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Penetration testing Big Bore Handguns: we pit a .500 Nitro Express against some of the biggest, baddest Magnums and the results may surprise you. A handgun isn't all that far behind an Elephant rifle.

This is a test. Rank the following in order from that offering the deepest to the shallowest penetration: .500 Nitro Express, .458 Win. Mag., .45-70, .500 Linebaugh and .45 Colt. If you're like most shooters, you would probably say they are already in the right order -- and you would be wrong. The true ranking is neither a guess nor an opinion, but rather fact gained under controlled conditions. I have just returned from the first annual Big Bore Sixgun Seminar hosted in Cody, Wyo., by custom gun-maker John Linebaugh.

Most -- make that all -- seminars I have attended in the past have been presented by firearms manufacturers with the express purpose of showcasing their products. This seminar was quite different. Over 100 of us gathered to discuss big bore sixguns, how they work, why they work and, most importantly, why they are so effective on big game. No one was selling anything except truth.

We spent the first morning discussing big bore sixguns with Linebaugh and then the afternoon was spent doing actual penetration tests with the biggest sixguns and rifles available.

For any cartridge to be effective -- whether it's fired from a sixgun or rifle -- the "Four Ps" must be in place. Those are Placement, Power, Performance and Penetration. We define these terms as follows.

Placement: where the bullet strikes the intended target.

Power: the muzzle energy or TKO value.

Performance: whether the bullet expands, holds together, or comes apart.

Penetration: how deeply the bullet travels in the target medium, especially in a large animal.

Certainly a solid bullet, whether hardcast or jacketed, can be expected to penetrate much deeper than a jacketed hollowpoint or soft nose. That is a given. The wise hunter decides, according to his intended quarry, whether he needs ultimate expansion, deepest possible penetration or a combination of both.

As a shooter of big bore sixguns for well over four decades, and also one who knows how effective sixguns can be on big game, I must say I was surprised at how effective various sixgun cartridges proved to be during the penetration tests. For the shooting and experimentation, the standard bundles of newspaper soaked in livestock watering tanks were used. No guess. No golly. No opinion.

Going back to the five cartridges mentioned at the beginning the results were most interesting. Randy Garrett's .45-70 Hammerhead 530 gr. hardcast at 1,550 fps went 55" into wet newspaper. A 495 gr. hardcast .500 Linebaugh fired from a 5.5" sixgun with a muzzle velocity of 1,270 fps was right behind it at 52".

The .500 Nitro Express with a solid weighing 570 grs. came in third at 48", followed by the .458 Win. Mag. with a 500 gr. solid traveling at a muzzle velocity of 2,260 fps and 47" of penetration. Finally, the .45 Colt with a 350 gr. hardcast bullet at 1,400 fps gave 43" of penetration, or only 5" less than the .500 Nitro and 4" less than the .458.

Of course, the .45 Colt load tested is only for use in the Freedom Arms .454 or custom five-shot .45 Colt revolvers.

Other Cartridges

The .44 Magnum was not really given a thorough testing as the only load on hand was a 250 gr. Keith bullet at 1,200 fps which went 27" into the wet newsprint. At next year's seminar, hopefully we will have a larger variation of .44 Magnum loads to test, especially with 300 gr. bullets at muzzle velocities from 1,200 to 1,400 fps.

We also had only one load for the new .480 Ruger, Hornady's factory offering of a 325 gr. XTP at 1,350 fps. This round is not designed for deepest penetration but did expand well and travel 17" into the newsprint.

How did the truly big bore sixguns compare, the Big Berthas, the .45 Colt, .454 Casull, .475 and .500 Linebaughs? For the .45 Colt, in addition to the already mentioned load, a 310 gr. Keith at 1,250 fps -- one of my favorite loads and safe for use in Ruger's Blackhawk or Bisley -- penetrated 36", while the 300 gr. LBT traveling at 1,180 fps penetrated 2" deeper.

Using Cor-Bon's 360 gr. bonded core at 1,500 fps in the .454 yielded 45" of penetration. Moving up to the .475 Linebaugh, a 420 gr. LBT at 1,335 fps did 47" while the same bullet at an easy-shooting 1,050 fps still penetrated to 40".

We have already mentioned the second-place finishing .500 Linebaugh load. Others from this category of the biggest of the big bores included a 480 gr. Keith-style bullet at 1,200 fps and 41"; a 435 gr. LBT at 1,270 fps, 38"; and a 435 gr. LBT at only 1,000 fps still went 34" into the test medium.

This tells me that for most of us, and the game we pursue, either a .475 or .500 Linebaugh traveling at a relatively sedate 1,000 fps will do anything and everything we could ever hope for.

Actually, we can draw the further conclusion that the .44 Magnum with a 250 gr. bullet at 1,200 fps or a 300 gr. .45 Colt at 1,250 fps will certainly handle any deer that walks -- but then we already knew that!

Now we know with actual experimentation why it is big bore sixguns perform so well on large or dangerous animals including Cape buffalo, elephant, lion and the big bears of Alaska.

The big bore sixguns in this case, from top left clockwise Ruger .44 Magnum Freedom Arms .454 and Ruger Custom .45 Colt.

Ruger Custom .500 Linebaugh and Freedom Arms .475 Linebaugh can actually out penetrate most rifles.
"Who says the .500 Linebaugh doesn't kick?"

    Cartridge               Bullet          Velocity   Penetration

      .45-70        530 gr. hardcast lead   1,550 fps      55"
  .500 Linebaugh    495 gr. hardcast lead   1,270 fps      52"
.500 Nitro Express    570 gr. FMJ solid     2,000 fps      48"
  .458 Win. Mag.      500 gr. FMJ solid     2,260 fps      47"
  .475 Linebaugh     420 gr. LBT SWC lead   1,335 fps      47"
   .454 Casull       360 gr. honded core    1,500 fps      45"
     .45 Colt       350 gr. hardcast lead   1,400 fps      43"
  .500 Linebaugh        480 gr. Keith       1,200 fps      41"
  .475 Linebaugh     420 gr. LBT SWC lead   1,050 fps      40"
  .500 Linebaugh     435 gr. LBT SWC lead   1,270 fps      38"
     .45 Colt        300 gr. LBT SWC lead   1,180 fps      38"
     .45 Colt       310 gr. Keith SWC lead  1,250 fps      36"
  .500 Linebaugh     435 gr. LBT SWC lead   1,000 fps      34"
    .44 Magnum      250 gr. Keith SWC lead  1,200 fps      27"
    .480 Ruger           325 gr. XTP        1,350 fps      17"

If you would like to take part in the next Big Bore Seminar you may contact John Linebaugh for details at P.O. Box 455, Dept. AH, Cody WY 82414; phone: (307) 645-3332.
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Author:Taffin, John
Publication:American Handgunner
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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