The versatility of the .44 Magnum cartridge is often overlooked. Yes, this is perhaps the finest hunting handgun cartridge ever devised, beaten only by recent hot loads in the .45 Long Colt and in handguns chambered for the .454 Casull, in production guns. The .44 Magnum is a hot cartridge, but that’s only the beginning of the story. There are some lighter loads, not just in the .44 Special, that tame the gun considerably. These are the loads usually fired in the shorter-barreled versions, such as the four-inchers tested here.
The usual barrel length for the .44 Magnum is around the six-inch mark, because most shooters want to be able to get all the performance they can out of such a powerful handgun. The added length of sight radius combines with the extra barrel length to give the shooter top performance out of maximum loads. But, hunting or silhouette ringing are not the only uses for the .44 Magnum.
Elmer Keith carried a 4-inch Smith & Wesson on his hip in a Sparks 200AW holster for many of the last years of his life. The gun was stoked with his favorite handload utilizing a 250-grain cast semiwadcutter bullet of Keith’s design (Lyman 429421, to be exact). His load gave that bullet a velocity of over 1,200 fps. Keith used that sixgun and his load to kill numerous heads of big game, some at very long range, and it did everything he ever needed a handgun to do. However, many who have tried that combination weren’t up to Elmer’s standards of noise and recoil tolerance, and cut their personal loads down to where the bullet exited the gun at around 1,000 fps. This makes a very big difference in felt recoil and, for most purposes other than big game hunting, does most handgun jobs just as well as Keith’s favorite load.
However, the top load in the short gun does wonders for one’s sense of security in bear country or when camped alone in the wilderness when the noises of the night send chills up one’s spine no matter how high the campfire. In such circumstances, the hot-loaded short-barreled .44 Magnum makes a great deal of sense. We know an African professional hunter who now carries a 4-inch .44 Magnum Colt Anaconda because he didn’t have one when a lion got hold of him one day.
We picked the Smith & Wesson Model 629-5, the Taurus Model 44 CP, and the Colt Anaconda to test for you, to try and determine which has the most to offer, as we usually do.
All three are made primarily of stainless steel, have barrels of 4 inches in length, and are fitted with finger-grooved (Ugh!) rubber grips. They all have ramped “quick-draw” front sights with some sort of red insert, and fully adjustable rear sights. All are double-action six-shooters with fluted cylinders. The Colt and the Taurus have full-length underlugs to house their ejector rods, that of the Taurus being somewhat massive; while the Smith’s rod housing ends well short of the muzzle. But for the underlugs, the Taurus and the Smith & Wesson look much alike. The Colt has a vented rib and curves in its frame contour just above the trigger guard that make it distinctive. Finally, the Taurus has an integral compensator consisting of eight holes bored adjacent to the front sight ramp. We thought this would be a mixed blessing of reduced muzzle flip and increased blast.
Fit & Finish
The Smith & Wesson Model 629 had a brushed finish on all its stainless steel parts, and we found no tool marks anywhere. (This seems to be a characteristic of S&W’s new CNC method of manufacture.) The grip was a one-piece Hogue Monogrip, which fastened to the gun with one screw that came up through the butt. The grip fit the gun very well, and the molded-in pebble texturing added to the sticky traction of the rubber. The grip-to-metal fit was very good. There was a small gap behind the trigger guard, but the rubber followed the shape of the uncovered backstrap very well. We though the metal-to-metal fit was above average. The moving parts, including the case-colored hammer and trigger, had little or no play. There was 0.006-inch cylinder-to-barrel gap, and indexing was just right.
Taurus put its usual highly polished finish onto the Model 44 CP. Yup, it shined. This won’t help you get close to any game you might choose to shoot with the gun, but it will impress your friends, and also made the gun very easy to clean after shooting. Furthermore, the polish made it easy to see some minor tool marks on the recoil shield. The Taurus had two-piece black rubber grips with molded pebbling on the sides. (This pebble texturing is, perhaps, more than just a trend. Early .44 Magnums had beautifully checkered wood panels, but the checkering was extremely abrasive to one’s fingers and palms during the shooting of heavy loads. That might be why pebbling is put there instead of checkering.) These grips covered the entire grip frame, and were secured to the gun by means of a single crossbolt. We thought the grip-to-metal fit was very good. There were no gaps. Both halves of the grip mated with the frame and with each other very well. Overall, the metal-to-metal fit was acceptable. The hammer and trigger had above average side-to-side play. We found rub marks on the left side of the trigger and the right side of the hammer. But the cylinder-to-barrel gap was 0.005 inch and the indexing was correct.[PDFCAP(2)].
The Anaconda, the big Colt snake, had a brushed finish on all its parts. We found numerous minor tool marks on the interior surfaces of the cylinder window, including on the recoil shield. The grips were two-piece black rubber with molded checkering, putting the lie to our above analysis. (Or else Colt doesn’t know about hand abrasion from .44 Magnums.) The grips covered the entire grip frame and were held to the gun with a single crossbolt. The grip-to metal fit was good. There was a minor gap at the top back of the grip, and another behind the trigger guard. Overall, we thought the metal-to-metal fit was just average. We found some casting marks on the sides of the trigger and hammer. Both of these parts also had a lot of side-to-side play, but we didn’t get any rub marks. Cylinder-to-barrel gap was 0.006 inch, and the indexing, like the other two guns, was correct.[PDFCAP(3)].
As previously mentioned, all three revolvers had similar front sights. They all had an orange, or red-orange, insert to aid visibility, and these were set into blades having a serrated face. The Smith & Wesson’s front blade was made of stainless steel and integral with the barrel, but the other two makers used perhaps less durable blued front blades pinned to the barrel. However, the blued blades proved easier to see. The Smith & Wesson’s blued rear sight had a white outline around its square notch, and the sight picture was good. The Taurus rear sight had a big notch, perhaps too big, in its large face, and also had a white outline. The sight picture had a bit too much gap on the sides to provide as precise a sight picture as we wanted. Colt’s Anaconda also had a white-outlined blued rear sight that gave a very good sight picture. But, the windage adjustment screw was very small, which we weren’t real happy about.
Both the Colt Anaconda and the Smith & Wesson Model 629 were drilled and tapped for scope mounting, but the Taurus didn’t have this feature. Colt placed two of the three holes right in front of the rear sight and left them hanging in the breeze. Smith & Wesson had the decency to conceal all of the holes under the rear sight, a decidedly more professional appearance. The Colt’s third hole was under the rear sight.
Triggers and Controls
The Smith & Wesson’s trigger pulls measured 4-1/2 pounds single action and 12-1/2 pounds double action. The single-action pull was clean. The double-action pull was smooth and didn’t feel as heavy as it weighed, but the letoff was hard. We found moderate overtravel in both modes. The gun locked and unlocked with Smith’s new contoured thumbpiece, which, when pressed forward, allowed the cylinder to be swung out. It had checkering that allowed nonslip operation, and it worked smoothly. The ejector rod had a very smooth one-inch throw, the shortest of the three guns. The length of a fired case was longer than that, actually about 1.30 inches. However, normal operation resulted in all cases being thrown clear of the gun.
Taurus’ Model 44 CP had a single-action pull of 5 pounds, and the double-action pull was 11-1/2 pounds. The double-action pull was long, but smooth. Both modes had no slack and moderate overtravel. The extractor rod’s throw was 1-1/16 inches, and felt pretty gritty. Unlocking the swing-out cylinder required pressing forward on the old-Smith-style thumbpiece. We thought this control’s checkering was not sharp enough to provide a nonslip function, but it did work smoothly.
The Anaconda had a single-action pull of 4-1/4 pounds, and the double-action pull was 9-1/2, the best trigger of the test. The single-action pull was clean, but not crisp. The double-action pull stacked up a bit, which we have found to be common with Colt revolvers. Both modes had no take-up and moderate overtravel. The extractor rod had a 1-3/16-inch throw and the movement was smooth. Getting the cylinder open required pulling rearward on the release latch. The latch’s shape made it nonslip, and it worked smoothly.
Handling and Feel
The Smith & Wesson and the Taurus had identical trigger reaches of 3-1/2 inches. The Colt’s trigger reach was an 1/8 inch longer.
Smith & Wesson’s Model 629 was the lightest and least muzzle heavy revolver of the test. We thought the front sight aligned a bit high, though this gun was the fastest to get on target. The grips were comfortable enough for average hands, but the finger groove spacing was too wide for small hands. Those with large hands felt the grip shape was somewhat slim.
We wish Smith & Wesson and all the other manufacturers would drop the finger grooves on grips. Try one of the smooth combat-style grips on one of these guns, or an early Smith & Wesson with wood target grips, and you’ll see what we mean. No one who has handled a .44 Magnum Mountain Gun fitted with Pachmayr’s Compac grips has disliked it. There are no grooves, the grip is comfortable and cushions recoil, and is lots smaller than these finger-groove monstrosities. The gun sits lower in the hand and is more controllable, reducing muzzle flip. Without the finger grooves, any hand can position its fingers wherever it pleases, and nothing is sacrificed in controllability.
The Smith & Wesson, being the lightest gun of the test and with the least dead weight on its barrel, produced the most felt recoil and muzzle flip of the test.
Moving on to the Taurus Model 44 CP (the heaviest gun of the test by 3-1/2 ounces over the Smith and 1/2 ounce over the Colt). This revolver was a little less muzzle heavy than the Colt. Its front sight aligned a little high when we pointed the gun quickly. The grips were fairly comfortable, but the grip itself was overly deep for small hands. Those with large hands liked the grip the best. Because the barrel was ported, recoil was more straight back than with the other two guns, and muzzle flip was drastically reduced. This would permit faster followup shots, and that might someday be vital. The Taurus had the least felt recoil and muzzle rise of the test. The ports were, by the way, 5/32-inch diameter. We must note we’d not like to shoot this gun with any sort of high-performance ammunition without ear protection. Muzzle blast was pronounced.
The Anaconda was the most muzzle-heavy revolver, and was the slowest to get on target as a result. The front sight aligned high in rapid pointing tests. The grip filled the hand fairly well, but most felt it was too square and too wide. This Colt recoiled noticeably more than the Taurus, but a little less than the Smith & Wesson, as would be expected by comparing their weights. In our double-action shooting evaluation, we found the trigger reach to be a bit too long. Small-handed individuals had a hard time with the big snake. The grooved trigger face didn’t help double action shooting either. (Though some shooters like a grooved trigger for double action shooting, they’re in the minority.)
All three revolvers had internal passive safety systems, a transfer bar for the Colt and Taurus, and a rebounding slide for the Smith & Wesson, and all worked perfectly. There were no other safeties provided, or needed. (One of the beauties of a revolver is its simplicity. Pick it up and press the trigger and, if it’s loaded, it’ll fire. It’s easy to see if it’s loaded: look at the gap at the back of the cylinder, or pop open the cylinder and look. Not a lot to learn, and not a lot to go wrong.)
We tested with Federal Hi-Shok 180-grain JHP, Remington 210-grain SJHP, and Winchester 240-grain HSP ammunition. We found not a lot of difference in accuracy among these three guns. The Taurus was the least accurate, with its best five-shot average groups measuring 2.50 inches at 25 yards with the Winchester load. Its largest average groups were nearly the same as the Smith & Wesson’s worst, about 3.20 inches, both with the Remington ammunition. The Model 629-5’s best average groups were 2.30 inches or a bit better at 25 yards, while the Colt gave slightly better overall accuracy with all loads tried. The Colt shot best with the Federal Hi-Shok load, just under 2.20 inches at 25 yards. It would take a great deal of test shooting to tell significant differences. The nod has to go to the Colt, however, for its largest group was only 2.60 inches, with the Winchester ammunition.[PDFCAP(4)].
There were no malfunctions whatsoever with any of the three double-action revolvers.
We note that the Federal 180-grain JHPs were whistling out of these 4-inch barrels — even out of the compensated Taurus — at over 1,500 fps, and that’s movin’. Also note the Taurus compensator gave a slight velocity loss with all loads, the result of releasing some gas into the air through the barrel ports.
It pretty much comes down to looks, handling and price. Tradition also plays an important part in the choice of such a handgun, and few handgunning traditions are as old or as accepted as the combination of Smith & Wesson and the .44 Magnum cartridge. After all, it all began there. Some would argue the Colt Anaconda does a good job of maintaining the tradition and image of the .357 Magnum Python with its generally useless but eye-grabbing vented barrel rib. Taurus, a near-clone of the Smith, adds a muzzle brake to the mix. (Of course one can add gas ports to any gun: Just send it, along with your money, to Mag-Na-Port.)
At $629, the Anaconda retails for $32 more than the, er, 629 Smith & Wesson (odd price on that Colt, eh?), which cost $597. The compensated Taurus was a C-note cheaper, at $508. If you like compensators, that’s a bargain. Getting something similar put onto either of the other guns can add a lot to their cost.
We think the Smith & Wesson gets the nod here. Colt’s muzzle-heaviness makes the gun feel lots heavier than it is, which we don’t like. The compensator of the Taurus adds so much to blast that we know if we had to shoot the gun in the field without ear protection we would either have to have reduced-power loads in it or suffer ear pain from the blast. Face it, these guns are meant to be carried in the field, and thus they’ll get used without ear protection. Yes, the noise is insignificant when the gun is fired in anger and the senses are directed toward the threat, but lots of fun shooting would have to be foregone if you don’t have ear protection and were packing a compensated gun. The lightest gun is the Smith & Wesson, and that translates to easiest all-day carry.
By the way, heavy-bullet loads tend to burn more of their powder in the barrel instead of in the air, so blast is generally less, particularly with short barrels, compared to that of light-bullet loads. Loads built around heavy bullets give more recoil than light-bullet loads.
We’d pick the Smith & Wesson Model 629 over the other two, but if the Taurus didn’t have that brake we’d look long and hard at it, and the money we’d save. Our shooters didn’t like the handling of the Colt all that much.