.44 Magnum Love: The Ultimate Hunting Handgun Test
October 15, 2014
Choosing a handgun-hunting tool can be difficult. Do you opt for a single-action revolver, a double action, or perhaps even a recoil-taming semiauto? How much must one spend for something particularly suitable?
There are, of course, far too many available options for us to test them all and definitively tell you what you need.
In order to help you make an informed decision, we put several popular models through the wringer and charted the results. Before starting the comparison test, I ran a list of handguns past the editors here at HUNTING, and we narrowed it down to five great options — all chambered for the time-proven .44 Magnum — that exemplify the various types of handguns suitable for big-game hunting.
To adequately test and compare each, I mounted identical Burris 2-7X 32mm handgun scopes and put them through their paces from a sandbag rest at 25 yards and off shooting sticks at 100 yards, evaluating accuracy, reliability, ergonomics, and so forth. For the field shooting portion, I enlisted help, and although each shooter developed personal preferences, the scores on the charts are — for the most part — objective results of quantifiable tests.
Check out the data, charts and results below:
Accuracy: 25 Yards From Sandbag
Once zeroed, I fired three consecutive five-shot 25-yard groups over a sandbag with each type of ammunition in each handgun (I chose Winchester's 240-grain JSP and Hornady's 225-grain pointed FTX) and averaged the results. Four of the handguns preferred Hornady's soft-plastic-pointed 225-grain FTX load, which surprised me; frankly, I expected most to do best with the traditional Winchester 240-grain JSP load. The Freedom Arms revolver did prefer the Winchester load, and notably, it turned in the single best accuracy average of the lot: 0.91 inch at 25 yards.
Which scored the best overall? With the results of both loads combined and averaged, the Performance Center-tuned Smith & Wesson 629 Hunter averaged only 1.01 inches — superb indeed. A close second was the Freedom Arms Model 83 Field grade, averaging 1.16 inches with both loads combined. Interestingly, all three of the other .44 Magnums averaged within one one-hundredth of an inch — certainly within the realm of human error — of 1.75 inches and thus scored identically.
Accuracy: 100-yard Gong
Next I set my nine-inch Caldwell Magnum Rifle Gong out at 100 yards, enlisted the help of long-time hunting buddy Joe Kennedy, and worked out each .44 Magnum handgun off a set of Double Crossed shooting sticks. To give the exercise some form of quantifiable score, we each fired five rounds with each gun at the gong, and the number of hits out of the entire 10 rounds (per gun) provided its score.
Although the superb Smith & Wesson PC Hunter was the only handgun to score a perfect string of hits in the hands of both shooters, the Freedom Arms single action should have as well. Viewed with objectivity, it is both more accurate and has a better trigger than the Taurus, which tied its score; unfortunately, we tested the Freedom Arms gun last and were both feeling some fatigue, which surely contributed to its score of "only" eight out of ten on the gong.
In order to score the 100-yard performance via our five-point maximum on the comparison chart, and to avoid giving undue weight to one element of performance, we then divided the scores by half. Thus, the S&W scored 5, the Freedom Arms and Taurus 4, and so forth.
Good revolvers don't have reliability issues, and true to form, we experienced no malfunctions of any kind with any of them. The semiauto Desert Eagle functioned flawlessly with Winchester 240-grain ammunition but didn't like the nose profile of Hornady's 225-grain FTX at all, resulting in a nose-up jam at least once per magazine.
A pity: The load was quite accurate and has aerodynamics superior to the flatpoint projectiles common to the .44 Magnum.
Both of the double actions were almost mellow in recoil. Of course, the Smith & Wesson has a big, aggressive brake fitted to its muzzle, and the Taurus is heavily ported. The result was low(er) recoil and increased noise.
The single-action revolvers leapt vigorously but comfortably in the hand thanks to the Bisley-type grips on both. As for the .44 Magnum Desert Eagle, it felt about as you'd expect: like a monstrous metal-framed supercharged semiauto — ponderous but friendly. Recoil was mellow, or as mellow as possible in a handgun chambered for .44 Magnum cartridges.
All four of the revolvers tested felt good in the hands and on the shooting sticks. Of the four, the Smith & Wesson with its Hogue grip and the Freedom Arms revolver with its beautifully fitted and shaped Bisley-type grip had the edge, but all were comfortable.
As mentioned earlier, the Desert Eagle semiauto's grip is large, and hauling back the massive slide to chamber the first round took a lot of strength. In regard to hunting, the Desert Eagle — like any semiauto — is rather noisy when a cartridge is chambered. So while the cool factor is off the charts, we must give it the lowest marks here.
Handling the revolvers almost scored out as a wash, but such tests and the resulting scores are highly subjective — other shooters may have preferred one of the other candidates.
As you can see from the score, the Taurus trigger actually had a bit more variation between trigger pulls than did the Ruger. However, the Ruger trigger had a certain amount of smooth creep — it was slightly spongy, if you will. The Taurus trigger was crisp.
The ranking of the others is pretty clear: The top two offered superb, crisp, light triggers (which surely contributed to their high scores on the 100-yard gong); and the Desert Eagle's trigger was heavy, somewhat less consistent, and had plentiful creep.
Model Avg. Pull Weight Variation
'¢ Freedom Arms M83 Field Grade 2 lbs. 13 oz. <1.0 oz.
'¢ Smith & Wesson 629 PC Hunter 3 lbs. 12 oz. 1.5 oz.
'¢ Taurus Raging Bull 4 lbs. 3 oz. 5.0 oz.
'¢ Ruger Super Blackhawk Hunter 4 lbs. 4 oz. 1.5 oz.
'¢ MRI Desert Eagle 5 lbs. 10 oz. 5.5 oz.
The factory advertised velocity of the 240-grain Winchester load is 1,180 fps; that of the 225-grain Hornady load is 1,410 fps. The Freedom Arms produced velocities of 1,505 and 1,572 respectively out of its 7.5-inch barrel, blowing those factory numbers out of the water.
In short, the others produced more predictable velocities. The average of the other four with the Winchester load calculates out to 1,339 fps — well above advertised — and with the Hornady load 1,439 fps, also above advertised. Good performance across the board.
The two highest-scoring .44 Magnums — the Smith & Wesson Performance Center gun ($1,369) and the Freedom Arms revolver ($2,074) — cost significantly more than the other revolvers. Elevated performance is, and should be, predictable. Both are superb right from the box; it's almost impossible to find even one element that could be improved upon. For traditional-minded guys who love a single-action revolver, absolutely nothing tops a Freedom Arms gun for quality and performance, and for handgun hunters that walk the cutting edge of current design a Smith & Wesson Performance Center gun is impossible to beat.
But what about the guy who doesn't want to spend one-and-a-half to two grand on a handgun to hunt with?
Either the Ruger ($859) or the Taurus ($800) will provide yeoman's service. It's worth noting that both typically sell for significantly less than suggested retail price, so you're saving literally hundreds of dollars — possibly over a thousand — by choosing one of them. Plus, if you eventually wanted to, you could follow in the footsteps of handgun hunting legends such as John Wooters, Jim Wilson, and Skeeter Skelton and have your Ruger single action tuned by a capable gunsmith, which would transform it from a good, capable truckbox-type hunting tool into a big-game hunting precision instrument.
What about the Desert Eagle? It retails at $1,563 and is bulky, heavy, and noisy to function. Is it really a suitable hunting handgun? Here's my take: If you want something cool and different and are willing to deal with the spongy trigger and noisy operation, absolutely. Handgun hunting is not about maximum efficiency — we'd be discussing rifles if that were the case — so if a big, powerful semiauto is what trips your trigger (if you'll forgive the pun), go for it.
All things considered, when performance and value for the dollars spent are combined, top honors go Smith & Wesson's PC 629 Hunter. And rightly so: It provides outstanding ergonomics and stellar performance with an achievable price, not to mention looks that could, uh, kill.