Back to The Collection Back to Home

The Big Guns

    Big bore magnums have come a long way since the days of Dirty Harry. Back then, there was just one big kid on the block, and that was the 44 magnum. There was no argument, no competition, and no doubt as to what round the world's most powerfull hangun fired. Today, things aren't so simple.
    Using the classic 44 magnum as a baseline of power, there are a number of big kids on the block these days. As was the case with the 44 magnum, these rounds were all designed for hunting, and have little real application in self defense, police, or target use. Still, there is a real appeal to owning one of the big guns. Though once in the exclusive domain of the revolver, big magnums have been designed for, and chambered in a number of semi auto firearms. The begining of this trend is most closely associated with the Desert Eagle, but was actually started in the seventies with the old Auto Mag series of pistols. Actually, if you want to get really technical about it, the old 30 Luger cartridge could be considered as a magnum, though not a big one. A similar statement could be made about the 7.63x 25 as fired in the Tokarov, and PPSH. With their bottle neck designs, these cartridges could attain magnum velocities, but the rounds never really went anywhere, and played little part in future developments.
    In discussing the big magnums, a few questions always seem to come up, even among non shooters. These tend to be:     The power question is easy to answer, as ballistic information is widely available from a number of sources. The other questions take some thought. I have catagorized the quallities of the various cartridges and rated them according to Power, Usability, Availability, and have also given an overall rating. This is all subjective, of course, and you may have a different set of standards from mine. Power is pretty easy to rate, and I have listed the power levels of standard loads below. The use of handloads can significantly change some of these numbers, but the standard loadings are a good overall place to start. Usability is simply a rating of the ease of use, and practicality of a given cartridge, and of the guns for which it is generally chambered. This is a combination of a rating for the size and wieght of the gun models which take the cartridge, as well as a rating of the recoil, and of the difficulty in mastering a given firearm/cartridge combination. Availability is a measure of the popularity, purchase price, and pervaisivness of a given carridge, and of the guns which fire it. The popularity of a cartridge can add much to it's suitability of use. A popular cartridge will be chambered in many models of guns, it will be easy to find ammunition for, and will not be outrageously expensive. A popular cartridge will have reloading dies available, along with numerous listings in reloading tables, and a wide variety of bullet weights and styles. A popular cartrdige will also have a number of factory loadings available, for those who do not reload. The last catagory is the overall rating, and is my purely subjective opinion about which cartridge I like the most and think is the best.
    While ballistic tables are widely available for getting energy measuerments, the other factors can only be judged after familiarization by first hand use. Even ballistic tables can not always be taken as gospel, and should be verified by a chronograph. Thus, this piece sat half written for almost a year, since I was missing a Desert Eagle, and a 480. During this time, S&W introduced their new 500 model, requireing the purchase of one more gun in order to run a complete comparison.

Caliber Type Weight Velocity Energy Test firearm Power Usability Avail OA
44 magnum**** Revolver 240 1200 768 S&W M-29 6 1 1 2
45 Rowlan** Semi Auto 230 1339 916 Custom Colt Govt. 5 2 6 3
454 cassul**** Revolver 260 1825 1923 Taraus Raging Bull 3 3 2 1
480 Revolver

Ruger Redhawk 4 5 5 6
50 Magnum Semi Auto

Desert Eagle 2 4 3 5
50 S&W Revolver

S&W 500 1 6 4 4

And the winner is...

    Well, that all depends upon what you want out of your big magnum; but as this was a comparison, there has to be a winner declared. I chose the Cassul 454, and I will tell you why, a bit further down the page. First, though, let me tell you why the others lost, because this is more a story of the catridges that were found less than ideal.

The .480
This is a perfectly fine cartridge, but really, there seems to be no point to it. The .480 is difficult to find ammo for, is not chambered in very many models of firearm, though some new models have been added, and can not do anything that the Cassul can not do as well or better.
In summation, this is a good round, but took too long getting off the ground; there are other rounds which are more popular and can equal or exceed the 480. 
The 50 AE
This is the Desert Eagle cartridge, and is just too massive. At one time, the only reason to own a Desert Eagle chambered for this round was for bragging rights. At one time, it was the most powerfull handgun cartridge, though I use the term handgun advisedly here. The Desert Eagle weighs as much as some carbines, and light rifles, and is very large. Eventually, the big 50 was overtaken by some of the 44 and 45 cartridges, which exceeded it in energy. Still, it remained for some years the biggest bore handgun you could buy, but with the introduction of the 50 S&W, even this no longer holds true. 
In summation, this is too big, too heavy, too cumbersome, and just too much. 

The 50 S&W
This is presently the world's most powerful handgun. This is a title which is once again held by a S&W cartridge/handgun combination, after having been held by others for a couple of decades. This situation is unlikely to change for quite a while, because of the incredible power of this round. The 50 S&W matches or exceeds the power of many rifle rounds, including many full length rounds like the 30-06. The new X-frame, upon which the 5 round Model 500 is built, is massive, and heavy. Like the Desert Eagle, this gun/cartridge combination pushes the envelope of the definition of the term handgun. It is unlikely that a more powerful handgun will ever be developed, because of size, weight and recoil considerations. In point of fact, these limits may have already been passed by the new gun. Sales are anything but brisk, and I have seen many used 50 S&W revolvers on the market. One thing you can not argue with is the power of the gun; nothing is more powerful. 
In summation, this is the gun to get if you must own the current most powerful handgun. It might also not be a bad choice for those who hunt particularly dangerous game. Do you feel lucky?

The 45 Rowlan
This is a great cartridge, when used in concert with certain models of the semi auto pistol. It comes within a hairs breadth of the power generated by the 44 Magnum, and can exceed this cartridge in certain handloads. What makes this such an appealing cartridge is it's near identical dimensioning to that of the 45 A.C.P. What this means is that standard sized semi auto handguns which can chamber the 45 A.C.P. can be made to chamber this round. All you need to see, to appreciate the practicality of this cartridge, is a side by side comparison of the huge 44 magnum Desert Eagle, and a standard sized 45 frame chambered for the Rowlan. In addition to this, there are now a number of 45 autos made, which hold from 12 to 15 rounds, in a standard sized package. So in addition to small size, we are being offered magnum models with increased firepower. In addition, the Rowlan is also chambered in the Dan Wesson revolver, and loads via half or full moon clips, as will the 45 A.C.P. 
In summation, this might be the gun for you if you desire this kind of power in a defense or carry gun. On the minus side, these guns, being of average size, and weight, and firing such a powerful cartridge, are a real handful to shoot. 
The 44 Magnum
If there were an award being given out for miss congeniality, this would have been presented to the big 44. This round has been around since the fifties, and is thuroughly tested, tried and true. Along with the Rowlan, this is one of only two cartridges on the list that can be chambered in standard sized handguns. There are a variety of loads, bullet weights, and different types of factory ammunition available for this cartridge. There are also a variety of firearms chambered for it. The 44 Magnum has entered the firearm mainstream. In truth, the 44 is probably all of the handgun that will ever be needed, and I can think of no job (well, hunting elephants maybe) for which I would not feel confidant employing the classic 44. Though it's size and power don't make it the first choice for defense, there are light loads, and special loads which make it quite managable, and reduce some of the over penetration. This also remains as one of the better handgun (and carbine) hunting rounds, for larger game.
In summation, this is the grandaddy of all of the large magnums, and is a very well regarded cartridge. Though it has lost it's crown to a number of contenders, it remains a very powerful, and very versatile cartridge, which can be mastered with enough practice. 

The 454 Cassul
Well, argue with me if you like, but I prefer this round to all of the other big magnums out there, at least for now. This cartridge has approximatly double the power of the 44, though this varies depending on the load used. It is chambered in rather large revolvers (and one carbine of which I am aware), though guns chambered for it do not reach the comical proportions of the Desert Eagle, or S&W 500. Despite it's power, the gun can be mastered, though it is not exactly something I would use for rapid fire or defense. It is a great hunting cartridge for a handgun, and can be used for defense as a last ditch effort. Just don't depend upon any fast follow up shots. It also has the versatility that comes from being a stretched out version of a standard cartridge, in this case, the 45 LC. The old 45 Colt can always be used for defense, and is an excellent cartridge for this use. The shooter then has the option of loading up with the harder hitting Cassul catridges when a bit more power is wanted. The 454, and the 44 Magnum are the only catridges on the list that offer this sort of versatility (forget what you have heard about the Rowlan; standard 45 A.C.P. cartridges will chamber and fire, but will not cycle the action of these guns, and can only interchange in the Dan Wesson revolver). 
In summation, this is a great and very powerful cartrdige available in a series of large, but not unwieldy revolvers. It also offers the versatility of allowing the use of the classic 45 LC cartridge in the guns for which it is chambered. 
    I enjoyed the test, and was happy to be able to answer some of the questions raised by the ever expanding crop of big bore magnums. All of the guns used in the test are fine firearms, and I would not feel at a disadvantage with any of them, given a proper set of circumstances. Still, I will probably end up selling my 480, and my Desert Eagle. I may end up parting with my S&W 500, since at $2 a round, I can't really afford to shoot it. It was nice having the opportunity to try all of these powerful weapons, and it's always a good idea to find out the answers for one's self. Now I know.

photo of all big magnum cartridges
photo of pistols used for comparison
photo of range
photo of test gear
photo of each gun, and each cartrdge, flanking description