Reloading the .44 Special
April 03, 2011
The .44 Special is often ranked as one of the best revolver cartridges of all time. It's superbly accurate and extremely versatile when handloaded to any of several power levels for plinking, personal defense or hunting.
The Special's inherent accuracy stems from a previous design. In 1870 Smith & Wesson developed the .44 Russian for its military revolver made for the Imperial Russian army, and a civilian model followed in 1878. The .44 Russian proved very accurate, and it didn't take long for savvy target shooters of the day to realize its potential.
This was the dawn of the smokeless era, and with it came some problems. The Russian case is but .970 inch in length and just couldn't hold enough of the bulky new powder to achieve the desired velocities, so in 1907 Smith & Wesson lengthened the older case by .190 inch and a star was born.
Target shooters flocked to the .44 Special. Although the new S&W large-frame Hand Ejector revolvers of 1908 were fully capable of handling stiffer loads, the Special was never factory loaded to its full potential. It was left to handloaders to fill the power vacuum.
Experimenters such as Elmer Keith proved that a heavily loaded .44 Special was very effective on big game. Keith pestered the ammo companies to bring out heavier .44 Special loads, but there was a fear that such powerful loads would blow up an older, weaker revolver. But in 1956 Keith's efforts culminated in the introduction of the .44 Magnum.
Our test guns this month are both S&Ws: a blue M24-3 made in 1983 and a stainless M624 from 1986. Both are N-frames with trim 6½-inch barrels. I used the M24 for jacketed bullet loads and the M624 with cast bullets. Since many shooters shoot Specials in their .44 Mags for practice and plinking, I also chronographed some representative Special loads in a six-inch M29-3.
Reloading the .44 Special is an uncomplicated delight. Dies are made by virtually everybody, and for years they have been configured to accommodate both Special as well as Magnum cases with minor die adjustments. The difference in Special and Magnum case lengths is .125 inch, and Redding includes a washer of that thickness to use under the die lock ring that makes switching calibers easier. Cases for the .44 Special are straight-walled, so carbide sizers further streamline the loading process. An occasional trip through the case trimmer will result in more uniform crimps — a big part of consistent ballistics — and better accuracy. A healthy roll crimp is recommended.
Suitable powders for the .44 Special run the gamut of burning rates, depending on the bullet weight and velocities desired, but one stands out, and it is well known to the round's legion of fans. Several years ago, a prominent gun magazine asked readers what their favorite powder was for reloading the .44 Special. The overwhelming answer in the avalanche of replies was "Red Dot!" I can't agree more. A charge of 5.5 to 6.5 grains of Red Dot with just about any decent bullet — jacketed or cast — almost always results in adequate velocity, uniform ballistics and terrific accuracy. For several years I used the M624 in IPSC-type matches, and my ammo was all powered by Red Dot.
Powder charges used in the .44 Special case seldom require magnum primers, although they are frequently recommended with ball or spherical powders. I used CCI-350 magnum primers with HS-6 and Silhouette powders, but regular primers would work just as well.
An excellent assortment of expanding jacketed bullets is available in .44 caliber these days. The 180-grain hollowpoints from Sierra and Hornady offer reliable expansion, and Speer offers a 200-grain "personal protection" version of its Gold Dot Hollow Point specially designed for the .44 Special. Red Dot, Green Dot and Blue Dot shotgun powders, and HS-6 and Unique excel with these lighter bullets. Hornady's new 225-grain Flex Tip eXpanding bullet borrows technology from the company's popular rifle ammo and is a good midweight hunting bullet. A charge of 9.5 grains of Blue Dot produced 880 fps and consistent accuracy with the FTX.
Although it's a bit longer than the hollowpoints, loads with it fit comfortably in the S&W's cylinders.
The traditional .44-caliber bullet weight is 240 grains, and here we have several proven performers. The Hornady XTP, Sierra JHC, Speer GDHP and Nosler JHP and JSP versions are all suitable for the .44 Special. Just stick to near-maximum loads to keep up the velocity and ensure adequate expansion. HS-6 and Blue Dot are excellent choices for such applications. Bullets as heavy as 300 grains are available, but it's difficult to get enough velocity out of the Special case to make them useful.
Before the readership has a collective coronary, let me quickly point out that the .44 Special can live happily ever after on a steady diet of ammo loaded with quality cast bullets. A good, hard 240-grain semi-wadcutter at close to 1,000 fps will take deer, elk and black bear. With 5.5 to 6.0 grains of Red Dot, that same bullet does yeoman service in target loads, too. All of the cast bullets shown in the load table were obtained from a local commercial caster and had a Brinell Hardness Number of 15 (the same as Lyman No. 2 alloy), and no leading was noted.
Cowboy Action has recently given the .44 Special a shot in the arm, and the lighter cast bullets further broaden the Special's appeal. A popular Cowboy bullet is the 200-grain RNFP. My favorite load with this bullet is 7.5 grains of TiteGroup for a modest velocity of 745 fps, light recoil and one-hole groups. Charges less than those shown are not recommended, however, as there is the very real danger of sticking a bullet in the barrel.
For defense purposes, a lighter 180- or 200-grain HP bullet makes sense. Either weight can be driven over 1,000 fps and provide about all the power that can be comfortably housed in a medium-weight revolver. The 240-grain cast bullet loads shown also offer potent protection.
Fortunately, S&W has recently reincarnated the M24 in its Classics series. It is a faithful rendition of the original and should quicken the pulse of .44 Special fans everywhere.
Whether it's punching paper, whacking steel, hunting or protecting what's yours, the .44 Special makes a lot of sense. If you think I'm an unabashed fan of the old round, you're right. For more than 100 years it has served the shooting public, the military and handgun hunters with distinction. Let us hope that for the next century, the grand old .44 Special continues to make as many shooters happy as it already has.