If you’re looking for a powerful handgun that you can move between several gun-use arenas, such self defense, home defense, car defense, and defense against dangerous animals in the woods, we could make a good case for a heavily-loaded 357 revolver and an even better argument for a 41 Mag. However, perhaps the two most popular cartridges at the top of the power curve are the 10mm Auto and the 44 Magnum. We tested four 10mms in the August 2020 edition of Gun Tests, so this time we are going to concentrate on two 44 Mags, one old and one new, that would fill several of these roles.
Our first medium-frame iron-sighted pistol was a brand-spanking-new Taurus Model 44 with a 4-inch barrel (2-440049), $661. We also had a 4-inch-barreled Smith & Wesson Model 29-2 with a serial number that dates to around 1972. We grade its condition as Very Good and its selling price as $1250.
Why do we shoot old guns and report on them to you? We love the history and like to track the design changes, and more important, can you think of a better way to prove a design concept? Guns that suck won’t hold their value. With a few improvements, this Model 29 is still essentially the same pistol you can buy new today, and its almost 50-year-old age has only made it better and smoother, much like Gun Tests testers, writers, and editors. If you want a current iteration, you’ll be looking for a Model 629 with a 4.125-inch barrel (163603, MSRP $969).
How We Tested
Factory ammunition was almost impossible to obtain as of this writing, so because we have been loading for this caliber for a couple of decades, we decided to roll our own. We used a 240-grain hard-cast Keith-style semi-wadcutter from Hunter’s Supply (MidwayUSA.com, 267313, $53/250) loaded both as 44 Special and 44 Magnum cartridges along with the 240-grain Speer Gold Dot jacketed soft point (MidwayUSA.com, 166262, $25.49/100). We assembled loads using Starline brass, Winchester large pistol primers, Vihta Vuori N110 or Alliant 2400 powder and recipes from the Lyman #50 loading manual. This is a cartridge that has proven itself to work well with a variety of components. It is a great caliber for the reloader.
All shooting was done at American Shooting Centers in west Houston. Accuracy was tested at 15 yards by shooting multiple five-shot groups from a well-sandbagged Caldwell Pistolero shooting rest (MidwayUSA.com, 517357, $28). Velocities were obtained via LabRadar (MyLabRadar.com, $559). Speed tests were conducted using multiple runs consisting of five rounds fired at a 9-inch white plate at 10 yards. In particular, we were curious how much the porting on the Taurus mattered in terms of recoil, recovery between shots, and overall accuracy. That single feature — not available on the older Smith & Wesson without expensive aftermarket work — could easily determine the outcome.
Gun Tests Grade: B+ (OUR PICK)
We owe much of the 44 Magnum concept to the late Elmer Keith. Mr. Keith spent a good bit of the early to middle parts of the last century working with (and sometimes blowing up) hot-loaded 44 Special revolvers. As with many great experimenters, he did not let setbacks stop his work. Convinced of the practicality and efficacy of a max-loaded 44, he finally won Smith & Wesson over to his way of thinking, along with Remington ammunition. The revolver that became what we know as the Model 29 (and what Clint Eastwood made really famous in 1971) was introduced in late 1955. Initially hailed as the perfect all-round heavy-duty pistol, many folks quickly discovered that the 44 Mag generated a bit too much recoil for them. Quite a few divested themselves of their investment. We’ve heard a number of stories of almost-new Model 29s for sale, along with a box of bullets missing just six rounds. So, is the 44 Mag perfect for inexperienced shooters? Probably not. Is it an uncontrollable beast? Certainly not. Luckily, people quickly learned that you do not have to always shoot loads designed to vaporize velociraptors. The 44 Special can be loaded in a range from mild to dang-near 44 Mag velocities, and it works well for many situations. However, if we wanted to use it for defense against animals, up to small bears, we would want all the juice we could get, and the round and the revolver could supply that with any number of specialty loads and bullets.
|Overall Length||9.5 in.|
|Overall Height||6.0 in.|
|Maximum Width||1.69 in.|
|Weight Unloaded||2.7 lbs.|
|Weight Loaded||3.0 lbs.|
|Receiver||Blued carbon steel|
|Front Strap Height||2.4 in.|
|Back Strap Height||4.5 in.|
|Barrel Length||4.0 in.|
|Grip Thickness (Maximum)||1.29 in.|
|Grip Circumference||5.3 in.|
|Cylinder Capacity||6 rounds|
|Rear Sight||Adjustable white outline|
|Front Sight||Fixed black ramp with red insert|
|Sight Radius||6.0 in.|
|Trigger Pull Weight Single Action||2.2 lbs.|
|Trigger Pull Weight Double Action||7.1 lbs.|
|Trigger Span||3.25 in.|
Our S&W Model 29 is a “dash 2” model, meaning it was from the third production series with “no dash” and “dash 1” preceding it. This revolver is from a different time when CNC machines did not exist and labor was cheaper than machine time. It has several features that the shooter won’t find on new pistols, such as a hammer-mounted firing pin, a pinned barrel, recessed cylinders, and a bluing job that is so bright and deep it looks like you could go swimming in it. Much of the previous designs required hand-fitting time that would probably make this pistol unaffordable today. We know current designs are stronger, safer, and more corrosion resistant, but we like the old style, too.
Our 29-2 has a 4-inch barrel on it that is beefier than some of the longer-barreled models. They were trying to stick a little more weight out front to counteract some of the recoil. The barrel also has a partial underlug that protects the ejector rod. It sports a white-outline adjustable rear sight and a ramped front sight with a red insert. The sights are very visible and easy to adjust. The hammer spur is wide and checkered. The trigger face is wide and smooth. Both of these are the surface finish we prefer. Both are case-color hardened. The hammer still provides a safety function, in that it is of a rebounding type that does not make contact with the primer unless the trigger is depressed and is still depressed as the firing pin reaches full forward travel. This arrangement also allows the revolver to be carried fully loaded because the hammer does not rest on a primer. As mentioned, the cylinder is recessed, allowing cartridge heads to lay flush with the cylinder face, bringing even more support to the case. The cylinder locks up at both ends, and the ejector rod is long enough to clear the cases out of the cylinder.
As with all S&Ws, the cylinder rotates counter-clockwise and is released by pushing a checkered latch on the left side-plate forward.
The original wood grips didn’t fit us, and we don’t remember ever having spoken to anyone that they really did fit. Unless you have Bill Jordanesque hands, we can’t imagine who they might fit, so we did the easy thing and changed them. We are running Hogue mono-grips at this point, and there are any number of other replacement grips available. Look for something that will fit a S&W N-frame with a square butt and you should be fine. Newer versions of this pistol have an internal lock, a frame-mounted firing pin, and updated grips.
The trigger is light and smooth, the result of trigger work, and which is absolutely perfect for double-action shooting, just as it should be. Timing was spot on, with the bolt dropping into the cylinder notches on cue. The best groups were obtained using the 44 Special loads and averaged 1.46 inches at 15 yards. Recoil with the heavier 44 Mag loads was brisk, and that is being polite. This really is one of those “carry a lot, shoot a little” kind of guns — until you load it with 44 Special. A marvelous defensive cartridge in its own right, the 44 Special loads were a ball to shoot.
Our Team Said: A hair faster than the Taurus and a bit more accurate, a used S&W Model 29 in Good to Very Good condition would be our choice if we thought our primary threat was two-legged.
Drill Data (5x9x10)
|Pistol||Time to First Shot (seconds)||Split Average (seconds)||Total Time (seconds)|
44 Special & 44 Magnum Range Data
|44 Special Handload HS 240-grain LSWC||S&W Model 29||Taurus M44|
|Average Velocity||891 fps||904 fps|
|Muzzle Energy||426 ft.-lbs.||439 ft.-lbs.|
|Best Group||0.83 in.||1.47 in.|
|Average Group||1.46 in.||1.91 in.|
|44 Magnum Handload HS 240-grain LSWC||S&W Model 29||Taurus M44|
|Average Velocity||1240 fps||1266 fps|
|Muzzle Energy||826 ft.-lbs.||861 ft.-lbs.|
|Best Group||1.13 in.||1.62 in.|
|Average Group||1.64 in.||2.15 in.|
|44 Magnum Speer 240-grain Gold Dot||S&W Model 29||Taurus M44|
|Average Velocity||1231 fps||1204 fps|
|Muzzle Energy||807 ft.-lbs.||772 ft.-lbs.|
|Best Group||1.39 in.||0.91 in.|
|Average Group||1.67 in.||2.01 in.|
Testing was done at American Shooting Centers (AMShootCenters.com) in west Houston. Muzzle velocities were determined via a LabRadar chronograph (MyLabRadar.com, $559). All shots for group were done from a well-sandbagged Caldwell Pistol Rest from MidwayUSA and aided by a mini-DRC Fortune Cookie bag from Wiebad.com.
Value Guide: Powerful Revolver Rankings
|Colt Python (2020) PYTHON-SP4WTS 357 Magnum, $1300||Jan. 2021||A||Pricey, but the new Python is a winner, even if it isn’t an exact clone of the original Python.|
|Colt Python (2020) PYTHON-SP6WTS 357 Magnum, $1800||Jan. 2021||A||We really liked the trigger and found the revolver to be quite accurate.|
|Colt Python (1980) 357 Magnum, ~$2500||Jan. 2021||A||The trigger is superb and the royal blue finish is brilliant. The aftermarket Hogue grip helps reduce felt recoil.|
|Colt Python (1964) 357 Magnum, $1800||Jan. 2021||A-||It provided good performance and accuracy. This is a shooter and perhaps is a candidate for restoration.|
|Colt King Cobra KCOBRA-SB3BB 357 Magnum, $838||2020-05-01 00:00:00||A||The revolver offers good performance with the 3-inch barrel and is well made. Carrying it takes a bit of effort.|
|Rock Island Armory AL3.0 357 Magnum, $504||2020-05-01 00:00:00||A-||There was a lot to like, price, accuracy, shooting comfort. Not a beautiful revolver for sure..|
|Rossi Model 971 VRC 357 Magnum, $295||2020-05-01 00:00:00||B||A great trigger, and the porting helped keep us on target. But the accuracy was less than stellar.|
|Taurus Raging Hunter Model 2-440085RH 44 Magnum, $683||Dec. 2019||A||The Raging Hunter comes optic ready and offers the versatility of the 44 Mag cartridge.|
|Smith & Wesson PC M460XVR 170262 460 S&W Mag., $1369||Dec. 2019||A||The 460XVR is very versatile, with the ability to shoot a variety of calibers. It comes optics ready.|
|Smith & Wesson S&W500 163500 500 S&W Mag., $1082||Dec. 2019||A-||Cartridge choice is limited. We found this revolver to be accurate and offer plenty of punch both ways.|
|Taurus Model 66 2-660041 357 Magnum, $371||Oct. 2019||A||Well suited to personal defense and home defense. Good field gun for protection against animals.|
|Taurus 608 Matte Stainless 2-608049 357 Magnum, $548||Oct. 2019||A-||It is a big gun. Just the same, the size and eight-shot capacity made it ideal for home defense.|
|Smith & Wesson M27 Classic 150339 357 Magnum, $909||Oct. 2019||B-||The grips are not the best design for handling magnum loads. Trigger action was the big problem, very heavy.|
|Ruger GP100 KGP-141 357 Magnum, $500||Sep. 2018||A||The stainless-steel GP100 performs in all categories: accuracy, smoothness, control, and velocity.|
|S&W M66 Combat Magnum 357 Magnum, , $420||Sep. 2018||B+||Stainless steel, smooth action, and a round-butt configuration seldom seen on the Combat Magnum.|
|Ruger GP100 GP-141 357 Magnum, $480||Sept. 2018||B+||The blued GP100 doesn’t perform on par with the stainless, and the stainless is easier to maintain.|
|S&W M19 Combat Magnum 357 Magnum, $800||Sept. 2018||B||Came with a display case and a knife with matching serial number — pretty neat, but also pricey.|
|Taurus Model 66 357 Magnum, $325||Sept. 2018||B-||The barrel length of 6 inches did not generate greater velocity. Current-production version is 2-660069.|
|Taurus Tracker 44TRACKER4SS 2-440049TKR 44 Mag., $449||Jan. 2018||A||Best Buy. A formidable revolver. Proved reliable and should be useful as a home-defense revolver.|
|Ruger GP100 1761 44 Special, $649||Jan. 2018||B||Accuracy was outstanding. The largest and heaviest revolver in this test.|
|Smith & Wesson M69 Combat Magnum 10064 44 Mag., $732||Jan. 2018||B-||Good for personal defense when loaded with 44 Sp. With 44 Mags, a last-ditch defense against bears.|