Dear Handgunner

37

June 12, 1957
Roy Huntington, Editor
American Handgunner Magazine

Dear Roy:
Well, the new .44 Magnum is now arriving regularly at local dealers both in the original S&W .44 Magnum and the Ruger Blackhawk. Thanks to my teenage grandson I purchased my first .44 Magnum last summer. He came running in one day all excited about the new sixgun he had just fired down at Shell’s Gun Shop. Shell has a large shooting range on the property and instead of selling that first .44 he rented it out. My grandson and his three friends all took their turn firing six shots through a 4″ Smith & Wesson. “Grandpa it was really awful! My hand still hurts. But all the guys said it wasn’t bad so I just went along with them. Grandpa it wasn’t bad; it was terrible!”

Now I’ve been around a lot longer than my grandson and figured even at my “advanced” age I could certainly handle one of the new .44 Magnums. Guess what? I got the same feeling my grandson did when I touched off that first round. Oh, I did fire the whole cylinderful, but instead of buying a S&W .44 Magnum I thought I would be more clever and go with the Ruger Blackhawk. That turned out to be a not very smart decision. Everyone knows the Colt SAA grip frame which Bill Ruger duplicated on his Single-Six and .357 Blackhawk is known for easily handling recoil. Maybe so, but when coupled with the .44 Magnum load that original theory flies out the door. Oh, the Blackhawk .44 doesn’t slam into the palm of the hand like the S&W .44 — it’s much worse. When I touched that first round off the Blackhawk grip frame rolled in my hand and didn’t stop until the hammer spur dug into the area of the back of my hand between the thumb and trigger finger. I’ve drawn a lot of blood in my day shooting sixguns at critters, but this was the first time I ever drew my own. You can bet I did not tell my grandson what happened!

Roy, I first knew of the arrival of the S&W .44 Magnum back in December of 1955. Smith & Wesson had called Elmer Keith to tell him his dream had come true and he immediately called me. We have been friends now for 30 years going all the way back to the time he actually started working with the .44 Special and I was so happy for him. Others may claim they were responsible for the .44 Magnum, however, Elmer did not invent it but he certainly is the number one man in urging its development. He got even more than he had asked for. I have shot his heavy .44 Special loads in both his Colt SAAs and S&W double action sixguns as well as mine and believe me there is no comparison as to recoil.

It would be good to back up here and look at the real story of the .44 Magnum as told to me by Elmer. By 1950, the .44 Special chambered in a S&W sixgun reached its climax with the superb 1950 Target Model. Since 1907 S&W, and later Colt, provided the .44 Special sixguns but it remained for men like the members of the .44 Associates to bring out the best of the .44 Special cartridge. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Associate members, most notably Elmer Keith, called for a “Real .44 Special” load.

He especially called for a “.44 Special Magnum” with a 250 grain hard cast bullet at 1,200 feet per second. His pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears. Ammunition companies were afraid of heavy-loaded .44 Specials taking old sixguns apart. He then asked for a new cartridge 1/10″ longer than the .44 Special to preclude its being used in any old sixguns, and also a new sixgun chambered for the new cartridge. Again, the plea was ignored.

Unbeknownst to him S&W started to listen in the 1950s. Working in tandem with Remington, who would supply the new .44 Magnum ammunition, S&W engineers went to work on the new sixgun. In 1954, Remington gave S&W the dimensions of a new cartridge that was 1/8″ longer than the .44 Special. Smith & Wesson then chambered four specially heat treated 1950 Target .44 Special sixguns for the new “.44 Magnum.” The guns performed well but at the 39-ounce weight of the 1950 Target, recoil was brutal. Elmer had asked for a new .44 with a 250 grain bullet at 1,200 fps, and his .44 Special load generates heavy recoil in the Model 1950 Target .44 Special. Remington delivered a 240 grain bullet at 1,500 fps which was originally fired in the same 39 ounce Model 1950 Target.

After my first experience with the .44 Magnum load in a 4″ S&W .44 Magnum I don’t want to even contemplate that! Weight had to be added, so the cylinder was lengthened to fill in the cylinder window and the 61/2″ slim barrel was changed to a heavy weight full bull barrel style as found on the 1955 Target .45 ACP, resulting in a weight of 48 ounces. The new sixgun, as the .357 Magnum introduced back in 1935, is simply and fittingly named by its chambering and called “The .44 Magnum.” Elmer thought he had received the first .44 Magnum from S&W, as well he should have, but the first one went to Remington, the second went to Major Hatcher at the NRA and he got the third one. He told me he was not happy with the first loads, as the bullet was too soft which affected accuracy and raised pressures significantly.

He quickly developed a standard loading for the new .44 Magnum consisting of the same 250 hard cast bullet he used in his .44 Special loads and 22.0 grains of #2400. This loading is over 1,400 feet per second and Keith has written of his experiences and it will be out in The Gun Digest later this summer.

Elmer told me he urged Smith & Wesson to also bring forth the .44 Magnum with a 4″ barrel for defensive and peace officer. While waiting for this, he had a .44 Magnum cut to 41/2″ and engraved and ivory stocked by the Gun Re-Blue Company. He prefers the steer head carved ivory grip as it fills in his hand perfectly and helps control recoil.

As mentioned, Major Hatcher of the NRA Staff received the second .44 Magnum S&W and told me in no uncertain terms about its recoil: “In shooting the .44 Magnum, we found it advisable to use gloves, as the recoil can only be described as severe. Without gloves, the checkering hurts the hand, and the sharp edges of the cylinder latch are almost certain to shave off bits of skin. After firing many heavy handloads in the .44 Special, we expected heavy recoil with this ultra-powerful new cartridge. At the first shot the gun rose up a bit, and the first reaction was that it was not as bad as we had expected. Just about this time, however, we suddenly experienced a sharp stinging sensation over the entire hand, as though we were hitting a fast baseball with a cracked bat. I fired quite a few shots with this gun, but I must honestly confess it is not an unmixed pleasure.”

Charlie Askins, always the old rascal, took him to task and asked if he wore lace panties! We can always count on Charlie to stir the pot. Elmer wrote to me about Hatcher’s remarks and took the opposite side of the debate: “The big gun is, I would say, pleasant to shoot, as it does not jar the hand as much as do my heavy .44 Special loads from the much lighter 4″ barreled .44 Special S&W guns. It’s definitely not a ladies gun but I have known women who would enjoy shooting it. The recoil has not bothered me in the slightest, nor have several old sixgun men complained who have fired it extensively, including Hank Benson and Don Martin. The recoil is not as severe as that of a 2″ Airweight Chief’s Special with high speed .38 Specials. With .44 Special factory loads it is just as pleasant to shoot as a K-22 and with the .44 Magnum loads, which give the heaviest recoil, it will not bother a seasoned sixgun man at all. Recoil with my heaviest loads of 22.0 grains of 2400 and the Keith 250 grain bullet is much less than that of the factory load. The factory load, fired with one hand, flips the barrel up almost vertical.”

Now Roy here I am stuck in the middle of these two fine gentlemen. Who is telling the truth? Both were, as I don’t believe either is capable of lying. Elmer has convinced himself the .44 Magnum is pleasant to shoot. But there is Elmer Keith and there are us mere mortals. Most of us cannot do this.

Roy, I don’t know if you ever met John LaChuk from California. John owns a custom body shop, however his first love is sixguns and he has spent much time shooting not only .44 Special loads but also his .44 Lancer. John and I started regularly corresponding in the late 1940s and I certainly have learned much from him over the past eight years or so. John is a tall good looking fellow and only has use of one hand, his left hand. He never really told me what happened to his other hand. I just point this out to show all of his shooting of heavy loaded sixguns has been with that one hand. I certainly admire him and his endeavors.

I went down to California last summer to visit John and when I got to his shop I almost forgot the original reason for the visit, which was sixguns. He was working on the most gorgeous 1949 Ford Coupe I have ever seen. You know how I feel about custom Fords so it took real dedication on my part not to be distracted!

John said he started out with heavy-loaded .38 Specials in the 1940s, switched to the .44-40 and then when he read Elmer Keith’s Sixgun Cartridges & Loads he found Keith favored the .44 Special because of the thicker cylinder walls compared to the .45 Colt and .44-40, and he swapped his .44-40 cylinder for a .44 Special cylinder for his Colt. John said he shot that 51/2″ Colt so much he eventually had to set the barrel back one full turn. John joined the .44 Associates which had compiled more than 1,000 .44 Special loads, all submitted by members, and had printed 200 copies.

Now that LaChuk had discovered the .44 Special he did a lot of experimenting with the Colt SAA. He shared with me: “During World War II, components were hard to come by, building up a great thirst among shooters. When ammo became available again after the war, I bought a case of primed Remington .44 Special brass and about half a case of factory ammo. All of it was balloon-head. A favorite subject among .44 fans of the day was getting the factories to make solid-head cases in the belief they would be stronger. My correspondence with Remington and Winchester indicated they had no plans to revise the .44 Special. They considered the cartridge to be a poor seller, not worthy of updating.

Searching for stronger brass, I mic’d a number of rifle rounds and discovered that just ahead of the rim, straight-sided .405 Winchester and .30-40 Krag cases were the same diameter as the .44 Special. So I was making my own solid-head .44 Special brass. It became at once apparent that case capacity was severely reduced with the solid head and thick case walls. The obvious answer was to lengthen the case as long as possible without having Ray Thompson’s 240-grain gas check bullets protrude from the front of my Frontier Colt’s cylinder … I had to trim down the rims of both rifle cases to .44 Special dimensions and cut them to approximate length with a tube cutter … I bought three brand new .38 Special Frontier cylinders and re-chambered them … The resulting .44 cylinders, installed in three different Frontiers, two 71/2″ and one 51/2″, resulted in the same high accuracy as the standard .44 Special cartridge …

In 1949, I submitted a manuscript about my wildcat .44 Magnum, along with some sample cartridges and cases, to the American Rifleman. I received a polite letter of rejection … I wrote to Hercules, and they replied that they could pressure test .44 Special cartridges, but had no test chamber to accept my longer case. The cost of the new test barrel was prohibitive. I wrote Colt Firearms, attempting to interest them in chambering the Frontier for my round. No dice. My friend Bill Wilson, founder of Great Western Arms Corp., was planning to offer his single-action Colt clones in my new caliber, but financial problems shelved the project.”

Roy, what is extremely interesting about LaChuk’s wildcat “.44 Lancer” is the fact it is a near dead-ringer for the .44 Magnum with cases 1.280″ in length and he used 22.5 grains of #2400 under the Thompson bullet. Muzzle velocities had to be in the 1,500 fps range and recoil in the Colt Single Action would have been brutal. When the .44 Magnum surfaced John re-fitted his Colts with .44 Special cylinders and turned to the new S&W .44 Magnum for heavy .44 loads. There can be little doubt he was walking on the edge with his .44 Lancer!

Roy when I was visiting with some friends on the border patrol back in 1950 I ran into a young new recruit by the name of Charles Skelton. I was quite impressed with this young man who not only has an excellent sense of humor but he could also really tell stories about his friend Dobe Grant and also his growing up years with his friend Joe. He told me to call him by his nickname of Skeeter and we have been corresponding ever since that visit. His letters are absolute gems and I have no doubt he will someday be a gun writer of great influence.

Skeeter is now sheriff of Deaf Smith County, Texas and he has a different take than Elmer as to the use of the .44 Magnum in law enforcement work. He wrote to me: “I’ve always been a great fan of the .44 Special, however when the .44 Magnum arrived I swapped off my 5″ 1950 Target .44 Special and took up the 4″ .44 Magnum. However, with full loads the muzzle blast and recoil of the 4″ .44 Magnum, while not as fierce as sometimes described, brought me to the conclusion that the .44 Magnum was not the optimum choice as a law-enforcement gun. While it is certainly true that one well-placed shot from it will anchor any man, there are other considerations … For law-enforcement use I returned a favored 1950 Target .44 Special with a 4″ barrel to my holster. After reflecting on my experiences with the .44 Magnum, I even loaded the .44 Special down to a manageable 250-grain 900 fps rate that gave me good DA control and retained more than adequate stopping power. If you’re thinking that I quit the S&W .44 Magnum, you’re wrong. It simply switched roles in my cast of handgun characters. The .44 Magnum, in my mind, became an outdoorsman’s gun, perhaps the finest ever made for the handgun hunter. I soon learned that the 61/2″ and 83/8″ models performed better than the 4″ gun.”

Roy, Skeeter is right on the money here! The .44 Magnum is definitely a hunter’s sixgun. I’m not about to give up my easy packin’, easy shootin’ .44 Specials for every day use, but I will reach for the .44 Magnum for serious handgun hunting chores. I now have both the 61/2″ .44 Magnum Smith and the .44 Blackhawk and am working hard to learn to handle both of them. My heavy load is the 250 grain Keith bullet over 10.0 grains of Unique, which just about duplicates Elmer’s Heavy .44 Special load. I intend to work my way up very slowly. The S&W balances and shoots very well, however I wish Ruger would offer a longer 71/2″ barrel as well as add some weight to their sixgun. Changing the aluminum alloy grip frame to an all steel frame would certainly help and I also believe the old 1860 Colt Army would handle recoil better than the Colt SAA grip frame they are now using.

The S&W .44 Magnum is without a doubt the finest sixgun they have ever offered. The Bright Blue finish is applied over an impeccably smooth polished surface, the wide hammer and trigger aid in both cocking and shooting, and the white outline fully adjustable rear sight matched up with the red insert front sight is just about the finest sights ever offered on a sixgun. In a word this is a superb sixgun and well worth the $140 price tag.

You will remember there was a time I said I could not envision anyone wanting more power in a sixgun than was being offered by the .38/44 Heavy Duty and the .44 Special heavy loaded. I was wrong! Shortly after I made that statement the .357 Magnum arrived. I guess I am a slow learner as I then made the same statement about the .357 Magnum and I was wrong again. I am really tempted to say with the .44 Magnum we have absolutely reached the peak of pistol power. My good sense tells me this is so. However, I just received a letter this week from a young gunsmith out of Utah named Dick Casull who is working with what he calls his .45 Magnum using a custom built five-shot revolver. I think I better not make any more predictions.

And with that I say, Good Shootin’ and God Bless, John.

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