The idea for this article was to use current powders to develop loads that duplicated Elmer Keith's famous heavy 44 Special load. Historically this load is a 250 gr Keith style LSWC at 1,200 fps from a 4" revolver.

You might be thinking, "Why develop loads like this when the 44 Magnum is so common and there's all the data you could possibly want for it?" There are a few reasons. Some people may have an old large frame 44 Special from S&W or Colt, but not a 44 Magnum and want to hunt medium size game with it. Others may have a new M97 from Freedom Arms and want to load it with hunting loads and don't like 2400. But my primary reason for working up these loads is Knowledge for Knowledge sake. I wanted to know what H110 and Lil'Gun could do in this caliber and as far as I know data such as this isn't available anywhere either online or offline.

Keep in mind the loads listed in this article are still well in excess of any standard 44 special load, and since there are no guidelines for what constitutes a "+P" load in this caliber these may generate more, or less, pressure than +P loads from another source. Being pragmatic, if you have a need for such loads you really should use a 44 magnum, not a 44 special.

I have read that when Speer tested Keith's load it measured 27,000 PSI. That is well above the 15,500 PSI specified by SAAMI for a standard 44 Special, but still only approximately 2/3 the pressure that maximum level magnum loads generate. With the slower powders such as H110 and Lil'Gun I expect pressures to be slightly below 27,000 at the same velocity as Keith's load.

To get a baseline for comparison I fired Keith's load through several guns, a 3" model 24 S&W 44 Special and two 44 Magnums, 4" and 6" model 29-2 S&W and recorded the results. Idealy this would be done with one gun and 3 barrels, or even better one gun where the same barrel was cut shorter and shorter. Unfortunately I can't afford to chop a gun for these tests and don't have a Dan Wesson to interchange barrels. So while not a perfect apples to apples comparison, it's as close as I could get.

Today there are two very close loads that are usually quoted as being Keith's heavy 44 Special load. They are: 17.0 gr and 17.5 gr of 2400 under a 250 gr LSWC. Some gunwriters claim that when solid head brass became available Keith dropped his load to 17.0 gr from the 18.5 he used in balloon head brass. However on page 243 of Sixguns Keith states:

"In the .44 Special we load 18.5 grains with my 235 grain hollow point, or 250 grain solid in the old web cases, or 17.5 grains in the new solid head cases..."

In my mind it's clear Keith used 17.5 gr of 2400, but since many consider 17.0 gr Keith's load I've included both in these tests.

The velocities I saw with Keith's load were lower than I expected. Suspecting that maybe the lot of 2400 I had was on the slow side; I ran the baseline tests again with another pound of 2400 from a different lot of powder purchased at least one year after the first pound. The results from those tests, fired approximately two weeks after the first set, saw the same results with Keith's load within a few FPS. In my guns Keith's load does at best 1,140 fps from my 6" 29-2 and 1,100 fps from my 4" 29-2.

My original goal was to use Hodgdon's H110 and Lil'Gun to duplicate these loads; I included one load with Blue Dot just to see how a faster powder would compare. Considering that H110 generally works best with high pressure loads I did not expect it to be well suited for this task, but had high hopes for Lil'Gun based on my experiences with it in other calibers.

All loads were assembled on a Dillon RL 550b press using once and twice fired Starline brass, Winchester large pistol primers and Leadhead's 250 gr LSWC sized .430" and 20-22 BHN. OAL was set at 1.59" for all loads.

Nearly 500 rounds, 16 loads, 4 powders and 3 guns and over a pound of burnt gunpowder later, here are the results:

Powder3" M244" M29-26" M29-2
 GrFPSStd DevExt SpreadFPSStd DevExt SpreadFPSStd DevExt Spread
Blue Dot13.5**105814361119185011621845

* The primers on these loads showed slightly more flattening than the 17.5 gr of 2400 load in the same guns. Not to the extant that full magnum loads flatten the primers in these guns, but noticable.

** The single Blue Dot load showed the most flattening of the primers.

As might be expected the Blue Dot load had the most felt recoil. In all three guns recoil felt much sharper than with the slower powders. Also mirroring what I've seen with the 357 Magnum and 45 Colt Lil'Gun had less felt recoil than H110. Make no mistake, when you touch off a 250 gr load @ 1,000+ fps in a 3" gun you know it, but the recoil feels sharper with H110 than with comparable loads using Lil'Gun.

Contrary to what is considered common knowledge it appears that even the slow handgun powders do most of their work in the first few inches of barrel. In the 4" gun the average fps / inch is only 80% of the 3" gun, and 56% of the 3" in the 6" revolver. What this means is that even at 4" the rate the bullet is accelerating is already slowing down significantly.

Average fps / inchAverage Velocity Difference (fps)
3" M244" M296" M293" - 4" barrel4" - 6" barrel

Of course a longer barrel generates more velocity than a shorter one, but it's obvious that with these powders an extremely long barrel is not required to get reasonable velocity. These tests indicate that even in as little as 18" of barrel you may reach the point beyond which a longer barrel wouldn't gain you any velocity.

These loads should only be used in large frame 44 Specials, or 44 Magnum revolvers, or other revolvers of sufficient strength such as the Freedom Arms model 97 44 Special. Firing these loads in small frame 44's such as the Charter Arms Bulldog, Taurus 44 specials or Smith and Wesson L frame 44 specials may be extremely hazardous. I have not fired these in anything smaller than an N frame Smith and Wesson and don't know if they would be safe in any lesser revolver.

The loads listed here were safe in these particular revolvers with these lots of powder and primers there is no guarantee that they will be safe in your guns. This load data is provided for informational purposes only with no warranty or guarantee as to their safety or effectiveness in your firearms.

Email author: John Knutson

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