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By John C. Donham
If there’s one thing we’ve got plenty of, it’s opinions about what constitutes the perfect all around handgun. Opinions vary widely because everyone has a different idea of just what they imagine a “perfect” handgun ought to do.
For me, I want a handgun that I can carry in the field all day comfortably. One that is accurate and fun to plink with. One that, if a threat to my safety presents itself, is of large enough caliber to be up to the task.
I have, during my life, tried a variety of handguns and calibers. Having gotten longer in the tooth but shorter in wind, I set out to choose a lighter, more compact sidearm to carry while hiking the Mark Twain National Forest in south central Missouri. Because of the rugged terrain, I wanted one that weighed as little as practical. Because I’d be hiking long periods of time, I wanted one that was not bulky or got in my way. Because of the possibility of poisonous snakes, I wanted the capability of carrying the gun with a shotshell round up first but the ability to quickly bypass it if a solid bullet was required. (The requirement to switch quickly from shotshell to solid narrowed my choice to a revolver). Because it frequently rains on me - and because I sweat like a hog - I wanted stainless steel construction. Because the Missouri wilderness areas are now called home by black bear, wild hogs, mountain lion and the occasional clandestine methamphetamine lab, I wanted a large caliber. But most of all, because in the end the gun would probably just spend it’s useful life plinking away at targets, I wanted one that would be fun to shoot.
My first inclination was the family of .357/.38’s. Never underestimate the .357 – it is a formidable round. The leading “one-shot fight stopper” cartridge is still the .357 magnum 125g jacketed hollow point. S&W’s excellent 4” model 19 (blue), or the stainless version model 66, are a great choice. They weigh just 37 oz. and are fairly compact. One can go to a smaller, lighter frame size by stepping down to the 5-shot revolvers with 3” or 2” barrels. Ammunition for the .357/.38 family covers just about any application one could ask a handgun to perform.
The light weight of the 3” small frame 5-shot stainless .357 magnum revolvers has a lot of appeal. Such a package would be wonderfully easy to carry in a pocket or holster all day long. But I questioned the “fun” aspect. To me, “fun” is composed of (a) accuracy, (b) mild report, (c) absence of blast, and (d) low recoil. The harsh muzzle blast of a .357 magnum exiting a short barrel was definitely a negative factor for me.
Standard .38 special ammunition will push a 158g bullet out the muzzle of a 4" revolver at 755 fps. To do this, the cartridge internal pressure must reach around 17,000 psi. .38 special +P ammo accelerates the same 158g bullets to 890 fps, but does so by increasing internal pressure to 18,500 psi. .357 magnum 158g bullets leave a 4" barrel at 1235 fps due to a whopping internal pressure of 35,000 psi. If the family of .357 caliber bullets is your bullet of choice, you can get to the power level you want if you are willing to accept the increase in muzzle blast and noise.
The .38 special round is quite accurate and meets my test for “fun”. But would my .38 special plinking round suffice as a defense round? It was the premier police round for decades. It was only the introduction of the 9mm pistols with their high magazine capacity that unseated the .38 as the top choice of law enforcement. Contributing to the .38 special’s effectiveness is the fact that most people can shoot the .38 special well. Because of its’ mild report and negligible recoil, most police officers and servicemen can place most of their shots in the center torso area of their opponent. And a well placed .38 special hit is far more effective than a grazing wound from a .44 magnum.
And so I came real close to opting for a 5-shot, small frame, stainless 3” revolver chambered in .357 magnum caliber. It would be light, compact, semi-weather proof, accurate, fun to shoot (with .38 special ammo), and potent enough for any threat I might encounter in my neck of the woods (with .357 magnum ammunition). I say “real close” because about the time I got ready to buy, I discovered S&W’s model 696 in .44 special.
The .44 special is inherently a highly accurate round. Measuring .429” in diameter, the factory .44 special round is a 246g lead bullet at 755 fps, the same velocity as the .38 special, but a heavier bullet with greater diameter for more knockdown oomph. This is where the .44 special showed an advantage that appealed to me.
Because the .44 special bullet has a bigger cross-sectional area, it takes more advantage of the internal pressure. It’s just a question of hydraulics. “Pressure” means force on each square inch of surface. If you have a piston with a surface area of 3 square inches and you apply a pressure of 100 pounds on each square inch of that piston, the piston will be pushed by a total force of 300 pounds. If you wanted to exert 600 pounds on your piston, you could do one of two things: you could increase the pressure to 200 pounds on each square inch; or, you could leave the pressure at 100 psi and increase the surface area of the piston to 6 square inches!
Because the .44 special bullet has a bigger “piston surface”, you can apply a greater force to accelerate the bullet with less internal pressure! Consider the factory advertised ballistics to see this dramatic effect: a .38 caliber bullet (piston) weighing 158g requires an internal barrel pressure of 18,900 PSI to get up to 755 fps before leaving the barrel; but a .44 caliber “piston” weighing 246g is driven to 755 fps with just 15,900 PSI. Less pressure = less noise and blast.
Factory loaded .44 special rounds achieve the same velocities as the .38 but do so with less internal pressure. Result: the .44 special propels a much heavier bullet at the same speed as the .38 special while producing less muzzle blast and noise! More powerful AND more pleasant to shoot. This combination sold me on .44 special as a cartridge.
The “problem” with choosing a .44 special as an all around field gun was not the round itself but the limited choices of revolvers chambered for it. Until recently, if you wanted to shoot .44 special, you were limited to bulky, large frame revolvers chambered for .44 magnum. But that all changed when S&W introduced its’ model 696. The model 696 is a 5-shot .44 special revolver built on Smith and Wesson’s popular “L” frame. It is of stainless steel construction, has a 3” barrel with full-length ejector rod shroud, fully adjustable white outline rear and red ramp front sights. It leaves the factory with Uncle Mike’s black rubber boot grips which are very comfortable. The total weight (unloaded) is 36 oz – 1 oz less than S&W’s model 66 with a 4” barrel. This is enough weight to dampen the recoil of the .44 special but not so much as to make you wish you’d left the revolver back in camp.
I found the Smith and Wesson model 696 revolver to be a fine compromise of all things one looks for in a field revolver. It is relatively lightweight, compact and plenty powerful for most tasks. It is ruggedly built against rough use. The sights show up well under low light conditions. It resists inclement weather and sweat. One can quickly choose between a shotshell load and a solid bullet.
So now, having settled on the caliber and revolver, all I had left to decide was which .44 special round was best suited for my intended use. Manufacturers now offer a wide variety of factory ammunition that range from the traditional 246g lead round nose at 755 fps, to CCI’s .44 special shotshell, to CorBon’s 165g JHP at 1165 fps. Alas, most current factory offerings focus on self-defense. Because gunfights on the street apparently carry the unique risk of hitting bystanders behind the intended target, self-defense rounds are designed to NOT penetrate very deeply. That of course is not a desirable characteristic where deep penetration is paramount in putting down the threat. To get the load that suited my general field need, I had to turn to handloading.
Penetration seems to be more of a function of weight and bullet design than velocity. Velocity is important, but weight seems to be more so. I have no formulas to toss out here but encourage you to seek out articles on penetration testing by the FBI. A few general rules of thumb are: a round nose will penetrate more deeply than a flat wadcutter design of the same weight; hollow points are definitely a disadvantage; and, a heavy “slow” bullet with the same muzzle energy figures as a lighter, high-speed bullet will penetrate much more deeply. Putting all those generalities together, I settled on the 240g cast SWC bullet as my all-around field bullet.
I began by keeping in mind that the .44 special was favored for many years by outdoorsman when the only load available was the 246g lead roundnose at 755 fps. I decided if I could just improve on that ballistic picture using my 3” barrel, I would have a suitable cartridge. After trying many different combinations of powders, charges, and bullet manufacturers, I chose as my general purpose field load the 240g cast SWC by LazerCast bullets, 7.0g Unique, Winchester standard/magnum primers, an overall all cartridge length of 1.48” and a very firm crimp. I test fired 10 rounds of this load through my model 696 over a chronograph set up at a distance of 10 feet and got the following velocity recordings: 937.2 fps, 909.2, 923.6, 896.9, 869.7, 887.5, 888.2, 900.6, 889.3, and 882.9 fps. I attribute some of the velocity variation to my inability to meter out exactly 7.0g Unique powder each time. Most of the rounds cluster around 880+ fps. If we throw out the highest and lowest velocities and average the rest, we get 897 fps as the average velocity. This is a substantial increase over the factory standard load and it was obtained using the 3” barreled model 696! CAUTION! This load exceeds the upper limit imposed by all reloading manuals and should be approached with caution, starting well below 7.0g and working up slowly to see if your gun will handle it.
The above load is more than adequate to put down any threat I might stumble across throughout most of the U.S. But while potent, it is still fun to shoot! Recoil is moderate. Noise and blast are not objectionable and is in fact well below that of a .357 magnum. Accuracy in my 696 has been outstanding. There’s just not much more one could ask of a load.
So that’s my “perfect” field revolver. I enjoy the combination of the .44 special cartridge and Smith’s 3” L-frame revolver. I compromised a little on small size in order to get comparable power without as much noise and blast. While I wouldn’t choose it for carry in grizzly country, it’s more than enough for the creatures that inhabit Missouri and Kansas
- John C. Donham
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