“What kind of a load you using in that .44?” “It’s a light Special. This size gun, it gives me better control, less recoil than a .357 Magnum with wadcutters.”—Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in response to rookie Officers Davis, Sweet, Astrachan, and Grimes (David Soul, Tim Matheson, Kip Niven, and Robert Urich) in 1973’s “Magnum Force.”
In spite of that cinematic endorsement by Dirty Harry, the .44 Smith & Wesson Special – simply “.44 Special” for brevity – revolver caliber has been with us since 1907, but it isn’t seen much nowadays outsider of certain shooting sports like Cowboy Action Shooting, and finding good factory ammo for it is a lot more difficult than is the case for its more powerful descendant, the .44 Magnum.
Nonetheless, it’s still a highly viable self-defense caliber for those who prefer wheelguns; as highly respected gun writer Mike “Duke” Venturino pointed out way back in 1990, it provides “plenty of stopping power with less recoil.” With that in mind, let’s take a look at the best defensive loads for the time-honored .44 Special.
Winchester Silvertip 200-Grain Hollowpoint (STHP)
For many years, this was the best-performing .44 Special load in a variety of stopping power studies, from those of Massad F. Ayoob to the controversial “one-shot stop” statistical compilations by retired Detroit PD Sgt. Evan Marshall and then-Cpl. (now Lt.) Ed Sanow of the Benton County, Indiana Sheriff’s Department.
As noted by the MidwayUSA Product Description, “Winchester Super-X Silvertip offers a unique combination of power, precision, reliable functioning and on-target performance via a specially engineered jacketed bullet. Originally developed for Law Enforcement as a replacement to traditional hollow points, this bullet delivers penetration and rapid energy release with virtually no weight loss or bullet fragmentation.” The Silvertip delivers a muzzle velocity of 900 feet per second and a muzzle energy of 360 foot-pounds.
Speer Gold Dot 200-Grain Jacketed Hollowpoint (JHP)
Gold Dot has proven itself to be an excellent product line across multiple handgun calibers for law enforcement and armed private citizen self-defense usage. I myself carried the 9mm Gold Dot in the Glock 26 that was my backup sidearm as an ICE Special Agent. Regarding the .44 Special iteration in particular, longtime large-bore revolver aficionado John Taffin says this:
“[M]y most used jacketed loads for the .44 Special are with the lighter-weight jacketed bullets, namely the Hornady 180 XTP-JHP, the Sierra 180 Sierra JHC and the Speer 200-grain Gold Dot Hollow Point. The latter is mostly saved for use in short-barreled concealment or self-defense style .44 Specials… The Speer 200 Gold Dot HP over 7.7 grains of Universal in a 5″ Charter Arms Bulldog Target clocks out at 776 fps with five shots in 3/4″ at 7 yards.”
Hornady 180-Grain XTP-HP
This is another one of the loads mentioned by Mr. Taffin in the above-quoted passage. The “XTP” stands for “eXtreme Terminal Performance and debuted circa 1990. As per the manufacturer’s official info page:
“Designed for hunting, self-defense and law enforcement applications, the XTP® bullet demonstrates the kind of accuracy that led many competitive shooters to adopt it. Reliable performance makes the XTP® the most popular handgun bullet for both target shooters and hunters. But it’s the stopping power of the XTP® bullet that has truly built its world-class reputation. From the onset, XTP® bullets were specifically designed to expand reliably at a wide range of handgun velocities to deliver deep penetration with every shot.”
Hornady 165-grain FTX Critical Defense
With all due respect to Mr. Taffin, I’m skipping the Sierra 180-grain JHC, as that’s meant more hunting than for combat. Instead, I’m going with a second Hornady product, and one that is obviously designed for self-defense work as the name implies. Quoth the manufacturer:
“The patented Flex Tip® technology used in Critical Defense® ammunition eliminates the clogging and inconsistency that often plagues hollow point bullets. Hornady® achieved this by using the same tip material used in LEVERevolution® ammunition…Premium low flash propellants deliver proven performance, even in very short-barreled handguns, and won’t disrupt your vision. Reliable expansion and dependable terminal performance can be counted on for concealed carry and personal protection.”
I myself have fired this load through my personally-owned Ruger Redhawk revolver, and can vouch for its accuracy and dependability.
Corbon 200-Grain DPX
As I’ve noted in some of my recent articles about best-performing loads in other calibers, Corbon ammo in general and their DPX line in general is known for dynamic performance. As per the manufacturer’s product description:
“COR®BON’s DPX® Handgun ammunition exhibits superior performance to all other defensive ammunition on the market. The reason is the homogenous solid copper projectile. “Barrier blind” is the new terminology for ammunition that outstandingly performs after penetrating a heavy barrier like auto glass or steel. DPX® is the only ammunition that maintains 100% of its weight after going through such barriers…The permanent crush cavity is also considerably larger than that of a typical JHP.”
The .44 Special DPX generates a muzzle velocity of 950 feet per second and a muzzle energy of 401 foot-pounds out of a 4-inch test barrel.
Honorable Mention: Fiocchi Cowboy Action 210-Grain Lead Flat Point (LFP)
If you’re stuck living or working in a “woke” jurisdiction that forbids expanding ammunition, then using Old West-style ammo is about as good an alternative as any. I choose this particular brand because of my good experience with it out of my aforementioned Redhawk and my good experiences with Fiocchi ammo in general. (Oh yeah, and the box logo and artwork are pretty cool-looking.)
Christian D. Orr is a Senior Defense Editor for 19FortyFive. He has 34 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011.
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