Brian used a Colt Single Action Army pre-World War II revolver to develop “Pet Loads” for the .44 Russian.
The .44 Russian, or .44 Smith & Wesson (S&W) Russian, is an important cartridge development that played a significant role in the design of future cartridges. Early loads varied in bullet weight, powder charge, etc., but it was eventually standardized with a 246-grain (some sources list 245-grain) bullet at 750 feet per second (fps). In spite of its name, it was an American development. While it was soon overshadowed by more powerful sixgun cartridges, such as the .45 Colt, .45 S&W Schofield, .44-40 Winchester (a rifle cartridge adapted to sixguns), it also proved effective for defense. It soon earned a superb reputation as a highly-accurate target cartridge. Furthermore, it boasts of being the parent cartridge to the wonderful .44 Special, which in turn became the parent cartridge of the legendary .44 Magnum.
The 44 RUSSIAN CTG. Colt barrel marking.
The .44 Russian’s development dates back to 1870, when Russian General Alexander Gorloff, stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Washington D.C., approached Smith & Wesson regarding the possibility of purchasing a large quantity of its Model 3 revolvers for the Imperial Russian Army. The timing to procure such a large contract was of paramount importance, as it would provide a huge financial boost to Daniel Baird Wesson at a very critical period in company history. For example, he had just bought out (or was in the process of buying out) his partner Horace Smith, and in the post-Civil War-era, their small revolvers were not selling well, which was a combination that was causing financial struggles.
Gorloff wanted a better, more powerful cartridge than the .44 S&W American (that served as a U.S. Army cartridge from 1871-1873). The .44 American offered rather weak ballistics that pushed a 205-grain bullet at 682 fps, or a 218-grain bullet at around 660 fps. But it also featured an outside lubricated heel-type bullet similar to a .22 Long Rifle cartridge. As such, it was prone to collect dirt, lose its lubrication with field use and was subjected to moisture.
Cast bullets are generally the best choice for handloading the .44 Russian. Examples include left to right; Lyman 246-grain roundnose from mould No. 429383 and the 250-grain Lyman Keith No. 429421.
While my children think that I was around in 1870, I was not! So I am at the sympathy of information contained in history books. Sources do not always agree regarding the “facts” surrounding the .44 Russian’s development, so I am always careful about restating unsupported information. But it appears that in addition to more power, Gorloff requested a new cartridge with a better, more robust design, but it was ultimately Smith & Wesson that designed it, with Daniel Baird Wesson probably intimately involved in its development. Regardless, design work began almost immediately, as the company really needed the financial boost (paid in gold) from the Russian contract.
Select hollowpoint swaged lead and cast bullets were used to develop .44 Russian data. However, due to modest velocities, achieving reliable expansion is questionable. Bullets include a 240-grain Hornady Lead SWC-HP (left) and a 242-grain NOE No. 434236 Keith-style HP (right).
This is where the confusion and debate over technical aspects of the .44 Russian really begins. Several very credible sources suggest that early ammunition was outside lubricated and that inside lubricated bullets and ammunition did not occur until around 1887 or 1888. This may be true, but I once owned (and wish I still did) a very early Smith & Wesson Model 3 revolver that featured the two diameter chamber that is associated with bullets that are inside lubricated rather than the straight through bored chambers associated with outside lubricated, heel-type bullets. The two designs really don’t interchange. Further research is underway, but the only logical answer is that bullets were one diameter and seated inside the case. Furthermore, it may be possible that there were grease grooves inside the case and outside, which would explain historians referring to the outside lubrication. Eventually, all grease grooves were located inside the case.
Regardless, Wesson and his engineers began with the .44 American case but designed a new bullet of smaller caliber. As development continued on the .44 Russian, the case was lengthened from the .44 American length of .910 inch to .970 inch that was reported to increase powder capacity. Early bullet weights were 275 grains, but a 255 grain was cataloged at least as late as 1899 and standard bullet diameter was .430 inch (although some sources suggest .429 inch). Regardless, eventually the .44 Russian was standardized with a 246-grain lead roundnose bullet (some sources suggest 245 grains) pushed to around 750 fps with 23 grains of black powder. Period pressure was measured at around 12,000 CUP, which was 4,000 CUP higher than the .44 American. Incidentally, today, the .44 Russian’s pressure has been updated using piezoelectric standards to 14,500 psi.
Examples of single-action revolvers chambered in .44 Russian include, top to bottom: a first generation Colt Single Action Army (engraved), Colt first generation Single Action Army and a USFA Flattop Target SAA pattern with dual calibers.
The Imperial Russian Army purchased more than 131,000 Smith & Wesson Model 3 revolvers. Although there were design changes to the guns to fit their needs, reports suggest that they were pleased with the guns and cartridge performance. Smith & Wesson offered it in additional revolvers that became popular with U.S. civilians, lawmen and outlaws. Regardless, this gave Smith & Wesson the financial boost needed to move forward with expansion and new product development and helped establish them as a worldwide firearms producer.
Target shooters quickly recognized the great accuracy offered by the .44 Russian and began using it to set many records with groups measuring an impressive 3 inches and even smaller at 50 yards, with the shooters firing sixguns in the offhand position using black-powder factory loads. Smith & Wesson sold guns to additional countries, but several European companies began building copies of the Smith & Wesson revolver for use in various militaries. Colt began offering the Single Action Army (and later the Bisley Model, New Service and Shooting Master) around 1890. With improved bullets, modern smokeless powders, proper load development and a quality sixgun, the .44 Russian is easily capable of sub-1-inch groups at 50 yards, but there are very few shooters that can match the cartridge’s capabilities.
The .44 Russian (left) is the parent cartridge of the .44 Special (center), which became the parent cartridge of the .44 Magnum (right).
It is noteworthy that Elmer Keith stated in his classic 1955 book SIXGUNS by Keith
that “The .44 Russian was, and is, a superb target cartridge with a 246-grain slug at 770 feet; today’s factory .44 Specials are loaded to exactly the same velocity with the same bullet weight.” Keith continued – “It established a great many records in the past, but will not do anything the .44 Special will not do, and the latter is also capable of handling much more powerful loads with its longer case.” While I certainly agree with Keith, it should be pointed out that he was focused on the accuracy and
power potential of the .44 Special primarily for hunting big game and long-range shooting. While he had admiration for the .44 Russian’s accuracy, it held little interest to him due to its power limitations. Noted writer Ken Waters stated in a 1993 “Pet Loads” article “Required to name a handgun cartridge that should not have been abandoned, this writer would unhesitatingly nominate the .44 S&W Russian.” I fully agree!
The future of the .44 Russian was doomed, at least temporarily, with the introduction of the .44 Special in 1907 along with the first Smith & Wesson N-frame sixgun, the New Century, First Model Hand Ejector or Triple Lock. The .44 Special was originally loaded with 26 grains of black powder in conjunction with a 246-grain lead RN bullet that gave it a modest ballistic advantage over the .44 Russian that was loaded with 23 grains of black powder using the same bullet. However, the .44 Special was soon loaded with smokeless powder and was listed with a muzzle velocity of around 770 fps. It remains something of a mystery why the .44 Special was loaded to such mild ballistics with smokeless loads, but I digress. The .44 Russian was offered in the New Century revolver, but the .44 Special was first to be offered with smokeless powder loads that resulted in a significant increase in sales. Additionally, .44 Russian cartridges could be fired in any revolver chambered in .44 Special, but not vice versa. Average shooters had no real motivation to purchase a gun chambered in .44 Russian, rather they could buy a .44 Special revolver and fire both cartridges. Furthermore, as additional smokeless powders became available, experimenters such as Elmer Keith began to realize the power potential of the .44 Special. All of the above spelled obsolescence for the .44 Russian and it was discontinued, at least by U.S. companies, around World War II.
In spite of its moderate recoil with factory duplication loads, a roll crimp is suggested to prevent bullets from jumping crimp during recoil. It also aids with powder ignition.
When cowboy action shooting really began blossoming during the 1990s, many shooters began to rediscover the virtues of the .44 Russian and resurrected it by cutting down .44 Special or .44 Magnum cases. Starline soon began offering brass and several companies introduced factory loads. Most notable was Black Hills Ammunition that lists a 210-grain FPL bullet at 650 fps, but actually clocked 721 fps from 4¾-inch barrel of the test gun.
Before proceeding, it is important to understand that all .44 Russian handloading data herein is for modern guns produced specifically for smokeless powder loads. Smokeless powder loads should never be used in antique guns originally designed for black-powder ammunition.
For test guns, a pre-World War II smokeless-era Colt Single Action Army chambered for “Russian and Special 44” (a.k.a dual caliber) with A 4¾-inch barrel was used to develop loads and check velocities. Due to its superior sights, a custom USFA Single Action Army Flattop Target sixgun with 5½-inch barrel and fitted with both a .44 Special cylinder and .44 Russian cylinder was selected to check accuracy. I must state that in my testing, accuracy is generally best when full-length cases/cartridges are used in a given cylinder or chamber. For example, firing .38 Special cartridges in a .357 Magnum revolver, versus firing the same loads in a .38 Special revolver generally produces better accuracy in the latter if all other factors are equal. That was certainly the case when firing .44 Russian cartridges in .44 Special chambers and comparing their accuracy with the same loads fired in the .44 Russian cylinder. This is not to say that great accuracy cannot be obtained in the longer chamber with shorter cartridges, but it can often be further improved if fired in the correct chamber.
Many .44 Russian handloads only require small powder charges.
With that said, I believe that the .44 Russian could enjoy truly phenomenal accuracy with a custom-built revolver fitted with an appropriate length cylinder shortened to reduce bullet jump and with the barrel extending back into the frame window to correspond with the shortened cylinder. During the golden era of slow-fire sixgun target shooting, this was a rather common practice in .45 ACP revolvers, which yielded notable accuracy gains.
New Starline cases were used to develop this data, and were first full-length sized using a RCBS Cowboy die set and then neck expanded using a .4265-inch expander ball. CCI No. 300 primers were used throughout and after charging cases with powder, bullets were seated to their correct depth and then an appropriate roll crimp was applied.
As indicated, industry pressure is established at 14,500 psi. Except where noted as being a “+P” load, all loads are within that pressure limit. I was a bit surprised at the performance of some of the standard pressure loads, as many were able to push 240- to 250-grain cast bullets to 800 to 900 fps (and sometimes more). In this respect, some of the higher-energy powders included Alliant Power Pistol, Unique, Winchester W-244 and Vihtavuori 3N37.
Focusing on loads that gave the best accuracy, generally bullets with a plain base design were top performers. Examples include 215-grain bullets from RCBS mould No. 44-210-FN, the 246-grain Lyman No. 429383 RN and the classic 250-grain Lyman Keith bullet No. 429421. Another very accurate bullet was the 225-grain Lyman Thompson designed No. 429215.
Handloads were checked for velocity using an RCBS Chronograph.
When combined with Hodgdon Titegroup, Accurate No. 2, Alliant Red Dot, Bullseye, BE-86, Sport Pistol and others, the extreme spreads for a five-shot string were often single digit and sometimes only varied a few fps. When I could do my part, groups could be as small as 5⁄8 inch at 25 yards. With that said, even powders that gave greater extreme spreads were still very low and produced very good accuracy, which is a reflection on this fine cartridge and its virtues.
Regarding the few +P loads listed, these do not exceed 18,000 psi, but are suitable for modern guns such as the Colt Single Action Army and all clones, Colt New Service and all Smith & Wesson Hand Ejectors or any gun with similar strength. This performance level can easily push 250-grain bullets from 900 to 950 fps, which is respectable performance and easily exceeds .45 ACP power, making it useful for much more than just punching tightly clustered groups in paper targets!
Both of Brian’s test .44 Russian revolvers produced admirable accuracy with handloads, with many of the better groups measuring well below 1 inch at 25 yards.
While .44 Russian handloads could be developed with jacketed bullets, for several reasons I decided to stick with traditional cast or swaged lead bullets. Jacketed bullets offer considerably greater resistance as they travel down the bore, which will substantially reduce velocity. With the rather low pressures associated with the .44 Russian, combined with the small powder charges and low-volume gas (or energy), it is likely that some combinations will result in bullets sticking in the bore. It is doubtful that velocities would be high enough to achieve reliable expansion. Lastly, the .44 Russian works splendidly with cast bullets, which when combined with 200- to 250-grain bullets and big-bore caliber, offers reliable performance.
Accuracy, efficiency, incredibly low extreme spreads, moderate recoil and select groups that measure around 5⁄8 inch at 25 yards describe the modern, smokeless handloaded version of the historically significant, 152-year-old .44 Russian cartridge. But it also offers big-bore performance that makes it suitable for field use and many other applications.