44Mag and/or 45 Colt, Which way to go

First let’s consider these two cartridges in their respective SAAMI spec form. The SAAMI pressure limit on the 44 Mag is 40,000cup or 36,000psi, (cup and psi; mystery stuff that I am not going into now for lack of space and knowledge). There is no conversion to get you from one to the other. For the 45 Colt, it is 14,000cup and 14,000psi (see what I mean!). There are many other standard dimensions for both, but the O.A.L. of a loaded cartridge is the one that matters to us most. For the 44 Mag, O.A.L. is 1.61 and for the 45 Colt, O.A.L. is 1.6. It should be noted that 45 Colt’s usually shoot bullets approximately .452-.454” in diameter and the 44 Mag shoots bullets .4295 - .431” in diameter. The 45 is a “45” and the 44 is a “43”. Both use the same case length of 1.285” and approximately the same rim diameter of .512(45) and .514(44). Because the 44 is a 43 and its bullet and case are slightly over .020” less in diameter, the difference in exposed rim, (+/- .060 thick for both), is that the effective rim is slightly over twice as big for the 44 even though we have seen that the actual rim diameter is nearly identical.

What about performance? If we only consider the ammo you can go down to the cowboy store (Walmart) and buy off the shelf, you will probably be looking at for the 45 Colt, (if they have it), bullets in the 225-255gr. range that are fairly soft lead with a round or flat nose travelling at 700 – 900fps depending on what handgun you shoot them out of. With 44 Mag you may have a couple of choices, (and in this day and age, more likely to find it on the shelf), you may find 180JHP @ 1400-1600fps and/or a 240JHP or JSP @ 1150-1400fps. (Tip: if you are limited to this ammo, the 240 jacketed soft point (JSP), is the most versatile.)

If you’re looking for just power, in SAAMI pressure spec form, then the 44 Mag stomps the 45 Colt, period. At SAAMI restricted pressure levels the 45 Colt is much nicer to shoot (you will hear this again if you keep reading). Yes, I know you can handload it light or shoot 44 Specials out of a 44 Magnum. The SAAMI standard 45 Colt loads are very pleasant to shoot because of mild blast and recoil and have a proven track record as excellent killers on everything from men to horses. The “paper energy” of the old 45 generally runs 300-400 foot pounds of energy. This is an example of how we know “paper energy” doesn’t tell the whole tale. The experts would have you believe it “takes” at least a 1000 foot pounds of energy to cleanly kill a deer when in fact even an old black powder 45 Colt with a 250gr bullet will usually shoot thru a broadside deer. (Hard on deer.) The 44 Mag in its SAAMI restricted pressure range is a different beast and it is a good and proven killer but with the above mentioned loads it is leaving quite a bit of killing potential on the table. For example, the full SAAMI power 250gr lead 45 Colt (particularly with “hard/tough/well shaped bullets”), will usually out penetrate the commonly available high speed jacketed loads of the 44 Magnum. While these factory standard loads often make spectacular kills, they may not be as reliable a killer as the above described Colt loads. Put a hard/tough cast lead bullet in the 44 weighing in the neighborhood of 300 grains with a Keith, LBT/LFN or Garrett HH shape going 1200fps and the 44 Magnum will out kill the standard pressure Colt. (At the same time, an equal alloy/shape 260-270 grainer out of a Colt at 900-1000fps will make a hell of a showing against any factory jacketed 44 load for killing potential.) There will be a price in blast and recoil. Speaking of that, I hope you get that at equal bullet weight and velocity, the 44(43) has to generate more pressure than the 45 Colt to get the same job done. A gun is a single stroke engine and the 45 is a bigger one and therefore does the same job with less pressure. Easier on ears, hands, and guns when loaded to same power level. Once again, there are many factors and all things being equal (weight/shape/alloy/velocity), the 44 (43) will have a higher sectional density than the 45 and will have more potential for penetration. Assuming the meplat diameter is proportionally larger on the 45 it will initially cause more tissue destruction and possibly in some instances cause quicker incapacitation but the “all else equal 43” will have the potential for more penetration in this example. Interestingly, if the meplat is the same diameter there will be little difference in wound channel and depth of penetration.

This is as good a place as any to explain what 40 plus years of field experience and study has led me to believe is the formula for optimum killing potential for the hunting handgun that may be asked to do a tough killing job. I will define a tough killing job for a revolver with the following example; reliably kill large bear/elk/bovine/boar ext. or the biggest whitetail buck you have ever seen from any angle.
In a practical revolver (belt gun), there are limitations. Number one has proven to be how well a given shooter can actually shoot in regards to recoil. Nearly anyone can work up to 1000lbs of muzzle energy. Few can handle over 2000. The weight and size of the belt gun figures in also. Probably the easiest to shoot is the Ruger Bisley (with the Freedom Arms 83 coming in 2nd), however if I need (or want) a double action, then I reach for a version of a Smith & Wesson if a SAAMI pressure 44 will handle the chore. If I want more power I go to a Redhawk. I have been carrying various Redhawk’s and N frame S&W’s for over 35 years starting as a Texas deputy sheriff and including trips to Alaska and Africa, but my most important time with a Redhawk has been over hundreds of miles hunting wild hogs in my native Texas. I tell you this because to some people a Redhawk is just too big (and it is for some people, I’m 6’5” – 240lbs). I will tell you anything bigger probably isn’t a practical belt gun. On the other end of the scale some of truly handy belt guns are the Colt SAA, S&W N frames (with short skinny barrels) and the FA97. These are compact and easy to carry, especially in the shorter barrel lengths and handle 45 Colt loads up in the 500-600 range of energy. The “experts” will tell you it’s not enough to hunt with. I will tell you that a 250gr “Cowboy” load is a reliable killer and the Garrett 265HH load (<21,000psi, 7.5” @1000fps, 4.75”@940fps) is an amazing killer for the recoil endured. I have shot thru (mostly broadside-ish), a pick-up load of critters, with my 4.75” USFA 45 Colt and this load. Keep in mind that the equally handy “N” frame S&W Mountain gun is available in 44 and the 310HH load was specifically designed for the “N” frame Smith by Randy Garrett (the most potential killing power of any SAAMI pressure compliant 44 factory load). The 329 is even lighter. The large frame, 45 Colt blue Blackhawk (w/alloy frame) shooting our 365LFR load is a light gun to carry and has a very impressive power to weight ratio.

Once you have an idea of the gun you want to carry and understand its limitations and yours, getting the most potential from that power level is pretty straight forward. Since this discussion is supposed to address the 44 Mag vs 45 Colt, understand that the power levels are somewhat limited. Including +P levels, we are looking at 500+lbs of energy on the low end to 1400+lbs on the extreme end of these cartridges. Most any “hand gunner” can handle 500fpe in a Colt SAA or a N frame S&W, the real heavy loads are generally fired from custom long cylindered Ruger Bisley’s or factory cylindered Redhawk’s. In the extreme use as a DA anti big bear defense, a 4”Redhawk, (6 shot) in 45 Colt shooting a load such as the Garrett 45RHO (405gr HH/Redhawk only) load, is a substantial handful. That combo will eclipse the performance of the original 1873 Trapdoor Springfield carbine load in 45-70.

All up and down this range of power, the maximum killing potential is achieved by driving the heaviest bullet of proper design and alloy that can be driven to a meaningful velocity (fast enough to work, not so fast it unnecessarily compromises bullet integrity). The maximum killing potential at these levels of power have proven to me, to occur when maximum straight line penetration is achieved with an approximate 75% diameter meplat and cast of the hardest/toughest alloys available. Examples; it turns out that with a properly designed bullet and load, the S&W 29 will handle a 310 bullet at over 1300FPS and do it within SAAMI pressure specs. Of course short barrels will be slower, but anything over 900fps will do a lot of killing with the 310HH (Randy Garrett optimized this bullet for the “N” frame S&W). The softer the alloy, the slower it has to go to avoid damaging the bullet form. To get its best penetration, even with the Garrett alloy, in let say a big boar with a well-developed shield and a center shoulder hit, the optimum impact speed is about 1300fps. With a lesser (lead softer) alloy it could be closer to 900fps! Why do I think this, you might ask? It is from seeing dozens of big boars killed with cast and jacketed handgun bullets. On several occasions I have seen the Garrett 330gr HH 44 bullet stop in the shield on the far side of a mature boar, (pretty hard on them), when impact speed was over 1350fps, sometimes they stop and sometimes they go thru. When impact speed was below about 1350, I have not yet recovered an example of that bullet in anything. Conversely, I have seen a jacketed 240gr from a 16” Marlin in 44 stop on the near leg bone of a mature boar (at about 40yds) after being expanded on the shield. Total penetration was about 2 inches. Turned him into a three legged hog and six months later he was alive well until a friend I was guiding put him down with his elk rifle. I have seen similar failure to penetrate with deer bullets. Usually the boar gets away, but on three separate occasions I have witnessed a .308 twice and a 7mm Mag hit mature boars in the shoulder/shield and fail to penetrate the chest cavity. Deer bullets stopped in less than 4 inches. (Tip; if you’re going to shoot soft bullets at mature boars, use heavy for caliber bullets at moderate velocity. Use a gun and load suitable for trophy elk or you will eventually lose a mature boar due to under penetration.)

Some 44/45 revolver recommendations;

If you want a handgun to hunt with, the Ruger Bisley in 45 Colt is hard to beat. Until you have shot a box of Garrett 365LFR’s, don’t be too quick to think you need or can handle accurately more power/potential.

If you are looking for an everyday carry gun, (I’m talking ranch/farm/café/auto parts store etc.) I lean toward a SAA or skinny barrel N frame S&W.

If I was carrying for bear defense in the mountains, a 329 or Mountain gun with Garrett 310’s would be my choice.

If on the coast fishing, carrying for defense from brown bear, I would lean towards a 4 or 5-1/2” Redhawk in 45 Colt shooting 405RHO loads.

For the record, for years my favorite daily carry was a concealed custom LW Commander in 45ACP, (still in the rotation) and when at the ranch/hunting I carried either a Bowen custom 5-1/2” Blackhawk or Redhawk in 44 with 330+P’s, (still in the rotation). Since the development of the Garrett 45 Colt loads I have new favorites. For daily open carry, farm/ranch/café/anywhere…..I have been favoring a very well-tuned and regulated USFA 4-3/4” 45 Colt with Rowen Custom one piece big horn grip shooting our 265HH load. While this is not a gun I generally hunt with, I do carry it a lot and cuz’ I am out amongst ém more than the average pistolero, it has taken its share. As of Oct. 2017, the 265HH/USFA tally includes 3 mature boar’s, 2 mule deer, 2 white tail, some song dogs, a badger, a bunch of rabbits/hare and dozens of disrespectful sunflowers. When I’m hunting or just in the mood, my favorite in the recent past has been a 45 Colt Bowen custom 5-1/2” Redhawk shooting our 365LFR load, (lots of power and easier on unprotected ears than 44/330+P or 45/405RHO). It has taken among many other critters, a gone crazy, 2,200lb range bull that the ranch wanted put down before it went thru a perimeter fence. I called the shot behind the near elbow joint, thru the chest and into the opposite elbow. It dropped where it stood. That 45 Colt BCA Redhawk combined with our 365HH LFR load has proven to be a great heavy field gun as has my blue 5-1/2” Bowen/Rowen 44Mag Redhawk with our 330HH+P load.

The point of all of this, is if you are going to compare the realities of the 44 Mag and 45 Colt, you have to consider the gun and the use and the shooter. As always, “want” often trumps “need”.

-Ashley Emerson