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.