.44-caliber revolvers can be excellent at everything from defense to hunting to sport shooting, but between .44 Special versus .44 Magnum, which is best for each task?
When it comes to the debate of .44 Special versus .44 Magnum, are there any good reasons to choose the former? Or is .44 Magnum the best cartridge in .44?
Believe it or not, .44 Special is better than .44 Magnum at some things…but the reverse is true as well. The humble Special got a bad rap throughout the years, overshadowed by its bigger brother, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s without its uses.
.44 Special: The Original Flying Ashtray
The .44 Special—or rather .44 Smith & Wesson Special—is essentially a slightly lengthened .44 Russian case loaded with smokeless powder.
The original load of .44 Russian was a 246-grain, .426-inch bullet seated on 23 grains of black powder. It typically produced a velocity of 750 feet per second with 310 foot-pounds of energy. Designed in 1870, the cartridge quickly grew in popularity due to its reputation for having good enough power and accuracy to be suitable for most purposes.
When Smith & Wesson developed the New Century revolver—the Triple Lock Hand Ejector, the basis of their N-frame—they wanted a new cartridge to go with it. So, they decided to update their most popular large-bore cartridge.
Some initial problems were presented with propellants, so they lengthened the case to fit a little more powder but changed little else. The result was the same velocity with the same 246-grain round-nose lead bullet, affectionately known as a Flying Ashtray due to being large and slow.
First introduced in 1907, the .44 Special was noted—like its predecessor—for being controllable, accurate and potent enough for most purposes including law enforcement and sport shooting.
The .44 Magnum: Because Some .44 Shooters Got Bored!
The genesis of the .44 Magnum was a group of tinkerers, cowboys and gun nuts who weren’t satisfied with factory loads. They figured out that .44 Special had generous case capacity relative to its performance.
They called themselves the “.44 Associates,” and they worked up hot loads of .44 Special for various purposes. The ringleader was Elmer Keith, who worked up several handloads at the edge of what guns could tolerate, which he wrote about in his columns.
The .44 Special was the preferred cartridge for this task, as there were more varied projectiles made for it, and the revolvers of the day—such as the S&W Triple Lock, Colt New Service and SAA—had thicker cylinder walls in .44 than in .45 Colt. Ergo, they could tolerate more pressure.
In the mid-1950s, Keith partnered with the Remington cartridge company to create the .44 Remington Magnum, which sat a 260-grain bullet in a longer case and propelled it to 1,200 fps or higher.
The cartridge debuted in 1955 and was followed by the release of the first two guns chambered for it: the S&W .44 Magnum (later rechristened as the Model 29) and the Ruger Blackhawk. Now, almost 70 years later, .44 Magnum is still going strong.
.44 Special Vs. .44 Magnum For Self-Defense
There are many loads for both .44 Special and .44 Magnum that satisfy the FBI standard of 12 to 18 inches of penetration in ballistic gel through 4 layers of denim.
Available testing, such as Dr. Gary K. Roberts’ data on AR15.com, indicates that .44 Special performs best from a 4-inch (or longer) barrel, and the light-for-caliber, fast-expanding (JHP) loads in .44 Magnum are the best choice for personal defense against humans in that caliber.
Where .44 Special shines the most in comparison to its bigger brother is having drastically less recoil.
If you want confirmation that less recoil is better in a fighting cartridge, consider that the FBI ditched the original 10mm Norma load partially because of it. Police departments have also been ditching .40 S&W nationwide (partially) for the same reason over the last 20 years in favor of 9mm.
Even the old gunfightin’ gun writers of the time often acknowledged that .44 Magnum had too much kick.
Bill Jordan said as much in his book No Second Place Winner; as did fellow Border Patrolman Skeeter Skelton. In the same publication, Col. Charles Askins wrote that “.44 Magnum is a man’s cartridge,” but he would also later write that it and .41 Magnum had too much recoil for serious prolonged use. Delf “Jelly” Bryce carried a .44 Special for much of his career, though switched to a 3.5-inch S&W Magnum when he went to work for the FBI.
In short, because of .44 Magnum’s unwieldy recoil, .44 Special is the better choice for two-legged threats. As for four-legged threats, a .44 Magnum with a non-expanding, deep-penetrating projectile is unquestionably the better pick for a backup gun in grizzly country.
.44 Special Vs. .44 Magnum: Hunting
For hunting, .44 Magnum has the edge in terms of deep penetration and trajectory, and it’s capable of harvesting any type of game on the planet within a reasonable distance.
An average 240-grain load of .44 Special has a maximum point blank range of around 80 yards on a six-inch target, while the same projectile loaded for .44 Magnum can extend that to 120 yards.
While .44 Special is more than serviceable for medium to smaller game at modest distances, the reality is .44 Magnum has such a good track record that you might as well not bother.
.44 Special Vs. .44 Magnum: Sport Shooting
.44 Special is somewhat popular for SASS/CAS (Single Action Shooting Society/Cowboy Action Shooting) events due to its wide availability of factory-loaded ammunition for this purpose.
However, be aware that lever-action rifles can be fairly ammunition-sensitive. The shorter case of .44 Special can cause feeding issues in some .44 Magnum carbines (Winchesters are said to be the most prone) and not all loads will shoot to the sights.
The .44 Magnum is more popular for metallic silhouette shooting (such as IMSSU events) given the flatter trajectory and greater power. Both are good for bowling pin shoots, though you’ll get faster splits using .44 Special.
Other revolver events are dominated by the medium bores; Jerry Miculek may run a .44 Magnum faster than you’d believe but remember that you aren’t Jerry Miculek. Even for someone of that skill level, his competition handguns are usually chambered for .38/.357 or 9mm.
As to bullseye accuracy, here we get into the weeds. Mechanical accuracy has an enormous number of variables. There is, however, a known phenomenon of shorter cases sometimes degrading accuracy most likely due to gas inefficiency and/or a longer jump to the leade. It’s been observed in .38/.357 as well as .44 Special/.44 Magnum guns. This gives .44 Mag an edge in accuracy over .44 Special in some weapons, but the reality is that the difference will likely be imperceivable to most shooters.
Should I Get A .44 Magnum Or A .44 Special?
If you were really torn about these two cartridges, the best practice would be to get a .44 Magnum and figure out which .44 Special loads shoot to the sights and don’t lose any accuracy. That way, you have the best of all worlds.
If you had to choose…
Get a magnum if you’re going to do magnum things, don’t if you’re not.
The heavy recoil and high ammo costs have resulted in a constant supply of lightly used .44 Magnum revolvers since the 1950s. This fact gives .44 Magnum an edge when it comes to revolver selection, but keep in mind that after buying one you may soon find yourself joining the ranks of the many shooters who’ve traded theirs in after experiencing the recoil firsthand.
As for purpose-built .44 Special revolvers, while there may be a decent number of older models for sale on the used market, new-production options are severely limited.
S&W and Colt no longer make any. Ruger offers a couple of 5-shot GP100 models as well as the Blackhawk Bisley in .44 Special, the latter being a subtle nod to Elmer Keith’s Revolver No. 5. There are a few reproduction single-action revolvers in .44 Special as well, typically Bisley SAA clones.
Charter Arms still manufactures the Bulldog in .44 Special, including 2.5-inch and 4-inch models…but Charter Arms guns are, as Jeff Cooper put it, to be carried often and shot little.
If you wanted to find a really cool vintage .44 Special, look for a Smith & Wesson Model 21 or Model 24, though some Triple Locks and Colt New Service guns survive as well.
.44 Magnum revolvers, of course, will spoil you for choice. Smith & Wesson, Colt, Ruger, Korth, Taurus…the list goes on.
In short, there are pros and cons to both .44 Special and .44 Magnum. While the former has good enough performance to be suitable for self-defense, it’s not an ideal choice given what else is available on the current market. The latter is an excellent hunting round that’s capable of dropping even elephants, but depending on what kind of handgun hunting you expect to do, .44 Magnum may still be a suboptimal choice.
That said, if .44 Special appeals to you as a defensive cartridge, there are still plenty of relatively small revolver options out there to choose from (even if most will be second-hand). Likewise, .44 Magnum can still make for an excellent hunting revolver if you can handle the recoil.
For those with their hearts set on a .44-caliber handgun, the choice between special or magnum ultimately boils down to how you plan on using it. Both cartridges still have their places when it comes to self-defense, hunting and sport shooting, but which one will be best for you depends on the respective threat, game or sport in question. .44 Special may not be as special as it once was, but even in 2022, it’s far from useless.
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