Real .44 Cowboy loads


Unique, Power Pistol and Universal are excellent powders for
Real Cowboy Loads in the Ruger or any .44 Magnum.

The last place to learn safe gun handling is at the movies or the TV screen and it’s a rare film that ever depicts recoil in any shape or fashion. Forty-four caliber sixguns and leverguns recoil. When cowboy action shooting started almost everyone used .45 and .44 sixguns with the same level loads used on the frontier. It wasn’t long before some discovered it was a lot easier to shoot fast first using .38 Specials, then light-loaded .38 Specials and now even .32s. At one time a minimum velocity of 650 fps was suggested for revolvers, however that idea did not go very far, even though real cowboy loads from the last quarter of the 19th century were at this level or above.

Smith & Wesson introduced the first big-bore cartridge-firing sixgun in late 1869 with the .44 S&W American. All the .44s following close on its hells started life as black powder cartridges and any sixgun made prior to 1900 should only be used with black powder or black powder substitute loads. If one wants to really be part of the spirit of the old West black powder can still be used not only in the old guns but any of the currently produced sixguns as well.

Some Realist Loads

44 Colt: Colt was caught flat-footed when Smith & Wesson brought out the .44 American and while they were waiting for the legal time when they could produce sixguns bored through cylinders they did the next best thing which was convert already in use 1860 Army percussion revolvers to fire a new cartridge, the .44 Colt. Originally the .44 Colt used the same style heeled bullet as the .44 S&W American, however currently produced replicas have been modernized to accept standard .44 bullets loaded in .44 Colt brass now made by Starline. Lengthwise the .44 Colt is in between the .44 Russian and .44 Special and uses the same bullets both these cartridges do. Reproductions patterned after the 1860 Army percussion revolver do not have a top strap so one should be very careful as to what loads are used. To duplicate the original I use 25 gr. of FFg under a 200 gr. cast bullet for around 775 fps. Switching to smokeless powder and the same bullet, 4.0 gr. of Red Dot or WW231 is a very pleasant shooting 660 fps while 4.0 gr. of TiteGroup gets us up to 700 fps.

.44 Russian: The Russians liked the S&W Model #3 American but they did not like the cartridge and because of this the modern sixgun cartridge was born. The Russians asked for a bullet of uniform diameter with all the grease grooves inside the case and the result was the .44 Russian which would later become the father of the .44 Special and then 50 years after that the grandfather of the .44 Magnum. In duplicating the original .44 Russian load using 23 gr. of FFg black powder under a 240 gr. cast bullet, muzzle velocity runs from 750 fps to 800 fps depending upon barrel length. In modern replicas using the same 240 grain bullet, which by the way is Oregon Trail’s .44 SWC, or the old round-nosed Lyman #429251, 4.0 gr. of Nitro-100 gives 740 fps; 4.0 gr. of Red Dot, 825 fps; 4.0 gr. TiteGroup, 800 fps; 4.0 gr. WW231, 775 fps, and 5.0 gr. Unique clocks out at 765 fps. Any of these loads will serve as everyday working loads and are quite pleasant to shoot.

.44-40: The same year Colt introduced the .45 Peacemaker, Winchester brought out the Model 1873 levergun, chambered in the legendary .44 Winchester Centerfire (.44WCF) and now more commonly known as the .44-40. It may have started as a rifle cartridge, however before the end of the 1870s Colt chambered it their Single Action Army and it was soon available in several other revolvers. The “40” in .44-40 stands for 40 gr. of black powder. Modern .44-40 brass will not hold this much powder, however I have been fortunate to come up with some original balloon head brass which will. Loading a full 40 gr. of FFg black powder under an Oregon Trails 200 grain RNFP cast bullet gives a muzzle velocity of right at 1,000 fps in a 71/2″ sixgun and right at 1,300 fps from a Winchester levergun. Using modern .44-40 brass, 35 gr. of black powder or black powder substitute will give from 850 to 1,000 fps from a 71/2″ sixgun depending on the granulation used, with FFFg giving the highest muzzle velocity. I load up thousands of .44-40 loads every year using Oregon Trails 200 gr. RNFP bullet. My lightest loads use 5.5 gr. of Red Dot or 5.0 gr. of Bullseye for about 775 fps, and 5.5 gr. of Nitro-100 or 6.0 gr. of TiteGroup increases the muzzle velocity to around 825 fps. My most used load is the same as I use for .45 Colt and .38-40, namely 8.0 gr. of Unique for right at 900 fps.

The .44 Family: .44 American, .44 Colt, .44 Russian, .44-40, .44 Special and .44 Magnum.

Taffin’s most used bullets for assembling .44 Real Cowboy Loads are
Oregon Trails RNFP and SWC and the original 429421 Keith bullet.

.44 Special: When the .44 Special was introduced in late 1907, even though the brass was longer than the .44 Russian and the Triple-Lock sixgun was certainly stronger than the S&W Top-Breaks, for some strange reason it was loaded to the same level as the .44 Russian; they simply increased the black powder charge from 23 to 26 grains. With the Oregon Trail 240 SWC over 26 gr. of black powder, muzzle velocity is from 750 fps to 810 fps, again depending upon granulation used and barrel length. This same bullet over 6.0 gr. of Unique is one of my standard loads at around 800 fps, however my most used .44 Special load is the 260 grain Keith bullet over 7.5 gr. of Unique for around 950 fps.

.44 Magnum: By no stretch of the imagination can the .44 Magnum be considered a cowboy load in the same way the others have, however today’s cowboy, or at least someone who has a pair of boots and a hat, is most likely to choose a .44 Magnum sixgun over any of the others. The .44 Magnum, even though overshadowed by several more powerful cartridges, still has more power than most of us will ever need in an everyday working sixgun. We are fortunate to have a wide array of Perfect Packin’ Pistols to choose from chambered in .44 Magnum and you’re sure to find one meeting your needs. All of these are capable of shooting 240-260 grain bullets at 1,300-1,400 fps, but honestly how often do we need these loads? The same 8.0 gr. of Unique I use in the .44-40 also works just fine in the short-barrel .44 Magnums giving a muzzle velocity right at 900 fps, and Hodgdon’s Universal can be used in place of Unique or go to 8.5 gr. of Alliant’s Power Pistol. If a true Keith bullet is used, more powder space is afforded so simply increase any of the above charges about one-half grain for the same results. These loads are very pleasant shooting in any short-barrel .44 Magnum, and in a pinch, and at close range, will certainly handle anything the vast majority of us are ever going to run into at least in the lower 48 states.

Power Factor? Right …

I understand the powers-that-be in cowboy shooting have adopted a power factor (bullet weight times muzzle velocity divided by 1,000) of “60” as mininum. To put this in perspective a 200 gr. .44-40 bullet would only have to travel 300 fps to make “power.” The cowboys of old (and even those living today in the real world) would not be caught shooting a big bore sixgun with a powder-puff load like that — it’s embarrassing.

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