We all know what the .44 Magnum is, right? And we all know Elmer Keith designed and tested it. But the cartridge Elmer Keith came up with isn’t what most people shoot today¬–at least not for those who shoot factory ammo.
What we see today is mostly a soft, swaged-lead bullet with a gas check, or jacketed hollowpoints and softpoints–usually at more listed velocity than they need or can stand. But the velocities used to be a lot higher, and they were listed higher too.
When the first .44 Magnum factory load came out, it was a swaged 240-grain semi-wadcutter at a listed 1,435 fps. (Not that it made that, but it surely tried hard.) Even Elmer Keith remarked that it was “too much.”
Today, we see velocities for the 240-grain bullets in the low to mid 1,200s, and the 180-grain jacketed hollowpoints in the low to mid-1,300 fps range. Why?
To understand that, we have to go back to the original load Keith developed. It was centered around a hard-cast lead semi-wadcutter bullet of 240 grains weight. However, what Keith called “hard-cast” and what we consider hard-cast today are not the same.
He used relatively soft alloys by our standards, but while they were soft enough to swage up when fired, they were plenty hard to penetrate when they hit their intended target. And with a wide, sharp-edged nose, the bullets cut cleanly as they penetrated. He called them hard-cast because by the standards of the soft swaged round-nosed bullets in factory ammo, his were practically diamond hard.
To get the velocities he needed, Keith took advantage of design and powder. His bullet put more of its weight outside of the case than earlier bullet designs did.
As for powder, he used rifle powders in his handgun testing. Back in the 1920s, all rifle powders were on the “fast” side by today’s standards. He finally settled on 2400, a powder developed for use in the .22 Hornet. It had the burn rate he needed, it was stable and it could stand a small amount of compression. And it delivered fantastic accuracy.
Keith did his testing in one of the strongest revolvers of the time: the S&W N frame in .44 Special–some standard and some the “Triple lock” model. He boosted velocities over the sedate .44 Special factory ammo. Let me tell you right up front that if you shoot a 1920s-made revolver with any of the loads Elmer used, you’re abusing a fine collectible. If you want to load to Elmer’s levels, shoot them only in a current-production gun.
What he got was his hard-cast 240-grainer going 1,200 fps. In the world of today, the most you can expect out of a .44 Special (and be safe and not prematurely wear out your gun) is 1,000 fps. The .44 Magnum will easily run at 1,200 fps and will probably last longer than if you fed it nothing but factory ammo.
Now, as back then, it will punch a .430-inch hole through most anything. Now, it may not exit the far side of a big moose, but on anything smaller it is going to create a perforating wound, with blood exiting both sides and air coming in to replace it. For a hunter, that is a very, very good thing. For defensive uses, not so much.
In testing the classic load, I have not been able to stop any Keith or Keith-type bullets in back-to-back gelatin blocks. They always exit the far side of 36 inches of ballistic gelatin with gusto.
In my FBI-procedure tests, the hard-cast bullets easily penetrate the clothing, auto glass, wallboard, plywood and sheet metal and exceed the FBI minimum of 12 inches of penetration. They do not expand, though, and thus fail the test by the FBI standards.
They do, however, punch .44 caliber holes through all intermediate obstacles, and the hole in the gelatin is a full .44 diameter. How much expansion do you need if you have an arrow-straight bullet path and such a large diameter?
If that load works so well, why do we see so many others? Why swaged lead? Why Mach 1.3 velocities? Simple: cost and cleaning. Swaged lead bullets cost less than anything else, even after you account for the costs of developing and applying super-lubes to control leading. Adding a gas check is a minor cost and helps keep things clean.
For those who do not want to clean up lead at all, then jacketed bullets are the answer. A jacketed bullet, any jacketed bullet, expands better with more velocity. Since the world has recently gone expansion-crazy, you have to have as much velocity as you can get to make a bullet expand when tested.
All other things being equal, a heavier bullet will penetrate more than a light one. So for those who hunt really big game, bullets heavier than 240 grains are in vogue.
Of course, both extra velocity or mass mean extra recoil, and that makes it more difficult to shoot well. The Keith 240/1,200 load is much like the .30-06: It is about as stout in recoil as you can manage, with just a bit of practice. However, if you spend even a little time and effort with it, you can shoot the 240/1,200 combo well enough to be accurate with it.
Doing It Elmer’s Way
If you want to work up a classic Keith load, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. One, 2400 is not happy given light treatment. For proper powder combustion, you need to have a tight neck tension and a good crimp. That means an inside diameter of your sized cases down in the .426-inch region.
Your crimp has to be secure, both to keep bullets from “pulling” on recoil and to resist bullet movement until the powder has fully combusted. I have used both roll and taper crimps with good results.
This is an instance where trimming handgun brass pays off, as consistent case lengths mean consistent crimp tension. You’ll also be happier if you use magnum primers rather than standard ones because 2400 is not easily ignited at these pressures, and you want a clean-burning load.
Resizing the cases you fire this load with will be work. Eve
n if you are using carbide or TiN-coated sizing dies, you may find a spray lube helps a lot. If I’m sitting down to reload full-power .44 Magnum cases, I use spray lube.
There are .44 Special and .44 Magnum loads to deliver these results, and you have to be careful about it. The Special-case load, in magnum brass, will under-deliver velocity. The magnum-case load, in Special brass, will boost pressures into unsafe territory.
You also will have to be sure of overall length. A long-nosed Keith-type bullet, in a magnum case, may require that you crimp over the shoulder and not in the crimp groove. Otherwise, the assembled round may be too long for your cylinder. Measure everything and do some comparisons before you load up a five-gallon bucket of practice ammo.
The reloading manuals show the top loads and will be suggesting that what you want is 1,500 fps from your handgun. If you do, go with God, for that is a lot more recoil than I’m looking for. So instead of that load, use the classic Elmer Keith load. Start with 14.5 grains of 2400 with the 240-grain hard-cast semi-wadcutter and work up to 17.0 grains–watching for pressure signs.
Load the cartridge as long as the cylinder length and case length/crimp groove location permit. Then practice a whole lot.