Sharpe once wrote in his 1937 hand-loading manual…
" The 44-40 is capable of excellent performance when loaded properly for handgun use. If, however, one endeavors to combine loading for both handgun and rifle in this caliber, he is destined to meet with only mediocre success. As in all other dual-purpose cartridges, the factory loads are only a compromise at best. Smokeless-powder loading for handguns requires a much more rapid-burning type than loading for rifle use, as the short barrel must burn all the powder if satisfactory results are to be achieved. In addition, rifle cartridges can be loaded to a pressure of about 30,000 pounds in this caliber, whereas the same load in a revolver would be more or less disastrous."
To better understand the language in which this is referring, let me explain…
The RIFLE was once loaded to perform best with rifle powders. From 1895 to the writing of that language in 1937, the Winchester factory used rifle powders for the 44-40. They used Dupont No.2 rifle powder and Hercules Sharpshooter rifle powder. Winchester started using Sharpshooter for their new High Velocity loads in 1903 but continued to use Dupont No.2 in their normal loads through 1931.
This is what Sharp was referring to in his statement.
If the shooter wanted the best performance in a revolver, he would need to switch to a pistol powder.
Winchester did not use a pistol powder until 1949 when they switched to a pistol ball powder, thus
Sharpe’s instructions in 1937.
By 1958 Winchester started using a flattened pistol ball powder and by 1979 they switched to a flake pistol powder.
However, over the past 63 years the use of rifle powder for the 44-40 has all but been forgotten.
Because we do not learn from our HISTORY, mis-information on the performance of the 44-40 runs rapid to include the “effective range” this cartridge really has. Today we must reverse what Sharpe wrote, which should look like this:
" The 44-40 is capable of excellent performance when loaded properly for rifle use. If, however, one endeavors to combine loading for both handgun and rifle in this caliber, he is destined to meet with only mediocre success. As in all other dual-purpose cartridges, the factory loads are only a compromise at best. Smokeless-powder loading for rifles requires a less, rather slower-burning type than loading for revolver use, as the longer barrel gives more time, allowing the slower powder to burn more completely at lower chamber pressures if satisfactory results are to be achieved at longer shooting distances, and at less pressures, than with faster burning pistol powders."
Handloaders had access to faster burning smokeless powders back then just as we do today. Laflin & Rand manufactured a “Revolver” powder in 1898 as well as Bullseye. Bullseye, Unique, and Infallible were all made from the same formula, the only difference being granulation. Bullseye and Unique are still manufactured by Alliant. Unique was considered a rifle powder during that time and so stated on the canisters.
There were other powders available to handloaders that worked very well in the 44-40. SR-80 by 1913, IMR-1204…and it’s replacement, IMR-4227. IMR-4227 was introduced as a mid-range rifle powder but is now IMR’s “Magnum” powder. 2400 powder was also a rifle powder long before it was referred to, and now called a pistol “Magnum” powder.
Few if any pistol powders work well past 100 yards.
Bullseye works well in revolvers
Unique works pretty good in rifles but your velocity will suffer.
2400 works well too but is a bit too fast for normal velocity loads and remain under SAAMI max when loaded as needed to perform as it should.
IMR-4227 works wonderful at 265 yards but must be loaded hot (like 2400) and NOT USED in weak action rifles or revolvers.
Reloder 7 is the cat’s meow for all firearms but there is only one published load…and with a 240gr lead bullet…WHAT?
What Unique can do at 9gr with a 200gr lead @ 12,645 psi, Reloder 7 can do better at only 9,575 psi
Reloder 7’s published load by Hercules, Alliant and Lee Precision gives the 44-40, with a 240gr lead bullet, 10% to 20% better performance than original loads at less than SAAMI max pressures. (SAAMI max is 11,000 psi)
I found, from my amateur test, that the published 23.5gr of RL-7 with a 240gr cast bullet produced 1,284fps @ only 9,575 psi.
So if you love the 44-40 but can’t seem to shoot much further than 100 yards with smokeless powder, dump the pistol powders and get back to the RIFLE Cartridge is once was!!!
The next topic…chamber, barrel and bullet diameters…the 44-40’s enemy #1
The pressures created back in the day, IMO, reflect more on true pressures rather than adding in some sort of safety margin. The below chart seems to show such pressures (in cup). While there is no magic formula to translate cup into psi…since SAAMI tested for both with the 44-40, we can see that SAAMI’s max pressures for the 44-40 is 11,000 psi and 13,000 cup. Thus we can use a formula for close proximity calculations. Take any publish 44-40 cup load and multiply it by .0846. Thus, in the below chart, for example, 15,000 cup x .846 = 12,690 psi. This is why on my pressure testing chart, I highlight loads between 12,000 psi and 14,000 psi in yellow.