Monday, October 12, 2015
Torture-testing two Taurus .44 Magnum revolvers
As I mentioned in one of my Blogorado reports, I've been testing two Taurus .44 Magnum revolvers. One is an Model 44 large-frame six-shot revolver with a 6½" barrel, like this one:
I replaced its factory grips, as illustrated above, with Hogue rubber grips, which fit my hand much better. The other is a Tracker five-shot medium-frame revolver with a 4" barrel, like this one:
I retained its factory Ribber grips, because I hadn't used them before and wanted to see how comfortable and manageable they'd be under heavy recoil.
These tests were inspired by requests from some of the disabled and handicapped shooters I've trained over the years, to help them get into handgun hunting. Some of them use wheelchairs, so longer barrels are not a good idea - carrying them while seated is often difficult, even using a chest holster. Also, disability income is usually very limited, so buying a US-made revolver is usually out of the question, even if used. They hold their value too well. On the other hand, Taurus makes .44 Magnum revolvers at a much lower price point. There have been questions (justified, IMHO) about Taurus' quality, as we've discussed before, but I've never had an issue with one of their big-bore steel revolvers. (I emphasize steel: they've produced some revolvers in a titanium alloy, some of which are reported to have given trouble. However, I've never handled or fired one, so I can't speak from personal experience.)
Given those questions, I decided that the only way I could recommend a big-bore Taurus revolver in good conscience would be to torture-test one or two of them, to see how they held up to a lot of rounds fired over a short period of time (not something most Magnum revolvers undergo, given their recoil levels). Accordingly, I started looking for bargains in used revolvers. I got the Model 44 as a trade for another gun I owned, and the Tracker for a reasonable price via my local Armslist. It's been my experience that if one watches and waits, one can sometimes find good-condition used examples of both revolvers in the $350-$450 range. They're usually priced higher, but it's worth looking for the occasional bargain, IMHO. That's only about half the usual asking price of a Smith & Wesson or Ruger equivalent. New, the guns seem to retail in the $500-$650 range in my area, also much cheaper than their US-made counterparts.
I brought both guns to Blogorado this year, and invited those attending to help me put at least 200 rounds of full-power ammunition through each of them. Over the course of three days of shooting, that's just what we did, including over 100 rounds through each gun in the space of one hour. Everyone commented favorably on the big Model 44, which proved surprisingly comfortable to shoot and very controllable (although shooters with smaller hands found its grip a bit too big for comfort). The ported barrel (i.e. the holes visible alongside the front sight in the picture above) really helped to control muzzle flip. The smaller Tracker was less popular, partly because its lower weight didn't provide as much counterbalance to recoil energy, partly because the factory Ribber grip proved less capable of absorbing and controlling recoil than the Hogue grip I'd installed on the Model 44. (The Ribber grips consist of a rubber core surrounded by horizontal layered 'ribs' of soft rubber, which 'squish' in one's hand as one tightens one's grasp. One shooter described them as 'funky'.) I found them acceptable, but not great. If I keep this revolver, I'll replace them with a set of Hogue grips for this model, and I'll recommend the same to any of my disabled students who buy one. Customer reviews of the Hogue grip on Amazon.com are uniformly very positive in comparison to the factory Ribber offering.
(One note about Hogue rubber grips: they're relatively easy to modify for shooters with smaller hands. One can cut or grind off the finger grooves at the front, making it a smooth grip front and rear, and trim them even more if necessary to fit the hands of an individual shooter. The same can be done with Hogue's wood grips, of course, although that would require refinishing them as well. I've been told that wood grips without finger grooves can be special-ordered from Hogue, but I've not tried this myself yet.)
There were two minor difficulties with the Tracker that were consistent throughout the test. First, it was reluctant to release fired cases from the cylinder chambers. It's not that they stuck hard, or wouldn't come out at all: if they had, I'd have stopped the test and written off the Tracker as having failed. However, cases were harder and slower to extract than they were from the larger Model 44's cylinder, often requiring a pull with one's fingers in addition to operating the ejector rod. This slowed the reloading process. I can only assume that the Tracker's chambers are possibly a fraction narrower or less smoothly machined than the Model 44's. Second, the Tracker's double-action trigger pull was heavy and 'lumpy'. This made accurate shooting in double-action mode much more difficult. On the other hand, its single-action mode (manually cocking the hammer before firing each shot) proved perfectly acceptable.
Despite these issues, the Tracker gave no other problems throughout the tests, and proved accurate in the hands of several shooters. I'm going to send it to a gunsmith to have him check it out, and I'll report back on what he finds. With honed cylinders to make extraction easier, and a trigger job to improve double-action function, I think the Tracker will prove acceptable. I also think that it's an ideal gun to use for softer-recoiling .44 Special rounds. They'd be adequate for personal defense, reserving the hotter .44 Magnum rounds for hunting or special purposes. The Tracker won't be my primary recommendation for a hunting handgun: however, I think it'll be an acceptable choice for those with smaller hands and bodies, who might find a large-frame revolver's size and weight more difficult to handle. They'll just have to make sure that the one they buy works well before taking it into the field.
The large-frame Model 44 was a delight. Its size and weight (both considerable) attracted comment from a number of shooters, but after firing it they conceded that the bulk and mass added to its recoil-absorbing properties. It went through round after round of full-power ammunition with no trouble at all, and its smooth double-action trigger and big, easy-to-see sights attracted many approving comments. I like this revolver enough that I'm going to keep it for my personal battery. It's earned its place in my collection. What's more, I'm going to look for someone who owns a Model 44 with a 4" barrel. I'd like to take it to the range, to see if it's as easy-shooting as its longer-barreled brother. I suspect it will be. On the basis of this (admittedly limited) experience, I think I can recommend the Taurus Model 44 as an excellent entry-level .44 Magnum revolver. It may not have the cachet of a US manufacturer's name, but it shot as well as any of them in the hands of our Blogorado testers.
I didn't test the extra-large-frame Taurus Raging Bull revolver in .44 Magnum at Blogorado. I've owned one before, and was very happy with it, finding it accurate and relatively soft-shooting. (John Taffin, a noted authority on big-bore revolvers, speaks very highly of both the Model 44 and the Raging Bull series. If you want to know all there is to know about .44-caliber firearms, Taffin's 'Book of the .44' is available free online, and is a 'must read'.) However, the Raging Bull series guns are even larger and heavier than the Model 44. IMHO, that makes them simply too big and too heavy for easy packing in the field. On the other hand, if I ever want a revolver firing the .454 Casull cartridge, which is a lot more powerful than the .44 Magnum, and I want greater size and weight to control the heavier recoil, the Raging Bull series will certainly be on my shopping list.
I also didn't test any lightweight .44 Magnum revolvers such as the Smith & Wesson Model 329 or the Taurus Model 444 Ultralight. I know these are popular with some people: a lot of Miss D.'s and my friends in Alaska prefer them for daily carry, because with appropriate ammunition they can defend against both criminals and marauding bears. However, I find their light weight makes the recoil of the .44 Magnum cartridge not merely unpleasant, but a danger to health. I've fired a Model 329 with full-power ammunition. After just three rounds my right wrist was saying to me, loud and clear, "Hel-looooo, carpal tunnel syndrome!" I laid it down and refused to shoot it again. Some claim that under the stress of defending one's life, one won't notice the recoil, but that doesn't convince me. I'd rather carry a full-weight revolver when dealing with a heavy-recoiling cartridge. YMMV, of course. (Let me add, however, that like the Taurus Tracker described above, a lightweight .44 Magnum revolver will probably make an excellent platform for .44 Special rounds, even heavy loads in that cartridge. They recoil much less than their more powerful .44 Magnum siblings.)
I have to add one note of caution. Both revolvers tested have factory-ported barrels. They work fine outdoors, where there are no obstructions: but indoors, or under a roof or canopy, or inside a vehicle, would be an entirely different matter. Porting directs blast and noise upward to control muzzle flip, which it usually does quite effectively. However, that means that the gun is also much noisier (the muzzle blast now travels up as well as outward, and will bounce off a ceiling or upper surface). There's also more muzzle flash, as gases are vented upward as well as forward. I think firing any Magnum round indoors is likely to cause ear damage, and doing so from a ported barrel probably doubles that risk. I suggest that ported-barrel firearms should be reserved for outdoor use only, at least with Magnum ammunition. Firing lower-pressure rounds through them (such as .44 Special, as mentioned above) shouldn't present as many problems, and may be acceptable indoors. YMMV. They're your ears, after all. Just remember that your wife and children have ears too, and they won't thank you for blowing them out!