Honestly, I’m not sure how I got that impression. Maybe it’s because over the years I’ve had some unimpressive results from shooting critters with pistols, and I just don’t trust any of them. Maybe it’s because I used to compete with .44 Magnum and .45 ACP, and in my mind those are the only “real” cartridges. But you’d think (I’ll say it before anybody else does) that if I have faith in .45 I’d think .44 Special is the bee’s knees. Hey, I never said I was being rational.
I tend to reload ammo the way I make bread. I’ll labor to come up with a recipe I like, and then I’ll industrially crank out product to that recipe with no further thought of variation. But I ran out of the .44 bullets I’d stocked up on before the latest panic, 240 grain cast semiwadcutters, and the only replacements I could find locally were 200 grain jacketed hollowpoints. This sent me back to the books, whether I wanted to be there or not.
The book, to be precise, because the only book I have here is Hornady Vol. II published in 1973. By .44 Special standards that may as well have been published last month, and I doubt the 200 JHP has changed much either. So I looked up the recommended powder charges… (What follows is a lengthy anecdote containing a certain amount of reloading geek-speak and a trip down memory lane which may not interest you.)
And the lowest Bullseye charge in the chart was 7 grains, which seemed moderately hot but only promised 950 FPS from a test barrel, which if I recall correctly is five inches long. If I wanted serious velocity from my stubby barrel I needed to load it hotter than that. No problem, the chart maxed out at almost 9 grains for 1150 FPS and I know the book is conservative.
But nearly the same powder charge in .357 Magnum throws a bullet that’s only a little over half as heavy, only 250 FPS faster. And nobody would ever call that charge wimpy.
The exercise took me down memory lane. When I was younger I used to shoot quite a lot. I was mostly interested in combat pistol and high-power rifle, but the club in the little Texas town where I lived was going through a bit of a power crisis. The club officers were all older men who were interested only in rifle shooting, as a result of which the club possessed a military pop-up rifle range with benches out to 600 yards and no outdoor pistol shooting facilities at all. But the old generation was literally dying away, and a lot of the younger shooters were more interested in pistol. With some others, I had been active in promoting a monthly combat pistol match which required very little in the way of new infrastructure, and even so I had gotten quite a lot of flack from the old generation.
Now a real firebrand arose, and he knocked aside all opposition to a Hunter Pistol Silhouette match which required its very own range. There then ensued one hell of a power struggle within the club, and I never understood why. The club owned a whole section of land, a suitable HPS site was available, and all materials and labor were donated so it cost the club nothing. Eventually my friend got his HPS range, but it was after the fight and he really needed a lot of participation to keep from looking like a total prat. So he phoned everybody he knew, which was quite a lot of people including me. We had been involved together in the combat pistol thing, and I owed him favors.
I had never heard of Hunter Pistol, but it sounded like fun. It also sounded like the sort of thing for which a 1911 was unsuitable to say the least. I didn’t regularly practice with anything but semiautos, but I did have this Super Blackhawk I didn’t shoot much. “Would that do?” I asked. “Sure! Perfect!” he said.
I gave him reason to regret saying that, but I didn’t mean to. Super Blackhawk is chambered in .44 Mag, of course, and I didn’t reload for that caliber. In fact I didn’t have much ammo for it at all. So I went to the local gun shop and bought a few boxes of whatever they had on the shelf, which turned out to be hot loads with jacket bullets. There are forty rounds fired in a standard HPS match. The ladies (Yes, I know. This was a long time ago) who kept the scores did it in a big custom van parked near the pig line because we hadn’t completed the scoring house yet, and they complained that every time I pulled the trigger on the pig line the van rocked. As it happened I practiced a lot at 25 yards back then, so I cleaned the chickens with the .44. And those jacketed bullets not only knocked the chickens off the rack, they drove them straight back into the berm and dimpled the hell out of them. My friend was a little upset about that. Actually he was very upset about that, but I had cleared the ammo with him so he didn’t have that much room to complain.
Anyway, I came away from that match with three resolutions: I enjoyed HPS quite a lot, the commercial ammo was unnecessarily hot even for the 100 yard rams, and I needed softer bullets.
So I bought dies and components and proceeded to load the Super Blackhawk down to .44 Special specs. (I was far from rich, but I was regularly employed and single and in those days would rather shoot than eat.) And I wasn’t happy with the results at all. The Ruger had always been agreeably accurate with commercial loads, but now my groups opened up to where there was no point showing up for the next match. I never knew why, but the Ruger didn’t like light loads – at least not with the heavy cast bullets.
So I loaded a bunch of increasingly hot batches, tested them on bullseye targets, and the hotter the loads the tighter the groups. I peaked at 24 grains of 2400 behind a 240-grain soft cast semiwadcutter. I was back to an immoderately hot load – it was just barely flattening the primers, as I recall – but that was what the Ruger demanded for accuracy.
I shot the next match with that combination and did fairly well. So then I did something stupid. I loaded every case I owned, which by that time was 500 rounds, with that load. And then I traded the pistol away.
Deciding I was really interested in HPS, I found somebody who wanted to sell a Thompson-Center with a scoped bull .44 barrel. I figured that would be more appropriate for HPS than the revolver, which in the fullness of time it was. But not with an absurdly hot load of 2400 behind soft cast bullets.
I sighted in the pistol a few days before the match, and didn’t notice any particular problem with the barrel. But as it happened I shot chickens/pigs/turkeys/rams and by the time I got to the 75-yard turkeys it was clear there were big problems. I was getting skunked. My spotter finally asked me, “Joel, what the hell are you doing? You’re way up on the berm!”
“I dunno!” I said. “It feels good.”
“Well, it sure isn’t hitting good.”
The scope wasn’t loose and the barrel wasn’t loose. But when I got off the line and examined the barrel, I found I was shooting a smoothbore. That hot load had worked fine in a revolver, but in a break-open with a bull barrel it was melting the bullets. I withdrew from the match, and it took me three packages of Lewis Lead Remover screens to clean the barrel. I ended up pulling every one of the bullets in my .44 Magnum stockpile and working up a whole new load for the T-C.
So maybe that’s why I’ve got this mental picture of .44 Special as a wimpy caliber, because the loading data is far below the starting point for the only other .44 I ever owned. But I like this pistol anyway.