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The Truth about Magnum Handgun Calibers

By Home Defense Gun staffer Mike

If there was ever a family of handguns that was immortalized in a Hollywood movie, it would have to be the Magnum handgun calibers. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character was probably responsible for most of the sales of the behemoth 44 Magnum handgun since 1970. Over 40 years later, people erroneously refer to it as the “Most Powerful Handgun on Earth”, even though other calibers havmagnum calibar handgunse long since eclipsed its level of power. Magnum handguns are still fairly popular, but the question remains: “Are they suitable for personal defense or are they too powerful?”

The answer depends on the particular caliber, the handgun in which it is chambered and the purpose for which it is to be used.

The 357 Magnum is the earliest of the Magnum class of handguns and probably the most widespread in use. It saw enormous success as a police, hunting and self-defense caliber from the 1950s to the present. It is essentially an elongated 38 Special and recoil is tolerable for the most part. A 357 Magnum revolver can safely be downloaded with 38 Special ammunition.

The 44 Magnum on the other hand generates more power, pressure, velocity and felt recoil than the 357 Magnum. This round was based on the older 44 Smith & Wesson Special and was lengthened to produce its powerful effects. The shorter 44 Special may be chambered in these revolvers, but shooters will not see the dramatic decrease in ammunition prices as they would with 38 Special loaded in a 357 Magnum as 44 Special costs almost as much as (and in some cases more than) the 44 Magnum.

The 41 Magnum was developed as a compromise load between the two, lying halfway between both bullet diameters in measurement. It is still a magnum caliber handgunspopular round with devotees of the caliber, but it was considered a failure as the power level was closer to that of the 44 Magnum and did not make for much of a compromise. Likewise a n underpowered load was never the basis for this round as with the other two. Remington did manufacture a “police load” that was closer to the power level of a 357 Magnum, but the large frame size of the revolvers for which it was chambered largely kept them from a significant role in police work.

The three classic Magnum handgun rounds were intended for usage in large framed revolvers made by Smith & Wesson and eventually Ruger and Colt, although Colt never made a handgun chambered in 41 Magnum.

The 357 Magnum has long been considered the most effective of the three for use in a self-defense handgun. The 41 and 44 Magnums simply generate too much recoil for effective follow-up shots and the handguns made to chamber these large rounds are by their nature too large for concealment.

When fired indoors without the benefit of hearing protection, the Magnum handgun rounds can be deafening. Over penetration can be a concern with all three as the power level can be excessively high, particularly with regard to the 41 and 44 Magnums. However there are appropriate self-defense loads for each that are underpowered when compared to the full scale threshold that is offered. So in the event that the only handgun that you own is chambered in 44 Magnum, a round such as the Winchester Silvertip can be used, which is more than manageable.

In 1983 an Israeli company began offering semiautomatic pistols chambered in these calibers. Over the years these handguns have gained fame and notoriety as the Desert Eagle by Magnum Research. These handguns are dismissed by some as novelties due to their size and weight, but their strength, accuracy and reliability has endeared them to a generation of shooters.

While they are definitely much too large for comfortable concealed carry, they can fit a role in a defensive handgun battery, particularly against mountain lions and bears. One of their main drawbacks is that they must be fired with full power loads in order to be reliable.

The power levels of these three cartridges have long been eclipsed by newer Magnum handgun rounds such as the 454 Casul, 45 Winchester Magnum, 480 Ruger, 460 Smith & Wesson and the 500 Smith & Wesson.

What do you think about magnum caliber handguns? Let us know in the comments.

 

Photo Credit – Junglecat

Photo Credit – Jeff dean

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