This powerful handgun cartridge can be too much of a good thing unless you learn how to reload ‘lite’ rounds.
The .44 magnum sits near the top end of the power/recoil spectrum, even though several more potent handgun rounds have replaced it as the world’s most powerful handgun cartridges. Still, people who shoot the .44 magnum a lot, including many metallic silhouette competitors, know that the .44’s recoil is nothing to be sneezed at. Too often I’ve gone home from the range with the knuckle of my middle finger bleeding freely and my wrist aching. That’s why I think a lot of the time, the .44 magnum can be too much of a good thing.
There is no question what Elmer Keith wanted when he developed the .44 magnum: more power. I still use full-house .44 loads when I really need them, but I rarely need that much power. Instead, I’ve worked up “lite” loads for my .44-caliber handguns that offer plenty of power for self defense, excellent accuracy for plinking, and adequate power for small and medium game, yet they still allow me to practice comfortably so I can increase my shooting skills.
Go Lite For Comfort
There is little question that Elmer Keith succeeded when he took the wonderful .44 Special cartridge and turned it into the spectacular .44 magnum. The .44 magnum is one of the top-selling handgun calibers for several very good reasons: accuracy, power, and panache.
Still, many oldtimers, even Elmer Keith, knew that shooting the .44 magnum with heavy loads caused pain in the hands and arms that seemed to never go away. I have it on dependable authority that Elmer Keith reduced his favorite .44 magnum load to 20 grains of Hercules 2400 powder under a 240-grain bullet for just this reason.
It just isn’t much fun to have that much power slamming back into your hand 50 or 100 or 200 or more times in a day’s shooting. Even with Pachmayr or Hogue soft-rubber grips soaking up a bundle of the back-up, the .44 magnum still starts to hurt sooner or later. I finally had to admit that the .44 magnum made me flinch. I didn’t start flinching right away, but as the flesh got hammered by recoil, I developed a habit of shooting bigger groups.
To counter this, I developed some light loads for my Ruger revolvers and Contender handgun. To differentiate between mild loads and full-house loads, I tried a few different approaches. First, I chose copper-plated bullets from National Bullet Company and loaded these in .44 magnum cases. You can also mark the primers with a marker to allow the loads to be easily identified. Then I decided the smartest thing to do was to work up light loads in the .44 Special case. This approach was a nearly foolproof way to make sure that I was shooting the light loads. If the case said .44 Special, the load was my fun load reserved for plinking, targets, and maybe small game.
There has been much written about using short cases—such as the .38 Special in .357 magnum guns and the .44 Special in .44 magnum guns—that claims the less-powerful rounds would damage the cylinder walls and lead to a premature replacement of the cylinder in revolvers. Perhaps this is a problem after tens of thousands of rounds, but I have not seen this problem develop after shooting more than 5,000 rounds of .44 Special ammo through the Rugers and my ancient Contender. I cannot really speak to the effect which the shorter cases would have on lever-action rifles or semi-auto pistols because I haven’t included any of these guns in my testing.
As the table of mag-lite loads shows, we’re not talking about wimpy velocities here. We’re talking about loads that run from 750 to just over 1,000 fps with substantial bullets. One of the softest-shooting rounds with a 240-grain copper cast bullet putts along at 746 fps. It’s driven by 4.2 grains of Bullseye. Two accurate loads with a 205-grain bullet are fueled by 6.9 and 6.3 grains of SR7624 and Green Dot, respectively. Running about 860 fps, these rounds will shoot under an inch at 50 yards. For something with a little more speed, top 6.0 grains of Bullseye with a 190-grain wadcutter. This load will develop 1,047 fps.
I’ve had a whole bunch of fun shooting my big .44s with these reduced loads, and I’m willing to bet that you enjoy shooting your boomers more after you have tried out a few of these light loads. But don’t forget, when your friends ask what you’re shooting, you can still look over your shooting glasses and proclaim: “I’m shooting a .44 mag. Don’t let the muzzle blast set your hair on fire.” They don’t have to know that you’re shooting a kinder, gentler .44 magnum.
-By Tom Riebling