Dirty Harry’s Handgun
A big and powerful round
A big and powerful round
At one time, the .44 Remington Magnum was regarded as “the most powerful handgun in the world,” a title coined by Clint Eastwood in his ’70s “Dirty Harry” movies. In those epic presentations, Inspector Callahan (portrayed by Eastwood) administered his own brand of justice to the evildoers of San Francisco while wielding his infamous Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver. Thus, Eastwood and those movies have become eternally linked for life with that big .44.
Today, the .44 Magnum has relinquished its noteworthy status as the largest and most powerful handgun to a new generation of even larger calibers. Even so, the .44 still rules supreme in the minds of many big-bore handgun enthusiasts, and in my mind, it’s worthy of great respect and admiration.
“… Inspector Callahan … administered his own brand of justice to the evildoers of San Francisco while wielding his infamous Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver.”
The Big-bore Handgun Era
Long before Dirty Harry added to the .44 Remington Magnum’s fame, it was developed through a loosely formed joint venture between Remington, who designed the cartridge in 1955, and Smith & Wesson, who
offered it in the new Model 29 double-action revolver shortly thereafter. But, there were other individuals who deserve to share in this phenomenal cartridge’s accolades.
In particular, noted big-bore handgun authority and renowned author Elmer Keith is certainly due some credit for its development. Keith had long esteemed the 1907-designed .44 Special, but felt the factory ammunition wasn’t tapping the cartridge’s full potential. To prove it, Keith pushed his own handloaded .44 Special cartridges to new limits, and lobbied ammo manufacturers to essentially do the same with their factory-loaded ammo.
In Keith’s 1936 book, Sixgun Cartridges & Loads, he expressed his frustration over the poor performance of factory-loaded .44-Special cartridges. His own well-known favorite handload recipe, which he shot regularly in his own .44s, launched a big 250-grain bullet at velocities of 1,200 fps, and he wasn’t willing to accept any manufacturer arguments that would limit that performance.
But, manufacturers didn’t give in so easily. They feared some of the older .44 Special-chambered handguns simply couldn’t withstand the increased pressures Keith’s hotter loads produced. Nevertheless, Keith persisted to lobby both personally and in his writing for literally decades, insisting that hotter loads wouldn’t cause problems if fired only from heavy-framed firearms. But, obviously, it was difficult for manufacturers to restrict the use of their cartridges.
A New Cartridge and a New Handgun
It took Keith nearly three decades of incessant pestering, coupled with an onslaught of ink devoted to the subject, until the new heavy-framed S&W Model
29 chambered in the new .44 Magnum cartridge debuted.
The Model 29’s design, and that of the new cartridge, settled two concerns. First, the Model 29 was built stoutly enough to handle pressure increases produced by the new cartridge. Second, the new .44 Remington Magnum ammunition couldn’t be chambered in existing .44 Special handguns. Even though both cartridges share a similar overall length, the cartridge case of the new magnum is 1/8-inch longer. That prevents any new Magnum rounds from being chambered in .44 Special handguns. However, the .44 Special cartridges could be interchanged and fired from any handgun earmarked for the newly developed cartridge. The result was a .44 Magnum cartridge that closely mirrored the performance of Elmer Keith’s own favorite .44 Special handload, but satisfied all of the ammunition manufacturers’ safety concerns. A person handloading their own cartridges can sometimes even achieve a few extra hundred feet per second.
Early on, the S&W Model 29s were in high demand, quite costly to purchase and difficult to obtain. Ruger capitalized on that by quickly offering a viable alternative that cost less and was readily available, the Blackhawk single action. A few years later, Ruger produced a beefed-up Super Blackhawk model that came with a longer 7 ½-inch barrel and was a little stouter and heavier. Adding more options, other companies—colt, Taurus, Thompson Center and others—began marketing their own .44 Mags.
The .44 Magnum’s Pros and Cons
Recoil is the obvious consequence of this big cartridge. Unequivocally, when a .44 Magnum is loaded to its full potential, the recoil and accompanying muzzle report can be problematic for some shooters. However, such arm-bending loads aren’t always called for or even appropriate. When loaded more moderately, the .44 Magnum can be shot pleasurably and accurately. Perhaps this caliber’s greatest attribute is that, if the shooter desires, he/she can interchange the hot loads with the less powerful .44 Special cartridges.
Most .44s are built heavy enough to minimize the felt recoil. My own 6 ½-inch-barreled Model 29 weighs a tad less than 3 pounds, empty, and about ½ pound heavier when fully loaded. That’s a lot of weight to pack around, whether on the hip or in a shoulder holster. While I’ve learned to appreciate that bulk when it comes to the hammer fall, it’s an entirely different matter when you’re packing it for hours or even days at a time in the field.
Hunters in bear country frequently favor a large-caliber handgun for protection from carnivores. I don’t believe there’s a better choice than a big .44. Loaded to its full potential and coupled with a well-placed shot, they can stop even grizzlies or brown bears. Many handgun hunters find the .44 a solid
choice for hunting medium-sized game—deer and feral hogs, for example—particularly when equipped with a moderately powered scope. Many older .44 models must be drilled and tapped to accept a scope base. Today, many models come pre-drilled and tapped.
While the .44 Magnum makes a formidable and powerful handgun round, it leaves a little to be desired when essentially those same cartridges can be fired from a rifle. I suppose the idea of a universal cartridge that can be shot in both a sidearm and a rifle has its roots in the Wild West, but back then, it probably made better sense than it does today. Nevertheless, several manufacturers continue to produce long arms chambered in .44 Remington Magnum. In most cases, these are either lever-action or semi-auto designs.
“… I got sucked into the hype surrounding those ‘Dirty Harry’ movies, and when I was fairly young, I had to own a big .44 for myself.”
The Way I See It
Throughout the years, I’ve owned several .44 Remington Magnum-chambered handguns from various manufacturers, including a 6 ½-inch-barreled Model 29 precisely like the one wielded by Inspector Callahan. I’ll admit that like many others, I got sucked into the hype surrounding those “Dirty Harry” movies, and when I was fairly young, I had to own a big .44 for myself. But, I’ve certainly never regretted any of my .44 purchases. I like the idea that if a need arises for a big and powerful round, it’s there and ready to roll.
One writer summed up the .44 Magnum quite well. He said that he once owned a Ford automobile with a very large 427-ci engine. Although he seldom took full advantage of the engine’s power, it was nice to know it was there, just in case he needed it. So it is with a .44 Magnum.
(above) The stainless-steel Smith & Wesson 629 Classic is a very popular, well-built double-action .44 Magnum. (opposite, left) A few of the older competitive cartridges are pictured beside the .44 Remington Magnum. From left are the .44 Remington Magnum, .45 Colt, .44 S&W, .45 Auto, .41 Magnum, .357 Magnum, .38 Special, .38 S&W and 9mm Luger.
(above) Sturm & Ruger produces a wide variety of .44-Magnum revolvers, including this stainless Super Blackhawk, which permits scope mounting. There are also blued models and Redhawk double-action models of varying barrel lengths.
(above) The overall length of the .44 Special (left) and the .44 Remington Magnum are very similar, but the brass of the Magnum is 1/8 inch longer, which restricts its use only to those firearms so chambered.
The S&W Model 29 is a six-shot double-action design, allowing the shooter quick access to all six rounds by simply pulling the trigger each time.
(top) Taurus produces a good selection of .44-Magnumchambered double-action revolvers, including this Raging Bull Model, which is ported to manage recoil.(middle) For the shooter who loads their own ammunition, there’s a wide variety of .44-caliber bullets to choose from. Shown here, from left, are a lead semi-wadcutter, a partial-jacketed hollow point and a jacketed softpoint bullet.(bottom) Factory-loaded cartridges are available from many ammunition manufacturers, including Remington. The most common load is a jacketed bullet weighing 240 grains, possibly hollow-point design. Muzzle velocities are frequently slightly higher than 1,200 fps.