44 Russian is a gift to all of us who like to collect guns of the Old West. Never mind that the “Old West” is a mythic reinvention of the history of the west by the dime magazine purveyors of the late Nineteenth century, it still holds a powerful influence over many of us.
44 Russian was a cartridge invented by Smith & Wesson in 1872. It was designed at the behest of the Russian government, that was looking to adopt Smith & Wesson revolvers for its army but disliked the 44/100 cartridge that was used in those revolvers. The 44/100 used a “heel based” bullet, rather like a modern 22 rimfire and was smeared with lubricating grease, again like a modern 22 rinfire! The heel of the bullet rests on top of the cartridge case. The Russians realised that this was completely unsuitable for service use as the grease was a magnet for dust and detritus that might damage the gun’s bore.
Smith & Wesson came up with the 44 Russian, the first modern cartridge. The bullet’s base was enclosed by the brass cartridge case and its lubrication was enclosed.
Thus the Tsarist army adopted the Smith & Wesson revolver chambered for the 44 Russian. It had a long service life. In the 1940s, NKVD units were using 44 Russian revolvers during the “Great Patriotic War”.
In 2001, the Home Office published a new list of obsolete cartridges, which nominated 44 Russian as obsolete, which has opened up Western revolver collecting to British antique collectors. Most Western revolvers were chambered for 44 Russian, even if it is a rare chambering for some brands, such as the Colt Single Action Army, for example.
Here are some examples of old western guns chambered for 44 Russian, all of which may be held as a antiques in the UK.
The S&W Model of 1881 was a fairly popular model that sold well out west. The notorious gun slinger John Wesley Hardin had one in his pocket when he was shot in the back at the Acme Saloon in El Paso in 1895
It was S&W’s answer to the Colt self cocking revolver, the model of 1878, which is shown here. The 1878 was produced in 44 Russian, mostly for the German market. This particular gun was shipped in 1887 to Paul Reuss, a gun dealer in Stuttgart, who was trying to interst German officers in the gun.
Very few examples of this model in this calibre survive, as all privately owned pistols were confiscated and destroyed after the Versailles Treaty.
The iconic Single Action Army was chambered in 44 Russian but only about 150 were made, out of a total production run of over 300,000, so must certainly be counted a rarity today. Mostly, these guns were made for the target shooting community in the 1890s and early twentieth century. The gun portrayed here is unusual as it is a standard frame “self defence” revolver in 44 Russian, which is most unusual.
The 44 Russian was discovered to be a very accurate target round and many manufacturers starting making high quality target variations of their standard revolvers. here is an early 20th Century New Model 3 target revolver made by Smith & Wesson.
Guns like these were very popular with the British shooting community and were shot at the national shooting centre at Bisley Camp.