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50 years of the Smith & Wesson .44 Mag.: it's hard to believe, but the gun that started it all is no more.

When Smith & Wesson introduced the first Magnum, the .357 in 1935, there were sixgunners who did not accept it as the perfect sixgun. Elmer Keith had pushed the .44 Special since 1927 as the number one cartridge. Using Smith & Wesson Hand Ejectors and Colt Single Actions. Keith came up with his pet load using a bullet of his design--Lyman's No. 429421--loaded over No. 2400 powder for 1,200 fps. Keith took big game with his .44 Specials and wrote about the results in Outdoor Life and American Rifleman.

A small but dedicated group grew around heavily loaded .44 Specials. Their contention was the .44 Special with a 250-grain bullet at 1,200 fps was, for all practical purposes, better than the .357 Magnum with a 158-grain bullet at 1,500 fps. The .44 Associates were formed and corresponded by mail, trading loading data for the .44 Special. Imagine what they could have accomplished with e-mail.

For nearly three decades Keith lobbied for a ".44 Special Magnum" in a longer cartridge case so it could not be used in older guns. Finally, in 1954, Remington came up with a new .44 round and, in January 1955, Smith & Wesson chambered five .44 Special 1950 Target Models for the .44 Magnum using specially heat-treated cylinders and frames. The 1950 Target handled the new load fine but not the shooters. The recoil was too heavy with the relatively lightweight sixgun and some weight had to be added. The cylinder was lengthened and the barrel diameter increased to add one-half pound and create a truly beautiful profile.

The .44 Magnum Arrives

By mid-December 1955 the first 61/2" Smith & Wesson .44 Magnums were being produced. Among the first to receive the big beautiful new .44 Magnum were Remington Arms, Major Julian Hatcher at the American Rifleman and Elmer Keith. It is interesting to read the reviews on the new .44 Magnum by Hatcher and Keith. Keith said recoil was not as bad as shooting the .38 Chiefs Special, while Hatcher likened it to being hit in the hand with a baseball bat. Col. Askins jumped into the fray and accused anyone not able to handle the recoil of wearing lace panties. Then, as now, recoil is mostly subjective.

I was 17, still a teenager, when the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum arrived. By this time I had a couple .357 Magnums, the Ruger Blackhawk and the S&W Highway Patrolman, a .38-40 Colt Single Action Army, and a .45 ACP S&W Model 1917: I thought I knew what recoil was, but I was definitely not prepared for what was about to happen. It was 1956 and the first .44 Magnum I saw was a 4" version. In those days most of the gun shops had an outdoor shooting range, Instead of selling that first .44 Magnum, the enterprising owner rented it out for a nominal fee. I was already a fairly experienced shooter and worked outside every day unloading semi trailers and boxcars. I thought I was pretty strong and tough. I was about to meet my match.

Several of us invincible teenagers had graduated in 1956 and were now working together and spending our leisure time shooting. We normally worked a half a day on Saturday and spent the afternoon smelling gunpowder. Sure, we wanted to shoot the new .44 Magnum. We were young, we were tough, we were invincible, and we were about to be tested to the limit, We all shot a cylinder full of factory .44 Magnum ammunition, which in those days was rated at 1,570 fps with a 240-grain bullet from a 61/2" sixgun. That would give well over 1,400 fps from the shorter 4" Smith & Wesson. No matter how long we live there are some things we never forget. Shooting that first .44 Magnum is one of those. I fired that first round and my immediate thought was five more rounds were left. Every one of us fired our six rounds and not a single one of us would admit to the others how bad the recoil was. It would take a lot more shooting and experience with heavy loads before any of us could even come close to handling a .44 Magnum. But learn we did.

Taffin's First .44 Magnums

The Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum is one of the best looking sixguns ever produced. All of the .44 Hand Ejectors and the .357 Magnum are very attractive revolvers, however the addition of the heavier barrel and cylinder to the 1950 Target to increase weight resulted in beautifully flowing lines and a classic look rivaled only by the Colt Single Action Army. For years I dreamed of having a fully engraved sixgun, and 20 years ago my wife offered to have one of my sixguns engraved for my birthday. The first choice for that first engraving was a 4" Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum. The .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson is one of my favorite sixguns and not far behind the Colt Single Action Army. I still have my first Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, a 61/2" I purchased on time payments while in college in 1962, and it was an early favorite hunting handgun carried in homemade leather consisting of a wide belt and Mexican loop style holster even before Cowboy Action Shooting made such a leather design popular again. The advent of the S&W .44 Magnum opened up a whole new era for handgun hunters.

After graduation from college I rewarded myself with a second Smith & Wesson .44, this time a 4", and that sixgun was chosen when my wife offered to have a gun engraved for my 45th birthday. Jim Riggs did the engraving and my dear friend, now gone Home, Deacon Deason of BearHug made the ivory micarta Skeeter Skelton grips. The floral carved leather belt with matching Border Patrol and Tom Threepersons holsters came from E1 Paso. Needless to say, it is one of my most cherished possessions.

Elmer Keith spent most of his sixgunnin' life packin' a Colt Single Action .44 Special until the 1950s. When he moved from the ranch into town he basically retired his single actions and began carrying a 4" 1950 Target .44 Special. With the arrival of the .44 Magnum, Keith would carry a 4" version daily. When I was privileged to examine and handle his sixguns after his death in 1984, I found a quartet of 4" .44s--his fully engraved 1950 Target, a 61/2" Magnum which had been cut to 4" and fully engraved, another engraved original 4", and finally a plain blue every day working .44 Magnum. All were fitted with standard Magna stocks, not the hand filling target style stocks, which were standard equipment. I never could understand how Keith could handle his heavy load in guns with those small grips. But his hands were small and I discovered his secret. All of his grips were ivory with a carved figure such as a steerhead on the right side to perfectly fill the palm of the shooting hand and help control recoil.

Another early writer who literally swapped his 4" .44 Special for a new .44 Magnum was Skeeter Skelton. Skeeter was not only a writer but also a full-time lawman. It did not take him long to realize the 4" .44 Magnum was heavier than he wanted to carry all day and the ammunition was much too powerful for law enforcement, and he expressed regret for ever trading off his .44 Special. He did agree with Keith in that the .44 Magnum Smith was a superb hunting handgun.

The "Dash" Magnums

The very first S&W .44 Magnums are now known as five-screw sixguns. Four of those five screws were found on the side plate with the fifth one entering from the front of the triggerguard retaining the cylinder-stop-plunger spring. The first production .44 Magnums began in the S 130,000 range in 1955 and one year later circa S167,000, the upper side plate screw was dropped and the .44 Magnums became four-screws. This is about the same time the 4" guns arrived. The .44 Magnum became the Model 29 at around serial number S179.000 in 1957. One year later the 4" and 6 1/2" guns were joined by the 87 3/8" Model 29 and a limited run of 5" Model 29s were distributed by H.H. Harris of Chicago.

Each time an engineering change was made a new number described that particular model In 1960, to prevent the extractor rod from backing out, the threads were reversed on the Model 29-1. One year later the screw in the front of the trigger guard was eliminated and the 29-2 became the first three-screw version. The 29-2s are the most frequently encountered Smith & Wesson .44 Magnums being produced for just over 20 years. It went through several non-engineering changes such as the diamond in the center of the grip being dropped in 1968, the serial number prefix being changed to N in 1969, and 10 years later, something I simply cannot understand, the 6 1/2" barrel length was shortened to 6" which in my mind was no improvement. Of course, I can't understand why the diamond was ever dropped either.

By 1982 the pinned barrel and recessed cylinders were gone. Until the arrival of 29-3, a small pin could be seen forward of the cylinder at the top of the frame, which served to hold the barrel solidly locked into place, and the backs of the cylinders were recessed to accept the cartridge case heads.

Fixin' What's Broke

During the 1980s, Smith & Wesson revolver manufacturing changed radically. For years shooters had been complaining about the failure of the .44 Magnum Model 29 to stand up to heavy use, a problem which became more widespread as more shooters used them for silhouetting and hunting. When Elmer Keith first reported on the .44 Magnum he said he had fired 600 rounds the first year. That is only 12 per week. As hunting and long range silhouetting became more popular, sixgunners started shooting hundreds of practice rounds per day and the problems accelerated. Smith & Wesson had a choice, either to pretend problems did not exist as seemingly the official policy had been for years, or fix it. Fortunately the new management decided to fix it. Once this decision was made, they faced two more choices. Do they beef up the traditional design or scrap it and come up with a new design? They chose to fix the interior of the Model 29, strengthening parts and paying special attention to the problem of the cylinder unlocking when fired.

From 1987 to 1990 and through models 29-3, 29-3E, 29-4, and 29-5, the Endurance Package was phased in. Interior parts were fitted tightly to prevent them banging against each other under recoil, studs were radiused, a new yoke retention system was engineered, a bolt block was installed, and the cylinder locking bolts were cut longer. Problems, especially that of the cylinder unlocking and rotating backwards when the gun was fired, were solved but shooters must realize that the Model 29 remains basically a 1907 design and should be treated as a thoroughbred

New .44 Magnums Appear

In 1983 a special Silhouette Model was introduced with a 10 3/8" barrel and a front sight that could be set for four different shooting distances. This was the only Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum I ever had that allowed the cylinder to unlock and rotate backwards. I traded it off for a 4" gun and I wish I had it back. In the late 1980s, the Classic Models began to appear with the addition of heavy underlug barrels to help reduce felt recoil.

In 1994 the 29-6 was fitted with Hogue rubber grips and the top strap under the rear sight assembly was drilled and tapped for scope mounts. Round butts arrived in 1995, MIM triggers came in 1996, and, with the 29-7 in 1998, the firing pin was moved from the hammer to the frame. The old original, truly classic Model 29 was gone and in January of 1999 the Model 29 was officially dropped from production.

The stainless steel Model 629 arrived in 1979 and basically went through the same changes at the same times as the Model 29. In 1990. Smith & Wesson produced a special run of 7 1/2" Model 629 Magna Classics in a highly polished stainless steel with interchangeable front sights and the barrels marked "1 of 3000". These sixguns do not have the classic look of the original Model 29 and Model 629 but they certainly are excellent shooters. I keep mine set up with the gold-bead-post front sight and sighted in for 100 yards. It is almost exclusively used with BRP 295-grain SWCGC cast bullets at 1,350 fps using 21.5 grains of HI10 or WW296.

Over the years many limited editions and Performance Center Model 29 and 629 revolvers have been produced. In 1985, two versions of the Elmer Keith Commemorative were produced with 4" barrels, gold embellishments and either smooth wood or ivory Magna stocks. Looking back at the 1950 Target .44 Special, Smith & Wesson has produced both Model 29 and 629 Mountain Guns with the lighter tapered barrel of the .44 Special. One of the latest .44 Magnums is the scandium/titanium Model 329PD which, at 26 ounces recoils much worse than the group of teenagers experienced in 1956, and in fact, makes an excellent .44 Special as do the Mountain Guns. Smith & Wesson also resurrected the Model 29 for a short time as the Model 29-9 in the Performance Center Heritage series. They were produced in either blue or nickel with 6 1/2" .44 Special style tapered barrels and post front sights.

Taps For the Model 29

The 29 is gone, however the 629 remains in both standard production and Performance Center Models. The original 629 is only available with a 4" or 6" barrel. while heavy under lug versions are cataloged with 5", 6 1/2", and 8 3/8" barrels all with round butts. It is very easy at my age and after decades of shooting sixguns to look back and long for the older models with square butts and standard barrels. My soul, heart, and spirit recognizes yesterday's guns were much more beautifully designed and finished, and usually had high polished bluing that matched up naturally with carved ivory grips and floral carved leather. However, I know the newer guns are stronger, normally have tighter tolerances, and, when tested head-to-head with comparable older guns, they have proven to be more accurate.

There was a time when I shot nothing in my Model 29s except the standard Keith load of a 250-grain hard cast bullet over 22 grains of No. 2400. Those sixguns from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s are now older and so am I. My favorite load for the .44 Magnum Smiths these days is either the 250- or 295-grain hard cast Keith bullet over 10 grains of Unique for an easy 1,150 fps. The heavier loads are mostly saved for newer, stronger, and especially heavier .44 Magnums.

Many double actions sixguns are offered today chambered in 44 Magnum. They are larger, heavier and stronger than the originals. They are certainly more comfortable for shooting the heavy-duty .44 Magnum loads with 300- to 330-grain bullets now offered. As the politicians like to say, "The fact remains" and that fact is no .44 Magnum double action ever made is slicker, smoother, or easier handling, let alone better looking, than the original.
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Author:Taffin, John
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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