Cast HPs in the .44 Special


Staff member
Cast HPs in the .44 Special

The simple words “.44 Special” carry special meaning for many revolver fans. I suspect that most of the folks reading this can recite chapter and verse of how Elmer Keith blew up a .45 Colt SAA, moved over to the .44 Special, experimented with high pressure loads using slower burning pistol powders, developed the Ideal 429421, and how all this eventually led to the .44 Magnum. And how Skeeter took what Elmer had done and moderated it a bit, using 7.5 grains of Unique for about 950 fps from a 4” N-frame for law enforcement work. No need to sift through all the details again.

But what about cast HPs? Do they expand in the .44 Special? Clearly, Elmer Keith’s stiff loads of 2400 and muzzle velocities of 1200 fps were able to make the 429421 HP expand beautifully (and I will be right up front in confessing that the picture of a 429421 HP recovered from a mule deer in “Sixguns” is responsible for triggering my long-time fascination with cast HPs), but this is a heavy hunting load, and only appropriate for large-framed revolvers. Skeeter also mentioned the 429421 HP in his writings, generally in the context of 7.5 grains of Unique and 950 fps, but mostly focused on the solid SWC.

When I started shooting the .44 Special in the late 1980s, there were a few factory loads in .44 Special that featured HP bullets, like the Winchester Silvertip, and a swaged lead HP (reminiscent of the .38 Special FBI load), but these were invariably loaded to about 700-750 fps out of deference to the small aluminum framed guns, and expansion was negligible.

When I started casting and loading for the .44 Special in the late 1980s, I tried the loads that both Elmer and Skeeter wrote about and quickly decided that I would reserve the magnum level loads for my .44 Magnum revolvers. My first .44 Special revolver was a 3” S&W 24-3, and Skeeter’s load would give me about 875 fps from the 3” barrel. 429421 HPs cast from WW alloy didn’t really expand much at this speed, so I started looking around and working up loads with other powders. Long story short – I eventually settled on 10.0 grains of Winchester 540 (aka HS-6) for about 925 fps from the 3” (975-1050 fps from longer barrels). This is a +P load and probably generates about 20-22,000 CUP peak pressure, and is safe in large-framed revolvers, but not suitable for small or aluminum framed revolvers. I also started casting the 429421 HP to a hardness of about BHN 8-9 using 1:1 WW alloy/pure lead (and later on, recovered range scrap). So loaded, I started getting reliable expansion from the .44 Special, even from the 3” 24-3. Back when I was cutting firewood every summer, from the 90s through the early 2000s, the 3” 24-3 (and later a 3” 624) was loaded thusly on my hip. This load got used on all sorts of vermin (ground squirrels, jack rabbits, skunks, etc.) and performed admirably.

When S&W introduced the 3” L-frame 696 .44 Special, the guidance I was given was that this gun should be limited to loads developing no more than about 18,000 CUP. This meant my HS-6 load was out, and put Skeeter’s Unique load right on the ragged edge, pressure-wise. What’s more, good carry ammo had come out by this time, and was loaded with 185-200 grain JHPs. If the little 696 was sighted in for those carry loads, then all loads with 250 grain bullets shot well above point of aim, making them of little value. It was time to re-think cast HPs in the .44 Special.

In order to get velocities up while keeping pressures moderate, it would be necessary to reduce bullet weight. This would also have the benefit of keeping the sight settings constant. Experiments in the 696 with 180-205 grain cast bullets proved this to be a viable strategy. Using pressure tested cast bullet loading data from the Lyman manual (and choosing a pressure ceiling of 14,000 CUP), demonstrated that velocities of 980 to 1070 fps were possible with 180-205 grain cast bullets in the 3” 696 using Unique. Accuracy ranged from downright terrible to excellent, depending on how much bearing surface the bullet had (the lightweight wadcutters have relatively little bearing surface and delivered poor accuracy) . For example, the excellent SAECO 200 grain truncated cone, loaded on top of 8.0 grains of Unique delivered 981 fps and grouped into 1 ½” to 2” at 25 yards from the 3” 696.

I bought an RCBS Cowboy mould for a 200 grain RN-FP bullet (RCBS 44-200-CM), and had it converted to drop HP bullets by Erik Ohlen ( This mould produces 188 grain HP bullets when cast with recovered range scrap (BHN about 8-9). When sized .429” and loaded over 8.7 grains of Unique, this bullet generates 1035 fps from the 3” 696 at an estimated 14,000 CUP peak pressure. 5-shot groups at 25 yards run just over 2”. I have not shot any critters with this bullet yet, but expansion in water bottles, or wet newsprint is positive. I would expect it to hit vermin like the hammer of Thor.

This is a long ways away from the roaring magnum level loads of Mr. Keith’s 429421 HP over a stiff charge of 2400, but it serves the snubby format of the 3” S&W 696 quite nicely.