In defense of the .44 - it's still special!

Originally published at: IN DEFENSE OF THE .44 – IT’S STILL SPECIAL! – SIXGUNS

Quite often

something I write sparks an interest in a reader who wants to share his special

handgun or experience with me. Having found long ago that I can learn much from

the readers of this magazine, I always read these letters with great interest

and endeavor to answer every letter I receive. Many of the inquiries I get ask

about a particular gun that the reader happens to own. This past winter I

received such a correspondence from a reader in the deep south who wanted to

know about a sixgun in his possession.

The caliber was
.44, he wrote, the finish was nickel with a blue barrel, 5 1/2" in length,
and cylinder; the grips were one piece ivory. He identified the .44 as a Colt
Single Action, provided the serial number, and also the added information that
the barrel was inscribed "COLT FRONTIER SIX-SHOOTER (BISLEY MODEL)."
From the serial number I was able to ascertain that the Colt was a Second
Generation Single Action Army manufactured in 1960, which I relayed to him along
with the question as to whether the caliber was .44 Special or .44-40 as the
barrel was a .44-40 barrel from a Colt Bisley Model that had not been made since
1912. "Obviously you have a half-breed, part Single Action and part
Bisley."

A return letter and
subsequent phone call revealed that the sixgun in question was indeed a .44
Special which is not so strange as Colt Single Action .44 Special barrels are
the same groove diameter as .44-40 barrels. Of even more interest was that the
gun was for sale or trade. Arrangements were made dealer-to-dealer to have the
Colt Bisley/Single Action shipped to me for inspection and shooting. The sixgun
was a good news/bad news proposition. The good news was that it shot nice little
groups right to point of aim, and the grips were beautifully grained and creamy
colored ivory. The bad news was that the grips, of the one-piece style
consisting of two grip halves with a spacer glued in between, came apart in my
hand when it was shot, and also the front sight was the worst example I had ever
seen. It had started out correctly and then someone really messed it up in
spades.

When the Bisley
barrel was installed on the Single Action, a sight base was attached, cut with a
slot parallel to the barrel, and then a blade front sight was pinned in place.
So far so good. However, it did not shoot to point of aim but way to the left. I
realize this from what was then done to the front sight. Someone, who hopefully
will always remain unknown, then proceeded to bend, or rather push over the
front blade to the left until the blade itself was resting on the left side of
the base. An ugly looking thing to be sure BUT it now shot to point of aim. The
simple way, of course, was to turn the barrel in enough to bring the sight to
the proper position.

The front sight
would have to be replaced while the grips could be easily re-glued. It was a
Colt Single Action, it was a .44 Special, and it was equipped with gorgeous
ivory stocks. It was worth trading for. I had just been to a gun shop the day
before and remembered that the showcase contained a Colt Gold Cup Stainless
Steel .45 ACP, one of the pair of guns wanted in trade for the Single Action/
Bisley. A deal was struck, the second gun, a Ruger Stainless Steel Bisley
Vaquero .45 was ordered and I had a new, to me, .44 Special.

Being unable to
abide that obscenity of a front sight, the .44 Special was promptly sent off to
Peacemaker Specialists with some sample loads that I intended to use in the .44
Special, namely 250 grain cast bullets over 7.5 grains of Unique, with the
instructions to replace the front sight with a First Generation style Colt
Single Action front sight as would have been originally found on the Bisley
barrel.

I had also
dismantled the Colt and found the full cock notch on the hammer was nearly worn
through so Eddie Janis of Peacemaker Specialists was also instructed to rebuild
the hammer notches, tighten everything up, and also smooth out the action. Janis
had recently expertly rebuilt a First Generation Colt Single Action to a 7
1/2" .44 Special (See American Handgunner May/June 1998).

A few anxious
months passed until UPS delivered my "new" Colt perfectly timed. With
file in hand I removed enough metal from the top of the front sight to bring my
loads to point of aim in my hands and with my eyes at 25 yards. The .44 was then
returned to Janis to re-blue the barrel and cylinder. Ten days later it was back
in my hands and ready for a long shooting life. Almost.

One last step
remained. The Colt and ivory grips were turned over to friend Tony Kojis who
re-glued the grips, and also matched them perfectly to the frame. I had a great
new .44 Special Single Action Army. It would be fed a steady diet of 250 grain
bullets, from Lyman (#429421), RCBS (#44-250KT), or NEI (#429.260) molds that
dropped Keith’s original design, over 7.5 grains of Unique for right at 900 fps.
This load will handle the vast majority of duties, in fact most of what I want a
sixgun cartridge to do.

With the trading
stock and work performed I had spent about what a new Colt Single Action Army
would cost, however, I also had one-piece ivories, an action job, and best of
all, the .44 Special chambering that Colt no longer offers. I thought to myself,
"God’s In His Heaven, All’s Right With The World!" Well at least my
little part of it.

And then it
happened. Coming back from Alaska and faced with a four hour bus ride from
Vancouver BC to Seattle and then a four hour wait for the plane, I picked up a
copy of one of our friendly competitor’s magazines. I didn’t read the cover or
table of contents. I just purchased reading material to replace the western
novels I had been feasting upon. Jeff Cooper has often said in so many words
that we live in the rudest, crudest, most obnoxious society ever. And there on
the cover of his magazine, rather the magazine his writings regularly appear in,
was a grand example of what he has been talking about.

One of my pet
peeves as a writer is the hype often found on magazine covers along with the
captions that often do not mate with the pictures found in the articles
published. Writers have no control over this. It happens regularly in all
magazines, my magazine included, but what I saw on the cover caused my heart to
skip several beats and not with joy. There in all its rude, crude, obnoxious,
and terribly bad taste form were bright, bold letters proclaiming "SCREW
THE .44 SPECIAL"!!!!

Now the author of
the piece, entitled "Not So Special Anymore", found inside the covers
was a man I have great deal of respect for. Wiley Clapp and I are about the same
age, must have grown up around the same time, read the same gun literature, as
we always seem to understand each other. I consider him a friend, a most
knowledgeable and excellent writer when it comes to many of the things that I
hold dear. To his credit he did not write the words found on the cover, he was
probably as upset by it as I was, but he did attack something I hold nearly as
dear as Mom, Apple Pie, and the Flag, namely the .44 Special.

By the time I had
arrived at home, the phone calls and e-mail had already started. "John,
what are you going to do about this?" I think they expected me to challenge
Wiley to a duel! Well, Wiley is still a friend, I still respect his knowledge,
and the vast majority of his taste in guns, but I can’t let his deep sixing of
the .44 Special pass unchallenged.

Wiley you said of
Elmer Keith, quote: "I have a pretty good collection of period gun
literature, and I can’t find anything Keith wrote that was particularly
favorable to the .44 Special after 1956. Once he got that first .44 Magnum (
Wiley, he actually got the second one, Major Hatcher received Number One), he
never looked back." Oh, really! Let’s see. These sound pretty favorable to
me!

Elmer Keith May
1962: "I have a pair of four-inch .44 Special S&W 1950 Target guns, and
both are sighted for 18.5 grains of 2400 and my heavy 250-grain slugs or the
235-grain hollow-point. Both guns will also hit regularly at 50 to 60 yards with
factory .44 Special loads. I have found no other sixgun cartridge which will do
this with both light and very powerful, high velocity loads. I wish the .44
Magnum would do the same thing
." Italics mine. I should also point out
to the readers that Keith’s load mentioned here for the .44 Special was
assembled with old style balloon head brass that had a larger case capacity than
modern solid head brass. This load is way too heavy for use in modern brass.

Elmer Keith August
1973. Speaking of Handguns For Peace Officers, Keith says: "In conclusion,
I would like to see all officers carry .41 or .44 Magnums, .45 Auto or .45
Colts, or heavy-loaded .44 Specials."

Elmer Keith June
1974: "…if my 250-grain bullet was loaded in a .44 Special case with 5
grains of Bulls-eye or 7 grains of Unique, it would be a far more effective
man-stopper than even the best loads from the .357 Magnum….Even with light
factory loads of 246-grains at 750 fps, I would prefer the .44 Special to any
and all .38 calibers or 9mm autos, and if properly handloaded with my 250-grain
bullet, it would badly beat any .357 load as well."

In the beginning of
your article you used the words "Before we get into my reasons for condemning
the grand old round…" Again, italics mine. Wiley I don’t think your heart
was really into condemning as you pointed out so many good things about the .44
Special and the guns built to house it. "Undeniably the Special is a
wonderfully popular cartridge that reeks of the late frontier period, as well as
one that bears the imprimatur of Keith and Skelton." Why in the world would
anyone want to condemn such a cartridge? If the First Lady can connect with
Eleanor in the White House, I can certainly connect with Elmer Keith and Skeeter
Skelton every time I fire a Colt Single Action or Smith & Wesson 1950 Target
chambered for, you guessed it, the .44 Special. What loads do I use? Keith’s 250
grain bullet over 17.0 grains of #2400 in modern brass, or 18.5 grains in the
good supply of balloon head brass I have, or Skeeter’s favorite 7.5 grains of
Unique with the same bullet. The former loads do 1100 to 1200 fps while
Skeeter’s is a more sedate and user friendly 900-950 fps.

Skeeter and Elmer
were the best. There never has been any other gunwriter either before or since
that could stimulate interest in fine sixguns and cartridges as they could. Yes,
Elmer pretty much retired his .44 Specials after the advent of the .44 Magnum in
1956. However, Skeeter, who arrived on the gun writing scene long after the .44
Magnum had been established, tried the .44 Magnum and found the .44 Special
better for his needs for everything except possibly big game hunting. I prefer
the .44 Magnum over the .44 Special for many of my hunting endeavors but not all
of them. My hunting load in the .44 Special uses the Speer 225 grain jacketed
hollow point, the old style with a copper cup and a lead core, at 1150 fps. I
have little patience in any other part of my life but I am a patient hunter and
will only take my shot which is normally a standing broadside shot on deer-sized
game. The .44 Special hunting load performs just fine.

You also said;
"Another run of Colts and/or S&Ws would doubtless sell once
again…" Of course they would! Probably in record numbers. Remember when
we sat together in a Colt meeting at a SHOT Show a few years ago and could not
believe that Colt would not even consider the return of the .44 Special in a
Single Action Army. It didn’t make sense then and still doesn’t. At the last
local gun show I saw a Third Generation 7 1/2" .44 Special Colt Single
Action Army for sale for only $1450! Fortunately for us .44 Special lovers,
Third Generation New Frontiers in .44 Special can be picked up for about
one-half of this amount and Smith & Wesson Models 24 and 624 can be found
for considerably less than the New Frontiers.

Those that love the
.44 Special have hard time in life as they are not easy to find. After four
decades of shooting the Special, I just recently found my first affordable New
Service .44 Special. In addition to the above mentioned Colt and Smith &
Wessons, you have correctly pointed out that replica single actions are now
available. I have extensively tested examples from Cimarron, EMF, and USFA and
they are all good shooting sixguns. The USFA example also comes marked on the
side of the barrel with the old Colt marking of "RUSSIAN AND S&W
SPECIAL 44".

The easiest way to
get a .great 44 Special these days is to start with a Ruger Flat-Top or Three
Screw (Old Model) .357 Blackhawk or S&W Highway Patrolman .357 and have them
expertly converted to .44 Special by such as Hamilton Bowen, Andy Horvath, or
David Clements. The Ruger especially makes into a lightweight, nearly
indestructible, extremely easy packin’ sixgun. Loaded with 250 grain bullets at
900+ fps it is also both pleasant to shoot and powerful enough for most
situations. You even said "Personally, I’d like to see a stainless steel
Model 21 (Model 621), the fixed sighted N-frame chambered for the .44
Special." To this I say Yeah and Amen, but why would you want one if you
wish to condemn the .44 Special? A sixgun such as you mention would make a
wonderful packin’ pistol even if chambered in the .44 Special.

You have also put
forth for one of your reasons to get rid of the .44 Special the statement that
"factory ammunition is woefully underpowered and inaccurate." But
Wiley you only tested it in one sixgun with a three-inch barrel! I’ve done
extensive testing of all the factory loads as well as thousands of handloads for
all the calibers used in Cowboy Action shooting from the .38 Long Colt through
the .45 Colt including the .44 Special. The results are in the accompanying
chart. Inaccurate? Not hardly. More than adequate for Cowboy Shooting and notice
also that most of these loads have more muzzle energy than the highly rated .40
S&W.

You might also be
interested to know that Winchester’s old round-nose factory load cuts one hole
groups in my 6 1/2" Smith & Wesson Model 24 .44 Special. The only other
load that will do that in this particular sixgun is Keith’s load of 17 grains of
#2400 under a 250 grain cast bullet.

"Another fault
of the .44 Special is its lack of ability to do what the .44 Magnum does; the
longer cartridge is way ahead of the game." I’ll give you the latter but
not the former. Of course the .44 Magnum is way ahead in factory loadings. But
guess what? Some of the most popular .44 Magnum loadings are the mid-range loads
that propel a 250 grain bullet at 1100 to 1200 fps or exactly what Keith’s old
heavy loaded .44 Special does. In fact, one of my favorite .44 Magnum loads for
use in my older Smiths and Rugers is Keith’s bullet over 10 grains of Unique in
Magnum brass for 1150 fps. Sound familiar? Its a heavy .44 Special equivalent!

Now as to your
former statement. How can you condemn the .44 Special because it can’t do what
the .44 Magnum does? The .44 Magnum is a wonderful cartridge but does it make
the .44 Special any less of a great cartridge? I think not! I would also remind
you that neither one of us can do what we used to and a lot of men can outdo us
BUT we are a long way from being ready to be condemned to the bone pile!

Most of your
argument against the .44 Special is the lack of factory ammunition available.
Don’t blame the cartridge for this. I would remind you that this has always been
so but there are more choices available today in .44 Special than ever. The lack
of factory ammunition has never kept the .44 Special from surviving simply
because it is the cartridge of the connoisseur. It comes to life when handloaded.
You even said this yourself. I have probably received more loading data on the
.44 Special from readers than any other cartridge. There are an awful lot of .44
Special lovers out there. I’m sure you will hear from many of them!

"I would like
to see the ammo makers produce a true .44 Special JHP heavy bullet that expands
immediately and violently yet drives some 14 or 15 inches into gelatin."
There comes your true feeling again. You don’t really want to condemn the .44
Special; you simply want it made better for defensive use. Perhaps this load is
already here. Check out Cor-Bon’s 180 grain load and Omega should have their .44
Special load ready by the time you read this.

You mentioned
several alternatives for the .44 Special. I would remind you that these are only
alternatives not replacements. The three you mentioned in sixgun chamberings,
the .45 ACP, the .41 Magnum, and the .357 Magnum are all great cartridges. There
is probably no better defense gun than the double action Smith & Wesson
chambered for the .45 ACP with the use of full moon clips. But only for
defensive use. It is simply not as versatile a combination as the same basic
sixgun chambered in .44 Special.

The .41 Magnum?
Remember when it was introduced and many said "What can it do that the .44
Special cannot do?" Is the .44 Special any less of a cartridge than it was
35 years ago? You are right about the .357 Magnum being the cartridge that would
probably supply the most Magnum needs. That is unless one is a fan of the .44
Special. When the .357 Magnum came along with a 158 grain bullet at 1500 fps the
.44 Special users tried it, yawned collectively, and went back to their .44’s
with a 250 grain bullet at 1200 fps.

Wiley, I’ll meet
with you at the next SHOT Show, buy you a coke, and then we will proceed
together to the Smith & Wesson booth to try to persuade Ken Jorgensen to
carry the torch for that Model 621. We may even go over to the Colt booth and
lobby for the return of the Single Action Army in .44 Special form. We don’t
have the pull of a Keith or Skelton, but they will at least listen to us.

Not So Special
Anymore? If not I’ve spent an awful lot of time and money putting together a
working collection of great shootin’, easy packin’ single action and double
action .44 Specials. Wiley, like faith, family, friends, and freedom, the .44
Special is worth fighting for. After 90+ years it is just as special, even more
so, than it ever was.

.44 SPECIAL FACTORY LOADS: FIVE SHOTS AT 50 FEET.

 

Colt SA 7 1/2"

Colt SA 5 1/2"

Colt SA 4 3/4"

LOAD

MV GROUP MV GROUP MV GROUP
Black Hills 210 774 1 5/8" 764 2 7/8" 720 1 3/4"
Black Hills 240 837 1 1/2"  797  1 1/4" 756   1 3/8"
Winchester 246RN 755  1 5/8"  720 1 1/4" 699 1
1/2"
Winchester 240  769 1 1/2" 735 1 7/8" 693  1"
Remington 246RN  778  7/8" 728 2 1/8"  703 2 1/4"
Federal 200  995  1 1/8" 909 2" 844 2"
3-D 200RN 771 1 5/8"  713 2 1/4" 684 1 1/8"

   

3 Likes

What a Great write up !! Love John’s articles.

That’s good as there will be a lot posted :hugs:

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Speaking of .44 Special, I sent this to NRA Publications recently:
“After reading the May 2024 AR Ruger article showcasing the Service Academy academic pedigrees of the past two Ruger presidents I thought I’d share a story of another Ruger president, related to my cadetship at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) over 50 years ago, while a third-classman and member of the intercollegiate rifle team. The team manager was a 1971 VMI grad, a student at Washington and Lee U Law School right across the parade ground, and himself a former rifle team member named Steve Sanetti. Steve was always an affable troop, great team manager, pleasant to be around, and we had many afternoons after formal practice shooting the Ruger Bearcat I brought with me from my home in New Jersey, and which I still have. When I saw Steve had become Bill Ruger’s heir apparent, I wrote him a letter of congratulations, and me being a devout disciple of St. Elmer Keith, I asked if the rumor of a reintroduced Blackhawk Flattop .44 Special were true? Steve wrote me a nice letter back, reminiscing on our time on the VMI rifle team and shooting the Bearcat - for which he offered the Ruger safety mod - and of the Flattop, he said, watch the catalog, one never knows. As I write this, beside me I have the letter, a prized and well-worn Blackhawk Flattop in .44 Special, and good memories of a fine gentleman, fellow gun enthusiast and brother VMI graduate.”

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I toured VMI was so super cool, seeing the rubberized raincoat General Thomas" Stonewall" Jackson was wearing and the bullet hole in it was something else. I live 0.9 mile from were Stonewall grew up on his Uncle Clint Jacksons farm.
Jackson Mills. Actually I still vote inside the mill complex in the Electric building they call it.

1 Like

Welcome, good share :+1:

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