In the mid 19th C. a fellow named Rolin White patented a clever idea. Bore all the way through the cylinder of a revolver so that it could be loaded from the rear with a metallic cartridge. He tried to interest Colt in his idea, but they saw little utility in it. The burgeoning firm of S&W, however, thought it was a grand idea and purchased the rights to the patent. From then until 1870 S&W enjoyed a monopoly on practical cartridge revolvers, which they defended enthusiastically and, more important, effectively.
In 1868 Colt’s chief competitor, Remington, gritted their teeth and licensed the rights from S&W, for the princely, and then not insignificant, sum of $1 per gun. They introduced factory conversions of their revolvers, at first in rimfire calibers and later in .44 Remington Centerfire.
By 1870 Colt was well behind the technology curve and was eager to launch their own cartridge revolver… but they were saddled with parts for thousands of percussion revolvers like the 1860 Army. The solution, devised by an employee, was to turn down the back of the cylinder around the sprocket, then bore it through to accept a cartridge. Add a breech-plate with a loading-gate to take up the material that was removed, include a provision for a firing pin and voila! You have a cartridge revolver.
The first thing about the original .44 Colt is that it wasn’t. Forty-four caliber, that is. The bore of an 1860 Army revolver is actually .452, like a modern .45. But the Colt’s cylinder was too small to accept a cartridge with the bullet recessed into it; the case needed to be the same outside diameter as the bullet. Because of this the round uses a heel-base bullet, where the back of the bullet is smaller, approximately .430″, so that the base may be seated inside the case, while the tip is sized to the bore at .452 to .454.
On firing the soft lead of the bullet’s base would be deformed and expand to fill the bore and engage the rifling. The round was called .44 Colt because the revolvers it was used in were called .44s (even though they were .45s.) Similarly .44 Remington also used a .452 heel-base bullet, and was of similar length. Some sources say otherwise, but comparing the cartridges side by side I cannot see any reason they would not work interchangeably.
.44 Colt was loaded with either a 210 gr. or 225gr. heel-base round-nose lead bullet, over 23-28gr. of powder. This gave muzzle velocities in the neighborhood of 650fps. and muzzle energy of about 206-207 ft.lbs
The cartridge worked reasonably well, but it was not without problems.For example the ring of lubricant was located outside the case, where it could, and did, pick up dirt, dust and lint etc. It could also get messy at high summer temperatures. The other issue was less with the cartridge than the guns that fired it. With the lock notches on the outside of the cylinder located directly over the chambers the metal there was paper-thin, and very often blew through in use. This left the cylinder with a hole in the bottom of the notch, which seems rather unsafe in theory. In practice, however, people continued to shoot these revolvers for decades, so apparently these holes didn’t matter.
The US Army briefly adopted the .44 Colt, but replaced it only a few short years later when the Colt 1873 Single Action Army was introduced, in the conventional and much more powerful .45 Colt.
Even though the Colt Richards and Richards-Mason conversion revolvers were the only guns officially chambered in .44 Colt, the cartridge remained in production until the outset of WW2. Heel-base bullets work well with black powder, but rather less well with smokeless powders. They also only work really well with soft, almost pure lead bullets. As a result attempt’s to modernize the cartridge were less than ideal. As the guns that fired it, already hopelessly obsolete, were retired, demand for the cartridge was almost non-existent… for a time.
.44 Colt’s Resurrection
Do to the popularity of movies and to an even greater extent television Westerns, the guns of the old west experienced a boom in popularity during the 1950’s and 60’s. The Colt 1873 was in production, but was quite expensive, and a number of Italian firms stepped in to offer lower-cost alternatives, including percussion revolvers and eventually cartridge conversions. For some reason, apparently in the 1970s, they decided, in the interest of historical authenticity, to reintroduce conversion revolvers chambered for the .44 Colt, but without the problematic heel-base bullets. These new guns used conventional bullets of .430″, with bores to match. Ironically original-style .44 Colt rounds cannot be chambered in these guns, so the attempt to recreate history was a bit dubious. These guns, sold by Cimarron and others, remain in use today, and ammunition is made by Black Hills.
The original .44 Colt still has it’s adherents, and molds for casting heel-base bullets, reloading dies and the bullets themselves are also available.
Reloading .44 Colt
Whichever flavor of .44 Colt you are using, reloading is not difficult. Modern .44 Colt is reloaded like any other modern cartridge. If you wish to do the original with heel base bullets it’s really not much harder, basically amounting to an extra step at the end.
Heel base bullets are available if you look around a bit, or you can cast your own. I used to swage mine from soft lead ‘cowboy’ bullets, but recently I’ve found a simpler method. Buffalo Bullets offers a 180gr externally dry-lubed bullet specifically for percussion revolvers.
These bullets taper towards the base to be loaded into the cylinder, and I’ve found that I can use them quite easily in .44 Colt. Resize, prime, flare the case, stick the bullet in and seat it. works a treat, though the heavy coating of dry-lube makes a bit of a mess. So far just like loading a modern cartridge, but there is one more step- the crimp. The bullet may seem to be in there nice and tight after seating, but trust me- it will ‘walk out’ under repeated recoils and jam things up.
Crimping requires a special collet-crimp, and the one sold by Old West Bullet Molds is just the thing. It’s $50, but if you want to load this cartridge it’s a bargain. Simply run the bullet up into the die and it will crimp a ring around the case just below the rim, which will hold the bullet in place perfectly.
I loaded these cartridges with the 180gr. Buffalo Bullets RNLs, over a charge of 17.3gr of Hodgden’s Triple-7 FFFg powder, with a Federal #100 primer. Triple-7 is a black powder substitute and, as when loading black powder, you cannot have air space between the bullet and powder. This can result in detonation, which will break your gun or worse. Unlike black powder, however, you want very little compression of the powder. This load, with the bullet seated very deep, allows about 1mm of compression, which experience has shown me is about right.
Triple-7 tends to give higher velocities than a comparable charge of black powder, and between that and the light-for-caliber bullet I was curious to see how it would come out.
Shooting .44 Colt
I set up my target at five yards- a piece of pressure-treated pine 4×4. I put the chronograph at about ten feet from the muzzle and fired a string of three shots. Normally I do strings of five, but with everyone stuck at home I wanted to minimize the chance of annoying the neighbors.
So how does this load shoot? Mighty fine if I do say so myself. Recoil was not heavy, and the three bullets completely penetrated a treated pine 4×4. All three bullets were found between the 4×4 and the backing.
The gun used in the test is an Armi San Marco 1858 that I converted, and this was the first time I fired it. The gun has a 3-3/4″ barrel.
The chronograph showed an average velocity 838fps. for 281ft./lbs of energy, with an extreme spread of only 8 fps. Three is a small sample group, but that’s pretty remarkable consistency.
This is significantly more velocity and energy than the original load produced from barrel twice as long as this one. I don’t think I would use this load in an original gun; I’d be more inclined to use FFg black powder in that case; it’s a fair bit less energetic. For this particular gun and my uses, however, I’m very pleased.
As mentioned the gun used is a custom Armi San Marco 1858 Remington reproduction. I just completed this gun, and aside from firing primers to function-test it I had never shot it. I’ll show and tell through pictures:
So, the load performed well, the gun performed well- going to call this one a Win. I’ll be doing more testing with different bullets and bullet weights, and maybe some actual black powder down the road.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 27 April 2020
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