A Tale of Two .44’s

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Duke Has Long Studied The “Classics”—S&W’s
Special And Winchester’s WCF.

Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos: Yvonne Venturino

Like so many of you readers my age, I jumped on the .44 Special bandwagon long ago. Influenced by the writings of Skeeter Skelton and Elmer Keith, I thought the .44 Special would be the ultimate non-magnum big-bore sixgun cartridge. My first .44 Special revolver was one of the Charter Arms Bulldogs. That was in 1973 and it was a disappointment to me due to its heavy recoil.

Shortly thereafter I had a .44 Special barrel and cylinder from Christy Gun Works fitted to an old Colt SAA frame. During the next 10 years quite a few Colt and S&W .44 Special revolvers came and (some) went. I never fell in love with any of them and wondered if there was something wrong with me. Then I discovered the .44 WCF, which most of us now call .44-40. Initially there were some problems in preparing handloads—perhaps the factor enticing me into the .44-40 fan club. I enjoy encountering handloading problems and solving them. There were none in loading .44 Specials. It is almost too easy a cartridge to handload for.

All reloading manuals today specify 0.427-inch as nominal .44 WCF/.44-40 lead bullet diameter. So when I acquired my first Colt SAA .44-40, made in 1892, I was dismayed to find that its chambers would not accept cartridges loaded with 0.427-inch lead bullets. Not having access to any early reloading manuals I did not realize that originally .44-40 bullet diameter had been 0.425-inch. When bullets were sized thusly my handloaded rounds fairly fell into chambers.

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Duke lines up on a pesky gong with one of his
favorites—a Colt SAA in .44-40.

On the other end of the dimensional spectrum, .44 Special revolvers often had oversize chamber mouths. Nominal .44 Special lead bullet diameter has always been 0.429-inch. However, it is not uncommon for revolvers to have chamber mouths as large as 0.433-inch. One 3rd Generation Colt SAA of my experience had 0.435-inch chamber mouths. It delivered groups best described as “lousy.” Perhaps I should mention here that at least from the advent of the 20th century, Colt .44-caliber revolvers had barrels of 0.427-inch across their grooves. I can’t verify if this is still the case in the 21st century, but a matched pair of Colt Frontier Six-Shooters I purchased in the 1990’s still measured 0.427-inch.

Introduced in 1907 by Smith & Wesson the .44 Special was merely an elongated remodeling of their 1872-vintage .44 Russian. Both are straight cases with lengths are 0.97 and 1.16 inches. Both were meant for 0.429-inch lead bullets. It has been said the purpose for making the .44 Special longer was that it enabled the ammunition makers to increase the powder charge from the Russian’s 23 grains to 26 grains for the new Special.

I resisted this claim, figuring 1907 was awfully far into the smokeless powder era for a new round to carry blackpowder. I was wrong, as proven to me by another historically-minded shooter when he showed me a 1916 Winchester catalog listing .44 Special blackpowder factory loads.

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The evolution of Smith & Wesson .44 Special revolvers went (from top to bottom)
Hand Ejector 1st Model, Hand Ejector 2nd Model, Hand Ejector 3rd Model (Model 1926)
Hand Ejector 4th Model (Model 24). The bottom gun is from the recent S&W Classic
Series and is a Thunder Ranch Special.

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The .44 S&W Special (center) was nothing more than the .44 S&W
Russian (left) made longer. Fifty years later the same was done
to make the .44 Remington Magnum (right).

Rifle Pedigree

The .44 WCF/.44-40 predated the .44 Special by over 30 years. First it was a rifle cartridge for Winchester’s Model 1873 levergun, but about 1877 or 1878 (sources vary) Colt began putting it in their SAA. It was the only caliber of about 30 eventually chambered in the model that gained its own logo—Colt Frontier Six-Shooter mentioned above. Colt followed suit by chambering it in their double-action Model 1878 and in their New Service in 1899.

Winchester designed their new .44 to have a barely discernible bottleneck shape, most likely to help facilitate its passage from the 1873’s cartridge lifter into the rifle’s chamber. Its length is 1.31 inches and it is wider at the case head (just in front of the rim) than the .44 Special. The measurements are 0.471 to 0.457 inch. As its modern name implies, the original black-powder charge with 200-grain bullets was 40 grains.

Pinning down the exact original bullet weight for the.44 Special is a bit more difficult. Supposedly it was identical to what was being loaded in the .44 Russian. However, one source gives an early Russian bullet weight of 275 grains. An 1899 Winchester catalog lists 255 grains as its weight. Perhaps it’s a moot point because during their five or six decades of co-existence, both rounds were factory loaded with 246-grain roundnose bullets.

This difference in bullet weights between .44 Special and .44 WCF/.44-40 is one reason having one .44 revolver and two cylinders (one for each cartridge) does not always work. If it is sighted for, say, 240- to 250-grain .44 Special bullets, then the .44-40’s 200-grain bullet will impact below point of aim. If sighted to hit right on with 200-grain .44-40 bullets, then it will print high with 240- and 250-grain .44 Special bullets.

That’s one reason why I just accept having the .44 WCF and .44 Special and shooting their own dedicated ammunition in each type. Once I discovered the joys of good .44-40 handguns with the benefit of having some good leverguns to go with them, my consumption of .44-40 handloads beats those of .44 Specials by a factor of about 10-to-1.

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