RELOADING THE FRONTIER .44s

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            Frontier .44 cartridges began with the .44 Henry Rimfire of 1860 which was then followed by the .44 S&W American, a centerfire, then the .44 Colt, .44 Russian, and .44-40. All of these were originally loaded with black powder and, to be safe, any firearms made before 1900 should be considered for black powder used only. In the case of Smith & Wesson, even though they were still delivering Model #3s and their Double Action Top-Break .44s right up to the eve of World War I, all the frames were made before 1900 thus they are for black powder use only. The .44 Special did not arrive until 1907-1908, however it was originally loaded with black powder, three more grains than used in the .44 Russian.

            The .44 Smith & Wesson American and .44 Henry are obsolete and long out of production. Until the advent of Cowboy Action Shooting the same could be said about the .44 Colt and .44 Russian, however they are now found in replicas of the 19th-century single actions sixguns. Replicas are safe for standard loads with smokeless powder; originals are not. The .44-40 is another cartridge which was almost gone before Cowboy Action Shooting came along, now it is alive and well, and like the .44 Special transcends the black powder era and is capable of superb performance with heavier-than-normal smokeless powder loads in MODERN sixguns and leverguns. Once again, a reminder, replica 1860 Henry, 1866 and 1873 Winchesters are for standard loads only.

            Shooting the old classic sixguns requires knowledge of their age, as stated, all original Smith & Wesson top-break single action sixguns, the New Model Russian, the Schofield, and the New Model #3, should only be used with black powder; this is also true of the early double action Smith & Wesson, the Double Action Frontier Model. Colt’s first large frame double action, the Model of 1878 also belongs on this list. The Colt Single Action Army began as a black powder sixgun in 1873, made the transition from black powder to smokeless powder, and still survives today. The problem is found in discerning which Colts are black powder guns and which are smokeless.

            All original 1st Generation Colts with the screw in the front of the frame holding in the base pin are black powder arms, however all Colts with the spring loaded base pin catch are not smokeless powder arms. 1st Generation Colts were manufactured from 1873 to 1941 and are easily distinguished from 2nd and 3rd Generation Colts by the fact that their serial numbers are just that, all numbers, with no SA found as part of the identification. “A 165,000 range has been considered by most Single Action collectors, and writers, to be the beginning of Colts’ smokeless powder SA production.  However, the company did not guarantee their revolvers for use with smokeless powder cartridges in catalogs and other forms of advertising until 1898.  A notation in Colts’ shipping record specifically states that Single Actions serial numbered between #175,000 and #180,000 are NOT guaranteed for smokeless powder use."  (A Study Of The Colt Single Action Army Revolver, by Graham, Kopec, and Moore, 1976)

            We could possibly conclude from this the #180,000 of 1898 began the smokeless powder sixguns. However, for my peace of mind, and safe use of early Colt Single Actions, I prefer a little more leeway sticking with 20th-century sixguns for smokeless powder use. These began at serial number 203,000. One might consider me as being too careful, however these old sixguns are too valuable not to be. For my use with these old Colt and Smith & Wesson single action and double action sixguns, this means only black powder or black powder substitutes.

            A valuable source of information when it comes to black powder substitutes is offered by Hodgdon’s in their Cowboy Action Data pamphlet which is free for the asking.  Not only does this little booklet give loading data for most of the Frontier cartridges, it also provides pressure information for both Pyrodex P and Triple Seven, and all black powder cartridges are assembled by using a volume powder measure not by weighing charges. For example, when the chart calls for 30 grains it means the using of a volume measure set at 30 grains NOT weighing out 30 grains on a powder scale. There are two major differences with these two black powder substitutes, and these are very important differences. Triple Seven should never be compressed, while Pyrodex is compressed 1/16” to 1/8” normally with a card or vegetable wad placed between the bullet and the powder. For best results all black powder should also be slightly compressed. At no time should any loads assembled with black powder or black powder substitutes allow any airspace between powder and bullet. The lightest load used is one that can be compressed with the bullet and wad. Wads perform two functions, protecting the bullet base and helping to minimize barrel fouling. John Walters, of Walters’ Wads, offers wads cut from vegetable fiber for all calibers and can even provide them in several different thicknesses. They are definitely my wads of choice when loading black powder cartridges.   

            A few years ago it was virtually impossible to find factory loaded black powder cartridges. However today we have black powder cartridges from Black Dawge and Wind River Trading Co., as well as cartridges assembled with black powder substitutes from Cor-Bon and Ten-X. Shooters using .44s have a choice of  .44-40,  .44 Russian, and  .44 Colt, however the latter is for current replicas and not the original Cartridge Conversions which have different barrel dimensions. For those shooters who would like to use black powder in their more modern sixguns, black powder or black powder substitute loads are also offered in .44 Special and .44 Magnum.

            Black powder is not simply black powder. Black powder is graded by the size of the granulations with FFg and FFFg normally being the best choices for sixgun cartridge reloading. Having access to five manufacturers’ powder, Elephant, Goex, Kik, Swiss, and Wano, gives me 10 choices, which goes to 11 with the addition of Goex Cartridge. FFFg will normally give higher muzzle velocities than FFg black powder. Substitutes include Hodgdon’s Pyrodex and Triple Seven, CleanShot, and Goex’s ClearShot. These are also offered in both FFg and FFFg grade giving black powder sixgun cartridge shooters 19 choices. So it is easy to see loading black powder is not all that simple.  

My first black powder reloads were put together in the late 1950s by using a spoon to fill the case nearly full, placing a bullet on top, and then seating and crimping with the Lyman #310 Tool. After a single stage reloading press was added to my bench I then went through the normal and separate operations of re-sizing, de-capping, expanding the case mouth, re-priming, and then the required powder charge was placed into cases lined up in a loading block using an adjustable hand measure or flask, and then back to the single stage press for bullet seating and crimping. Today I mostly use the RCBS Pro 2000 Progressive Press with its simplified primer feeding system using plastic strips holding 25 primers. The strips are fed in horizontally and are not only virtually foolproof, but once the strips are empty they can also be refilled using a special tool supplied by RCBS.

When using black powder or black powder substitutes, the Pro 2000 is used as a progressive for re-sizing, de-capping, priming, and expanding the case mouth. A bottlenecked cartridge such as the .44-40 is lubed before sizing, by placing about a hundred fired and cleaned cases in a shallow cardboard tray, applying spray-on lube lightly, shaking the tray, and spraying again. They are then ready for re-sizing. After the four operations are completed the cases are ready for charging with powder. Gone are the days when I had to use a powder flask or an adjustable powder measure as Lyman’s #55 Black Powder Measure greatly simplifies this task. This powder dispenser is designed to prevent the possibility of a spark igniting the black powder in the hopper. Powder measures designed for smokeless use should NEVER be used with black powder, or black powder substitutes due to the danger of electric sparking. For many years I used the standard Lyman #55 for smokeless powder loads, now the Lyman #55 Black Powder Measure accomplishes the same task with black powder. Everything about the Black Powder measure, the adjustments and the knocker on the front of the measure to assure uniformity of powder charges with no powder stuck in the drop tube is the same as the standard measure, however it is especially constructed with brass and aluminum to prevent any chance of the black powder being ignited by a spark.

            Cases are charged using the #55 BP Measure, placed in a loading block, and then a Walters’ Wad of the correct size is placed over the powder charge. Now the single stage press takes over as I move to the RCBS RockChucker for bullet seating and crimping. It is easy to see it takes longer to load black powder cartridges but for use in old sixguns this is the only way to be safe. An extra added benefit is the near spiritual feeling that comes from dropping the hammer on a black powder cartridge, hearing the resulting boom, feeling the gentle recoil, and being enveloped in black powder smoke. Most of us have often read about smoke filled rooms and battle areas due to black powder cartridge use; this is really true. It only takes a couple of rounds to envelop the shooter in smoke that not only makes seeing difficult, but when shooting indoors in close quarters black powder substitutes are especially troublesome to the nose. After a few rounds, I find myself stepping back so I can breathe freely.

In addition to the above instructions on how much powder to use in a case I also find magnum pistol primers to provide the best possible ignition, and also for the best possible results with black powder or black powder substitutes bullets need to be of the proper alloy, proper size, and properly lubricated. This means the use of relatively soft bullets, no harder than 1:20 tin to lead alloy with the bullet sized to match the cylinder chamber mouths and lubricated with a special black powder lube such as Lyman's Black Powder Gold, SPG, or Reliable #12. All of these lubes are softer than those normally used for lubing bullets for use with smokeless powder to keep the barrel fouling that always results from black powder relatively soft.

Shooters of black powder cartridges have normally been bullet casters as bullets had to be cast, sized, and lubricated personally simply because there were little or no bullets available for loading black powder sixguns cartridges. This is no longer true thanks to Stewart Dawge & Asscociates, who first under the Black Dawge label and now through Goex, offers a complete line of black powder cartridges, black powder bullets, and an excellent black powder cleaner known as Dawge Whizz. All Black Dawge bullets are properly alloyed, have two lube grooves instead of one, are lubed with SPG black powder lube, and are currently available in a 205 grain .44-40, which can also be used in .44 Russian, .44 Colt, .44 Special, and for that matter, .44 Magnum. This bullet is of the RNFP (round nosed flat point) style having a flat nose making them safe for use in sixgun cartridge chambered leverguns.

The same commercial cast bullets normally used for loading smokeless powder cartridges will also work for black powder cartridges to a point. All of these bullets normally are too hard, packed with too little lube that is not soft enough, and also have a bevel base, three things not desirable for black powder loads. They will foul the barrel faster, probably not give the best accuracy, and will also probably necessitate swabbing out the barrel after every full cylinder is fired. Fouling around the front of the cylinder will also probably occur much faster. When shooting black powder loads assembled with commercial cast bullets, I have found a spray bottle of Windex to be especially valuable for soaking patches and running down the barrel with a cleaning rod, and also for spraying around the front and back to the cylinder to keep the cylinder operating freely.

            Maybe I just have an over active imagination, however every time I shoot the old classic sixguns, be they real or replica, with the original style loads, which by the way can be quite addictive, I time travel back in history and lose myself in the 19th century with a whole bunch of larger than life characters. It sure beats watching television.

            The Smith & Wesson Model #3 American was not only the first big bore cartridge firing sixgun it was also the first cartridge revolver to be adopted by the United States Military, which up to this point had mainly been outfitted with the Colt 1860 Army percussion revolver. The Smith & Wesson American, in both 1st and 2nd Model versions remained in production for only five years with approximately 29,000 being manufactured  mostly chambered in .44 S&W American and a very few also taking the same cartridge as the 1860 Henry levergun, the .44 Rimfire. The .44 American cartridge itself, as with the .22 Rimfire, used a heeled bullet; that is the rear portion of the bullet was smaller in diameter than the rest of the bullet and this smaller portion was reduced in size to fit inside the case. Up to this point in time cartridges used bullets with the same outside diameter as the brass case. When the Russians ordered a large number of Smith & Wesson Americans they made several changes the most important of which was the cartridge itself. Instead of an outside lubricated, heeled bullet, they specified a bullet of uniform diameter with lubrication grooves inside the case. This is one of the most important advances in firearms technology of the 19th century. The new cartridge was the .44 Russian, which would be lengthened in 1907 to become the .44 Special, and which in turn became the .44 Magnum in 1955.

One does not simply run down to the local gun shop and pick up a box of .44 American ammunition; it has to be made. Fortunately it is not very difficult as .41 Magnum brass works fine requiring only trimming to .910” in length. Both already trimmed brass and .44 American dies were purchased from Buffalo Arms; bullets are a little harder to find. At one time RCBS offered the proper bullet mold, however it is no longer in production; but thanks to my friend and fellow gunwriter, Mike Venturino, I was able to borrow an RCBS double cavity .44 mold dropping heeled bullets, and I have now cast up enough .44 American bullets to allow me to shoot it occasionally and also leave some for future generations to use.   

            I had the Model #3 American .44, the brass, the bullets, the dies, however one major problem loomed ahead. How does one crimp heeled bullets? The conventional die system will not work, however my friend Denis Fletcher came up with what appears to be a miniature guillotine. It is quite ingenious, mounts in the RCBS RockChucker press, and after all other reloading steps, the cartridge case enters horizontally rather than vertically and with a slight movement of the handle, the .44 American, loaded with black powder, of course, is ready to fire. It’s not all quite as simple as it sounds requiring extra steps such as the vegetable wad over the powder and a grease cookie between wad and bullet base. However, the .44 American is back in service. We still have to do a little work on the crimper, however groups are about one-third as large using crimped loads as opposed to non-crimped loads; they are perfectly capable of being used for self defense either in  1870 or the 21st century.

            When Smith & Wesson brought forth that first big bore cartridge firing sixgun, the Model #3 .44 S&W American, Colt was stuck in the past. The United States Army ordered 8,000 .44 Smith & Wessons and Colt made a scramble to come up with a revolver accepting brass cartridges at the rear of the cylinder. There were 1860 Army cap and ball revolvers in use as well as many parts stockpiled at the Colt factory. The Richards Conversion turned these into cartridge firing revolvers by revamping or replacing the cylinder and adding an ejector rod. The Richards Cartridge Conversion and the Richards-Mason Cartridge Conversion, which followed it, are both important chains in the evolution of sixguns bridging the gap from the 1860 Army to the Single Action Army.

            The original .44 Colt cartridge used a heel type bullet with the lower portion of the bullet fitting inside the case and the rest of the bullet the same outside diameter as the cartridge case. Modern .44 Colt brass is basically slightly trimmed .44 Special brass with a smaller diameter case head to allow six cartridges to fit the smallish cylinders of replica Colt Cartridge Conversions and is loaded with the same .44 bullets as the Special or .44 Russian. This, of course, means replica barrels are cut for .44 caliber bullets. Current .44 Colt brass from Starline will work for the original Conversion however, standard .44 bullets will not. Rapine Bullet Molds offers two hollow base .44-40 bullets which when cast soft expand to fill the rifling of the original barrel. I have now molded, sized and loaded some over black powder and shot them through an original Richards Conversion. As with the Smith & Wesson American, this 150-year-old sixgun still performs better than minute of man.

            Today reloaders have it much easier with the introduction of the .44 Colt Cartridge Conversion revolvers by Cimarron, brass by Starline, and even loaded ammunition with the first examples being offered a few years back by Black Hill’s Ammunition. To keep things relatively simple for us, the replicas of the 1860 Cartridge Conversion are made with barrels that have the same basic inside dimensions as the .44 Russian, .44 Special, and .44 Magnum. Starline brass is also basically a slightly shorter .44 Special with the rim diameter reduced so that six rounds will fit in the cylinders of the Cartridge Conversions without the rims overlapping. Modern manufactured  .44 Colt ammunition can be fired in any. 44 Special or Magnum, while the.44 Russian, although shorter than the .44 Colt, can only be used in Cartridge Conversions by loading every other chamber in order to keep the rims of the cases from overlapping.

            Since the modern .44 Colt is nothing more than a shortened .44 Special with a   slightly smaller diameter rim, reloading for it is the same as the other straight-walled .44 sixgun cartridges, Russian, Special, and Magnum. The same shell holder works for the .44 Colt as for the other three .44s, and in fact, with only a slight alteration, current .44 Special/Magnum reloading dies will work. The alteration that may be needed is the removal of some metal from the bottom of the .44 Magnum seater/crimping die to allow the crimping of the shorter .44 Colt. For my use in reloading .44 Colt, I go with a .44 Magnum Carbide sizing die which also de-primes the case, and then switch to .44 Russian dies for belling the case mouth, and seating the bullet and crimping.

            The .44 Colt is available in Cartridge Conversions and the replicas of the 1871-72 Open-Top, which are both open top designs patterned after the 1860 Army, and this is a cartridge that should not be loaded with anything but standard level loads. My smokeless powders of choice are Red Dot, TiteGroup, WW231, and  N-100, however, this is one sixgun that just begs to be used with black powder!  Bullet selection is also simple as any of the bullets designed for the .44-40 also work fine with the .44 Colt. I use Oregon Trail’s 200 and 225 RNFP’s as well as 200 grain bullets dropped from RCBS’s #44-200FN mold. The .44 Colt chambered in Cimarron’s Cartridge Conversions is a most pleasant shooting and adequately accurate cartridge; the following loads are for use in .44 Colt chambered modern replicas of the Richards or Richards-Mason Cartridge Conversions or 1871-72 Open-Top.

Load                                                                MV                  Five Shots at 50 Feet.  

Black Hills 200 Cowboy                                   585 fps                         1 ¾”

Black Hills 230 Cowboy                                   603 fps                         1 ½”

Ten-X 200 BPC                                               603 fps                         2 ½”

Ten-X 4-in-1    BPC                                         702 fps                         2 ¾”

Ten-X 200 Cowboy                                         644 fps                         2”

Oregon Trail 225/4.0 gr. N-100                       603 fps                         2”

Oregon Trail 225/5.0 gr. N-100                       708 fps                         2 ¼”

Oregon Trail 200/5.0 gr. N-100                       699 fps                         2”

Oregon Trail 225/4.0 gr. Red Dot                     660 fps                         2”

Oregon Trail 225/4.0 gr. TiteGroup                  704 fps                         2”

Oregon Trail 200/5.0 gr. WW231                    660 fps                         1 ¾”

Oregon Trail 200/21.5 gr. ClearShot FFFg       678 fps                         1 ½”

Oregon Trail 180/21.5 gr. ClearShot FFFg       658 fps                         1”

RCBS #44-200FN/25.0 gr. Goex CTG           715 fps                         2 ¼”

RCBS #44-200FN/25.0 gr. Goex FFg 770 fps                         1 ¼”

RCBS #44-200FN/25.0 gr. Goex FFFg           846 fps                         2 ¾”

RCBS #44-200FN/Pyrodex Select                  839 fps                         1 7/8”

            Recall the first Smith & Wesson Model #3 single action was chambered in .44 S&W American and also .44 Henry Rimfire, and the story goes that the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia was in this country hunting buffalo with Bill Cody, saw and used the .44 Smith & Wesson, and ordered them for the Imperial Russian Army with a slight change in the ammunition. The .44 S&W American cartridge carried an outside lubricated two-step bullet with a larger diameter outside the case than inside; the resulting .44 Russian carried an inside lubricated bullet and became one of the real benchmarks in cartridge (and sixgun) evolution. The .44 Russian brass carried a 246 grain lead bullet over 23.0 grains of black powder, and is not only an important development in its own right, it also sired the .44 Special, which would later father the .44 Magnum. The Russian was lengthened two-tenths of an inch to become the Special and the Special was subsequently lengthened one-eighth of an inch to become the Magnum.

            The evolution of the .44 Smith & Wesson Frontier sixguns and their main cartridges are as follows:

Model #3 First Model              .44 American                1870-1872

Model #3 Second Model                      .44 American                1872-1874

Model #3 Russian First Model  .44 Russian                   1871-1874

Model #3 Russian Second Model         .44 Russian                   1873-1878

Model #3 Russian Third Model .44 Russian                   1874-1878

New Model #3                                     .44 Russian                   1878-1912

44 Double Action First Model  .44 Russian                   1881-1913

.44 Double Action Frontier                   .44-40                          1886-1913      

 

            With a large order from Russia, S&W’s finances were in grand shape and for the next five years they did not have to worry about sales, financial conditions, markets etc. Their stock, if they issued any, would have been an excellent investment initially; but, while all the .44 Russians were going East to the Czar's Army, Colt was furnishing the civilians on the Western frontier with .45 Colt Single Action Armies. The U.S. Army adopted the Colt and when the Russian contract ran out, Smith & Wesson had an uphill battle to reach the American shooter.

            About 20 years ago I wound up with a half box of .44 Russian brass and not being a brass collector as such, I played around with these with black powder in a converted to .44 Special Colt Bisley. Twenty-three grains of FFFg black powder gave nearly 800 feet per second with a 250 grain bullet so the old load compares favorably with modern defensive loads. That would have been the end of my experimenting with the .44 Russian had it not been for Shapel's Gun Shop. Again. This time I stumbled over more than 200 rounds of balloon head .44 Russian brass and there was no way to pass up such a bargain. Since picking up these 200 plus rounds, a reader was kind enough to send me 90 more rounds so I should be shooting old-style .44 Russians for a long time.

            The next step was to decide in what sixgun I would shoot the old forty-four. I could've just used the Russian brass for light loads in the Special or Magnum but that seemed almost blasphemous. Forty-four Russian brass deserved .44 Russian chambering. Again Shapel's came through. They had a used .357 Magnum Colt Third Generation cylinder and it went off to Bowen Classic Arms along with my 7 1/2" .44 Special New Frontier with orders to convert the .357 cylinder to .44 Russian. While I was at it I also sent a .44-40 cylinder that had been in my parts box for nearly ten years. When Bowen got through I had a tightened up three-cylindered .44 with minimum barrel/cylinder gap. The adjustable sights on the New Frontier allow me to shoot everything from mild .44 Russians to 200 grain bullets in the .44-40 to full house loads in the .44 Special simply by a turn of the elevation screw on the rear sight.

            Loading the .44 Russian is no more complicated than loading the .44 Special except when it comes to seating and crimping. I first tried using my RCBS .44 Special dies for sizing and expanding, and ordered a .44 Russian seating and crimping die from RCBS for the final loading step as none of my .44 Special or .44 Magnum seater/crimp dies would reach the stubby Russian .44. However, the expanding ball on Special/Magnum dies can bulge the short Russian cases so I have since become more traditional using a set of RCBS .44 Russian reloading dies.

            There is very little reloading data available for the .44 Russian and I would caution the reader that no loads except those assembled with black powder or black powder substitutes should be used in any 19th century revolver originally chambered for the .44 Russian.  Most .44 Russian revolvers are more than 100 years old; however, any Colt revolvers chambered in a .44 Russian or .44 Special manufactured after 1900 should be safe with any of these loads and any current production USFA single actions. Replica Smith & Wesson Model #3 Top-Break revolvers should only be used with loads under 800 fps.

            Lyman's traditional round nosed 245-250 grain bullet #429251, is a natural for the .44 Russian with one of the most accurate loads being 23.0 grains of FFFg Goex for 775 fps.  For stronger sixguns, 6.0 grains of Unique at 890 fps and 6.0 grains of WW231 at 900 fps are also quite accurate and rank right with today's defensive loadings. Speer's swaged lead 240 grain semi-wadcutter is an excellent utility bullet when seated over 6.0 grains of Unique for 950 feet per second.

            Why mess with the .44 Russian when we have the .44 Magnum and at the very least the .44 Special? Probably for the same reason thousands of shooters shoot muzzle loaders even though they were 'obsoleted' over 100 years ago. Or the same reason sixgunners and levergunners still choose the .44-40.  These old cartridges are all part of a rich heritage and we would definitely be the poorer if we ever got to the point that only the latest semi-automatic was interesting. The .44 Russian is one of the most important sixgun cartridge developments since we made the transition from ball, powder, and cap to brass cases. The following loads were test-fired in a Colt New Frontier .44 Special x 7 1/2” with a .44 Russian cylinder using new .44 Colt Starline brass:

Bullet:Lyman #429251RN (246 grains)

Load                                                                MV

23.0 gr. FFFg                                                   775 fps

5.0 gr. Bullseye                                     813 fps

6.0 gr. Bullseye                                     911 fps

5.0 gr. Unique                                                  718 fps

6.0 gr. Unique                                                  890 fps

7.0 gr. Unique                                                  938 fps

4.0 gr. AA#2                                                    718 fps

5.0 gr. AA#2                                                    827 fps

5.0 gr. WW231                                                761 fps

6.0 gr. WW231                                                900 fps

 

            The following loads are for 19th century sixguns chambered in .44 Russian and were test-fired in an original Smith & Wesson Model #3 Russian chambered in .44 Russian with a 7” barrel and dating back to 1874. Cases used are modern solid head brass from Starline.

Bullet: Lyman #429251RN (246 grains)

Load                                                                MV

20.0 gr. Goex FFg                                            623 fps

20.0 gr. Goex FFFg                                         653 fps

20.0 gr.Goex CTG                                           616 fps

20.0 gr. Pyrodex P                                           749 fps

Bullet: Black Dawge  205 gr. FN

Load                                                                MV

20.0 gr. Goex FFg                                            633 fps

20.0 gr. Goex FFFg                                         683 fps

20.0 gr. Goex CTG                                          594 fps

20.0 gr. Pyrodex P                                           658 fps

20.0 gr. Pyrodex Select                                    725 fps

All weights are by volume.

            Colt issued something over 90,000 .44-40 Frontier Sixshooters in the SAA and DA Model 1878, and in 1888 introduced their Flat Top Target Model. These were simply Single Action Armys with the top of the frame flattened and the installation of a rear sight moveable for windage, as furnished  on the original Ruger Single-Sixes in 1953. Elevation was accomplished by a movable blade in the front sight held in place by a screw. Very crude by today's standards, but a start towards  modern target sighted revolvers. Less than 1000 Flat Top Target Models were made with only 21 being in .44WCF. Colt also chambered the big New Service double action revolver in .44-40, and Smith made a few Frontier Models in both single action and double action in .44-40 and a few Triple-Locks also saw chambering in .44WCF. By 1941, the Colt Single Action was removed from production and the  .44-40 was dead and buried and looked like it would stay that way.

            When Colt resumed production of the Colt Single Action in 1955, followed by the modernized version of the Flat Top Target, the New Frontier, in 1962, the calibers were .45 Colt, .357 Magnum, .38 Special, and .44 Special. None were produced in .44-40 except in the Peacemaker Centennial Commemorative set with a superb 7 1/2” nickel-plated sixgun marked “COLT FRONTIER SIXSHOOTER” on the barrel. The Colt Single Action died again in 1974, only to be resurrected in 1978. This time it was once again chambered in .44-40 in both Single Action and New Frontier versions with a few Sheriff's Models being made with both .44-40 and .44 Special cylinders.

            The Seville was also produced in very small quantities in .44-40 with a few dual cylinder .44 Magnum/.44-40 revolvers being made. Even Ruger made a few .44 Magnum Super Blackhawks with an extra .44-40 cylinder and Smith & Wesson also had a double action Wagon Train Commemorative chambered in .44-40. Today Colt, USFA, AWA, all offer sixguns chambered for the .44-40 as does EMF and Cimarron. I have had experience with four .44-40 Italian made sixguns, a 3” Sheriff's Model, a 5 1/2” Dakota, a 7 1/2” Bisley replica, and a 7 1/2” Remington 1875 copy. All four shot extremely well with the Bisley capable of one-hole groups at 25 yards and the Remington capable of one-inch groups at the same distance. I am currently working with a pair of AWA Ultimates with full octagon barrels, one 7 1/2” and the other 10” in length, and both fitted with two cylinders, .44-40 and .44 Special. They are both excellent sixguns. 

            Many years ago, I purchased a "patina" Bisley through Shotgun News for $160. It proved to be in good condition, but the bore slugged .432" and the cylinders would not accept bullets larger than .428". The old barrel came off, was replaced by a seven and one-half inch .44 Special barrel of .426" groove diameter and that old Bisley has given groups of one-half inch using 9.0 grains of Unique and the Lyman #42798 .44-40 flat-point bullet.  

            This spotlights one of the problems in loading for the .44-40. There seems to be no real standard for barrel groove diameter, with specimens running from .426" all the way up to .432" with chambered throats in the cylinders which may or may not match the barrel. This is what happened with the first Ruger .44-40 Vaqueros; they had nice tight .426” .44-40 cylinders matched up with .44 Magnum barrels at .430”; accuracy was poor to say the least. The two I had from Ruger were opened up to .430 and shot very accurately from then on. Ruger did fix the problem before the Vaquero was removed from production to make way for the New Vaquero.    

The other problem in loading for the .44-40 is the fact since it is a bottle-necked cartridge, carbide dies, so prevalent and so taken for granted for straight-walled pistol cartridges, are out and the extra step of lubing must be added to reloading the .44-40. This is not much for problem, however the worst problem with the .44-40 is paper thin necks; I lost a few cases everytime I reloaded, always for the same reason, I ruined the case necks either by starting a bullet crooked or getting a case off center and hitting the mouth on the bottom of a die. With other pistol cartridges, one can usually stop quickly enough to keep from ruining the case. With the .44-40, the slightest mistake and the case is gone; or I should say used to be. Starline brass is a little thicker in the neck area and has solved  this problem.

            A long time standard load for the .44-40 with the Lyman #42798 bullet has been 18.5 grains of #2400. This load has been published in numerous books and magazines. This load proved to be too hot in my New Frontier and I have settled on 17.5 grains of #2400 as a maximum load with the Alliants #2400 and this is used only sparingly and in the New Frontier or Texas Longhorn Arms West Texas Flat-Target only .

            The original loading of 40 grains of blackpowder cannot be duplicated in modern solid head .44-40 brass. The most I can get into   a case and seat the #42798 bullet properly is 35.0 grains of FFFg which gives slightly over 900 fps. The same volume of Pyrodex P raises the muzzle velocity to 1,000 fps and both loads will group in two inches at 25 yards. My favorite powders for the .44-40 are Unique and H4227.  Unique and Lyman's #42798 bullet just seem made for each other and my favorite everyday working load is 8.0 grains of Unique which should be safe in all currently produced .44-40 sixguns, and in my 7 1/2” Colt New Frontier will place five shots in one-inch at 25 yards while clocking out at more than 950 fps. Switching to H4227, which seems to deliver accuracy nearly equal to Unique, I prefer 20.0 grains for slightly over 1100 fps. I do not use this load in Top-Break revolvers such as the replica Schofield. Winchester's WW231 is another favorite with the .44-40 and 8.0 grains of this fast burning powder gives slightly over 1000 fps with the #42798 Lyman bullet and shoots into less than one-inch with the standard five shots at 25 yards.

Anything that can be accomplished by the .44-40 can be topped by the .44Special. However it is one of those cartridges that hold a certain fascination and if power were the only criteria in a sixgun, only magnums would be sold. Such is not the case however. Although not thought of as a target load, my tests over the past 20 years have shown the .44-40 to be capable of target accuracy even in unrefined single action sixguns. Since the .44-40 started life as a black powder cartridge I would be remiss if I didn't include black powder loads; besides I like shooting them. Upon firing the bottlenecked .44-40 cartridges usually swell to fit the chambers of both sixguns and leverguns much better than does the .45 Colt when using black powder loads. This means more uniform velocity and with the sealing of the chamber, also results in much cleaner brass. Heavier loads for modern .44-40 leverguns were included in chapter 38. These black powder loads should be safe in any .44-40 in good working condition. These loads were test-fired in a Rossi Model 92 with a 20” Barrel and factory iron sights; groups are 10 shots at 50 yards. It is easily seen from the results how difficult it is to get 10 shots to fire accurately. Fouling is a problem with black powder loads; and then again I am not the world’s best shot with the factory sights found on the Rossi. 

Load                                                                            MV                              Groups

Lyman #42798/36.5 gr. Goex  FFFg                            1566 fps                       3 7/8”

Lyman #42798/36.5 gr. Pyrodex P                               1322 fps                       3”

Lyman 200 Cowboy/35.0 gr. Pyrodex P                       1450 fps                       6”

Lyman 200 Cowboy/35.0 gr. Pyrodex Select                1234 fps                       7”

Lyman 200 Cowboy/35.0 gr. Goex FFg                       1176 fps                       8 ½”

Lyman 200 Cowboy/35.0 gr. Goex FFFg                     1307 fps                       7 ¼”

Lyman 200 Cowboy/35.0 gr. Goex CTG                      1145 fps                       7 1/8”

 

42-1) For those who load black powder sixgun cartridges and do not cast their

own bullets, Black Dawge/Goex offers properly cast, sized, and lubed bullets

as shown here for the .45 Colt or .45 Schofield; .44 Russian, .44 Colt, or

.44WCF; .38-40; and .38 Long Colt and .38 Special.

 

 

 

42-2) These two old .44s, a .44 Colt Cartridge Conversion and an 1879 Frontier

Six-Shooter must only be used with black powder loads

 

 

 

42-3) The Richards Conversion was built on a Colt Army Model from the 1860s;

absolutely black powder only.

 

 

 

42-4) This old Richards Conversion in .44 Colt shoots pretty good for running .44

caliber bullets down a .45 caliber barrel; to work, a soft hollow base bullet is necessary.

 

 

 

42-5) The 250 grain round-nosed bullet of the .44 Russian carried over to the

.44 Special; the .44 Special then became most popular with the 250 grain

Keith bullet, which then carried over to the .44 Magnum.

 

 

 

42-6) Dating back to 1874, this original Model #3 Russian is for black powder

or black powder substitutes only.

 

 

 

42-8) When loading black powder or a black powder substitute, a powder

measure made specifically for black powder use is the only safe way to do it quickly.

 

 

 

 

42-9) The ancient .44 Russian still works well in this USFA “Russian And

S&W Special 44”; the stocks are ram’s horn by Roy Fishpaw.

 

 

 

42-10) Lyman’s 250 grain round nosed bullet, cast soft, and loaded in old-style

balloon head brass or modern Starline brass with RCBS’ .44 Russian dies all

work together for a pleasant 19th-century shooting experience.

 

 

 

42-11) Shooting double action using black powder loads in a 6” Smith & Wesson

Double Action .44 Russian under a Lyman #429251 round-nosed bullet shows

the old sixguns can shoot pretty well.

 

 

 

42-12) Like most 19th-century revolvers, this 5” S&W .44 Russian has “battle sights”

which normally shoot high at 20 yards.

 

 

 

42-13) Standard 44-40 loads using smokeless powder are safe in an 1873

replica and also shoot well.

 

 

 

42-14) Black powder loads in the replica 1873 show five shots in one hole and

five shots grouped together about 1 1/2” lower.

 

 

 

42-15) The carbide sizing die in the RCBS .44 Magnum/.44 Special die set works

fine for the Russian, the Special, and the Magnum. However, the expander

button and seating and crimping die do not. The proper answer is set of .44 Russian dies.

 

 

 

42-16) The .44-40, left, is the largest and oldest of the Winchester Centerfire

Model 1873 cartridges. It was followed by the .38-40 and then the .32-20.

 

 

 

42-17) The serial number on this Colt .44-40 dates in at 1893; that means

black powder only.

 

 

 

42-18) This old Colt .44-40 goes back to 1879 making it also safe for black

powder use only.

 

 

 

42-19) This .44-40 Colt was manufactured in 1903 making it okay for sensible

smokeless powder loads; however it thrives on black powder loads.

 

 

 

42-20) Sixgunners of the last thirty years of the 19th-century could choose

from the .44 American, the .44 Colt, the .44 Russian, and the .44-40.

 

 

 

42-21) Rapine offers a full line of molds for casting bullets for the old guns;

these two both cast hollow base .44 bullets.

 

 

 

42-22) Smith & Wesson's single action sixguns, no matter when they were

manufactured, are only safe with black powder loads. Pictured are three Model #3s,

an American, a Russian, and a New Model #3

 

 

 

42-23) In a very short time frame from 1860 to 1873 Colt went developed the

1860 Army, Richards Conversion, Richards-Mason Conversion, and the

Single Action Army. The two middle revolvers are chambered in .44 Colt

while the one on the right is a .44 Russian. Because they are replicas they are

safe with sensible smokeless powder loads.

 

 

 

42-24) To be able to crimp a heeled bullet in the .44 S&W American the

“.44 Guillotine” was designed and carried out using an old die body and two

pieces of steel with a slight collar in the hole.

 

 

 

42-25) The “.44 Guillotine” in use. The back part of the hole where the cartridge

is inserted has a small collar which crimps the case. when the press handle is moved.  

 

Chapter 41     Chapter 43