.44 Special Five Guns


In the last decade of the 20th century S&W offered the Model 696 and the Model 396; both are five-shot .44 Specials.

Sam Colt started it all. In 1836 his Colt Paterson became the first truly workable revolver. Chambered in both .36 and .40, it was a smallish, somewhat fragile five-shooter. Groups like the Texas Rangers took to the new repeating pistol. However, Sam Colt went bankrupt and that could’ve been the end of that except for another Sam.

By the late 1840s we were at war with Mexico and Ranger Sam Walker went east looking for Sam Colt to see if he could come up with a viable revolver. The Sams put their heads together and came up with the 1847 Walker Colt. It weighed 4.5 lbs and packed six .44 round balls over 50- to 60-gr. of black powder. Many believed it could stop man or beast out to 200 yards. The true sixgun had arrived.

John believes the Freedom Arms five-shot Model 97 is the finest .44 Special “sixgun” ever to come from a factory.

The .44 Special Sixgun Era

Over the next three decades Colt sixshooters evolved through several stages: the Dragoons, the 1851 Navy, the 1860 Army, the Cartridge Conversions, the 1871-72 Open-Top and the 1873 Colt SA Army. Meanwhile, over at S&W, we had the .44 American in 1869 followed by the Model #3 Russian and the New Model #3. In 1907, the first .44 Special arrived with the S&W New Century, or Triple-Lock — the first of what we now call N-Frames. This First Model Hand Ejector was followed by three more Hand Ejectors: the Second Model, Model 1926 and the 1950 Model Target.

Meanwhile Colt chambered both their SA Army and the double action New Service in .44 Special. We reached the epitome of Colt SA .44 Specials with the New Frontier in the early 1960s.

These were true sixguns and in the early 1960s, .44 Special shooters had a choice of the S&W 1950 Military or 1950 Target or the Colt SA Army and New Frontier. Then disaster struck! Both Colt and S&W dropped the .44 Special from production.

Ruger now catalogs a 3" five-shot .44 Special GP100.


Fortunately, Charter Arms enlarged their .38 Special to create the five-shot .44 Special Bulldog. It wasn’t as beautifully finished as the Colts and S&Ws and wouldn’t handle the heavy loads some used in .44 Special sixguns. However, it was a .44 Special.

Ruger arrived on the sixgun scene in the early 1950s but didn’t produce a .44 Special with the early .357 and .44 Magnum Blackhawks.

Since .44 Specials were so hard to find, Skeeter Skelton in the 1970s led the way introducing conversion of .357 Three Screw/Old Model Blackhawks and the S&W Highway Patrolman to .44 Special while urging both companies to bring the .44 Special back. Eventually Colt chambered their 3rd Generation SA and New Frontier in .44 Special and in the 1980s S&W resurrected the 1950 Target as the Model 24/624. These were all true sixguns, however they too were dropped and only sporadically have we seen .44 Special sixguns from both companies.

Ruger finally brought a New Model Flat-Top .44 Special for a Lipsey’s special run. Since then we’ve been able to find Ruger .44 Specials in both blued and stainless versions and Flat-Top Blackhawk and Bisley Models.

John’s family is well-protected by a pair of Malamutes and
a pair of Charter Arms Five-shot Bulldogs.

S&W’s .44 Magnum five-shot Combat Magnum makes an excellent .44 Special.

Special or Magnum?

Since the .44 Magnum arrived in 1956, why would one want a .44 Special? While many of us attach a spiritual quality to the .44 Special, the principal reason is they’re lighter (usually by about a half-pound) so they’re easier to carry. Also, most .44 Magnum shooters rely on .44 Special loads for everyday use. The .44 Special sixguns are basically the same size and fit the same holsters as a .44 Magnum.

While lighter, the bulk remained. For easier carry, we needed a smaller .44 Special sixgun.

Downsized Five-Shooters

S&W led the way in down-sizing sixguns. In 1935 the first .357 Magnum arrived in a full-sized .44 Frame. Thanks to the urging of Bill Jordan, S&W came up with a smaller .357 Magnum, the Combat Magnum, which was built on the .38 Special K-Frame. Nonetheless, it still held six rounds. To fit larger-diameter .44 Special cartridges, the company had to lose one, resulting in the five-shot .44 Special.

As we entered the last decade of the 20th century, we had two five-shot .44 Specials available. Charter Arms still offered the .44 Bulldog while Taurus produced a five-shot .44 Special, the Model 431. I’ve often mentioned there are two Charter Arms stainless steel Bulldogs stashed in the two bathrooms in our home. In the side drawer of my desk is a customized Taurus .44 Special by Bill Oglesby. It has a 2.5″-barrel, matte stainless-steel finish, polished cylinder and trigger, bobbed hammer and V-notch rear sight paired with tritium white bead up front. I’ve added a Tyler T-Grip adapter and keep it loaded with Buffalo Bore 200-gr. Anti-Personnel full wadcutters.

Before the 20th century ended S&W offered three 5-shot .44 Specials — all of which demand top dollars today if you can even find one. The first example was the Model 696 built on the L-Frame with a 3″ barrel. This is an all stainless steel five-gun with a round butt, smooth trigger and S&W adjustable sights with a red ramp front sight. This was followed with the Model 296 which is a 2.5″ barreled alloy lightweight version with a round butt and concealed hammer as found on the smaller .38 Special Centennial. Finally came the Model 396 Airlite in 2000. This 3.2″ barreled .44 Special is a joy to pack all day long and is a grand choice for backpacking and hiking off the beaten path. It has a round butted aluminum alloy frame, S&W adjustable sights including a HIVIZ Green Dot front sight.

John keeps his Bill Oglesby five-shot custom Taurus .44 Special
loaded with Buffalo Bore’s 200-gr. Anti-Personnel full wadcutters.

Perfect Packin’ Pistols

In 2008, a special version of the Model 396, the NightGuard arrived with an all-matte black finish, 2.5″-barrel, fixed rear sight and Tritium front bead sight.

S&W reached for the epitome of Perfect Packin’ Pistols with the 4.2″ barreled Model 69 Combat Magnum chambered in .44 Magnum. This is a stainless steel, five-shot, double-action sixgun. Sights are typical S&W adjustable sights with a white outline rear sight matched up with a red ramp front sight. Just recently a second version with a 2.75″ barrel was added. Both of these are .44 Magnums. They work just fine as .44 Specials and you always have the choice of using .44 Magnum loads. For use on the trail it wouldn’t be a bad idea to load it with three .44 Special loads backed up with two .44 Magnum loads, giving us a versatile .44 five-shooter.

The Charter Arms original .44 Special in the 1960s was a blued five-shooter with a 3″ barrel. At the time it was one of my most carried sixguns and logged many miles in the top of my boot.

As mentioned above two of my house guns are .44 Bulldogs with a stainless-steel version stashed in each of the bathrooms — a vulnerable place! I load those Bulldogs with 200-gr. Blazer JHPs. The first time I mentioned this several years ago, some laughed; many others felt it was a most sensible idea and followed suit.

Before the 20th century ended S&W offered three 5-shot .44 Specials — all of which demand top dollars today if you can even find one.

With its five-shot cylinder and bolt slots cut between chambers, the Bulldog is much stronger than it appears. It will probably handle heavier loads than most of us would care to shoot. My normal heaviest load for the Bulldog is the Keith 250-gr. SWC over 7.5 grains of Unique. The Bulldog has now been replaced by the latest Charter Arms .44 Special Bulldog, the Pug. Charter Arms also offers a Target Bulldog, which is suited as a trail gun. It has a full under lugged barrel with both 4″ and 5″ versions available complete with an adjustable rear sight and a ramp front sight.

Ruger is now part of the .44 Special five-gun scene. One of the most underappreciated DA .357 Magnums is the Ruger GP 100. This excellent design has been around for over 30 years and has proven itself to be reliable and exceptionally rugged. Lipsey’s took a good look at the GP 100 and special ordered a 5″ blued version chambered in a five-shot .44 Special. In addition to 5″ .44 Specials available from Lipsey’s, Ruger is also cataloging a stainless steel 3″ GP 100 .44 Special.

This brings us to the ultimate SA five-gun, the Freedom Arms Model 97. Only slightly smaller than a Colt SA, we have the option of using any holster made for the Colt. Freedom Arms is simply the finest SA revolver ever produced by any manufacturer. Tolerances are held tightly and the finest materials available are combined with the best possible craftsmanship. Freedom Arms revolvers have always been expensive and owners will proudly attest they are well worth it. As I write this, Freedom Arms delivery time is running about one year.

Colt still catalogs both the .44 Special SA Army and New Frontier, however, they are extremely difficult to find.

Thanks to Charter Arms and Freedom Arms we do have .44 Special five-shooters available.

Subscribe To American Handgunner

Purchase A PDF Download Of The American Handgunner Sept/Oct 2020 Issue Now!