TAFFIN TESTS: THE .44 RUSSIAN
Before the .454 Casull (1980), before the .44 Magnum,(1956), before the .357 Magnum (1935), before the .44 Special (1907), yes even before the .45 Colt (1873) there was the .44 Russian. And even before the .44 Russian was the parent cartridge, the .44 Smith & Wesson American. In 1869 or 1870, depending on which authority is accepted, Smith & Wesson stunned Colt by bringing forth the first big bore centerfire single action sixgun. Colt was still producing cap-and-ball revolvers and had to wait until Smith & Wesson's Rollin White patent ran out before they could come back with the Colt Single Action Army in 1873.
That first Smith & Wesson single action was chambered in .44 S&W American and also .44 Henry Rimfire. The story goes that the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia was in this country hunting buffalo with Bill Cody, saw and used the .44 Smith & Wesson, and ordered them for the Imperial Russian Army with a slight change in the ammunition.
The .44 S&W American cartridge carried an outside lubricated two-step bullet with a larger diameter outside the case than inside. The resulting .44 Russian carried an inside lubricated bullet and became one of the real benchmarks in cartridge (and sixgun) evolution. The .44 Russian brass carried a 246 grain lead bullet over 23.0 grains of black powder, and is not only an important development in its own right, it also sired the .44 Special, which would later father the .44 Magnum. The Russian was lengthened two-tenths of an inch to become the Special and the Special was subsequently lengthened one-eighth of an inch to become the Magnum.
The evolution of the .44 Smith & Wesson sixguns and cartridges are as follows:
Model #3 First Model .44 American 1870-1872
Model #3 Second Model .44 American 1872-1874
Model #3 Russian First Model .44 Russian 1871-1874
Model #3 Russian Second Model .44 Russian 1873-1878
Model #3 Russian Third Model .44 Russian 1874-1878
New Model #3 .44 Russian 1878-1912
44 Double Action First Model .44 Russian 1881-1913
44 New Century (Triple-Lock) .44 Special 1908-1915
44 Hand Ejector Second Model .44 Special 1915-1937
44 Third Model (Model 1926) .44 Special 1926-1949
44 Fourth Model (Model 1950) .44 Special 1950-1966
44 Magnum (Model 29) .44 Magnum 1956-
There were minor mechanical changes moving from one model to the next and most models were available in other calibers also.
The .44 Russian is one of the first good news/bad news stories. Smith & Wesson had an excellent sixgun chambered in a fine cartridge that was a vast improvement over the cap-and-ball revolvers of the day.
With a large order from Russia, their finances were in grand shape. For the next five years they did not have to worry about sales, financial conditions, markets etc. Their stock, if they issued any, would have been an excellent investment. BUT, while all the .44 Russians were going East to the Czar's Army, Colt was furnishing the civilians on the Western frontier with .45 Colt Single Action Armies. The U.S. Army adopted the Colt and when the Russian contract ran out, Smith & Wesson had an uphill battle to reach the American shooter.
About ten years ago I wound up with a half box of .44 Russian brass and not being a brass collector as such, I played around with these with black powder in a .44 Special Colt Bisley. Twenty-three grains of FFFg black powder gave nearly 800 feet per second with a 250 grain bullet so the old load compares favorably with modern defensive loads. That would have been the end of my experimenting with the .44 Russian had it not been for Shapel's Gun Shop. Again. This time I stumbled over more than 200 rounds of balloon head .44 Russian brass and there was no way to pass up such a bargain. Since picking up these 200 plus rounds, a reader was kind enough to send me 90 more rounds so I should be shooting .44 Russians for a long time.
The next step was to decide in what sixgun I would shoot the old forty-four . I could've just used the Russian brass for light loads in the Special or Magnum but that seemed almost blasphemous. Forty-four Russian brass deserved .44 Russian chambering. Again Shapel's came through. They had a used .357 Magnum Colt Third Generation cylinder and it went off to Bowen Classic Arms along with my 7 1/2" .44 Special New Frontier with orders to convert the .357 cylinder to .44 Russian. While I was at it I also sent a.44-40 cylinder that had been in my parts box for nearly ten years. When Bowen got through I had a tightened up three- cylindered .44 with minimum barrel/cylinder gap. The adjustable sights on the New Frontier allow me to shoot everything from mild .44 Russians to 200 grains bullets in the .44-40 to full house loads in the .44 Special simply by a turn of the elevation screw on the rear sight.
Loading the .44 Russian is no more complicated than loading the .44 Special except when it comes to seating and crimping. I use my RCBS .44 Special dies for sizing and expanding, and ordered a .44 Russian seating and crimping die from RCBS for the final loading step. None of my .44 Special or .44 Magnum seater/crimp dies would reach the stubby Russian .44.
There is very little reloading data available for the .44 Russian and I would caution the reader NOT to assume that any of the loads listed except the FFFg loading could be used in any revolver originally chambered for the .44 Russian. Most .44 Russian revolvers are more than 100 years old while these loads were fired in one of the strongest Colt Single Actions ever built in an expertly chambered cylinder.
Favorite loads for the .44 Russian include Bull-X's 190 semi-wadcutter over 5.0 grains of Bullseye for 800 feet per second and one-inch 25 yard groups, and the same bullet with 5.0 grains of Clays for 975 feet per second, and grouping right at one-inch. Moving up to Bull-X's 215 grain semi-wadcutter, 4.0 grains of HP-38 gives an accurate and mild shooting 715 feet per second. With Bull-X's 240 grains SWC, accurate loads proved to be 6.0 grains of Unique for 800 feet per second, 4.0 grains of HP-38 at 700 feet per second, and 4.0 grains of WW231 for a very pleasant shooting 650 feet per second.
Lyman's traditional round nosed 245-250 grain bullet #429251, is a natural for the .44 Russian with the most accurate loads being 23.0 grains of FFFg Goex (775 feet per second), 6.0 grains of Unique (890 feet per second) and 6.0 grains of WW231 (900 feet per second). Notice again these all rank right with today's defensive loadings. Speer's swaged lead 240 grain semi-wadcutter is an excellent utility bullet when seated over 6.0 grains of Unique for 950 feet per second.
Now comes the inevitable question. Why mess with the .44 Russian when we have the .44 Magnum and at the very least the .44 Special? Probably for the same reason thousands of shooters shoot muzzle loaders even though they were 'obsoleted' over 100 years ago. Or the same reason sixgunners still choose the .45 Colt and .44-40 and levergun shooters pick the .45-70. Perhaps even for the same reason shooters will actually wait three years or more to get a replica of the old Sharps, the Old Reliable buffalo gun.
These old cartridges are all part of a rich heritage and we would definitely be the poorer if we ever got to the point that only the latest semi-automatic was interesting. The .44 Russian is one of the most important sixgun cartridge developments since we made the transition from ball, powder, and cap to brass cases. I intend to do my part to keep its memory and usage alive.
.44 RUSSIAN: 7 1/2" Barrel
BULLET - LOAD - MV
Bull-X 190 SWC
4.0 gr. Bullseye 760
5.0 gr. Bullseye 787
5.0 gr. Unique 761
6.0 gr. Unique 799
4.0 gr. HP-38 640
5.0 gr. HP-38 846
4.0 gr. WW231 670
5.0 gr. WW231 818
4.0 gr. Clays 889
5.0 gr. Clays 976
BULL-X 215 SWC
4.0 gr. Bullseye 779
5.0 gr. Bullseye 785
5.0 gr. Unique 772
6.0 gr. Unique 789
4.0 gr. HP-38 715
5.0 gr. HP-38 819
4.0 gr. WW231 679
5.0 gr. WW231 798
4.0 gr. Clays 853
5.0 gr. Clays 916
Bull-X 240 SWC
4.0 gr. Bullseye 700
5.0 gr. Bullseye 724
5.0 gr. Unique 671
6.0 gr. Unique 800
7.0 gr. Unique 923
4.0 gr. HP-38 694
5.0 gr. HP-38 796
4.0 gr. WW231 655
5.0 gr. WW231 759
4.0 gr. Clays 768
5.0 gr. Clays 891
4.0 gr. AA#2 747
5.0 gr. AA#2 873
Lyman #429251RN (246gr.)
23.0 gr. FFFg 775
5.0 gr. Bullseye 813
6.0 gr. Bullseye 911
5.0 gr. Unique 718
6.0 gr. Unique 890
7.0 gr. Unique 938
4.0 gr. AA#2 718
5.0 gr. AA#2 827
5.0 gr. WW231 761
6.0 gr. WW231 900
Speer 240 SWC
6.0 gr. Unique 950