When it comes to home defense, much can be argued. While some folks like the hit probability associated with a shotgun-wielding buckshot, others prefer the maneuverability of a handgun. Still, others choose a carbine as their go-to gun in the event of a bump in the night. The primary reason for the latter is usually stopping power.
.44 Magnum Ammo
For years, we have heard that handguns are less lethal and less effective for defense than rifles. The world has seen enough bloody conflicts to confirm this claim. However, when this argument comes up, it almost never consists of apples-to-apples testing. Usually, it’s somebody comparing a 5.56mm to a 9mm. But what if the same cartridge is fired out of different platforms? What about a magnum cartridge? Would we really see a difference there?
With these questions circling in my head, I looked around the shop and realized that I had what I needed to test this theory, so I quickly rounded up the items. On the handgun side, I had a Taurus Raging Hunter. With its 8.37-inch barrel, this revolver has provided outstanding accuracy in past experiments and is certainly up to the task of landing a 25-yard shot with the same accuracy as a rifle. For our long gun, I went with the Henry Big Boy with a 20-inch barrel. Both firearms are chambered in the ultra-effective .44 Magnum.
I chose this combination because more and more homeowners have been choosing lever-action carbines lately because of political infringements on the more adequate AR-15 platform. Both firearms also lend themselves nicely to hunting, so the results of our experiment might help our friends who like to get their groceries from the woods.
On test day, my friends and I set out to gather a number of data points. First, we wanted to see exactly what kind of velocity difference we could expect with the additional 11.63 inches of barrel that the carbine afforded. Whenever people in the firearms industry talk about velocity, it’s nearly always about muzzle velocity. While that’s a nice, easy way to measure things, what about the velocity where it counts—you know, at the target?
.44 Magnum Ammo Downrange
Determined to gather that information, I placed a Shooting Chrony chronograph 25 yards downrange just inches away from our initial target. The ultimate goal was to gather muzzle-velocity data on both firearms and then gather target-velocity data to see if the gain at the muzzle carried enough velocity 25 yards away to really matter once it hit the target. We went with Hornady 200-grain XTP rounds that have given us good accuracy in both platforms in past work. In the handgun, we achieved an average of 4.19 inches for five 5-shot groups, while our carbine groups averaged 1.47 inches.
We then fired 10 rounds over the chronograph placed just 5 feet in front of the muzzle of both firearms. The average muzzle velocity of the Raging Hunter was 1,621 feet per second (fps), while the carbine’s was 1,975 fps. Although it’s not simple straightforward math, 20 percent of anything in life isn’t usually a major factor. The most eye-opening velocity measurement came at the target, where we noticed a single-digit percentage of velocity loss. Whether a target is at the muzzle or 25 yards away, the impact will be almost identical.
Numbers are nice, but I’m a man who believes in the bullet. While the world of ammo testing likes to summarize effectiveness with a number in feet per second, I understand that this doesn’t tell the entire story. At the end of the day, it’s about how well that bullet transfers its energy, and that is a much more delicate dance between speed, projectile shape, and composition. It is the summary of these items (and many more) that determines terminal ballistics.
So, in addition to our chronograph, we utilized some ballistic gelatin, as this stuff can show you if how a bullet penetrates, creates a wound channel, etc. For this, we turned to Clear Ballistics 10-percent FBI gel, as it allows for easily visible results and would stay solid in the 85-degree weather we had for range day. As I wasn’t overly familiar with .44 Magnum ammo penetration prior to this article, I opted to double up our blocks. Wrapped around the face of each target was a piece of leather, then a piece of denim to further simulate real-world applications.
Using a Caldwell Rock Rest, I fired shots from the Taurus and Henry into their respective gel targets and witnessed the most violent ballistic summersaults to date. The projectiles certainly delivered the extreme terminal performance that Hornady promised. After traveling completely through the first block, both bullets bounced off the second block that was butted up against the first. Neither bullet left a significant impression in the second block, confirming my claim from a penetration standpoint at least.
Barrel Versus Bullet
For this reason, we were only able to recover the bullet fired from the revolver, which was lying on the table in between both blocks. The carbine bullet bounced into the sand and was never seen again, even after an hour of searching. In terms of stopping power, it is really hard to quantify if one platform displayed more or less, but we certainly did see different wound channels in each gel. The round fired from the carbine opened up nearly completely and left one major cavity that measured about 1.5 inches at its widest and extended a total of 4 inches before it narrowed out.
The revolver bullet left two main cavities, each measuring around 1 inch at its widest and extending 8.5 inches until it calmed down. Essentially, they dumped roughly the same amount of energy into the block, just over different periods of time. Most importantly, both bullets started their expansion within 1 inch of penetration, proving effective velocity.
So, what does it all mean for .44 Magnum ammo? Judging from the way those blocks flew, it doesn’t really matter what platform fires the bullet inside of defensive distances, just as long as your round has what it takes to get the job done. Bullets like the Hornady XTP were designed to expand at a multitude of velocities and thus transfer energy when they do. This spread accounts for the variance that you would see in short barrels versus long barrels inside of these reduced distances.
In closing, instead of arguing about barrel length, we should be more focused on the round and the projectile. While we did see a velocity difference, it didn’t really result in a difference in penetration, wound channel or even target reaction.