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Most shooters who have been around a fair amount of time know that Elmer Keith's writings about the .44 Special from the late 1920s into the mid-1950s were directly responsible for the advent of the .44 Magnum. He did not invent the cartridge, per se. However, without his articles about taking big-game with big-bore sixguns -- especially when chambered in the .44 Special and using what is now known as the "Keith Load" of a 250-grain, hard-cast bullet of his design at 1,200 fps from a 7 1/2-inch sixgun -- we would in all probability have never seen the .44 Magnum. He not only spent 30 years paving the way, he also negotiated directly with Remington and Smith & Wesson to bring about the ammunition and the sixgun to shoot it.

Keith was not an overnight sensation by any means. He started like most of us, from nowhere, knowing next to nothing. In fact, nearly 20 years after the .44 Special had been introduced by Smith & Wesson, he had yet to see one. Remember that in Keith's early years there were no gun magazines as such, and the closest thing to instant communication was a letter that took several weeks to travel across the country. He was simply a young, hard working cowboy in the 1920s who was enamored with sixguns, mostly the old Colt SAA .45, which in his time and economic condition were probably black powder specimens that had seen better days.

Genesis Of The .44 Magnum

In the early 1920s, Keith had an experience that changed his life forever. He decided to celebrate the Fourth of July by tiring his old black powder .45 Colt 5 1/2-inch SA. He went upstairs and onto the back porch of his little ranch house to make some noise.

"When the gun rose from the recoil of the first cartridge, I unconsciously hooked my thumb over the hammer spur and thus cocked the gun as it recovered from recoil. When I turned the next one loose, I was almost deafened by the report and saw a little flash of flame. My hand automatically cocked the gun and snapped again, but no report. I stopped then, knowing something was wrong. The upper half of three chambers was gone. Also one cartridge and half of another case. Also the top strap over the cylinder. My ears were ringing, otherwise I was all OK" (The American Rifleman, August 15, 1925).

This was described in a letter to the editor of The American Rifleman and would begin Elmer Keith's long, colorful and tremendously influential career as a gun writer. When the above "accident" was investigated, it was found that Keith had been using heavy .45 Colt loads in the SAA made up with 300-grain bullets with a diameter of .458 inch originally intended for use in the .45-90 lever-action Winchester. Not only that, it also appeared that he had aided the ignition process by crushing the black powder into a finer grain size.

His old Colt simply died that morning, and Elmer Keith switched to the .44 Special. By 1929 he had a full-blown article in The American Rifleman about his famous Number Five Single Action .44 Special that he built to be, as he called it, The Last Word.

When Keith got his .44 Magnum, he got even more than he had asked for. All he wanted was his .44 Special loading of a 250 grain, hard-cast bullet at 1,200 fps. He suggested new, longer brass so that this load would not chamber in older, weaker guns. Ammunition manufacturers were afraid that early .44 Special handguns could not handle the load. Instead of duplicating the Keith Load for the .44 Special, Remington came out with the .44 Remington Magnum with a 240-grain bullet at 1,400+ fps. Keith was ecstatic about the new load, and about the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum sixgun.

It is interesting to read the early reports. Keith downplayed the recoil of the new cartridge. Major Hatcher of The American Rifleman staff likened it to being hit in the palm with a baseball bat. For most of us, reality was somewhere in-between Keith and Hatcher, probably leaning in Hatcher's direction. The .44 Magnum kicked! It kicked hard!! Especially in the 4-inch Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum with the plain clothes stocks that Elmer preferred, and definitely in the Ruger Blackhawk with a grip frame that was identical to that found on the Colt Single Action Army. Over the years, I have learned to handle the recoil of the .44 Magnum by practice, by using hand-filling, custom stocks and, most assuredly, by welcoming new sixguns that added extra weight over the 3pound heft of the original .44 Magnums.

I also learned something else. Going back to Keith's original blow-up story, I noticed that he was using heavyweight bullets, not the 255-grain bullet standard for use in the .45 Colt at that time. Why? I would guess he was looking for greater power and deeper penetration for use on big-game animals. When he switched to the .44 Special, he also designed a heavyweight .44 bullet, which was produced by the old firm of Belding & Mull. However, remember that in the early stages of his sixgunnin' life he was still learning. His 280-grain .44 Special bullet had a very blunt, rounded nose, and he soon found that it was lacking in long-range accuracy. He went back to the drawing board and came up with the classic #429421 250 grain, semi-wadcutter bullet, which everyone knows today as the Keith Bullet. When the .44 Magnum arrived, he used the same bullet and simply increased the muzzle velocity by 200 fps over his .44 Special loading. This was his standard load for every purpose until he suffered his terribly disabli ng stroke at the age of 81.

For at least 25 years the Keith Load was the standard load for the .44 Magnum, just as for 25 years earlier the .44 Special loading from Keith had been the standard. That is a half-century of tremendous influence on .44 shooters by one man! Once the .44 Magnum arrived, many sixgunners began to take a serious look at hunting with a handgun. They also found very quickly than if they did want to hunt, they would have to load their own ammunition because there was very little available on the shelves which was truly suitable. The Keith load has served us well.

Heavier Can Be Better

Then in the late 1970s, a new influence began to be felt. J.D. Jones founded SSK Industries, which was dedicated to providing the best possible products for handgun hunters. Much of his early work was with wildcat chamberings in the Thompson/Center Contender. One of those wildcats was the .430 JDJ, which was simply the .444 Marlin trimmed back. There were few bullets available, so Jones designed his own as well as supplying bullet molds. One of these bullets was a 320-grain, flat-nose that he would soon discover worked superbly in .44 Magnum sixguns.

I acquired one of Jones' early molds for this bullet and used it extensively in a custom 10-inch Ruger Super Blackhawk over 23.5 grains of WW680 for 1,400 fps. Now we had the same velocity as the original factory loaded .44 Magnum but with 80 grains more bullet! A new era had dawned for the .44 Magnum. Today we are fortunate to have heavyweight bullets, both hard cast and jacketed, available from a number of suppliers, as well as excellent bullet molds for casting our own.

1. Accuracy: The longer a bullet is in relation to its diameter, the more accurate it normally is. It is a rare .44 Magnum sixgun that does not shoot 300- to 320-grain bullets more accurately than it does 240- to 250 grain bullets.

Why use heavyweight bullets in the .44 Magnum? There are two reasons:

2. Big Game Hunting: To be successful as a handgun hunter, you must understand the four Ps: Placement, Power, Performance, and Penetration. Placement refers to where the bullet hits the target; Power, the muzzle energy; Performance, whether it expands or not; and Penetration, just how deeply into the animal we can expect the bullet to go. The latter is extremely important when hunting large or dangerous animals. And the simple fact is that heavy bullets penetrate more deeply.

Cast Heavyweights

Let us look at some of the heavyweight bullets used in the .44 Magnum, beginning with 10 cast-bullet loads. All were assembled using Starline's excellent and durable .44 Magnum brass, CCI #350 Magnum Large Pistol primers and Redding's equally excellent .44 Magnum carbide dies. Loads were chronographed over Oehler's Model 35P. Six powders normally used for heavy duty Magnum loads were pressed into service:Alliant's #2400, Accurate Arms' AA#9, Hodgdon's H110, the relatively new Lil' Gun, H4227 and Winchester's 296. There are also some loads included with Unique and BRP's 290-grain, Keith-style bullet simply because I shoot so many of these in older .44 Magnums. Other bullets are also shown with Unique loads for the simple reason that heavyweight bullet loads in the .44 Magnum need not always be shot at full power.

The 290-grain, gas-checked, Keith-style bullet is my most used heavyweight .44 bullet. I have the NEI double-cavity mold for this bullet. BRP also supplies excellent ready-cast bullets of this design that actually weigh 290 grains. I have two favorite loads for this bullet: 21.5 gralns of H110 for 1,350 to 1,400 fps, and 10.0 grains of Unique for 1,100 tol, 150 fps. The former is used in currently manufactured heavy-duty .44 Magnums, while the latter mostly sees service in .44 Magnums built in the 1950s, namely the original Smith & Wesson M29 and Ruger .44 Blackhawk (flat-top).

Bull-X offers a Bill Wilson designed, 300-grain flat-point that weighs 305 grains in my alloy. This bullet has a long tapered nose with a full-caliber shoulder band and one wide grease groove. I order them unsized and unlubed so they may be tailored for each gun I intend to use them in.

Lyman offers bullet casters two heavyweight .44s, #429650GC, a Keith-style with one large grease groove and a gas-check with a hard-cast weight of 306 grains. Bullet #429649GC is heavier at 331 grains. It basi cally offers the same case capacity as the Keith-style bullet with a much heavier nose of the RNFP, or round-nosed, flat-point design. From RCBS comes another Keith-style heavyweight .44 bullet, #44-300SWC that weighs out at 298 grains with my hard alloy. It is very similar to the Lyman design with slightly more case capacity and a slightly longer nose.

From Oregon Trail Bullet Co. we have a 300-grain TC (Truncated Cone) that weighs out at 299 grains. This bullet puts most of the weight in the body with a very short nose. This maybe the choice if one has a lever-action that is reluctant to feed the longer bullets.

Finally we come to the heavyweight bullets designed by J.D. Jones of SSK Industries. Bullet #285.429 FP weighs in at 281 grains with one very large grease groove and two crimping grooves for use in short or long cylindered revolvers. All loads assembled herein used the top groove for use in any cylinder length or lever-action rifle. Last, but certainly not least, is the bullet that started it all, SSK's #310.429, another flat-point that with my hard alloy weighs 302 grains. This bullet has a full caliber shoulder in front of the crimping grooves, a plain base, and three grease grooves. It has a great reputation for taking big game with a .44 Magnum.

A Wealth Of Jacketed Bullets

At least five companies now offer excellent jacketed, heavyweight bullets for the .44 Magnum: Hornady's 300-grain XTP-JHP; Northern Precision's 280,310 and 325 grain; Nosler's 300-grain JHP; Sierra's 300-grain JHC; and Speer's 300 JFP. You will note that of the four major manufacturers, three provide hollow point versions of their 300-grain bullets, while Speer goes with a flat-point. Northern Precision custom tailors their bullets for individual needs, and they can be ordered with different jacket thicknesses for the game that is going to be hunted.

Two sixguns and one levergun were used for chronographing these loads, an 8-inch Dan Wesson .44 Magnum, a Freedom Arms 10-inch .44 Magnum, and a Winchester Model 94 Trapper .44 Magnum with a 16-inch barrel.
 BULLET MV-8" MV-10" MV-16 1/2"

 BRP 290 GC

 9.0 GR. UNIQUE 1058 1122 1240
 10.0 GR. UNIQUE 1109 1173 1279
 21.0 GR. H4227 1200 1301 1474
 18.5 GR. AA#9 1274 1345 1478
 19.5 GR. LIL' GUN 1232 1326 1527
 18.5 GR. #2400 1289 1367 1560
 21.5 GR. H110 1306 1372 1563
 21.5 GR. WW296 1313 1383 1576


 9.0 GR. UNIQUE 1025 1075 1143
 21.0 GR. H4227 1232 1292 1433
 18.5 GR. AA#9 1352 1421 1521
 19.5 GR. LIL'GUN 1259 1352 1534
 18.5 GR. #2400 1327 1382 1559
 21.5 GR. H110 1259 1420 1567
 21.5 GR. WW296 1337 1404 1576

 CO. 300LBT-GC

 21.0 GR. H4227 1252 1314 1478
 18.5 GR. AA#9 1296 1349 1523
 19.5 GR. LIL' GUN 1254 1346 1534
 18.5 GR. #2400 1308 1410 1549
 21.5 GR. H110 1363 1426 1584
 21.5 GR. WW296 1335 1401 1612


 9.0 GR. UNIQUE 938 1021 1111
 20.0 GR. H4227 1148 1195 1382
 17.5 GR. AA#9 1198 1256 1412
 18.5 GR. LIL' GUN 1155 1237 1453
 17.5 GR. #2400 1213 1285 1456
 20.5 GR. H110 1231 1301 1471
 20.5 GR. WW296 1249 1318 1521

 LYMAN #429650GC

 9.0 GR. UNIQUE 1060 1118 1225
 20.0 GR. H4227 1179 1263 1389
 17.5 GR. AA#9 1217 1297 1421
 18.5 GR. LIL' GUN 1189 1283 1490
 17.5 GR. #2400 1281 1332 1501
 20.5 GR. H110 1304 1367 1515
 20.5 GR. WW296 1307 1376 1553

 LYMAN #429649GC

 9.0 GR. UNIQUE 983 1033 1114
 20.0 GR. H4227 1191 1324 1409
 17.5 GR. AA#9 1187 1265 1390
 18.5 GR. LIL' GUN 1157 1247 1472
 17.5 GR. #2400 1235 1289 1466
 20.5 GR. H110 1255 1338 1499
 20.5 GR. WW296 1252 1370 1526

 RCBS #44-300GC

 9.0 GR. UNIQUE 1041 1127 1222
 21.0 GR. H4227 1234 1320 1460
 18.5 GR. AA#9 1291 1372 1507
 19.5 GR. LIL' GUN 1206 1300 1534
 18.5 GR. #2400 1307 1365 1552
 21.5 GR. H110 1302 1343 1561
 21.5 GR. WW296 1306 1369 1592


 9.0 GR. UNIQUE 1004 1078 1179
 20.0 GR. H4227 1228 1275 1428
 17.5 GR. AA#9 1269 1334 1428
 18.5 GR. LIL' GUN 1216 1306 1482
 17.5 GR. #2400 1288 1342 1513
 20.5 GR. H110 1307 1396 1540
 20.5 GR. W296 1343 1409 1582

 SSK #285.429FP

 9.0 GR. UNIQUE 1069 1153 1285
 22.0 GR. H4227 1244 1389 1563
 19.5 GR. AA#9 1368 1439 1602
 20.5 GR. LIL' GUN 1312 1351 1606
 19.5 GR. #2400 1355 1435 1632
 22.5 GR. H110 1375 1438 1657
 22.5 GR. WW296 1390 1490 1685

 SSK #310.429FP

 21.0 GR. H4227 1245 1331 1485
 18.5 GR. AA#9 1327 1372 1511
 19.5 GR. LIL' GUN 1252 1341 1574
 18.T GR. #2400 1298 1314 1567
 21.5 GR. H110 1332 1345 1587
 21.5 GR. WW296 1339 1359 1612

 BULLET/LOAD MV-8" MV- 10" MV-16 1/2"

HORNADY 300 XTP-HP/18.0 1242 1277 1447
 GR. AA#9
HORNADY 300 XTP-HP/20.5 1207 1270 1438
 GR. H110
NORTHERN PRECISION 280/ 1245 1301 1508
 19.0 GR. AA#9
NORTHERN PRECISION 280/ 1227 1270 1495
 21.5 GR. H110
NORTHERN PRECISION 310/ 1185 1257 1419
 18.0 GR. AA#9
NORTHERN PRECISION 310/ 1175 1229 1434
 20.5 GR. H110
NORTHERN PRECISION 325/ -- -- 1382
 18.0 GR. AA#9
NORTHERN PRECISION 325/ -- -- 1428
 20.5 OR. H110
NOSLER 300 JHP/18.0 GR. 1229 1251 1461
NOSLER 300 JHP/20.5 GR. 1199 1241 1439
SIERRA 300 JFP/19.0 GR. 1233 1239 1481
SIERRA 300 JFP/21.5 GR. 1225 1240 1455
SPEER 300 JFP/18.5 GR. 1148 1145 1465
SPEER 300 JFP/21.5 GR. 1183 1237 1515

 LOAD MV-10"


 19.0 GR. #2400 1420
 20.0 GR. #2400 1504
 22.5 GR. WW296 1483
 23.5 GR. WW296 1551

BULLET: SSK 310.429 FP

 19.0 GR. #2400 1458
 20.0 GR. #2400 1542
 22.5 GR. WW296 1519
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 2001
Previous Article:Ed Brown's M702.

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