S&W Model 329 .44 Mag.
I’ll say it right up front: According to the S&W website, the .44 Magnum Night Guard is no longer in production. However, not only were they still available when we started this project, you can still find them at places like www.gunbroker.com and even your local gun store at times. Having said that, the real reason we did this project was to showcase the out-of-the-ordinary custom work Mag-Na-Port has become famous for doing. So keep in mind, you could apply the sorts of custom work featured here to any revolver. Be creative with your dreams. I just happened to like the concept of a lightweight, big-bore revolver.
And, if you ask me, I wasn’t wrong about that idea, especially after Ken Kelly at Mag-Na-Port was finished with his magic.
Buffalo Bore’s .44 Special Anti-Personnel load (a 200-gr. full wadcutter
at 890 fps) shot into 2″ at 20 yards from the 2.5″ barrel. Roy said it will
probably be his daily carry load.
A 4″ Bowen Custom Arms Model 29 at top, the Mag-Na-Port Model 329
in the center and a classic J-frame Model 36 below for size. While the 329
isn’t as convenient as a J-frame, it does offer .44- caliber stopping power in a
relatively compact package.
There’s something comforting about the .44 caliber in a handgun. Like a 1911 in .45 ACP, it makes you feel confident you’re prepared for whatever may occur — even if it’s not exactly true in the real world. But there’s something to say for a confident feeling, so when I first saw the short-barreled .44 Magnum Night Guard series from S&W, I ordered one. And like many things in life, it needed a bit of improvement to meet what my idea of a “perfect” smallish, big bore should be. I know it’s a bit of an oxymoron (small, big bore?), but next to a 6.5″ all-steel Model 29, this one is darn near svelte.
I found the front XS Tritium 24/7 sight perfectly good for personal protection, but being a bit old school (and since this was going to be more of a field gun for me) I wanted a day-glow green ramped front, to match up with the very cool “fixed” rear Cylinder & Slide sight. If you have an adjustable rear on your S&W, you can order one of these from the Cylinder & Slide shop to replace it. It gives you a “fixed” sight that’s tough as an old goat.
I also like a smooth-faced polished trigger, felt an action job was in order, and bet when shooting lighter, higher velocity .44 magnum loads Mag-Na-Port’s legendary porting would help to contain things. And, being an old-school sort of guy, I’ve always like the way good old fashioned hard chrome looks and wanted a touch of that on the Night Guard.
The .44 Specials proved to be comfortable to shoot in the lightweight
Scandium gun, while most of the heavy .44 Magnum loads really
rocked the boat.
Purdy Gear’s custom “rough-out” field rig —
called The Spartacus — has a few added features like
the tooled stiffener sections and plated hardware. A practical
and elegant rig for a practical and elegant revolver.
Ken Kelly runs the shop at Mag-Na-Port and is an amazingly talented custom pistolsmith (rifles and shotguns too, by the way). Mag-Na-Port has come up with some signature “looks” over the years and the idea of a 2-tone gun, with interesting highlights is right up their alley.
“Roy, I love this idea!” said Ken on the phone. “We’ll hard chrome any bits we can, do a bead blast of the stainless steel cylinder so it looks like it’s hard chromed, slick the action, port it, and I imagine I’ll come up with a few other touches just to make it fun. Oh, we’ll have to definitely polish and jewel the hammer and trigger while we’re at it!” he laughed.
I hate being that transparent, but he was right about the jewelling part.
“Can you do something with the boring-black frame finish?” I asked.
“You bet, I’ve got access to some great colors, so what color do you want?” asked Ken.
At this point, I did what I like to do and simply said, “Ken, you’re the expert, make it whatever color you think works. I told him this was going to be a field gun for me, something I’d wear on the tractor, working in the woods, to have when deer hunting, simply an all-around big-bore sixgun as near to what our own John Taffin calls a “Perfect Packin’ Pistol” as I could think of.
“Leave it up to me,” he said. I think I could hear him smiling on the phone.
Just because the barrel says “.44 Magnum” doesn’t mean you need
to shoot heavy loads. Roy found the2-tone finish to be appealing.
While we’ve explored the concept of big-bore, short-barreled revolvers before, I think when you chamber one of the lightweight guns in a caliber like .44 Special/Magnum, .41 Magnum, .45 Colt, even .45 ACP loaded correctly, it makes them much more carry-friendly than the same model in steel. You go from 39 ounces in stainless, to only 29 in Scandium. That adds up fast on your hip or in your pocket. Guess what gun I take when I feed chickens, check gates or mow pastures these days?
Since moving to the country, I’ve found the CCI shot cartridges to be very useful. From field rats to snakes and sneaky squirrels on the patio, they make it easier to hit than even trying to use a .22 at times. Plus, you don’t get the “carry” of a bullet, so taking a close shot at a squirrel on a branch is safe. And, I’ve found the .38-caliber shot rounds simply don’t have the thump of the .44/.45 Colt versions. A .38 shot cartridge can work, but the bigger one simply shreds a venomous snake, and knocks Mr. Squirrel clean off the patio.
Where we live, wild boars are coming up from Arkansas and some have been seen as close as just a few miles. They travel along the rivers from what I understand, and we have plenty of those in Missouri. The Department of Natural Resources here have billboards saying, “Shoot On Sight And Report The Location” regarding wild boars. They are simply so destructive you can’t let them get a hold. Also, we only recently had a cougar sighting just a half-mile from our land here. So (not counting any 2-legged miscreants who might cause trouble) having a big-bore revolver, loaded correctly, makes sense.
The rugged fixed rear sight, action job and other custom
touches makes it something special.
The Final Result
Once the gun came back from Mag-Na-Port it proved I had made a good decision to go with their shop. And, while it was surprising at first, the sort of OD green finish (a baked-on type) grew on me fast. It looked serious and capable, and right at home in the woods or riding an ATV. The bead-blast finish on the stainless steel cylinder matched the hard chrome on the screws and cylinder release, and while you may or may not agree, I think the jewelling and high polish of the hammer and trigger act like a bit of lipstick on a pretty lady.
Ken did a great action job, the wood grips from Ahrends felt good (Ahrends sent me two sets, hence the two slightly different colors in some pictures), and Ken’s porting and cosmetic cuts in the barrel were perfectly done. Ken also installed a bright-green front sight to help my aged eyes.
I’m a sucker for a crossdraw field rig, and since I had one I’ve been using from Purdy Gear, I reached out to Karla again for one to fit this gun, asking for something a bit lighter and more utilitarian since it would likely live hard. In the spirit of ruggedness, I had asked for a “rough-out” leather look and a simple 6-cartridge loop setup. What she sent was certainly lightweight, but to call it utilitarian would be silly.
“I just can’t do utilitarian,” Karla confessed to me when I chatted with her about the holster. “You’ll take what I send you.” And I did.
Karla said she experimented with a slight polish or smoothing of the rough-out leather, and the added tooling on the stiffening piece on the holster and cartridge belt was just something I’d have to get used to she said. To keep things interesting, Karla asked Robbie Barrkman of Robar to coat the buckle and hardware on the belt with his Poly T2 Teflon polymer finish in a color matching the gun. A nice touch, and it takes the bling factor down a notch for a field rig.
Mag-Na-Ports patented porting system did help to tame muzzle flip.
Note the high visibility bright green front sight and additional lightening
cuts made by Mag-Na-Port on the 329’s barrel shroud.
I had talked about how versatile the .44 is in a recent Insider column (“Those Fabulous .44s,” July/Aug 2012) where I shot a cross-section of loads through different barrel lengths, including a rifle. Grab that issue (or go online to our digital editions) and give it a read if you like. What I mostly learned then (I used the Mag-Na-Port gun during the tests since I had just received it), was how versatile the .44 caliber truly is. From low-level .44 Special cowboy-type loads from Black Hills, to hot .44 Magnum loads from Cor-Bon and others, you can pretty much tailor the ammo to meet your needs.
I also think I’ll mostly be carrying .44 Special loads. The Buffalo Bore Anti-Personnel .44 Special load (a 200 gr. hard cast lead wadcutter) would be hard to beat in this revolver. It delivered around 890 fps from the 2.5″ barrel and was very controllable and accurate. Check out the 2″ group at 20 yards in the picture. What a great defensive, or even ranch load.
If we do start seeing hogs though, I’ll likely move up to the Black Hills 240 JHP .44 Magnum. It chronographed at an honest 1,045 from the short barrel, and unlike some other magnum loads I shot, didn’t beat me to death with recoil and muzzleblast. Still, you’d never want to shoot anything out of this gun unless you had hearing protection on, unless it’s a real emergency.
Mag-Na-Port turned a plain-Jane S&W Night Guard black revolver
into something special. Roy felt the baked-on finish and 2-tone look
makes it stand out.
Build Your Own
This came together better than I could have hoped for. The final modifications make practical sense and look good too. Karla’s holster and belt set make carrying the .44 a breeze, and it rides on a peg just as I step into the garage, making it a snap to strap on. I was once confronted by a feral dog by the chicken coop and I reached for the gun I always had in my pocket — and realized I didn’t have it. A handy rake shooed him off, but I vowed never to have that happen again. And now it won’t.
By Roy Huntington