By John Haviland
The Federal 300-grain CastCore bullet
is a good .44 hunting load.
I seem to have a .44 magnum revolver at hand every time I head to the shooting range or hunting field. For good reason, too. The .44 Remington Magnum is a very versatile cartridge in a revolver. By selecting different weights and styles of bullets and juggling powder charges, the .44 magnum can be an easy-recoiling plinking and target gun, a hard hitter for big game or the last thing a marauding bear will ever see.
Target & Practice Loads
Punching tight clusters of holes in paper and even rolling cans around with a handgun takes practice and a steady hand. Your hand will tremble, though, after absorbing the recoil from just a dozen .44 magnum loads.
Much easier on the nerves is shooting a lightweight 180- or 200-grain bullet fired with a light amount of powder. The Speer 200-grain Gold Dot bullet with 6.5 grains of Unique produces recoil as gentle as a handshake. That small amount of powder, too, stretches over a thousand loads out of a pound of powder. That’s important when powder sells for $16 a pound.
Some shooters like a big-bore revolver to provide an easy rocking recoil. It’s a Western thing. For this shooting, Speer’s 240-grain swaged lead bullet is ideal. Fired with 6.0 grains of Red Dot, this bullet leaves the 5.5-inch barrel of my Ruger Super Blackhawk at 794 feet per second with just a touch of recoil. That velocity can be nudged up to 1,000 fps with 10.0 grains of Unique or 12.0 grains of SR4756. Bore leading with these Speer soft lead bullets is not a problem because of their multiple coats of silicone.
(L to R) Federal 300-grain CastCore, Nosler 250-grain, Speer 270-grain, and Speer 300-grain loads.
This light load also works well on small game. I like to walk around the edges of hay fields with a pocketful of these cartridges and my .44 in hand. I shoot at ground squirrels from various positions including sitting with the gun braced with my knees, and offhand. But I make many more hits on these pop-can-sized varmints when I rest at least one forearm on top of a fence post or rail or over a fallen tree.
Much past 50 yards, these slow-moving bullets really pitch toward the earth. Increasing the velocity of the 200-grain jacketed bullet to 1,200 or even 1,400 fps reduces bullet drop by 10 inches at 100 yards and 30 inches at 150 yards. My first .44 magnum was a Smith & Wesson Model 29 with a 6.5-inch barrel. It was great fun to sit in a field under the summer sunshine with the revolver steady against the outside of my knee and shoot at rockchucks. Just a slight holdover of the front sight on a chuck lying flat on a rock resulted in a hit at 100 yards.
The .44 magnum has been proven countless times on deer. Still, the mighty .44 carries relatively little bullet energy. From 50 to 150 yards, a 250-grain bullet fired from a .44 carries roughly a third less energy than a .223 Remington shooting a 50-grain bullet at 3,300 fps. And nearly everyone agrees the .223 is inadequate for hunting deer. So something else must enter into this picture to make the .44 at least a fair cartridge for deer-sized game.
It all has to do with bullet design. The old roundnose handgun bullets poke a hole through game with little disruption of vital organs or applying much shock. This is demonstrated on a smaller scale when rabbits and ground squirrels that run off after taking a hit with a roundnose bullet fired from a .22 Long Rifle. The same size game hit with a flat-nose bullet of the same weight usually falls right on the spot.
Nobody is exactly sure why a flat-point bullet launched from a handgun takes game so efficiently. The flat point doesn’t really transfer energy to game; more likely the bullet’s energy keeps it penetrating while the flat point creates a shock wave in the animal.
Early experimenters, like Elmer Keith and Phil Sharpe, discovered the effectiveness of bullets with a flat meplat. They promoted bullet molds to cast these flat-nose bullets, the Lyman #429244. Another flat-nose design inspired by Elmer Keith is RCBS’ 44-250-K-SWC. Federal loads its Premium Vital-Shok .44 magnum cartridges with a 300-grain CastCore bullet with an extremely wide meplat.
These bullets are not meant to expand. Any expansion would rob them of energy to penetrate. My Ruger .44 launches the Lyman 255-grain cast bullets at only 1,000 fps. But the two deer I’ve shot with that bullet dropped in their tracks. The bullets plowed right through both animals and left a 50-cent-sized hole through the far ribs.
Hollowpoint bullets are supposed to expand. But most older hollowpoint designs incorporate a narrow nose. Most handgun cartridges fail to generate enough speed to expand these bullets. All the bullets do, then, is poke a pencil-size hole through game.
New hollowpoint designs with wide-gapping points, like Federal’s Hydra-Shok, Hornady’s XTP, Speer’s Gold Dot and Winchester’s Platinum Tip readily expand on impact at handgun velocities. But when a bullet expands, and it’s not flying that fast to begin with, penetration suffers. Don’t take it wrong, though. These bullets work great on deer.
One jacketed hollowpoint bullet that does expand and penetrate is Nosler’s .44-caliber 250-grain Partition. A soft lead nose and big cavity make sure the bullet expands on contact with game, but the partition limits that expansion. When the Nosler bullet came out a few years ago, I shot it and every other .44 hunting bullet I could find into water-soaked newspaper bundles at 50 yards. Flat-nose cast bullets and the Nosler Partition drilled the deepest.
That fall, I shot an antelope buck at about 80 yards with a Nosler 250-grain Partition. The nose of the bullet expanded somewhat as it passed through the buck’s ribs and lungs and finally stopped under the hide on the far side. The buck ran a short way and then fell over on an alkali flat.
Hunters who keep a clean camp and watch ahead on the trail usually don’t have any problems with bears in the backcountry. But you never can tell. That’s why on hikes in bear country, I carry my .44 loaded with heavy bullets. The Lyman 255-grain cast bullet is a good heavy hitter, along with Speer’s 270- and 300-grain bullets. Among factory loads, the Federal Premium Vital-Shok .44 magnum with a 300-grain CastCore bullet is a real stopper.
No matter if you are in the deepest wilderness or the local shooting range, your .44 magnum handgun with its variety of loads is good company.
Reprinted from the October 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine