February 2000

.454 Casulls: Too Much Power, Too Little Real-World Utility

Taurusís Raging Bull, $820, makes the .454 Casull bearable. Guns from Freedom Arms and Ruger exact a toll on the hunter as well as the hunted. If you need this much power, buy a rifle.

[IMGCAP(1)] Hunting with a handgun has its limitations. Handguns have less sight radius than long guns present when open sights are used, and suitable scopes tend to be limited compared to those designed to be mounted upon a rifle. Also, handguns cannot be braced against the shoulder, they have limited space for grip, and the shorter barrel will not produce the same velocities that even carbine barrels will, in part because of pressure bleeding at the cylinder gap (at least in the case of our three test guns, which are revolvers).

The physical limitations of a hunting handgun—that is, its overall size and weight—can be said to be advantages, but the corresponding lack of power compared to a long gun cannot be spun into any other shape. It’s a detriment. Still, handgunners want power enough to kill game humanely, and one alternative is to find a way to get more powder behind the bullet. More powder behind the bullet is the purpose of the longer magnum cartridges, such as the .357 and .44 caliber rounds, resulting in the ability to deliver more energy at a greater distance. A big step up from these rounds, however, is the vaunted .454 Casull cartridge, which takes care of business when an increase in stopping power is desired.

Unfortunately, recent testing of three revolvers chambered for the .454 have convinced us that you may not want to be there when Mr. Casull meets Sir Isaac Newton, whose coining of the phrase, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction…” was undoubtedly meant to apply to the .454 Casull round. When we shot the Taurus Raging Bull, $820, the Ruger Super Redhawk, $745, and Freedom Arms’s $1,790 Premier Grade .454 single action, we learned you can’t just strap a Hogue grip onto a Howitzer and call it a handgun.

In sum, we found shooting all three of these guns to be painful and discouraging, and though we say one of these guns is good enough to buy, our overall recommendation would be not to buy any of them. If you need this much power in a handgun, then buy a rifle instead. Nevertheless, we know there’s a lot of curiosity about Casull handguns, so we shot them with both the shorter, less powerful .45 Long Colt cartridge as well as factory Casull warheads. Here’s what we found:

Range Session
With the recent experience of shooting .44 Magnum revolvers (GT December 1999) still fresh in our minds, we vowed a cautious approach to testing the even more powerful .454 Casull revolvers from Taurus, Ruger, and Freedom Arms. We called in for help from Ransom International, but were informed that machine-rest inserts were available for only the Ruger and Freedom Arms guns, not the Taurus Raging Bull.

Without a way to fire test groups for all three revolvers with the safety and precision of the Ransom Rest, we called upon firearms instructor and master gunsmith Ross Carter, former staff member at John Shaw’s Mid-South Institute of Self-Defense Shooting, for advice on shooting the Casulls comfortably and well. Carter suggested we shoot groups from the standing position using a stepladder and sandbag for support. This technique for teaching trigger control and sight alignment was developed some years ago as an intermediate step between firing from a bench rest and shooting unsupported groups standing. For our testing, we decided to shoot groups with the milder .45 Long Colt ammunition from a bench rest, but try this new technique when firing the ultra-hot Casull ammo. We were depending on the standing position to allow the recoil to dissipate through our arms, shoulders and entire body if necessary, rather than just our wrists and arms, which tend to be captured when seated at a bench.

Why these precautions? In terms of muzzle energy, the hottest .44 Magnum tested in our December issue registered 979 foot-pounds. The combination of Hornady’s 300-grain XTP-HP Custom .454 ammo and the Freedom Arms revolver made this seem puny, with a thunderous explosion of 1,750 foot-pounds. We anticipated vicious recoil, and we weren’t disappointed.

Our testers prepared for firing the Casull ammo by wearing PAST gloves on their shooting hands. This glove is heavily padded at the web, and we generally consider it to offer a high level of insulation from recoil. In fact, in some cases, we feel that the PAST glove is too heavy and may even disconnect the shooter from the gun. Gloves such as this are at their best where the backstrap of the gun in question is particularly narrow or unpadded.

With the Ruger Super Redhawk nestled between the rabbit ears of a sand-filled bag placed atop a stepladder, we were able to obtain a clear, steady sight picture on our target 25 yards downrange. Pulling back the hammer to enter single-action mode, we settled our sight picture and pressed the trigger. The shooter was rocked by hellatious recoil and muzzle blast. But like a fighter who has finally met his match, our test shooters vowed to keep getting up and take punches in five-shot clusters. One immediate conclusion we came to was that any benefit of the padded glove had been defeated instantly. Firing the Winchester 300-grain rounds made it seem like the Ruger Redhawk’s rubber and wood grip had somehow disappeared, exposing the steel frame. Switching to the Taurus after only one group, we tried Winchester’s 250-grain Casull bombs. Here, we found the lighter round, combined with the Taurus’s heavy underlug, porting, and special grip, made group shooting bearable. After the beating the Ruger dished out, shooting the Taurus was like being saved by the bell.

We stayed with the 250-grain round and moved on to the Freedom revolver. Here was another brutally humbling experience. With its round, cowboy-style backstrap, the sensation of catching a steel rod in the palm of the hand was exchanged for a violent upward wrenching that we felt all the way back to our shoulders. Finally, our shooters developed flinches, dashing any hope of delivering fair group-size comparisons. We left the range and called Ransom International to order inserts for the Ruger and Freedom Arms guns. We judged the Raging Bull to be comfortable enough to shoot without flinching, and our standing rest method was accurate enough to portray its grouping potential.

Then, with inserts in hand and the Ransom Rest bolted firmly to a steel-and-concrete-reinforced table, we began anew testing the Freedom and Ruger guns. When using a machine rest of this type, insert fit is critical for accurate results. We started off with the Long Colt ammo to settle the guns into the rest for a solid, consistent hold. After firing just a couple of rounds of the Winchester 300-grain Casull ammo from the Ruger, it became apparent that we didn’t want any part of touching the Ransom Rest either. To shoot a gun in the rest, one need only press a lever that makes contact with the trigger. Upon recoil, the gun axles upward against a hinge fortified by a coil spring that is tension adjustable. But the recoil of these guns dominated the hefty coil spring. To keep our fingers out of harm’s way, we used a lightweight tube to press the trigger lever.

But because of fouling, the trigger on the Super Redhawk required us to use two hands to set it: One to pull back the hammer and the other to spin the cylinder. If our finger were to slip off the hammer spur and release it on a live round, we would only have had a split second to wonder if there indeed was a hammer block to prevent ignition.

If the session with the Ruger was not harrowing enough, the Freedom gun’s turn in the vise spooked us even more. As we expected, it showed great promise with the 225-grain Winchester Silver Tip hollow point .45 Long Colt ammo. Switching to Hornady’s 300-grain Custom ammo, the design of the Freedom Arms gun caught up with it. While not substantially lighter overall than the other guns in the test, the barrel lacks an underlug, so only a minimum of mass is forward to counteract recoil. When we shot the gun in the rest, its rearward pitch was so violent it resonated the concrete-filled support table. We checked the group downrange after each shot and by the fourth round, we felt assured the Freedom Arms gun had settled into the rest. But when we tried to light up the fifth round, the hammer would not fall. Even prodding the hammer directly was to no avail.

Since we didn’t know at that point what was keeping the hammer back on a loaded chamber, we assumed there was no way of knowing why or when it would fall. Earlier we had noticed that the hammer would fall even with the loading gate open. Thankfully, we had some sturdy Velcro ties and were able to secure the hammer back by lashing it in front of the hammer, then underneath the grip just behind the trigger guard. We finally made the gun safe by prying loose the mainspring and removing it.

In comparison, our session with the Raging Bull was a relief. From a bench rest we managed a best group of 1.3 inches with the Long Colt round. Standing and shooting from our improvised rest, we broke the 2-inch barrier again with the 300-grain Winchester jacketed flatpoints. In fact, both the Long Colt and the Casull rounds from Winchester resulted in an average group size of 2.0 inches. The Hornady ammunition that proved so erratic in the Super Redhawk and so damaging to the FA gun shot groups that varied as little as 2.1 to 2.4 inches in the Taurus product.

It was these disparate experiences with the three guns that strongly colored our impressions of them, as we relate in more detail below.

Ruger Super Redhawk
Our recommendation: Marginal Buy. The Super Redhawk displayed very good accuracy at the lowest price of the three test guns, $745. If you intend to handload to avoid the cost crunch of the factory .454 Casull ammo or improve on the relatively mild Long Colt cartridge, this could be a good choice. Imperfections in the gun, such as cylinder bind, should be curable. But overall, the Taurus is a better choice, in our estimation.

Click here to view the Ruger Super Redhawk features guide

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Finished in what we like to refer to as gray flannel, the Super Redhawk is all business. The front sight is dovetailed into a rifle-style stanchion for strength and versatility. Ours came with a red insert that is to be viewed through a white-outlined rear sight. The rear sight is adjustable but the shooter is encouraged to add an optical sight by supplying not only scope rings but also slots in the topstrap that mate perfectly with these special rings. We get the impression that everyone thinks attaching a scope automatically brings a sight upgrade or, that mounting a scope properly is a slam-dunk proposition. The first time most people try it they fail miserably. Ruger makes it damn near foolproof with this system. First, the rings clamp onto the scope with 4 screws instead of two to limit deflection. Second, the rings are of two different sizes, making it obvious which should go in front. The on and off is easy and always the same. We mounted a Tasco World Class 2X22 for knocking over ram silhouettes at 100 yards. The Tasco held up better than any of our test shooters did under the stress of the Casull loads.

In the case of building a hunting handgun, the maker not only has to build in accuracy but the strength to endure its assigned cartridge. Ruger achieves this not only with solid lockup but also with an unfluted cylinder and overbuilt frame. In the case of building a gun for the Casull cartridge, we feel the gun should also be built help the shooter endure as well. The current model lacks an underlug or shroud. It is our opinion that additional weight up front would make the gun more comfortable to shoot. The grip is comfortable in the hand and serves well on the other Ruger revolvers, but we feel that it is too thin at the backstrap for the protection or comfort when firing a .454 Casull load. This is a unique caliber, and new components, such as special grips, are called for to make it viable.

Both the Taurus Raging Bull and the Ruger Super Redhawk are fitted with double- as well as single-action triggers. Certainly the Raging Bull was a more willing participant in rapid-fire games, since the Red–hawk soon complained of leading at the forcing cone and the cylinder had to be coaxed to the next chamber. Even when firing single action only, the mode in which all accuracy data was compiled, this problem recurred. We cleaned the forcing cone and the face of the cylinder with solvent and crocus cloth, and the problem disappeared. But, even when shooting jacketed ammunition, we saw that enough debris found its way into the cylinder gap to impair cycling. Also, the double-action trigger on the Ruger Redhawk, even when clean, was the heaviest we’ve measured to date—more than 18 pounds. In our opinion, this is unnaturally heavy, and the trigger likewise displayed a very notchy feel.

The single-action trigger is fine, but the double action is difficult. In all fairness, all large guns suffer from this for a variety of reasons. For one, the trigger is being asked to move not only a larger hammer but a larger cylinder as well. The hand that reaches through the breechface to contact the ratchets and stir the cylinder has a much longer travel with greater friction upon a larger ratchet. But as we noted elsewhere, there were other irritations. Dry firing the Super Redhawk gave us no indication of the real problem that cursed our test gun. After a very short firing session, the cylinder began to bind. We ruled out heat expansion as a cause when firing mild cowboy loads in .45 Long Colt. The soft lead soon coated the face of the cylinder and forcing cone, but even when we switched to fully jacketed bullets, this problem recurred. We cleaned the gun thoroughly and ran full-metal-jacket Casull ammunition through it to see if the heavy blast would provide a self-cleaning effect, but sooner or later the problem reappeared and required attention before the gun would operate properly.

Freedom Arms Premier Grade Model 83
Our recommendation: Don’t Buy. When it comes to corralling powerful loads such as the .454 Casull, the old-fashioned cowboy configuration of heavy frame and light barrel just doesn’t kill enough recoil for full-power work. The Premier Grade seems to cover the bases of fit, finish, and accuracy, but in our estimation, its durability and shooting comfort are as out of reach as its $1,790 price tag.

Click here to view the Freedom Arms Premier Grade Model 83 features guide

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In the April 1999 issue of Gun Tests, we tested a Freedom Arms Premier Grade revolver in .475 Linebaugh, some loads of which nosed out .454 Casull factory rounds in terms of muzzle energy. In this current test, the Hornady Custom 300-grain XTP-HP rounds proved stouter than all but one of the .475 Linebaugh rounds fired in the April test, and our conclusions then, as now, were that the powerful rounds challenged the limits of practicality. Freedom Arms, in fact, sells most of its .475 Linebaughs, and likely its Casulls, to Alaskans who need bear-stopping power in a portable package.

To familiarize ourselves with the action of each gun, we fired a succession of different loads in .45 Long Colt. Initially, the Freedom Arms Premier Grade Model 83 five-shot revolver displayed every characteristic we have come to expect from the little factory in Freedom, Wyoming. The trigger is single action only, and the gun’s fit and finish were impeccable. Testers remarked that both the dormant and cocked position of the trigger were nearly identical, and the trigger action was superb compared to the others. The gun’s point of aim was way off, however. At 25 yards groups clustered as much as 10 inches above the point of aim, even when the rear sight adjustment was used up. Perhaps the average shooter who is willing to spend $1,700 or more on a revolver would not think of using anything other than an optical scope, but we think this was an oversight. Why have iron sights that don’t work.

There does not seem to be much difference in the construction of the large-framed guns available from Freedom Arms, and overall, the company’s products have been very good in previous tests. But in the case of the really big bangers, like this Casull, we feel the Freedom’s basic design, a modernization of the cowboy gun, doesn’t cut it. Mainly, there is just not enough forward weight distribution to help with recoil. Would a heavy barrel or underlug shroud help? Definitely. Would porting? Yes, but without additional weight up front, it is our opinion that the blast would be louder than any reduction in lift could justify. One solution would be to add a compensator or rifle-type suppressor to the muzzle. Instead of removing material from the barrel and thereby lowering its weight, this could make use of expanding gases and ballast the front end as well. The end here is not just to protect or comfort the shooter, but to preserve the gun as well. Ours broke down in the Ransom Rest after firing some of the most powerful ammunition ever to be produced for a handgun.

In our estimation, either one of two factors could have caused the Freedom’s breakdown. For one, the rearward bias of mass in the basic design of the firearm makes it prone to muzzle flip. In the hand this can be modulated by letting the gun axis through the hand over the round-backed grip. Being trapped in the Ransom Rest, energy was stifled once it had pulsated through the form fitting synthetic insert and met sudden resistance at the end of the machine rest’s hinge-action. Whether or not it would have survived our test had we chose to continue shooting it by hand it is hard to say, but in some respects, the question is moot. The Model 83 gave our test staff a terrific beating, and we didn’t want to shoot it any more. In the end, this cannon may just have too little mass to protect itself, or its owner.

Taurus Raging Bull
Our recommendation: Buy It, if you must. Taurus has gone to great lengths to think out the consequences of firing outrageously strong ammunition, and the company built the Raging Bull accordingly. If you simply must have a double-action Howitzer, this $820 revolver is for you.

Click here to view the Taurus Raging Bull features guide

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The Raging Bull is the only gun in this test that we feel was any fun to shoot. Just look at it. While the FA gun is single action only and the Ruger, in our estimation, pays only lip service to double action because of its extremely heavy trigger pull, the Taurus Raging Bull happily invites rapid fire. There is room for improvement to the gun’s double action, but this is good news because unlike some designs, the Taurus revolvers respond very well to custom trigger work. That a revolver chambered for such a heavy cartridge should be produced with a double-action trigger (that the manufacturer actually expects its customers to take full advantage of) was a major source of doubt in 1998. Since then, Taurus added a second lockup at the crane that operates like the Dan Wesson design, to go along with the frame-mounted latch that operates like the Smith & Wesson design.

The Taurus was happy to comply in both single and double action but we were reminded of its weight and size each time we staged the trigger. All three guns handled the Long Colt ammo with little bother in regards to recoil. In fact, the compensated Taurus cried out for more muzzle flip just to keep the front sight afloat between shots.

No malfunctions occurred with this gun, and we could discern no change in lockup or cylinder gap over the test course. This gun features a vented but deeply shrouded barrel lug to add weight to the front end. This extra mass not only helps reduce muzzle flip and dampen recoil, but it protects the gun itself from the shock waves of full-power ammo, we found. While the barrel is listed as being over 8 inches long, the actual rifled area is closer to 7 inches. An expansion chamber topped with eight ports fills out the remaining length. The trigger span is particularly long on the Taurus, and there is nearly a full half-inch of rubber grip between the shooter’s hand and the rear of the frame. The back portion of the grip is a red insert of a slightly different compound. The rear sight is adjustable with a plain black blade, and the front sight is a marked improvement over what we are used to seeing on production guns. Instead of a red plastic insert on a ramp, we are treated to a straight patridge blade pinned tightly atop a stanchion—at last a serious target sight from Taurus. As we mentioned before this was the only gun in the test that made full power .454 Casull loads bearable, but the most fun we had was rapid-firing hot defense loads in .45 Long Colt. We were very comfortable keeping the front sight dancing at the end of the long sight radius. All that was missing was a sixth shot.

Gun Tests Recommends
Taurus Raging Bull, $820. Buy It, if you need to kill large things. Otherwise, pass on it. The Raging Bull is a well-thought-out accommodation for the .454 Casull cartridge or the hottest handloaded .45 Long Colts. Its double action is protected by double lockup, it has adequate heft distributed properly, and its porting and a large multiple-density grip makes the Bull comfortable enough to actually shoot.

Ruger Super Redhawk, $745. Marginal Buy. If you are more intent on loading very hot .45 Long Colts than full-power Casull ammo and you’re willing to settle for single action only, you might consider this gun. However, you may never be comfortable shooting full-power Casull loads with this gun, and we do not foresee the double-action trigger ever being anything but adequate, even after some custom work. We do, however, feel that the cylinder drag is curable by increasing the cylinder gap, without producing a dangerous level of side blast. The scope mount is a welcome plus, but it was the Super Redhawk’s accuracy that gave it just enough juice to tilt our judgment in favor of some sort of a buy recommendation.

Freedom Arms Premier Grade Model 83, $1,790. This gun malfunctioned during testing and was uncomfortable to shoot. It’s expensive to boot. Don’t Buy It.