THE CUSTOM .44 MAGNUM—MAG-NA-PORT AND SSK

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            As related earlier, touching off the 6 1/2” Ruger .44 Blackhawk Flat-Top for the first time was a real experience.  The first time I pulled the trigger, the hammer came back and hit me on the back of the hand. I tried to hold a little tighter and the same thing happened again; and again. By now I'm learning and that Ruger went on two pegs on the wall and I went back to shooting my Smith & Wesson .44 Special 1950 Target. After awhile I decided something had be done with the Ruger, so the barrel was cut back even with the ejector rod housing, a wide target hammer and trigger were fitted, and to help hold on, the slippery, thin factory stocks were replaced with a much thicker pair made of Coco Bolo.

            Now the unused Ruger became my most used sixgun carried in a Lawrence Keith holster every place I went.  When it wasn't on my hip, it was under the seat of my pickup.  My hunting companions of those days dubbed it the Bear Buster.  Since they were all rifle shooters only, they viewed the big .44 as being capable of stopping anything on two legs or four, and they always felt comfortable when I had the .44 on my hip and easily and quickly accessible. During one year in our hunting area, one fellow had his camping trailer door kicked in and was fatally shot and another was left dead in his tent, so my companions perhaps had good reason to believe the Ruger .44 would protect us.

            That old Ruger .44 Flat-Top had a lot of miles on it when I robbed it. Skeeter caused it! After reading his article on converting Ruger .357s to .44 Special I had to have one.  Starting with an Old Model Ruger .357, the cylinder was re-chambered to .44 Special and the barrel was cut to 5 1/2”, reamed, and re-lined to .44.  Two problems arose.  First, some chemical was constantly leaking from between the liner and the barrel; and worse, the twist of the barrel was so slow any load under 1100 fps would keyhole. A new barrel was the only answer, so the 4 5/8” barrel was stolen from my .44 Magnum to fix the .44 Special.  Now I had a good shooting and beautiful little .44 Special, but my Magnum was naked. Fitting it with a 7 1/2” barrel put it back in shooting shape and I thought about having this barrel cut back, however the Blackhawk balanced so nicely and shot so well I hesitated to do it.

            The 7 1/2” Super Blackhawk was now pushed aside by the 7 1/2” Flat-Top as a hunting and shooting sixgun until I started carrying a 10" Flat-Top in a Goerg shoulder holster for hunting. This was later replaced with a custom Super Blackhawk with a 10” Douglas barrel and I forgot all about a short-barreled Bear Buster but not completely.  The 7 1/2” Super Blackhawk continued to languish due to the fact mostly every time I fired it, that square back trigger guard slapped me. I thought about having it Mag-Na-Ported but just didn't get around to it. Another .44 Magnum I had was also not getting enough use. I also thought about having this one customized and Mag-Na-Ported but hesitated. Then I visited J.D. Jones and he showed me a custom Smith & Wesson Model 629 that had been Mag-Na-Ported and round butted to accept Pachmayr K-frame grips; it really looked good and felt good.

            I still hesitated on the early S&W 4” .44 Magnum and decided instead to look for another candidate. After a little trading I wound up with another 4” Smith and now it was time to pack up the Super Blackhawk and the newly acquired 4” sixgun and send them both off to Larry Kelly at Mag-na-Port with instructions to shorten the barrel of the Super Blackhawk, round butt the Smith & Wesson, and Mag-Na-Port both of them. A week after sending them off, Larry called me to point out one problem, cutting the barrel and round butting both required refinishing; what did I want him to do? After some discussion, it was decided to go with an S.S. Metalife finish which is a hard chrome process that gives a satiny stainless look. I also told him I did not like red inserts in front sights, so he suggested the then new C-More Conversion. This sight innovation consisted of milling off the ramp sight, EDM-ing a pocket into the sight base, and drilling a hole through the sides of the ramp base to hold the C-More Sight in place. The sight blades themselves appear to be nylon and are available in ramp or Patridge style and each conversion came with extra sight blades in five colors, orange, pink, yellow, green, and blue. The two sixguns came back with orange on the Model 29 and yellow on the Ruger. I used these for quite awhile, however as my eyes grew older I came to prefer plain black sights more and more and they both now wear black post sights.

            After one more conversation with Larry Kelly, both actions were tuned and they were shipped back to me.  What had started as a minor project turned into a major face lifting for both sixguns and I was very well pleased with these two new .44s. What a pleasant surprise when I fired the "new" Model 29. The heavy felt recoil was virtually gone; the combination of Mag-Na-Porting and round-butting which removed all sharp corners, did an unbelievable job of taming the .44.  There was no biting or stinging of the palm, and the .44 Magnum felt more like a factory .45 Colt. Diamond Dot, who cares little for recoil, pronounced the Model 29 pleasant. I also found the new Bear Buster, the Super Blackhawk, much easier to shoot; however as the knuckle of the middle finger of my shooting hand took more and more punishment over the years from shooting all the really big bores, the Super Blackhawk grip frame was moved to a very easy shooting Ruger Old Army percussion sixgun, and the Super received a standard stainless steel grip frame in the swap. All this was 25 years ago and both guns are still in-service and in excellent shape ready to be passed on to future generations.

            Larry Kelly was not an educated man in the narrowest sense of the term. Dropping out of school in the eighth grade, Kelly in a few years found himself married, with three kids, no job, no future. To support his family, Kelly hunted the woods of Michigan to provide food. At this point no one would have bet on Kelly to have any kind of a future. Kelly's fame as a hunter became known around his area; so much so when a man came into the area and needed someone to take him hunting, Larry was chosen. The man also obviously saw something special in Larry Kelly and hired him to work on the Apollo Space Project. Kelly learned the art of EDM, the cutting of slots in metal electronically.            It was not long before the genius of this `un-educated' man came through and Kelly hit upon the idea of cutting slots in gun barrels, slots that would reduce muzzle jump, and Mag-Na-Port was born. Mag-Na-Porting a gun barrel consists of the electronic cutting of scientifically designed trapezoidal slots using in-house designed carbon electrodes that cut a perfect slot. The operation is very clean with no burrs on either the face or underside of the cut.        

Kelly is recognized as the most experienced and successful of all handgun hunters, ever; I doubt if anyone will ever match his exploits. I made arrangements with Larry’s son Ken Kelly to have the loan of several Stalkers and also a Predator from the Mag-Na-Port Custom Shop. The Stalker series was conceived by Larry as the perfect revolver for serious handgun hunting, and the first Stalker, a Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum, has been used by Kelly all over the globe to take many big game trophies.

            The Stalker is described by Larry Kelly as "a very special gun offered to meet the requirements of the hunting fraternity--the dedicated handgun hunters. The Stalker was developed to meet the requirements of these men and women. It's a gun designed by hunters, for hunters. The Stalker is the result of many years hunting experience by the people here. We are proud of the gun, and sincerely convinced it is everything a serious hunter requires, whatever the game."

            The Stalker conversion is available on stainless steel sixguns such as the Ruger Super Blackhawk, the Ruger Super Redhawk, the Smith & Wesson Model 629, and the Model 83 from Freedom Arms. All Stalker conversions have a number of things in common. Namely, an 8 3/8" barrel, an inverted muzzle crown such as should be on every sixgun, Mag-Na-Porting, Velvet Hone finish, polished hammer and trigger, a superb action job, Pachmayr grips, SSK scope mount base (except on the Super Redhawk), 2X Leupold scope, swivels and studs, and a carrying sling.

            An especially appreciated touch to the Stalker series is the numbering of each chamber on the back of the cylinder. Quite often one revolver chamber will be a little out of synch with the rest resulting in fliers. Numbering of each chamber makes the culprit easy to identify and avoid. The Super Blackhawk was the obvious choice for the first Mag-Na-Port Stalker as it has been a favorite of handgun hunters for nearly 50 years now. Kelly simply took a good hunting handgun and made it even better. There are many handgun hunters who still manage to make do with iron sights. Most of us need the extra help that a scope gives and Kelly chose the excellent Leupold two-power long eye relief scope as standard equipment for his Stalker series.

            Test-firing the Mag-Na-Port Super Blackhawk; groups are five shots at 50 yards:

Load                                                                MV                  Group

Federal 180 JHP                                              1750 fps           1 1/2"

Federal 220 FMJ                                             1482 fps           2 1/4"

Federal 240 JHP                                              1432 fps           1 3/4"

Garrett Cartridges 320 TC                                1386 fps           1 5/8"

Sierra 300 JFP/21.5 gr. WW296                      1219 fps           1 1/2"

SSK 310 gr. TC/21.5 gr. WW296                   1370 fps           2"

BRP 290 Keith/21.5 gr. WW296                     1379 fps           1 3/8"

Lyman #429421/22.0 gr. #2400                       1576 fps           2 1/8"  

            The second Stalker tested was built on the first .44 Magnum, the big N-frame Smith & Wesson; in this case, an 8 3/8” Model 629. In addition to all the refinements of the Super Blackhawk Stalker, the Smith & Wesson Stalker has a beautiful full length SSK Scope mount base. Extending all the way to the end of the 8 3/8” barrel, this SSK rib, adds weight, aids balance, and the SSK T'SOB mounts are built to stay on hard kickin' handguns. This particular Smith proved to be extremely accurate with the right load. Test results are again at 50 yards using the Leupold 2X pistol scope.

Load                                                                MV                  Groups

Federal 180 JHP                                              1750 fps           1 1/2"

Federal 220 FMJ                                             1482 fps           2 1/4"

Federal 240 JHP                                              1432 fps           1 3/4"

Garrett 320 TC                                                1386 fps           1 5/8"

Sierra 300 JFP/21.5 gr. WW296                      1219 fps           1 1/2"

SSK 310 gr.TC/21.5 gr. WW296                    1370 fps           2"

BRP 290 gr. KEITH/21.5 gr. WW296 1379 fps           1 3/8"

Lyman #429421/22.0 gr. #2400                       1576 fps           2 1/8"

            The third .44 Stalker, built on the Ruger Super Redhawk, does not have an SSK scope mount base as it comes from the factory scope-ready with the excellent Ruger rings and integral base formed by slots cut into the top strap. This is one sixgun simply made to wear a scope. The Ruger Super Redhawk is one of the strongest .44 Magnum revolvers available and a favorite of handgun hunters; it is made even better with the adding of Mag-Na-Port refinements. As with the other two Stalkers, the Super Redhawk wears a 2X Leupold and groups were once again five shots at 50 yards:

Load                                                                MV                  Groups

Federal 180 JHP                                              1689 fps           3"

Federal 220 FMJ                                             1450 fps           2"

Federal 240 JHP                                              1383 fps           2 1/8"

Garrett 320 TC                                                1335 fps           1 7/8"

Sierra 300 JFP/21.5 gr. WW296                      1138 fps           2 5/8"

SSK 310 TC/21.5 gr. WW296                        1341 fps           1 7/8"

BRP 290 gr. Keith/21.5 gr. WW296                1370 fps           1 1/8"

Lyman #429421/22.0 gr. #2400                       1563 fps           2"

            A most handy sixgun from Mag-Na-Port is the short-barreled, fast-handlin' Predator. The Predator starts out as a Stainless Super Blackhawk. The barrel is cut to 4 5/8” and given Mag-Na-Porting and the inverted muzzle crown exactly as found on the Stalker series.       The Predator also has the standard Velvet Hone finish, action job, polished hammer, trigger, cylinder pin release, cylinder pin, ejector rod head, and screws. Since the Predator is not designed as a primary hunting handgun, but as a back-up, it is fitted with a C-More colored front sight and white outline rear. My Bear Buster is a pre-Predator Super.

            Larry Kelly is now basically retired with Mag-Na-Port being headed up by his son Ken. The same traditions and high quality are carried on with many added ideas by the younger generation. I worked closely with Ken when I served as chairman of the Outstanding American Handgunner Awards Foundation. He is definitely one of the good guys and also one of the top sixgunsmiths in the country.

           

            SSK Industries has long offered the SSK HandCannon line of Custom Thompson/Center Contenders and barrels. The Head of SSK, my good friend J.D. Jones, has given handgun hunters such calibers as the .257JDJ, the 6.5JDJ, the .338, both in the Woodswalker and JDJ persuasions, the .358 JDJ, the .411JDJ, the .430 JDJ, and probably the best all around single shot handgun chambering for hunting, the .375JDJ, which is now offered as a factory chambering by T/C as well as factory ammunition. J.D.Jones has had the enviable task of testing his custom single-shots in game fields all over the world, and is second only to Larry Kelly in actual handgun hunting experience world-wide. When he speaks of handguns for hunting as well as bullets and cartridges, people listen. He has the experience to back up what he says.

            After many years of supplying the world's handgun hunters with single-shot hunting handguns, and a few limited edition .44 Magnum Super Blackhawks along the way, SSK began turning out some beautiful custom sixguns built on the super-strong Ruger Redhawks and Super Redhawks. To appeal to me, handguns of any sort must have two major qualities. They must function as perfectly as possible, and they also must look good. Yes, it is better to have one that functions and is not esthetically pleasing than the other way around, but why settle for one feature when both are possible? SSK follows the same philosophy and every thing that comes out of the Ohio custom shop is a gun that performs its task as intended and also gives a lot of pride of ownership; the kind of handgun that is beautiful and that the owner wants to show to other shooters.

Such is the case with this SSK Custom Super Redhawk .44 Magnum with the factory barrel intact but with major modifications. The barrel has been re-set and re-throated with the barrel/cylinder gap set at less than .002". In the process, the barrel has also been cut to an easy handling 7 1/2”; and to add to the pride of ownership, the original barrel has been reshaped. It is now a tapered octagon, round at the frame for about a quarter of an inch and then tapering into the octagonal flats which in turn taper from .904" at the frame end to .654" at the muzzle, when measured across the flats. The barrel has the standard Mag-Na-Porting trapezoidal slots as well as two extra hexagonal slots on both sides of the barrel. The Mag-Na-Porting plus the added weight of a Leupold 2X scope, which brings total weight to 57 ounces, make this .44 Magnum very easy to shoot even with full house 300 grain bullets. Two days spent shooting over six hundred rounds through the .44 resulted in no soreness to shooting hand or wrist whatsoever.

            As much end shake is removed from the cylinder by SSK and still allow the cylinder to function and the Ruger action is smoothed considerably. The excellent scope-ready and nearly-instant-availability of iron sights feature of the Super Redhawk is maintained by SSK and the 2X Leupold scope is mounted utilizing standard Ruger rings. Neither base screws nor scope ring screws loosened in the slightest during all of the test-firing that was done even though most of the firing involved heavy loads with 300 grain bullets. The use of Mag-Na-Porting plus proper scope mounting by SSK assured this. The following results were obtained at 50 yards for five shots in the custom SSK 7 1/2” Super Redhawk with Leuopld 2X pistol scope in place:

Load                                                                MV                              Groups

Federal 180 JHP                                              1644 fps                       2 1/2"

Federal 220 FMJ                                             1447 fps                       1 3/4"

Federal 240 JHP                                              1397 fps                       2 1/8"

Garrett 320 TC                                                1319 fps                       1 1/2"

Sierra 240 JHP/25.0 gr. WW296                     1441 fps                       1 5/8"

Hornady 240 JHP/25.0 gr. WW296                 1491 fps                       2 5/8"

Speer 240 JHP/25.0 gr. JHP                            1478 fps                       2 3/4"

Sierra 300 JSP/21.5 gr. WW296                      1228 fps                       1 3/8"

Sierra 300 JSP/23.5 gr. WW296                      1308 fps                       1 1/2"

Lyamn #429421/22.0 gr. #2400                       1567 fps                       2 1/2"

NEI #260.429KT/25.0 gr. WW296                 1480 fps                       2 1/8"

SSK #310.429/21.5 gr. WW296                     1345 fps                       1 1/4"

            The SSK .44 Magnum on the Super Redhawk is the Beauty and where there is a Beauty, there must be a Beast, which is a shorter-barreled, compensated .44 Magnum from SSK with an interchangeable barrel system. This SSK Custom sixgun is not meant to have the barrels changed in the field as with the Dan Wesson series of revolvers, instead a bench vise is required. The rounded, compensated barrel is hand-tightened as far as possible, then clamped in the padded vise, and the frame tightened on to the barrel until the index marks on the frame and barrel line up. Barrels for the Beast are made from Shilen blanks and length on the  .44 Magnum Compensated SSK Redhawks is 4 1/2” for the barrel proper with the expansion chamber bringing the total length up to 6 1/4”. Barrels are one piece, with the expansion chamber machined as part of the barrel, which is of the heavy bull barrel type, .960" in diameter. With the extended frame of the Super Redhawk, only 3 1/2” of barrel and compensator extend beyond the end of the Redhawk frame.

            Looking down from the top, one sees a massive front sight base, 5/8”in width, and directly in front of this is the equally massive expansion chamber. The .44 Beast weighs in at 52 ounces and the front sight features interchangeable sight blades. I have done a lot of double action shooting with favorite Smith & Wessons, and I've always preferred the feel and smoothness of the double action Smith for fast DA shooting. It is no secret why most of Ed McGivern's double action speed and accuracy records were set with the .38 Special. It also is not surprising that it is difficult to find sixgunners that enjoy triggering off .44 Magnum loads double action either one or two-handed. The first shot may go where it is supposed to, but recovery time seems like an eternity when one tries to bring the sixgun back down out of recoil; not so with the SSK Compensated .44 Magnum. Using heavy loads of 300 grain bullets in the .44 Magnum at 1300+ feet per second, I had no problem staying on targets shooting two-handed double action and photographs taken of me firing two sixguns at the same time double action shows the guns virtually level. Double Action shooting with something above .357 Magnums and .44 Special is now possible!

            To see how much the SSK Compensator really helped, a test was set up, firing double action, using a 6” Heavy Barreled Dan Wesson .44 Magnum in my stronger right hand, and the SSK .44 Magnum in my weaker off-hand. Firing SSK 300 grain bullets over 21.5 grains of WW296, a 1300+ feet per second load, photographs show dramatic results. The Dan Wesson, which is one of the most pleasant of all .44 Magnums to shoot, is at about a 35-degree angle, while the SSK .44 is level.

            At the start of the double action testing I did something really dumb, namely holding the  .44 Magnum SSK Redhawk close to my body. Any compensated or ported handgun throws trash out of the ports and especially with cast bullets. You guessed it. I got hit full in the face with the first blast. Shooter stupidity. Holding the guns out in front of the body solves this problem. The SSK .44 Beast allows me to double action rocks off a dirt bank with regularity. It is easy to see how easily this transfers to a defensive sixgun concept of a controllable double action sixgun that delivers large bullets at high velocities.

            Larry Kelly and J.D. Jones are not only dedicated handgun hunters themselves they have also spent several decades each providing top quality custom .44 Magnum handguns for sixgunners. What better place could we find than this to leave off sixgunning and look to the long guns?

 

36-1) M-N-P’s Larry Kelly with an Alaskan brown bear taken with one of his

custom .44 Magnums

 

 

 

36-2) The .44 Magnum Stalker and M-N-P’s Larry Kelly were more than a

match for this Alaskan brown bear.

 

 

 

36-3) Over the years Mag-Na-Port has offered limited edition custom .44 Magnums

celebrating hunting; this one honors the leopard

 

 

 

36-4) Eric Wood of New York took this nice eastern whitetail with a M-N-P

.44 Magnum.

 

 

 

36-5) How much gun do we really need? Kelly took this Cape Buffalo and

 

36-6) this African lion with a short-barreled .44 Magnum Predator by Mag-Na-Port.

 

 

 

36-7) This beautiful Alaskan caribou was taken by Larry Kelly using a

M-N-P Stalker .44 Magnum.

 

 

 

36-8) Taffin is shown enjoying the S&W .44 Magnum Stalker in the Idaho sagebrush.

 

 

 

36-9) It is quite difficult to improve the looks of the Ruger Super Redhawk;

J.D.Jones of SSK does it by using an octagon barrel.

 

 

 

36-10) Evidence of one day of shooting the custom Super Redhawk from SSK

is seen in this pile of empty brass.

 

 

 

36-11) SSK offers an interchangeable barrel system for use on the Super Redhawk

shooters a choice of Beauty or Beast.

 

 

 

36-12) Two Classic hunting handguns from Mag-Na-Port; 8 3/8” Stalkers

on the Smith & Wesson Model 629 and Ruger Super Blackhawk.

 

 

 

36-13) J.D. Jones gets to test his custom revolvers in the field;

the African wart hog lost.

 

 

 

36-14) SSK specializes in octagon barrels on Ruger's Super Redhawk; these

sixguns are known as Beauty.

 

 

 

36-15) Taffin shooting a pair of SSK Beasts with full house .44 Magnum loads.

 

 

 

36-16) Four of the five shots are well under three-inches at 100 yards with a

full house 300 grain bulleted load from this SSK Beauty.

 

 

 

           

36-17) Beauty, an SSK octagon barreled SSK Super Redhawk, and a Beast

of another sort.

 

Chapter 35    Chapter 37