In the modern-day ballistics context, Merriam-Webster defines “magnum” as “a cartridge equipped with a larger charge than other cartridges of the same size.” This has been the domain of revolver cartridges of revolver cartridges first and foremost, from the original .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum in 1935 to the .44 Remington Magnum in 1955 to the .41 Remington Magnum in 1964.
To be sure, there are some autopistol-specific Magnum calibers too, like the .50 AE, .475 Wildey Magnum, .45 Win Mag and .429 DE. And there are autopistols chambered for Magnum revolver cartridges, such as the Desert Eagles and the 1911-style Coonan Arms. But wheelguns –single-action (SA) and double-action (DA) alike – still dominate the Magnum arena.
However, Dirty Harry’s iconic 1971 cinematic speech about “the most powerful handgun in the world” is now long outdated, as his beloved .44 Magnum is no longer the dominant caliber in the Magnum world.
So then, what are the 5 Most Powerful Revolver Cartridges? Let’s take a look.
.500 S&W Magnum
As I did with my piece on 5 Most Powerful Autopistol Cartridges, I might as well be consistent and start with the biggest and baddest (proverbial) boy on the block. Developed in 2003, Smith & Wesson chambered the round in their S&W500 DA revolver – part of that company’s extra-large “X-Frame” series – which is quite simply the world’s most powerful factory-made revolver.
Just how powerful are we talking here? Cor-Bon produced a 440-grain hard cast lead flat point (LFP) that generates a mind-numbing muzzle velocity of 1625 feet per second combined with a bone-crushing 2580 foot-pounds of muzzle energy—more than the 147-gr. 7.62x51mm NATO rifle round! How ‘bout them apples!
Count on Sturm, Ruger & Co. – the same company that makes the Timex (“Takes A Licking And Keeps On Ticking”) of the .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum DA revolvers alike, the GP-100 and Redhawk respectively – to come up with a caliber like this one. Ruger team up with Hornady to produce this caliber back in 2003 – coincidentally the same year as the .500 S&W Mag – with four different gun options: the DA Super Redhawk® Alaskan® and Super Redhawk® Standard, and two different versions of the SA New Model Super Blackhawk® Bisley™ (Model #s 00870 and 00872).
According to B. Gil Horman of NRA American Rifleman, “[I]t was designed to provide a more manageable level of felt recoil in a big-bore hunting gun. With the same case dimensions as the .475 Linebaugh, except for being shortened from 1.4 to 1.285 inches in length, the first Hornady factory .480 Ruger loads were topped off with 325-grain XTP hollow points that left the 7.5-inch barrel of the Super Redhawk at around 1350 feet-per-second (fps), providing 1315 ft/lbs of energy at the muzzle. This first middle-of-the-road Hornady load provided a level of performance somewhere in between the .44 Mag. and the .454 Casull, with a level of felt recoil well below the punishing, wrist-snapping kick of the .454 Casull when fired out of the Super Redhawk. It was meant to be a potent hunting solution that more shooters could enjoy and afford to shoot.”
Speaking of the .454 Casull…Just like with the .44 Magnum (and, for that matter, the .475 Wildey Magnum autopistol cartridge), this was a round & gun combo that gained fame from a movie. In the case of the .454 Casull, it was the 1988 sci-fi flick Alien Nation starring James Caan as LAPD Detective Matthew Sykes, who obtains a Freedom Arms SA revolver on the caliber for a boost in stopping over his regular duty carry Beretta 92F 9mm.
In that movie’s range scene, the rangemaster tells Det. Sykes that “You’re talking twice the impact energy of .44 Magnum hot loads.” Unlike so much Hollywood hokum and embellishment about guns and ammo, this was actually an accurate statement. Back in 2000, the staff of Gun Tests Magazine reported that Hornady’s 300-grain XTP-HP (eXtreme Terminal Performance-Hollowpoint) Custom load generated a whopping 1,750 ft. lbs. out of a Freedom Arms revolver; by contrast, the hottest .44 Mag load registered a mere 979 ft. lbs.
The round was invented by Dick Casull back in 1959 – a mere four years after the .44 Magnum – but it wasn’t until 1983 that the aforementioned Freedom Arms offering came out as the first gun designed specifically for that cartridge. For those who prefer DA revolvers. Ruger makes a Super Redhawk in the caliber, whilst Taurus has the Raging Bull and Raging Hunter; the latter won the NRA’s 2019 American Hunter Handgun of the Year Golden Bullseye Award.
And speaking of the .475 Linebaugh while we’re at it…it generates operating pressures of 50,000 psi and, according to Richard Mann of Field & Stream in an article titled “The 10 Most Powerful Handguns in the World,” “It’ll dive [sic] a 420-grain projectile to 950 fps and generate 841 foot-pounds of energy with a power factor of 399.”
The cartridge was designed in 1988 by John Linebaugh (1955-2023). The aforementioned Freedom Arms makes a Model 83 SA revolver in the caliber.
.460 S&W Magnum
Well, I reckon one Smith X-frame gun and caliber deserve another, eh, even if this one is *relatively* smaller and less powerful that the .500 S&W. The manufacturer declares that the specific gun, the Model 460V DA revolver, is “The world’s most versatile big bore revolver,” and states that the muzzle velocity is 2,100 fps. Meanwhile, muzzle energy is 2,350 ft. lbs., which puts it not too far behind the .500 S&W.
The cartridge takes the already mega-powerful .454 Casull as its parent case and then makes it longer, i.e., lengthening it from 1.383 inches to 1.80 inches. Metaphorically speaking, that’s like taking a steroid freak and giving him an overdose of HGH and creatine for good measure!
Author Expertise on Guns and Firearms
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.