SEMI-AUTOMATIC AND SINGLE-SHOT .44s

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            Before the Desert Eagle, before the Grizzly, before the Wildey, there was the AutoMag of Harry Sanford. Sanford is one of those unsung firearms geniuses who has never quite got the recognition he deserved. Just as Smith & Wesson forever changed the sixgunning scene with the introduction of a .44 Magnum in 1956, Harry Sanford’s .44 AutoMag opened the doors for larger and more powerful semi-automatics far beyond the .45 ACP of the Model 1911.

            Sanford conceived the idea of a .44 semi-automatic in the 1960s and by 1969 had custom built a working model which subsequently appeared on the cover of the March 1970 issue of Guns and Ammo with an article by Jeff Cooper. In his book Cooper On Handguns (Petersen Publishing, 1974) Col. Cooper said of the AutoMag: “It was to be expected that a modern auto pistol of this sort be attempted.  Some 15 years ago, I suggested in print that a .30-06/.308 case might be cut to the length of the .44 Magnum and married to a .44 bullet, to produce a rimless .44 Magnum cartridge suitable for self-loading actions. Then Harry Sanford, of Pasadena California, formed a corporation to build the gun.  The result was the "AutoMag," a good concept that fell into the paths of unrighteousness.  The AutoMag pistol…uses a unique short-recoil action with a turning bolt that, if made of the right materials, is safe at almost any feasible working pressure. (Production models are supposed to withstand 60,000 psi.)  The prototype I've fired recoiled distinctly less than the .44 Magnum revolver, of much the same power, which is supposedly due to absorption of part of rearward impetus by the rotary resistance of the bolt.

            The pistol is beautifully made of stainless steel throughout, and features an optional safety location on either side.  It is huge--a foot long with its 6 1/2” barrel and weighing 57 ounces.  Just what it is for is moot, but it is a fascinating device."

            Col. Cooper did not know what it was good for, however Lee Jurras of Super Vel Ammunition and founder of the Outstanding American Handgunner Awards Foundation, knew exactly what it was for-- big game hunting. Jurras was president of Club de Auto Mag International and for a time the exclusive distributor of the AutoMag. Jurrus ordered up 100 special .44 AMPs. These where custom finished with special laminated grips, Mag-Na-Ported, packed in a special carrying case and numbered from LEJ1X to LEJ100X.

            J.D. Jones said of the AutoMag in the early 1970s: “The gun itself is big and heavy and shooting it one-handed with any degree of accuracy is difficult.  Shooting with two hands changes the situation drastically.  The weight then becomes an asset for steady holding.  The trigger is adjustable and a satisfactory trigger pull is easily obtained.  The sights are fully adjustable with the right hex head wrench and are also made of stainless.  Blackening the sights in bright sunlight eliminates any glare….There was a time when the future of the Auto-Mag seem doubtful and production of this intricate specialized handgun will never be simple and mass production in the sense of mass producing automobiles will never be achieved; but, Harry Sanford and T.D.E. Corp. are turning them out as fast as possible without sacrificing quality.  They are still difficult to obtain, but that situation is getting better.  I personally feel the future of the Auto-Mag is going to result in a lot of wheelgun Magnums gathering dust.  Not too many innovations are cropping up in the old Magnum series of cartridges to interest handloaders and experimenters, while the Auto Mag offers a fertile field for innovations and experimentations.”

            The original AutoMag Corp. went bankrupt. Orders were received, money was plowed back into the company, guns were not being delivered, and the inevitable happened. After the AutoMag Corp. closed their doors T.D.E. purchased the machinery, unfinished guns, and parts. They also hired Sanford to produce the guns from the parts. In 1974 new financing was acquired, T.D.E. made minor engineering changes and re-tooled for complete production. In September of that year Lee Jurras signed an exclusive world-wide sales and distribution agreement for all AutoMag pistols. Jurras not only took over distribution but also handled warranty and parts supply. His company also had the parts, caliber conversion kids, spare barrel assemblies, custom grips, magazine loaders, special holsters, and ammunition manufactured with SuperVel components.

Maj. George Nonte wrote an article for Guns Magazine in 1975 proclaiming “Return of the Auto Mag… and it's Here to Stay.” Unfortunately it wasn’t and soon disappeared. In addition to the original AutoMag, and the T.D.E. AutoMags, some  were  also produced by High Standard. Harry Sanford formed a new company, AMT (Arcadia Machine & Tool), which then later became iAi (Irwindale Arms Inc.), however the original AutoMag was gone. There were semi-autos from AMT  known as AutoMags II, III, and IV. AutoMag II was in .22 MRF, III in 9mm WinMag, and IV was chambered in both 10mm Magnum and .45 Winchester Magnum. There were no more .44 AutoMags. The company relocated to Sturgis South Dakota and I ordered one of the .44 AutoMags to be produced, however they also did not last very long and I don't know that they ever produced any .44s

Club de AutoMag published the following data for use with the .44 AutoMag:

Bullet                            Load                            MV                  Pressure (c.u.p.’s)

Speer 240                    24.0 gr. #2400             1480 fps           43,000

Speer 240                    26.0 gr. WW296          1580 fps           45,000

Hornady 265                23.0 gr. #2400             1485 fps           46,000

Hornady 265                24.0 gr. WW296          1500 fps           47,000

The .44 AutoMag pistol may be gone, however the .44AMP cartridge lives on in a new home. Wildey J. Moore first introduced his Wildey Magnum autoloading pistol in the 1970s with that first example chambered in the then relatively new .45 Winchester Magnum, or as it is most commonly referred to, the .45 WinMag.  Wildey designed a new cartridge for his Wildey Magnum, the .475WM (Wildey Magnum). For his .475, Wildey trimmed .284 Winchester brass back to just under 1.300” loading it with 250 and 300 grain bullets at 1,800 and 1,600 fps making it a true powerhouse pistol. Since the .284 Winchester has the same rim size as the .45 ACP/.45 WinMag the original .45 Wildey Magnum was already set up to accept the new chambering.

Today Wildey, Inc. is  providing their Wildey Magnum in the original .45 WinMag as well as the .475 Wildey Magnum, the .45 Wildey Magnum, which is the .475 necked down to .45 caliber, and most importantly for our purposes, the .44 AMP. The .44 AutoMag Pistol is offered in barrel lengths of 8”, 10”, 12”, 14”, and 18” with the latter available as a carbine version, and addition to these options, the .44 AutoMag chambering is also offered in easier to carry 5”, 6”, and 7” versions. Make no mistake, with weights in excess of four pounds, these are not light weight easy packin’ pistols. They are also necessarily large and when I grip the Wildey the tip of my thumb just barely reaches the tip of my middle finger. This is not a problem, at least for me, as shooting the Wildey is a two-handed proposition.

            Several versions of the Wildey Magnum are also offered such as the Survivor, Survivor Guardsman, Hunter, and Hunter Guardsman, as well as a long barreled Silhouette Pistol. The Guardsman examples have trigger guards with a squared off front instead of the traditional rounded profile. All Wildey Magnums offer interchangeable barrels, interchangeable front sight blades, and fully adjustable sights. Grips are checkered walnut and at first glance I expected the recoil to be such the checkering would eat my hand alive; it does not.

There are several unique features found on the Wildey Magnum, which by the way is of all stainless-steel construction polished bright accept for the matte finish found on the Hunter versions. The sighting system features a full-length ventilated barrel rib and unlike other large caliber semi-automatics, the Wildey Magnum has a double action trigger mechanism coupled with a hammer block, trigger block, and rebounding firing pin. If the pistol is cocked and one decides not to fire, a lever on the left side de-cocks the Wildey Magnum and it can then be re-cocked later for firing.

            The Wildey Magnum is a gas operated semi-automatic and  Wildey says, “the Wildey patented gas system is an air-hydraulic piston powered by the firing gases through six small holes in the barrel.  This piston forces the slide rearward, initiating the cycling of the pistol.”  Just forward of the receiver is a round knurled button of sorts that tapers to the front to become the same basic size as the barrel. This is the gas regulator. As Wildey says opening or closing the gas regulator adds just the degree of “kick” the piston gives the slide.  Reducing this kick slows down the slide, while increasing it forces the slide to move faster. If the slide does not move fast enough it will not reach its farthest rearward travel and does not pick up the next cartridge in the magazine. Different barrel lengths also require differing amounts of gas pressure. So in effect with the gas regulator each shooter is able to custom tune his Wildey Magnum as to barrel length and cartridge level.

To regulate the gas operation, cartridges are loaded singly and directly into the chamber, this requires the magazine to be inserted as the Wildey has a magazine disconnect safety, and as each round is fired the gas regulator is adjusted until the slide stop locks the slide open. Once this is determined, a full magazine should then be fired and if any cartridges do not feed because of short recoil of the slide, the regulator is turned counterclockwise one more click.

I find a great advantage to this system to be custom regulating. I do not like to chase brass. By setting the gas regulator at the right level and putting the empty magazine in place I can feed cartridges one at a time directly into the chamber and the brass will not extract fully even though the slide is locked open. A shake of the gun and the empty cartridge case will drop out exactly where I want it to land. Then when using the magazine I can re-set the regulator so cartridges will feed and extract reliably.

The .44 AMP as stated was based on the .308 case cut to the proper length, inside necked reamed, and loaded with the custom dies from RCBS. Things are much simpler today as Starline offers excellent brass and the dies are no longer a custom proposition. Although the .44 AMP is basically a rimless .44 Magnum they do not use the same dies as the .44 AMP case is slightly tapered.

The AutoMag led the way and we would soon have semi-autos chambered in the .44 Magnum. Even before the Desert Eagle and the Grizzly there was the .44 Magmatic. This true .44 Magnum semi-auto was built by Jon Powers and first introduced to the world by J.D.Jones in the December 1978 issue of the American Rifleman. J.D. said of this unique pistol, “ At a Handgun Silhouette Match, Larry Kelly of Mag-Na-Port told me about a Jon Powers’ .44 Magnum semi-auto prototype gun he had seen at the Second Chance shoot.  Kelly said they it looked good to him and Powers might show up at this iron animal shoot. As luck would have it, Powers arrived toting two of his guns, the #3 and #4.  I just about went crazy.  Torn between wanting to shoot one before the light conditions became too bad and wanting to get a few photos while it was still possible, I decided on the photos as I really didn't expect to shoot the gun very well… I ended up on the line and shadows were effectively blanking out some of the targets.  I had a big skinny-barreled gun that looked like a Colt Woodsman in one hand and a box of 240 grain .44 Magnum loads in the other… Recoil of the 52-ounce gun was definitely .44 Magnum, but it did have different characteristics from any other .44 I've fired… Muzzle rise was pronounced, but not nearly as bad as a revolver or AutoMag… All in all, the gun balanced well, functioned 100%, and was extremely accurate…

Powers of Holly, Mich., is a tool and die maker  in partnership with his father… In is late 30s, he has an intense interest in mechanical things, particularly guns, and in experimenting with them. The faults of the short-recoil AutoMags and revolvers are evident, the methods of correcting them in a gun that can be mass-produced while retaining high-quality and marketed at a price affordable enough to allow a company to make a profit are certainly not evident.  Utilizing whatever modern manufacturing techniques that will do the job and will be within financial reach of a small company, Powers expects to be in limited production of this .44 in about two years… so far, I have to say, Powers’ .44 gets it together for its intended purpose better than anything else I've ever shot.  I believe that it will be a superb handgun for hunters and others who appreciate a powerful, reliable, accurate, good-looking handgun.”

Three years later in the March 1981 issue of Guns & Ammo, J. D. wrote: “The Magmatic combines the power and accuracy of a well-tuned single shot with semi-automatic capabilities to provide eight shots at the touch of the go button, plus quick reload capability.  Feeding is reliable and bullet shape is inconsequential in feeding reliability as long as any reasonable overall length of the loaded round is maintained.  It does fired the standard .44 Magnum cartridge in any of its versions.  It is stronger than anything I have fired but bolt guns.  Let's just hope this remarkable semi-auto design finds its way to production!" If you know J.D. you know he knows guns extremely well and he does not give out praise like this lightly. From his words I know these were great guns. Four prototypes were built, however it did not get into production.

The .44 Magnum semi-automatic did arrive in the 1980s, however it was not made in this country but by IMI (Israeli Military Industries) and imported by Magnum Research as the Desert Eagle. It has been available in barrel lengths of 6”, 10”, and 14” and is also easily scoped as older guns accepted a base available from Magnum Research, while newer guns are scope ready. This is definitely a large handgun as the grip has to be quite wide from front to back to accommodate Magnum length cartridges, and while it feels very large in my hands, I've never felt I would lose control as long as I used two hands. The backstrap is anatomically shaped and just seems to nestle in the hand.

The Desert Eagle is gas operated so the manufacturer recommends against the use of cast bullets and some jacketed bulleted loads will be found too long to fit the magazine. My handloads with Sierra’s 300 grain JFP are too long however any other loads using any of the standard bullets of 240, 250, and up to the 265 grain Hornady work fine. My test gun was a blue Desert Eagle with two barrels, 6” and 10” in length; barrels can be switched in about ten seconds with a push of a button and the flick of a lever.  For my eyes and hands I found the standard front sight on both barrels was too low causing the gun to shoot high; however the front sight is in a dovetail slot and can be easily changed.

The most pleasant shooting .44 Magnum revolvers I have experienced are the Dan Wesson Heavy Barrel, the Taurus Raging Bull, and the Ruger Super Redhawk; the Desert Eagle is even easier shooting for at least two reasons. With the 10” barrel in place along with an Aim Point red dot scope, the total weight exceeds five pounds. This definitely helps tame felt recoil and we can add to this the gas operated action that also soaks up some of the recoil. The trade-off, of course, is the fact the Desert Eagle is definitely not in the Packin’ Pistol Class.

There were three things wrong with the early Desert Eagles, all of which were corrected. These were the slide release, safety, and the trigger. The first two were enlarged for ease of operation and the trigger is now adjustable. My test gun had a very heavy trigger pull and still managed to provide some very decent groups. Groups are five shots at 25 yards using the 6” barrel with a scope in place:

Load                                                                MV                              Five Shots at 25 yards

Black Hills 240 JHP                                         1254 fps                         3/4"

Black Hills 300 JHP                                         1180 fps                       1"

CCI 200 Blazer JHP                                        1304 fps                       1"

CCI Lawman 240 JHP                         1336 fps                       1 5/8"

Federal 180 JHP                                              1550 fps                         3/8"

Federal 220 FMC                                            1348 fps                         3/8"

Federal 240 JHP                                              1308 fps                       1 1/8"

Federal 250 FMC                                            1295 fps                       1 5/8"

Remington 240 JHP                                          1351 fps                       1 3/8"

Hornady 240 XTP/25.0 gr. WW296                1509 fps                         5/8"

Hornady 300 XTP/21.6 gr. H110                     1304 fps                       1 1/4"

Sierra 240 JHP/25.0 gr. WW296                     1513 fps                         5/8"

Sierra 240 JHP/22.0 gr. AA#9             1465 fps                       1 7/8"

Speer 240 JHP/22.0 gr. AA#9                         1443 fps                         7/8"

 

            The original AutoMag is long gone and the Magmatic never made into production, however the .44 AMP cartridge lives on in the Wildey and the Desert Eagle .44 Magnum is still flying high. 

 

            One of the major factors in the rise of the popularity of handgun hunting over the past four decades has been the excellent handguns offered by Thompson/Center, the Contender and the Encore. More than 160 years ago, way back in 1836, the sixgun arrived and buried the single-shot pistol for all time. The repeating handgun was such a great step forward that certainly no one would ever go back to a single shot pistol for any use. However, someone forgot to inform Warren Center of this fact, and in the 1960s, in the midst of all the development of .357, .44, and .41 Magnum sixguns, Warren Center brought forth a break-open single-shot pistol that accepted interchangeable barrels. Some of the first barrels were offered in the easy shooting, and soft recoiling .22 Long Rifle and .38 Special.

The single shot Contender has been available in more chamberings than any other handgun in history and the .44 Magnum was one of the first and most successful chamberings. When the Contender first emerged it was pretty obvious, at least by hindsight, that they did not really know what a great handgun the Contender could become. The first chamberings were very light recoiling handgun cartridges. Equipped with a lightweight octagonal barrel and a grip shaped like a saw handle, the Contender really got the shooter's attention by the time it was chambered in .44 Magnum. The felt recoil was awful and it was not long before a heavy bull barrel was made standard and the grip was expertly re-designed by Steve Herrett to make the heavy kickin' version of the Contender manageable. 

The early grips were killers but the later finger groove wooden stocks designed by Steve Herrett, the latest rubber cushioned factory stocks plus the Pachmayr Gripper allowed the .44 Magnum Contender to be conquered. The Contender has been available in either 10” or Super 14” and has been proven on the silhouettte range and in the hunting field to be both reliable and accurate, plus the closed breech gives considerable increases in velocity over revolvers. A 10” barreled .44 Magnum Contender was test-fired with the following results:

Load                                                                            MV                  Three Shots/25 Yards

Lyman #429421/22.0 gr. #2400                                   1654 fps                       5/8”

SSK #310429 300 TC/21.5 gr. WW296                     1463 fps                       1 1/2”

Sierra 300  JFP/21.5 gr. WW296                                 1385 fps                       1/2”

Federal 180 JHP                                                          1911 fps                       1”

Federal 220 JFP                                                           1627 fps                       1 1/8”

Federal 240 JHP                                                          1528 fps                       1 1/8”

            Both the Contender and the Encore feature the interchangeable barrel system allowing more than one barrel to be used with a frame. Both provide an easy changing of barrels by simply removing the forearm, tapping out the hinge pin, removing the barrel, replacing it with a different barrel and then reversing the operation. All of this can be accomplished in just a few minutes. While both the Contender and Encore feature interchangeable barrels, Contender barrels will not fit Encore frames, nor will Encore barrels fit Contender frames.  The latest Contender is the G2, which as been re-designed to open much easier and also not be required to break open to re-cock as was necessary on the original Contenders. If one has the hammer back and decides not to shoot, whether using a G2 or an Encore, the hammer can be let down and then simply drawn back when one is ready to shoot. Basically the Contender is built to handle sixgun cartridges up to the .44 Magnum pressure level and rifle cartridges such as the .30-30, while the larger and stronger Encore can handle just about anything reasonable. Both are chambered for the .44 Magnum.   

 

35-1) The Desert Eagle is not a pretty gun and especially so when it is scoped;

however its performance is quite attractive.

 

 

 

35-2) Move the windage slightly to the right and this 50 yard group shot with

the non- magnifying red dot scope would look even better.

 

 

 

35-3) The 50 yard groups were shot with a non-magnifying red dot scope and

are under two-inches; more than enough for hunting

 

 

 

 

35-4) The Desert Eagle is not the only non-sixgun .44 Magnum available;

Thompson/ Center also offers their single-shot Contender in .44 Magnum.

 

 

 

35-5) Who says the Desert Eagle cannot be made attractive? This custom

Strike Eagle by Claudio Salassas is both attractive and accurate.

 

 

 

35-6) Taffin shooting the custom Strike Eagle found it both accurate and easy handling.

 

 

 

35-7) The .44 Magnum Desert Eagle’s closest competitor has been the

1911-styled LAR Grizzly chambered in .45 WinMag.

 

 

 

35-8) The .44 AutoMag lives again in this latest version by Wildey

 

 

 

35-9) Notice the adjustable bushing which controls the gas, which in turn

determines whether the cartridges eject or not.

 

 

 

35-10) The Wildey .44 AutoMag can be carried cocked and locked or with the

hammer down double action style.

 

 

 

35-11) Al Pickles wrote of the Jon Powers’ .44 Magmatic in the January 1981

issue of Guns Magazine. This was Prototype #5

 

 

 

35-12) The original Thompson/Center Contender .44 Magnum had a pencil thin

octagon barrel and saw handle stocks; the bull barrel and cushioned grip

significantly reduce felt recoil.

 

 

 

35-13) J.D. Jones wrote enthusiastically of the AutoMag and here shows

one of the Club de AutoMag special editions.

 

 

 

  

35-14) Unlike the straight-walled rimmed .44 Magnum case, the .44 AutoMag

is slightly tapered and rimless; .44 AMP dies to hire available from RCBS.  

 

Chapter 34     Chapter 36