September 24, 2010
By Dick Metcalf
Once upon a time, Clint Eastwood's Detective Sergeant Harry Callahan character pointed his S&W Model 29 at a recalcitrant felon and remarked, "This being a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world..." Well, it wasn't--even in 1971, when "Dirty Harry" first hit the theaters. And it certainly isn't now.
In fact, when it comes to real handgun power these days, the .44 Magnum isn't even on the chart. Today, the threshold for true major-power magnum handguns has moved far beyond the .44 to calibers .45, .475 and .50.
Of course, the surge in biggest-bore magnum revolver popularity during recent decades does owe a great deal to Harry Callahan, both for sparking an enduring interest by shooters in owning and shooting "most powerful" handguns--and for prompting manufacturers to develop cartridges and revolvers that could rightly claim that title.
And while the genesis of all these more recent powerhouses can be traced to their developers' search for cartridges and guns that would be effective as big game guns and bear-stoppers, the majority of sales have gone to shooters who simply seek the satisfaction of owning, shooting and mastering the most powerful handheld firearms available.
So if you're interested in joining those ranks, here's a quick survey of today's biggest-bore handfuls, in order of caliber.
At the "bottom" of the current big-bore revolvers now eclipsing the .44 Magnum is the .454 Casull, developed by experimenter Dick Casull during the 1950s. Casull began experimenting with high-pressure .45 Colt handloads in the Colt Single Action Army but quickly realized that the thin chamber walls were inadequate. He developed a much stronger five-shot cylinder and specially heat-treated frames and was able to drive a 255-grain bullet to 1,550 fps from a 7.5-inch barrel.
Realizing an even larger frame would be necessary to reach greater power, in 1957 he crafted a prototype single-action revolver that could chamber a .45 Colt-dimension case that used a Small Rifle primer and was strengthened and lengthened to 1.383 inches. It could drive 235-grain bullet over 2,000 fps or a 300-grain bullet to more than 1,700 fps.
Casull eventually partner in 1979 with Wayne Baker of Freedom Arms in Wyoming, and the FA Model 83 single-action revolver chambered in .454 Casull began shipping to dealers in 1983. Today, single-action .454 Casull revolvers are being produced by a variety of other makers such as Magnum Research Inc., and double-action .454 Casull revolvers are offered by Ruger and Taurus USA.
For many years, the .454 Casull reigned supreme as the most powerful commercially produced handgun round on the market. Revolvers so-chambered have been used by hunters to take the largest game in the world and are widely favored by outdoorsmen as a companion defense against animal attack.
.460 S&W MAGNUM
Introduced in 2005, the .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum was the second chambering to be offered for S&W's extra-large X-frame revolver series. Like the .454 Casull, it is an even-more-lengthened and strengthened extension of the original .45 Colt case (.460 revolvers can chamber and fire both these other rounds) and operated at centerfire rifle-level cartridge pressure.
It sends a conventional 200-grain handgun bullet out the muzzle of a 7.5-inch revolver at more than twice the speed of sound, provides a maximum point blank range of 250 yards for deer hunting and develops nearly 1.5 tons of muzzle energy in its heaviest commercial loadings.
Once considered the king of handguns, the .44 Magnum (here in an S&W 629, bottom) has been far eclipsed by modern cartridges such as the .500 S&W and the monster revolvers built for them, such as this S&W X frame.
It's the fastest, flattest-shooting big-bore revolver cartridge ever developed and carries more energy 300 yards downrange than a .44 Magnum offers at the muzzle.
Due to the weight and recoil-management features (compensated barrel and cushioned grips) of the S&W Model 460 revolver, its subjective recoil is little different than that of a conventional smaller-frame .44 Magnum revolver such as the S&W Model 29.
Ammo for the .460 S&W ammunition is commercially produced by Cor-Bon, Hornady, Winchester and Federal, as well as several other smaller specialty-load commercial ammunition makers. Production revolvers are available from S&W (double action) and Magnum Research (single action).
Next up is the .475 Linebaugh, developed in 1988 by John Linebaugh primarily for hunting big game or as a backup when confronting dangerous animals. He based his invention on a .45-70 government case cut off at 1.500 inches with a reduced diameter rim and loaded with .475-inch diameter bullets weighing from 320 to 440 grains.
It was chambered originally in a modified large-frame single-action Ruger Bisley revolver fitted with a five-shot cylinder and a 5.5-inch barrel. From this revolver, Linebaugh's 370-grain bullet load develops 1,495 fps and generates 1,840 ft.-lbs. of energy, and a 440-grain bullet load yields 1,360 fps and develops 1,800 ft.-lbs.--approximately 100 ft.-lbs. more than top .454 Casull loadings.
Commercial .475 Linebaugh ammunition is offered by Hornady and Buffalo Bore Cartridge, plus other smaller manufacturers, and five-shot single-action .475 revolvers come from Freedom Arms and Magnum Research.
The .475 Linebaugh offers superior power to the .454 in a conventional-dimension/weight handgun, while having a "softer" recoil-pressure peak due to its larger caliber diameter. It has been used with complete success on the largest African game.
The .475 caliber .480 Ruger was introduced in 2001 as a joint development by Hornady and Ruger for the Ruger Super Redhawk double-action revolver and was Ruger's first brand-name cartridge. For all intents and purposes it is a ".475 Linebaugh Short," with a nominal 1.285-inch case length and a maximum overall loaded length of 1.650 inches.
Its case diameter, rim size and other specifications are the same as the 1.5-inch-case .475 Linebaugh, so the .480 Ruger cartridge can be fired in .475 Linebaugh revolvers.
Ruger offers the .480 in several different barrel-length versions of the Super Redhawk, including a snubnosed Alaskan version that's proved popular among people seeking a defense against bear attack.
Ammo is available from Hornady and several other manufacturers. Hornady's 325-grain .475 caliber XTP-Mag load offers a muzzle velocity of 1,350 fps and 1,315 ft.-lbs. of energy from a 7.5-inch revolver barrel. At 100 yards it retains more than 1,075 fps velocity and 835 ft.-lbs. of energy--19 percent less velocity and 29 percent less energy than the .454. When compared to a 300-grain .44 Magnum, the .480 Ruger has 17 percent greater muzzle velocity with nearly 50 percent more muzzle energy.
.50 ACTION EXPRESS
Although originally developed as an auto pistol cartridge, the .50 Action Express has found a comfortable home in single-action revolvers manufactured by Freedom Arms and Magnum Research and was the first .50 caliber handgun cartridge to be commercially manufactured.
It was developed in 1988 by Evan Whildin of Action Arms and originally chambered in the Magnum Research Desert Eagle auto. Its rebated rim is the same diameter as the .44 Magnum, as is its 1.285-inch case length, which allowed existing .44 Magnum Desert Eagle pistols to be converted with only a barrel change and also allows it to be chambered in conventional-length revolver cylinders.
Ammo for the .50 AE is currently available from Speer. Its current 325-grain Uni-Core hollowpoint hunting load develops 1,450 fps muzzle velocity and 1,517 ft.-lbs. energy from a six-inch barrel, which puts it on a par with the .454 Casull and is considerably more powerful than the .480 Ruger. Its perceived recoil is also notably less sharp than the smaller-caliber/higher-pressure .454 Casull, particularly in the gas-operated Desert Eagle.
For fans of "short-case" .50 caliber handguns, its only drawback is limited commercial ammunition availability (Speer offers the aforementioned load and a 300-grain Gold Dot hollowpoint) and also limited bullet selection if you want to handload for an autoloader--although component bullets are not an issue for a revolver.
Some of the demand for guns like these Taurus revolvers — one in .454 and the other in .500 S&W — is for handy protection in bear country.
The .500 Linebaugh was the first .50 caliber revolver cartridge to achieve notable recognition and was developed by John Linebaugh at generally the same time he was working on the .475 Linebaugh. It is based on the slightly tapered .348 Winchester case, shortened to 1.410 inches and loaded with .512 caliber cast-lead bullets.
Linebaugh's earliest .500 revolvers were built on both the now-discontinued Seville revolvers and Ruger Super Blackhawk single-actions, but all current .500s built by Linebaugh Custom Guns are on the Ruger Bisley platform. A variety of other "production custom" gunmakers also currently produce .500 Linebaughs based on the Ruger platform.
Commercial ammunition is available from Buffalo Bore, as well as smaller specialty-load suppliers. Buffalo Bore currently offers .500 Linebaugh loads in 400- through 525-grain bullet weights, in velocities from 950 fps through 1,400 fps and energies from 871 ft.-lbs. to 1,741 ft.-lbs.
With heavier loads, the subjective recoil of the .500 Linebaugh is profound, given the relatively light weight and grip configurations of the single-action revolver platforms universally used for the cartridge. It's primarily for those who want the maximum handgun power combined with maximum portability in dangerous-game country.
.500 WYOMING EXPRESS
The newest .50 caliber magnum revolver cartridge is the .500 Wyoming Express, a proprietary load developed by Freedom Arms and introduced in 2005. It is unique in that it is a belted-case cartridge designed specifically for a revolver.
Freedom Arms needed a .50 caliber round that would fit into its existing Model 83 cylinder diameter and ratchet design, and its research demonstrated that the rim of any rimmed-case design would need to be so small that it could lead to headspacing problems. The belted .500 Wyoming Express avoids this, adds strength to the case and allows a heavy roll crimp on the bullet.
The .500 WE case uses Large Rifle primers, has a maximum case length of 1.370 inches and a maximum overall cartridge length of 1.765 inches. It uses conventional .50 caliber bullets.
Commercial ammunition is loaded by the Grizzly Cartridge Company, with cast wide flatnose gas-check bullets including a 370-grain at 1,300 fps, a 400-grain at 1,250 fps and a 440-grain at 1,200 fps. The same bullet weights are available with muzzle velocities of 950 fps with substantially less recoil. Grizzly also offers 400-grain bonded-core jacketed flatnose and 420-grain solid-bullet loads at 1,250 fps velocity.
The crown for fastest and flattest-shooting goes to the .460 Smith & Wesson. It's no slouch in the devastation department either.
The .500 JRH revolver cartridge, designed by custom revolver builder Jack R. Huntington, was originally created specifically to allow use of a rimmed .50 caliber cartridge in the Freedom Arms Model 83 Revolver. Its case is 1.400 inches in length with a base diameter of .526, and it launches 400- to 510-grain .50 caliber bullets at velocities comparable to the .500 Linebaugh.
The .500 JRH is basically a shortened .500 S&W Magnum case and can even be reloaded with .500 S&W Magnum dies when adjusted for the difference in case length.
Huntington Custom offers Freedom Arms and Ruger Super Blackhawk conversions for the .500 JRH, and Magnum Research currently sells .500 JRH cylinders for its .50 AE BFR revolver.
Factory .500 JRH ammunition is available from Buffalo Bore. One caveat: You can't fire .500 JRH ammunition in a .500 Linebaugh cylinder. The caliber is smaller (.500 compared to .512) and the rim diameter is smaller, so it will drop inside the counterbored .500 Linebaugh chambers.
.500 S&W MAGNUM
And finally, the king. The .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum truly is the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world--if by that you mean a cartridge actually designed for a handgun. In fact, that was exactly S&W's intention when it developed the cartridge an entirely new revolver frame dimension for it in 2002. As S&W's Herb Belin then put it (with a nod to Harry Callahan), "it's time to get back in first place."
The original .500 S&W Magnum loads from Cor-Bon included a 275-grain Barnes solid-copper XPB hollowpoint with 1,662 fps muzzle velocity and 1,685 ft.-lbs. muzzle energy at a maximum average pressure of 26,800 psi; a 400-grain Hawk Precision jacketed flatpoint with 1,676 fps velocity and 2,492 ft.-lbs. energy at 46,500 psi; and a 440-grain Cast Performance flatnose lead with 1,625 fps velocity and 2,578 ft.-lbs. energy at 49,500 psi.
Notably, even though the .500 S&W Magnum cartridge tops out at more than a ton and a quarter of muzzle energy, all these loads operate under 50,000 psi, which is significantly less than the 60,000 psi SAAMI-limit maximum average pressure for the smaller-caliber .454 Casull.
In the seven years since, .500 Magnum loads have also been added by Hornady, Winchester, Federal, Magtech and a host of smaller manufacturers. Double-action and single action .500 revolvers are now offered by Taurus USA and Magnum Research and have been used to take every game species in the world from whitetails to elephants. I've personally made one-shot kills with a .500 S&W revolver on both African cape buffalo and American bison. Like I said, it's unquestionably the king of the magnum hill.