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The big 44; 30 years of magnum magic ....

December 29 of this year marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most exciting, glamorous and revolutionary developments in the history of handgunning. This was the introduction of the mighty .44 Magnum cartridge from Remington; which propelled a 240-grain slug at 1,570 feet per second (fps) for hitherto unheard-of power from a handgun, and a deluxe revolver from Smith & Wesson, soon to be known as the Model 29, to handle the potent new round. The .44 Magnum revolver immediately became Smith's top-of-the-line sixgun and remains so to this day.

It is possible to describe as "revolutionary" a gun that was nothing more than a variant of the basic Smith & Wesson large-frame hand-ejector design that was almost 50 years old when the .44 Magnum version made its debut? I think so. The .44 Magnum opened up new vistas in hadgun power that brought about a new era in handgun hunting, and it paved the way for today's ultra-powerful specialty pistols and such sports as Handgun Metallic Silhouette Shooting. Had Remington and Smith & Wesson not had the courage to bring out the .44 Magnum when they did, the subsequent history of sport handgunning might have been very different indeed.

As most readers know, the driving force behind the development of the .44 Magnum was none other than G&A's Editor Emeritus, Elmer Keith. By 1925, after extensive experimentation with many handgun cartridges, Elmer, still a young man in his twenties in thos days, had settled on the .44 Special as his favorite. He had soon discovered that the .44 Special cartridge could safely be handloaded to velocities well in excess of the feeble factory loadings. For the next 30 years Elmer publicized his heavy .44 Special handloads and called for a comparable factory load. Keith was joined by other big-bore aficionados in his enthusiasm for the .44 Special. In the late 1940s there was even a loose organization of devotees of this caliber known as the .44 Associates, who swapped and published loading data for this round.

The ammo makers were, however, leery of such a souped-up .44 Special load. They were primarily concerned about its safety in the old S&W "Triple Lock" revolvers of the pre-WWi era since these sixguns were manufactured before the advent of modern heat-treating methods.

After discussions between Keith, Carl Hellstrom (the president of Smith & Wesson at the time) and Remington Arms, it was decided to develop a new .44 cartridge with the Special case lengthened by an eighth of an inch so that it would not be chambered in older revolvers--following the precedent of the .357 Magnum's development from the .38 Special. This round was to be loaded to very high pressures and was to be chambered in an extra-strong Smith & Wesson revolver specially built to handle the new cartridge. And so the .44 Magnum came to be.

The original Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum differed from its .44 Special predecessor by using a beefed-up barrel and a lengthened cylinder. The chambers in the .44 Magnum cylinder, unlike the .44 Special's, were countersunk to enclose the case heads. Weight of the new revolver with a 6-1/2-inch barrel was 47 ounces, compared to 39-1/2 ounces for the .44 Special.

Smith & Wesson spared no effort at making this a deluxe blue. It was finished in a high, bright blue. Nickel was another option. It used a wide target trigger and hammer, which were quite in vogue in that ear. To the best of my knowledge, it was Smith & Wesson's first revolver to use as standard the popular red-ramp front and white-outline rear sights. Stocks were of the oversized target style and were made from handsomely figured Goncalo Alves wood.

Over the years, the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, known as the Model 29 after 1957, has undergone a series of minor evolutionary changes. Four-inch barrels were added in mid-1956. The 8-3/8-inch version came along in 1958. About the same time, Smith & Wesson made a limited run of 500 5-inchers of one distributor. In 1956 Smith & Wesson redesigned the sideplates to dispense with the uppermost sideplate screw, although it took a couple of years to use up the supply of old-style frames and sideplates.

Because of problems with ejectors rods unscrewing themselves under recoil and tying up guns, Smith & Wesson changed to a left-hand thread on the ejector rods in 1960. This minor design alteration was commemorated by changing the model designation to 29-1. In the following year Smith & Wesson redesigned the cylinder stop bolts to dispense with the retaining screw in front of the triggerguard, and these "three-screw" Smith 29s (as opposed to the older four and five-screw models) were called the Model 29-2.

For the next 17 years the Model 29 remained unchanged. For most of this period these revolvers were intensely sought after. In particular, the use of the Model 29 in the hands of Clint Eastwood as the eponymous hero of the popular movie Dirty Harry and its sequels made Model 29s all but unobtainable.

In recent years, the Model 29 has seen a series of minor transformations. About the beginning of 1979, the 6-1/2-inch barrel was replaced by a 6-incher. About a year later the original wide, half-inch trigger was replaced by one .400 inch in diameter, which I personally prefer. (Smith & Wesson historian Roy Jinks, whose History of Smith & Wesson was the primary source for much of the material set forth above, advises that it is hard to date such changes precisely because older parts are used up from inventory over a period of time.)

A couple of years after that, Smith & Wesson developed a more positive means of screwing barrels firmly to the frame, and the barrel pin was discarded. The year 1982 saw the end of the Model 29-2 and the coming of the Model 29-3. The cylinder of this most recent version is not countersunk to shroud the case heads. Some have decried this change, but enclosing the case heads is quite cartridge cases.

Other variants of the Model 29 introduced in recent years include the Model 629--same gun as the 29 in stainless steel--and a special Silhouette version of the 29 with a heavy 10-5/8-inch barrel and an adjustable front sight.

From the time it first appeared, I had always craved a Model 29. However, for much of this time span, either I was a poverty-stricken student, the guns were unobtainable, or my thrifty Dutch blood balked at paying a whopping surcharge over retail for one. Besides, I had managed to acquire a couple of Model 57s--the same guns as the 29s except for being .41 rather than .44 Magnums.

However, after nearly 30 years of waiting, I finally succumbed and recently purchased a brand-new 6-inch blued Smith & Wesson Model 29-3.

Back in the 1970s, it was a truism among knowledgeable gun buffs that Smith & Wesson's quality standards had slipped to some extent from what they had been in Smith's glory days in the 1950s and early '60s. The causes weren't hard to find. Faced with Vietnam War production and enormous civilian and law enforcement demands, Smith & Wesson had been forced to cope with a huge influx of new workers, and Smith quality suffered in consequence.

Fortunately, Smith & Wesson's management heeded these consumer complaints, and in recent years Smith & Wesson has devoted a substantial amount of effort to upgrading quality standards. I have bought several new Smith revolvers in the last couple of years, and there has been little or nothing that I could fault in these sixguns.

The Model 29-3 was no exception. The blueing and polishing were a little muted in comparison to the high-lustre finishes on the earlier revolvers, but no one could deny that this was still a very beautiful revolver. The stock wood was as handsomely figured as any I have ever seen on a Smith factory grip. A new feature was that the top of the left grip was cut away to accommodate a speed loader. Fitting seemed very good. Lateral cylinder play was minimal and fore-and-aft play almost non-existent. Crane to frame fit was nearly perfect. The critical gap between barrel and cylinder would just barely accept a .007-inch feeler gauge, which is quite acceptable. The single-action trigger broke cleanly at just over 3-1/2 pounds--an almost ideal weight. The double-action pull is a little stiff and heavy, but smooth and without hitches.

In short, it might be overstating things a little to say that today's Model 29-3s are fully the equals of the great Smiths of a generation ago. However, the differences are so slight as to be significant only to the fussiest of gun connoisseurs. A little action smoothing should make the current-production 29-3s every bit as good, from a practical standpoint, as any sixgun that ever left the factory in Springfield.

After putting a few boxes of handloads and factory ammo through my new 29-3, I decided it was time for some serious accuracy trails at Angeles Shooting Ranges. The 29-3 was fired with five different varieties' of factory ammo--Winchester 240-grain lead semi-wadcutters, PMC copper-washed 240-grain SWCs, Federal 240-grain JHPs and Federal 180-grain JHPs. In addition, I assembled half-a-dozen handloads. Some of these were experimental; others had already proven themselves in other .44 Mags I'd used.

Probably this was too ambitious a scheme. Firing close to 200 rounds of fullhouse .44 Magnums in a sitting takes a toll on the old nervous system. After a while I was having to fight flinching, and on just about every string I would be throwing one called flyer.

Best accuracy was displayed by an old favorite handload of mine, the Hornady 200-grain JHP and 13 grains of Unique. A little below max, this is about a 1,300 fps load. This combination put four shots into a 0.70-inch cluster right in the X at 25 yards while the flyer opened total group size to 2 inches. Top performer among the cast bullet handloads was a slightly attenuated version of Elmer Keith's favorite load. It used the classic Keith-designed Lyman 429421 245-grain SWC ahead of 21 grains of 2400 powder. (Elmer's load called for 22 grains.) Again, this is about a 1,300 fps load. This one put four shots into 1-1/2 inches, while the called flyer was about an inch out. The PMC copper-coated SWCs took the laurels among the factory loads. I had one group with four shots in 1.2 speed and precision, that has found considerable favor in both bullseye and action/combat handgun shooting sports. The most significant difference between the Mark V Action Sight and similar sights is that the Action Arms offering is appreciably smaller and lighter--weighing but 5-1/2 ounces and measuring 5-1/8 inches in length; 1-inch scope rings can be used for mounting them.

This second S&W .44 Magnum seemed virtually identical in terms of fitting and general workmanship to the Model 29 I had purchased except that the single-action trigger pull was a little lighter.

Action Arms had cautioned us that the mount was an experimental one and might give problems under the heavy recoil of the .44 Mag. However, their warnings proved unnecessary as revolver, sight and mount all performed splendidly in extensive firing at The Target Range's indoor facility in Van Nuys. Although compact for a sight of its type, the Mark V Action Sight and mount did add materially to the bulk of the revolver, but its added weight compensated for this by doing much to tame recoil and make the .44 Mag pleasurable rather than punishing to shoot.

Best results were achieved with Pro-Load 240-grain lead semi-wadcutter ammo. Firing from a two-handed standing position, I put 10 shots in 1-1/2 inches at 50 feet, with eight clustered into a single hole measuring 0.8 inches center-to-center.

Since its appearance at the end of 1955, the .44 Magnum cartridge has undergone many a change too. From the original Remington 240-grain lead semi-wadcutter load, a plethora of factory loadings has evolved--incluing 240-grain jacketed hollow and soft points, 180-grain ultra-high velocity JHPs, medium-power "combat" loadings, 210-grain Winchester Silvertips and others. It is far and away our most popular big-bore sixgun cartridge.

The popularity of the .44 Magnum over the last three decades has brought into being many fine sixguns in this caliber--double and single actions. However, this great cartridge in its original revolver--the Smith & Wesson Model 29-remains a classic match-up. It's a hard combination to beat.
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Author:Libourel, Jan
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Dec 1, 1985
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