.44 Special vs .44 Remington Magnum for Self Defense

Shortly after publishing my first impressions of the 329PD, I engaged in a conversation discussing the topic of using .44 Special or .44 Remington Magnum (.44 Magnum for short) as a defensive round. Are they both good enough for self defense? What are the benefits of using .44 Special over .44 Magnum? It was a brief conversation, but it got me thinking about the topic off and on for several days after the conversation and now here I am sharing some of those thoughts.

I’ve mentioned several times in past blog posts and in countless conversations that self defense is a very broad topic. As such, I’ll do my best to break down considerations for different types of self defense scenarios. Also, I will point out that some of the opinions I’m going to share are mostly inferred from researching other handgun cartridges or anecdotal evidence. The primary reason for this is there is very little information and data about the .44 Special and most of the information I’ve come across on the .44 Magnum usually covers defense from angry wildlife or handgun hunting.

Before diving deep into this topic, the first question that needs to be answered is: Is .44 Special suitable for self defense at all? My gut instinct says it is. Or rather, at least yes for up close and personal self defense situations against two legged predators. To validate (or reject) this gut instinct, I compared two offerings from Hornady’s Critical Defense product line, one in .38 Special and one in .44 Special, both of which use an FTX projectile. Check out the table below for details.

.38 Special.44 Special
Bullet110 grain FTX165 grain FTX
Sectional Density.123.127
Ballistic Coefficient.131 (G1).125 (G1)
Muzzle Velocity1010 fps900 fps
Muzzle Energy249 ft/lb297 ft/lb
Test Barrel4″2.5″

From that data, it should be obvious the .44 Special offers a bit more sectional density and a bit more muzzle energy with a slower moving but heavier projectile when compared to the .38 Special. While these advertised ballistics create the impression that the two cartridges are fairly similar, reading the fine print reveals that the slightly superior ballistic qualities of the .44 Special were recorded using a 2.5″ barrel where the .38 Special ballistics were recorded using a 4″ barrel. This means we can expect the difference between the two cartridges to be more pronounced had they been tested with similar length barrels. Given the .38 Special is considered sufficient for self defense with a revolver, I’m going to say that yes the .44 Special is sufficient for self defense against two legged predators.

It goes without saying, if the .44 Special is suitable for self defense, then so is the .44 Magnum.

Next question I had was: how much more powerful is the .44 Magnum than the .44 Special? I initially attempted to find a .44 Magnum from the same Hornady Critical Defense product line to compare it and came up short. Turns out the .44 Special for personal defense is only offered by Hornday in the Critical Defense line. I also found that most of the published ballistic data from Hornady for the .44 Magnum was recorded using a 7.5″ barrel which means I would have to do a lot of extrapolation to provide a semi-valid comparison. So instead, I pulled up some .44 Special and .44 Magnum load data from Nosler which used a 8.2″ barrel and a 8.25″ barrel to record the ballistic data with identical projectiles. I took the most accurate load data from each for the comparison. Here is what that data looks

.44 Special.44 Remington Magnum
Bullet240 grain JHP240 grain JHP
Sectional Density.186.186
Ballistic Coefficient.173 (G1).173 (G1)
Muzzle Velocity758 fps1412 fps
Muzzle Energy306 ft/lb1063 ft/lb
Test Barrel8.2″8.25″

I really like this comparison because it highlights how drastically more powerful the .44 Magnum in comparison to the .44 Special. Basically, the same projectile out the same barrel from the .44 Magnum cartridge at almost twice the speed and with almost three and a half times the energy. Also, this information is important to keep in mind when thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of each cartridge for different self defense scenarios.

At this point, we have established that both cartridges are suitable for self defense scenarios against two legged predators and the muzzle ballistic differences between the cartridges are essentially astronomical. So what about defense against angry wild life (which is a common application for a revolver)?

According to what Chuck Hawks has to say about handgun hunting, .38 Special is primarily useful against animals of 50 pounds live weight or less within their range limitation. From a self defense perspective, I take this information to mean .38 Special is a good option for against smaller predators no bigger than a coyote. I’m going to extrapolate a bit here and suggest that in my opinion .44 Special is also good for defense against animals weighing less than 50 pounds. My reasoning is that .44 Special is ballistically closer to .38 Special ballistics than it is to .44 Magnum. Furthermore, the .357 Magnum provides superior muzzle energy and velocity than the .44 Special and is considered to be the minimum caliber for medium game handgun hunting. Anecdotally, I’ve heard stories of .38 Special being used effectively in defense against an aggressive wild hog which suggests that .44 Special could work against some animals larger than 50 pounds. However, that’s not to say that the anecdotal evidence wasn’t just a case of getting lucky.

With all of the information gathered here, I think it is safe to say that .44 Special and .44 Magnum are both suitable for self defense. However, if a potential threat is a large dangerous animal (such as bear) then .44 Magnum is much better suited for that purpose.

That last statement may appear to suggest that 44 Magnum is the better choice for self defense. However, there are some considerations that may suggest otherwise. Let’s look at some.

Given the much faster velocity of the .44 Magnum, the .44 Magnum also requires a longer braking distance (or greater braking force) to bring the projectile to rest. This means that, all else being equal, the .44 Magnum will penetrate further than the .44 Special. So in situations where over penetration is a concern, like self defense in a densely populated environment or where neighboring residences are near, the .44 Special may be a more suitable choice.

Another thing to consider is self defense situations where there are multiple targets. While the revolver capacity will be the same with either cartridge, one should strongly consider the skill and additional time required to acquire the next target. Using a recoil energy calculator, the load data from Nosler (mentioned above), and the static firearm weight (I’m using the 25.5 ounce, or 1.575 pound, weight of the 329PD), we can see that the recoil energy of the .44 Special (10.37 lbs) is about a quarter of the .44 Magnum (41.3 lbs) recoil energy. Like the difference in ballistics between these two cartridges, I’m going to describe the difference in recoil in the same manner. The difference is astronomical.

The recoil of the .44 Magnum can be mitigated by using a heavier firearm. However, this means a compromising carry comfort and firearm conceal-ability.

Yet another thing to consider is the availability of .44 Special personal defense ammunition. Given .44 Special isn’t a popular self defense round, not all major ammunition manufacturers offer a defensive load for this cartridge. For example, Federal Premium doesn’t offer any .44 Special personal defense loads while offering one .44 Magnum personal defense load. Hornady has one .44 Special personal defense load compared to four .44 Magnum personal defense loads. Searches on several ammunition retailers websites yielded similar results, next to nothing for .44 Special personal defense loads and a few .44 Magnum personal defense loads.

I suppose the silver lining in carrying a .44 Magnum revolver for self defense is that one can switch between the .44 Special and the .44 Magnum according to environment and the likely potential threats that exist in those environments.

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