The .44 Special

By Chuck Hawks

.44 Spec.
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

Smith & Wesson introduced the .44 Special in 1907 as a smokeless powder cartridge. Its case was based on a lengthened version of the older .44 Russian black powder cartridge. The .44 Russian had an impressive reputation for accuracy and so does the .44 Special, although the one .44 Special revolver with which I have had some experience (A Taurus with adjustable sights and a 3 inch barrel) delivered only mediocre accuracy.

The .44 Special is really anything but in terms of performance, as least as factory loaded. The SAAMI maximum pressure limit for the .44 Spec. is only 15,000 psi. Typical factory loads drive a 246 grain lead RN bullet at a claimed muzzle velocity (MV) of 755 fps from a 6 inch barrel. The claimed muzzle energy (ME) is 310 ft. lbs. With a 100 yard zero the Special has a mid-range trajectory rise of 8.3 inches. Clearly it is not a long range cartridge.

From a revolver with a 4 inch barrel the standard 246 grain LRN factory load delivers about 69% one shot stops, according to Marshall and Sanow. The bullet typically does not expand, and is prone to over-penetration. The best terminal performance in the caliber comes from the 200 grain Winchester Silvertip HP factory load, which has a chronographed MV of 819 fps from a 4" revolver barrel and delivers around 71% one shot stops.

At one time the old Charter Arms company produced a .44 Special snub-nosed revolver called the Bulldog, which had the big bore fans in an uproar when it was introduced. I believe that Taurus still produces something similar. Unfortunately, despite its .429" diameter bullet, the mediocre ballistics of the .44 Special in a short revolver barrel did not make for a particularly high percentage of one shot stops.

Today the .44 Special cartridge is probably used primarily as a low-recoil understudy in a .44 Magnum revolver. Since the .44 Magnum case was based on a lengthened .44 Special case, .44 Special ammunition will chamber and function perfectly in all .44 Magnum revolvers. And, of course, it is much more pleasant to shoot at the range. Unfortunately, due to low demand, .44 Special ammo is about as expensive as .44 Magnum ammo, so there is not much savings involved for the person forced to purchase factory loaded ammunition.

For the reloader the .44 Special is a better deal. Practice loads with 240 grain lead bullets can be put together fairly economically. These can be used to essentially duplicate the standard factory load. The Speer Reloading Manual Number 13 shows that 8.5 grains of HS7 powder behind their 240 grain lead SWC bullet is good for a MV of 749 fps, and 9.5 grains of HS7 gives a MV of 841 fps.

Higher performance loads for defense or use in the field are possible by using bullets like the Speer, Nosler, or Hornady 200 grain JHP's. These can be driven to velocities approaching 1000 fps without exceeding the industry pressure standard. I use loads like this for practice in my .44 Magnum, only I load them in magnum brass.

The Speer Reloading Manual Number 13 shows that their 200 grain JSP bullet can be driven to a MV of 849 fps by 9.5 grains of HS6 powder, and 977 fps by 10.5 grains of HS6. All of the Speer reloads mentioned here used Remington cases and CCI primers, and were tested in the 5.5" barrel of a Colt SA Army revolver. In a high quality revolver with decent handloads, the .44 Special can live up to its reputation for excellent accuracy.

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Copyright 2002, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.