The Fabulous Family of Forty-Four Sixguns
By John Taffin
Forty-four caliber sixguns have been an extremely important part of the American shooting scene serving for fighting, hunting, and just as everyday packin’ pistols since Sam Colt and Captain Sam Walker put their heads together to design the Colt Walker of 1847. Walker said the sixgun bearing his name was good on man or horse out to 200 yards. Colt would go on to produce the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Model Dragoons and the 1860 Army .44s all of which used a .451” to .457” round ball but they were still considered .44s. Remington joined the .44 Family with their Model 1858 which, like the Colt 1860, saw considerable use in both the Civil War and on the Frontier. I think enough of .44s to have written of them in numerous articles, all of my books, and also one specific book covering their history and use; Mike Venturino has also written extensively of .44s in his excellent books.
Some .44 sixgun cartridges which are long now gone include the .44 Rimfire, .44 S&W American, .44 Merwin & Hulbert, .44 Remington, and .44 Bulldog; other such as the .44 Russian and .44 Colt have recently found new life. Of those we will look at in the Fabulous Family all are still available and still offered in factory chamberings as well as current sixguns except one which just happens to be the first successful big bore sixgun self-contained cartridge. So let's take a walk through .44 history taking a closer look at the Fabulous Family of .44s.
.44 S&W American- The First Big Bore Sixgun
Smith & Wesson produced the first successful cartridge firing revolver with their seven-shot, tip-up .22 in 1857, followed by other .22 and .32 single actions, and then in late 1869 followed with the Model #3 American. It was not only the first big bore cartridge firing sixgun it was also the first cartridge firing fighting revolver to be adopted by the United States Military, which up to this point had mainly been outfitted with the Colt 1860 Army percussion revolver. The .44 American round used a heeled bullet; that is, the bullet was a two-step affair with the smaller diameter base fitting inside the cartridge case while a major part of the bullet was the same diameter as the outside of the cartridge case.
Unlike the .44 Henry of the 1860 Henry and the 1866 Winchester, the .44 American was a centerfire cartridge with a primer in the center of the base instead of being a rimfire; however a very few Smith & Wesson Americans were chambered in .44 Henry. The Smith & Wesson American, in both 1st and 2nd Model versions remained in production for only five years with approximately 29,000 being manufactured. Original S&W American sixguns can be returned to service by using an original style heel bulleted mold from Rapine and a .41 Magnum case cut to the proper length. These are black powder only guns, at least until someone sees fit to give us a quality replica. The .44 S&W set the stage for the better cartridge which was very soon to follow.
.44 Colt-The Colt Solution
The United States Army ordered .44 Smith & Wessons and Colt scrambled to come up with a revolver accepting brass cartridges at the rear of the cylinder. However, they had a problem. The Rollin White patent, the patent Colt had turned down, was now controlled by Smith and Wesson. However it would run out shortly; but what to do in the meantime? To get around this restriction, Colt came up with the Thuer Conversion to allow the cylinder of a converted 1860 Army to be loaded from the front with a tapered cartridge. This stopgap solution was soon replaced by a better way, the Richards Conversion. Existing cap and ball cylinders were cut off at the back to allow the installation of a conversion ring that would accept cartridges, the round ball rammer was removed from beneath the barrel of the 1860 Army and replaced by an ejector rod and housing on the right side for removing spent cartridges, and a loading gate at the rear of the cylinder swung open for loading and unloading.
Many 1860 Army Models were returned to the factory to be converted both from civilians and the U.S. Army, and others were produced as new sixguns at the factory. Since Colt Conversions were based on the 1860 Colt Army which used a .451" round ball, when the switch was made to a cartridge firing system the 1860 Army .44 was chambered for the .44 Colt, a round using the same heel type bullet used in the S&W American. It was originally loaded with 21 grains of black powder with a thick lube wad between a conical bullet and the powder. Bullets weighed approximately 208 grains and muzzle velocity was around 750 fps. The U.S. Army adopted the .44 Colt as one of its official cartridges for two years. The .44 Colt would be chambered not only in the Richards, but the improved Richards-Mason, the 1871-72 Open-Top, and the Colt Single Action Army. Today’s version, found in several Italian replicas, does not use a heeled bullet and factory loads are available from Black Hills.
.44 Russian-The Russians Do It Right!
In 1870 Daniel Wesson was visited by his Imperial Majesty the Czar of all the Russias. The Czar wanted weapons for his army, in fact, he planned to equip both his cavalry and artillery with Smith & Wesson revolvers. The first order was for standard First Model Model #3 Americans, however with their first order of Second Model Americans, the Russians made changes. The most significant change was the ammunition, and it was in fact the Russians who gave us the model for all currently produced sixgun ammunition. Instead of the heeled bullet, with a base smaller in diameter than the rest of the bullet used in the .44 American and .44 Colt, the Russians insisted upon a bullet of uniform diameter with lubricating grooves placed inside the cartridge case. This was a most significant step forward and the new cartridge was appropriately named the.44 Russian.
The .44 S&W American used a cartridge case .90” in length with a bullet diameter of .434”and a black powder charge of anywhere from 23 to 25 grains with a muzzle velocity of 650 fps. The improved .44 Russian cartridge used a case slightly longer at .97”, a powder charge of 23 grains of black powder, a round-nosed bullet weighing approximately 245 grains, and a muzzle velocity of 750 fps. The .44 Russian proved to be an extremely accurate cartridge and was popular with long-range target shooters in subsequently developed .44 Russian Smith & Wesson revolvers.
Original Model #3 Russians were produced from 1874 to 1878 and may be tough to find in good shooting shape without commanding high collector dollars, however both Navy Arms and Uberti offer an excellent shooting replica of the New Model Russian correctly chambered in .44 Russian. The replica New Model Russian or Model #3 Russian is a faithful copy complete with the very small sights of the original and is finished overall in a deep blue-black finish set off with a case colored hammer, trigger guard, and locking latch. Stocks are smooth walnut as found on the originals. Smith & Wesson soon offered the New Model #3 in .44 Russian and while this sixgun is neither as powerful nor as well-balanced as a .45 Colt Single Action, with its top-break design, simultaneous ejection of empty cases, and quick loading of six new cartridges, it is certainly much more sophisticated and definitely was ahead of its time. Smith & Wesson also chambered the .44 Russian in their top-break Double Action Models and Colt also offered the .44 Russian in their Single Action Army.
.44 WCF- From Levergun To Sixgun
The first successful lever action was the 1860 Henry which was soon followed by the 1866 Winchester. The Model 1873 differed from these first Winchesters in that the ammunition was no longer rimfire but a reloadable centerfire, the .44 Winchester Center Fire or .44 WCF, or as it is simply and more commonly known today, the .44-40. The .44 WCF also used an inside lubricated bullet rather than the outside lubricated bullet of the .44 Rimfire. Being a centerfire the .44 WCF was not only reloadable, Winchester also marketed reloading tools.
The .44 WCF in the Winchester 1873 arrived the same year as the .45 Colt in the Colt Single Action Army and it is very close to being a .45 case necked down to .44; this may have been done for greater case capacity or ease of chambering or both. Whatever the reason the .44-40 is one of the all time great cartridges. The .44 Rimfire of the 1860 Henry and 1866 Winchester used a bullet of approximately 200 grains with a muzzle velocity at about 1100 fps. But with the coming of the longer and larger .44 WCF cartridge case using 40 grains (the “40” in .44-40) of black powder, muzzle velocity was increased to 1250 fps. By today's standards this is not very powerful for a rifle, however it proved to be potent enough for whitetail deer and black bear and more than one grizzly was taken down with the .44 WCF.
It wasn't long until someone realized the .44-40 was a natural chambering for a sixgun and the first .44 WCF chambered Colt Single Action arrived in 1878. However, the beginning serial number in 1878 for the Colt SAA was 41,000 and approximately two dozen .44 WCF SAAs have been found in Colt records in the serial number range from 21,000 to 29,000. In all probability they were actually .45s returned to the factory to be converted to .44 WCF by those who wanted the convenience of having both rifle and sixgun chambered in the same cartridge. In a sixgun the .44-40 recoils much less than the original factory loaded .45 Colt even though it achieves a muzzle velocity of 900 fps or more. Numerous frontier wanderers and ranchers, including Theodore Roosevelt, and even some Texas Rangers considered a .44-40 sixgun the best to be had.
Those Colt Single Actions chambered in .44-40 or .44 WCF or .44 Winchester Centerfire, as preferred, were simply marked on the barrel with "COLT FRONTIER SIX SHOOTER” until 1923 when .44-40 was added behind the same inscription on the Single Action Army. Of the approximately 357,000 Colt Single Action Army sixguns produced from 1873 to 1941, about 150,000 were .45 Colts and 71,000 were chambered in .44-40. The .44-40 would also be chambered in the Merwin, Hulbert, various Smith & Wessons, Colt’s 1878 Double Action and New Service, and a few in the Remington Single Action. It is still available today in both foreign and domestic revolvers and was even chambered for awhile in the Ruger Vaquero; Mike Venturino calls it his favorite .44; I'm slightly more modern.
.44 Special-The Cartridge Of The Century
In 1907 Smith & Wesson experimented with their .38 caliber 1899 Military & Police expanded to a .44 caliber frame and in 1908 brought out the epitome of double action sixguns the New Century, the .44 Hand Ejector First Model, which would forever be known to its loyal followers as the Triple-Lock. Not only was this a new sixgun, it was chambered in a new cartridge, the .44 Special. The .44 Special was simply the .44 Russian case lengthened from .97” to 1.16” and as such was an improvement over the .44 Russian but only mildly. One has to wonder what Smith & Wesson was thinking and if they had any idea at all of what they had. With the lengthening of the case the powder charge was increased from 23.0 to 26.0 grains of black powder under a round-nosed 246 grain lead bullet, however it was ballistically a dead ringer for the older .44 Russian. They could very easily have come up with a load equivalent to the .45 Colt, a 250 grain bullet at around 900 fps, but for some reason they chose not to do so.
Until very recently, the .44 Special was never been loaded to anything near its true potential by the ammunition factories with most loads right at 750 fps; however, it soon gathered a small, but knowledgable following who understood its real potential. Many lawmen especially in the Southwest and along the southern border considered a .44 Special S&W sixgun as the best possible choice for a fighting handgun even with its then available factory load. Today we have special Special defensive loads offered by Buffalo Bore, Cor-Bon, Hornady, and Winchester. For concealed carry/self defense style revolvers, Charter Arms offers its J+ frame sized five-shooter, the Bulldog Pug, and S&W has offered their L-frame in several five-shot versions including the latest.
Like its older brother, the .44 Russian, the .44 Special was a superbly accurate cartridge. The .44 Special may have started with a standard loading of 750 fps, however it would not stay there very long as sixgun experimenters would spend several decades bringing the .44 Special cartridge to the apex of perfection and performance. From the 1920s until the 1950s Elmer Keith beat the drums for a heavily loaded .44 Special. For nearly 30 years the .44 Special was his pet sixgun in both Colt Single Actions and Smith & Wesson .44 Hand Ejectors. With the old balloon head .44 Special brass, Keith worked up a heavy load of 18.5 grains of #2400 powder and his design for the perfect bullet, Ideal's #429421. This was the first of many bullets to be labeled Keith bullets, and Keith as well as others killed many head of big game with the .44 Special. When modern solid head brass arrived in the early 1950s, Keith cut his powder charge to 17.0 grains of #2400 as the new brass had less case capacity. Those attempting to duplicate Keith's heavy .44 Special loads should be aware of two things. All of his loads were assembled with standard primers, and today's #2400 is slightly faster burning and cutting the charge approximately 6% is necessary to compensate for this.
Keith wrote of using his heavy loaded .44 Specials in the Triple-Lock, however due to its age and history I use the old Smith only with carefully chosen .44 Special loads. The 250 grain SWC bullet over 6.0 grains of Unique pretty much duplicates the original load. The heaviest load I use in the Triple-Lock, and then only sparingly, is 7.5 grains of Unique for around 950 fps. This is my favorite every day load for the .44 Special no matter what sixgun I am using. It came from Skeeter Skelton who got it from Elmer Keith.
Other experimenters of note in the 1940s included NY gunsmith Gordon Boser, Ray Thompson who designed a special bullet, #429244GC for the Special, and John Lachuk who came up with what would prove to be a deadringer for the .44 Magnum in the late 1940s using special cylinders in Colt Single Actions. The stage was set for the first truly powerful factory chambered .44. When the next .44 arrived most of those using .44 Specials retired them. Skeeter did the same, however he soon rediscovered the .44 Special as his every day using gun with his favorite load being the aforementioned 7.5 grains of Unique. In the 1970s Skeeter single-handedly resurrected the .44 Special resulting in the 3rd Generation Colt Single Action so chambered followed by the Smith & Wesson Model 24-3 and Model 624 stainless steel .44 Special both of which were offered in the mid-1980s.
I consider the .44 Special the cartridge of the century, the 20th century that is, not only for what it was but also for what it was about to become. It is my favorite .44 and I could quite happily spend the rest of my life with the Great Special. Clint and Mike like it also. Today the .44 Special is available from Freedom Arms in the Model 97; from USFA in both the Single Action and Flat-Top Target Model as well as in a few Rodeos; and Smith & Wesson offers the five-shot Night Guard Model , the newly resurrected 6-1/2” Model 24 Classic, and the Thunder Ranch Model 21.
.44 Magnum-The First Big Bore Magnum
Elmer Keith did not develop the .44 Magnum. However, he and others of his ilk who loaded the .44 Special heavy were directly responsible for the .44 Magnum. For nearly 30 years Keith had asked for a .44 Special Magnum duplicating his heavy load. He finally got Smith & Wesson and Remington to seriously look at a new sixgun/cartridge combination, but he was as surprised as anyone when he received that call from Smith & Wesson in December of 1955 informing him that they were sending him one of the first .44 Magnums. He retired his .44 Specials and carried a 4” Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum almost daily until his incapacitating stroke in 1981, however, when I visited him at his home in Salmon Idaho in 1968 he was packing an ivory-stocked 4” .41 Magnum S&W Model 57, one of a pair presented to him by Smith & Wesson. His .41 and .44 Magnum sixguns as well as his .44 Specials are now displayed in the Elmer Keith Museum inside Cabella’s in Boise Idaho.
The .44 Magnum was developed jointly by Remington working on the cartridge and Smith & Wesson working on the sixgun. The early Smith & Wesson .44 Magnums came very close to the precision fitting of the 1907 Triple-lock and carried a superbly polished finish known then as S&W Bright Blue. That was 1956 and the Smith & Wesson, beautifully finished and with a magnificently smooth action and trigger pull, sold for $140. One of the first .44 Magnum 4” models to hit my part of the country was rented out by a local gunstore/outdoor shooting range for all who wanted to try the big .44 Magnum. The recoil was absolutely awful, though few would admit it at the time. Heavy recoil of the time period was thought to be the .45 ACP in the Government Model Colt 1911 and the .357 Magnum in the heavyweight Smith and Wesson.
Not being an experimenter in the true sense of the word, Keith found one .44 Magnum load and used it exclusively; that load was his .44 caliber 250 grain bullet over 22.0 grains of #2400, and as with all of his sixgun loads, he used standard primers only. This is a very powerful load and recoil in a 4” .44 Magnum is definitely noticeable.
I still like the original .44s, the Ruger Flat-tops and the Smiths & Wessons. Weighing in at three pounds instead of four, they pack easily. I especially like Smiths. The originals had the best trigger pulls, both double and single action, of any factory revolver. They are also without a doubt the best looking double action revolver to ever exit a factory, and the lines of the original Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum sixgun can only be described as classic. The Smith .44s perform perfectly for me, BUT, I rarely push them anymore. I started with the Keith load but eventually dropped down to 20.0-21.0 grains of #2400 with the 250 grain cast Keith bullet and as both I and the sixguns have grown older I have dropped down even more. These loads gave muzzle velocities of 1200-1350 fps, depending upon barrel length, and one Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum that I bought new in 1961 is still like new after thousands of rounds simply because it has never had a load through it any heavier than a 250 grain cast bullet at 1300 fps; these days my most used load is most likely to be the same Keith bullet over 10.0 grains of Unique for around 1150 fps. We understand each other. I don't abuse it and it continues to perform perfectly for me.
I save original .44 Magnum-style loads and even heavier loads for the newer designs such as the Ruger Redhawk and Super Redhawk, the Dan Wesson Model 44, the Freedom Arms Model 83, and the Taurus Raging Bull. A particular favorite heavy load is a 300 grain bullet over 21.5 grains of H110 or WW296 for around 1350-1400 fps. The .44 Magnum has been used to literally take everything cleanly and quickly; it remains the big bore cartridge by which all others are judged. It has been over-shadowed (maybe!) by the .454 Casull, .480 Ruger, .475 and .500 Linebaughs, the .500 Wyoming Express, all of which are certainly more powerful but still contained in portable packable pistols; and the .445 SuperMag, and .475 and .500 Maximums, .460 and .500 S&W Magnums all of which are found in much larger and heavier sixguns.
At the other end of the .44 Magnum spectrum we have the easy packin’ S&W scandium/titanium Model 329PD. At 48 ounces many consider the original S&W .44 to have brutal recoil; step down to 26 ounces and, well you can figure it out! For my everyday use it becomes a .44 Special. It is definitely the easiest carrying .44 Magnum ever offered and if .44 Magnum power is really needed it is there. Loaded with two standard .44 Specials, two Heavy .44 Specials, and two .44 Magnums it offers its user extreme versatility. Smith & Wesson brought back the 6-1/2” Model 29 for the 50th Anniversary celebration and it has not only remained in the catalog in both blue and nickel versions it has now been joined by the easier packin’ 4” model.
Ruger offers the .44 Magnum in 10 versions of the Super Blackhawk, the 50th Anniversary Flat-Top Blackhawk, and also in the Redhawk and Super Redhawk. Taurus’ Raging Bull may well be the easiest shootin’ .44 Magnum on the planet. The .44 Magnum is also chambered in the superb Freedom Arms Model 83 and is my number one Whitetail sixgun with more than two dozen one-shot kills using the Black Hills 240 grain jacketed hollowpoint load. Truth be known the .44 Magnum is the largest and most powerful sixgun most shooters can even come close to mastering. It is truly the King of Big Bore Sixguns.
We have barely scratched at the surface of these .44s. If you would like more detail on the history, use, firearms, and loads of these and other .44s such as the .445 SuperMag, .44 AutoMag, and .444 Marlin, check out a copy of “The Gun Digest Book Of The .44” by yours truly available on this website along with SINGLE ACTION SIXGUNS.