The S&W .460 Magnum

By Chuck Hawks

Smith & Wesson, exploiting the "X-frame" revolver introduced in 2003-2004 for the extra long .50 Magnum cartridge, did the obvious in 2005 by introducing a .45 caliber cartridge for the big 5-shot wheelgun. American shooters have always been in love with .45 caliber pistols, so the marketing potential of this cartridge/gun combination should automatically exceed that of the previous Model 500 .50 caliber offering.

Why they then named the new cartridge ".460 S&W Magnum," which is not only an inaccurate description, but makes it sound like the new cartridge is an oddball caliber rather than the beloved .45 that it truly is, I can not imagine. It's like the Smith marketing department is saying, "Okay, we'll give our customers the .45 caliber cartridge that they want, but we'll try to keep them from realizing it."

The idea for a .460 Magnum revolver (Model 460XVR) and cartridge are credited to S&W designer Herb Belin. Herb Belin is the guy responsible for S&W's 12 ounce .357 Magnum snubby and 24 ounce .44 Magnum revolver, not to mention the .500 S&W Magnum, so his lack of common sense is well documented. Hornady did the cartridge and load development on the .460 Magnum to Smith & Wesson parameters and wrote the specifications that were submitted to the SAAMI.

The .460 S&W Magnum is a lengthened version of the .454 Casull, itself a lengthened version of the .45 Long Colt. Both of these cartridges can also be fired in a revolver chambered for the .460 Magnum. That part of the design makes sense, but the Model 460 revolver cylinder has an awful lot of "free bore" for the .45 Colt cartridge. In any case, the popularity of the S&W Model 460 revolver is limited to those consumers with memories so short they are willing to do business with Smith & Wesson. (See my article "The Dark Side of S&W" for details.)

The basic dimensions of the new .460 Magnum are as follows: bullet diameter .452", rim diameter .520", rim thickness .060", case diameter .478", maximum case length 1.800", cartridge overall length (COL) 2.275". The COL of the .460 cartridge is too long to permit it to be chambered in existing Colt, Freedom Arms, Ruger and most other revolvers, although Taurus has introduced a "stretched frame" version of its Raging Bull revolver for the .500 and .460 S&W cartridges.

The .460 Magnum is a typical design for a revolver cartridge. It is a rimmed, straight wall case that breaks no new ground except in terms of its SAAMI maximum average pressure (MAP), which is 65,000 psi. This is the highest pressure of any handgun cartridge with which I am familiar. The reason for this excessive MAP is to achieve the highest velocity of any factory loaded revolver cartridge, which the .460 does. Unfortunately, the high pressure tends to make fired brass stick in the cylinder and difficult to eject, so most factory loads and responsible reloaders reduce the MAP to not more than 55,000 psi to improve reliability.

The Model 460 is a heavy, hard kicking, hunting revolver that is obviously very limited in application. You would think that in such a big gun with such a long cylinder that is intended for hunting big game, the heavier bullets available in the caliber would be the sensible choice. Well, they would. However, that is not the direction that Mr. Belin and S&W decided to go. Rather, they chose to promote spectacular paper ballistics, no matter how useless they might be in the real world. Thus, the original factory specifications called for a 200 grain bullet at a MV of 2330 fps and ME of 2400 ft. lbs. The sectional density (SD) of that bullet is a paltry .140. Too improve reliability, Hornady has since dropped the pressure and velocity to 2200 fps. This remains the only .460 Magnum factory load offered by Hornady.

The claimed maximum point blank range (MPBR) for deer hunting with the original 2330 fps load was 250 yards! That, of course, is just another blatant S&W exaggeration. (The MPBR +/- 3" of that load was actually 190 yards.) Even if the 250 yard claim were true, so what? Why would anyone buy this behemoth (73 ounces empty) revolver for deer hunting? If you want to shoot deer at long (handgun) range, a 60 ounce T/C Contender G2 pistol in a caliber such as 7-30 Waters makes far more sense. How many revolver shooters could hit a deer in the vitals at 250 yards with the first shot, anyway? Or are irresponsible enough to try?

A .45 caliber, 200 grain bullet in such a big case is just about the poorest possible choice for what is, realistically, a moose and elk gun. Fortunately, Winchester, Federal and Cor-Bon offer .460 factory loads with heavier bullets. I'd suggest 250-260 grain bullets for CXP2 game and 275-325 grains for CXP3 game.

To add insult to injury, S&W advertising text claims, "Incredibly Low Perceived Recoil For All Loads." You bet! I calculated the recoil energy and velocity for the excellent Federal Premium A-Frame factory load (300 grain bullet at 1750 fps) in a 4.5 pound gun and got 31.52 ft. lbs. of recoil energy and a recoil velocity of 21.24 fps. That is approximately three times the kick of a .44 Magnum hunting revolver!

Hodgdon data shows that the .460 Mag. can launch a Hornady 300 grain XTP MAG bullet (SD .210) at a MV of 1825 fps with 38 grains of H110 or W296 powders at 43,200 psi. This is from a 10" test barrel. With 42.5 grains of either H110 or W296, the .460 can achieve 2034 fps with the same 300 grain Hornady XTP MAG bullet at 56,100 psi. Touching that off should get anyone's attention!

Heavy bullet loads such as these would be appropriate when using a .460 Magnum to hunt the largest North American antlered game. Be sure you can handle the recoil and muzzle blast and still deliver pin point accuracy before you lay down the small fortune required to buy a .460 Magnum revolver. Remember that bullet placement is everything when hunting big game. You should absolutely try before you buy.

Back to Handgun Cartridges

Copyright 2005, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.