Nobody said it better than Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry Callahan: “The .44 Magnum is the most powerful handgun in the world.” At that time this was true, but the .44’s reign as the most powerful handgun cartridge has long since ended. Today it is surpassed in power by several factory cartridges, including the .454 Casull, .480 Ruger, and both the .460 and .500 S&W. However, these cartridges also surpass the .44 Magnum in recoil.
The big .44, properly the .44 Remington Magnum, is a handful in a handgun! Some find it difficult to master, but in a heavy revolver it’s really not that bad. It remains my favorite handgun hunting cartridge, very accurate and plenty powerful enough for anything I desire to hunt with a handgun! For years gunwriter Elmer Keith had been experimenting with heavy handloads for the old .44 Special, using that case because the brass was thicker and stronger than standard cases for the .45 Colt.
Remington listened to Keith, lengthening the .44 Special case so the longer “magnum” version would not chamber in a revolver made for the shorter cartridge. Smith & Wesson made the first revolvers, the awesome Model 29 made famous first by Elmer Keith…and later by Inspector Callahan. Remington introduced the cartridge, and in 1955 the .44 Remington Magnum was born. Since then it has been chambered in numerous revolvers…and a few single-shot pistols and semi-autos. It remains the gold standard for handgun hunting, powerful yet (more or less) manageable, used to take a wide variety of game throughout the world.
However, the .44 Magnum isn’t just a handgun cartridge! It was still fairly new when, in 1959, Bill Ruger offered the first .44 Magnum carbine…and his fledgling company’s first long gun. The Ruger Model 44 was a sleek semi-automatic, somewhat reminiscent of the M1 Carbine…but fed by a short four-round tubular magazine. Marlin soon offered their 1894 lever-action in .44 Magnum, and since then there has been a steady flow of .44 Magnum carbines. Modern re-issues of Winchester 1892s have been so chambered for 40 years, and the Winchester 1894 has also been offered in .44 Magnum, along with other lever-actions and a few single shots. To my knowledge Ruger, in several iterations and model changes, has offered the only semi-auto .44 carbine.
Okay, since the .44 Magnum was conceived, developed, and is highly effective as a handgun cartridge, why a .44 Magnum rifle? Not to avoid the obvious, a carbine is easier to shoot than a handgun, and for most of us will be more accurate and offer more range. In a carbine the .44 has very mild recoil and is fun to shoot! However, one of the legends of the Old West was that it was more convenient for a cowboy (or outlaw) to have both a rifle and handgun using the same cartridge. From the 1870s the primary options were revolvers and lever-actions chambered to .38-40 and .44-40; in 1892 the .32-20 was added to this short list.
For 60 years the .44 Magnum has been available in both handguns and long guns. There are several other modern options, but I’m not sure the two-gun/one cartridge concept was ever a perfect plan. Even in the 19th Century rifle actions were stronger than revolver actions. Beefed up .44-40 loads were offered “for use in rifles only” …causing problems when used in revolvers. Designed as a handgun cartridge, all “standard” factory .44 Remington Magnum loads can be used in both handguns and revolvers. However, not all commercial loads are “standard.” For years one of my favorite .44 Magnum hunting loads was Garrett’s “Keith-type” 310-grain super hard-cast flat-point. Garrett Cartridges of Texas, Buffalo Bore, and Cor-Bon specialize in offering heavy-bullet loads for cartridges such as the .44 Remington Magnum (and .45 Colt, .45-70, .454 Casull, .500 S&W, and so forth) Factory literature (and warnings!) clearly suggest firearms these loads are safe to use in. But lever-action carbines for pistol cartridges have definite Cartridge Overall Length (COAL) restrictions. Albeit with increased recoil, these heavy-bullet loads take a .44 Magnum handgun into a whole new level of performance…but they may be too long to cycle in a lever-action .44 carbine.
Similar problems can exist with other dual-firearm cartridges. I have a Big Horn Armory M89 lever-action in .500 S&W. They recommend Buffalo Bore’s 440-grain hard-cast flat-point, which is what I’m shooting. Their factory literature clearly states that standard factory loads with lighter bullets may not function. My favorite hunting handgun remains a S&W Classic Hunter, and I have a Marlin 1894 carbine, both in .44 Magnum. I have the Big Horn .500 S&W carbine, but I do not have a .500 S&W revolver! I shoot the .44 well, but for me the big S&W cartridges are above my comfort zone!
Personally, I don’t think of the .44 as a dual rifle/handgun cartridge. For me, the .44 Magnum remains an awesome handgun cartridge…but it also stands alone just fine as a useful and versatile carbine cartridge…and the most common 240-grain .44 Magnum loads function just fine in both platforms. Depending on who is doing the loading (and actual barrel length), 240-grain .44 Magnum loads exit a handgun barrel (average7.5 inches) at between 1200 and 1400 feet per second (fps). A longer carbine barrel (average of let’s say 18 inches) yields immediate and significant bonuses in velocity, energy, and flatter trajectory. With a 240-grain bullet 1600 fps is minimal, and some barrels and loads will break 2000 fps. Just like heavy-bullets do in a revolver, this puts the .44 Magnum into different categories of both power and utility.
Back in 1980, when Browning did the first run of new Model 1892s in .44 Magnum, Payton Miller and I ran up to northern California to try it out on a hog. Honestly, we were skeptical: How would the handgun bullet perform at the much higher velocity? Payton had a shot at big boar at about 90 yards and took the shoulder shot. The bullet, a standard factory 240-grain soft-point, exited the off-shoulder and dropped the pig with authority, concerns instantly resolved!
Lately I’ve been messing with a new Marlin 1894 in stainless and synthetic, 16.5-inch barrel. It is one of the smoothest lever-actions I’ve ever handled, and the accuracy is astounding. Zeroed a bit high at 100 yards, my neighbors and I take turns ringing steel gongs at 200 yards with no problems; it’s a really fun gun to shoot. So far, I’ve had it on a couple of hog hunts where the pigs didn’t cooperate.
I was starting to worry it was one of those hard-luck guns. A week ago, I had it on a whitetail stand on a cottonwood river bottom in western Nebraska. Just at sunset a very nice ten-point buck appeared and gave me a shot at 125 yards. The buck ran to the left into some cedars, but I found him almost immediately. The bullet, a new 200-grain Monoflex from Hornady, entered the on-shoulder, expanded perfectly, and was against the hide on the far side. Hopefully the jinx is broken; I look forward to trying it again on hogs soon.