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>> Getting the Most From Your .44 Magnum :: By Mikey Dio  on 2003-08-22
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Getting the Most From Your .44 Magnum

By Mikey Dio 

How would you like to increase the performance of your .44 magnum to levels beyond what was previously not attainable? This includes higher velocities, better accuracy and less fouling. If it sounds like that proverbial deal that is too good to be true, it is not. It is very much a reality that can be obtained by using Vihtavuori N-110 powder and some accuracy loading techniques. Coupled with the use of new brass and Beartooth Bullets, your .44 magnum will become a new pistol and close the formerly large gap between itself and the .454 Casull. 

One may ask why not just get a .454 in the first place? Well I already had a .44 revolver and lots of dies, brass and bullets in that caliber, so that is where I started. The first gun I used was an S&W Performance Center M-629 with a 6½-inch barrel and a compensator. It had the newer refinements that strengthened the frame and cylinder. After that I moved on to a 7½ -inch barreled Freedom Arms .44. 

What was particularly exciting was the dramatic jump in velocities with the Vihtavuori powder over past velocities we had obtained with Hodgdon H-110. Before discovering Beartooth Bullets, my shooting buddy, Bud Eidam, and I had settled on Hornady’s 240 grain XTP and the most accurate bullet for our revolvers. With 23.5 grains of an early 1990’s lot of H-110, we were getting about 1,338 fps as an average velocity from 6 ½ -inch barreled S&Ws. Accuracy was good but the velocities were a bit slow. Upon switching to Vihtavuori N-110, the average velocities for that bullet increased to 1,444 fps without excessive pressures. Again, accuracy improved and excessive pressures were not apparent. 

Then I gave Beartooth’s hardcast bullets a spin (down the barrel, of course) and there was another jump in velocity of over 100 feet per second. The velocities I obtained with this combination were stunning. Of the Beartooth bullets fired with Vihtvouri (VV) N-110, using the S&W revolver the velocities were: 

  • 280 grain WFN GC  1,387 fps
  • 300 grain LMNDCGGC 1,365 fps
  • 325 grain WFN GC  1,325 fps
 

Of these three, accuracy was best with the 325-grain bullets, with the 300-grain bullets a close second. The greatest jump in velocity was from a 300-grain Hornady bullet to the 300-grain Beartooth bullet. Velocities jumped from an average of 1,206 fps with the jacketed bullet, seated out to the lower cannelure, to the 1,365 fps with the Beartooth bullet seated to the first crimping groove with the nose to crimp length of .450”. The lower friction coefficient of the lead bullets is quite apparent. All testing was done with iron sights. 

I sold the Smith to buy the Freedom Arms .44. Using the very same loads, I found the velocities increase again by an average of about 100 feet per second. The velocities were:

  • 280 grain WFN GC  1,501 fps
  • 300 grain LMNDCGGC 1,466 fps
  • 325 grain WFN GC  1,418 fps
 

 

New Brass 

Taking it one more step by using only new brass, an average of 20 feet per second was added to each of the above. Most significant about using the new brass was the elimination of fliers. This kept the extreme spreads and standard deviations small because no odd ball round or two would skew the data. 

The apparent cause for these fliers, which were usually high or low shots, was the difference in the neck tension of the brass. Less neck tension on a bullet would cause lower pressures, lower velocity and a corresponding high shot (longer barrel time for the bullet). Conversely, a case with greater neck tension would cause bullet impact to be lower than the rest. This can be attributed, in part, to the work hardening of the brass, with some cartridge cases hardening quicker and consequently loosing their elasticity. This would be magnified more with high-pressure loads as these. New brass eliminates one more variable. 

Variances in case tension also have caused corresponding differences in bullet seating depth, just by a few thousandths of an inch. By using at least a 7X magnifier these variances can be easily viewed. A quick fix is possible though, that being to adjust your bullet seater by small amounts for each round until the mouth of the case is even with the deepest point of the crimping groove. This way you will get a more uniform crimp and thus, more uniform velocities. 

No, the cases were all the same length and Marshall’s bullets are so dead nuts uniform (I measured them) that this variance cannot be attributed to either. In fact, to eliminate the bullets as a variable, I miked them and found them not to vary more than about .0001” in diameter. The lengths and nose to crimp lengths were similarly as uniform. I pay for my Beartooth bullets and wait for delivery just like the rest of you, but my tests clearly reveal they are worth it. 

Vihtavuori Powder 

Vihtavuori’s N-110 is a small grain extruded powder. It meters easily through a quality powder measure and has a little quicker burn rate than H-110 or WW 296. It appears to have a little slower burn rate than AA 9. It is very clean burning and does not leave the extensive carbon fouling behind like ball powders do. Although my testing was done with the .44 magnum, data for other calibers can be found at Vihtavuori’s website http://www.vihtavuori.fi/vihtavuori/index.html. Additionally, Freedom Arms lists load data for N-110 for the .454 Casull on their website. 

My tests indicate that VV N-110 powder likes heavier bullets; that is when you are shooting hard cast lead bullets like Beartooth’s. It seeming prefers hotter primers for better ignition. When I switched from Federal 155 magnum pistols primers to Winchester’s WLP, I got instant vertical with the existing loads. The WLP primers required more powder to get more consistent ignition, as reflected in the accompanying charts.  

Energy Leaks 

Upon changing from the S&W to the Freedom Arms revolver, beside the increase in velocity, I noticed some signs indicating high pressures. These included flattened and cratered primers, although the cases themselves have never experienced sticky extraction. These high-pressure indicators were not present when firing these rounds from the S&W. This leads me to believe that the avenues for energy leaks in the S&W, including a .006” barrel/cylinder gap instead of almost none in the FA, lowered the pressures into a safer zone. This is not meant to slam the S&W since swing out cylinder revolvers need at least .006” barrel/cylinder gap to function properly. Further, the FA revolver was built to operate at the high pressures of the .454 Casull, so this matter is of less consequence for those FA shooters. However, this point is mentioned here to emphasize the need to gradually work up handloads for a particular firearm, rather than arbitrarily used top-end published data. 

 

300-Grain Bullet Differences 

There was a greater difference in velocity between Beartooth lead bullets and copper jacketed bullets with the heavier bullets weights. Top end loads in the 240-grain range were just about identical in velocity. But when the 300-grain bullets were compared the difference jumped to almost 300 feet per second, at least with the Vihtavuori N-110 powder. 

The following charts demonstrate the differences in velocity between the Beartooth hard cast lead 300-grain bullet and the copper jacketed Hornady 300 grain XTP bullet. The difference in velocity with Vihtavuori powder loaded to near maximum pressures are dramatic. The lower friction coefficient of the lead bullet lowers pressures, allows for more powder and then a corresponding higher velocity. In my tests, the Beartooth lead bullets were also more accurate. 

Cartridge Overall Length 

Beartooth 300-Grain LMN DCG 1.710”

Beartooth 300-grain WFN  1.600”

Hornady 300-grain XTP  1,717” (seated to lower cannelure) 

Bullet

Powder

Average Velocity

Extreme Spread

Standard Deviation

Group size @ 50 yards

300 gr. LMN DCG

20.7 gr. VV N-110

1,487

21

10

1.8

300 gr. WFN

18.7 gr. VV N-110

1,421

7

2

1.78, .675(4)

300 gr. Hornady1 XTP

19.9 gr. VV N-110

1,206

30

12

2.6

 

Handloading Techniques 

The methods I used for loading these rounds were the basic one-at-a-time steps using single stage presses, powder measure, priming tool and so forth. I have done some accuracy rifle shooting and feel more confident applying proven benchrest-reloading techniques to loading pistol ammo. I have tried a big name progressive press and was not satisfied with the results. The seating depth of the bullet would vary depending on whether you were resizing a case or not and I could never get the primers properly seated. So I sold it and stayed with what I knew would work. It is a lot more time consuming but it is a small price to pay for accuracy. 

All dies were Redding as was one of the presses. I used a Sinclair priming tool as well as their primer pocket uniformer and flash hole deburring tool. Sinclair International in Fort Wayne, Indiana (260 493-1858, http://www.sinclairintl.com/) is a shooting supplier that can supply you all of the tools mentioned in this article in addition to Vihtavuori powder. They are great people to work with and can answer any technical questions that may arise. They are also extremely responsive to your telephone orders and they will get your order to you in a very timely fashion. They publish an outstanding color catalog that is a must, and will make your wives cringe when it comes in the mail. No, I do not work for Sinclair but I have invested in many of their products and can vouch for their quality and Sinclair’s fine business practices. 

I prepared all cartridge case by trimming and chamfering with a Wilson case trimmer and deburring tool. The primer pockets were reamed to a consistent depth using a solid carbide uniformer, which also doubles as a primer pocket cleaner once the fired case is deprimed. The flash holes were deburred to insure consistent powder ignition. Cases were primed using a Sinclair priming tool. This is a highly precision tool with which you seat primers by feel, making sure each is at the bottom of the primer pocket. This is a one at a time process, but it eliminates one cause of vertical dispersion, that being from a primer insufficiently seated. 

The Vihtavuori powder was thrown using a culver type powder measure. These are the same type which benchrest rifle shooters use and are currently made by Harrell’s Precision. With the small grain extruded powders like VV N-110, you can use thrown charges with extreme accuracy. All powder charges used in my testing were thrown, with the first ones being weighed to verify the meter setting, to make sure I hadn’t suffered temporary brain fade. 

Bullet seating was done using a Redding micrometer seater. It speeds up changes for different types of bullet shapes. Without incurring the added expense, you can come close with the seater die that comes with the set. First back off the die so that bullet seating and crimping are done in two steps. Then install a small o-ring under the lock ring of the seater stem. Make up some dummy rounds for the bullets you will use and crimp heavily. Then use the dummy round to set up your seater. Because you have the o-ring under the lock ring of the seater stem, you can make fine adjustments until the edge of the case is even with the deepest point of the crimp groove. Some lube on the threads helps with the fine adjustments. All crimping that I had done was with a Redding Profile Crimp die. 

Accuracy! 

Accuracy was terrific. The reported groups were all shot at 50 yards, off a bench with a sand bagged rest. By looking at the targets you can observe the tendencies of this powder and bullet combinations. Most groups were hovering around one inch or better with the occasional flyer opening the group up some. But since these targets were all hand fired under limited time constraints, I attribute the flyer in most cases to be a result of the loose nut behind the grips, me. With a more solid bench, younger eyes and probably less shake, this powder, gun and bullet combination could quite possibly be close to MOA accuracy. 

Confidence in Your Handloads 

One may ask why go through all these efforts to build ammo when “you are only shooting a revolver.” You can maximize the accuracy of your revolver to a level that many non-aficionados would not believe. My experience and that of accuracy rifle shooters shows that the simpler the loading set-up, the more uniform ammunition will be produced. It is not that you cannot produce decent ammo from a progressive loader; it is just that this way eliminates some variables in the loading process.  

Taking a different perspective regarding your handloads, buying new brass and taking your time to load each round with careful precision is a small price to pay when you consider the expense you incur during hunting season. The licenses, particularly if you are from out of state, the gas and travel expenses to include lodging and meals, and the cost of all your other equipment and clothing. The cost of new brass and a little more of your time is a mere pittance, but a great boost to your confidence. 

The additional velocity may or may not be needed. Certainly the fine performances of cast bullets at lower velocities have shown that they do not need to be launched at the speed of sound. However, higher velocities will flatten handgun trajectories, somewhat. This becomes an important aspect when you factor in range estimation of your intended target. Within 100 yards, this point is generally moot. But when the terrain, lighting conditions or huge antlers make range estimation difficult, greater velocity will give you a greater “point blank range” and may make the difference between a cleanly killed animal and one that is only wounded.  

Clean-Up Time 

After firing Beartooth bullets with Vihtavuori powder, cleaning my revolver has been so easy it is almost obscene. Using Shooter’s Choice Bore Solvent and bronze brushes, both the barrel and cylinder have cleaned up remarkably easy. There is no fight to get all the copper fouling out of the barrel and the carbon fouling is minimal. To get your cylinder extra clean without damaging the exit throats, let it soak completely submerged in a jar filled with Shooter’s Choice. Let it sit overnight if you have the time. The carbon rings in the front of the cylinder simply leave and do not cause you to have to use wire brushes and abrasives to remove it. WARNING: Do not use this soaking procedure with nickel-plated guns, because it has been proven that the nickel-plating will also leave. 

Design engineers from both Freedom Arms and Smith & Wesson have advised me that revolver accuracy depends, in part, on perfectly machined and maintained cylinder exit throats. This dimension is as important, if not more so, than the barrel muzzle crown, and relates to uniform gas escape and pressures on the base of the bullet as it moves from the cylinder to the barrel. Accordingly, there is no need scrub away on the face of the cylinder with a wire brush to remove the carbon rings, that probably are not hurting much anyway. 

Addendum 

After completing this article, I received a full length-resizing die that I had altered to my specifications. It is a steel Redding die that I had modified so it would size the neck part of the case to .447” OD, for about .450” down from the mouth of the case. This is about .002 to .003” tighter than my FL Redding carbide die will resize a case. As a quick experiment, I resized some old ratty Winchester cases that have been fired with hot loads at least 12 – 15 times. I resized them with the new die and expanded the cases with a Lyman M-die I had modified to .425” OD. I dropped the powder charge down .3 to .4 grains. Accuracy with several Beartooth bullets was again hovering around the one-inch range the velocities and low SD’s equal to that obtained from new brass. The brass had enough tension so that you could see the lube grooves in the bullets after it was seated in the case. 

I believe this relates to the friction coefficient of the hard cast lead bullets. I believe they need more neck tension than copper jacketed bullets to obtain uniform velocities. This would explain why accuracy would diminish as cases had been fired more. The tighter resizing die allows one to control the neck tension with the expander dies of different diameter. Variances in bullet seating depth were not present. 

Also, I believe that hard cast lead bullets need more neck tension when loaded to magnum pressures and velocities. It gets back to the friction coefficient of lead. The same friction coefficient that allows your bullets to slide down the bore faster also need more neck tension for more thorough powder ignition and the resulting improvement of accuracy. 

Smith & Wesson

M-629 .44 Magnum, 6 1/2 –inch barrel

Iron Sights 

Bullet

Powder

Primer

COL

Average Velocity

E.S.

S.D.

Group @ 50 yards

280 gr. WFN

23.0 gr. H-110

Fed 155

1.625

1,301

55

14

2.6

280 gr. WFN

20.9 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.625

1,387

11

4

2.6

300 gr. LMN DCG

22.3 gr. H-110

Fed 155

1.710

1,266

48

17

2.26

300 gr. LMN DCG

20.7 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.710

1,365

18

7

1.97

325 gr. WFN

21.3 gr. H-110

Fed 155

1.720

1,194

52

18

2.48

325 gr. WFN

19.9 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.720

1,325

12

4

1.85

 

Freedom Arms Model 83

.44 Magnum, 7 ½ inch barrel

Iron Sights 

Bullet

Powder

Primer

COL

Average Velocity

E.S.

S.D.

Group @ 50 yards

250 gr. LFN

22.0 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.700

1,533

28

10

2.04

280 gr. WFN

21.0 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.625

1,501

26

9

1.90

300 gr. LMN DCG

20.7 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.710

1,466

21

8

2.10

300 gr. WFN

18.5 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.620

1,409

17

7

1.35

 

Freedom Arms Model 83

.44 Magnum, 7 ½ inch barrel

Iron Sights

NEW HORNADY BRASS 

Bullet

Powder

Primer

COL

Average Velocity

E.S.

S.D.

Group @ 50 yards

250 gr. LFN

22.3 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.700

1,572

11

8

1.51

280 gr. WFN

21.0 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.625

1,521

11

4

1.45

300 gr. LMN DCG

20.7 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.710

1,487

21

10

1.8

300 gr. WFN

18.7 gr. VV N –110

Fed 155

1.620

1,421

7

2

1.78/.675*

325 gr. WLN

19.9 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.720

1,418

8

3

1.53

* Four shots went into .675 inches 

 

300-Grain Bullet Differences 

The following charts demonstrate the differences in velocity between the Beartooth hard cast lead 300-grain bullet and the copper jacketed Hornady 300 grain XTP bullet. The difference in velocity with Vihtavuori powder loaded to near maximum pressures are dramatic. The lower friction coefficient of the lead bullet allows for a much higher velocity. In my tests, the Beartooth lead bullets were also more accurate. 

Bullet

Powder

Primer

COL

Average Velocity

E.S.

S.D.

Group @ 50 yards

300 gr. LMN DCG

20.7 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.710

1,487

21

10

1.8

300 gr. WFN

18.7 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.620

1,421

7

2

1.78/.675

300 gr. Hornady XTP

19.9 gr. VV N-110

Fed 155

1.710

1,206

30

12

2.6



Watch Those Primers

They Do Make a Difference 

New Hornady Brass

Winchester Large Pistol Primers 

Bullet

Powder

Primer

COL

Average Velocity

E.S.

S.D.

Group @ 50 yards

250 LFN

23.2 gr. VV N-110

WLP

1.700

1,603

19

8

1.6/.9**

300 gr. LMN DCG

22.4 gr. VV N-110*

WLP

1.760

1,514

18

7

1.9

325 gr. WLN

20.7 gr. VV N-110*

WLP

1.720

1,450

19

9

1.275

325 gr. WLN

20.9 gr. VV N-110*

WLP

1.720

1,454

8

3

1.6

325 gr. LCMN

21.9 gr. VV N-110*

WLP

1.760

1,498

23

9

1.9

* Compressed Charge

** Four shots went into .9 inches 

 1 This load was shot with the S&W revolver. I have not shot it through my Freedom Arms revolver, nor have I found a need to continue to shoot this bullet after comparing it to the Beartooth 300-grain bullets.

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