There’s something in the DNA of some gun guys, a genetic compulsion that they cannot resist: They have to tinker, experiment, improve. Sometimes it works out well. Sometimes, not so much.
Some experiments are full of promise that blossom and make them rich or famous. And then there are the cartridges that had promise—and even delivered on that promise—but fell through the cracks nonetheless. In the years I’ve been at this, I’ve seen a few of these come and go, and I think it’s an interesting group. Let’s look at seven handgun cartridges that failed to make the grade.
In 1987, Buster Poindexter released the song “Hot, Hot, Hot.” That describes our first cartridge. The .38 Casull is the full evolution of the .45 ACP case necked down to .38/9mm. Actually, the case starts out longer than a .45, but in being necked down it ends up the same loaded length.
I tested this cartridge in a six-inch .38 Casull pistol, a long-slide 1911. The listed velocity of the 124-grain bullet is 1,800 fps, and it did that and then some. The muzzle blast was impressive, as was the recoil and subsequent muzzle rise. It also hurled the empties over the side berm of the range I was shooting on, raising complaints from the club members over there. The only prudent course is to use .38 Casull ammo in a pistol built for it by Casull and not try to make another 1911 use it.
What purpose does it serve? Besides occasional varmint duty, it works well to impress your fellow gun club members—and putting dents in the inexpensive steel targets the club bought.
Simply put, it is a .45 ACP necked down to accept a 10mm bullet. Cor-Bon wasn’t the first to do this. The first I heard of was the .41 Avenger, but it failed due to a lack of .410-inch bullets that were short enough. Then there was the 10mm Centaur designed by Charles Petty.
But Peter Pi of Cor-Bon fussed over the .400 until he got the neck the right length and the shoulder where it needed to be, and the result was lightning in a bottle. Due to the speed it generated, the .400 was limited to 135-, 150- and 165-grain jacketed bullets, but the speeds these generated were impressive: 135s at 1,450 fps; 150s at 1,350; and 165s at 1,300 fps. If you went to 180-grain bullets, you lost enough speed that you were just shooting another 10mm or .45 ACP load. And it had no use for lead bullets, so getting inexpensive practice was not easy.
To shoot it, all you needed was a replacement barrel in your .45, and a stiffer recoil spring. Were there still a Second Chance Combat Shoot, the .400 would be on my short list when building a new Pin Gun or Space Gun.
Alas, speed alone was not enough, and while Cor-Bon still offers it, it can’t be one of the company’s hot sellers.
Coming to us from the now-defunct Triton Cartridge Company, the .40 Super was, in result if not intent, a .400 Cor-Bon on steroids. Where the .400 used .45 ACP cases, the .40 used .451 Detonics cases cut to ACP length. To generate the performance desired, Triton also upped the operating pressure to 37,000 psi (well above the .45 ACP +P’s pressure of 21,000 psi) and used Small Pistol primers in the cases.
This was too much for many shooters and some guns. I built a 1911 purposefully for .40 Super. It had a bank-vault lockup, a ramped, supported barrel and a heavy recoil spring. I quickly peened the rails where the barrel slammed down in unlinking. It took a lot of fussing over recoil springs, buffer pads and barrel fitting to get it to run and not beat itself to death. The .40 Super is not something you can manage with a simple drop-in barrel.
I solved the details just before I got around to having to install a compensator, and then I moved on to other cartridges.
Performance? Yowza! Out of a five-inch Government model, the .40 delivered 135-grain bullets at a smoking 1,800 fps, 165s at 1,500 fps and 200s at 1,300 fps. As I remarked when I first experimented with it, if you wanted to boost a 165-grain bullet faster than the .40 Super could, you needed something with a shoulder stock on it.
In an ironic shift from the .400 Cor-Bon, where speed was not enough, here it was too much. Muzzle blast was extreme, guns were hard to control and didn’t last long. And when Triton folded, that was it. You can still get brass and loaded ammo, but you have to search.
.45 Super & .450 Short Magnum
The .45 Super came to us from the late Dean Grennell, who developed it back in the late 1980s. It was an advancement of the .45 ACP, using the thick cases of the .451 Detonics, trimmed to ACP length, and the pressure was run up to the mid to upper 20,000 psi range. In 1994, Ace Custom trademarked the name, and it now offers .45 Super ammo and guns, plus it can upgrade a .45 ACP to .45 Super.
The trademarking of the cartridge caused other makers to drop it, but Triton Cartridge decided to press on with the .450 Short Magnum Cartridge, which used the same-dimension case as the Super but employed Small Pistol primers. Running in much the same pressure band, the .450 SMC had listed velocities just a tad higher than those of the .45 Super.
In the end, the thought of either cartridge slipping into a tired old USGI 1911, which would quickly quit under the exertions, was stronger than the appeal of the power gained. They really called for purpose-built guns, and both were upstaged by the .460 Rowland, which delivers full .44 Magnum performance in a 1911 pistol.
(As an aside, .45 ACP cases with Small Pistol primers came back to us later, when the ammo manufacturers were forced into using non-lead compound primers. Just because a .45 ACP-sized case has a Small Pistol primer pocket, does not mean it was once a .45 Super or .45 SMC round.)
.32 H&R Magnum
Okay, not a flamethrower, but stick with me for a minute. I was working in gun shops when this one came out, and we were all scratching our heads over it. The idea was good, in theory: pump up the long-neglected .32 revolver cartridges and bring them fully into the Reagan Era. In 1984, revolvers for defense were still king, and while it was hot when compared to the .32 Short and .32 Long, in the end the .32 H&R Magnum proved too short and too weak. It was short in order to make sure it fit the cylinders of H&R revolvers and weak—at only 21,000 c.u.p. and not any more pressure than a .38 Special +P—so it wouldn’t over-stress H&R top-break revolvers.
As a result, the best load, a 100-grain jacketed hollowpoint, had a book spec of 1,200 fps. Alas, out of a four-inch wheelgun it was lucky to do more than 1,100 fps. A lot of shooters didn’t see the point, considering a .38 Special could deliver more than that. Despite being an H&R-specified round, S&W made a one-time run of revolvers for it, the Model 16.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. Had it been made .38 Special length, and the designers upped the pressure to a safe value that the similar-size .38 could not match, say 35,000 c.u.p., they could have had a real “rocket in your pocket.” As it was, the .32 was again kicked to the curb until the .327 Federal Magnum, and we’ll have to see how that works out.
Still, one of these days I’m going to luck onto an S&W Model 16 with a four-inch barrel and be happy.
.401 Herter Powermag
Just the name has thrown some of you decades back, remembering catalogs printed on cheap paper and outrageous claims of earth-shaking performance. Remember Herter's Wasp-Waisted rifle bullets, with their low-drag design and greater retained velocity? And the Garand muzzle brake that made that rifle soft enough for a child to shoot?
Well, the .401 Herter Powermag was simple: a straight-wall revolver case made to hold a 10mm bullet. Of course, when it was designed in 1960 there was no 10mm cartridge. What it teamed up were .38-40 bullets and a straight-walled case meant to provide the Herter catalog with a magnum revolver to compete with the then-new .44 Remington Magnum.
This blissful period lasted three years (the .401 came out in 1961) with the introduction of the .41 Magnum. Where the .41 Magnum uses .410-inch bullet, the .401 used .400-inch bullets. The Herter’s Powermag was available in a single-action revolver, available only from them. The .41 was available in single- and double-action revolvers from S&W and Ruger. The end was obvious.
I have never fired one, but I do have a Herter’s revolver, one loaded round and some fired cases. Unfortunately you can’t make .401 cases from anything else. The revolver was brought in for repair almost 30 years ago and the owner never heard from again. Gee, I wonder why?
For some reason, there seem to be more pistol cartridges that bloom and die than revolver cartridges. I can only assume it is due to ease of R&D. It is relatively easy to redo a pistol barrel to a new caliber than make a new revolver barrel and cylinder. As an example, if I wanted to experiment with 8mm Nambu loadings I could easily rebuild a 1911 to accept one. If I wanted to experiment with loading 9mm Japanese, getting a revolver built would be a headache of the first order.
Are These Next?
.357 SIG & .45 GAP
Since we’re talking about cartridges that didn’t make it, I would be remiss if I didn’t predict one or two. I’ve written about them before in an “Ammo Shelf” column a while back, but I thought some of it bears repeating.
I like the folks at SIG Sauer. They work hard, they come up with clever designs, and they sometimes don’t get the results they deserve. The .357 SIG was a good idea: to get .357 Magnum performance out of a self-loading pistol. Too bad the law enforcement powers that be didn’t understand that velocity matters. The typical result is to issue a pistol in .357 SIG with a convenient-to-carry short barrel. The velocity loss makes it a bad call.
After all, who wants to shoot a self-loading pistol that promises the .357 but delivers only its muzzle blast and shorts you to 9mm +P at best? When officers’ disappointing qualification scores come rolling in, the agency or department has to rethink the choice. In a full-size pistol, we’re talking really sparkling performance. But shorten it and it becomes eyebrow-singing, flash-bulb performance. The .357 SIG can be fit into any pistol that will accept a .40, which is its strength and weakness.
Glock's G37 holds ten rounds of .45 GAP—in a pistol that, were it in .40, would hold 15. Hmmm, let me see. I can pack 15+1 of a screaming .40 S&W load or I can pack 10+1 in .45 GAP? Is this a trick question?
The problem isn’t with the cartridge, which delivers all it is intended to, but rather the fact that there is no pistol which allows users to take advantage of it. If you make a .45 GAP pistol hold more rounds, it becomes as big as a .45 ACP pistol.
Where some caliber/pistol combos are in a sweet spot, holding a useful amount of rounds of their size, the .45 GAP falls outside of all the usual sweet spots. And no one has come up with a pistol that pulls it in.