OK, don’t blame it on the Russians. They started it, but Smith & Wesson is really the culprit here, and It all started with a cool gun…
The S&W Model 3
In 1868 S&W introduced a radical new revolver, the Model 3. This is a top-break, auto-ejecting single action revolver offered in .44 S&W. This was a moderately powerful centerfire cartridge; from the new revolver’s 6″ barrel this cartridge used a .440″ heel-base 218 gr. bullet at 660fps., yielding 196 ft./lbs of energy at the muzzle. Since it used a heel-base bullet the outside diameter of the case was also .440″.
This revolver gained moderate popularity, but the public was somewhat reluctant to give up their trusted percussion revolvers. But the Russians weren’t skeptical; in fact they were very interested.
The Plot Thickens…
In 1871 the Russians came calling. They were looking to update their military, and S&Ws revolver seemed like just the ticket. In fact it was… almost. They loved the revolver…but that cartridge… seriously?
It wasn’t the caliber. It wasn’t the power. It was the bullet. As it happens heel-base bullets need to be lubricated on the thick part- the part outside the case. The part that it exposed to weather, heat, dust, grit and all the other nice things encountered by soldiers in the field. ???????, ???!
What they really wanted was a cartridge where the bullet, and hence the lube ring, was inside the cartridge where it would not be subject to all that nastiness. S&W decided the customer is always right, at least if the contract was big enough. The logical thing to do would have been to increase the case-size to .450″, but they would need to retool and they had all these shiny new copper cases… They decided if it would be such a pain to come up with a whole new cartridge they could just make the bullet small enough to fit inside the case and bore barrels to match. How small does such a bullet need to be? About .429″, or about .43 caliber. The new cartridge was called .44 Russian, because people were used to .44s, not .43s. Of course the .44s they were used to were actually .45s, but that’s a story for another day.
This became the standard diameter for .44-caliber cartridges, causing generations to come to scratch their heads and say, “Wait, what?” This also established the time-honored tradition of lying about your caliber. Totally not Freudian. Really.
The original cartridge quickly became known as ‘.44 S&W American’ to distinguish it from the Russian contract cartridge, which in a stunning display of imagination they called ‘.44 Russian.’ The .44 Russian quickly displaced it’s parent cartridge because heel-base, outside-lubed bullets suck, and the .44 American soon vanished into the dust-bin of history.
Testing .44 S&W Russian
The new cartridge was rather more powerful than the old, driving a 246gr. bullet at 750fps. for a total of 310 ft/lbs at the muzzle. I had a fresh, shiny new block of Clear Ballistics ordinance gel (thank you Patreon supporters!) and a pair of discarded jeans… It was obvious what needed to happen.
The test-gun was my S&W 3rd Model New Navy, a double-action version of the original Model 3. It was listed in S&Ws catalogue as the New Navy because Russia was making noises about buying them for their navy. They didn’t.
I did a bit of research and settled on a 200gr. LRNFP bullet over 4.9gr. of Unique with a Winchester WLP primer. I set up the block and the chronograph and fired a shot. The results were, um, predictable. The bullet crossed the chronograph at 820 fps., penetrated 16″ of gel and bounded off the wood backstopping the gel. The resulting wound track was pretty un-exciting.
…now you know why your .44 is a .43. You’re welcome.
Stay safe and take care.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 13 October 2021.
Then, of course the .44 Russian gave rise to the .44 Special which in turn gave us the .44 Magnum. Which, by happy coincidence, retained the basic case head and rim diameter, so when I got my S&W DA in .44 Russian, all I had to do was cut down the random later day cases back down to .44 Russian length.
Yes indeed- as I did when I got mine!
Very interesting and informative, Michael! Now, please can you help me here, the .44 cap and ball Remington 1873, and the Colt .44 1860, can take Howell conversion cylinders that are .45 Long Colt. How is that? Is it because they never necked the bullet down to fit “Old Brass?”
Percussion .44-caliber revolvers actually have a .451″ bore; I’m not sure why. I suspect it’s a holdover from muzzle-loaders; a 45-caliber muzzle-loading rifle took a .440 patched ball. This is just a guess of course.
Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I seem to recall that the whole reason they went with a heeled bullet in the first place was for use with cartridge converted cap and ball revolvers.
Yep- they were pretty much the standard in 1868 when the Model 3 was introduced.
Colt intentionally stayed with heal bullets because they give you the largest bullet diameter possible for a given diameter cylinder. The Lightning and the Thunderer were chambered in .38 Colt and .41 Colt respectively. The .38 is truly 38 and the .41 is .40. Small increase in size true but that’s what Colt wanted. Both guns were introduced long after inside lubricated cartridges were introduced.
I didn’t know that.