DAN WESSON’S .44—THE SILHOUETTER’S DREAM SIXGUN

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            Dan Wesson had a better idea. He should have good ideas after all he was the great-grandson of D.B. Wesson co-founder with Harold Smith of Smith & Wesson in the 1850s. Dan Wesson was born in 1916, joined Smith & Wesson as a machine operator in 1938, and was named assistant superintendent in 1941. Smith & Wesson was facing some very lean times and Wesson worked with President Carl Hellstrom to get the company back on sound financial footing. By 1963 Wesson was named plant superintendent and things look very good. This was soon to change.

            In 1948 Wesson had also formed his own company which was a tool and die company. He would soon need this to fall back on as when Smith & Wesson was acquired by Bangor Punta in 1966, Wesson resigned from the company and his company D.B. Wesson became Dan Wesson Arms. Anti-gun hysteria was at a peak during those years resulting in the Gun Control Act of 1968. Two years later Dan Wesson Arms introduced their first revolver, the Model 12 chambered in .357 Magnum. That first Dan Wesson had several radical ideas never offered before.

            There was no grip frame but rather a stud to which wraparound one-piece grips bolted on from the bottom. Removing and installing barrels had always been a gunsmithing proposition until Dan Wesson's first sixgun. The original idea was to be able to offer multiple guns for the price of one gun plus extra cylinders and barrels. This would avoid the hassle in many areas when it came to buying firearms. With one Dan Wesson main frame extra cylinders and barrels could be used to come up with different calibers without the hassle of limiting legislation. The extra cylinder idea was dropped because of the possibility of shooters matching up the wrong barrel and cylinder. To be able to offer interchangeable barrels, it was necessary to have a system that allowed the shooter to change barrels in the field, anyone who has ever tried to change a revolver barrel knows how much of an impossibility this can be.  If the barrel is loose enough to be easily changed, it can rotate and loosen as it is shot. 

            Dan Wesson’s solution was a three-part barrel system consisting of a relatively skinny barrel threaded on both ends, the barrel shroud which was placed over the barrel and contained both a barrel rib and front sight, and most importantly a locking nut holding everything together. The barrel is screwed into the frame with a provided feeler gauge used to set the barrel/cylinder gap, the shroud is placed over the barrel with a hole in the shroud matching up with a pin on the frame, and the barrel nut is then tightened with a special wrench. No vise was needed; no special tools except the wrench to both loosen and tighten the barrel nut. The whole idea was absolutely ingenious and is a fitting tribute to the great-grandson of the first Dan Wesson.

            That first .357 Magnum was about as homely as Aunt Hilda; the grips were the wrong shape and the barrel nut at the end of the shroud look like a truncated ray gun. By 1972 Wesson came up with an idea to conceal the barrel nut in the end in the shroud and the grips became more pleasingly shaped as new models were introduced. In fact in the 1980s, for my hands at least, Dan Wesson was offering the best factory grips never found on a factory double action handgun.

            The Dan Wesson revolver also became the first sixgun to be locked at the front of the cylinder since the Triple-Lock sixty years earlier. This lock also served as the cylinder latch      which when pushed down allowed the cylinder to be swung out to the left. This offered a solid lock up and may have contributed to the great accuracy of the Dan Wesson revolver but it also probably lost many potential buyers who felt tradition demanded the cylinder latch be at the rear of the cylinder. Actually by placing it on the left side at the front of the cylinder it made it much easier for using speed loaders as the sixgun could be switched to the left hand; the left thumb used to depress the latch, swing open the cylinder, and eject the fired shells; while the right hand operated a speed loader. However, the main market for Dan Wesson revolvers was not to be found in the area of self-defense but rather the then new game of long-range silhouetting.

            Dan Wesson’s .357 Magnum was an early favorite on the long-range course with Dan Wesson listening to shooters and offering heavy barrels, ventilated rib barrels, and interchangeable front sight blades as well as optional rear sights. Early in the game I used a 10” Heavy Barrel Dan Wesson .357 with a full-length underlugged shroud with excellent results. I very early discovered standard weight .357 bullets would not always take down pigs and rams so I switched to 180 grain bullets in .38 Special brass in the relatively short Dan Wesson cylinder.

            The Dan Wesson .357 Magnum with heavy bullets competed on an equal footing with the 10 1/2” Ruger .44 Super Blackhawk. At the time, this was in the early 1980s, Dan Wesson offered four styles of barrels, standard, heavy, standard ribbed, and heavy ribbed, all of which could be purchased separately and used on the same basic sixgun. On the home silhouette range I never lost a target because of failure to topple over when using 180 grain bullets in .38 Special cases at just over 1,000 fps. They did seem turtle slow on their journey to 200 meter rams, but when they hit, the ramp toppled over; slowly. This was not the case in all areas as weather and bent targets often required more power delivered on target. 

            Anyone who has been in the least bit acquainted with silhouetting knows the high regard afforded the Dan Wesson revolver. Early in the game, the 8” and 10” heavy-barreled .357 Dan Wessons properly loaded were regular winners, however some shooters needed more. This was also the time when it was virtually impossible to find a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum.. Dan Wesson had begun experimenting with the .44 Magnum in the mid-1970s.  In my file is a copy of a letter received from Dan Wesson himself dated April 1977. I had written asking for larger sixgun in .44 Magnum and also .45 Colt and was told at the time "the .44 Magnum is on the drawing board." I then spoke with Dan Wesson personally in 1978 when he told me work was progressing rapidly on the .44 Magnum.  Dan Wesson did not live to see the introduction of his revolver in .44 Magnum as he died in the late 1970s.

            Since the frame of the Dan Wesson .357 Magnum was too small for the .44 Magnum, Dan Wesson engineers came up with a new sixgun, the large-framed Model 44 .44 Magnum. Combined with the Ruger Redhawk .44 Magnum, the Dan Wesson .44 broke the back of the black market price situation that existed with .44 Magnum revolvers. Once these two big revolvers got in the pipeline the black market prices on the Model 29 dropped drastically and it was soon possible to pick one up at retail price or even lower.

As all Dan Wesson revolvers, the Model 44 accepts different barrel lengths and either standard or heavyweight barrels that are easily changed by the removal of the end-of-the barrel locking nut and also shares the reputation for accuracy that is the result of the cylinder locking both the front and rear, a barrel that can be set to the desired barrel/cylinder gap, and a barrel that locks up at the front.

When it was introduced, the Dan Wesson .44 Magnum was the only American made double action .44 revolver that came from the factory with usable grips for my hands. They, the grips that is, are big and smooth and painless. For those who required a little more control, Dan Wesson also offered a smaller finger groove grip that is most applicable to silhouetting. I personally found the heavy Dan Wesson hard to control for silhouetting as I seem to always be fighting to keep the barrel from dipping low. The finger groove grips help control this muzzle dipping tendency; however for general use, I preferred the standard stocks until I found something even better. The better was Herrett’s Jordan stocks adapted to the large frame Dan Wesson revolvers. They are also plain and smooth and in addition have no square corners but rather all rounded contours.

When the Dan Wesson .44 Magnum  was introduced, silhouetters purchased the 8” Heavy Barrel Model and found themselves with a handgun that was illegal for silhouetting as it was over the four pound weight limit. Dan Wesson went to work and shaved weight from the shroud to get it down to the weight limit. This can be readily seen on Heavy Barrel .44 Magnum Dan Wessons as the bottom of the shroud has a step where metal has been removed. Silhouetters wanted a 10” barrel and Dan Wesson listened again bringing out a long barreled .44 Magnum with a standard shroud that came in under the four pound weight limit. This gave shooters maximum sight radius plus maximum competition weight to help reduce felt recoil of the .44 Magnum.

At four pounds or very slightly under for meeting silhouette requirements, the 8” heavy barreled Model 44 and the regular barreled 10” Model 44 Dan Wesson .44 Magnums are the kindest of all the .44 Magnum revolvers to the shooter. Dan Wesson Model 44s were available in Dan Wesson's bright blue finish in 4”, 6”, 8”, and 10” barrel lengths in either standard or heavyweight barrel configurations with the same also available in stainless as the Model 744. I did have a 4” heavy barrel for the Dan Wesson Model 44 for use as a real defensive/packin' pistol combination, however with both a Redhawk and a Smith Model 29 with 4” barrels, I traded the DW 4” barrel to Rod Herrett for stocks.

I purchased two Dan Wesson Model 44s early on, a 10” version as a silhouette revolver and a general-purpose 8” heavy barreled Model 44. Dan Wesson also offered a Hunter Pac at the time consisting of a standard complete revolver as well as an extra shroud with base, rings, and scope mounted. One of these combinations was added to my 8”revolver giving me plenty of possibilities for experimenting. As expected accuracy from Dan Wesson .44 Magnums is outstanding, and felt recoil is very low. Using Black Hills 300 grain JHP load, muzzle velocity from the 8” barrel is 1187 fps with five shots grouping in 3/4" at 25 yards with the scoped shroud attached. Switching to the 10” DW .44 and iron sights BRP’s  #295.429GC over 21.5 grains of. WW296 yields a muzzle velocity of 1424 fps and five shots in 1 1/4” at 25 yards. I get the same results with Garrett's 280 and 330 FP loads with muzzle velocities of 1513 and 1298 fps respectively.

Dan Wesson, the company, has gone through many ups and downs. With Dan Wesson’s death in the late 1970s the company passed to his son Seth. The family lost the business, got it back, and produced guns for a while. When I visited the factory in 1992 I found it basically operating on a shoestring. Shortly thereafter they closed their doors. The Wessons were wonderful people and it was very sad to see the business go under. The main market for Dan Wesson revolvers had been long-range silhouette shooters and two things happened to greatly affect Dan Wesson. The removal of the infamous price ceiling rule allowed the use of Freedom Arms revolvers and they soon took over the winner circles. This coupled with a down swing in the number of active shooters in competition destroyed much of the market for Dan Wesson revolvers. The handwriting was definitely on the wall and Dan Wesson Firearms closed their doors. It was subsequently purchased and moved to New York into a new factory with all-new machinery, and then just recently was purchased by CZ-USA. Hopefully, we will again be seeing Dan Wesson .44 Magnum revolvers soon.    

31-1) Dan Wesson sixguns have been available in three frame sizes:

the .357 Magnum, center, with factory stocks; and the .44 Magnum, top,

and SuperMag, bottom, both with Herrett’s stocks.

 

 

 

31-2) The easiest way to pack a heavy revolver such as the Dan Wesson

.44 Magnum is in a shoulder holster such as the excellent Idaho Leather #44.

 

 

 

31-3) Taffin testing one of the early New York produced stainless steel .44

Magnum Dan Wessons.  

 

 

 

31-4) Dan Wesson .44 Magnums have always had a well-deserved reputation for accuracy.

 

 

 

31-5) With the easy changed barrel feature of the Dan Wesson one has nearly

immediate access to either a iron sighted or scoped pistol. Stocks are by Herrett’s.

 

 

 

31-6) Early Dan Wesson .44s were known for beautiful bright blue finishes

and comfortable shooting wooden stocks; 21st century .44 Magnums are

stainless steel with rubber stocks.

 

 

 

31-7) The Dan Wesson .44 Magnum shoots 300 grain bullets exceptionally well

no matter what the load level; Stocks are by Herrett’s.

 

 

 

31-8) Both the author and the Dan Wesson .44 Magnum were much younger

in the early 1980s; the Dan Wesson is still in excellent shape.

 

 

 

31-9) Dan Wesson .44 Magnums were not only known for their quick

barrel change capability but also for the only user friendly wooden stocks on

any double action revolver in the 1980s.

 

 

 

                       

31-10) A Dan Wesson .44 Magnum, a quality shoulder holster from Idaho

Leather, a Stetson, and the Idaho hills; let's go hunting

 

Chapter 30      Chapter 32