Brass Fetcher Ballistic Testing: 44 Magnum
The 44 Remington Magnum cartridge from a 4” barrel revolver is an excellent choice for self-defense if the shooter can manage the recoil. JHPs from a 4” barrel are close to structural failure on shots at 10 feet distance. Longer barrels exacerbate this issue. Kinetic energy transfer per inch of penetration is 58 ft-lbf /inch compared to the reference 9mm Luger which is 21 ft-lbf/inch.
The 44 Magnum revolver with 4” barrel is one of the most versatile handguns yet devised. A unique propellant that is designed for reduced-charge loads will propel a 200gr bullet to 890 ft/sec out of a 4” barrel. This is equivalent to a 45 ACP but the recoil will scarcely be noticeable in the heavy revolvers that are typically chambered for 44 Magnum. While that is handy for practice and for teaching new shooters to shoot, moderate loads should be used for more realistic practice (assuming a skilled handgun shooter.) Hot loads for the 44 Magnum range from “more than plenty for self-defense” to “outrageous”. Traditionally loaded to propel a 240gr bullet to 1200 ft/sec out of a 4” barrel, modern pioneers in small arms ammunition production currently offer cartridges propelling a 340gr bullet to 1480 ft/sec.
I caution that 44 Magnum handguns are not for the once-a-year handgun shooter. Handgun hunting can be done with this caliber on targets up to and including North American deer. Humane hunting requires good shot placement and shooting pistols at anything living requires better shot placement than when using a rifle due to the handguns lack of kinetic energy at impact. Consider that the impact kinetic energy of an 223 Remington rifle shooting a 55gr bullet does usually not exceed 1200 ft-lbf. The maximum load listed above will reach about 1600 ft-lbf at the muzzle and must be a handful to shoot in most revolvers.
Aside from being a fun and challenging cartridge to shoot, the 44 Magnum excels in the area of self-defense. It is reasonable to carry a 44 Magnum revolver with heavy hardcast bullets for defense against bear. When you are driving into town, the ammunition can easily be switched out for 44 Special JHP ammunition. There is some suggestion that a 44 Magnum revolver is a liability in terms of concealment because they are so large. This is actually a non-starter … if you live in a place where dangerous animals frequent human areas, you probably also live in a place where people aren’t scared of guns. Open carry will thus be legal and frequently practiced in such an area.
An area that I would like to explore in the future is the use of 44 Magnum revolvers in special self-defense situations such as the case of a nightstand gun. Some people are not comfortable keeping long guns unlocked in a room but they are comfortable with keeping a handgun in the nightstand. Why not start off with a handgun that has the same kinetic energy as an M16 and 6 chances to hit your target? As you will see from the data for the 10% gelatin shots below, I tested a Hornady 180gr XTP bullet in gelatin and hit a velocity of 1571 ft/sec out of a 4” barrel revolver. This was a factory load from Hornady. I suspect that with a little bit of work and a sprinkle of go-juice, a 1800 ft/sec muzzle velocity is possible from such a revolver. This will increase the expansion and decrease the penetration. As long as the FBI standard minimum depth of 12.0” is met … damage to the shallow tissues will be dramatically increased.
One of my favorite guns, of the variety that you see but didn’t buy, has to be the Ruger Deerfield Carbine in 44 Magnum. The one I saw at the Gun Show in Jacksonville in 1995—had an integral sound suppressor on it as well. That basically made it look like a bull barrel. One of the slickest, nicest guns I’ve ever seen. You can hit 1250 ft/sec with a 240gr bullet out of a 4” barrel and 1600 ft/sec with the same bullet out of a 16” barrel. Carbines in this caliber give you considerable better reach and effectiveness at close range.
Ammunition selection with this gun varies widely by your intended use. There is no good all-around defensive load that is useful against both bears and people, for instance. If you are wanting to practice frequently with your 44 Magnum, then moderate 44 Special loads would be my choice. For what you might can ‘live-fire’ shooting drills where you are, perhaps, practicing defensive tactics then a moderate 44 Magnum cartridge would be the best choice. For now, I would recommend a moderate load propelling a 180gr or 200gr JHP bullet for defense against human beings. If you contemplate having to defend yourself against a bear attack, then I would pick a heavy hardcast bullet loaded as hot as you can tolerate shooting. Please be certain to practice occasionally by firing this ammunition during your normal practice session.