Reloading An American Classic

Even If It Is Called The .44 Russian

By John Taffin

The first 5 years of the 1870’s were a time of rapid development of sixgun cartridges. Literally everyone knows of the .45 Colt which appeared in 1873, however it was preceded by three other big-bore cartridges and followed by another all in the short period of time after the US Civil War.

The Smith & Wesson Model 3 American was not only the first big-bore cartridge firing sixgun, it was also the first cartridge revolver adopted by the United States Military, which up to this point had mainly been outfitted with the Colt 1860 Army percussion revolver.

The .44 American round use a heeled bullet—a 2-step affair with the smaller diameter base fitting inside the cartridge case while a major part of the bullet was the same diameter as the outside of the cartridge case, exposing the lubricant to the elements—the same situation we find with .22 Long Rifle. Unlike the .44 Henry of the 1860 Henry and the 1866 Winchester, the .44 American was a centerfire cartridge with a primer in the center of the base instead of being a rimfire (a very few Smith & Wesson Americans were chambered in .44 Henry).

Two major events occurred in 1870 that would forever affect the future of Smith & Wesson. First, Daniel Wesson’s partner, Horace Smith, sold out his interest in the business to Wesson. From the advent of the first .44 through the .357 Magnum prior to World War II, the “Smith” in Smith & Wesson was gone. Of course, now there is no Smith and no Wesson connected with Smith & Wesson.

Right after the partnership dissolved, Daniel Wesson was visited by his Imperial Majesty the Czar of all the Russias. The Czar wanted weapons for his army, in fact, he planned to equip both his cavalry and artillery with S&W revolvers. Not only was this contract a financial boon for S&W, the Russians also provided significant improvements to the revolver and ammunition. The Russians were in fact much more serious than the Americans about using these new cartridge-firing revolvers and ordered 150,000.

The most significant change the Russians made was the ammunition, and it was, in fact, the Russians who gave us the model for all currently produced sixgun ammunition. Instead of the heeled bullet, the Russians insisted upon a bullet of uniform diameter with lubricating grooves placed inside the cartridge case. This was a most significant step forward. The new .44 Russian would become the .44 Special in 1907 and later the Special became the .44 Magnum in 1956.

John’s Colt New Frontier .44 Special has also been fitted
with extra cylinders in .44 Russian and .44-40.

One of the cartridge era’s earliest guns was the S&W No. 3. Here (top)
is an original S&W Russian Old Model 3 and an Uberti .44 Russian replica.

The .44 American also known as the .44-100 used a cartridge case 0.90-inch long with a bullet diameter of 0.434 inch and 23 to 25 grains of black powder for a muzzle velocity of 650 feet per second. The improved .44 Russian cartridge used a case slightly longer at 0.97 inch, a black-powder charge of 23 grains and a roundnosed bullet weighing approximately 245 grains.

The original S&W American had a square butt with a rounded back strap. The Russians now rounded the butt slightly and added a hump at the top of the backstrap providing a more secure grip and preventing the revolver from rotating upward in the hand when fired. A spur was also added to the bottom of the triggerguard and to this day there is no agreement on exactly what its purpose was. Best known today as simply the Model 3 Russian, it was a somewhat streamlined version of the First and Second Models. The former had a standard barrel length of 8 inches, the latter was 7 inches and the Third Model was shortened to 6-1/2 inches with an accompanying shorter extractor housing.

Original Model 3 Russians were produced from 1874 to 1878 and may be tough to find in good shooting shape without commanding high collector dollars, however Navy Arms was the first to offer an excellent shooting replica of the New Model Russian. The Model 3 Russian is now offered directly by Uberti as well as Cimarron. Factory versions come with stocks of smooth European walnut, however my personal Navy Arms New Model Russian has been fitted with Ultraivory grips from Eagle Grips. Ultraivory, while a synthetic material, is very close to real ivory, with milky white color and ivory-type grain. They provide good contrast to the dark blue finish of the New Model Russian.

The apex of single-action .44 Russians was the Smith & Wesson New Model 3 which was way ahead of its time. It is so precisely fitted it demands smokeless powder for perfect functioning, however all of the frames of these guns were built in the black powder era and should only be used with black powder. The machining and tolerances used in their manufacture were so precise they are easily fouled and work very sluggishly after very few rounds of black powder loads. The only answer is to keep them clean. A few attempts have been made to offer a replica of the New Model 3 but they have fallen short of the quality and style of the Model 3 Russian replicas.

The .44 Russian had a well-deserved reputation for accuracy with marksmen such as Chevalier Ira Paine and Walter Winans setting many records using a Target Model 3. Years ago I had a shot-out .44-40 Bisley Model fitted with a new 7-1/2-colt Colt .44 barrel and an old Christy .44 Special cylinder. I loaded up .44 Russians with the original style roundnose bullet and the proper amount of black powder and proceeded to put 50 rounds in one ragged hole at 25 yards.

The relatively new Uberti reproduction of the Model 3 Russian is an affordable
way to recreate the birth of the metallic cartridge. It shoots very well, too.

John’s Colt New Frontier .44 Special—fitted with a .44 Russian cylinder—groups very well.

Frontier .44’s include (left to right) the .44 Smith & Wesson American,
.44 Colt, .44 Russian, and .44-40.

Such success spurred me to do much more with the .44 Russian cartridge. I located a used .357 Magnum Colt 3rd generation cylinder and off it went to Bowen Classic Arms along with my New Frontier 7-1/2-inch .44 Special for conversion to .44 Russian. While I was at it I also sent a .44-40 cylinder in my parts box. When Bowen got through I had a tightened up 3-cylindered .44 with minimum barrel/cylinder gap. The adjustable sights on the New Frontier allow me to shoot everything from mild .44 Russians and .44-40 to full-house .44 Specials simply by a turn of the elevation screw on the rear sight.

Loading the .44 Russian is no more complicated than loading the .44 Special except when it comes to seating and crimping. I first tried using my RCBS .44 Special dies for sizing and expanding, and ordered a .44 Russian seating and crimping die from RCBS for the final loading step as none of my .44 Special or .44 Magnum seater/crimp dies would reach the stubby Russian .44. However, the neck expander on Special/Magnum dies can bulge the short Russian cases, so I have since become more traditional using a set of RCBS .44 Russian reloading dies.

There is very little reloading data available for the .44 Russian and I would caution the reader to use no loads except those assembled with black powder or black powder substitutes in any 19th century revolver originally chambered for the .44 Russian. Most .44 Russian revolvers are more than 100 years old. Any Colt revolvers chambered in a .44 Russian or .44 Special manufactured after 1900 should be safe with any of these loads as will any USFA single action. Replica S&W Model 3 Top-Break revolvers should only be used with standard smokeless loads.

Lyman’s 429251 traditional roundnosed 245-grain bullet, is a natural for the .44 Russian with one of the most accurate loads being 23.0 grains of FFFg Goex for 775 fps. For stronger sixguns, 6.0 grains of Unique or Universal at 890 fps and 6.0 grains of WW231 or HP38 at 900 fps are also quite accurate and rank right with today’s defensive loadings. Speer’s swaged lead 240-grain semi-wadcutter is an excellent utility bullet when seated over 6.0 grains of Unique for 950 fps. Currently I mostly load lighter using Universal and Trail Boss for the.44 Russian.

Some of the less dinosaur types among us may ask why mess with the .44 Russian when we have the .44 Magnum and at the very least the .44 Special? Probably for the same reason thousands of shooters shoot muzzleloaders even though they were “obsoleted” over 100 years ago. Or the same reason sixgunners and levergunners still choose the .44-40. These old cartridges are all part of a rich heritage and we would definitely be the poorer if we ever got to the point where only the latest semi-auto was interesting. The .44 Russian is one of the most important sixgun cartridge developments since we made the transition from cap-and-ball to brass cases.

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