Top 10 Reloaded Handgun Cartridges #4: .44 Remington Magnum
Date: Aug 17 2021
The first Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum revolver shipped December 29, 1955. It was known as the “.44 Magnum” but by 1957 became the Model 29. Additional variants have been added, including the stainless steel Model 629 (1979), Titanium 329PD (2003) and others. All Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum sixguns had been built on the large N-frame that first appeared in 1907.
In 2014 the company introduced the Model 69 Combat Magnum based on the L-frame and fitted with a five-shot cylinder and 4¼-inch barrel. This revolver is, by comparison, fast-handling, compact and lightweight, and is certain to find favor with hunters and sportsmen and serve for self-defense purposes. To take full advantage of these revolvers’ versatility, handloading is a must.
When the Model 69 was formally announced, many Smith & Wesson fans expressed concerns as to its strength and durability, especially when subjected to continuous use of full-house .44 Remington Magnum loads. This is a legitimate concern, so let’s consider its engineering, along with my experience and impressions after firing in excess of 2,500 rounds through one.
The Model 69 is not just a standard L-frame, as the receiver ring (frame threads) has been increased in diameter. This required reengineering of the yoke to place enough supporting steel around the barrel threads, which was an essential change to chamber it for the .44 Magnum. This also allowed the unsupported barrel shank to be increased in diameter, which is necessary to reliably contain the pressures of full-house loads. If this change had not been made, the barrel shank would have been excessively thin, similar to the Smith & Wesson Models 696 and 396 .44 Specials, and when subjected to loads reaching up to 36,000 psi would have most certainly split or bulged the barrel. The outside barrel wall thickness at the breech measures .076 inch. By comparison, in checking several Model 29/629s of various vintages, they averaged .087 to .090 inch.
Another clever change includes a spring-loaded detent ball bearing that is placed in the front of the yoke, and when the cylinder is closed it locks into a slot that is cut into the shroud. This yoke lock aids with chamber alignment and durability. Incidentally, the extractor rod no longer engages the locking bolt that has traditionally been mounted in the barrel shroud.
The outside chamber walls measure .052 inch. Being a five-shot cylinder, the Model 69 bolt notches are located between the chambers, which in no way weakens the chamber wall. By comparison Model 29/629s measure .075 to .082 inch, but the bolt notches are positioned directly over the chambers and generally measure .040 to .042 inch deep. This reduces the actual chamber wall thickness to around .040 inch, which is normally the “weak link,” so to speak.
Between chambers the Models 29/629 measure around .088 to .092 inch, while the Model 69 measures around .130 inch. Clearly there is enough strength for this cylinder to hold .44 Magnum pressures.
The Model 69 features a two-piece barrel comprised of a sleeve that is visible from the muzzle. One of the purposes of this design is to allow the threaded barrel to be fit with greater precision and avoid a too loose or overly tight barrel. The latter can result in a swaged down barrel at the frame/barrel junction, which can rob accuracy. This is a critical fit area, especially with the shorter receiver ring and barrel threads, and the two-piece barrel arrangement allows closer tolerances.
Between 1988 and 1990, Smith & Wesson developed what is commonly known as the “endurance package” for its Models 29 and 629. This was splendid engineering that effectively doubled the life expectancy of these revolvers. Some of these changes included a heat-treated yoke, radius stud package and a bolt block that prevented the cylinder from unlocking or rotating during recoil. The Model 69 shares these features, which allows it to fire and function flawlessly with a variety of factory loads and handloads. Following extended firing, its lockwork remains tight, cylinder end-shake is snug, and there are no signs of abnormal wear.
Beginning in 1989, Smith & Wesson began offering a lifetime warranty on all its guns and has engineered the Model 69 with that thought in mind. In referencing the Model 69, Smith & Wesson states, “The L-frame has a strong, durable frame and barrel built for continuous Magnum usage.” Furthermore, I spent time with a company engineer discussing many details of this gun. Preproduction versions were subjected to endurance testing using full-power magnum ammunition, which it passed with ease. It should be emphasized, however, that these revolvers are not designed for loads that exceed maximum SAAMI pressure guidelines for the .44 Remington Magnum, or 36,000 psi. All handloads in the accompanying table are within that limit.
The Model 69 with a 4¼-inch barrel weighs 37.2 ounces. For comparison, the Model 29 registers 43 ounces; the 629 Mountain Gun, 40; and the 329PD, 26.5 – all fitted with 4-inch barrels. Recoil is certainly lively with full-house loads but is manageable. One advantage of this smaller frame is that the axis of the bore is lower when compared to larger frames. This results in the gun having less leverage on the shooter’s hand dur-ing recoil, which translates into decreased muzzle lift, less felt recoil and faster follow-up shots. The new revolver proved very fast for double-action work on falling steel targets.
As can be seen in Table I, the Model 69 was checked for accuracy and velocity with factory loads that included cast and jacketed bullets. Accuracy was generally good, with 25-yard groups usually hovering around 1.5 to 2.25 inches, but velocities were on the slow side. I became curious and checked the same loads in a Smith & Wesson Model 629 Mountain Gun that had identical .429-inch throats and the same barrel-cylinder gap, but with a 4-inch barrel and broached rifling rather than EDM (electric discharge machining) found on the Model 69. Of the eight loads tried, six increased velocity by 29 to 74 fps, and two of the loads showed a velocity decrease of 19 and 30 fps. My experience with both types of rifling generally suggests that the EDM barrels yield lower velocities, but part of the Model 69’s lower velocity is probably due to the shorter cylinder that results in less bullet jump (or freebore).
Industry maximum overall cartridge length for the .44 Remington Magnum is 1.610 inches, but when handloading for revolvers it is common to seat bullets to a longer overall length. The Model 69 total cylinder length measures 1.667 inches, and chambers are not countersunk. This results in an absolute maximum cartridge length of 1.720 inches, but in the event there is some bullet creep when unfired cartridges in the cylinder are subjected to recoil, it is suggested to keep overall lengths to around 1.700 to 1.710 inches maximum. This eliminates some popular bullets that include both cast and jacketed.
For example Hornady’s popular 300-grain HP-XTP features two crimp grooves and is commonly seated to the lower groove for an overall cartridge length of 1.737 inches. This effectively increases powder capacity and lowers pressures, but at this length it cannot chamber in the Model 69 cylinder. Therefore, it must be seated and crimped in the upper groove for an overall length of 1.590 inches, which reduces powder capacity. When seated to this shorter length, handloaders are cautioned to not use widely published data that was developed with the bullet seated to 1.737 inches, or extremely high pressures will likely result. Even when this bullet was seated to 1.590 inches, pressures jumped rather quickly, and maximum velocity with Hodgdon H-110 powder was a modest 1,033 fps.
Jacketed bullet choices for the .44 Magnum are many, with the most common ranging from 180 through 300 grains. Loads were developed specifically to offer power (and recoil) options. For example, Hornady and Sierra 180- and 200-grain JHPs offer comparatively mild recoil at velocities around 900 to 1,100 fps yet offer enough power for personal defense, while allowing fast follow-up shots. Likewise, several loads were developed that utilized Nosler and Speer 240-grain JHPs that are subsonic and feature flash-suppressed powders, such as Winchester AutoComp and Hodgdon CFE Pistol. Muzzle report and concussion were noticeably reduced, and they are comparatively pleasant, making them a top choice for defense purposes. For full-house, 240-grain loads, Accurate No. 9 and Alliant 2400 are still top performers that duplicate or exceed factory load velocity while delivering outstanding shot-to-shot consistency and accuracy.
Moving up in bullet weight, the Speer 270-grain DeepCurl was pushed to 1,100 fps using 19.5 grains of Ramshot Enforcer. For hunting heavy game, where deep penetration is desirable, the Barnes Buster 300-grain FN FB “solid” reached 1,045 fps using 19.5 grains of H-110. Using the upper crimp groove, the overall loaded length was 1.585 inches, and like the 300-grain Hornady bullet, this is a maximum pressure load.
Data was developed using a variety of cast bullets ranging from 225 to 300 grains and included plain-base, bevel-base and gas-check designs, with velocities ranging from 745 to over 1,300 fps. Cast bullets with a bevel base pushed to the leisurely speeds of 750 to 950 fps tended to lead the bore enough that accuracy soon deteriorated until it was removed. For reference, these same loads were fired in a Model 629 Mountain Gun with broach-style rifling, and leading was minimal. Lubed with NRA formula Alox and LBT Soft Blue, plain-base bullets, such as the Lyman/Keith 429421 250-grain slug and the Cast Performance 275-grain WFN, did not lead as badly but more than I would like to have seen. These loads were also tested in the Mountain Gun, and left only small traces of lead and did not negatively impact performance. The leading in the Model 69 can probably be attributed to the EDM rifling, and its barrel may be an excellent candidate for fire lapping.
Three bullets were used with Hornady gas checks – the Lyman/ Thompson 225-grain 429215 and 263-grain 429255, as well as the commercially available Cast Performance 300-grain WFNGC. These proved to be top choice combinations as the gas check prevented leading, and accuracy was good throughout long shooting sessions. The two Lyman bullets displayed accuracy at velocities ranging from 1,000 to 1,300 fps and should be considered top choices for general-purpose use.
All loads were developed using CCI 300 Large Pistol primers, which gave low extreme spreads and reliable ignition with all powder and bullet combinations listed here. The exceptions were loads containing Hodgdon H-110 ignited with Federal 155 Large Pistol Magnum primers to achieve reliable ignition in all temperatures.
Starline cases were used exclusively and were full-length sized with a Redding Dual Ring Carbide die. This is an excellent die that works the brass less, extends case life and assures that they are within industry specifications for reliable chambering.
Cases were then neck expanded using a .425-inch expander ball, and bullets were seated and crimped using RCBS dies. The roll crimp was adjusted to correspond with the cannelure or crimp groove of each bullet but was applied as heavily as possible without damaging the bullet or causing the case to buckle. This is important to achieve correct powder ignition and usually lowers extreme spreads but also holds bullets firmly in place to prevent their jumping crimp when subjected to heavy recoil.
Overall Smith & Wesson’s L- frame .44 Remington Magnum is proving accurate and durable, and the handiness of its compact frame and cylinder certainly make an appealing choice for an everyday working gun.