Gun Notes: Heavyweight Bullets
by John Linebaugh

The trend in bullets over the last few years has been heavier in handguns, and lighter with the attending high velocity in rifles. This combination in a rifle leaves a lot to be desired on heavy game - often becoming the most game-crippling combination ever devised. In handguns the extra weight is a good thing, to a point. As with most things it got out of hand. Using the .44 Magnum for an example most experienced shooters can see the standard 240 gr. slugs can be improved upon greatly. The heavier the game one shoots the more evident this becomes. Soon slugs of 300 and 320 gr. weight were on the market. And just behind them came slugs up to 360 gr. in weight.

Now there is nothing wrong with bullet weight, but to keep pressures in balance we need to go up in case capacity or better yet, caliber. Most shooters unknowingly pour in more powder, or worse yet, follow the advice of others who only think they know, and bet their well-being on the MAGNUM headstamp on the case head. In most cases they get by, but few have little idea of what is really happening inside their sixgun.

True, we have bigger and stronger guns today but we're still shooting the same small cartridges and asking more and more performance out of them. This parallels the old saying of, "Don't Send a Boy to Do a Man's Job." Brian Pearce says, "It's like pulling a 24-foot stock trailer loaded with horses with a (small) Toyota pickup." You are gonna over-work the truck to get the job done. With too heavy of bullet in any given caliber we're overworking the gun. The velocity/pressure ratio is out of balance. I have long been promoting safe full-power loads for the various .45 Colts. This has been met with various reactions from laughter to fear.

A look at a Ruger in .44 Magnum and in .45 Colt Comparing Performance Levels






44 Magnum

24 gr. H-110

250 gr. Keith

1528 fps

39,600 psi

44 Magnum

21 gr. H-110

318 gr. LBT GC

1354 fps

44.000 psi

45 Colt

29.6 gr. H-110

250 gr. Hornady JHP

1587 fps

40,000 psi

45 Colt

25.2 gr. H-110

315 gr. NEI cast

1357 fps

40,000 psi

The 250 gr. Hornady JHP in the .45 outran the 250 gr. Keith a bit and the pressures are about the same. So what? And the 315/318 gr. slugs are running practically identical velocities with the .44 only showing 4,000 more psi. So what? Now look at the pressure barrels for each caliber.

The .44 Magnum pressure barrel in the above test was 10" in length.

The .45 Colt pressure barrel in the above test was 5 1/2" in length.

Whatever the .44 Magnum will do, the .45 Colt will do with roughly 1/2 the barrel length, pressures being nearly identical. From the limited pressure testing we have done, we have found that whatever the .44 Magnum will do, the .45 Colt will duplicate with about 5,000 psi less pressure. This is with standard bullet weights. As the slugs get heavier the gap widens.

An interesting point to note is the .45 Colt holds about 4 to 5 grains more powder than the .44 Magnum. Our load/pressure data proves this difference while pressures remain comparable. But you can see the .44 has to work 4,000 psi harder than the .45 to move a 318 gr. .slug at the same speed, this even discounting the drastic difference in barrel length.

The point I'm getting to is this: As the bullet weight goes up pressure does not go up accordingly. It usually goes well until we reach the balance point of bullet weight in each caliber. I have not done nearly enough testing in all the calibers to give you an exact bullet weight/velocity limit for each caliber, but here are my ideas: The .41 Magnum is probably at its best with not over 250 gr. slugs. I will not shoot over 300/320 gr. in the .44 Magnum and my favorites are the 290 Keith and the 320 LBT at not over 1300 fps in 7 1/2" guns. I've done the majority of my testing with the .45 Colt and feel the 350 gr. is about the best heavy of them all and is my maximum recommended weight in this caliber. I have shot 420 gr. cast bullets to some interesting velocities, but they are too big for the gun and well over the balance point for that caliber. I also feel the 350 gr. is a happy maximum weight for the .454 Casull.

The thing to keep in mind is this: I have had several shooters tell me they are shooting a given load, say 24 or 25 gr. of H-110 and a 300 gr. slug in their .44 Magnum, for a velocity of 1450 to 1500 fps. Don't gasp. I've heard this several times and have seen it in print in a couple of gun magazines. Look back at the pressure data and take a guess what they are doing in their guns!

Here is some more data to help you figure out what is happening. A .44 Magnum runs 44,000 psi with 21 gr. of H-110 and a 318 gr. slug. Go up 4 gr. to 25 gr. and think what the pressures are. in the .45 Colt 25 gr. H-110 is 40,000 psi with the 315 gr. slug.

In the .45 Colt our proof load is 29 gr. H-110 with the 315 gr. bullet. (This is in our strong 5-shot guns.) From Hornady's pressure barrel it runs 1617 fps and develops an honest 59,000 psi. This is what we proof our custom .45 Colt with. They are fitted with our oversize cylinders. THIS IS NOT FOR ANY STANDARD, STOCK, .45 COLT OR THE "BEND IN THE MIDDLE" CONTENDERS. This is a pressure barrel tested proof load and only a proof load. But we do have "would be" reloaders walking around shoot loads equivalent to these type of loads in their .44 Mags.

Another problem with this is that due to the fact the .44 has less case capacity than the .45 they are loading way beyond the working case capacity the .44 offers. Pressure does not go up comparatively. Powder, when ignited, needs working room to work "comfortably". Putting too much powder in a crowded space means a pressure curve well out of proportion to the velocity return we get. Put too heavy a slug on top this and pressure climbs even further out of line. Heavy slugs seat deeper in the case aggravating the situation even more, and reducing case capacity. Some bullets are made with a double crimp groove so the reloader can seat slug further out in the case, but this does not cure the problem completely. When the powder itself reaches the limit to burn with the pressure limits it is designed for, and at the rates it is designed for, it goes wild. The result is called "DETONATION."

Results are that pressures soar off the scale in relation to the velocity we obtain and at worst a destroyed gun and injured shooter. All of this in search of "high velocity". And for what? To shoot through a skinny Whitetail, or a piece of paper, or to impress your pals?

I would guess there are lots of heavy bullet shooters out there that are running some "UNREAL" pressures in the revolvers. Their argument being they are using strong Redhawks or other strong guns and pressure signs are "normal". I have personally loaded hundred of rounds of ammo well over 60,000 psi and even 70,000 psi level in special test guns. In all cases I got normal extraction and normal looking primers. Scott Heter of Speer wrote me years ago of fired cases falling out of the chamber of pressure guns when the gun was tipped up. These loads exceeded 60,000 psi. Even with this high pressure the cases fell out of the chamber by gravity.

Straight cases handle pressure differently than bottle-neck cartridges and often show no excessive pressure signs. We have blown a few guns up here, on purpose, and in all instances upon recovery of the cylinder fragments and case remains, the primer has shown normal pressure. Pressures in these instances have run from 70,000 to over 100,000 psi in our estimation. Do not depend on case pressure signs for danger signs in a sixgun. In most cases the first sign of high pressure you will have, other than excessive recoil and blast, is a bulged cylinder or cracked bolt notch.

I have long stressed loading guns to the Full, Safe, Potential. But not to endanger or impress anyone. And I'm picking on the .44 Magnum here. The .44 and .45 are just what I have worked with the most and I use them for comparison. The .44 will always be what we judge other sixguns by, just like the rifleman uses the .30-06 to judge all other rifle cartridges by. My point it this: If you need more power, use a bigger gun. A .44 cal. 300 gr. at 1300 fps will shoot through a lot of material. The same slug will shoot through a bit more at 1500 fps, but so what? As long as we shoot completely through our intended target we've done all the damage we can do. The animal won't know or care if it's 1200 or 1700 fps. All the extra speed does for us is give us more range. If we can't apply it to our target we're kidding ourselves.

"But what about really big game?" "We need more speed for more penetration!" I say, "So what?" A .44 is still a .44 whether it's going 1200 or 1500 fps. I prefer a bigger caliber and slug even if I have to loose a bit of velocity. The bigger gun can do an equal amount of work as the smaller caliber with less pressure, blast, and felt recoil. And with handguns we simply can't get enough velocity to shock big game animals like we can with our medium and big-bore rifles. A sixgun is simply a long-range punch press. It simply punches a hole in game. Often times velocity works against us in penetration if our bullets are too soft, or perhaps, too hard.

My route is a dependable cast slug, not too hard, not too soft, at a moderate velocity not to exceed 1300 fps and let caliber and bullet weight do the job. CALIBER AND BULLET WEIGHT are the only CONSTANTS we have in external ballistics, since velocity is a constantly DIMINISHING VARIABLE. I have tried several avenues and find myself coming back full circle to moderate velocities and dependable cast slugs. Robert Smythe always said, "...not to exceed 1100 / 1200 fps." Jim Taylor has killed quite a bit of big game with his .45 Colt 300 gr. at 1200 fps. My wife and I have shot around 4 Mule Deer and a dozen Antelope with .45 Colts. The loads ranged from 260 Keiths at 900 fps to 250 gr. JHP at 1500 fps. While the JHP always knocks a 1" hole through game they don't drop any quicker than the .45 caliber hole made by the cast slug at 900 fps. In these cases of ours, shots were made from 90 to 130 yards.

I like 1200 fps as a balance point for shooter comfort, trajectory, and ample penetration. If you are after dangerous or really big game, don't load your little gun up. Load your big gun normal. In other words, don't send a boy to do a man's job.


Firing Record . 45 Colt 7" Pressure Barrel
1. 27 gr. H-110 260 gr. Keith .452" HI - 1491 HI - 33,000
LO- 1426 LO- 28,200
2. 23.5 gr. H-110 315 gr. NEI .453" HI - 1338 HI - 32,400
LO- 1283 LO- 29,400
3. 23.5 gr. H-110 320 gr. LBT GC .454" HI - 1318 HI - 32,400
LO- 1241 LO- 27,600
4. 23.5 gr. H-110 300 gr. Patriot JSP .454" HI - 1287 HI - 28,800
LO- 1166 LO- 23,300
5. 23.5. gr. H-110 300 gr. Hornady JHP .453' HI - 1250 HI - 28,800
(resized) LO- 1090 LO- 20,300
.44 Magnum 7" Pressure Barrel (Loads #6 & 7) 10" Pressure Barrel (Loads #8 & 9)
6. 24 gr. H-110 275 gr. Patriot JSP .430" HI - 1533 HI - 39,300
LO- 1485 LO- 34,800
7. 23.5 gr. H-110 300 gr. Patriot JSP .430" HI - 1477 HI - 42,500
LO- 1438 LO- 37,600
8. 24 gr. H-110 250 gr. Keith .430" Average - 1528 Average - 39,650
9. 21 gr. H-110 318 gr. LBT GC .430" Average - 1354 Average - 44.000
Loads #1 - 7 taken in Hodgdon Lab with 7" Pressure Barrel Loads #8 - 9 taken in Hornady Lab with 10" Pressure Barrel

Load #1 45 Colt - 260 gr. Average Velocity 1458 Average Pressure 30,600
Load #8 44 Mag - 250 gr. Average Velocity 1528 Average Pressure 39,650
Load #3 45 Colt 320 gr. GC Average Velocity 1279 Average Pressure 30,000
Load #9 44 Mag 318 gr. GC Average Velocity 1354 Average Pressure 44.000

Most knowledgeable shooters know the foot-pounds of energy formula the industry uses to measure or compare bullet energy leaves a lot to be desired. First, it just is not an accurate way to measure comparable bullet effect on critters, and second, critters can't read. A lot of shooters have switched over to the TAYLOR KNOCK-OUT formula for a much more accurate means of measuring bullet effect on game. The TAYLOR KNOCK-OUT FORMULA runs as follows:

Bullet Weight (in grains) X Caliber (in inches) X Velocity ÷ 7000 = Knock Out (KO)
For example a .30-06 rifle using a 180 gr. bullet at 2600 fps:

180 x .308 x 2600 = 144144 ÷ 7000 = 20.5 KO

By using the Taylor Formula on our energy comparisons of the .44 Magnum and the .45 Colt in the above tables we can get an idea of what caliber and capacity does for us.

Load #1 260 x .452 x 1458 ÷ 7000 = 24.4 KO average pressure - 30,600
Load #2 250 x .430 x 1528 ÷ 7000 = 23.4 KO average pressure - 39,650

A glance at the above table shows that the .44 Magnum and the .45 Colt are equal in the power department. But the pressure tables show quickly the advantage of caliber and capacity. While the KO's are nearly duplicate, the pressure difference is substantial. The .45 Colt with the standard weight slug shows a 4% advantage in KO over the .44 Magnum with its normal weight slug, but the .45 does it with 29% less chamber pressure. (It was also done in a 3" shorter pressure barrel)

With the 318/320 gr. slugs in both calibers the KO is nearly identical, but the .44 has to generate 46% more chamber pressure (again, in a 3" longer barrel) than the .45 just to break even. As the bullet weight goes up and out of balance per each caliber, you will see this pressure/velocity ratio widen its gap until it is clear off the scale. It becomes clear pretty quickly that power, or energy, or KO or whichever you prefer to call it comes only with a price. I believe in getting by as cheap as possible in this area. But lets say you don't mind running high pressure, and you're still within the specs set by the powers that be for your particular gun/caliber. That is OK by me too. But if you really want to race, the big calibers have no competition. They can still deliver more usable power per unit of pressure than the "next size down" cartridge can dream of.

I once had a self-proclaimed "expert" tell me has never been able to detect any difference in the .41 Mag, .44 Mag or the .45 Colt, all loaded to their full potential. My answer is that he has never done any long range shooting. This will quickly tell who gets there with the most steam left.

I feel the bigger calibers (to a point and depending upon the application) are better as long as obtaining components and reloading for them is practical. I feel for certain the .44 Magnum and the .45 Colt are the two finest calibers in the country today. With the number of good guns chambered for both and the availability of components, not much else is needed except for those special applications. Even then the field is covered with fine revolvers in .454 Casull, and the .475 and .500 revolvers. I wouldn't hesitate a second to choose a good .45 Colt for my only sixgun for the rest of my days. From rabbits to Cape Buffalo, it has proven its worth. And the thing I like about the Colt is this: It does it so easy.

The loads listed in the accompanying tables are safe in ALL RUGER single action revolvers. The .45 Colt Ruger Blackhawk is approximately 85% as strong as the Ruger Super Blackhawk in .44Magnum caliber. Industry specs on the .44 Magnum is 40,000 psi maximum, NOT TO EXCEED 43, 500 ABSOLUTE MAXIMUM. The industry will stand behind their guns to this MAXIMUM pressure in factory loads. ( Most companies will not honor warranties if handloads are used.)

Lets give them the benefit of the doubt and hold our loads to 85% of the 40,000 level they prefer. This still allows us to use up to 34,000 class loads which is a safe working pressure in the Ruger .45 Colt. It is as safe as the .44 Magnums 40,000 psi Maximum recommended level. I have shot hundreds of proof-type loads in the Rugers in .45 caliber, even going as far as purposely destroying some cylinders with overloads. We know just how strong they are. They will take 34,000 psi for two lifetimes with little care. At this pressure level you are working with about a 100% safety factor. Sure, they will stand a little more, but I don't really care. A .45 Colt with honest 30,000/34,000 psi loads "in the gun" have about a 35% advantage over the best .44 Magnum loaded accordingly.

I want to make it clear here: This is not an "Anti-44 Magnum / Pro-45 Colt" article. I have simply tried to clear up some myths and rumors and set the ballistic record straight in this small area. If I could have had some .41 Magnum pressure data on hand it would have compared accordingly to the .44 Magnum just as the .44 compares to the .45 Colt. The load data used in this article has been used by myself for several years, and recommended to dozens of other shooters across this nation for a couple years now. All report good results and fine accuracy. If I show a prejudice toward the .45 Colt it is deserved and well-founded. I happen to like all sixgun cartridges above .40 caliber. I just like the .45 Colt the best.

Notes on the Smith & Wesson

The load data printed at the beginning of this article is considered MAXIMUM safe loads with listed bullets for RUGER BLACKHAWKS ONLY - (and, if you must shoot them, Contenders).

The Smith & Wesson Model 25-5 chambered for the .45 Colt is a fine gun and one I pack daily myself. The problem with the Smith &Wesson guns in general is not so much a strength factor but rather a design factor. Before you S&W people beat up on me please listen. It has long been evident that the Model 29 in .44 Magnum very quickly beats itself apart with full-power loads. This is not technically a "strength" problem as much as a design problem and the assemblage of several small parts that are not as rugged as the Single Action design. In the course of time if all the little parts wear a tiny bit this soon adds up to a lot of play in the overall fit and lock-up of the gun. This in turn allows the gun to get a further "run" at itself under discharge and thus hastens the battering process.

In reality the Model 25-5 is about 80% as strong as the Model 29 in the cylinder area. The frames are the same and are designed for a 40,000 psi load level even though we know this is a bit more than they are happy with. It's too bad S&W built a 40,00 psi cylinder and installed it in a 30,000 psi frame, so to speak. (note: since this writing S&W has worked on the problem of the cylinder unlatching and rolling back under recoil after it gets a bit worn) The 25-5 in .45 Colt is safe to 80% of the 40,000 psi of the .44 Magnum Model 29. This allows a load of 32,000 psi in this frame. I have shot hundreds of the 32,000 psi class loads listed at the beginning of this article in several Model 25-5's. Recoil is heavy due to the S&W "hump" on the grip, but I do not see these loads as being dangerous in this fine gun. I do consider 32,000 to be ABSOLUTE MAXIMUM for this gun and prefer to hold my personal loads to 5% under those listed loads for approximately 25,000 psi. I carry a S&W 4" in .45 Colt daily and shoot a 260 gr. Keith at 900 fps for general duty. When I saddle up and go into the hills I pack the same gun with a 310 gr. NEI Keith over 23 gr. H-110. This gives me about 1080 fps and all the punch I need for anything on our mountain. As with any gun and load data, work up carefully. I assume responsibility only for the ammo I myself assemble.






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