January 2017

The 44 Special: An Old Number Is Revitalized by Modern Loads

The Buffalo Bore 190-grain LSWCHP and the Hornady Critical Defense 165-grain FTX are standouts. Also tested: 180- and 200-grain loads from Speer, Cor-Bon, Blazer, and Fiocchi.

The 44 Special: An Old Number Is Revitalized by Modern Loads

In the lighter Charter Arms Bulldog, we feel that the Critical Defense load is the best choice for personal defense.

The 44 Special is a misunderstood cartridge. Never meant to be a powerhouse, the 44 Special was introduced as a counterpoint to the 44-40 WCF and the 45 Colt. A continuation of Smith & Wesson’s 44 Smith & Wesson Russian, the more powerful 44 Special was intended to be a mild-mannered and accurate big-bore cartridge. Loaded with a 246-grain round-nose lead bullet at about 800 fps, the Special is mild enough and accurate in good, tight revolvers. Experimentation by enthusiastic hand-loaders vastly improved the power of the cartridge, but those trials also wrecked quite a few revolvers in the process. Once the 44 Magnum revolver was introduced, the need for such heavy loads was eliminated, in our opinion.

That doesn’t mean the 44 Special is dead. In fact, it retains its reputation as a shootable, accurate round, and it finds a home in many 44 Magnum cylinders as a training round. But what of wheelguns chambered just for the Special? Are there powerful-enough loads out there to make it a backwoods-suitable carry gun? A recent test of several 44 Special loads suggests that the old round is rocking along quite well, thank you very much.

Some of the loads tested below are strong loads, probably best used in heavy-duty 44 Magnum revolvers. A 48-ounce Smith & Wesson Model 29 is docile when fired with the Cor-Bon 200-grain DPX load, as an example. Put the same load in the 36-ounce Model 21 Smith & Wesson, and recoil is on the upper end of what most users are able to tolerate. Further, in the Charter Arms Bulldog at 20 ounces, only lighter loads should be used. To assess the shooting-comfort range of various loads, our test guns this time included the Smith & Wesson Model 21-4 44 Special with a 4-inch barrel and the Charter Arms Bulldog with 2.5-inch barrel. This offered a mix of size, weight, and barrel length. We feel that it would have been pointless to fire these loads in a 44 Magnum revolver with a heavy barrel underlug and target grips and declare them controllable. The practical field and carry revolvers used in the test provide a thorough outlook on ammunition selection.

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