By Gun Rack Editor Ed Hall
Where I hunt in Vermont, deer and bear seasons overlap, and it’s mostly the big old boars that are still out, so I always recommend a load that is good for both. One do-all answer has been around for more than 100 years: shoot a very tough, fat, blunt, heavy bullet that will “freight train” its way through any shoulder, through the vitals and likely through the other shoulder on the way out. Works fine on a 120-pound whitetail as well as a 400-pound black bear, and it doesn’t require magnum velocity. I’m talking about a flat-nosed hard cast bullet from the seemingly mild .44 Magnum, and it’s a tremendous bonus to be able to shoot such a load from a compact lever-action carbine with little recoil.
Sure, such a bullet does not provide a flat trajectory nor does it retain energy at long range, but out to 100 yards or so, it might be the best guaranteed performance you can find. It already has the right shape for doing damage, and the shape won’t change regardless of what it hits. It certainly carries plenty of momentum to penetrate. Line up three whitetails side by side, and a hard cast 320-grainer is apt to pass through all six shoulder bones.
The .44 Magnum is the universal big-game handgun, capable of mice to moose, and in a short, lightweight carbine, the same cartridge makes a great woods round. It is one of the best tree-stand black bear cartridges I know, whether in a handgun or a rifle—mild recoil, but guaranteed effect.
The reason for that effectiveness is often misunderstood, and that can cause hunters to choose the wrong ammo for their .44. Most believe that muzzle velocity and energy are the important factors when picking a cartridge for big game, and so they opt for a light, jacketed bullet that leaves the muzzle at top speed. Such loads tend to post the most impressive energy numbers, and if lungs are hit at any range with such bullets, there should be no problem. But if a big buck’s tough shoulder bone gets in the way, a 180-grain bullet that is designed to expand may not even get through to the vitals. No, it is the freight-train momentum of a hard, heavy bullet that best guarantees the effectiveness of the .44 Magnum.
Gun and ammo companies like to tout a cartridge’s energy figures as a shorthand way to tell how well it will kill game. And, yes, the transfer of high-speed energy may produce a wide swath of hydraulic tissue damage. But penetration is at least equally important, and speed does not assure penetration. In fact, it can have the opposite unintended effect when a bullet overexpands and doesn’t penetrate. With the .44, it is better to take a look at penetrating momentum, especially when shots aren’t likely to exceed 100 yards.
Energy figures are derived by multiplying the velocity times itself and then multiplying that by the bullet’s weight. Squaring the velocity this way makes velocity the major contributor to high energy figures. Momentum, on the other hand, is determined by simply multiplying velocity times weight, giving equal value to both. This is the “secret” to the penetration of those blunt, heavy bullets. It is why the .45-70 is still popular and why momentum is always a criterion when selecting a cartridge for dangerous game.
The Hornady Handbook for Cartridge Reloading specifically states that in a .44, the most popular 240-grain jacketed bullet should be used only for the smallest big game, if then. Hornady actually recommends their tougher 265-grain rifle bullet or their 300-grain XTP bullet for deer.
Jacketed bullets are used in high-velocity hunting rifles out of necessity, because a lead bullet without the jacket, traveling at high speed, would foul the bore. The combination of a hard jacket and softer lead core hopefully produces the desired mushroom expansion for tissue damage.
A few of the newer heavily jacketed lead core “punch” bullets, such as the Barnes Buster, are the exception to this “mushroom” theory, designed to not change shape at all. Their thick copper jacket, closed or almost closed at the nose, combines with a heavy lead core to stay intact and penetrate deep and straight through tough bone and muscle—just like a hard cast bullet.
But at velocities under 2,000 feet a second, simple cast lead bullets, used properly, don’t foul the bore, and they work just fine on game. They can be made a bit soft to expand, but I believe they are better made hard and already shaped just right. Look at the offerings of custom makers of big-game handgun hunting ammunition. While they may offer mid-weight jacketed bullets, the bulk of their lineups are heavy and hard cast, either through the addition of antimony or more often nowadays by heat treating a traditional lead/tin mix.
When it comes to handgun loads, cast bullets can provide a velocity edge over jacketed bullets. For a top but safe handgun load, Hodgdon’s online reloading data recommends a maximum 19 grains of H-110 powder with a 300-grain jacketed hollow point, yielding 1,325 ft/s. Top load for a slightly heavier 325-grain hard cast bullet is 22 grains of H-110, yielding a velocity of 1,368 ft/s. The heavier hard cast bullet is actually faster, at the same 38,000 pounds per square inch pressure.
Yes, the lighter, faster .44 bullets have flatter trajectories. But the difference between the flattest-flying 180-grainer and a 320 is 3 inches of drop at 100 yards when both are zeroed at 50 yards. And if a 320-grain hard cast hits a deer or bear anywhere in the vitals, it is going down.
What happens when we load those 320s in a lever-action carbine? Velocities increase 200 to 300 ft/s, which is no problem. But a lighter jacketed bullet at that velocity might expand too much with too little weight left to drive it deeply.
One caution is that some older Marlin lever-gun barrels have Microgroove rifling, and while this rifling is fine for “standard” lead bullets, it is too shallow to grip and spin some hard cast bullets.
If you have a Microgroove barrel, just use the new Barnes Buster—it should spin right and then perform on impact like hard cast lead.
Note that in factory cartridges, .44 Magnum muzzle velocities vary among manufacturers. Some believe .44 shooters prefer less recoil. Look to CorBon, Grizzly, and Double Tap when full potency is desired. These custom makers offer heavy, hard cast bullets at top safe velocities.
Regardless of who made them, top .44 loads with heavy bullets produce abundant recoil, perhaps even brutal in lighter handguns, and I sometimes carry a super light 25-ounce Smith & Wesson 329PD .44 Magnum while running bear hounds.
I carry it because it is so light and easy to pack when chasing the hounds through the mountains.
Yes, recoil is brutal, but there is only a slight chance that I may shoot it, and then, hopefully, only once. And, even then, I want a bit less than full recoil.
I could use a lighter bullet to reduce recoil, but that would take away from the all-important penetrating momentum. My solution is to stick with the heaviest 320-grain bullet I cast at home and back off a bit on the powder charge, lowering velocity just a bit.
Handloading is the best way to get exactly what you want in a .44 load. In fact, a wide variety of .44 bullets simply cannot be found in loaded ammunition. When you handload, you also maintain total control of cartridge potency, from top down to extra-mild .44 Special equivalent.
Handloading can also drop the cost of deer and bear loads from $40 to $50 for a box of 20 to $17, and plinking loads may cost as little as $5 a box.
Once you have the necessities—press, scale, etc.—you need only buy a set of dies for each caliber you wish to handload. Good ones cost $30-$40, but considering that you save almost $2 a shot, and hopefully plan to practice extensively, you quickly recoup that investment. So buy good equipment the first time.
While the .44 magnum is a small case compared to most rifle cases and takes little force to resize, consider that you might someday want to handload a .30-06 or a magnum rifle cartridge, too. Purchase a strong loading press, such as the Redding Boss or RCBS Rockchucker.
Some of the faster progressive presses, touted as ideal for handgun loading, require extreme precision in adjustment and don’t allow the careful attention to detail recommended for hunting ammo. I don’t recommend them for hunters.
When shopping for handloading equipment, it pays to go to a true gun shop to learn the finer points. Reloading dies may all appear about the same to the casual observer, but Redding has something special in their sizing dies for straight-walled cases like the .44.
Most sizing dies for straight-walled handgun cases have a hard carbide ring that comes down over the case to resize it. The whole case must be sized a bit too small so the bullet will be held by friction as well as crimp. Redding, on the other hand, makes a die with two rings such that the base half of the case is sized only to proper specification rather than too small.
Deer and bear seasons do overlap in Vermont, and the .44 cartridge with the right bullet is just fine for both. Yes, the wide profile and flat nose cost a bit in downrange performance, but that’s rarely a problem in the Eastern woods, certainly not at handgun or carbine ranges.
Why take a chance that a somewhat light, jacketed bullet will expand enough but not too much? Instead, shoot a heavy hard cast bullet that’s going to penetrate even if it hits bone, and then deliver a knockout punch.
While pretty much everyone in the Vermont woods is hunting deer, most would jump at the chance to take a bear. But most are shooting high-velocity deer bullets designed to expand on impact, questionable for anything but a broadside lung shot on an average black bear. This may also be the case if they load a .44 with lightweight, expanding bullets. And what happens if they take a shoulder shot on a really big Vermont bear?