The .44 Spl. is a rimmed cartridge made for revolvers, and while today’s tactical shooters definitely favor semi-automatic pistols over the “trusty” revolver, a lot of bad behavior has been resolved by old-fashioned wheelguns over the years. I don’t want to get into the pistol vs. revolver argument, but there are still many folks today, including two members of my family, who favor the simplicity of a revolver. Given that orientation, the .44 Spl. offers a surprisingly wide variety of ammunition that will neutralize threats with about the same performance as American’s longtime sweetheart, the .45 ACP. And with a duty-size handgun using moderately powered ammunition, felt recoil in a .44 Spl. revolver will probably be less than with a 1911 pistol. Whether or not the .44 Spl. works for a new shooter will probably depend on what revolver and ammunition is used.
What’s generally considered acceptable in a caliber greater than .40 inches is a bullet that travels somewhere between 700 and 900 fps. In the old days, standard .44 bullets weighed around 240 to 250 grains, but the bulk of factory-loaded .44 Spl. ammo today uses bullets around 180 to 210 grains. I consider that a fair trade since we haven’t given up bullet diameter, but we have decreased recoil for any given velocity. True, we’ll likely get less penetration, but the human torso is not a hardened target. The variety of factory .44 Spl. ammo I’ve used over the years breaks down into four categories I think would work.
In the 700- to 800-fps range—depending on what gun you’re using—we have Black Hills 210-grain lead flatpoint, Federal’s 200-grain lead semi-wadcutter hollow point, Winchester’s 200-grain lead cowboy load and Remington’s decades-old 246-grain lead roundnose. Generally, in a bullet that doesn’t expand, a large meplat generates more destruction in tissue than a bullet with a round nose or smaller meplat. Based on that, I’d have no qualms defending myself with a cylinder full of Black Hills’ 210-grainers. Whatever load you select, recoil is minimal, which expedites recovery time between shots.
Velocities of 800 to 900 fps are generated by Federal’s 200-grain lead hollow point, as well as Speer’s 200-grain Gold Dot hollow point and Winchester’s 200-grain Silver Tip hollow point. The Federal 200-grain hollow point is awesome looking and, viewed from the muzzle end of a revolver, I think it would be very intimidating. In years past, I have taken Texas whitetail deer with both the Speer Gold Dot and Winchester Silver Tips. Expansion was dramatic, producing quick kills on both animals. Both these rounds should be excellent fight-stoppers.
Moving up to loads producing 900 to 1,000 fps gives us the Blazer 200-grain JHP, Hornady’s 180-grain JHP and the PMC 180-grain JHP. On a recent .44 Spl. hunt I failed to take a large Texas whitetail buck with the Blazer load due to poor shot placement, not poor bullet performance. Looking at the high-speed camera footage after the hunt showed the deer almost knocked from his feet (but subsequently recovering) when the bullet struck muscle above the shoulder. Bad judgement on my part trying to use iron sights in inadequate light, but had the load been used against an attacker, I suspect it might have ended the fight or at least bought time for a follow-up shot. And that’s what lighter jacketed hollow points are supposed to do.
Stepping up velocities to over 1,000 fps second takes us to more specialized ammo. Buffalo Bore makes several .44 Spl. loads in this category, but the one of most interest for self-defense is their 200-grain lead wadcutter at around 1,000 fps. Like the classic .38 Spl. wadcutter target load, this bullet has a large, flat frontal face but carries some serious mass and generates relatively high velocity. Buffalo Bore also loads a 255-grain Keith-style bullet at around 1,100 fps, which qualifies for entry level into .44 Mag. country. Hornady loads a 165-grain FTX bullet in .44 Spl. cases that leaves the muzzle in the neighborhood of 1,100 fps, and while I haven’t tried these yet, I’ve been happy with Hornady’s FTX bullets in other calibers.
Over the years, all these loads have produced groups of 2 to 4 inches at 25 yards in various single- and double-action revolvers I own or have owned. Recoil varies between the different performance levels of ammo tested, and given the personal aspect of recoil tolerance, I can’t suggest what load or loads you should use. Personally, my tolerance for recoil has diminished over the years, which has affected not only what ammo I can effectively use, but what guns I can comfortably and confidently shoot. What I would suggest is that you choose the ammo that is gentle enough that you’re eager to spend time on the practice range and thus improve your proficiency. A couple of hits from a 750-fps round are much better than several misses with super-velocity ammo.
While a lot of .44 Spl. revolvers have been made over the years, it’s mainly single-action cowboy-style guns that are being marketed today. There’s nothing wrong with that for home defense if it’s what you have and you accept the fact that reloading single-actions is rather slow. Accurate shooing is imperative, because you may have to settle things with the five or six shots in the gun depending on whether your “hog leg” has a transfer-bar system or not. Of the three full-size Smith & Wesson .44 Spl. double-action revolvers I own, none are currently in production. The caliber hasn’t been a recent best-seller for gun companies.
If you’re in the market for a small, five-shot .44 Spl., the Charter Arms Bulldog is the only game in town. It comes in several configurations and is a particular favorite of hikers as it is lightweight but chambers efficacious .44 Spl. snakeshot cartridges as well as JHPs.
Maybe the best choice for a duty-size, defensive .44-caliber revolver is offered by Smith & Wesson—its popular, relatively new Model 69.
Yes, the Model 69 is actually chambered for the .44 Mag., but it’s built on the company’s smaller, lighter L-frame with a 4.2-inch barrel, smooth-faced combat trigger and K-frame grips. Capacity drops to five rounds from the N-frame’s six, but this wheelgun fits more hands and is faster handling. Tuff Products or Safariland speed strips can hasten reloading.
The Model 69 stoked with .44 Spls. is a good carry gun and an excellent home-defense piece. Load it with snakeshot for rattlers or water moccasins, or with magnum rounds when traipsing through bear country. It’s an all-around winner.