44 Magnum: The Most Powerful Handgun Cartridge, For a While

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There’s a lot of debate about the best gear for backcountry adventures. We can argue the best fly fishing lures, hunting packs, and camouflage patterns until we’re blue in the face, but one piece of gear that’s traditionally garnered near-unanimous support is the 44 Magnum cartridge.

This little slice of Americana has appeared on the silver screen, seen action in Vietnam, kept America’s highways safe and graced the holster of many an outdoorsman. It’s fed revolvers, pistols, and rifles for years and gained a loyal following along the way. Some of the stories that surround it sound too good to be true and others are simply hard to believe.

But the 44 Magnum is an expensive round and its recoil can raise hell on the wrist. The guns that run it are high-dollar affairs that price most shooters out of the market. Factor in the consideration that you’ll likely be juggling a handful of loose rounds after only six shots, and a more modern alternative starts to sound pretty good.

If you think shooting a 44 Magnum sounds fun, you’re right. If you wonder about its real-world practicality, I won’t blame you. There’s a lot of history packed into this cartridge, and it’s worth learning if you have any interest in off-grid adventure.

Origins of the 44 Magnum

Clint Eastwood and his Dirty Harry character, Inspector Harry Callahan, may have made the 44 Magnum a household name in 1971, but the man we should be thanking is Elmer Keith. Keith was an Idaho rancher, hunter, writer, and shooting icon. Not satisfied with the power of revolvers chambered in .44 Special, Keith began loading his own ammunition and adding the powder to maximize its potential. He was clearly on to something, and he drew attention from more than just his customers.

It was Keith’s extra-spicy home-loaded .44 Special ammunition that inspired Smith & Wesson to extend the cartridge’s existing case and build a revolver capable of containing such power. The resulting handgun, released in 1955, was the Model 29. The N-frame that originally harnessed the 44 Magnum’s power went on to provide the building blocks for several other big-bore revolvers.

It earned praise as the most powerful handgun in the world and overtook the famous .357 magnum. According to the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI), the 44 Magnum held onto this title until 1998 when the .454 Casull officially became recognized as a standard cartridge. Technically, though, the .454 Casull was also developed in the 1950s.

The 44 Magnum’s history includes appearances in movies, television, and video games. It’s seen in real-world military, police, and civilian use. Nowhere has it earned a more loyal following, though, than in the community of hunters and anglers who depend on a hard-hitting round to keep them alive in the wilderness. After all, if it can drop a polar bear (with five shots, mind you), it can probably handle whatever you run into.

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Cartridge Specs

As with other magnum cartridges, the 44 Magnum shares many dimensions with its predecessor, the .44 Special. If you care to dive into the SAAMI standards for handgun ammunition, you’ll see that the case neck and base of both share a 0.457-inch diameter. The magnum case measures 0.125 inches longer.

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The additional case length increases case capacity from 33.5 grains to 37.9 grains. Using a 240-grain bullet as a basis for comparison, the 44 Magnum’s power advantage over the .44 Special is massive. The average velocity measured 15 feet from the muzzle doubles from 800 to 1,600 feet per second. Pressure jumps from 15,500 psi to 36,000 psi. Elmer Keith got the extra punch he was looking for.

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Ballistics Breakdown

You can buy 44 Magnum ammunition with bullets as light as 160 grains or even shot for pest control, but that’s not the point of this cartridge. Most shooters prefer ammunition starting at 180 grains. Remington UMC 180-grain jacketed soft point is a popular target load that costs between $1 and $1.60 per round. Muzzle velocity for this round is 1,610 feet per second and muzzle energy is 1,036 foot-pounds. The bullet shoots flat to 50 yards, drops 1.4 inches at 75 yards and hits 4 inches low at 100 yards using a 25-yard zero.

One popular middleweight option is Hornady 240-grain XTP. Hornady considers this round appropriate for home defense, medium game, and large game up to 1,500 pounds. It has a muzzle velocity of 1,350 feet per second, muzzle energy of 971 foot-pounds, and drops 3.9 inches at 100 yards using a 25-yard zero.

At the top of the food chain are loads like Hornady’s 300-grain XTP. This big-game round is also rated for game animals up to 1,500 pounds but packs a bigger punch due to the increased bullet weight. Muzzle velocity measures just 1,150 fps and muzzle energy checks in at 881 ft. lbs. The big bullet drops 6.5 inches at 100 yards using a 25-yard zero. All that probably sounds underwhelming compared to the performance of the 240-grain alternative, and the middleweight load is probably preferable in most situations.

It’s worth pointing out that 44 Magnum shooters may have different priorities than you’re used to when it comes to selecting ammunition. Rather than seeking hollow points and soft rounds that expand for maximum terminal effect, people who may need to take down a bear often prefer rounds like Buffalo Bore Dangerous Game. A solid copper or brass bullet is lighter than hard-cast lead (resulting in higher velocity) and can offer superior penetration. That can make a difference when you’re shooting at an animal with several inches of dense muscle and massive bones between you and its vital organs.

In general, the 44 Magnum’s trajectory remains effectively flat out to 50 yards and does an excellent job of staying on course through dense brush. Beyond that, velocity and energy suffer dramatically and a bullet drop of 6 inches or more is common at 100 yards.

In a handgun, these characteristics make the 44 Magnum a popular choice for defense against big-game animals. In a rifle, this cartridge is quite effective for hunting elk, bears, and large deer at close range.

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Production Firearms Chambered for the 44 Magnum

The 44 Magnum is a big round, and the firearms that shoot it tend to be hefty as a result. A Smith & Wesson N-Frame revolver with a six-inch barrel weighs 45 ounces. By the time you load it with six 44 Magnum rounds, it’ll break the three-pound mark. Some shooters add additional weight beyond that to their revolvers because the recoil is so hard to handle. Think about that before you buy a snub-nosed revolver; “snappy” doesn’t begin to describe what happens in the instant following a shot from a 44 Magnum.

Today, manufacturers like Smith & Wesson, Ruger, and Taurus offer 44 Magnum revolvers. Magnum Research, the unofficial champion of overdoing it, produces its Desert Eagle semiautomatic pistol in 44 magnum with an eight-round magazine. Handguns chambered in 44 Magnum tend to have longer barrels than most handguns — usually six inches or longer. Chest holsters and shoulder holsters are popular carry options, not only because they make it easy to draw such a large handgun but also because they disperse the revolver’s weight across the torso rather than hanging it off one hip.

If you prefer long guns, you can get one chambered in 44 Magnum from Henry, Winchester, Ruger, CVA, and Chiappa. The flat nose of the bullet makes it an excellent candidate for lever-action guns with an under-barrel tubular magazine. Since the 44 Magnum isn’t a long-distance round, rifles usually have shorter barrels and often come equipped with iron sights.

Hunters may want the accuracy that comes with a magnified optic, but traditional guide guns prioritize speed and maneuverability over pinpoint shot placement.

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Is 44 Magnum the Most Powerful Handgun?

There are probably still people citing Dirty Harry lines as firearms gospel, but a lot has changed since 1971. Even more, has changed since the 44 Magnum cartridge made its debut in the 1950s. It’s still a capable round, but the most powerful handguns available today are no longer chambered in 44 Magnum.

In addition to the .454 Casull, the ludicrous Magnum Research BFR in .45/70 shoots a much heavier bullet than the 44 Magnum. The same manufacturer’s Desert Eagle can fire a .50 AE round that moves a similar-grain bullet to the 44 Magnum significantly faster, generating more muzzle energy.

Revolvers chambered in .500 S&W outperform the 44 magnum in just about every column of a ballistics table. Finally, the .460 S&W puts all other handgun cartridges to shame when it comes to stopping power.

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Far More Powerful Than the .45 ACP

When people talk about a .45 these days, they’re almost always referring to the .45 ACP (which is the same as the .45 Auto) rather than the .45 Long Colt or .45/70, so we’ll stick to that as our basis of comparison in the 44 vs. 45 debate.

While the .45 ACP’s bullet has a larger diameter (0.452 inches compared to 0.432 inches), that fractional difference is where the power advantage ends. The .45 ACP’s 26.7-grain case capacity would need more than a 40% boost to match the 37.9-grain case capacity of the 44 magnum. More gunpowder generates more force, and the 44 Magnum is able to produce a maximum pressure of 36,000 psi whereas the .45 ACP can only manage 21,000 psi. Depending on the specific ammunition you use, all of this has the potential to translate into the 44 Magnum generating almost double the muzzle energy of the .45 ACP.

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Boiled down, bigger is simply better when it comes to single-round stopping power. There is obviously a lot more that determines which caliber is ideal for a given situation (like recoil, magazine capacity, cost, availability of ammunition, and the number of world war victories), but there are still times in this world when you get only one chance to save your bacon, and those situations keep the 44 magnum relevant.

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Can the 44 Magnum Stop a Bear?

If you’re skimming this article, the answer is yes. But please read on.

A 44 Magnum can stop a bear, but that doesn’t mean it will. Shot placement is key. So are follow-up shots, since you shouldn’t plan on dropping a charging bear with one round. In a comparison between a 44 Magnum revolver and a 10mm semiautomatic pistol, the less powerful pistol ended up looking a lot better than ballistics data would suggest. That’s because the 10mm pistol in the test was easier to manipulate, allowed quicker follow-up shots, and had a vastly superior capacity.

The 44 Magnum is a capable bear round that would be a wise choice for anyone spending time in the backcountry. It’s right up there with rounds like the .454 Casull for stopping a bear attack. Just don’t use a powerful handgun as an excuse to keep food in your tent, leave bear spray in the car, and turn off your situational awareness.

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What Is a 44 Magnum Revolver Good For?

Backcountry hunters, anglers, and backpackers probably aren’t going to ditch the 44 Magnum anytime soon. It’s an extremely high-performing round that works with revolvers, pistols, and rifles, which makes it appealing to anyone who prioritizes ammunition compatibility across platforms. Its reputation for knock-down power is legendary and well deserved, so if you need a powerful handgun for your chest rig, one chambered in 44 Magnum should be somewhere near the top of your list. Double-action triggers can be heavy and have long travel, but the single-action trigger pull of a revolver is typically very good.

As a home defense round, the 44 Magnum feels a little bit like commuting to work in a Peterbilt; it’s possible, but not advised. Recoil and capacity are serious issues. Follow-up shots are a challenge, even with longer barrels and rubber grips. Revolvers chambered in 44 Magnum are also very heavy and not ideal for concealed carry, assuming you can afford to spend several times the price of a basic polymer pistol and its ammunition.

Ultimately, the 44 Magnum is not cut out for the civilized world. Pick a more practical semiautomatic pistol for home defense or concealed carry, and save the big wheel gun for wilderness adventures.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>