which has the same head diameter. Like the .357 Mag./.38 Spec., .44 Mag./.44 Spec. and .454 Casull/.45 Colt, the .327 Mag. can shoot lower pressure and lower recoil ammunition.
The .32 H&R Mag. makes a particularly good understudy for practice, home defense and small game hunting. The muzzle blast and recoil are substantially less than the .327 Magnum and the trajectory is still sufficiently flat for most purposes. It launches an 85 grain JHP bullet at a MV of 1120 fps and ME of 235 ft. lb. from a five inch barrel (Federal figures). With a 75 yard zero this bullet hits 1.8 inches high at 50 yards and 4.0 inches low at 100 yards.
The .327 was first chambered in the Ruger SP101, a snub-nose revolver with fixed sights, as a self-defense round. This was unfortunate, as the full power .327 is too much cartridge for such a small, short barreled revolver and the combination is unpleasant to shoot in terms of both recoil and muzzle blast. (A later version of the SP101 .327 w/4.2 inch barrel and adjustable sights is much more practical and makes a good camp gun or home defense revolver.)
However, the cartridge's potential in the field was obvious and soon it appeared in the full size Ruger GP100 DA revolver and then in the Blackhawk and Single-Seven SA revolvers. It is a pleasure to shoot in any of these, with much less recoil than a .357 Magnum.
Here is the trajectory per the Federal ballistics calculator for the 100 grain .327 Magnum factory load at a MV of 1500 fps zeroed at 100 yards (iron sights with .75 inch sight height):
Loads of this intensity are probably adequate deer slayers within 50 yards. However, I would much prefer the extra bullet diameter, weight and energy of a .357 Magnum for hunting Class 2 game.
For personal defense in the field, a .327 Magnum revolver shooting full power loads provides adequate protection from coyotes at any range you can hit them, as well as from wolves and even cougars at short range. Because of its very flat trajectory, a .327 would be an excellent choice for protection against human predators armed with a pistol, shotgun, or even a short range rifle. (Surprisingly, a skilled handgunner with a magnum revolver can often out-shoot a mediocre rifleman.)
The .327 Mag. easily out ranges handgun cartridges in the .38 Special and .45 ACP class. Its high velocity and energy aid bullet expansion, making the .327 far deadlier than its rather modest caliber would suggest. This is not your granddad's old .32.
.357 S&W Magnum
The .357 is the original magnum handgun cartridge and for its first 20 years it was often referred to as "the Magnum," as there was no other. It was designed by Winchester on a lengthened .38 Special case at the request of Smith & Wesson and introduced in 1935. Unlike the way many handgun cartridges are misleadingly named, .357 inch is actually the true bullet diameter of the cartridge.
The .357 is probably the most versatile of all handgun cartridges. It is one of the most popular handgun cartridges in sales and is, by far, the most popular magnum cartridge.
Not only a great hunting cartridge, the .357 Magnum is also an outstanding police service, home defense and personal protection cartridge. Its stopping power with appropriate service loads (typically a 125 grain JHP bullet at about 1450 fps) exceeds all other handgun cartridges.
It is chambered in practically every revolver that can stand its considerable pressure (up to 45,000 cup according to Speer). However, my advice is to stick with top quality, medium-large to large frame revolvers, such as the Colt Python, Colt SAA, Ruger GP100, Ruger Blackhawk and S&W Model 27.
Any .357 Magnum revolver can safely shoot all .38 Special loads for practice or small game hunting. The .38 Spec. 125-130 grain jacketed +P loads are particularly useful in this regard. The Federal ballistics calculator shows their .38 +P 129 grain factory load, zeroed at 75 yards, hits 2.3 inches high at 50 yards and 5.1 inches low at 100 yards. Not magnum trajectory, but useful and mild to shoot in full size .357 revolvers.
There really isn't much a handgunner with a good .357 revolver cannot do, assuming it can be accomplished with any conventional handgun. A 180 grain .357 bullet has a sectional density of .202, roughly comparable to a 270 grain .44 Mag., 300 grain .454 Casull, or 325 grain .480 Ruger bullet, with penetration to match. The .357 has also been adapted to rifles, where it serves as a low recoil, 100 yard deer cartridge.
.357 Magnum ammunition is loaded by all of the major ammo manufacturers in a profusion of bullet weights, typically from around 110 to 200 grains. The classic full power load called for a 158 grain JSP bullet (SD .177) at 1550 fps MV from an 8-3/8 inch barrel. This was potent stuff!
Standard factory ballistics today launch a 158 grain bullet at a MV of 1240 fps and ME of 540 ft. lb. from a four inch barrel. With a proper expanding bullet, this is still an appropriate hunting load for Class 2 game. Other good hunting loads use 140-150 grain jacketed expanding bullets at MVs around 1400 fps. The 158 grain hunting load is also appropriate for protection in the field against both two and four legged (wolf, cougar and black bear size) predators.
Here is the trajectory, per the Federal ballistics calculator, for the 158 grain .357 Magnum factory load at a MV of 1240 fps zeroed at 100 yards (iron sights with .75 inch sight height):
For short range (25 yards or less) protection from the great bears (grizzly, brown and polar), I would prefer the increased sectional density and deeper penetration of a tough, controlled expansion, 180 grain bullet. Examples include the Federal Premium load with a 180 grain Swift A-Frame at 1130 fps and the Cor-Bon Hunter load with a 180 grain Bonded Core Soft Point at 1200 fps.
.41 Remington Magnum
Remington introduced the .41 Magnum in 1964, following the startling sales success of their .44 Magnum. The concept was for a cartridge between the power and recoil of the .357 Magnum and the .44 Magnum, as many who purchased .44 Mag. guns quickly discovered they could not tolerate the cartridge's heavy recoil. There was also law enforcement interest in a .41 caliber (bullet diameter .410 inch) revolver cartridge.
As it turned out, the original Remington .41 Magnum factory load with its 210 grain jacketed bullet (SD .178) at 1500 fps and 1050 ft. lb. from an 8-3/8 inch barrel was a lot closer to the .44 Magnum in power (at both ends) than to the .357 Magnum. Generally speaking, anyone who can handle a .41 Mag. can also handle a .44 Mag. Regarded by the police as over-powered, very few departments adopted the .41 Mag. service revolver.
Unlike the .327, .357 and .44 Magnums, there is no standard velocity .41 cartridge that can be fired in .41 Magnum revolvers. (The obsolete .41 Colt cartridge is not dimensionally compatible with the .41 Mag.) Reloaders can, of course, load reduced power ammunition.
The big .41 is a fine hunting cartridge for Class 2 and most Class 3 game animals at revolver ranges. Ruger (Blackhawk and Redhawk), S&W (Models 57 and 58), Taurus (Models 416 and 425) and possibly others have offered revolvers in .41 Magnum. Of these, the Ruger Blackhawk and S&W Model 57 have been available the longest and most consistently.
Federal, Remington and Winchester, among the Big 4 US ammo makers, offer .41 Magnum hunting loads, all with jacketed bullets weighing 175-240 grains at MVs between 1230 and 1300 fps. However, the 210 grain bullet remains the most popular choice.
Here is the trajectory, per the Federal ballistics calculator, for the 210 grain .41 Magnum factory load at a MV of 1230 fps zeroed at 100 yards (iron sights with .75 inch sight height):
This load's trajectory is virtually identical to a full power, 240 grain .44 Magnum. The 1300 fps Remington 210 grain JSP load shoots a bit flatter and delivers 788 ft. lb. ME from a four inch barrel. Such loads are a real handful from a four inch barrel and, for a hunting revolver, a six or eight inch barrel is much more appropriate.
The .41 Mag. can serve as protection from even apex predators in the field. The Winchester factory load with a 240 grain Platinum Tip bullet at a MV of 1250 fps should serve this purpose well. There are no flies on the .41 Magnum.
.44 Remington Magnum
Introduced in 1956 by Remington and based on experiments with over pressure .44 Special loads, the .44 Magnum became the second most popular of the magnum handgun cartridges. Like its parent .44 Spec. cartridge, the .44 Magnum actually uses .429-.430 inch diameter bullets. It is strictly a hunting cartridge, for the recoil and muzzle blast are too severe and the penetration excessive for practical police service or urban personal protection purposes.
Perhaps surprisingly, .44 Magnum revolvers (at least the Ruger Super Blackhawk, Ruger Redhawk and S&W Model 29 examples) are usually extremely accurate. Presumably this is due to good cartridge/load design, good cartridge assembly and premium quality revolvers. All of the major ammunition manufacturers load .44 Magnum cartridges and today the cartridge is popular in rifles, as well as handguns.
The .44 Magnum cartridge burns a lot of powder to achieve its peak performance and a relatively long barreled revolver is required. I would not own a .44 Mag. with a barrel shorter than 5-1/2 inches for any purpose and the long 7-1/2 to 8-3/8 inch barrels really come into their own. The extra weight of a long barrel also helps to dampen muzzle flip.
Traditional factory loads from the Big 4 US ammo makers use a 240 grain bullet (SD .185) at a MV of 1180-1300 fps, but available bullet weights run from 210-300 grains. The Federal Power-Shok load can be taken as typical, launching a 240 grain bullet at a MV of 1230 fps with ME of 805 ft. lbs. The remaining energy at 100 yards is 570 ft. lb., about what a stiff .357 Mag. load produces at the muzzle.
Here is the trajectory from the Federal ballistics calculator for the 240 grain .44 Magnum factory load at a MV of 1230 fps zeroed at 100 yards (iron sights with .75 inch sight height):
Fortunately, reloaders can load 200 grain bullets at a MV of about 1000 fps, which makes a .44 Mag. revolver much more fun to shoot and still shoots flat enough for practice purposes. In addition, because it is based on a lengthened .44 Special case, any .44 Magnum revolver can also shoot .44 Special ammunition.
JHP bullets weighing 210-225 grains are often suggested for hunting Class 2 game. The 240 grain JHP and JSP bullets are the "all-around" bullets, suitable for hunting Class 2 and most Class 3 game. The heavy 265-300 grain bullets are for hunting the largest Class 3 animals and short range protection from the largest predators. The .44 Magnum is popular for protection in Alaska, where big bears roam.
Unfortunately, the recoil of full power .44 Magnum loads is beyond the ability of most shooters to handle. This accounts for the number of like new condition .44 Magnum revolvers on the used market, many of which have never fired more than one cylinder load of ammunition.
.454 Casull Magnum
The .454 is a hunting cartridge intended primarily for Class 3 game. Dick Casull experimented with over pressure .45 Long Colt loads and came to realize that a new cartridge and a new revolver to shoot it were required for safety and reliability. The result was the .454 Casull cartridge and the Freedom Arms SA revolver, which is among the largest, strongest and best made handguns ever produced.
Long a proprietary cartridge, the .454 was SAAMI standardized in 1998 and today .454 Casull Magnum revolvers are offered by Freedom Arms, Ruger (Super Redhawk) and Taurus (Raging Bull). These are all very large, heavy revolvers and the Super Redhawk and Raging Bull double action revolvers are particularly bulky and rather clumsy.
The .454 Casull case is based on a lengthened and strengthened .45 Colt case and uses small rifle primers. The correct bullet diameter is .452 inch. The SAAMI maximum pressure is an astonishing 65,000 psi, but I have read that Winchester factory loads are actually loaded to around 55,000 psi and maximum pressure loads should be confined to use in Freedom Arms revolvers. Federal, Hornady and Winchester, among the Big 4, offer .454 factory loads using bullets weighing from 240-300 grains.
Here is the trajectory per the Federal ballistics calculator for the 300 grain (SD .210) .454 Casull factory load at a MV of 1520 fps zeroed at 100 yards (iron sights with .75 inch sight height):
That load develops 1530 ft. lb. ME and retains 879 ft. lb. at 100 yards, a bit more than a typical .44 Magnum load generates at the muzzle. Note that the .454 shoots as flat as the .327 Federal Magnum. However, given its stupendous recoil, I don't think most would consider it an optimum cartridge for precision, long range marksmanship!
These ballistics are extraordinary, the problem being that the recoil is also extraordinary. VERY few shooters, even among the most experienced, can tolerate such loads without flinching. The recovery time required for a second aimed shot is also extended. Even "mid-range" .454 factory loads, typically shooting 250-260 grain bullets at around 1300 fps, are fierce and exceed the recoil and muzzle blast of full power .44 Magnum loads.
Fortunately, since it is based on a lengthened .45 Colt case, .454 Casull revolvers can also shoot .45 Colt loads. In the necessarily heavy .454 revolvers, .45 Colt loads are very mild and pleasant to shoot.
I am not convinced there is any real world need for a revolver more powerful than the .44 Magnum. If there is, the .454 Casull is the answer.
Summary and Conclusion
There are handgun cartridges even more fearsome than the mighty .454 Casull and revolvers even bigger and clumsier than the Ruger Super Redhawk and Taurus Raging Bull. These include the S&W .460 Magnum and .500 Magnum X-frame double action revolvers, as well as the single action Magnum Research Long Cylinder BFR that accommodates rifle cartridges such as .444 Marlin, .45-70 and .450 Marlin. However, these cartridges and the over size guns that shoot them are well beyond the bounds of common sense.
The six magnum handgun cartridges discussed above are great, because they increase striking power and allow shooting at ranges beyond the MPBR of standard velocity cartridges. For handgun hunting of all but the smallest of small game, they are definitely the way to go.
With practice you can impress your friends, who see handguns only as short range self-defense tools, with your long range shooting ability. Given the wide range of caliber, power and recoil offered by the magnum revolver cartridges, there is something for everyone and practically every purpose, from personal protection to hunting jackrabbits in the Mojave desert or moose in Alaska.
Copyright 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.