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Was the .44 Mag. EVER the “Most Powerful Handgun?"

By Keith Wood

The Quote
In the 1971 Clint Eastwood movie “Dirty Harry,” the San Francisco detective spoke one of the most memorable lines in cinematic history:

"I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

The Facts
The Smith & Wesson Model 29 chambered in .44 Remington Magnum was introduced in 1955 after the experiments of Elmer Keith with the .44 Special convinced C.R. Hellstrom at S&W and C.G. Peterson of Remington to produce the cartridge.
The load used a 240 gr. bullet at 1,350 fps and nothing available to consumers at the time even came close. Though hardly a new cartridge in 1971 when Dirty Harry recited his famous line, that film is certainly responsible for much of the .44 Magnum’s mainstream popularity.

The Competition
Though far more powerful cartridges like the .475 Linebaugh, and .500 S&W are now available, in 1971 the .44 Magnum’s chief competitors for the most powerful slot were the .45 Colt and its offspring, the .454 Casull.
The .45 Colt developed an unearned reputation for having weak brass (ironically, based on the writings of Elmer Keith) and was hamstrung by the weakness of factory loadings and the limitations of existing single action frames and was thus ignored by many of the early sixgun hot-rodders until handgun hunting pioneers like Dick Casull proved its value. Casull’s work resulted in the wildcat .454 Casull being announced in 1959, though it wasn’t available in a factory revolver until 1983.

The Game Changer
Interestingly, the same year that Dirty Harry hit theaters, Ruger produced their first Blackhawk single action revolvers in the .45 Colt cartridge.
The strength of the Ruger revolver allowed the full potential of the .45 Colt to be achieved by handloading and provided a platform for high-quality custom sixguns in the .45 Colt cartridge such as John Linebaugh's 5-shot conversions. Within the next decade, Blackhawks were being loaded beyond the power of the .44 Magnum though factory ammo of such power didn’t avail itself to the public until years later.

The Ruling
Though a cartridge existed (.45 Colt) that would later surpass the power of the .44 Remington Magnum, no factory was loading it to such powerful levels in 1955.
From 1955 until production of the Freedom Arms Model 83 in 1983, the .44 Mag. was the most powerful production revolver in the World. If you want to be technical, and that’s what we do here, the .44 Mag only held the “most powerful” title for four years. Somehow though, the line “Being this is the .44 Magnum, the most powerful production revolver in the World, surpassed only in power by the wildcat .454 Casull and certain .45 Colt handloads, and of course rifle cartridges in Remington XP-100…” doesn’t sound quite as good as Dirty Harry’s line. If you’re talking production revolvers with factory ammo, Inspector Callahan was right.

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11 Responses to Was the .44 Mag. EVER the “Most Powerful Handgun?"

Mike Winkler wrote:
May 19, 2014

I own a charterarms bulldog 44 revolver is it the same as a magnum 44 ?

Dan wrote:
March 28, 2013

I had read that the black powder walker colt was more powerful then the 44 mag

W. MAC wrote:
January 08, 2013

Aout 40 plus years ago a friend and a green beret just back from vietnam went to shoot the young solder's 44 mag revolver. I think it was a S&W, I remember it had a long barrel,a milk jug with water was set up about 10 yds and the green beret and my friend took several shots and miss every time. Not wanting to be rude they let me try. I aimed about 2 feet below the jug and pulled the triger and the jug blew all to hell. I had never shot anything lager than a 22 before in a hand gun but gained a real liking for the 44 mag that day. I still greatly enjoy shooting the 44 mag. It is one my favorites rounds.

CHRIS GEGERE wrote:
January 08, 2013

The .44 Magnum is the best all-around choice 99% of the time. I had at one time the fullsize X-frame .500 S&W, two 7-in. Super Redhawks in .454 Casull and .480 Ruger, and the 8-in. 629 Classic. I had to download the bigger guns so the brass would extract. I kept only the 629! (Note: the bigger X-frame grip fits on the N-frame and L-frame S&Ws. I had those grips on the 629 .44 and 686 .357! -Primo! -Call S&W! $35 each.)

Lowell Bennett wrote:
January 07, 2013

I will throw out another contender that might cause some to laugh, but in 1971 a Ruger Blackhawk could and was pushing Winchester's factory 110 grain soft nose .30 carbine out of a 7-1/2" barrel at 1800 fps, for a higher muzzle energy than many of the .44 mag. factory loads.

Gman wrote:
January 07, 2013

Well, the 44mag may not be the most powerfull today but it can and will take out any animal in North America. Just like stepping off the shore of any coast, when you go into those woods, you are not at the top of the food chain any more. That's why I have no problem with having my S&W 629 or Ruger Super Blackhawk when I go beyond the woods edge. I know I would be able to get more rounds off with a 44mag than the 454 Casull.

Russell Patton wrote:
January 04, 2013

Informative article about .44 Remington Magnum. My dad used a Ruger .44 Magnum Carbine for deer and has a 629 S&W that he received as a gift complete with wooden presentation case. He refused to shoot his hot reloads for Ruger carbine and the 629 has never been fired since new about 27 years ago. He also got a retired state troopers holster and Sam Browne belt for the trooper's S&W Model 27.

kagbalete wrote:
January 04, 2013

What about 44magnum hot loads which are more powerful than .45 colt hot loads? there 44 mag handloads using 250gr/1500fps....

Jack Sosebee wrote:
January 04, 2013

I submit for your consideration the CZ52 and its Tokarev-shooting cousins. A typical military FMJ round leaves its 4-inch barrel at nearly 1600 fps; a lighter bullet, granted, but muzzle energy and energy on target would give the 44mag a run for the money.

bikersteve wrote:
January 03, 2013

The .44 Mag is a real "kick in the hand" but is mild compared to the S&W 500. If you get a chance to fire one, PLEASE DO, but be sure to have a firm grip, because the 500 is a Monster!It weighs 5.5 Lbs empty and kicks like a mule, but it isn't unwieldy. Look on YouTube for examples of poor handling of the 500 & the unfortunate consequences. I traded a nice Kimber with Crimson Trace grips for my 500, but it was well worth it!

Dennis E. Amnott wrote:
January 03, 2013

Great factual article. While no longer 'the most powerful' it still is a great cartridge for hunting and will take down most any North American big game. Of course shot placements is important regardless of the cartridge used.