Compared: The .44 Remington Magnum and .45 Colt in Rifles
By Chuck Hawks
By the end of the Second World War, the concept of carbines chambered for cartridges that could be used in both rifles and revolvers was pretty much dead. The mainstream shooting world had moved on to more powerful, longer range rifle cartridges. However, by the 1950's shooters with .357 Magnum revolvers were buying old Winchester Model 92 and Marlin Model 1894 carbines and having them re-barreled for the .357 revolver cartridge. They found that these made lightweight, handy, short range rifles for hunting small predators and deer. The introduction of the .44 Remington Magnum revolver cartridge in 1955, undeniably an effective short range deer and black bear cartridge, accelerated the demand for old lever action rifles suitable for conversion. Pretty soon the supply of economical old rifles suitable for conversion was drying up.
In 1969 Marlin recognized the demand and reintroduced the Model 1894, chambered for .44 Special/.44 Magnum revolver cartridges. Later they added the .38 Special/.357 Magnum and .45 Colt.
Following in Marlin's footsteps, Winchester introduced a short action version of the Model 94 that was ultimately offered in .357 Magnum, .44-40 Win., .44 Magnum, .45 Colt and .480 Ruger. The Model 94 is actually a .30-30 length action, much longer than required for pistol cartridges. Today, Winchester has discontinued the short action Model 94 in favor of a "Historical" Model 1892 in calibers .357 Magnum, .44-40, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt.
Henry Repeating Arms, a U.S. company specializing in lever action rifles, has their Big Boy Model in .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt. This is a handsome, but heavy, carbine with a solid brass receiver and blued, 20" octagonal barrel.
At the other end of the lever action spectrum is the Ruger Model 96/44M. This is a modern, short throw, streamlined lever action hunting rifle in caliber .44 Magnum that is styled after the famous Ruger 10/22 carbine.
There are also several imported copies of historical American lever action rifles available in a variety of pistol cartridges. These are mostly knock-offs of various obsolete Henry and Winchester models produced overseas. The expensive Italian made Uberti lever action replicas, in particular, are fine rifles. With so many rifles now available in pistol cartridges, it is clear that the idea has once again caught on.
The advent of the game of cowboy action shooting has contributed to the popularity of such rifles. Marlin and Winchester, for example, produce competition versions of their famous lever action rifles specifically for the sport. Cowboy action shooting has also resulted in the advent, for the first time, of .45 Colt rifles, which were never made during historical times. The .45 Colt was always a dedicated revolver cartridge in the Old West.
A considerable number of rifles chambered for pistol cartridges end up in the field. Most of these are used for hunting deer in brushy or wooded country where shots are likely to be at short range. The .44 Magnum is the most proven deer slayer among the revolver cartridges commonly available in carbines, but the .45 Colt has its champions as a hunting cartridge among the ".45 uber alles" crowd, hence this comparison.
240 grains is the most common bullet weight in .44 Magnum factory loads and it is the bullet weight for which the cartridge was originally designed. Winchester offers a Super-X factory load using their 240 grain Hollow Soft Point bullet and includes it in their rifle ballistics tables, so this is the load we will use to represent the .44 Magnum. Winchester .44 Magnum rifle ballistics are measured in a 20" barrel.
Finding a factory load to represent the .45 Colt in a carbine length barrel proved to be much more difficult. Most ammo manufacturers offer .45 Colt factory loads, but their ballistics are developed for and in handgun length barrels and the typical projectile is a soft lead bullet poorly suited for use in a rifle. Winchester, Remington, Federal, Black Hills, PMC and Cor-Bon, for example, do not list the .45 Colt cartridge in their rifle ammunition ballistics tables. After considerable searching, I found that Hornady gives basic ballistic information for their LeverEvolution .45 Colt factory load, which uses a 225 grain FTX (jacketed and polymer tipped) spitzer bullet, from both revolver and 20" rifle barrels on their web site (but not in their 2013 ammunition catalog). By default, this is the .45 Colt load we will use for comparison in this article.
We will compare our .44 Magnum and .45 Colt rifle cartridges in velocity, energy, sectional density, trajectory, cross-sectional area, killing power and recoil. Both the .44 Magnum and .45 Colt are short range rifle cartridges, so, where applicable, ballistics data will be shown at the muzzle and at 100 yards. 100 yards is about as far as either cartridge would normally be used for hunting. If longer range is desired, there are much better cartridges available for the purpose in lever action carbines, including the popular and far more capable .30-30 Winchester. We will conclude with a short summary of our findings.
Velocity is the most important component of kinetic energy. It also decreases bullet flight time, flattening trajectory and reducing wind drift. Here are velocity figures for our representative factory loads at the muzzle and 100 yards.
It is clear from these figures that the .44 Magnum has a big advantage over the .45 Colt in velocity. This is because the .44 Magnum, introduced in 1956 for smokeless powder and modern firearms, can be loaded to much higher pressure than the old .45 Colt. The latter was introduced in 1873 and loaded with black powder at low (by modern standards) black powder pressures. It has since been converted to smokeless powder, but the .45 Colt MAP remains comparatively low.
Kinetic energy is the measure of a bullet's ability to do work. The "work" in this case is expanding and penetrating deep into a game animal to destroy the maximum amount of tissue and kill quickly. Energy is an important factor in cartridge performance and killing power and a good indication of the power of similar rifle cartridges. Here are the energy figures in foot pounds for our comparison loads at the muzzle (ME) and 100 yards.
A reasonable generalization is that a deer cartridge should have at least 800 ft. lbs. of bullet energy remaining at impact. The .45 Colt falls well short of 800 ft. lbs. at the muzzle and can only muster about half the required energy at 100 yards. The .44 Magnum bullet, on the other hand, strikes with 966 ft. lbs. of energy at 100 yards, which is probably why it has long been a successful, short range, deer and Class 2 game cartridge. The .44 Mag. easily wins the energy comparison.
Sectional density is defined as the ratio of a bullet's weight in pounds to the square of its diameter in inches. SD is important because the greater the SD, other factors being equal, the deeper a bullet's penetration. Penetration is an important factor in the length of the wound channel and the amount of tissue disrupted. Obviously, to kill quickly a bullet must have sufficient penetration to reach and disrupt the animal's vital organs. Here are the SD numbers for our .44 Magnum (actual bullet diameter .429") and .45 Colt (actual bullet diameter .452") bullets.
As these sectional density numbers indicate, the smaller diameter and heavier .44 Magnum bullet has a substantial advantage in SD and thus theoretical penetration. This advantage in SD is augmented by the fact that the .44 Magnum bullet is also carrying more energy to potentially (depending on bullet construction) drive the bullet deeper into the target.
Next, let's compare the trajectories of these same cartridges and loads. After all, no matter how much power a bullet possesses, it must hit the target to do any damage and a flat trajectory makes hitting easier. If both calibers are zeroed at 100 yards, about as far as either should be used for hunting, the trajectories look as follows.
These trajectory figures indicate that, in terms of trajectory, the .45 Colt is a pathetic rifle cartridge. Even with a 100 yard zero, its rainbow trajectory is such that one might easily shoot over a small animal at 50 yards with a center hold and beyond 100 yards the .45 FTX bullet, despite its pointed nose, is falling like a brick. The flat point .44 Magnum bullet, on the other hand has only a 1.4" mid-range rise at 50 yards and shoots flat enough so that if a hunter under estimates the range of a deer he thinks is about 100 yards away, he has some room for error before bullet drop would cause a miss. The .44 Magnum, although a short range rifle cartridge, is far superior to the .45 Colt in trajectory.
Greater cross-sectional area means that, other factors (such as the percentage of bullet expansion) being equal, the fatter bullet should create a wider wound cavity, damaging more tissue and hastening the animal's collapse. Here are the cross-sectional areas of our two bullets in square inches.
Obviously, a .452" bullet will have more cross-sectional area than a .429" bullet. The fatter .45 Colt bullet potentially increases the diameter of the wound channel and potentially enhances killing power, making the .45 a winner in the cross-sectional area comparison.
Killing power is the most difficult factor to quantify. Bullet placement is by far the most important factor in a cartridge's effectiveness on game and that is mostly a function of the hunter's judgment and skill, not the cartridge used. The construction and performance of a hunting bullet is also very important. Kinetic energy is one indication of potential killing power, as are bullet frontal area and sectional density, but none of these tells the entire story.
There are many ways to estimate the killing power of big game cartridges. Some seem to correlate with observed results in the field and some are simply concocted to promote the author's point of view. One of the newer, and better, methods of estimating killing power is the "Hornady Index of Terminal Standards" (HITS), which includes factors such as bullet weight, bullet diameter, sectional density and impact velocity. HITS are normally calculated for a range of 100 yards, the zero range of our comparison loads. Hornady advises that cartridges with HITS scores less than 500 are most suitable for small game; HITS scores from 501 to 900 are adequate for hunting medium (Class 2) game; 901 to 1500 HITS are recommended for hunting large (Class 3) game. Here are the 100 yard HITS scores for our comparison loads.
As can be seen, the .44 Magnum is far superior to the .45 Colt in killing power at 100 yards, which you would expect given its big advantage in kinetic energy. The .44 Magnum is an adequate 100 yard deer cartridge, while the .45 Colt should be reserved for hunting only small game, varmints and small predators (fox, coyote and the like).
The remaining important factor to consider is recoil. Recoil is always an important consideration, as anyone can have more fun and shoot better with a cartridge that kicks less. Here are the approximate recoil energy (in ft. lbs.) figures for our comparison loads, measured in 6.5 pound carbines.
The recoil of the Hornady LeverEvolution .45 Colt factory load is minuscule in a 6.5 pound carbine. On the other hand, the Winchester Super-X .44 Magnum load kicks about as hard as a .30-30, a real rifle cartridge. The recoil of the .44 Magnum should not be a problem for most shooters and deer hunters, but the .45 Colt is genuinely fun to shoot, even for the most recoil sensitive people. The .45 Colt wins the recoil comparison in a big way.
Summary and Conclusion
The .44 Magnum prevails in the velocity, energy, sectional density, trajectory and killing power comparisons by substantial margins. The .45 Colt clearly wins the bullet cross-sectional area and lower recoil comparisons, the latter by a huge margin.
Not addressed in this comparison is the question of accuracy. Of course, accuracy varies from rifle to rifle. However, we have noticed that .44 Magnum rifles are generally more accurate than .45 Colt rifles. This is also true of revolvers in the two calibers. We think the greater loading density of the .44 Magnum cartridge probably has something to do with this.
The .45 Colt is severely limited as a hunting cartridge by its rainbow trajectory, low energy and lack of killing power. Its big bullet is probably too much for shooting squirrels and cottontail rabbits, but should do a good job on jack rabbits and small predators at short range. For plinking at tin cans and other casual targets it is a fun (but expensive!) cartridge to shoot, thanks to its very low recoil. For plinking and hunting small animals it would probably be wise to zero a .45 Colt carbine at around 75 yards to minimize its tendency to shoot over small targets at intermediate ranges.
The .44 Magnum is deadly on small predators and medium game at 100 yards. It has proven an excellent woods cartridge for hunting Columbian blacktail deer, whitetail deer and black bear in North America, wherever conditions favor short range shots. Its only real disadvantage, compared to the .45 Colt, is its much greater recoil, which is the price that must be paid for greater power and performance.
Copyright 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.