.44 Magnum: Not just for handguns!

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.

44 handguns: The .44 Remington Magnum, designed as a handgun cartridge, has been chambered to numerous pistols and revolvers. Boddington’s T/C Contender with .44 barrel and his S&W Classic Hunter are shown with Garrett’s 310-grain super-hard-cat “Hammerhead” load…which will not cycle in all lever-action carbines.
44 handguns: The .44 Remington Magnum, designed as a handgun cartridge, has been chambered to numerous pistols and revolvers. Boddington’s T/C Contender with .44 barrel and his S&W Classic Hunter are shown with Garrett’s 310-grain super-hard-cat “Hammerhead” load…which will not cycle in all lever-action carbines.

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.

44 Spl 44 Mag: Based on Elmer Keith’s handloading experiments, the .44 Magnum, right, was created by lengthening the old .44 Special case (left), so that the longer and more powerful cartridge could not be chambered in .44 Special revolvers.
44 Spl 44 Mag: Based on Elmer Keith’s handloading experiments, the .44 Magnum, right, was created by lengthening the old .44 Special case (left), so that the longer and more powerful cartridge could not be chambered in .44 Special revolvers.

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.

Browning 92: Payton Miller and Mike Ballew with a big California boar, taken in about 1980 with one of Browning’s first Model 1892s in .44 Magnum. The 240-grain soft-point penetrated both shoulders and kept on going!
Browning 92: Payton Miller and Mike Ballew with a big California boar, taken in about 1980 with one of Browning’s first Model 1892s in .44 Magnum. The 240-grain soft-point penetrated both shoulders and kept on going!

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.

Feral hog 44: This S&W Classic Hunter with 6.5-inch barrel has long been one of Boddington’s favorite hunting handguns, accurate and manageable. This is an extremely ugly California boar, taken with Garrett’s 310-grain super-hard-cast load.
Feral hog 44: This S&W Classic Hunter with 6.5-inch barrel has long been one of Boddington’s favorite hunting handguns, accurate and manageable. This is an extremely ugly California boar, taken with Garrett’s 310-grain super-hard-cast load.

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.  

IMG_1317: On the bench with a new Marlin 1894 in .44 Magnum. This is one of smoothest and slickest lever-actions Boddington has used. The rail mount has integral aperture sight, but offers full range of mounting with optics.
IMG_1317: On the bench with a new Marlin 1894 in .44 Magnum. This is one of smoothest and slickest lever-actions Boddington has used. The rail mount has integral aperture sight, but offers full range of mounting with optics.

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.

IMG_1333: Mounted with a low-power scope, the 1894 proved amazingly accurate…and offered hunting capability to at least 200 yards, awesome versatility from a short-barreled carbine.
IMG_1333: Mounted with a low-power scope, the 1894 proved amazingly accurate…and offered hunting capability to at least 200 yards, awesome versatility from a short-barreled 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!

IMG_2318: Big Horn Armory’s M89 “Spike Driver” in .500 S&W is a beautiful and powerful carbine. Accuracy is superb with Buffalo Bore’s 440-grain load, but although the .500 S&W is obviously a dual carbine/handgun cartridge, standard factory loads with lighter bullets may not cycle.
IMG_2318: Big Horn Armory’s M89 “Spike Driver” in .500 S&W is a beautiful and powerful carbine. Accuracy is superb with Buffalo Bore’s 440-grain load, but although the .500 S&W is obviously a dual carbine/handgun cartridge, standard factory loads with lighter bullets may not cycle.

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.

IMG_3794: Coming off a stand in Texas with the Marlin 1894 .44 Magnum. Boddington intended to use the carbine for wild hogs, but after a couple of unsuccessful outings he turned it to deer hunting…where it came through with flying colors.
IMG_3794: Coming off a stand in Texas with the Marlin 1894 .44 Magnum. Boddington intended to use the carbine for wild hogs, but after a couple of unsuccessful outings he turned it to deer hunting…where it came through with flying colors.

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!

IMG_3910: A fine Nebraska whitetail, taken at sunset with the 1894 Marlin .44 Magnum, using a new Hornady 200-grain Monoflex bullet.
IMG_3910: A fine Nebraska whitetail, taken at sunset with the 1894 Marlin .44 Magnum, using a new Hornady 200-grain Monoflex bullet.

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.

Javelina .44: A young Boddington with a javelina, taken with one of his most memorable shots with a handgun, a bit over 100 yards with an 8 3/8-inch barrel S&W M29. Today his older eyes would preclude attempting such a shot with a handgun…but no issues with a carbine!
Javelina .44: A young Boddington with a javelina, taken with one of his most memorable shots with a handgun, a bit over 100 yards with an 8 3/8-inch barrel S&W M29. Today his older eyes would preclude attempting such a shot with a handgun…but no issues with a carbine!

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.

Mike Walker and Elmer Keith: Remington’s great engineer, Mike Walker, conferring with Elmer Keith at Remington’s Ilion factory. S&W made the first .44 Magnum revolvers, but Walker and Keith deserve credit for the cartridge.
Mike Walker and Elmer Keith: Remington’s great engineer, Mike Walker, conferring with Elmer Keith at Remington’s Ilion factory. S&W made the first .44 Magnum revolvers, but Walker and Keith deserve credit for the cartridge.

REMINGTON’S BIG SEVEN By Craig Boddington

I’m on the record as stating (more than once!) that the 7mm Remington Magnum isn’t one of my favorites. It’s a popular cartridge so this always brings howls from its many fans. More importantly, at least to me, is that it’s not good journalism—or business—to contradict myself. Since I’ve been writing about this stuff for 40-odd years I think it’s possible (and allowable) for my opinions to change over time. But this opinion has not changed: The 7mm Remington Magnum is not among my all-time favorite cartridges.

7 mag line-up: Left to right: 7mm Remington Short Action Ultra Mag, .280 Remington, 7mm Remington Magnum, 7mm Weatherby Magnum, 7mm Shooting Times Westerner, 7mm Remington Ultra Mag. The 7mm Remington Magnum is hardly the only “fast 7mm,” and certainly not the speediest—but it is by far the most popular and most available, a world-standard hunting cartridge.

My reasons are simple: There are lots of excellent cartridges, and it’s impossible to love them all equally. I love the .270 Winchester because it shoots just as flat as the 7mm Remington Magnum…but burns less powder, has less recoil, does fine in a 22-inch barrel, and can be built into a lighter rifle. If I feel I might need (or just want!) more power I’ve generally stepped up to a fast .30-caliber, which can offer more bullet weight and frontal area with similar velocity…albeit with more recoil.

7mm 50th: This 2012 Remington M700 BDL was the 50th Anniversary edition of both the M700 and the 7mm Remington Magnum. This rifle produced half-inch groups, straight out of the box with factory ammunition.

It is possible other folks feel much the same. For some years the 7mm Remington Magnum was the world’s most popular cartridge to bear the “magnum” suffix. This is no longer true; the .300 Winchester Magnum has surpassed it in overall popularity. I don’t have the data to support a hypothesis that the .270 is currently more popular than the 7mm Remington Magnum, but it wouldn’t surprise me. The .270 seems to keep rolling along, and it is fact that Remington’s Big Seven is not as popular as it was 20 years ago.

1984 Dall sheep Alaska: In 1984 I took my first Dall sheep with a beautifully restocked left-hand M700 in 7mm Remington Magnum. At the time this was one of my only rifles; I used it a lot with perfect results.

That said, the Big Seven is a powerful, versatile, and effective hunting cartridge, and I have a lot of experience using it. Over the years I’ve used it in a lot of test rifles, some I hunted with and some not. However, for two periods I used it a great deal because that was the chambering of two favorite rifles. In the early 80s, living in LA and working at Petersen Publishing, I had multiple burglaries and lost almost all my firearms. A fellow lefty in the LA SCI chapter suffered a severe injury to his left eye, had to switch to right-handed shooting, and sold some rifles. Being a bit short of rifles at the moment I bought two: A pre-’64 Model 70 .375 converted to left-hand bolt, a rifle I used for years and should have kept; and a left-hand Remington 700 in 7mm Remington Magnum in gorgeous wood with a left-hand cheekpiece and rollover comb.

2000 Bishop mtn nyala: My old friend Joe Bishop used a battered Sako in 7mm Remington Magnum for all his mountain hunting, including for this mountain nyala in the high country of Ethiopia.

I used that rifle a lot, but a few years later I had a chance at a gorgeous David Miller rifle I couldn’t resist, also on a left-hand M700 rifle. Just by chance it happened to be chambered to 7mm Remington Magnum. Honest, that wouldn’t have been my choice, but the rifle wasn’t made for me and the price was right. For deer-sized game and African plains game it was my “go to” rifle for years. The cartridge performed flawlessly…as it has since introduced in 1962.

Using a new left-hand M700 X Custom, these are all five-shot groups fired with 168-grain Barnes LRX and 162-grain Hornady ELD-X. Both loads averaged under one inch for five-shot groups. I believe this “medium” weight range gives the 7mm Remington Magnum its greatest versatility for both hunting and long-range target shooting.

The fact that it might not have been my first choice has nothing to do with its utility—and it has been the first choice of many experienced hunters. Legendary sheep hunter Bert Klineburger (1926-2017) was a 7mm guy; he used his 7mm Remington Magnum to open much of the Asian sheep hunting available today. My old friend Joe Bishop, who left us early this year, was another staunch 7mm fan. He had a marvelous collection of fine guns—but he did his mountain hunting with a much-battered Sako in 7mm Remington Magnum.

At the SAAM shooting ranges at FTW Ranch in Texas the M700 X Custom in 7mm Remington Magnum, dialing a Swarovski scope, marched out 1000 yards with little difficulty. Much shooting at SAAM was done with a suppressor, a very pleasant experience.

Like most of the “belted magnums,” it’s based on a .375 H&H case, shortened and necked down to 7mm. In 1962 it was immediately seen as more versatile than Winchester’s .264, with the ability to use heavier bullets. Although it shoots very flat, it is not ridiculously fast. Light 140-grain loads average about 3200 fps; 160-grain bullets run about 2950 fps; and the 175-grain heavyweight is standard at 2860.

In Tanzania in 2010 I used a Dakota M10 single shot in 7mm Remington Magnum. Here, Jaco Oosthuizen and I are set up waiting for a sitatunga to step into the clear. He was nearly 300 yards out in the swamp; we waited more than an hour before getting a shot.

If I were hunting elk, I might step up to 175-grain bullets, but in truth I’ve almost never used 7mm bullets over 165 grains…and I’ve done little elk hunting with this or any other 7mm! When I was shooting the 7mm Remington Magnum a lot I generally used 160-grain Nosler Partitions, Hornady 162-grain, and 165-grain Sierra, trying to compromise between velocity/trajectory and the high Sectional Density (SD) of these medium-weight bullets. To my thinking this is a very good bullet range for a fast 7mm. Bullets of 140 to 150 grains are fast and work just fine…but .270 bullets of the same weight are only slightly slower and have higher SD. In the 7mm Remington Magnum, medium-weight bullets are superior in weight, velocity, and SD than anything you can fling out of a .270…and have higher SD than 180-grain .30-caliber bullets…with less recoil.

Although rarely for elk and never for moose or big bears, I used these medium 7mm bullets to take a lot of deer, some sheep and goats, caribou, a wide assortment of African antelopes, and the occasional black bear.

This Dakota M10 single shot in 7mm Remington Magnum was as accurate as pretty. This is a good East African sitatunga, taken in Tanzania in 2010.
This Dakota M10 single shot in 7mm Remington Magnum was as accurate as pretty. This is a good East African sitatunga, taken in Tanzania in 2010.

I predict neither the demise nor a huge resurgence for the 7mm Remington Magnum. Modern shooters are discovering that unpleasant recoil isn’t necessary for reasonable performance, witness the runaway success of the 6.5mm Creedmoor and the slow, steady increase of the 7mm-08’s popularity (which also uses. 284-inch bullets). However, also witness the gradual ascendancy of the .300 Winchester Magnum and other fast .30s.

On a recent caribou hunt John Boseman took the best bull in camp with a long shot from his 7mm Remington Magnum. Remington’s “Big Seven” isn’t as popular as it once was, but it’s still a popular and extremely effective hunting cartridge.
On a recent caribou hunt John Boseman took the best bull in camp with a long shot from his 7mm Remington Magnum. Remington’s “Big Seven” isn’t as popular as it once was, but it’s still a popular and extremely effective hunting cartridge.

Here’s the deal: You can take your pick and name your poison. The 7mm Remington Magnum is only slightly more powerful than the .270 Winchester and .280 Remington (both great cartridges). However, it is significantly more powerful, more capable, and more versatile than the mild 6.5mms and 7mms. It is less powerful, less capable, and less versatile than the fast .30s…but it also kicks a lot less. What you need depends largely on what and where you hunt and performance you’re most confident in, but the current interest in long-range shooting continues to increase development in more aerodynamic bullets…and the 7mm Remington Magnum has benefited.

This Remington M700 X Custom is the first 7mm Remington Magnum rifle I’ve owned in more than a decade. Recoil is considerably milder than the fast .30-calibers, and with modern aerodynamic bullets just about as effective.
This Remington M700 X Custom is the first 7mm Remington Magnum rifle I’ve owned in more than a decade. Recoil is considerably milder than the fast .30-calibers, and with modern aerodynamic bullets just about as effective.

Perhaps oddly, I haven’t owned a 7mm Remington Magnum for years. However, regardless of how I feel about it, as a gunwriter and as a hunter who often uses “camp rifles,” it’s an unavoidable cartridge, a world standard—and it performs. In 2010, in Tanzania, I used a gorgeous Dakota M10 single shot in 7mm Remington Magnum. It was an awesome rifle, as accurate as it was pretty. I wanted to buy it, but somebody else spoke first. In 2012, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Remington M700 and the Big Seven, I had in for test a simple and very “retro” M700 BDL in 7mm Remington Magnum. That rifle was astonishingly accurate, producing half-inch groups right out of the box. I should have bought it, but it was a right-hand action, so I sent it back.

So far this is the best five-shot group I’ve gotten from the M700 X Custom, about four-tenths of an inch with Hornady’s 162-grain ELD-X Precision Hunter load.
So far this is the best five-shot group I’ve gotten from the M700 X Custom, about four-tenths of an inch with Hornady’s 162-grain ELD-X Precision Hunter load.

Right now, I have a new version of the M700 from the Custom Shop, left-hand action with Shilen barrel and McMillan stock. I haven’t hunted with it yet, but I used it at the FTW Ranch in Texas, home of the SAAM training courses, and I’ve spent a lot of time with on my range. Using Swarovski Z8i scope with their Ballistic Flex Turret it went straight to 700 yards with no hiccups, and then on to 1000 yards with little difficulty. So far, my best accuracy has been with 168-grain Barnes LRX and Hornady 162-grain ELD-X. The Barnes LRX has a high Ballistic Coefficient (BC) of .550, velocity over 2900, and consistent five-shot-group average under an inch. The 162-grain ELD-X has an off-the-charts BC of .630 and Hornady’s Precision Hunter load averaged 3030 fps. This load also holds a five-shot-group average under an inch. As hunting bullets, the properties of these two bullets are different…but there isn’t much you couldn’t do with either of them.

For years this gorgeous left-hand David Miller rifle in 7mm Remington Magnum was my “go to” rifle for medium-sized game. This is my best-ever pronghorn, taken in west Texas with a tough shot from a sitting position at about 250 yards.
For years this gorgeous left-hand David Miller rifle in 7mm Remington Magnum was my “go to” rifle for medium-sized game. This is my best-ever pronghorn, taken in west Texas with a tough shot from a sitting position at about 250 yards.

As has been the case since 1962, the 7mm Remington Magnum is plenty powerful for the entire deer-sheep-goat class of game at all sensible ranges; and fully adequate for elk and the full run of African plains game, perhaps excepting only eland. With modern bullets, it’s even better than ever. After years of doing most of my long-range shooting with fast .30s and bullets from 180 to 200-grains, I found the Big Seven much more pleasant to shoot. I don’t think the cartridge will ever be among my all-time favorites, but it’s a fine hunting cartridge. It’s been a while since I’ve gone through a 7mm Remington Magnum phase, but this rifle could send me into another one!

.204 RUGER: THE BEST VARMINT CARTRIDGE? BY CRAIG BODDINGTON

It was a perfect setup for prairie dogs; we had a big shade tree to our left, three of us in line on portable benches, with a big colony stretching away before us. Stephen Shen was on the left, Gordon Marsh in the middle, me on the right. Interestingly, all three of us were shooting the .204 Ruger cartridge: Stephen a Savage 116, while both Gordon and I were shooting Ruger No. Ones, his in blue/walnut and mine stainless/laminate.

Left to right: .17 Remington, .17 Remington Fireball, .17 Hornet,
The .17s run from very fast to “medium” and all are useful but, in common, the light .17-caliber bullets hold up poorly in wind. Left to right: .17 Remington, .17 Remington Fireball, .17 Hornet,

It wasn’t universal; Bill Green was off the right, popping away and having a ball with a semi-auto .17 HMR . This was Gordon and Bill’s annual prairie dog shoot out of Cheyenne, hunting with Craig Oceanak and Nick of Timberline Outfitters. It was my second shoot with them; for Stephen, CEO of Vector Optics, his first ever. We had other rifles, .223s and .22-250s. However, except for Bill, who clung to his .17 HMR and walked in some amazing shots, the .204s did the majority of the work.  There are many excellent varmint cartridges, so it struck me as unusual that three among our foursome were shooting .204s…but I think we made good choices.

The various .22 centerfires are the classic varmint cartridges—but only a few have become popular. Left to right: .22 Hornet (1930); .222 Remington (1950); ,220-250 (1965); .220 Swift (1935); .223 WSSM (2002).
The various .22 centerfires are the classic varmint cartridges—but only a few have become popular. Left to right: .22 Hornet (1930); .222 Remington (1950); ,220-250 (1965); .220 Swift (1935); .223 WSSM (2002).

When I say “varmint cartridge” I’m thinking rodents that eat grass and dig burrows, and thus cause problems for farmers and ranchers. Woodchucks in the East; prairie dogs, rock-chucks, ground squirrels and gophers in the West. Developing cartridges and rifles for this class of pest is primarily an American phenomenon, and we’ve been doing it for a long time.

The .204 Ruger is readily adaptable to the AR action and is chambered by numerous manufacturers. This super-accurate AR in .204 Ruger was made by MGA in Spring, Texas.
The .204 Ruger is readily adaptable to the AR action and is chambered by numerous manufacturers. This super-accurate AR in .204 Ruger was made by MGA in Spring, Texas.

The requirements are simple: Accuracy, range, and minimal recoil. Accuracy because we’re dealing with small targets. A ‘chuck is comparatively large, but an upright prairie dog is only a couple inches across. A “one-MOA” rifle is thus a 200-yard prairie dog gun. One-half MOA is really the starting point. Ranging capability does depend on how you go about it. The rim-fires are great fun for short-range work…and stalking the edges and shooting from field positions with center-fires is excellent training. But if you set up from deliberate shooting positions and try to reach out several hundred yards, fast, flat-shooting cartridges are essential.

My Ruger No. One .204 Ruger in stainless and laminate regularly turns in half-inch group with both 32 and 40-grain loads. Although a bit slower, I prefer the 40-grain load because the heavier bullet holds up better in wind.
My Ruger No. One .204 Ruger in stainless and laminate regularly turns in half-inch group with both 32 and 40-grain loads. Although a bit slower, I prefer the 40-grain load because the heavier bullet holds up better in wind.

In a big ‘dog town you might shoot steadily all day, with numerous breaks to cool and clean barrels. When I was a kid, I did a lot of prairie-dogging with a .264 Winchester Magnum—but it’s silly to take that much pounding. The 6mms and .25s remain excellent crossover cartridges: Varmints with lighter bullets, big game with heavier bullets. Power is not an issue; at close range the .22 LR is plenty good for the job.

We all have our favorites, but without question these are the three most popular centerfire varmint cartridges, all made by numerous manufacturers and readily available: Left to right: .223 Remington, .204 Ruger, .22-250 Remington
We all have our favorites, but without question these are the three most popular centerfire varmint cartridges, all made by numerous manufacturers and readily available: Left to right: .223 Remington, .204 Ruger, .22-250 Remington

However, the biggest problem with cartridges above the .22 center-fires is even that modest amount of recoil makes it impossible to call shots through the scope. This is especially important in the windy West. As range and wind effect increase, not every shot will hit. The ideal situation is to observe the strike through the scope and correct. You can’t do this while you’re lost in recoil! I’ve often said that prairie dogs are great teachers, both for precise shot placement and for calling wind. The buddy system works, taking turns spotting and shooting—but you’ll learn more if you can call shots through the scope and make your own corrections.

Velocity is important in a versatile varmint cartridge, but extreme speed isn’t everything! Few factory loads break 4000 fps, mostly with lighter bullets. Left to right, these are most of the modern 4000 fps merchants: .17 Remington (25 gr.); 204 Ruger (34 gr.); .22-250 (40 gr.); .223 WSSM (40 gr.); 220 Swift (40 gr.); .243 Winchester (55 gr.).
Velocity is important in a versatile varmint cartridge, but extreme speed isn’t everything! Few factory loads break 4000 fps, mostly with lighter bullets. Left to right, these are most of the modern 4000 fps merchants: .17 Remington (25 gr.); 204 Ruger (34 gr.); .22-250 (40 gr.); .223 WSSM (40 gr.); 220 Swift (40 gr.); .243 Winchester (55 gr.).

We have multiple choices, and the arguments for one cartridge versus another are actually pretty thin. The little .22 Hornet, introduced in 1930, was probably the first center-fire intended for varminting. It retains a following and I love it—but with modest velocity it’s limited in range. Introduced in 1935, the .220 Swift was the first commercial cartridge to break 4000 fps—and it’s still among few that do. Accurate as well as fast, the Swift still has fans, but for many years the .22-250 has been the most popular fast .22 center fire.

Gordon Marsh marks a prairie dog for Stephen Shen. Spotting for your buddies is half the fun of a prairie dog shoot, but the learning curve is steeper if you can call your shots through the scope. The .204 Ruger allows this; the fastest .22 centerfires have a bit too much recoil.:

In the 1930s there were several wildcats based on the .250 Savage case necked down to .224-inch. The most common was a 1937 version called “.22 Varminter,” legitimized by Remington in 1965 as the .22-250 Remington. The .22-250 isn’t as fast as the Swift, but close, and is very accurate. Other fast .22s have included the .224 Weatherby Magnum, .225 Winchester, and .223 WSSM, but the .22-250 is today’s preferred long-range varmint cartridge.

Wholesale Hunter’s Gordon Marsh on the bench with his Ruger No. One in .204 Ruger. A great varmint rifle isn’t just the action and cartridge! Also needed is a good, clear scope with plenty of magnification and a sweet trigger. Marsh modified this Ruger with a crisp, light Jard trigger
Wholesale Hunter’s Gordon Marsh on the bench with his Ruger No. One in .204 Ruger. A great varmint rifle isn’t just the action and cartridge! Also needed is a good, clear scope with plenty of magnification and a sweet trigger. Marsh modified this Ruger with a crisp, light Jard trigger

If there’s a problem with the .22-250, it’s simply that, unless gun weight is fairly extreme, there’s just too much recoil to call shots through the scope. So, over the years, many of us have consciously sacrificed velocity and range and used milder .22 center-fires. Developed by Remington’s Mike Walker as a bench-rest cartridge back in 1950, the mild and super-accurate .222 Remington filled this niche perfectly. Its lack of popularity today is coincidental. In the late 1950s the U.S. Army was looking for a smaller-caliber military cartridge. The .222 Remington didn’t have quite the velocity they wanted, so the .222 Remington Magnum was created with a longer case. It wasn’t popular as a civilian cartridge and wasn’t adopted by the military, losing out to the .223 Remington.

: I like to spend at least part of my time in a prairie dog town shooting from field positions. Misses increase, but the training is invaluable! Here, I’m shooting sitting with the .204 over a tall bipod
: I like to spend at least part of my time in a prairie dog town shooting from field positions. Misses increase, but the training is invaluable! Here, I’m shooting sitting with the .204 over a tall bipod

The .223 (5.56x45mm) is also based on the .222 Remington, with a lengthened case and shorter neck. We could argue that the .222 Remington is the more accurate cartridge, and the .222 Remington Magnum is faster. But what’s the point? As our military (and NATO) cartridge, the .223 Remington/5.56x45mm is today’s most popular center-fire cartridge, and it’s a marvelous varmint cartridge.

Vector Optics’ Stephen Shen on a portable bench with his Savage 116 in .204 Ruger, of course with a Vector high-range variable scope. Inexpensive, accurate, and with a great trigger, Savage offers several variations of excellent heavy-barreled varmint rifles.
Vector Optics’ Stephen Shen on a portable bench with his Savage 116 in .204 Ruger, of course with a Vector high-range variable scope. Inexpensive, accurate, and with a great trigger, Savage offers several variations of excellent heavy-barreled varmint rifles.

With a 55-grain bullet at about 3300 fps it’s effective on small varmints to at least 300 yards, and even in a fairly light-barreled rifle it’s mild enough to call shots through the scope. New contenders such as the .22 Nosler and Federal’s .224 Valkyrie will also run through the AR15 platform and offer more velocity. We could also argue that they are “better” cartridges…but it remains to be seen if they can approach the .223’s popularity.

Stephen Shen of Vector Optics, Boddington, and Gordon Marsh of Wholesale Hunter on a fine Wyoming morning with a huge prairie dog town stretching away behind us! All three of us used the .204 Ruger as our primary rifles, in my opinion one of our very best varmint cartridges.
Stephen Shen of Vector Optics, Boddington, and Gordon Marsh of Wholesale Hunter on a fine Wyoming morning with a huge prairie dog town stretching away behind us! All three of us used the .204 Ruger as our primary rifles, in my opinion one of our very best varmint cartridges.

Australian fox hunters created .17-caliber center-fires because the light bullet wouldn’t exit, thus minimizing pelt damage. In 1971 Remington necked down the .222 Remington Magnum to create the .17 Remington, a 4000 fps-cartridge with bullets up to 25 grains. The .17s are useful, and today we have choices, from rim-fires up through the .17 Hornet, .17 Remington Fireball, and the granddaddy .17 Remington. Accuracy can be astounding and there’s plenty of power for prairie dogs and such, although I question the milder .17s on coyotes. The big problem: The .17-caliber’s light bullets just don’t hold up in wind!

The .20-calibers, bullet diameter .204-inch, are a recent development, spawned by good old American wildcatters in the 1990s. There are a number of wildcat and proprietary .20-caliber cartridges, but the .204 Ruger is the only factory .20-caliber. Introduced in 2004 as a joint project between Hornady and Ruger, the .204 is based on the .222 Remington Magnum case.

The theory is to split the difference between the .17s and .22 center-fires…and the actual result, to me, offers the best of all worlds. Again, we’re talking the specialized world of varmint cartridges. The .20-caliber doesn’t offer the heavy-bullet flexibility of the .22 center-fires for larger game. They are certainly effective on fur-bearers up to coyotes, but don’t minimize pelt damage like the .17s. Also, the faster .17s are prone to rapid fouling; the .20s are not.

The .204 Ruger took off fast. All major manufacturers load it, with bullet weights from 24 to 45 grains. At about 34 grains and lighter the .204 Ruger reaches or exceeds 4000 fps. I’m not usually quick to pick up on a new cartridge—especially in an unfamiliar bullet diameter! My usual mantra is (grumble, grumble): “We’ve got enough calibers and cartridges!” A Ruger No. One in .204, stainless and laminate in heavy-barrel configuration, came in as a test rifle. I was impressed enough to buy it and, nearly 15 years later, it remains my go-to prairie dog rifle.

Here’s what I like about the .204: Accuracy is consistently good with all loads. My preference is the 40-grain load, not the fastest at 3900 fps, but with that heavier bullet it holds up in wind better than the faster, lighter bullets. More importantly, it seems to perform about as well as the .22-250 at similar velocities with varmint bullets from 50 to 55 grains. Most important: With the lighter bullet and heavier barrel (smaller bore equals more steel for equal barrel diameter) it has less recoil than a .22-250, so I can easily call shots through the scope.

Requirements for an ideal varmint cartridge are simple: Accuracy, velocity, shoot-ability. If I had to cut down to just one, it’s the .204 I’d hang onto!

Reloading .32 S&W Top-Break Revolvers

Part of the fun of reloading is bringing hundred-year-old guns back to life, like 32 S&W top-break revolver. These revolvers can be very inexpensive—running around $200 or less for one in excellent condition—and ammunition and reloading supplies are also inexpensive. Loading and shooting this round offer some challenges, though, so below I offer my personal experience loading and shooting this round.

Buying Reloading Brass

A few companies do sell loaded ammunition for the .32 S&W top-break revolver; likewise, Starline and Magtech both offer unprimed brass at a low price. You should cast pure lead bullets and not worry about sizing them. Lee offers an inexpensive (around $19) 98 grain bullet mold that can cast an 88 grain bullet that’s .311” in diameter.

Choosing the Right Die

Now comes the difficult part. No one currently makes dedicated .32 S&W dies, but you have a few options that will work. Dies made for 32 S&W Long, 32 H&R Mag and .327 Federal magnum will all work to some degree. Even dies for 32 ACP will work.

The sizing die is the same for these options, but the expanding die and seating/crimp die can cause problems. The 32 ACP dies will size and expand the neck just fine and the seating die will seat the bullet well, but the 32 ACP uses a tapered crimp, which means you won’t have a nice factory roll crimp. Depending on the powder you use, this may not be a problem. Personally, I prefer a modest roll crimp to get a better powder burn and to burn the powder fast enough so the case expands to the chamber and creates a good seal. A faster burn also lessens the stress on the gun itself and prevents the chamber from getting dirty.

I use the Lee .32 S&W Long Die set because it comes with the correct shell holder at no extra cost. You can disassemble the Lee expanding die and insert a filler plug to make the expander plug extend down enough to properly expand the neck.

Now we have to address the seating die and crimp. One option is to simply screw the seating plug down enough to seat the bullet and the die will close the flared case, but that isn’t ideal. Fortunately, I have a small lathe in my workshop that enables me to chuck the factory die, shorten it by 3/16”, and recut the internal bevel so it accepts a flared case. This worked like a charm—I have a perfect roll crimp and I can still use the dies in the original calibers they were designed for.

Picking Your Powder

When it comes to loading, nobody can tell you exactly what’s safe for your antique revolver. However, I can tell you what works best for my 32. My 32 S&W is an H&R top-break made between 1895 and 1905 that is in excellent condition. I tried a few powders like Red Dot, Win 231 and Unique before finding that 1.6 grains of Tin Star was perfect. It filled the case to the base of the bullet, just as it was designed to do with old Black Powder cartridges. Tin Star burns very clean, though it does require at least a modest roll crimp. Using Tin Star, I can record a velocity of about 600 FPS. To my surprise, the soft lead cast bullet easily penetrated a pressure-treated 2×4.

 

At Wholesale Hunter, we can help you find the right supplies so you can load your favorite antique top-break revolver. Contact us with questions–we’d love to hear from you.