Almost five decades ago, Clint Eastwood uttered the immortal lines, “…being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?'” The 1971 hit film, Dirty Harry, ignited a frenzy among gun owners. Overnight, it catapulted Eastwood’s co-star, the Smith and Wesson Model 29, chambered in .44 Remington Magnum, into cult status. Throughout the 1970s, anyone who fancied themselves a true handgun aficionado, had to have one. Model 29s sold for three, even four, times their normal retail price. Smith couldn’t keep up with demand.
In the years since, several gun and ammunition companies brought still more powerful handgun cartridges to the market. Now, Harry Callahan would have to admit his big, bad .44 Magnum placed a mere fourth or fifth on the most powerful list. The .454 Casull, .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum, .480 Ruger, and .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum, have overthrown the king. Without a doubt, these rounds are far more powerful than anyone in the 1970s could have imagined, but are they worthwhile? Do they fill an actual need for shooters, or are they just a fashion statement for size fetishists?
The .454 Casull
The .44 Remington Magnum debuted in late 1955. Famed gun expert, Elmer Keith, had collaborated with Remington and Smith & Wesson to develop it based on a stretched .44 Special case. This got firearms experimenter, Dick Casull’s, undivided attention. He set about to design a cartridge which would put the .44 in second place among handgun cartridges. In Casull’s opinion, if the .44 Special made a good start point for Keith, the .45 Colt made a better one for him.
By 1959, Casull had all the kinks worked out and another wildcat cartridge maven, P.O. Ackley, wrote an article about Dick’s new hand-cannon, the .454 Casull, for Guns and Ammo Magazine. Since no gun maker chose to chamber a production revolver for Casull’s brainchild, it languished on the market, known to just a few atavistic power-junkies who could afford a custom-made gun and put up with all the challenges involved with any wildcat cartridge.
In 1983, a boutique gun company, named Freedom Arms, brought forth a limited production, single action revolver they dubbed the Model 83—for all intents, a stainless steel Ruger Super Blackhawk on steroids. They chose the .454 Casull as the flagship cartridge for the gun. Given the revolver’s cost and the limited ammunition supply, both it and the round found little market traction.
The .454 Casull might have faded into obscurity, but Ruger recognized its potential. In 1997, the company offered the powerhouse round in its Super Redhawk revolver. At last, the .454 Casull had stepped into the light. Soon, other companies chambered guns for it, too.
.454 Casull Performance
The .454 Casull offers power far beyond the .44 Magnum’s standard load: a 240 grain, .429 caliber bullet fired at around 1270 fps which generates 860 ft-lbs. at the muzzle. The typical Casull load is a 260 grain, .452 caliber projectile launched at 1800 fps. This produces 1870 ft-lbs., more than twice the .44’s energy–close to the .30-30 Winchester. The Casull’s extra case capacity lends itself to even heavier bullets and loads. 300 – 360 gains are common. If the Casull’s power is off the chart, so is its recoil. No shooter who touches one-off ever forgets the experience.
The Casull is fit for any game animal in North America, and it is considered superior to the .44 Magnum for bear defense. The downside is it is not available in a reasonable sized revolver, unlike the .41 or .44 Magnums. Those who carry it accept the extra weight and inconvenience in order to have as much stopping power as possible in a handgun.
The .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum
Smith and Wesson went almost a full century before they introduced an all-new revolver in 2003. The X-Frame brought a new era in powerful handguns to the public. Two years later, the company released a new cartridge for this massive gun, the .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum. It fit between the .454 Casull and Smith’s monstrous .500 Magnum.
The .460 is, in reality, an elongated .454 Casull, and at the moment is the ne plus ultra in production .45 caliber handgun rounds. The .460 is also billed as the fastest handgun cartridge. Its primary mission is long-range handgun hunting, as it has a much flatter trajectory than the Casull, or any other magnum.
As a bear defense round, the .460 has few peers. Its major drawback is the huge S&W Model 500 which houses it. One must lug around a handgun whose weight approaches some carbines and shotguns.
.460 S&W Performance
The .460 S&W Magnum fires the same bullets as the .454 Casull, but at much higher velocity. It launches 300 grain slugs, for example, at a nominal 1750 fps., which translates into 2040 ft-lbs. This the same energy a 180 grain, .30-06 makes at 250 yards. Anything the Casull can do, the .460 S&W does bigger, better, and faster. The recoil is also amplified in direct proportion to the increased power.
The .480 Ruger
Sturm Ruger has a reputation for independent thinking. In the 21st century’s earliest years, Ruger decided the world needed a revolver cartridge with a bore larger than .45 caliber. They saw the interest the .475 Linebaugh generated in the handgun hunting fraternity and decided to market the world’s biggest bore, production handgun.
In 2003, Ruger brought forth the .480 Ruger. With a .475 caliber bullet, they had succeeded in their goal. The larger bore size allowed Ruger to use heavier, wider bullets than the .454 Casull. Although the .480’s case is based on the Linebaugh, which is itself a shorted, modified .45-70, it is different in many respects from the Linebaugh.
On paper, the .480 appears under-powered compared to either the Linebaugh or Casull. However, its large-bore allowed Ruger’s engineers to reduce the .480’s working pressures by a wide margin and still proved terminal performance equal to, or greater than, its two main rivals. Like the old, big-bore Nitro Express rifles, the .480 relies on bullet mass and sectional density, rather than raw velocity to drive deep, wide wounds into large animals. Perfect for heavy bodied, dangerous critters such as bears. This also produces a cartridge with a more progressive recoil impulse. This makes a .480 Ruger a bit less painful to fire than the high pressure mega-magnums.
The .480 is in decline these days. In the mega-magnum world, bragging rights are based on numbers, not real world performance, and the .480’s numbers are on the low side compared to the competition. It might also have fared better in the market place had Smith & Wesson not rolled out the .500 S&W Magnum the same year the Ruger debuted.
.480 Ruger Performance
At the moment, few major ammunition manufacturers make .480 Ruger ammunition. Hornady’s 325 grain, XTP hollow-point load, for example, yields 1350 fps and 1315 ft-lbs. Some specialized, ultra-hot .44 Magnum loads now produce similar numbers, so many shooters don’t see a need for the Ruger. Boutique ammo brand, Buffalo Bore, sells a .480 Ruger load with a 425 grain bullet at 1200 fps/1311 ft-lbs. Other small companies offer .480 ammo, as well.
The .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum
As the year 2000 approached, Smith & Wesson felt the company had taken a backseat when it came to handgun hunting cartridges. The firm hadn’t introduced a new magnum to its lineup since the .41 Remington Magnum in 1964. Management decided whatever the company might develop to rectify the situation, it had to do it on such a grand scale no other firearms company would attempt to duplicate, much less surpass, the new cartridge.
Smith partnered with Cor-Bon to design the new round. Initial concepts toyed with .60 and even .75 caliber bullets. However, U.S. government regulations and the need for the new cartridge to fit into a gun which humans could hold and fire drove them to settle on .50 caliber. The need to ensure the new round wouldn’t chamber in revolvers too weak to withstand the anticipated forces led the design team to make the cartridge longer than the cylinders on any production revolver then on the market.
In 2003, Smith brought the .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum to an awestruck world along with their brand new X-Frame, Model 500 revolver to house it. Both cartridge and gun proved true monsters. No other handgun specific cartridge could match the .500 Magnum. It made the .44 Magnum, once the most powerful production handgun round in existence, pale in comparison. Everything about this round is enormous: size, power, and recoil. Given the .500’s proportions and performance, there is little chance another production handgun cartridge will surpass it for years to come—if ever.
.500 S&W Performance
The King of the Hill, .500 S&W Magnum, offers astounding power which equals some center-fire rifle cartridges. It will fling deer-suitable 275, 300, or 325 grain bullets at 1840 – 1912 fps, with energy from 2067 – 2842 ft-lbs (.308 Winchester territory). It excels, however, with heavy bullets in the 400 to 500 grain range meant for large or dangerous game. Typical numbers for these are 1425 – 1600 fps, and 2254 – 2297 ft-lbs.
Does the real world need these Mega-Magnums?
If there is one consistent theme in human history it is the search for more. More food, more land, more mates, more power. The mega-magnums are a logical development in this light. The world will never lack for someone who desires more than is available, no matter the category.
In large part, the mega-magnums are a marketing exercise designed to extract cash from shooters who wish to boast, “Mine is bigger than yours.” Freudian implications aside, though, these handheld beasts do have a purpose, and used correctly, are appropriate tools for certain, narrow in scope, jobs.
Handgun hunting is a challenge. For its brief history, it has always meant close contact with one’s potential dinner, much like bow hunting. It is also reasonable, and advisable, for a handgun hunter to dispatch their prey with a quick, decisive blow. To this end, the mega-magnums are ideal solutions. Although their power begs the question why a hunter doesn’t just use a rifle and be done with it. After all, are you really handgun hunting if your revolver looks more like a crew served weapon when it sprouts bi-pods, scopes, and muzzle brakes?
These hard-hitting, hard-kicking rounds have also brought us back to where we started when it comes to protection from dangerous animals. British hunters a century and half ago carried what they termed, “Howdah,” pistols. A howdah is the saddle placed atop elephants on tiger hunts. The howdah pistol constituted a tiger hunter’s last resort should a tiger mount the elephant to get at the riders. These single, or double, barreled black powder pistols fired a large-caliber ball with a maximum powder charge behind it.
The short-barreled mega-magnums on today’s market pitched as bear-defense guns reflect this heritage. Their almost uncontrollable recoil is immaterial because it is unlikely a person will get off more than one round in a nose to nose encounter with a large, violent predator. Like the old howdah pistol, a mega-magnum can provide one crucial, powerful shot which may save a person’s life under such circumstances.
So, yes, the mega-magnums are worthwhile. Used as directed, they provide options no other handguns can. Besides, who doesn’t have a secret desire to possess the biggest, baddest toy around?