Playing Favorites: .44 Magnum Double Action Sixguns

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Ruger’s stainless steel .44 Magnum double action sixguns: 71/2" Redhawk, 5"
Redhawk, 91/2" Super Redhawk. Custom stocks are by BearHug.

The 1950s were a great time for sixgunners. During those few short years, Colt resurrected the Single Action Army and introduced the .357 Magnum and the .357 Python. Ruger gave us the .22 Single-Six, the .357 Magnum Blackhawk, the .44 Magnum Blackhawk and the .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk. S&W outdid both companies with the arrival of the 1950 Target and Military Models in .44 Special and .45ACP, the .357 Magnum Highway Patrolman, the .357 Combat Magnum, the 1955 Target in .45ACP and Elmer Keith’s long-awaited .44 Magnum.

I am going to take advantage of my advancing years looking at my favorite sixguns. Choosing favorites is not always easy. Sometimes I can pick one favorite; other times it will be several. With this in mind, we herein look at Taffin’s Top .44 Magnum DA sixguns.

Top Left: 61/2" Nickel Model 29
Bottom Left: 6" Performance Center Model 629
Top Right: 6" Model 629 stainless steel
Bottom Right: Classic Model 629
Custom stocks are by BluMagnum and Hogue.

A Good Smack in the Hand

Over the past half-century plus I’ve fired virtually every revolver ever offered. I survived most of them with no problem (at least at the time), however, the testing of the relatively lightweight Bisley Model gripped .475 and .500 Linebaugh Maximums required the expending of so much strength and concentration I would shoot in the morning and lie down and rest in the afternoon. They literally made me physically ill. As bad as the recoil of those sixguns were, I was somewhat prepared as I had fired so many thousands of rounds through other heavy recoiling sixguns. However, nothing ever caught my attention as quickly and as thoroughly as the shooting of that first .44 Magnum.

It was in late 1956 and I thought I was at the height of my invincible period of life. I was a seasoned sixgunner, or so I thought. Several of us teenagers who always shot together had gone to Shell’s Gun & Archery Farm for a pleasant time shooting. That was about to change! Shell had one of the first S&W .44 Magnums and rented it at the cost of six rounds for half a buck.

It was, in fact, as Major Hatcher of the NRA had proclaimed, like getting hit in the palm of the hand with a baseball bat. I was determined to eventually conquer the .44 Magnum if it didn’t put me down in the process. It was a long learning curve, but I finally made it. Over the years I’ve shot just about every .44 Magnum, be it DA or SA, single-shot, semi-automatic, bolt action, or lever gun ever chambered in the .44 Magnum. Let’s look at the double actions.

The 4" S&W Model 29 all steel .44 Magnum compared to the lightweight 329PD.

Origin Story

Elmer Keith had pressed for a “.44 Special Magnum” in his writings for nearly 30 years. In 1954 he met with S&W and Remington trying to convince them to bring out a new sixgun and load. S&W specially heat treated the cylinders of their Model 1950 Target .44 Special and re-chambered them to fit the new .44 Magnum Remington developed. It was soon obvious the relatively light weight of the 1950 Target needed to be increased because of the recoil of the new round with its 240-grain bullet at nearly 1,500 fps. The length of the cylinder was increased to completely fill out the frame window, and the tapered barrel was given a new and heavier bull profile, the same basic barrel as used on their Model 1955 Target .45 ACP.

That first S&W which eventually became the Model 29 was known simply as the “.44 Magnum” in those pre-numbered model days. To my eyes, it’s simply the most beautiful DA revolver ever produced. First came the 61/2″ version, and then the 4″ and 83/8″ barrel lengths were added. In 1958 H.H. Harris of Chicago ordered 500 .44 Magnums with a 5″ barrel.

Elmer Keith thought he had received the first .44 Magnum out of the factory, however records show he actually got the third example. By the time Keith received his .44 Magnum he was now living in town and wanted something to conceal easily under a coat, so he had The Gun Reblue Co. cut a 61/2″ .44 Magnum back to a 41/2″, engrave it, and stock it with ivory. This beautiful sixgun as well as several other .44 Magnums are on display in the Elmer Keith Museum within the Boise Idaho Cabela’s store.

S&W offered the original .44 Magnum in barrel lengths of 4", 5” (rare), 61/2" and 8".
Custom stocks are by BluMagnum and Roy Fishpaw.

Taming the Beast

In the early 1960s I purchased both a 61/2″ and 4″ Model 29. I was reloading at the time but was not smart enough to handload. By this, I mean reloaders just keep loading the same load over and over while handloaders experiment. All of my early loads were Elmer’s standard of 22 grains of #2400 under his #429421 hard cast bullet. It would take a long time for me to realize it was a lot more fun to shoot lighter loads. I eventually came up with a load of 10 grains of Unique using the same bullet that gave me 1,100 to 1,200 fps depending upon barrel length, and this is basically the standard load I now use in all of my early S&W .44 Magnums.

S&W commemorated the life of Elmer Keith with the Elmer Keith. Taffin’s favorite
DA .44 Magnum, a 4" Model 29 engraved by Jim Riggs and stocked by BearHug.

Over the years S&W added several variants on the Model 29 such as the stainless-steel Model 629, the heavy underlugged Classics, and the very lightweight Model 329PD. The latter makes a great packin’ pistol, however I use .44 Magnum loads in it very sparingly, preferring to use it as a .44 Special. In the late 1980s S&W, after receiving numerous complaints over the years about the Model 29 cylinder unlocking and rotating backwards when fired, I instituted the Endurance Package that solved this problem. Over the years I’ve fired dozens of S&W pre-Endurance Package .44 Magnums, however the only two that exhibited this problem was one of their 101/2″ Silhouette Models and a 6″ Model 629. The Model 29 was dropped in the 1990s, however, for the 50th Anniversary celebration a special version was brought back and still remains cataloged.

Comparing stainless steel Ruger .44 Magnums: Super Redhawk, Super Blackhawk
and Redhawk. Custom stocks are by Blue Magnum and Bear Hug.

Dirty Demand

In the late 1970s to early 1980s it was virtually impossible to find an S&W .44 Magnum for sale. This was thanks to Dirty Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department — a mythical movie character. His “Make my day” resonated with moviegoers, who soon wanted a .44 Magnum just like Dirty Harry’s, regardless of whether they could handle it. S&W worked 24 hours a day producing .44 Magnums but couldn’t keep up and prices soon doubled on the secondary market. Someone had to relieve the pressure and that someone, actually two someones, were Dan Wesson and Ruger.

Dan Wesson

By this time Dan Wesson was firmly established, especially among long-range silhouetters with their heavy barreled .357 Magnum. I talked with their engineer, Paul Brothers, at an NRA Show at the time and he shared his plans for bringing forth a .44 Magnum. When they did, it was a dandy! It was built much heavier and sturdier than the original S&W, so much so the 8″ heavy barreled version was over the 4-lb. weight limit required by the rules of long-range silhouette shooters and a few ounces had to be shaved. They were also able to come up with a 10″ version with a standard barrel and still come in under the weight limit. As expected from Dan Wesson, both of these guns are superbly accurate.

John unleashing the beast with a Super Redhawk.

Ruger

Ruger also took advantage of being able to design the gun around the cartridge with the heavy-duty Ruger Redhawk. First offered in stainless steel, this sixgun is virtually indestructible. Ruger also offered a second DA .44 Magnum in the 1990s by combining the Ruger Redhawk with the GP-100, resulting in the Super Redhawk. If anything, this version is even stronger than the original Redhawk. My original 71/2″ Redhawk now wears a scope, however I had another one cut back to 4″ and the grip frame slightly round butted to come up with a packin’ pistol suitable for constant outdoor use. Recently Ruger began offering the Redhawk with a factory 4″ barrel and finger-grooved, cushioned rubber grips which go a long way to making shooting of even 300-grain bulleted loads manageable.

Taurus

Taurus’ original entry into the .44 Magnum market is one of most accurate .44 Magnum double action sixguns I’ve ever encountered. With a scope in place and proper loads, 100-yard groups less than 11/2″ were easily attained. Taurus now offers the much heavier Raging Bull in both blue and stainless steel .44 Magnum. The weight combined with the cushioned rubber grips makes this a very comfortable shooting .44 Magnum. If this one had been around in 1956, I would never have been intimidated by the .44 Magnum.

Colt’s Anaconda .44 Magnum is built on a larger frame than the Colt Python;
custom stocks are by BearHug.

Colt

It took Colt 35 years to offer a .44 Magnum, however, when they did it was a dandy. Looking like a combination of the Python and King Cobra, the Anaconda was the first big bore DA Colt had offered in 50 years. Some early Anacondas had bad barrels and would not shoot very well, however the problem was soon straightened out and mine is a superb shooter. Unfortunately, the Anaconda is no more; those who have them must keep them, as I’ve rarely ever seen one for sale at the local gun shows.

If I had to pick just one DA .44 Magnum, it would be one of the original 4″ Model 29s, preferably the 29-2 Diamond Dot had engraved for my birthday 25 years ago. As mentioned above, if real heavy-duty use was contemplated it would be replaced by the 4″ Ruger Redhawk. The .44 Magnum was the first of what would become a long line of very powerful big bore cartridges. As far as I am concerned, the .44 Magnum is still King of the Sixguns.

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