The .44 Special cartridge is an enigma. Many knowledgeable handgunners can’t understand its attraction. But, for the same reason that revolvers are still made in .38 Special, even though that round will fire in a .357 Magnum, the .44 Special round carries on, even though it can be fired from a .44 Magnum as well. Some shooters opt for a .44 Magnum knowing full well that they’re more likely to fire .44 Specials most of the time. Having a gun that fires multiple chamberings is a sound idea and a concrete way of looking at things, especially if cost keeps one from purchasing multiple firearms.
Editor’s Note: Sorry to butt in, but his article represents a few firsts here at RevolverGuy.com. It is our first review of a Ruger round gun. It’s our first review of a wheelgun chambered in something that doesn’t begin with a “3”. And more importantly, it is the first article by Steve Tracy, a guy who reached out to me out of the blue and offered me this article to run. Give him a warm welcome!
Why the .44 Special?
However, the .44 Special is truly special for those who possess a bit more abstract way of thinking. The .44 Special’s legacy endures because firearm manufacturers (S&W, Ruger, Charter Arms, Taurus, Freedom Arms, Colt, Cimarron, etc) keep coming out with new revolvers chambered for the 110-year old round. Despite near declarations of death several times over the decades, the .44 Special has risen again and again. In addition to new guns, new .44 Special ammunition (by Sig Sauer, Hornady, and the Speer Gold Dot) and expanding bullet weight and design choices are the nitroglycerin pills keeping the old cartridge alive.
I find myself wondering, “What would Skeeter Skelton think of all these new .44 Special guns and cartridges?” Charles “Skeeter” Skelton was a Marine who served a life in law enforcement that included the Border Patrol, Sheriff of Deaf Smith County, Texas, US Customs, and the DEA. He also wrote prolifically about firearms, combining guns with his southwest lifestyle in a manner that was superbly entertaining. He provided literary escape for those of us who could only imagine his free existence shooting rattlesnakes, riding horseback in the mountains, his revolver taking a javelina and then cooking it on a desert campfire.
Although Skeeter passed away in 1988, his fondness for the .44 Special stokes its flames even today, thanks to his legacy of books and articles that can still be found via an internet search engine. Skelton wrote about the scarcity of revolvers chambered for the .44 Special during his younger days. Smith & Wesson’s Triplelock came out in 1908 as the .44 Hand Ejector 1st Model New Century revolver and earned its nickname due to the third locking mechanism on its crane. The 2nd Model did away with both the third lock and the ejector rod shroud. Colt’s Single Action Army chambered in .44 Special was also a rare revolver to come across during Skeeter’s younger days. Adjustable sighted versions of the S&W or the Colt were holy grails.
When the .44 Magnum was introduced in 1956 (when S&W and Remington teamed up after much experimentation by Idaho’s Elmer Keith hot loading the .44 Special), it was one of the nails in the .44 Special’s coffin because you could shoot Specials in the Magnum (as well as .44 Russians, which were lengthened to create the Special, which was lengthened to create the Magnum). But for the same reasons the .38 Special didn’t disappear when the .357 Magnum was introduced, the .44 Special survives too.
Many have asked, “Why not just buy a .44 Magnum and shoot Specials in it?” That can certainly be done and it’s difficult to explain to someone who only wants or can only afford just one gun. There is a certain gravitas to the .44 Special that is apparent to those who treasure history and respect those who blazed the trail. Captain Frank Hamer of the Texas Rangers was known to carry a .44 Special Triplelock in a shoulder holster. Elmer Keith blew up Colt Single Action Army revolvers in his quest to discover how hot he could handload the .44 Special. Keith used his own bullet design weighing 250 grains and he made it exit a 4-inch barreled revolver at 1200 feet per second. That’s a lot of power, no matter how you measure it. Keith and his contemporaries smirked at the .357 Magnum because they knew they had something superlative in the .44 cartridge they enjoyed. Handloading the .44 Special is easy due to its straight wall case and loads from mild to wild are inherently accurate.
Skeeter Skelton tried to talk Bill Ruger into making a .44 Special single action Blackhawk on the .357 frame, but Ruger said it didn’t make business sense. Ruger reasoned that his customers could just shoot Specials out of his big Magnum gun. But Skeeter knew that a lighter weight, smaller frame .44 Special was easier to carry out in the field for days at a time. The .44 cylinder holes and bore were lighter than the .357 version. SInce Ruger wouldn’t make it, Skeeter had a custom gunsmith bore out a .357 Ruger single action Blackhawk to make it into a custom .44 Special. Then he wrote about it and the .44 Special was resurrected from the ash heaps of Skeeter’s campfire full of bits of javelina. Many fans followed his lead and had their .357s converted to .44 Special as well.
In 2009, the firearms distributor Lipsey’s contracted with Ruger (Bill Ruger having passed away seven years prior) to make 1000 Ruger Blackhawk single action revolvers chambered in .44 Special. Smaller and lighter than the Super Blackhawk .44 Magnums, half came with 4 5/8” barrels and the other half with 5 ½” barrels. They sold out very quickly. Skeeter was proven right and his followers of the .44 Special were alive and well and willing to open their wallets.
Ruger continued the Blackhawk for several years as a standard cataloged .44 Special and they later produced Bisley and Vaquero versions as well (in both blue and stainless steel). But .44 Special aficionados always want more.
The .44 Special GP100
Ruger continues down the .44 Special trail with a stubby 3” barreled version of their GP100 chambered to hold five rounds in an unfluted cylinder. When I first learned of this new revolver, I knew I had to have one. Originally chambered in .357 Magnum in 1985, the medium frame GP100 was a new version of Ruger’s Security Six/Service Six/Speed Six handgun. It’s unique feature was a grip peg that allowed a wrap around grip (when made of rubber type material it gave even more cushioning effect) that could be conformed into a square butt style for police service/target shooting or a round butt style for concealment in a short barrel version.
The GP100 has proven itself as a robust revolver over the years. It’s interesting that Ruger came to market with this stainless steel .44 Special GP100 with a short barrel. It’s not quite a snubnose and obviously not a 6” target gun. But there are plenty of long barreled .44s available and Lipsey’s has already come forth with a blued steel 5-inch version. This 3-inch GP weighs 36 ounces (according to Ruger’s website, but they list the .357 with the same weight so I think the .44 actually weighs a bit less), so it’s not a pocket gun by any means and it’s a bit on the heavy side for concealed carry on your hip (but plenty of people carry even heavier guns daily).
This is my first Ruger double action revolver. Plenty of S&Ws and Colts have passed through my hands or reside in my safe. The first thing you realize when grasping the .44 Special GP100 is that it’s a chunky, meaty handgun. The unfluted cylinder makes it look heavy and the full under lug barrel adds to that look. But the .44 caliber bore and five big drilled out cylinder chambers lighten its overall feel and the revolver balances nicely in the hand. The second realization is that the Hogue rubber handles are perfect. They’re the first without finger grooves (which never seem to match up well with my big fingers anyway) for Ruger and the pebble style surface adds even more grip than the rubber alone. These handles position your index finger just right for expert manipulation of the trigger.
The .44 Special GP100 has a good, smooth trigger double action. The hammer locks up early and the double action pull isn’t stagey or creepy or stacking. It just pulls through its travel smoothly. The hammer spur seems precisely positioned for strong hand or off hand thumb cocking and the single action trigger pull breaks clean without any creep or overtravel at just under 5 pounds. Double action measures a little over 11 pounds. Both of these numbers give totally reliable primer ignition. I usually prefer lighter pulls but the overall mechanics of this GP100 work very well in my hands. I wonder how much it would improve with a Wolff spring kit?
The push button style cylinder release works intuitively and the ejector rod pushes spent cases out easily. The fully adjustable rear sight is wide and includes a white outline in its notch. It matches up well with the green fiber optic front sight that was found quite useful both indoors and outside. My eyes pick it up fast and line the green dot up with the rear sight instinctively. Because the front sight is dovetailed into the stainless matte stainless steel barrel, it can be replaced with a gold dot or a tritium night sight. The barrel’s full underlug protects the non-rotating ejector rod. The left side is pleasingly inscribed with the Ruger GP100 name and .44 Special caliber, while the serial number and Ruger eagle logo subtlety etched into the frame. Unfortunately, Ruger did not move the warning on the left side of the barrel to the less conspicuous location under the barrel as they have on some of their other revolvers.
Carry and Range Time with the .44 Special GP100
This is a gun made for woods carry. It’s a pistol made for packing around. The 3-inch barrel length keeps the Ruger compact for any kind of carry. I’ve favored crossdraw holsters since carrying on my parents’ property in Wisconsin. They retired to a log cabin and my dad had his own range. Walking through the thick woods, driving a tractor around, or just sitting down to sight in a rifle was found to be much easier with a weak side crossdraw instead of a strong side holster. The .44 Special GP100 fits nicely in an El Paso Saddlery Threepersons crossdraw made for a 4-inch S&W N-frame. A custom holster made just for this short 3-inch barreled revolver would make its size even more comfortable for day-long carry. I bought an inexpensive Fobus paddle holster for strong side range carry and it works well enough. It sure is ugly though, so I epoxied a Ruger pin over the Fobus logo to dress it up a little.
Shooting the GP100 is a pleasurable experience, as are all .44 Special revolvers. With either handloads or factory cartridges, the .44 Special GP100 can be fired all day long without punishing your palms with excessive recoil. The .44 Special is very manageable, even for novice shooters. Therein lies part of its attraction. At 21 feet, cocked for each shot, this Ruger easily kept ten shots in the x-ring of a B27 target. That’s excellent for a short barreled revolver’s brief sight radius. Double action still kept all shots in the ten ring. If you’ve mastered double action shooting, this Ruger will surely please you at whatever range you prefer to fire. The excellent sights and quality trigger combine to help keep your shots in a tight group. The Hogue grips aid further by positioning your trigger finger in excellent alignment to give outstanding control.
While the rubber grips work superbly at taming the recoil of hotter .44 Special loads, I couldn’t resist purchasing a set of Ruger/Hogue hardwood grips from their website with a 20% off coupon I had received. These handles are the same as the handsome ones that come standard on Ruger’s Match Champion model. They’re smooth in front and back with stippling on the sides. Cut to still allow smooth ejection of spent cases, they feel and work just as well as the rubber grips. But they do add a level of panache with their handsome color and grain.
Of course, the wood will not absorb recoil as well as the rubber, but then the concept of a .44 Special is that it doesn’t have the recoil of the .44 Magnum. And that’s one of things that keeps the .44 Special around. I think Skeeter Skelton would be quite pleased at all of current offerings chambered for one of his favorite cartridges.
About Steven Tracy: Steven Tracy is a full-time police officer and has been a firearms enthusaist since birth and a certified firearms instructor for the last 28 years. His father and grandfather were shooters and collectors before him, so it’s pretty much in his DNA. Steve’s firearms interests lean toward blued steel and walnut, while nickel-plating, ivory handles, and tasteful engraving make him even happier. From old guns (he has fired the 300+ year-old Blunderbuss that hangs above his fireplace) to the lastest wondergun – handguns, rifles, and shotguns – he likes them all.