Comparing the .44 Special & .45 Colt


On other sites I have seen threads asking which is better, .44 Special or .45 Colt?  Answers rang out for and against each cartridge.  Frequently such threads do not define better for what purpose. Others specify hunting or defense as the frame of reference for "best." Though distinctly different cartridges, these two also share some common traits.


·         Both have been loaded with black powder as well as smokeless in more modern times. (Though introduced in 1907 or 1908 after the advent of smokeless powder, some factory loads indicated using about 26 grains of black powder in the .44 Special.  The older .45 Colt hit the ground running in 1873 and was originally a black powder round.)


·         Both cartridges' maximum performance levels are partially set by the firearms they are to be fired in.


·         Both cartridges have magnum counterparts, .44 Magnum and .454 Casull.


·         Both cartridges are capable of very fine accuracy and both are rimmed and intended to be used in revolvers, at least initially.


·         Neither cartridge has received the R & D in bullet performance as has 9mm, .357 Magnum, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP.


·         Both cartridges are loaded to relatively low SAMII maximums: 15,500 PSI for the .44 Special and 14,000 PSI for the .45 Colt.  (For comparison, .44 Magnum has a maximum SAMII approved pressure of 36,000 PSI while the .454 Casull is rated at 50,000 CUP.  If interested in a discussion on PSI vs. CUP, information can be found at: )


·         Both cartridges have been extensively reloaded.


The .45 Colt cartridge (left) is loaded with a 250-gr. CSWC. The .44 Special handload (right) is using a 240-gr. CSWC that was moly-coated. The .45 and .44 Hornady XTP bullets weigh 250 and 240 grains, respectively. (The 45 caliber XTP was moly-coated.) Both bullet weights are about "average" for caliber with the .45 Colt having 4% more bullet weight. Using .452" diameter bullets, the 45 has approximately 5% more bullet diameter than the .44 Special, which measures about .429".  (Yes, the 45 is a 45, but the 44 is a 43.) .45 Colt bullets used to be about .454" across, but these days most use .452" diameter bullets. The larger caliber has just less than 10% greater frontal bullet area. Is this significant?

Here we see the .44 XTP atop the .45. The larger diameter of the .45 is visible. Is its increased frontal surface significant or as significant as some might have us believe? It depends; more on this later.


The old factory 246-gr. LRN traditionally traveled at speeds of around 750 ft/sec. Most 250 to 255-gr. factory LFP .45 Colt loads average around 850 ft/sec. The meplat on these .45's is so small as to be insignificant in my opinion, but in traditional trim, the .45 Colt offers a bit more bullet weight and diameter and about 100 ft/sec, assuming equal barrel lengths are being used.  These nominal velocities are pretty close to what I've seen from most 4 to 5" barrels in both calibers. (As a frame of reference we can consider the .45 ACP with 230-gr ball averaging roughly 830-860 ft/sec from 5" tubes.)


I do not have revolvers with the same length barrels in both .44 Special and .45 Colt so the chronograph data is not as precise as I'd like, but perhaps it can serve to illustrate what might be expected of these seasoned cartridges.


Chronograph data is based on 10 shots fired 10 feet from the chronograph screens and is in ft/sec.


.44 Special from Taurus Model 431 w/3" barrel:



     Velocity (ft/sec) :

Glaser Silver 135-gr. SS


Triton 165-gr. QS


PMC 180-gr. JHP


Corbon 180-gr. JHP+P


CCI 200-gr. Gold Dot


PMC 240-gr. SWC


PMC 240-gr. JHP


240-gr. CSWC/7.5 Unique



SS= Safety Slug. QS = Quik Shok. Both of these represent different approaches to pre-fragmented bullets.



Chronograph data from a 6 1/2" Model 24 can be found here:





.45 Colt from S&W Mountain Gun w/4" Barrel:



Velocity (ft/sec):

255-gr. CSWC/8.0 Unique


250-gr. Hornady XTP/8.0 Unique


278-gr. CSWC/8.0-gr. Unique


200-gr. CCI Blazer GDHP




It becomes clear that I have not chronographed as much factory ammunition in the .45 Colt as in the .44 Special. None of these handloads are straining anything and are comfortable to shoot in the Mountain Gun. It is evident that the lightly loaded CCI Blazer 200-gr. Gold Dots loads are equivalent in .44 Special and .45 Colt, having only 4 ft/sec difference in average velocity. Note how light the PMC 240-gr. SWC is loaded compared to the JHP in the same weight.  Even though both of these bullets weigh the same, one might expect significantly different terminal results.  With the 240-grain .44 Special loads we can generally expect ballpark speeds of around 870 ft/sec from 3" barrels.  With the .45 Colt having 1" more barrel we see 250-grain bullets flying at about the same velocity.


I'll probably go exclusively with the 255-gr. CSWC over 8.0 grains of Unique for use in my Mountain Gun.

The 250-gr. XTP works in a velocity range of 800 - 1600 ft/sec according to Hornady and my handload is barely above that at the muzzle.  Game animals are generally not right on the end of my revolver so it seems reasonable to believe that at even modest range my XTP's would be right at or below the minimum velocity for expansion. The wide meplat on the SWC does remarkable things in previous tests I've run and for my purposes is powerful enough. It is also accurate, scary accurate, and recoil is comfortable.  It is easy on the gun and allows me to use one load in this caliber for everything from paper to close-in whitetail deer. (Yes, I've used it and it works fine.) As I do not intend to use this as a defense gun, the handload diet offers nothing but benefits…at least in my case.


The S&W Mountain Gun in .45 Colt makes an excellent choice for either the range or knocking about in the woods. Though not intended primarily as a defense gun, I have little doubt that the 255-gr. CSWC bullets leaving the barrel at an average speed of 883 ft/sec could be used with telling effect if push came to very hard shove. This load is not difficult to control and in my opinion offers ample power for most purposes. It is certainly adequate for finishing off wounded game animals.  I've seen it work fine on Texas whitetail deer at closer ranges.  I've shot a few deer with .45 Colt loaded to this general power level and have no complaints at ranges of about 40 yards and under. If one's primary purpose in this caliber is hunting, I'd go with either a full-house .41 or .44 Magnum, or .454 Casull or go with hot .45 Colt loads in a Ruger revolver.  I have no experience with any of the newer large caliber revolver hunting rounds. The wide bore is very reassuring for those wanting the big-bore revolver for self-protection. Unfortunately, factory loads appropriate for the job are limited compared to more commonly used defense rounds.  I'd look at Winchester Silvertips, but would have to research it to be sure. In the smaller .45 Colt revolvers sold primarily for protection, Corbon's 200-gr. Gold Dot +P load might be easier to control.  I suspect that the advertised 1100 ft/sec for it comes via a 6" barrel.  I got considerably less speed from the 4" gun.


If you have a .45 Colt revolver of modern vintage, it is almost certainly set up to work with 45-caliber bullets appropriate for the .45 ACP.  This allows you to enjoy a plentiful crop of various 230-gr. solids and JHP's. Newer designs exist for .45 ACP bullets and .45 Colt handloaders can benefit from their enhanced expansion/penetration characteristics. Most of these will not have cannulures.  I have not found this to be a problem with handloads in the general velocity ranges mentioned here.


Handloading the .44 Special will be with more limited choices in terms of expanding bullets. Hornady offers 44-caliber XTP bullets ranging from 180 to 300 grains. The 180 and 200 grain XTP's are reported to begin expanding at 750 ft/sec.  The 240 and 300 grain XTP's require 900 and 850-ft/sec minimum, respectively.  I use 200 and 240-gr. XTP's in my .44 Special revolvers or the 240-gr. CSWC. While Sierra offers very good pistol bullets in this caliber, they are not dead soft lead.  They have about 1 1/2% antimony content to make the bullet core harder.  This translates to higher velocity requirements for expansion, something more appropriate in a magnum.


Speer may be the only major bullet maker offering a 44-caliber JHP intended primarily for the .44 Special.  Notice that this 200-grain bullet is intended for velocities under 1100 ft/sec.


This 25-yard target was fired with the S&W Mountain Gun using handloads with 255-gr. CSWC bullets and Hornady 250-gr. XTP's. The groups overlap and are plenty accurate for my purposes.


You can see that the .44 Special from the S&W Model 24 is no slouch in the accuracy department either. This gun/load combination is quite easy to shoot, has very good accuracy, and sufficient power for my purposes.  I personally enjoy no revolver more than my 6 1/2" Model 24.


In the smaller K-frame size revolvers from Taurus, warmer factory .44 Special loads mimic the .357 Magnum in the same size revolver…at to me, but seem to lack quite as much of the "sharp" recoil common to higher velocity cartridges.  In the Charter Arms Bulldog, these can prove a real handful. Keep in mind that if buying a small .44 Special for protection, recoil could become a problem if going with a lightweight.  I personally would rather put up with the weight of a steel .44 and be able to control it if looking at self-protection issues and suggest not going below 3" barrel lengths.

The Taurus 431 is no longer made but can sometimes be found used. This one has not been heavily used and has worked fine and is roughly the size of an S&W K-frame.  It holds 5 rounds of .44 Special.  Recoil is not excessive with the Butler Creek grips and the weight provided by the revolver's all-steel construction. I have had mixed luck with Taurus revolvers and have read of similar observations from others.  Should one opt to buy one, I'd check out the revolver as much as I possibly could before purchasing.


Both .44 Special and .45 Colt remain popular, particularly with those rolling their own ammunition.  At the same time, neither cartridge offers what many consider "adequate" performance for use in the hunting field…at least in normal trim.  The late Elmer Keith's pushing the .44 Special to quasi-magnum ballistics eventually led to the .44 Magnum round and in Contenders and Ruger revolvers, the .45 Colt can be similarly jacked up. The .454 Casull is more powerful than the .44 Magnum but has the same dimensions as the .45 Colt round.


If ammunition makers were not still concerned about older guns being used that cannot take more than the traditional load pressures, we would see some jump in improvement without reaching the full-house magnum level.  I would welcome a 240-gr. full wadcutter or SWC in 44-caliber that left a 3" barrel at roughly 900 ft/sec or so. Likewise I'd be more than a little pleased to see .45 Colt loads hitting the same velocities with appropriately heavier bullets in the same design.  Wouldn't a 240 or 250-grain Golden Saber be nice in these cartridges?


At the same time I have no interest in pushing either of these rounds into the magnum range of performance.  If one wants this, I suggest simply using the appropriate magnum caliber. To me the appeal of both "honest" .44 Special and .45 Colt loads is the level of performance one receives for what is generally considered mild recoil in full size revolvers. No, neither is going to bowl over elephants, but each offers very adequate performance for many situations whether in the field or on the street.


Between the two, I prefer the .44 Special.  I find it an exceptionally accurate round with selected loads and enjoy shooting no other caliber as much when using my S&W. That said, I hold .45 Colt in high esteem and have an eye peeled for another S&W long barrel revolver in the caliber. I've seen some extremely small groups shot with revolvers in this caliber and believe that with heavy hard cast SWC bullets at 900 ft/sec or so, it is more potent than paper ballistics might have us believe. (This assumes hard cast bullets and not swaged.  The latter have more rounded edges.)


For many within the handgunning ranks, these old rounds are overlooked and take a back seat to velocity and magazine capacity.  I like velocity and I like having a goodly number of shots available before running dry, but I also enjoy the gentle shove of rather hefty bullets at moderate velocity that can deliver a telling blow to a precise point of aim, cutting holes that are both wide and deep.  I've seen perhaps 6 or 7 deer shot with .44 Special and .45 Colt over the years.  Using SWC bullets, none of the bullets remained within the animals. In some instances, the animals fell over where shot.  In others they ran a few yards but the blood trails were easily followed. With more rapidly expanding anti-personnel ammunition I believe either caliber would serve well in a fight and limit concerns of excessive penetration.


This 44-caliber 180-gr. XTP was loaded to about 1100 ft/sec and expanded to roughly 60-caliber in water. This would provide a not insignificant "thump" on the receiving end.


The single-action Peacemakers and clones can handle 250-gr. bullets loaded to 900 ft/sec without undue wear and tear.  While not as potent a ballistic payload as can be had in .45 Colt from a Contender or Ruger revolver, it is probably "enough" for most needs.


As with the .38 Super, I see either of these cartridges best suited for the reloader. Exceptionally mild to "honest" loads can be had and it is not hard to find loads that group quite well through the ballistic envelope safe for each.  While they remain popular with SASS shooters and hunters, the main hue and cry heard today concerns itself with self-defense and neither cartridge holds a candle to 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, et al, in this area of concern. For this reason I doubt that we will see much research by the ammo makers for better loads.


As is the case with most cartridges I believe that longer barrels wring out the absolute best performance and prefer at least 6" barrels.  I wish that my Mountain Gun had the same slim barrel but was a couple of inches longer.  At the same time it makes a fairly compact revolver for the field with its 4" tube.  While I believe that either makes a good defense piece with the shorter barrels, unless concealed carry is on the agenda, I'd strongly suggest buying a revolver for either that was all steel and sporting a 6" barrel.




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