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Is the .44 Magnum Good for Self-Defense? (Surprise!)

LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.


Is the .44 Remington Magnum a good self-defense cartridge? As a gun writer who lives in bear country, people ask me this often. As with most complex realities, it is a question which defies simplistic answers.

Defensive handgun cartridge selection is part science, art, and emotion. Even more so when one is concerned with assaults by both human predators and four-legged carnivores which can weigh up to 1000 pounds. Get it wrong, and it could cost you, or someone you care for, their life.

The ubiquitous .44 Remington Magnum has been around since the 1950s. Developed from the .44 Smith and Wesson Special by gun guru Elmer Keith, this power house fulfilled its role as a big game hunting round until a fateful event which altered its trajectory forever. In 1971, the iconic movie, Dirty Harry premiered. This gritty crime drama featured actor Clint Eastwood in the title role along with his inanimate co-star, a long-barreled Smith and Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver. Overnight, the world’s gun aficionados were smitten by the gun and the cartridge.

Too Much is Just Right

Ever since the Dirty Harry franchise burned the .44 Magnum into shooters’ collective conscious, there have been those who insist it is a viable cartridge for defense against human assailants. Many people deride these individuals as poseurs, or worse. They claim the big magnum is just too much for the job at hand, some even view it as sadistic over-kill. Is it, though?

While this is indeed a powerful round, it’s not a 105mm howitzer, either. Yes, it is strong enough to anchor a deer or even an elk, and people in bear country have sworn by it for well over half a century, but it’s just a handgun cartridge after all, not a death ray.

Let’s put things in perspective. A standard, 240 grain .44 Magnum load generates around 800 ft-lbs. energy at the muzzle when fired from an eight-inch barrel, less from shorter barrels. Common defensive rounds such as the 9mm Luger or .45 ACP produce 350 – 450 ft-lbs., dependent on bullet weight. Whereas, a .30-06 hunting rifle cartridge can stomp out almost 3000 ft-lbs. As legendary as it is, the .44 Mag. is just another handgun round—a thumper, but not a cannon by any means.

The question still stands, though. Is this sledgehammer fit for everyday carry and defense? To answer, we need to look at five factors which determine which handgun rounds are good for defense.

A 4-inch barrel revolver, such as this S&W Model 629, makes an excellent .44 Magnum self-defense handgun.

A 4-inch barrel revolver, such as this S&W Model 629, makes an excellent .44 Magnum self-defense handgun.

1. Wounding Potential

In 2014 the FBI released the results from a multi-year study which examined law enforcement-specific handgun cartridge effectiveness. They concluded when modern hollow point bullets are used, there is no significant statistical difference in wounding ability between those cartridges. In other words, .38 Special, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and .357 Magnum create about the same wound in a human (they didn’t study the big bore magnums because they are not standard LE issue). These results were in line with previous research performed by the Bureau, and Army surgeon, Dr. Marvin Fackler, among others.

Federal 240 grain Hydra Shok. A good self-defense load for the .44 Magnum.

Federal 240 grain Hydra Shok. A good self-defense load for the .44 Magnum.

2. Accuracy

The FBI determined the deciding factor in stopping an assailant is shot placement under rapid fire. This proves the old adage, “You can’t miss fast enough to win.” Bullet placement is, and always has been, king. Note the Bureau’s emphasis on multiple hits. Handguns just aren’t powerful enough to rely on a single shot to incapacitate an assailant. Thus, both law enforcement and the armed forces now teach recruits to fire until a threat is neutralized which will, under most circumstances, require multiple shots.

3. Recoil

A close relative to accuracy is recoil, more important, recoil control. Since multiple shots are the expected norm in a handgun fight, it is important the gun and ammunition combination facilitate accurate rapid fire under duress. A weapon which rears its muzzle skyward with each shot is much less effective than one which allows the shooter to stay on target round after round. This minimizes the time required to re-aim the gun and thus maximizes how many rounds are placed in an assailant’s vital organs.

Paul Harrell demonstrates difference between .44 Mag. and .44 Spl. recoil (starts at 1:35). Note the muzzle flip with the magnums.

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4. Threat Environment

Where you carry a gun has a significant influence on which gun to select. Your needs in a crowded urban area are much different from an under populated rural one. These environments also dictate who, or what, might attack you. Crowded places lend themselves more to multiple assailants and possible innocent bystanders. The boondocks contain dangerous, unpredictable animals as well as the occasional dangerous, unpredictable person but few bystanders.

If you live with these, a .44 Magnum is a sensible dual purpose gun.

If you live with these, a .44 Magnum is a sensible dual purpose gun.

5. Barrier Penetration and Over Penetration

Related to item four is the potential to have a bullet drive through the intended target or a wall and hit some innocent. A significant moral and liability issue for anyone who carries a gun for self-defense. Converse to this is the potential need to punch through intermediate barriers such as car doors or windshields. Defensive ammunition must strike a balance between these two conflicted requirements and still provide sufficient performance on the assailant.

The National Institute for Justice standards recommend any self-defense ammunition produce between 12 to 18 inches penetration in ballistic gelatin (14 – 16 is ideal) regardless if the bullet passes through intermediate barriers or clothing and still expand a reasonable amount when it hits flesh. This facilitates sufficient wounding without over penetration.

The Chopping Block shows how bear oriented .44 Mag. loads exceed NIJ penetration guidelines.

How the .44 Magnum Stacks Up

The mighty .44 meets these metrics well in some cases but not so in others. A great deal depends on the specific load used. While there is little law enforcement research data available on the .44 Magnum, the various tests with ballistic gelatin or its analogues which I have reviewed tend to indicate most hollow point .44 Mag. loads make temporary stretch cavities 15 - 30 percent larger than the latest .45 ACP hollow points such as Federal's HST. However, where the .45 averages 12 – 14 inches penetration, the .44 provides 15 – 18. On the scale’s upper end, but not excessive. How much depends a great deal on impact velocity and bullet expansion. As with any cartridge, unexpanded bullets will fly right through the test media and a reasonable distance downrange.

The .44 Mag, is noted for its accuracy. Where it falls down is in the recoil department. Muzzle flip is excessive with full-power loads. Unless you can shoot as well as Jerry Miculek or a Navy SEAL, there is a low chance you will keep multiple, rapid .44 Mag. shots in the vital zone. This is somewhat offset, however, by the fact the hits you do get will cause significant damage. Just don’t expect your target to flip backward as in Dirty Harry.

Despite the .44’s fearsome reputation, moderate power hollow point loads don’t show excessive penetration tendencies. If, however, you carry either jacketed soft-points or hard cast lead semi-wadcutters for bear defense, these will sail right through a human and into the next county. This is not a significant concern in the back country, though, since it’s a remote possibility anyone other than your assailant might attend the festivities. Also, suffice to say, even the moderate loads will defeat common barriers and provide ample wounding once they get through.

Another environmental factor is the modern assailant’s nature. Deeper penetration is not such a bad thing given the average American is now 15 pounds fatter than a few decades ago. A cross-torso shot on someone who goes six-five and 300 pounds could defeat some hollow point rounds which are noted for shallow penetration, such as the .45 ACP. Also, consider the fact one in four violent felons report they consumed illegal drugs when they committed their crimes. These chemicals delay the body’s response to trauma and impair judgement to the point where a less powerful round may not incapacitate fast enough.

.44 Mag. hollow points designed for self-defense meet NIJ penetration guidelines. (Thanks to The Chopping Block channel)

Final Verdict

Is the .44 Magnum good for self-defense? Yes, but a qualified one. It is a good choice for a dual purpose gun in bear country. The chances are small you’ll have to worry about collateral damage in the hinterland. For everywhere else, stoke your gun with any quality 200 or 185 grain hollow point load on the market. Then practice until you can put a full cylinder into a six-inch pie plate at 10 yards as fast as you can press the trigger—but this goes for any carry gun. The .44 Magnum is perhaps not the ideal self-defense handgun cartridge, but if you need this much power and can put up with a big heavy gun on your hip all day, there’s no reason not take Inspector Harry Callahan’s favorite pal with you. Oh, and it won’t “blow your head clean off.” Sorry, Clint.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 LJ Bonham


Readmikenow on April 14, 2020:

This is an excellent article. You provided a lot of good information. Enjoyed reading it.

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