To witness how little attention it has it received for decades, you would think that there isn’t much special about the .44 Special. But you might well be wrong. This is without a doubt an under-appreciated cartridge that deserves another look by most shooters.

The .44 S&W Special was introduced in 1907 for use with the new S&W Triple Lock Revolver. The cartridge was created by lengthening the case on the .44 Russian cartridge by .2-inch to create more powder capacity. The original load called for a 246 grain round nose lead bullet over 26 grains of black powder, or an equivalent load of smokeless powder. That delivered a muzzle velocity of 780 fps.

Perhaps the heyday of the cartridge was when Elmer Keith started writing about his experiments using semi-wadcutter cast bullets and large amounts of 2400 powder in the 1950s. He turned a target cartridge into a big game hunting cartridge and proved it by using the load to shoot lots of critters. He lobbied hard for the ammo makers to offer a hot loading for hunters, but they were justifiably afraid of what would happen if it were used in some of the older .44 Special guns.

Instead, Remington lengthened the case another .125-inch to prevent its use in .44 Special firearm and then loaded it to much higher pressures. This, of course, became the .44 Remington Magnum, or simply the .44 Magnum, which was introduced in 1955, due in large part to Elmer’s efforts and experimentation.

That all but killed the .44 Special.

Elmer Keith started writing about his experiments with different loads based on the .44 Special cartridge in the 1950s, which eventually led to the development of the .44 Magnum cartridge by Remington
Elmer Keith started writing about his experiments with different loads based on the .44 Special cartridge in the 1950s, which eventually led to the development of the .44 Magnum cartridge by Remington in 1955. Here's a modern example of some .44 Special wadcutters from Federal.mfg photo

A Resurgence

Yes, the .44 Special could be fired in a .44 Rem Mag for low recoil practice (much the way .38 Special rounds can be fired in a revolver chambered for .357 Magnum) and no doubt that’s what has kept the cartridge in the ammo maker’s catalogs all these years, but few handguners were actually buying guns chambered for .44 Special.

Recently the .44 Special has undergone somewhat of a revival due to Cowboy Action Shooting and to a growing group of fiercely loyal disciples of the cartridge, so it was not a huge surprise when Ruger introduced the .44 Special in their long time flagship double action revolver, the GP100.

The GP100 is a rugged, double action revolver that will stand up to years of use. The .44 Special Model 1761 has a 3-inch barrel with a fiber optic front sight and adjustable, white outline rear sight. It is well suited for a multi-use handgun. It’s compact enough to carry concealed and with the right loads the .44 Special is an excellent self-defense cartridge.

The gun is also well suited for use as a carry gun for outdoor types. Hunters, hikers, fishermen or wilderness explorers will find this is a good choice to carry in a holster both as a primary handgun or as back-up to a long gun. The short barrel and sight radius probably don't make it the best choice as a primary hunting handgun, but it could work well in a pinch with a well-practiced shooter.

The .44 Special was introduced for use with the S&W Triple Lock, officially known as the Smith & Wesson .44 Hand Ejector 1st Model 'New Century.'
The .44 Special was introduced for use with the S&W Triple Lock, officially known as the Smith & Wesson .44 Hand Ejector 1st Model 'New Century.' photo from wikipediaphoto from wikipedia

Ammo Choices

There are a wide range of ammo selections on the market. Buffalo Bore has a 255 grain Keith style bullet with a muzzle velocity of 1,000 ft/s. This load would be suitable for deer size game and for self-defense against dangerous animals under 300 pounds.

For urban self-defense, the Hornady 165 gr FTX Critical Defense load is a good choice. Recoil is low enough to allow easy control of the handgun for fast shooting and the terminal ballistics are well suited for defense. I chronographed this load from the Ruger GP100 at 954 ft/s. That produces 334 foot-pounds of energy, which is comparable to many popular defensive handgun cartridges.

Of course, the best use of any handgun is to just shoot it. For range work, training or recreational target shooting it’s hard to beat the Federal Champion load. This .44 Special ammo uses an inexpensive 200-grain semi-wadcutter, hollow-point lead bullet. From the Ruger, I chronographed the load at 756 ft/s and 254 foot-pounds of energy. In addition to target shooting, this Federal load is also well suited for hunting small game and for pest control. With the relatively stout weight of 36 ounces, the Ruger GP100 is a pussycat to shoot with this ammo.

The author recommends Hornady 165 gr FTX Critical Defense loads in .44 Special for urban self-defense.
The author recommends Hornady 165 gr FTX Critical Defense loads in .44 Special for urban self-defense.mfg photo

The single action trigger pull on the Ruger is four pounds, six ounces. That’s an average of six measurements using a Lyman Electronic Trigger Pull Gauge. The trigger is smooth with just slight hint of travel, so it feels better than the numbers indicate. With the same electronic scale, the double action pull averaged nine pounds, 14 ounces. The double action pull is smooth with no noticeable stacking and it feels consistent through the entire cycle.

This is an easy gun to shoot in either mode. I practiced precision drills by shooting at my MGM plate rack using single action and found it easy to get hits even at longer distances out to 30 yards. In double-action I ran some speed drills at close, defensive shooting distances of 10 and 15 yards. I easily mastered a drill I have shot many times with 5-shot revolvers. The drill uses three targets set in a row. At the buzzer, I shoot all three and then hit the two outside targets a second time each.

With a little practice I was able to do this very smoothly and about as fast as I am with any factory double action revolver. The stout weight of the handgun and the smooth trigger pull aid in recoil control and low split times between shots.

The G100 .44 Special is made from stainless steel with a satin finish. It is a robust double action revolver that is as solid as a bank vault. If you keep its diet mostly the mild factory loads, this gun will last several lifetimes. The revolver features a smooth, non-fluted, cylinder that holds five cartridges. The chambers are not recessed, so the rim of the cartridge abuts against the rear of the cylinder.

The swing out cylinder locks at the rear and on the yoke in front of the cylinder. Along with the locking pawl in the bottom this results in a triple lock system that is very strong, reliable and accurate.

The Ruger G100 .44 Special is made from stainless steel with a satin finish.
The Ruger G100 .44 Special is made from stainless steel with a satin finish and comes with a rubberized Hogue grip.mfg photo

The grip shipped with the gun is a rubber Hogue grip. It’s long enough that most shooters can get their entire hand on the grip. I have no trouble fitting all my fingers on the grip for excellent control while shooting. While I can easily live with this grip, the gun can be fitted with a wide range of aftermarket grips, including laser grips from Crimson Trace. The grip is held on by a single screw in the bottom, making it very easy to change.

As with most modern revolvers, the GP100 uses a transfer bar system so it will only fire when the trigger is pulled. That means the gun is safe to carry and use with all five cylinders loaded.

For the shooter looking for something a bit off the beaten path and with a bit of history and a lot of soul, the .44 Special is a great cartridge. When chambered in the rugged Ruger GP100 it opens a wide range of possibilities for any shooter. Self-defense, wilderness protection, hunting, target shooting, this gun does it all.

SPECIFICATIONS

Ruger GP100 Model 1761 in .44 Special

Grips: Hogue Monogrip

Front Sight: Fiber Optic

Material: Stainless Steel

Finish: Satin Stainless

Capacity: 5

Rear Sight: Adjustable

Barrel Length: 3 inches

Twist: 1:20" RH

Grooves: 6

Overall Length: 8.50 inches

Weight: 36 ounces.

CA: Approved Yes

MA: Approved & Certified Yes

Suggested Retail: $829.00

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