Compared: The .44 Magnum and .45 Colt

By Chuck Hawks

This comparison article is about the .44 Remington Magnum and .45 Long Colt. It was brought about the volume of e-mail I have received on the subject. I would like to mention at the outset that I handload for and shoot both calibers, and that I own what I regard as being among the very best revolvers available in each caliber, both with 7.5" barrels and fully adjustable sights. So I have bet on both horses, so to speak, and win however this comparison comes out.

The .44 Magnum revolver cartridge was introduced in 1956 as a result of well publicized experiments with high pressure .44 Special loads. It uses a lengthened version of the .44 Special case and accepts the same .429" diameter bullets. The .44 Magnum was designed as a hunting cartridge for sportsmen, and for quite a while it was the most powerful factory loaded handgun cartridge.

The original Remington factory loads advertised a 240 grain SWC lead bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1470 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 1120 ft. lbs., measured in a 6.5" barrel. The SAAMI maximum average pressure (MAP) for the .44 Remington Magnum is 36,000 psi (or 40,000 cup). Leading proved to be a problem at such velocities with cast bullets, just as it had previously with the .357 Magnum, and jacketed bullets were soon introduced to solve the problem.

The .44 Magnum generates too much recoil and muzzle blast for the majority of shooters (although few will admit it). Only those skilled in the use of powerful handguns can shoot well enough with a .44 Magnum revolver to justify hunting with one. Most handgun hunters would be better off with a less powerful cartridge. For those who can handle it, the big .44 is a fine deer and black bear cartridge at typical handgun ranges.

Smith & Wesson and Ruger were the original manufacturers of .44 Magnum revolvers, although Colt, Freedom Arms, Taurus, and others now also offer .44 Magnums. It is also a popular choice in T/C single shot pistols. One advantage to the .44 Magnum is that low power .44 Special loads may be used for plinking and target shooting.

The .45 Colt (or .45 Long Colt) cartridge was introduced in 1873 in the Colt Single Action Army revolver. It was adopted as the service cartridge of the U.S. Army, and widely used by civilians on the Western frontier. The .45 Colt became a big commercial success and most revolver makers with a large frame gun have chambered for it at one time or another.

This famous man-stopping cartridge was designed for black powder, a relatively inefficient propellant, and consequently has excess capacity for smokeless powders. That is why the much smaller .45 ACP can nearly duplicate the performance of the much bigger .45 Colt if pressures are kept within SAAMI limits. Traditional factory loads for the .45 Colt drive a 250 grain lead bullet at a MV of about 860 fps and ME of 410 ft. lbs., measured in a 6.5" vented (revolver) barrel. The 100 yard numbers are 780 fps and 340 ft. lbs. These are Remington figures, and it is worth noting that they are about like those produced by the modern .40 S&W auto pistol cartridge, which is supposed to be one of the best "stoppers" on the market.

The SAAMI maximum average pressure for the .45 Colt is 14,000 psi. The .45's big case, which actually has somewhat greater capacity than the .44 Magnum case, is also why so many shooters/reloaders have (falsely) assumed that it can safely be "magnumized." But this is not the case, as the big .45's pressure limit is nowhere near magnum levels.

The vast majority of revolvers chambered for the .45 Colt over the years are simply not strong enough for safe use with high pressure loads. This specifically includes the Colt SAA, Colt, Taurus, and S&W double-action revolvers, and all of the "Peacemaker" replicas so common today. There is one commercially manufactured .45 Colt revolver that can safely stand higher than normal pressure reloads, and that is the Ruger Blackhawk/Vaquero. (The Vaquero is a Blackhawk without adjustable sights.) The T/C Contender single shot pistol is also safe with higher than normal pressure reloads.

What is a reasonable pressure limit for .45 Colt caliber Ruger Blackhawk and T/C Contender pistols? Some loads listed in the Speer Reloading Manual Number 13 specifically for these guns generate pressures up to 25,000 cup. Speer emphatically states that these loads must not be used in any other make and model of .45 Colt pistol, and advises shooters that if more power is desired they should purchase a gun chambered for the .44 Magnum or .454 Casull. That seems like sensible advice to me, so the Speer Blackhawk/Contender loads will be the benchmark used in this article for over-pressure .45 Colt loads. (For more on the subject of high pressure .45 Colt loads, see my article "High Pressure Loads for the .45 Colt.")

At present, the Speer Gold Dot .44 Magnum factory load shows a 240 grain JHP bullet at a MV of 1400 fps with ME of 1044 ft. lbs. The figures at 100 yards are 1139 fps and 691 ft. lbs. Speer factory ballistics were measured from a 6.5" vented (revolver) barrel.

Speer offers a Blazer .45 Colt load with a 200 grain FMJ bullet. This bullet leaves the muzzle at 1000 fps with 444 ft. lbs. of energy. At 100 yards it is still traveling at 889 fps and carrying 351 ft. lbs. of energy. This is an interesting alternative to the traditional 250 grain lead RN bullet.

The .44 Magnum's bullet has an actual diameter of .429" while the .45 Colt's bullet has an actual diameter of .452". This gives the .44 Magnum a modest advantage in sectional density and the .45 Colt a modest advantage in bullet frontal area with any given bullet weight. In most circumstances the two factors probably balance out.

Any comparison of factory load ballistics, regardless of bullet weight, is going to be very one sided in favor of the .44 Magnum. The .44 Mag. simply operates at a much higher permissible pressure. Comparing the Speer Gold Dot 240 grain .44 Magnum load to the Remington 250 grain .45 Colt load, the .44 Magnum has a 540 fps advantage in muzzle velocity, a 634 ft. lb. advantage in muzzle energy, and a much flatter trajectory. There can be no doubt that, as a big game hunting cartridge the .44 Magnum is clearly superior.

Now, using the Speer Reloading Manual Number 13 as our reference, let's compare the .44 Magnum and .45 Colt with handloads developed for a Ruger Blackhawk revolver with a 7.5" barrel. 225 grain JHP bullets are available from Speer in both calibers, and are very effective for deer size game, so that is a convenient bullet weight to compare. The top maximum load for the .44 Magnum drives a 225 grain bullet (BC .146, SD .175) at a MV of 1557 fps. The top maximum load for the .45 Colt drives a 225 grain bullet (BC .169, SD .169) at a MV of 1343 fps.

For convenience, let's round those numbers down to a realistic 1500 fps and 1300 fps respectively so that we can compare them using the Speer ballistic tables. At a MV of 1500 fps the .44 Mag. has ME of 1125 ft. lbs. and the remaining energy at 100 yards is 650 ft. lbs. The trajectory of the .44 Mag. bullet looks like this: +1.8" at 50 yards, 0 at 100 yards, and -8.5" at 150 yards.

At a MV of 1300 fps the .45 Colt has ME of 844 ft. lbs. and the remaining energy at 100 yards is 560 ft. lbs. The trajectory of the .45 Colt bullet looks like this: +2.5" at 50 yards, 0 at 100 yards, and -10.2" at 150 yards.

Both the standard pressure .44 Magnum load and the high pressure .45 Colt load should be deadly on deer and other medium size big game animals at 100 yards. After all, the .44-40 rifle bullet, one of the most successful deer cartridges in history, develops only 449 ft. lbs. of energy at 100 yards. But the .44 Magnum does, undeniably, have the advantage over the .45 Colt high pressure load.

In fact, as a deer cartridge, the .45 Colt is actually more comparable in power to the .41 Magnum than the .44 Magnum. Both can drive a 220-225 grain bullet at a MV of about 1350 fps.

Want to compare bullets of similar sectional density? That is probably the most accurate way to compare hunting cartridges. The 270 grain Speer JHP bullet for the .44 Magnum has a SD of .210, and the 300 grain Speer JHP bullet for the .45 Colt has a SD of .211, a nearly perfect comparison. These bullets are probably too heavy for the quickest kills on deer size game, but might be a good choice for large game or protection against large predators when hiking or fishing. The top maximum load for the 270 grain .44 bullet has a MV of 1309 fps. The top maximum load for the 300 grain .45 bullet has a MV of 1193 fps.

Again, so that we can use the Speer ballistic tables, let's round the .44 Magnum load down a few fps to a MV of 1300 fps and the .45 Colt load up a few fps to a MV of 1200 fps. At a MV of 1300 fps the 270 grain .44 Mag. bullet has ME of 1012 ft. lbs. and the remaining energy at 100 yards is 707 ft. lbs. The trajectory of the 270 grain .44 Mag. bullet looks like this: +2.4" at 50 yards, 0 at 100 yards, and -9.7" at 150 yards.

At a MV of 1200 fps the 300 grain .45 Colt bullet has ME of 960 ft. lbs. and the remaining energy at 100 yards is 708 ft. lbs. (nearly identical to the energy of the .44 Mag.) The trajectory of the 300 grain .45 Colt bullet looks like this: +2.8" at 50 yards, 0 at 100 yards, and -11" at 150 yards.

With such heavy bullets the greater case capacity of the .45 Colt allows it to almost catch up with the .44 Magnum. It doesn't shoot as flat, and it has slightly less energy out to 100 yards (surely as far as anyone should shoot at large animals with a handgun), but the difference is not enough to worry about. Of course, with such loads the .45 Colt kicks like a .44 Magnum.

Lower recoil is the .45 Colt's biggest advantage over the .44 Magnum when shooting factory loads or standard pressure handloads. Shooting standard .45 Colt factory loads or, in the case of the .44 Mag, shooting .44 Special factory loads or low power handloads, both calibers are reasonably pleasant to shoot. The "Handgun Recoil Table" on my Handgun Information Page shows that full power .44 Magnum loads or the kind of heavy bullet, high pressure .45 Colt loads discussed in the paragraphs above generate recoil numbers of 22.6 and 23.9 ft. lbs. respectively. Such loads are unpleasant for almost all shooters.

Factory loaded ammunition for both the .44 Magnum and .45 Colt is widely distributed in the U.S., but by no means inexpensive. The same could be said for the handguns chambered for the two cartridges, which in many cases are the same or similar models. In availability and price of both ammunition and guns there is little to choose between the .44 Magnum and .45 Colt.

Both the .44 Magnum and .45 Colt cartridges are a straight forward proposition for the reloader. Common jacketed bullet weights for the .45 Colt run from about 200 grains to 300 grains. For the .44 Magnum jacketed bullets span the range from about 180 to 300 grains. Cast lead bullets run up to about 300 grains for either caliber. The reloader can essentially duplicate the factory loaded velocities of both calibers, and substantially exceed them if he or she happens to be reloading for a Ruger Blackhawk revolver or T/C single shot pistol in .45 Colt. Both cartridges can also be loaded down for small game hunting, plinking, and target shooting. But, when push comes to shove, the 40,000 cup pressure limit of the .44 Magnum, even compared to high pressure 25,000 cup .45 Colt loads, makes it a more versatile big game hunting cartridge for which to reload.

Lastly, it is hard not to mention accuracy when comparing these two calibers, something I don't usually bring up when comparing cartridges. But the .44 Magnum has always had a sterling reputation as an ultra-accurate hunting cartridge. No doubt this is because for most of its life it has been loaded with the extra care due its high operating pressure and the fact that most .44 Magnum revolvers are top of the line guns. The Colt Anaconda, Ruger Super Blackhawk, and S&W Model 29 are examples of such revolvers.

On the other hand, the .45 Colt has always had a reputation for indifferent accuracy. No doubt this is partly because it is such an old cartridge and different manufacturers have used different specifications for chamber, bore, and bullet diameters over the years. Also, the .45 Colt dates back to a time when it was impossible to mass produce guns (or anything else) to the manufacturing tolerances possible today. And, lastly, the .45 Colt has been primarily a self defense cartridge, and the accuracy standards for such are never as high as for hunting or target cartridges. (They simply don't need to be.) As a point in fact, my Colt SAA revolver will shoot better groups than most brand new semi-automatic pistols chambered for the .45 ACP or .40 S&W cartridges. So, compared to other self defense cartridges and pistols, the old .45 Colt is more than adequately accurate, and better than average.

However, in the main, .44 Magnum revolvers and loads are not intended for self defense. They are mostly target revolvers and hunting loads, which are generally produced to a higher standard. Since we are specifically comparing the .45 Colt to the .44 Magnum, I think it is fair to point out that, on average, .44 Magnum revolvers and .44 Magnum factory loaded ammunition are generally more accurate than .45 Colt revolvers and .45 Colt factory loaded ammunition.

To summarize, today the primary appeal of both the .44 Mag. and .45 Colt is to the recreational shooter and hunter. Ammunition and guns for both calibers are widely available, although fairly expensive. In this area there is little to choose between the two. Both cartridges are easy to reload, but the .44 Magnum is the more versatile cartridge for the reloader.

The .45's biggest advantage is that it usually kicks less than the .44 Mag. It is definitely more fun to shoot with standard pressure loads.

As a defensive pistol cartridge, which is what the old .45 Colt was designed for, it is still a fine load. It is adequately powerful for almost any circumstance without the horrific muzzle blast and recoil generated by a .44 Magnum. On balance it is the better choice for its original purpose.

However, the .44 Magnum is the generally superior big game hunting cartridge. Its accuracy and performance are beyond question. It deserves its reputation as perhaps the premier handgun hunting cartridge, a reputation that was won in the field.

(For those interested in more information about the .44 Magnum and .45 Colt, there are articles about each on the Handgun Information Page.)

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Copyright 2003, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.