Old West .44s

The Early Cartridge Era Spawned Many Different
.44 Chamberings, But Only A Few Are Loaded Today

Smith & Wesson’s main advantage over other Old West .44’s
was it ejected all cartridge cases simultaneously.

Both the Henry Rifle (top) and Winchester Model 1866 fired the
weak .44 Henry Rimfire, a cartridge easily adaptable to handguns.

While the .44 Winchester Centerfire (.44 WCF aka .44-40) most certainly was the ultimate .44 handgun cartridge of the Old West, it was far from being the only one. In fact, it is a paradox the most popular .44 handgun cartridge was actually developed for rifles and carbines. Besides Winchester, other manufacturers quickly adopted the .44-40 for their repeating rifles and carbines, but more significantly, handgun manufacturers did likewise.

Nonetheless, Colt, Smith & Wesson, Remington and Merwin & Hulbert also had proprietary .44’s. Some fizzled and some became world famous. The .44 genre actually began shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865. The Henry repeating rifle was followed by the Improved Henry in 1866, which quickly gained a name change to Winchester Model 1866. Its little .44 Henry Rimfire was a peedunkler by modern standards, but the newness of quick repeat shots ensured its success.

With a copper case, powder capacity of 28 grains and 218-gr. flatnose lead bullet, upon introduction circa 1862 the .44 Henry Rimfire was a natural handgun cartridge in fact if not in reality. It soon became a reality when gunsmiths began converting both Colt and Remington .44 cap-and-ball revolvers to fire .44 Henry in the late 1860s.

The first factory-produced handgun actually built around the .44 Henry appeared in 1870. Its introductory vehicle was Smith & Wesson’s first large frame, top-break sixgun named simply the Model No. 3. What Smith & Wesson hoped for were large government contracts but the U.S. Army’s ordnance officers did not want a rimfire cartridge. They urged Smith & Wesson’s engineers to return to the drawing board and bring them a sample No. 3 using a centerfire round.

Actually this was easy for the company to do. The new round used a case 0.91″ in length as opposed to the 0.875″ (some variations were longer) .44 Henry. Both rounds used heel-base design bullets wherein a reduced diameter shank fit inside the cartridge case, but the full bullet diameter was same as the outside of the cartridge case. In case readers have difficulty picturing in their minds what I just said, examine a round of modern .22 rimfire. They still use the heel-base bullet concept.

Smith & Wesson initially named this new cartridge .44/100. The U.S. Army liked it and almost immediately placed an order for 1,000 Smith & Wesson Model No. 3’s so chambered. Barrel length was 8″ with two-piece walnut grips. Of the 1,000, 200 were ordered with nickel finish and the remainder blued. This was in 1871. Also worthy of note: The .44/100 S&W was America’s first reloadable handgun cartridge.

Colt’s Model 1871 .44 was only a “conversion” in concept. Parts were all new. The revolver is loaded through a gate on the frame’s right side as the later Peacemaker did. Note the small rear sight on top of the frame and that the hammer does not have a firing pin. The pin was frame-mounted.

Five .44 caliber cartridges were handgun favorites in the Old West and
included (from below, left-right) .44 Henry Rimfire, .44 S&W American,
.44 S&W Russian, .44 Colt and the most popular of all, .44 WCF (.44-40).
All these cartridges are original except the .44 S&W American, which is
one of Duke’s handloads.

The Conversion Revolver

Colt had been the principal supplier of handguns to the U.S. Army for decades and didn’t appreciate S&W honing in on their market. But the latter company had a head start because they owned the patent on bored-through revolver chambers. After it expired, Colt got going by using up their large supply of cap-and-ball revolver parts. These guns were given a misnomer — Colt Conversions. They were not true conversions. Their cylinders were newly manufactured and their parts were likewise new — never having been actually built into cap-and-ball revolvers. The conversion part was in concept not in actual practice — at least by the Colt factory.

Regardless, these new “conversions” were built with 8″ barrels, color case-hardened frame and hammer but the rest of the metal was blued except for the brass triggerguard. Grips were one-piece walnut. The cartridge was .44 Colt with a centerfire primer, brass case, 28-gr. powder charge and 210-gr. bullet. Like Smith & Wesson’s first centerfire round, bullet style was heel-base. Case length was 1.10″. The U.S. Army bought 1,200 of these .44 Colts given the designation Model 1871. I wonder what Smith & Wesson thought?

The next year Colt actually took a step backwards. Their Model 1872 “Open Top” was only made in .44 Henry Rimfire. The regression didn’t end there. In 1875 Colt made a special run of 1,800 of their new “Strap Pistol” for .44 Henry. This bunch even had their own serial numbers: 1 through 1,800. That “Strap Pistol” is what we all know now and cherish as the Peacemaker. It was far stronger than needed for the mild .44 Henry Rimfire, but the fact Colt produced them indicates the popularity of the repeating rifles and carbines.

Merwin & Hulbert offered their Pocket Army in two .44 caliber chamberings.
One was their own .44 M&H and the other was .44 WCF (.44-40). Merwin &
Hulbert stamped their revolvers “Calibre Winchester 1873” when the
chambering was .44 WCF.

The .44 S&W Russian (below, left) was developed at the behest of the
Russian Government in 1872. In 1908 it was lengthened to become the
.44 S&W Special (center), and in 1956 it was lengthened once again to
become the .44 Remington Magnum (right).

Russian Influence

Smith & Wesson was not sitting on their hands while Colt recaptured the military market. But the story is odd and I will tell it briefly in modern parlance. Russia’s military attaché to the United States, a general somebody or other said to Messrs. Smith & Wesson, “Hey dummies, if you put the full bullet inside the case, make your barrel diameters fit it and put chambers with necks in the cylinders to fit the bullets, we will buy boatloads of your revolvers. And we’ll pay in gold.” Smith & Wesson said, “Yeah, baby, you got it.”

And so was born the .44 S&W Russian cartridge along with the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Model .44 Russian revolvers and the entire concept of bullet, cartridge case and chamber mating. From that began the era of true handgun accuracy as we know it today. As educated readers already know, the .44 S&W Russian evolved into the .44 S&W Special in 1908, which in turn evolved into the .44 Remington Magnum in 1956.

Early .44 S&W Russian factory loads carried 275-gr.bullets, which for some reason still carried their lubricant on the outside of the cartridge case as had been done with heel-base bullets. Powder charge was 23 grains. By the 1890s Winchester Repeating Arms ammunition was being loaded with 255-gr. bullets and the same powder charge, but in the early 20th century bullet weight was reduced to 246 grains. It remained so until factory loaded .44 S&W Russian was discontinued in the 1960s.

(You might think the new style of handgun cartridge manufacture suggested by the Russians would have killed development of the heel-base bullet concept. But alas, American firearms engineers and firearms executives have always been notoriously hardheaded and sometimes ignorant. Hence the later .38 and .41 Colt.)

No. 3 .44 caliber revolvers progressed over the years through a variety of models,
which included (from top) the 1st Model .44 Russian (this basic design was also
offered in .44 Henry and .44 American), 2nd Model .44 Russian, 3rd Model .44 Russian,
New Model .44 Russian and Model 1881 DA .44 Russian.

New Model No. 3

Even after the Russians quit buying S&W revolvers the company kept .44 S&W Russian as its premier big-bore revolver cartridge. They remodeled their top-break No. 3 in 1878 into the New Model No. 3, a very streamlined handsome sixgun. It stayed in their catalog until 1912, although no frames were actually built after about 1898.

All along .44 Russian bullet shape had been roundnose with nominal diameter of 0.429″. That factor of bullet weight and shape is interesting in these early .44’s. Henry bullets were true .44’s measuring a bit over 0.44″ and so was .44/100, which incidentally became the .44 S&W American after the .44 Russian’s advent. Sources vary on this fact, but the better researched ones give 0.44″-plus for factory bullet diameter. The .44 Colt bullets were even larger. I once pulled some original factory loads apart because their primers would not ignite. Then those bullets were measured and weighed. Diameter was 0.449″ and weight was 208 grains.

Bullet configuration started out as conical but gradually evolved in the classic roundnose as seen in .44 Russian factory loads.

Now we get to the .44 WCF, which was the best thing to happen to Old West handguns. Sources vary but Colt made it an option in the “Strap Pistol” in either 1877 or 1878. They also gave it a name, Colt Frontier Six-Shooter. It was also put in their Model 1878 DA.

After reading about El Paso City Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire’s short-barreled
.44 Colt “Conversion,” Duke had one built to recreate it. It is shown with an original
8" barrel at left and a modern Colt SAA .44 WCF (.44-40) Sheriff’s Model at right.

It is little wonder Americans doted on .44 caliber when cartridge
revolvers came along. They had been using .44 caliber cap-and-ball
revolvers for decades. These included (from left to right) the Colt/Walker,
1st Model Dragoon and Model 1860 Army. These are all 2nd Generation revolvers by Colt.

No doubt there is some reader right now thinking, “Dummy, .45 Colt was the best thing to happen to Old West handguns.” I say that might be true for Colt handguns of the era, but take note of this: No other handgun manufacturer of the late 1800s offered revolvers chambered for .45 Colt. (Remington did make some samples for testing but never cataloged them.) But Remington, Merwin & Hulbert and Smith & Wesson all put .44 WCF in their revolvers, even though each marketed their own proprietary rounds too. As I’ve never even seen a round of Remington’s and Merwin & Hulbert’s .44’s, I will refrain from commenting on them.

Why was the .44 WCF so great amongst all these .44’s? Its 40-gr. powder charge propelled a 200-gr. roundnose/flatpoint bullet at over 900 to perhaps 1,000 fps from a 7 1/2″ revolver barrel. All the previously described .44’s pushed their 210- to 275-gr. bullets out at 700 to 750 fps. I know this to be true for I have handloaded and fired all of them from original revolvers (except, of course, the .44 Henry).

Forty-four caliber handguns were used in combat all over the Old West. John Wesley Hardin committed some of his infamous murders with an S&W .44 Russian while Billy Clanton was firing a Colt Frontier Six-Shooter at the Earp brothers in Tombstone.

Archaeologists recovered .44 S&W American and .44 Henry Rimfire cartridge cases during digs at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. (The vast majority of .44 Henry cases were fired in lever guns, but a few had revolver firing pin strikes.) El Paso City Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire carried a .44 Colt with bobbed barrel in a leather-lined hip pocket. The list could go on and on, but the point is .44’s of many types were Old West favorites.

Subscribe To American Handgunner