Recently we did an article on Common Handgun Caliber/Ammunition power levels, and we have also discussed revolvers in the past. But it began to gnaw because it seemed like those efforts were not thoroughly thorough. I would not say the following calibers/ammunition are “common” but they are commonly available. I also do not feel that the larger half of these have a realistic place in common self defense, being more suitable to rarefied hunting pursuits. There are even more “wildcat” large caliber handgun rounds out there, some handguns are even chambered for rifle rounds, but for this discussion we will stick to somewhat mainstream offerings. Without further ado:
.357 Magnum – In early 1935 this cartridge hit the market and changed handgunning forever. The .357 was the first Magnum, and I mention it here as a frame of reference for power. There is plenty of in-depth information on the .357 in other articles, but very briefly, it is a much higher pressure, slightly lengthened .38 Special. The marketing department at S&W called it a .357 (because that is pretty close to the bullet diameter of the .38 special anyway) and if sources are correct, they thought .357, “threefifddyseven” rolled off the tongue and sounded cool. Magnum was added for effect. History was made. The .357 Magnum is right at the limit, or perhaps a little over, what the average casual firearms enthusiast wants to shoot. It is capable, out of a reasonable barrel length, of humanely harvesting deer, black bear, and any up-to-no-good 2 legged predators. It is literally a “blast” to shoot, factory loads result in several inches of flame and a blast of concussion separate from the recoil. In numerical terms an average factory .357 load has somewhere around 575 Ft. Lbs (~775 J) of muzzle energy. That is a lot, and that is out of an “average” load. If you carry a .357 Magnum, with high performance ammunition, you will rarely be undergunned on this continent at least. It is no longer the most powerful, but it is still the gold standard others are judged by. Revolvers in this caliber, and even a few semi auto guns, can be had from every major manufacturer new and used.
.327 Federal Magnum– First things first, understand that “Magnum” is marketing hype, like the term “Organic” or “Non GMO” it means whatever the marketing department says it means. The .327 Federal could be considered a “Double Magnum” The origin of this nifty little cartridge is in the obsolete .32 S&W Long introduced in 1896. The .32 S&W Long labored in low-powered obscurity for many years, until in 1984 Harrington & Richardson teamed up with Federal to create the .32 H&R Magnum, lengthening the parent cartridge by around 4mm. In this instance “Magnum” meant that H&R’s offering was brought up to par with the rather pedestrian power of the standard .38 Special; not really a Magnum to our modern way of thinking. Then in 2008 Ruger and Federal teamed up, lengthened the 32 H&R Magnum another 3mm and debuted the .327 Federal Magnum. This time, it is a true Magnum. Ballistically very similar to the .357 Mag, the selling point was taking a typical 5 shot .357 to a 6 shot .327 or 6 shot .357 to 8 shot .327. Great idea. But the market didn’t run with it quite like expected and ammo is a bit elusive, limited, and costly. Current .327 revolver production is limited to a few models in the Ruger lineup. There are plenty of used ones out there from the big three manufacturers, and it is a viable round, especially if you like to roll your own loads.
.44 Special – No, this is not a Magnum, but it is included here to complete the story of the .44 and .41 magnums, and also because it probably should have been included in an earlier article. The .44 S&W Wesson hit the scene in 1908 when there were several .45 and .44 caliber options. S&W took their reliable and accurate black powder .44 Russian, lengthened the case by about 5mm and converted it to smokeless powder. It was a not exactly a runaway success…until a group of handloaders led by Elmer Keith and Skeeter Skelton started doing their own R&D. They developed some great loads with it and Keith eventually pushed it far beyond where anyone thought it should and it evolved into the .44 Magnum. Even though the .44 Special is not a “Magnum” it bears telling that it is finding a new niche of shooters who like it because in reasonable pressure handloads it has ballistics similar to a .357, but creates a bigger hole. Factory loads are pretty anemic for some reason at around 400 Ft Lbs (~542J) which is pretty close to 9 mm Luger loadings. I suspect this is because a lot of pistols chambered in .44 Special are older, also the purpose that .44 Special tends to fill nowadays is as the “practice” ammo for guns chambered in .44 Mag. Handloading the .44 Special should easily create rounds that roughly equate to .357 ballistic performance, which is far less than the .44 Specials ‘roided up brother. Still, a very effective round and better than the .357 if you believe that a bigger hole is always bigger. All major players in the revolver game currently list revolvers chambered for 44 Special, even if they aren’t as ubiquitous as options in .357 Mag.
.41 Magnum – A cautionary tale of an overachiever. Skeeter Skelton had a real love for the .44 Special (and he was also very fond of the .357 Mag). Where Elmer Keith was primarily a lover of the hottest handgun available and loved to hunt, Skeeter came from a law enforcement background and advocated for more effective handguns for cops. He and Bill Jordan loved the .44 Special, but even back then it only really shined when handloaded; he also knew the .44 Mag was too much gun for two legged predators, and those who chase them. So what he really wanted was a manufacturer to make a .41 caliber revolver and ammunition that split the difference between .357 Magnum and the .44 Magnum. He had done some pretty impressive studying on the subject and really liked bullets bigger than .357. He was also a pistolero of more than average ability and had quite the career in law enforcement. Skeeter, Elmer
Keith, and Bill Jordan (a modern handgunning legend, border patrol agent, and giant of a man who shot like Doc Holliday and looked like Walter Matthau) petitioned several manufacturers to take up the challenge and, in 1964, Remington did so. They stumbled a bit. What Skeeter, Elmer, Bill, and the gang wanted was something that duplicated the .357 but with a bigger hole. But the market was getting swept up in the Magnum craze by then and what Remington actually did was create a load that almost duplicated the .44 Magnum load. There was no reason for hunters to leave the .44 in favor of the .41, because that would be a smaller hole. As for the law enforcement community, they were mostly still carrying the .38 Special; the new .41 Mag’s power was too much of a hill to climb for them and so the .41 Mag lost out to the .357 Mag in their eyes. It is one of the rare occurrences in firearms history where Moar Powa! didn’t market well. It is pretty obscure now, but not quite obsolete, Ruger still lists it as an option for their big double action, the Redhawk
.44 Magnum – “You gotta ask yourself one question…do you feel lucky?” is one of the most famous lines in all movie history. Right up there with, “Rosebud”, “No!, I AM your father!” and “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” The sad thing is Elmer Keith kind of makes Harry Callahan look a little effeminate when it comes to shooting big guns. Elmer Keith is reputed to have been some sort of X-man who never met a recoil that bothered him. The bigger the bullet and more powder behind it, be it in handguns or rifles, the better. Recoil apparently just didn’t phase him. There is a corroborated story of him using a .44 Mag to shoot a mule deer at something approaching 600 yards; he was a wizard. Back to the point. After the success of the .357 Magnum, which after his part was done in the development phase, the .357 seemed somehow boring or lacking to Keith, who then focused on wringing all the potential out of the .44 Special. What happened was very similar to the original Magnum story, but with…say it with me…Moar Powa! The .44 Magnum is a lengthened .44 Special cartridge, fitted into really strong revolvers and nearly doubles the Powa! of the .357 Magnum. Loaded to its’ potential it is more gun than most folks want to shoot more than once or twice but for dedicated handgun hunters it is hard to beat. Revolvers in .44 mag come from all the major brands.
.454 Casull – Dick Casull had a fever, it was 4 years after the debut of the .44 Magnum. Dick liked to hunt with handguns and the Powa! bug hit him pretty hard. Yessir, Mr Casull had a fever, and the only cure was, not cowbell, but Moar Powa! Dick wildcatted his cartridge in 1957 by taking taking the dimensions of the .45 Colt, lengthening the case by 2.5 mm and strengthening the case walls and badda bing, badda BOOM he had a new cartridge. Freedom Arms was the first to make a revolver stout enough to handle the power it possessed; pressures of that approaching rifle cartridges. In 1997 Ruger chambered their Super Redhawk revolver in this caliber. Taurus got in on the act in the Raging Bull revolver in 1998. How crazy is this?; the Casull uses a rifle primer instead of a pistol primer! Even more astounding loads out of the .454 generate muzzle energy similar to that of the original .45-70 loadings! Having seen a pretty accomplished handgunner shoot this thing in my youth, I have no desire to do so. The .44 Magnum is plenty for most expert handgunners, and the .357 is more than enough for most purposes. But if you like big power in a revolver the .454 Casull was the king of the hill for some time. Taurus, Ruger, and S&W all have offerings chambered for this one.
.460 S&W – As great as the .454 Casull was, handgun hunters had a real problem. Sometimes they could see a Muley in their powerful scopes, but a .454 Casull would not quite obliterate one at 200 yards. To think, you spend $2000 on a revolver and all the gear, lug it to the top of some rocky mountain peak, only to not be able to shoot a critter on the next mountain top. S&W and Hornady thought they should solve that problem. Did they suggest that perhaps revolver shooters making 200 yard shots on deer and elk should get a nice rifle? They never thought of that… what they did in 2005 was take the .454 Casull cartridge, lengthen it a little more and load it for…yep….MOAR POWA! The .460 S&W, which some call a “Super Magnum” shoots the highest velocity rounds to ever come out of a handgun. When sighted in at 200 yards it has “minute of deer” trajectory (+- 5 inches) from 0-250 yards(!). Shoot it more than two or three times in a session and you will be able to do a great impersonation of Rocky from the end of Rocky IV. If you want one of these S&W is your only option.
.480 Ruger – In a rare bit of near sanity, in 2003 Ruger and Hornady released the .480 Ruger. Anytime you discuss cutting down a .45-70 rifle round(!) to produce a revolver round as sanity you know you are in rarefied territory. But that is what Ruger did, they took a semi-wildcat cartridge, made from .45-70 brass, the .475 Linebaugh, and cut it down a little more. What Ruger was attempting to do was develop a round that delivered similar energy on target to a .44 Magnum with heavier bullet making a bigger hole. It makes sense, recoil of the .480 is not much more than a .44 Magnum, but it lobs a positively enormous chunk of lead, nearly one ounce (and about the same size as the lead from its’ parent .45-70 cartridge), providing 50% more muzzle energy of the .44 Mag. Sadly, it seems this did not catch on with the Moar Powa! crowd, as it did not have Moar Powa! than the .454 Casull or the .460 S&W, and was overshadowed by the last entry in this article. This is a shame, because those who felt undergunned by a .44 Mag would have had a real option with the .480 Ruger. Sadly, the .480 is not all that seemingly popular, Taurus previously produced a Raging Bull in .480, but Ruger is your only current source if you want one.
.500 S&W – For those who feel that it is necessary for both the hunter and the prey to have “skin in the game” the 500 S&W exists. There are honestly portrayed stories of broken hands and detached retinas from being on the “safe” end of this round. S&W partnered with ammunition provider Cor-Bon to introduce the .500 S&W in 2003, the same year as Ruger’s introduction of the .480 Ruger. It was a blatant move to cement themselves as the purveyor of the most powerful handgun title, and corresponded to the their release of the S&W X Frame revolver. It is capable of taking any animal in the western hemisphere, and loaded in a rifle chambered for it, becomes formidable medicine for even the African beasts. It is truly an elephant gun. The bad news is, ammunition is very expensive, the good news is, buy one box and you can pass half of it on to your children. S&W is the only current game in town for these, Taurus has discontinued their Raging Bull in .500 S&W, but used ones will be available.
Information below represents approximate average from several common commercial loadings, YMMV. Two common rifle rounds included for comparison, obviously their barrel lengths are much longer. *Factory loaded .44 Special ammo is especially weak for some reason.
As always, if you have a feva for guns, Liberty Tree is the cure. Swing by and see what they have. As of this writing they had a couple of these behemoths in stock.