Classic Cartridges: The .44 Special

The .44 Special cartridge is the result of cartridge evolution initiated by Smith & Wesson. It actually began with the .44 Russian cartridge, which drove a 246 gr. Bullet at about 750fps. Smith & Wesson wanted to develop a similar cartridge that would make use of the relatively new smokeless powder, which seemed to be the wave of the future. Accordingly, S&W lengthened the .44 Russian cartridge, slightly, and began calling it the .44 Smith & Wesson Special. The .44 Special, as we know it today, was first introduced in 1907.

Sadly, Smith & Wesson did not see fit to improve the performance of this new cartridge, retaining the same 246 gr. Bullet and driving it at 750fps. We’ll never really know why this happened because the cartridge is capable of handling much higher pressures and velocities. It wasn’t long before a loose-knit organization, called The .44 Associates, began to circulate a newsletter, sharing improved handloads for the .44 Special.

Gun writer Elmer Keith had been working primarily with the .45 Colt cartridge, however he decided to see just what this .44 Special was capable of. Keith designed the great SWC bullet that came to be known as the Lyman #429421, and generally weighed in at 250 grains. Using N-frame Smith & Wesson revolvers as the test vehicle, Keith soon settled on a handload that sped this hard-cast bullet along at some 1250fps. Mr. Keith really did not come up with the idea of a .44 Magnum. He was just trying to get the ammo companies to manufacture a .44 Special factory load that would duplicate his handloads.

The ammo companies, however, were really worried about what would happen to some of the older handguns with this new high-pressure .44 load. Accordingly, they decided to lengthen the cartridge, once again, and manufacture a new revolver that would handle it. In this manner, through the cooperation between Remington and Smith & Wesson, the .44 Magnum was born. Rightfully so, they gave Elmer Keith credit for the idea and saw to it that one of the first .44 Magnum revolvers was presented to him.

While small-frame .44 Special revolvers should only be used with appropriate factory ammunition, the Colt Single Action, the Ruger Blackhawk, and N-frame Smith & Wesson revolvers can all handle more velocity and pressure, thus increasing their performance and usefulness.

RCBS offers their #250K mold, which is a pretty darned faithful rendering of Mr. Keith’s original bullet. This is my favorite in .44 Special. And the old cartridge really shines when you drive that bullet to 900-950fps in the appropriate revolvers. Unique and Hodgdon’s Universal Clays are the powders to use in this regard.

Fortunately, for those who don’t handload, you can find .44 Special ammunition in this performance range from DoubleTap Ammunition and Buffalo Bore Ammunition, to name a few.

The .44 Special, with a 250 grain hard-cast bullet at 950fps, is generally quite accurate in all decent revolvers. In addition, it works quite well as a personal defense load and general outdoor load. I’ve matched it against whitetail deer, mule deer, and feral hogs, with great results. I’ve taken my share of Rio Grande turkey, javalina, and coyotes, with it, too.

The .44 Special cartridge is still around because it is extremely useful, extremely accurate. It’s a game getter and a fight stopper. The .44 Special is truly special.

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9 Responses to Classic Cartridges: The .44 Special

  1. Alfred Sauve says:

    Smith made a batch of stainless revolvers in 1985-86, based on the N-frame 629. They shortened the cylinder so it would only accept .44 Special. These were model 624s. Only around 7,500 or so were made. Sweet guns. Initially made as “target” guns with 6″ barrels, they made some with shorter barrels for “trail” use. They’re still available at used gun stores and auction sites very reasonably. I sold mine recently only cause I fell head over heels for some 629s and didn’t want to bother loading both cartridges.

  2. Jim Wilson says:

    I’ve always preferred the single actions (Colt & Ruger), but S&W has always built very good .44 Special DA revolvers.

  3. matthew yeager says:

    the first handgun i bought for myself was a lipsey’s 44 special blackhawk. it now wears a set of american holly grips and a power custom bisley hammer/blackhawk trigger set. it shoots good and has enough power for most sane applications. because of you and some of your colleagues, i am a 44 special fanatic and like it better than the magnum.

  4. E. Coffey says:

    30years of 44 mag and reading Skeeter stories, I finally got my Ruger Flat Top 44 Spl. Haven’t seen the need for the magnum since for my usage, not that there is not a need for the magnum. But hogs and coyotes and other critters seem to be just as susceptible to the special and I can relish shooting with no concern of my hand letting me know it appreciates the special’s recoil also.

  5. Scott Rupp says:

    I have a 5-inch 629, and I’m ready to start loading Specials: 180-gr. XTPs with Bullseye, going for that 900 fps level. Should be perfect.

  6. Appreciate the article. I have a load, I think Skeeter Skelton wrote about, that pushes a 240 g hard lead cast bullet at 1,000 fps that is a pure joy to shoot in my S&W revolver. Also have Colt SAA in 44 that has special sentimental value.

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  8. Michael says:

    I don’t think it was an arbitrary decision by Elmer to see what could be done with .44 special. In fact he was having trouble hot rodding the .45 because of the balloon head cases. The stamped cases of the .44 were much stronger.

  9. Hank says:

    A good .44 Special sixgun and a worn leather belt rig have a heart and soul all their own.

    I’m a huge fan of .44 Special sixguns. I’ve managed to aquire a few nice Colts over the years, a couple short barrel Smith & Wesson, and I picked up the Ruger Flattop as soon as it was released. Reading the writings of Elmer Keith, Skeeter Skelton, and yourself has no doubt led me to this affinity. If I could have only one load in one caliber it would be Skeeter’s favorite .44 Special load of 7.5 grains Unique under a Keith 250 grain slug.

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