Perfect Packing Pistol Part 6

The .44 Magnum

The Elmer Keith Commemorative sixgun alongside John’s fully engraved Model 29.
Both have pretty faces but pack a Mike Tyson-style punch.

The real story of the .44 Magnum comes through Elmer Keith. By 1950, the .44 Special chambered in a Smith & Wesson sixgun reached its climax with the superb 1950 Target Model. Since 1907 S&W — and later Colt — provided the .44 Special sixguns but it remained for men like the members of “The .44 Associates” to bring out the best of the .44 Special cartridge. From the 1920s to the 1950s Association members, most notably Elmer Keith, called for a “real .44 Special” load.

He especially called for a “.44 Special Magnum” with a 250-grain hard cast bullet at 1,200 feet per second. His pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears. Ammunition companies were afraid of heavy loaded .44 Specials taking old sixguns apart. He then asked for a new cartridge 1/10″ longer than the .44 Special to preclude its being used in any old sixguns. Again, the plea was ignored.

Elmer Keith especially favored 4" S&W .44s. Shown are (left to right) his custom
4-1/2" fully engraved Magnum, special presentation .44 Magnum from Smith & Wesson,
his every day packin’ blued .44 Mag and his fully engraved 1950 Target .44 Special.

Things Change

Unbeknownst to him S&W started to listen in the 1950s. Working in tandem with Remington, who would supply the new .44 Magnum ammunition, S&W engineers went to work on the new sixgun. In 1954, Remington gave Smith the dimensions of a new cartridge 1/8″ longer than the .44 Special. S&W then chambered four specially heat-treated 1950 Target .44 Special sixguns for the new “.44 Magnum.” The guns performed well but at the 39-oz. weight of the 1950 Target, recoil was brutal. Elmer had asked for a new .44 with a 250-grain bullet at 1,200 fps and his .44 Special load generates heavy recoil in the Model 1950 Target .44 Special. Remington delivered a 240-grain bullet at 1,500 fps that was originally fired in the same 39-oz. Model 1950 Target. After my first experience with the .44 Magnum load in a 4″ S&W .44 Magnum, I don’t want to even contemplate this!

Weight had to be added so the cylinder was lengthened to fill in the cylinder window and the 6-1/2″ slim barrel was changed to a heavyweight full bull-barrel style as found on the 1955 Target .45 ACP, resulting in a weight of 48 oz. The new sixgun, as the .357 Magnum was introduced back in 1935, was simply and fittingly named by its chambering and called The .44 Magnum. Elmer was not happy with the first loads as the bullet was too soft, affecting accuracy and raising pressures significantly. He quickly developed a standard loading for the new .44 Magnum consisting of the same 250-grain hard cast bullet he used in his .44 Special loads and 22.0 grains of #2400. This loading is over 1,400 feet per second.

Elmer urged Smith & Wesson to also bring forth the .44 Magnum with a 4″ barrel for defensive and peace officer use and while waiting for this to occur, he had a .44 Magnum cut to 4-1/2″ and engraved and ivory stocked by the Gun Re-Blue Company. He preferred the steer head carved-ivory grip as it fills in the hand perfectly and helps control recoil. I was still a 17-year-old teenager when I first shot the 4″ .44 Magnum S&W sixgun. It had hand-filling target stocks and the recoil was heavy! I always wondered how Keith could handle his loads with the magna-style stocks he preferred. I found out when I examined his sixguns — the carving of the ivory stock perfectly filled in the crease in his hand and helped to control felt recoil.

Smith & Wesson presented Elmer Keith with a Bright Blue fully-engraved, ivory-stocked 4″ .44 Magnum in November 1956. This gave him two 4″ engraved and ivory-stocked .44 Magnums to join the likewise finished 4″ 1950 Target he had been carrying daily since he moved into Salmon, Idaho. His every day Perfect Packin’ Pistol was a Bright Blue non-engraved but ivory-stocked 4″ .44 Magnum.
The first Bright Blue 4″ .44 Magnums were beautifully finished and fitted sixguns and they were soon joined by a nickel-plated version. The very first S&W .44 Magnum was introduced in December 1955 and the last production model was dated January 1999. In 1957 the .44 Magnum became the Model 29. S&W introduced the stainless steel .44 Magnum Model 629 in 1979 with the 4″ barrel version arriving 1981. For those who carried their .44 Magnum every day in any kind of weather, the stainless steel Model 629 was a much better choice than the Bright Blue model 29. In 1990 Smith & Wesson added a heavy underlug barrel as the Model 629 Classic, however, I do not know of any with 4″ barrels that seem to me to be a natural for helping tame felt recoil.

Instead of offering the heavier 4″ .44 Magnum, S&W actually went backward by first coming up with the Model 29 Mountain Gun. For this they reached all the way back to the 1950 Target using the slim barrel of the .44 Special on the Mountain Gun making it a little easier to carry all day. If I thought the 4″ .44 Magnum had tremendous recoil when I was a teenager, and is still not easy to shoot with full house loads even with all my 60+ years of experience, I was not prepared for what was to come next.

The ultimate lightweight packing .44 Magnum is this Model 329 PD Airlite.

Carry Much, Shoot Little

Concentrating mainly on carrying and very little on shooting, S&W came up with the Model 329PD AirLite Sc. This sixgun definitely needs to be experienced to be appreciated — or maybe not appreciated — but just experienced at least once. The Model 329PD arrived in 2003 as a Scandium/Aluminum alloy N-Frame weighing 26 oz. The six-shot cylinder is titanium and it has a full underlug 4″ barrel. Actually, the barrel has a shroud with the underlug. Touching off full house .44 Magnum loads in this lightweight sixgun is something one will never forget, however, it performs quite well with .44 Special loads and with its light weight is very easy to carry all day. This is one of those sixguns if you ever need it in a serious situation such as a very mad and very big bear, the full house loads will not even be noticed. It is easy to see why this sixgun has become very popular in Alaska. Mine certainly carries and shoots very easily with .44 Special rounds. It is very easy to stoke it with four .44 Special loads, backed up by two .44 Magnum loads just in case.

In 2014 Smith & Wesson came up with a very practical 4″ .44 Magnum reaching for the epitome of Perfect Packin’ Pistols with the Model 69 Combat Magnum. This is a stainless steel, five-shot, 4-1/4″ double-action sixgun. Sights are typical S&W adjustable sights with a white outline rear sight matched up with a red ramp front sight. The frame screws, hammer, trigger and cylinder release as well as the front and rear sight are matte black finish and contrast nicely with the matte stainless steel of the rest of this excellent big bore revolver. The front of the cylinder is chamfered for easy entrance into a holster and the muzzle has a deep concave crown protecting the rifling. The right side of the barrel is marked in two lines with “44 MAGNUM” and “COMBAT MAGNUM.” The grips are wrap-around, finger-grooved style of pebble-grained rubber. The cylinder locks at the front of the frame with a modernized version of the Triple-Lock set up instead of locking at the front of the ejector rod. Since this is a five-shot .44 Magnum, the locking bolt notches on the cylinder are in between chambers so there is no weak spot under each chamber.

I can use it with everything from standard 750-fps .44 Special loads up to full house Magnum loads and it shoots accurately and handles well. I would call it the most useful .44 Magnum S&W has produced since the original .44 Magnum/Model 29 design disappeared in the waning years of the last century. I like it.

The .44 Magnum, both the original S&W sixgun and cartridge have been around now for 65+ years. The former is still the Perfect Packin’ Pistol by which all others are judged and the cartridge is still, as Keith called it, “The King of the Sixgun Cartridges.” I don’t see this ever changing, at least in my lifetime.

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