.45 or .44?

Benjamin Nicholson

Reviewed by Ashley Hlebinsky

04 Jul 2015

When these two num­bers are put togeth­er, peo­ple usu­al­ly sit up and pay atten­tion. John Wayne stands tall with his Colt 45,” and Clint East­wood faces off with his S&W 44 Mag­num.“1 There’s only a hun­dredth of an inch sep­a­rat­ing the two cal­ibers, and a gen­er­a­tion of con­tention as to which is the fin­er round or revolver. The num­ber 45 can be flipped to make 54, and plea­sure seek­ing Baby Boomers come to mind, singing along with the Vil­lage People’s icon­ic tune YMCA against the back­drop of Stu­dio 54, New York’s icon­ic 70s dis­co. So what hap­pens in the brain when it hears some­thing so reduced in size and eco­nom­i­cal in its sym­bol­ism as two num­bers, jux­ta­posed either for­wards or backwards?

For all of the Steam­punk cog­wheels and curly-cues of the Vic­to­ri­an age, car­tridges and bul­lets are amongst the most abstract shapes to come out of the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion, a per­fect union of straight line and curve.2 From the out­side, a car­tridge is haunt­ing in its reduced sim­plic­i­ty: lit­tle more than a trun­cat­ed cylin­der of gleam­ing brass filled with gun­pow­der, into which is wedged a lead bul­let. The nose cone of a bul­let is a round ogive shape, designed to slice through wind with opti­mum effi­cien­cy. Yet, for all its mod­ernist aus­ter­i­ty, a bul­let is preg­nant with the capac­i­ty for a life chang­ing, vis­cer­al, nasty, messy, causal­i­ty. Who would have known that such ghast­ly ter­mi­na­tion could be born from such pure form? The clue is the ear-split­ting crack-bang that accom­pa­nies each shot. The raw pow­er of that noise, whose only par­al­lel in nature is a thun­der­clap, feels like all the nois­es of the world have been com­pressed into a split sec­ond. Sure­ly that alone tells us some­thing. And not to be for­got­ten is that, when the chips are down, the car­tridge becomes cur­ren­cy, not worth­less paper mon­ey. The real price of life is unam­bigu­ous­ly mir­rored in the sim­ple form; one is exchanged for the oth­er.3

What we know today as a bul­let shape” start­ed out as a per­fect­ly round sphere of lead used for cen­turies in matchlock, wheel lock, and flint­lock mus­kets and pis­tols up until the 1830s. Keplar­i­an globes would sail through the air in con­stel­la­tions from massed vol­leys of smooth­bore mus­kets, from the ranks of British Red Coats and Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies alike. The lead­en balls would yaw and arc through space, inac­cu­rate and going their own way, hop­ing for a chance hit upon their unfor­tu­nate adver­sary. The balls were big, slow, and heavy, between one-half and three-quar­ters of an inch in diam­e­ter. A mus­ke­teer, if his view was unsul­lied by smoke, could watch the unhur­ried pas­sage of the ball form a shal­low par­a­bol­ic arc as it wend­ed its way into the heart of dark­ness. Basic mil­i­tary ammu­ni­tion is still called Ball ammo, despite no longer being spherical.

.75 caliber and .70 caliber ball ammunition from the Revolutionary War. Collection of the author. This generation of bullets weighed around an ounce. They were easily dropped down the muzzle of smooth-bore muskets, as their diameter was smaller than that of the barrel. They were by no means perfect spheres and the casting sprue would be snipped off by the soldier, causing a further diminishment in accuracy.

Invent­ing the .44 Cal­iber Ball

It may be won­dered why some of the stan­dard ammu­ni­tion we know today, such as .44, .36 and .32 cal­ibers, have such seem­ing­ly irreg­u­lar dimen­sions. The rea­son is decep­tive­ly sim­ple. The stan­dard .75 Cal­iber Brown Bess of the 1776 Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War mus­ket used a .69 cal­iber ball and weighed approx­i­mate­ly 1¼ ounce or thir­teen to a pound. The table below shows the rel­a­tive weights of small­er ammu­ni­tion.4

The diam­e­ter of ball ammu­ni­tion began to dimin­ish when bar­rels could be inex­pen­sive­ly rifled, as an accu­rate shot is more dead­ly although the ball is small­er. When Samuel Colt patent­ed his revolver mech­a­nism in 1836, a new search for the right cal­iber ball ammo was set in motion. The Colt Pater­son .36 cal­iber revolver, con­sid­ered by many to be one of the most ele­gant hand­guns ever made, could fire five shots in quick suc­ces­sion. For the nascent gun indus­try, the search was on for a revolv­ing hand­gun that was the right mix of fire­pow­er, cal­iber, light­ness, and ease of man­u­fac­ture to reli­ably deliv­er more shots on tar­get if the first one missed.5

Colt Paterson No. 5 Revolver M1836, .36 caliber. Photo courtesy Woolaroc Museum, Bartlesville, Oklahoma. One of America’s finest collections of Colt Paterson revolvers, as well as many other Colt pistols, is at the Woolaroc Museum off the beaten path in rural Oklahoma. The Colt Firearms Museum, within the Connecticut State Library, could make the same claim. To give a sense of their epicurean rarity, in 2011 a Colt Paterson sold for $977,500. When visiting Los Angeles, another great collection of Colt Patersons is at the Gene Autry Museum, home of the “Singing Cowboy,” in Los Angeles. This Los Angeles museum has a premier collection of revolvers embellished by the very best 19th-century German- American engravers. For anyone interested in art & technology, the Greg Martin Gallery in the Autry Museum is a must-see place.

Large .70 cal­iber to .50 cal­iber round mus­ket balls were too pow­er­ful for the new revolvers, and Paterson’s .36 cal­iber ball was a tad too light, so the mil­i­tary deter­mined that a spher­i­cal bul­let of .44 inch diam­e­ter would be the opti­mum size for reli­able stop­ping-pow­er from a hand­gun. The .36 cal­iber bul­let would still do the job at close quar­ters, but the .44 spelled out unam­bigu­ous pow­er.3

Remington 1858 Sheriff Model, .44 caliber cap and ball. Collection of the author.

This almost new (98%) reproduction was made by Pietta and was bought at a gun show for $75. Firearm research starts at gun shows where, unlike museums, everything can be handled without kid gloves and there is a wealth of shared knowledge at hand. Gun shows are largely “cash & carry” affairs in which attendees and amateur sellers carry wads of $100 bills, peppered by $20s. Professional dealers require a background check to complete the transaction for any gun made after 1898. Not so the amateur dealer. For firearm collector/scholars, a gun show is about as much fun as can be had for a $10 entry fee and, although I hate to say it, it is as equally interesting as an art museum.

For the Civ­il War foot sol­dier, the del­i­cate bal­ance between the stop­ping-pow­er, the weight of weapon, and the quan­ti­ty of bul­lets that could be car­ried was crit­i­cal. Civ­il War buffs armed with met­al detec­tors still find caches of lead bul­lets dumped in the field, as they were too heavy to lug around day after day. A per­fect bal­ance between the man­u­fac­tur­er and the sol­diers’ needs was achieved with the sleek Colt Army Mod­el 1860, a .44 cal. cap & ball revolver. It was a mas­ter­piece of ergonom­ics and mechan­i­cal effi­cien­cy, with the pow­er to stop six peo­ple in their tracks. It is a thing of beau­ty, albeit dark.

Colt Army 1860 revolver, .44 cal. Photo courtesy the Colt Firearms Museum, Museum of Connecticut History.

The barrel and fore-frame are made from one piece of steel and sculpted for maximum economy of weight. Its androgynous form was manufactured either by casting, milling machines or by being forged: the curved cuts are considered to be a marvel of technology wedded to art.

The spher­i­cal lead ball was reengi­neered for the rifled Spring­field mus­kets of the Civ­il War of 1860 – 1865 with an elon­gat­ed bul­let of ogive form. This was fur­ther refined with the Minié Ball. It had a deep recess at the rear and tapered to a thin skirt of lead at the base, known as a Cylin­dro-con­ic Ball.6 As the black pow­der blew, the lead skirt expand­ed into the grooves of the rifling and made a tighter and much more effi­cient use of the pro­pel­lant. This sim­ple redesign meant that the bul­let could trav­el faster with the same amount of pow­der and yield greater stop­ping-pow­er. As the effi­cien­cy of the bullet’s design increased, over time the nom­i­nal .58 or .69 cal­ibers of the Civ­il War firearms began to decrease, get­ting clos­er and clos­er to the mag­i­cal num­bers of .45 & .44.

Civil War hollow-base “Minié” and solid bullets. Collection of the author. Civil war bullets are miracles of design, having some of the most minimalist profiles of the 19th century. The bullet on the bottom row on the right is a rare .41 cal. round for the Volcanic Pistol, based on the design concept of Hunt’s "Rocket Ball." The powder charge is in the hollow of the lead bullet, as is the percussion cap, dispensing with the need for a copper cartridge shell. The Volcanic pistol was so underpowered that it was ineffective at anything but close range, but the design gave birth to the Henry 1860 "Yellow Boy" and 1873 Winchester lever action rifles. This Volcanic round was found on a Civil War battlefield in a cache of twelve unused examples, implying that they were dumped, dropped, or fell with a soldier. Good archaeological practice could have answered that question, something that a metal detector is not programmed to do.

Nowhere but in war­fare, where life and death are in the bal­ance, is design so crit­i­cal to gain the upper edge on the com­pe­ti­tion. This inten­si­ty of pro­fes­sion­al engage­ment is some­thing that does not occur with the design of the lat­est espres­so machine. Unable to deter­mine whether firearms neat­ly fall into the cat­e­go­ry of weapons, art or sci­ence, schools and muse­ums of design frown upon firearm stud­ies as a way­ward child, despite hold­ing them­selves up as the gate­keep­ers of design the­o­ry.7

The .22 & .44 Metal­lic Cartridge

The prob­lem with lead balls and loose black pow­der wrapped in car­tridge paper was that they were slow to load and sus­cep­ti­ble to mis­fire dur­ing rain, a sit­u­a­tion made mar­gin­al­ly bet­ter by the inven­tion of the per­cus­sion cap igni­tion sys­tem. The sec­ond prob­lem with paper car­tridges was that breech-load­ing guns could have a gap between block, breech, and bar­rel through which the explo­sive gasses escaped.

12mm Lefaucheux Pinfire cartridge and 6mm Flobert. Collection of author. The pinfire cartridge was perfected by Eugène Lefaucheux, on his father Casimir Lefaucheux’s 1837 patent. The Flobert 6mm (.22 BB Cap) is the first metallic waterproof cartridge with primer, propellant and bullet contained in a copper shell. Later versions added gunpowder to increase the muzzle velocity, although Flobert had inserted that eventuality in his 1849 patent.

To address these short­com­ings, French­man Casimir Lefaucheux designed the first viable metal­lic car­tridge in 1837 and, by 1854, his son Eugène Lefaucheux had refined the Lefaucheux M1854 revolver to fire six 12mm (.47”) cal­iber pin­fire car­tridges. Not only were the car­tridges large­ly water­proof, but also the met­al case effec­tive­ly sealed the gap between the breech­block and cylin­der in a process called obtu­ra­tion, mean­ing to close or obstruct.

Lefaucheux Brevete, Model 1854 pattern, third type, known as the "Stonewall Jackson," 12mm Pinfire Revolver. Collection of author.

In 1845, Louis Nicholas Auguste Flobert invent­ed a tru­ly water­proof metal­lic car­tridge, com­posed of a 6mm (.22”) lead ball mount­ed onto a per­cus­sion cap primer. By the late 1850s, Flobert had devel­oped his par­lor pis­tols” to fire the tiny car­tridge in sev­er­al cal­ibers, includ­ing 4mm.8

Flobert Parlor Pistols, 6mm (.22cal). Top: Houllier Blanchard Parlor Pistol c. 1845-1865. Bottom: German "Zimmerschutzen" reproduction of 19th-century Flobert pistol, circa 1950. Collection of the author.

Gilles Mariette made the barrel for this Houllier Blanchard pistol; Mariette was a Belgian gunsmith of great inventiveness, having patented the double action pepperbox revolver in 1837. Houllier was of equal stature, and held patents on cartridges. “Flobert” parlor pistols are transitional firearms, the first guns to use fully contained wedge-shaped waterproof cartridges; they were not rimmed, as are the modern versions shown here. Early Flobert pistols made the large hammer double as a breechblock. Later versions used a complicated three-piece mechanism known as the "Remington System," with separate parts for extraction, a breechblock, and a hammer. There is scant literature on Flobert pistols, and you find them in unusual places and often mis-cataloged. Parlor Pistols were originally used for indoor target practice; they are still used in Europe, as stringent firearm laws do not regulate the cartridge. In his book The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck described Parisian intellectuals entertaining themselves with guns in cafés; one particularly good marksman could shoot the pipe from an unsuspecting tippler. It was probably done with a Flobert.

Smith & Wes­son rec­og­nized the full poten­tial of the French devel­op­ments in water­proof metal­lic car­tridges, patent­ed in France, but not in Amer­i­ca.9 Smith & Wes­son took an exclu­sive license out on Rollin White’s Patent 12,649 of April 3, 1855, which bored a hole through the cylin­der of a revolver to enable it to accept the new metal­lic French car­tridge. With the help from Tyler Hen­ry, they then designed and patent­ed a new cop­per rim­fire car­tridge whose rim sat secure­ly in the back of the cylin­der, mak­ing it easy to extract. The S&W patent for the car­tridge also placed a rein­forc­ing disc at the base of the car­tridge. This pre­vent­ed it from swelling with the explo­sion, which had jammed the revolv­ing cylin­der in the ear­li­er car­tridge designs.10 The break­through revolver and car­tridge design result­ed in the Smith & Wes­son Num­ber 1 revolver that used a .22 cal­iber car­tridge of the same name. This is an exam­ple of how a gun (the hard­ware) and its ammu­ni­tion (the soft­ware) are designed togeth­er to make a per­fect inte­grat­ed design. At first, the cal­iber of rim­fire ammu­ni­tion was kept small, as it was eas­i­er to man­age the design prob­lems but, as time went by, the rim­fire metal­lic car­tridge increased in size and dou­bled its diam­e­ter of .22 to reach the opti­mal stop­ping-pow­er of the .44 cal­iber bullet.

Whitneyville Armory Model 1, 2nd Series, 1872-3, .22 Short. Collection of the author.

Based on the S&W Number 1, the Whitneyville was made by the Whitney family, who developed the machine tools that set in motion the “American System” of making identical and interchangeable components. Smith & Wesson perfected Flobert’s all-in-one cartridge design with the “The Smith & Wesson No 1 cartridge,” known today as the .22 Short, for which S&W added a rim to aid its seating in the cylinder as well as extraction. Although diminutive, it is a lethal round. When shot in the 1860s, the wounded were likely to die of infection. The .22 Short, loaded with black powder, was the first American rim fire cartridge invented and has been in continuous production since 1857. Few, if any, designed objects of the Industrial Age have lasted unchanged for one hundred and fifty-eight years. Remarkably, later versions of the S&W Model 1 revolver can still be bought for under $300. This one was chosen by the author because of its association with a branch of the Whitney family, of Whitney Museum of American Art fame. Art and technology, as well as war and peace, are never far apart. Note the modern .22 Shorts in the photograph use smokeless powder and are loaded too "hot" for this gun; they could blow out the cylinder!

Rim­fire ammu­ni­tion reached its zenith with a full-size rim­fire .44 cal­iber car­tridge, ini­tial­ly designed for the Mod­el 1860 Hen­ry lever-action repeat­ing rifle. The rifle could be loaded with fif­teen car­tridges, plus one in the cham­ber, a dev­as­tat­ing amount of fire­pow­er for the time. The 1860 Hen­ry is now con­sid­ered to be the first assault rifle” used by a mil­i­tary. The Yan­kees of the War of North­ern Aggres­sion (aka the Amer­i­can Civ­il War) used the rifle to cause hav­oc in the ranks of the Con­fed­er­ate Rebel Army who com­plained, That damn Yan­kee rifle that they load on Sun­day and shoot all week!” A Union diarist replied, send­ing a note back to John­ny Reb of a “…lead­en compliment.”

Henry 1860 Repeating rifle, sn# 3469. Photo courtesy of the Frazier History Museum.

This rifle was presented to David Reed, sometime after 1863, after being wounded fought at Gettyburg. The Henry 1860 Repeating Rifle and .44 Henry rimfire cartridges were designed together as one synonymous system. The Union Army bought over 4.6 million rounds of Henry ammunition.

.44 cal. and .44 Henry Rimfire cartridges. Collection of the author.

Collecting ammunition is compelling if only because the forms are aesthetically beautiful, a perfect wedding between straight-line and curve, as you would expect for an object that flies through the air at great speed. To have in your hand something so small, yet so terminally momentous, is sobering. One wonders how an object, as perfect in shape as an egg, could wreak such explosive havoc. Today, the universal availability of ammunition outside of America’s cities is ubiquitous: it lies in stores in stacks on open shelves, as if it were no more consequential than cans of beans.

Patent developments leading to the 1855 Smith & Wesson .22 Rimfire Cartridge. Notes of the author.

The development of the rimfire cartridge is as complicated as it is fascinating, and shows an evolution of design that is as thrilling and high-stakes as any. In addition to inspecting prototype and production cartridges in person, it requires following French and American patent development for both ammunition and firearm designs that weave in and out between revolver and repeating arms inventions.11 In the US, Smith & Wesson were developing two kinds of ammunition: the case-less .31 or .41 "Volcanic" and the metallic case .22 "Short." Initially, the Smith & Wesson Magazine Pistol (the Volcanic) was designed for metallic case ammunition, but for production in 1853 the case-less Volcanic round was chosen, probably because the technique of manufacturing the metal case had not been perfected. The Volcanic was an underpowered design that was not effective, and the business failed. A new company was formed, and the S&W Model I revolver was brought out in 1857, by which time a successful .22 rimfire cartridge could be manufactured. In 1860, the mechanism of the Volcanic repeater and a .44 rimfire cartridge, perfected by B. Tyler Henry, were wedded to make the 1860 Henry Rifle. B.T. Henry designed and built the first effective machinery of the mass production of metallic cartridges.12 But Smith & Wesson were not the beneficiaries of the ground-breaking lever-action rifle; that would be the prize of Oliver Winchester, its new financial backer.13

The Design Dance: Opti­mal Everything

By the time the rim­fire car­tridge had been per­fect­ed, and before the cen­ter­fire car­tridge had come into being, all of the essen­tial ele­ments of the mod­ern day car­tridge had been iden­ti­fied: the opti­mal bul­let size, the right quan­ti­ty of pow­der, and a reli­able per­cus­sion sys­tem brought togeth­er in one water­proof metal­lic pack­age. Devel­op­ers of car­tridges nego­ti­ate between many para­me­ters to achieve great­est effi­cien­cy, and jug­gling these fac­tors is noth­ing short of a design dance. Today, the out­come of these design deci­sions is quan­ti­fied by stan­dard­ized expres­sions of per­for­mance. The weight of the bul­let is expressed in grains, as is the pow­der that pro­pels the bul­let. The out­come of the right com­bi­na­tion of these two vari­ables is expressed as the muz­zle veloc­i­ty,” the speed of the bul­let mea­sured in feet per sec­ond when it leaves the bar­rel of the gun. The pow­er of a bul­let is called the muz­zle ener­gy,” expressed in ft.lbs or Joules. A very heavy bul­let mov­ing slow­ly can have sim­i­lar destruc­tive ener­gy as a light bul­let mov­ing fast; nat­u­ral­ly, the ener­gy decreas­es with dis­tance as the bul­let slows, which is why the aero­dy­nam­ics of the bul­let counts.

But these are not the only fac­tors in the per­for­mance of a car­tridge. Black pow­der left con­sid­er­able residue in the bar­rel that lit­er­al­ly jammed up the works and made the gun inop­er­a­ble after a num­ber of shots. This led to anoth­er design advance, the addi­tion of incised rings in the lead bul­let into which grease was insert­ed to lubri­cate the bul­let as well as help clean the bar­rel of residue. The design of gun­pow­der is also crit­i­cal, and chemists work­ing in each coun­try had a huge impact on the design dance of the car­tridge. Add to the mix the right length of the bar­rel, for if all the pow­der has not been burned by the time the bul­let leaves the muz­zle of the gun, pow­der and ener­gy is wast­ed. And if the bar­rel is too long it becomes unwieldy and if too short it becomes inac­cu­rate. Chemists worked hard to cre­ate more explo­sive fast burn­ing smoke­less” pow­ders to accel­er­ate the bul­let in short­er bar­rels, but the con­se­quence was that the lead of the faster mov­ing bul­let was deposit­ed in the bar­rel. This unfore­seen prob­lem result­ed in a new design-devel­op­ment to coat the bul­let in cop­per, lead­ing to the Full Met­al Jack­et (FMJ) bul­let. The design dance con­stant­ly shifts with each advance of technology.

The design of a car­tridge is every bit as time-con­sum­ing and com­plex as the design of the gun that fires it, and why some of the most suc­cess­ful car­tridges and firearms were designed togeth­er as one sys­tem. The opti­mal bal­ance between the two can be equat­ed to the design of hard­ware and soft­ware in com­put­er design, and has equal consequence.

Cen­ter­fire .44 & .45 Ammunition

Ammu­ni­tion went through its next big evo­lu­tion with the inven­tion of the cen­ter­fire car­tridge. It used a mod­i­fied per­cus­sion cap called a primer, set into the base of a brass shell to ignite the black pow­der. This devel­op­ment quick­ly made rim­fire ammu­ni­tion obso­lete, except for the .22 cal­iber round. In 1866 and 1869, patents were issued for the Berdan No. 1 primer and the Box­er primer, pro­pri­etary vari­a­tions of a small dis­pos­able cop­per cup filled with mer­cury ful­mi­nate that ignites when struck with a ham­mer. The new primers were wedged into the base of a metal­lic car­tridge and designed to be eas­i­ly replaced, mean­ing that the brass shell could be reused sev­er­al times. This was a vital­ly impor­tant design-devel­op­ment. Liv­ing on the West­ern Fron­tier required that you recy­cle your own ammu­ni­tion from a col­lec­tion of brass shells, replace­able primers, a can of black pow­der, and a bag of lead bul­lets. It was an ear­ly exam­ple of recy­cling mechan­i­cal parts in the Indus­tri­al Age. A trip to Wal-Mart to stock up on ammo was a dis­tant con­cept at that time.

In Great Britain, .450 cal­iber black pow­der cen­ter­fire car­tridges were intro­duced in 1868 for the Adams revolver. The more pow­er­ful .455 car­tridge was devel­oped for the 1887 Web­ley Mk. 1 revolver. In Amer­i­ca, the large-frame Smith & Wes­son Num­ber 3 revolver of 1869, gener­i­cal­ly known today as the Schofield,” used the new .44 cal­iber Amer­i­can cen­ter­fire car­tridge.14 The revolver’s top-break design, cou­pled with the new star-ejec­tor, meant that you could eject all spent shells simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, result­ing in very fast reload times. It was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary design. Four years lat­er, Colt intro­duced the leg­endary Mod­el 1873 Sin­gle Action Army revolver, the Colt 45, designed specif­i­cal­ly to shoot their pro­pri­etary .45 Colt car­tridges. These were 40% more pow­er­ful than the .44 S&W Amer­i­can car­tridge. The Colt .45 used 35 grains of black pow­der rather than 23 grains for the Smith & Wes­son .44. It should be added here that the .44 S&W Amer­i­can, Russ­ian, Spe­cial, and Mag­num car­tridges all use bul­lets of a nom­i­nal diam­e­ter of .429”. Smith & Wes­son were alert to good adver­tis­ing and prob­a­bly used the moniker 44” to take full advan­tage of the catchy name of the num­ber, that is so close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with their brand.15

Smith & Wesson Number 3, First Model, .44 cal. S&W. Photo by the author, used with permission of the J.M. Davis Arms & Historical Museum, Claremore, OK.

A brilliant design that introduced the top break and star-ejector, but it lost out to the Colt SAA .45 cal. in the US. Perhaps it was based on looks because, let’s face it, this one is a bit dumpy. Its lack of success was more likely due to intransigence on the part of S&W, to not accommodate their competitor Colt’s more powerful .45 cartridges by adding a lengthened cylinder & frame, although they did do that for the .44-40 cartridge. Corporate pissing matches equate to the fight at O.K. Corral or a couple of professors staking their careers in the classroom. In animalistic displays of predator & prey, each can end with winners and losers. This particular S&W is from the Davis Museum in Oklahoma, a treasure trove of 13,000 guns, kept in a Bruto-Modernist concrete box. They are arranged in custom built black-painted steel cases fitted with pegboard and lit by neon. The architects Prouvé, Breuer, and Mies would have been proud of their influences, in equal measure.

Colt SAA 1873 .45 cal., 5½” barrel, Uberti Cody Cattleman reproduction. Collection of the author.

From the emotive point of view, this revolver, known as a “Hog’s Leg,” has been lying on my worktable for the past four days, migrating from one spot to another. It is photographed on top of a MacBook Pro belonging to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a perfect backdrop. I ask myself over and over again, “Why is the design so compelling?” Certainly it is the gun of boyhood dreams, of lying on the floor in front of the neighbor’s telly watching the Lone Ranger in the 1960s, but surely that is not enough to irrigate my aesthetic imagination alone. Do we dare admit, in this age of equal opportunity, that there is such a thing as beauty and “Getting it right,” where all parts are in perfect harmony? The long tube attached to the side of the barrel is both counterintuitive and ugly, yet the revolver would not get a gazillion “likes” without it.

From a technical point of view, the Colt Single Action Army was made with the same machinery used for the Model 1860 percussion revolver and some of the parts interchange. (The Colt factory burned in 1862, and the machinery was all in good condition, having been made in 1863.) The designer William Mason changed the cylinder and frame, adding a top strap (U.S.Pat. 51,117, Nov 21 1865), a housing for the ejector rod, and a loading gate (U.S Pat. 158,957 Jan 19 1875). The barrels were rifled with the same machinery. In both cases, the groove diameters are .451”. So the .45 really is a .45.16

The Colt SAA was cham­bered for its pro­pri­etary .45 Colt car­tridges. The US Army pre­ferred the heav­ier Colt load to the S&W .44 and replaced the S&W Num­ber 3 revolver with the Colt SAA revolver in 1875. Smith & Wes­son adjust­ed to the sit­u­a­tion and intro­duced the No. 3 Schofield” revolver, using a new .45 S&W car­tridge, but it was under­pow­ered. Anoth­er prob­lem was that these fit the Colt .45 but not the oth­er way around. Inter­change­abil­i­ty of ammu­ni­tion between firearms is of vital impor­tance in the field, and the US Army rec­og­nized the prob­lem. They prompt­ly can­celled the fast reload­ing S&W Schofield and bought 24,000 Colt SAAs. Con­se­quent­ly, the use of S&W Mod­el 3 Schofield .45 revolvers began to atro­phy in the Unit­ed States, despite being a much more advanced design than the Colt SAA, and equal­ly well made. Even though a sol­dier could reload his Smith & Wes­son No. 3 in half the time it took to reload the Colt SAA — a sig­nif­i­cant advan­tage in mil­i­tary and civil­ian gun­fights — avail­abil­i­ty of ammu­ni­tion over-ruled the bril­liance of the gun’s design.

In a sec­ond devel­op­ment of the design war between the .44 & .45 car­tridge, Win­ches­ter intro­duced its lever-action car­bine in 1873 to replace the Hen­ry 1860 rim­fire car­bine. The Win­ches­ter 1873 fired the new .4440 WCF (Win­ches­ter Cen­ter Fire) car­tridge, mean­ing that it had a .44 cal­iber lead bul­let atop a whop­ping 40 grains of black pow­der.17 Colt imme­di­ate­ly saw the poten­tial of the new rifle and intro­duced the SAA as the Colt Fron­tier in 44 – 40 cal­iber, allow­ing the same car­tridge to be used in the Colt revolver and Win­ches­ter lever action rifle. This made sup­ply logis­tics much sim­pler for the fron­tiers­man. To accom­mo­date the increased pow­der, the .4440 WCF round was nec­es­sar­i­ly 3/​16th inch longer than the old .44 S&W car­tridge. This meant that the longer .4440 WCF could not fit in S&W revolvers, but S&W .44 ammo could fit into Colt and Win­ches­ter .4440 cal. guns, an added ben­e­fit for Colt in its preda­tor or prey bat­tle with Smith & Wesson.

Boxer and Berdan primers, S&W .44 American, Russian and Colt, 44-40 Winchester / .44WCF and .45 Colt cartridges. Collection of the author.

What exactly is ammunition and firearm scholarship within academia, and how does it differ from the practice of a knowledgeable collector? For one thing, scholars cannot take guns or ammunition into their offices at a university or design school, at least not in the North, so that makes study impracticable. Taboo follows closely on its heels. There are tens of thousands of different kinds of cartridge, each a different design in some respect, and they need to be in your hand to examine them fully. By studying the aerodynamics, metallurgy, chemistry, techniques and location of manufacture, as well as the packaging, the faint changes between each development show the genius of invention in slow motion. Study of this pivotal aspect of the foundations of industrial design is logistically difficult and well-nigh impossible for an urban student and academic alike.

At this point, the .45 round had final­ly come of age in a per­fect storm of design inven­tion, mar­ket­ing, inter­change­abil­i­ty, and good for­tune. Had Smith & Wes­son not been so intran­si­gent in refus­ing to elon­gate the frame and cylin­der of their Mod­el 3 Schofield by 3/​16th of an inch to accept Colt’s pow­er­ful .45 car­tridge, the Schofield and its .45 S&W car­tridge may well have held sway in the his­to­ry books. The US Army then com­mis­sioned the hybrid .45 Colt Gov­ern­ment car­tridge to fit both the .45 Schofield and the Colt .45, but it was under­pow­ered and unsat­is­fac­to­ry. The dam­age to S&W’s rela­tion­ship with the US Army had been done. How­ev­er, they did plen­ty of busi­ness with the Impe­r­i­al Russ­ian Army, which meant that, after all was said and done, as many Smith & Wes­son Num­ber 3s were pro­duced as Colt SAA 1873s. Whilst the com­pet­ing Colt and S&W pis­tols had dif­fer­ent rep­u­ta­tions in the Unit­ed States, they were equal­ly suc­cess­ful qual­i­ta­tive­ly and quan­ti­ta­tive­ly when both for­eign and domes­tic mar­kets are tak­en into account.

This is what hap­pened when two man­u­fac­tur­ers, hold­ing a vir­tu­al split monop­oly, chose not to coop­er­ate to cre­ate a solu­tion of inter­change­able units. The result was a night­mare for the con­sumer cow­boys of yes­ter­year. It shows that design does mat­ter and can make or break a busi­ness empire. It is as if there were two AAA bat­tery designs, each slight­ly dif­fer­ent, so that they would only go into one brand or anoth­er. It’s kind of what Apple has done, but they have got­ten away with it — so far.

.4570 & .4590 Rifle Ammo

Now that .45 Colt and .4440 WCF car­tridges were being used inter­change­ably between pis­tols and lever-action car­bine rifles, a par­al­lel devel­op­ment was occur­ring to redesign long rifles to take a more pow­er­ful black pow­der car­tridge in an opti­mum cal­iber. It was deter­mined that the new rifle ammu­ni­tion should have between 70 to 100 grains of pow­der rather than 35 grains used in the .45 Colt revolver car­tridge. To deter­mine the cor­rect cal­iber, in 1873 the Army set up an exhaus­tive Small Arms Cal­iber” Board and test­ed a .40, .42 and .45 cal­iber bul­let against the .50. They chose the .45.18 To address these two fac­tors, a brass alloy shell was devel­oped, elon­gat­ed for more pow­der and great­ly strength­ened at its base. This effec­tive­ly sealed the breech blocks of escap­ing gasses of the new trap­door, falling block and lever-action designs. So was born the mighty .4570 round, designed for the 1873 Spring­field Trap­door rifle, and using over dou­ble the pow­der of the revolver cartridge.

.45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridges. Collection of the Author.

The left-hand cartridge was made in 1912, one year after its introduction in 1911. Both cartridges are FMJ (Full Metal Jacket), a requirement of the Geneva Convention that disallows lead bullets or soft tipped bullets as they are seen to cause inhumane damage. Paradoxically, the red Teflon tipped round, which expands upon impact, is legal to use in the United States by both Law Enforcement agencies and civilians alike, but not by the US Army overseas.

New design and man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­niques of both rifles and car­tridges had made pos­si­ble an effi­cient, fast-load­ing .45 cal­iber rifle that could be used for hunt­ing large game, such as deer and bison, as well as human beings, both for­eign and domes­tic alike. But the .45 cal­iber rifle round was not long for this world. In the 1880s, smoke­less pow­der was invent­ed to pro­duce three times the ener­gy of black pow­der. This spawned a com­plete­ly new gen­er­a­tion of mil­i­tary rifles. The for­mer .45 cal­iber bul­let could now fur­ther be reduced in size to approx­i­mate­ly .30 cal­iber, or 8mm in Europe. It was now left to pis­tol ammu­ni­tion design­ers to deter­mine whether the .45 cal­iber car­tridge was the right size for a hand­gun. Or not.

The .45 ACP Round

By the time the 19th cen­tu­ry was draw­ing to a close, a whole new kind of mech­a­nized war­fare was in the wings, and weapons were being devel­oped to fight them. The Euro­pean pow­ers were work­ing on their own ver­sions of the high-pow­er smoke­less gun­pow­der of the 1880s, and, in the USA, DuPont and oth­er man­u­fac­tur­ers were devel­op­ing smoke­less pow­der. The .45 cal. black pow­der rifle had become a thing of the past. The new gen­er­a­tion of rifles was designed for small, fast mov­ing, aero­dy­nam­ic bul­lets in the .30” or 8mm diam­e­ter range, and they deliv­ered more kinet­ic ener­gy to the tar­get than the heavy, slow­er-mov­ing .45 bul­lets of the black pow­der era.

For hand­guns, the pow­er­ful smoke­less pow­der set in motion a new gen­er­a­tion of design pos­si­bil­i­ties. There was now enough spare ener­gy to oper­ate the com­plex mechan­i­cal action of semi-auto­mat­ic pis­tols being devel­oped in Ger­many and Amer­i­ca in the 1890s. There was also a move towards the small­er .38 and 9mm cal. car­tridges. The increased speed from these new pro­pel­lants equaled the kinet­ic ener­gy of the large but slow mov­ing revolver rounds and was cal­cu­lat­ed to have equal stop­ping pow­er. How­ev­er, West­ern armies found the small­er cal­iber fine for inca­pac­i­tat­ing peo­ple of Euro­pean stock, but, when it came to sup­press­ing their impe­r­i­al sub­jects, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Moro War­riors of the Philip­pines — hardy sol­diers reput­ed­ly cranked up on drugs — the .36 and .38 cal­iber pis­tols were deemed to be under­pow­ered. To solve the prob­lem, the Spring­field Arse­nal reworked the Army’s obso­lete Colt SAA .45s and sent them (as Artillery Mod­els) to the Philip­pines with smoke­less pow­der ammu­ni­tion. The heav­ier round worked.

.45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridges. Collection of the Author.

The left-hand cartridge was made in 1912, one year after its introduction in 1911. Both cartridges are FMJ (Full Metal Jacket), a requirement of the Geneva Convention that disallows lead bullets or soft tipped bullets as they are seen to cause inhumane damage. Paradoxically, the red Teflon tipped round, which expands upon impact, is legal to use in the United States by both Law Enforcement agencies and civilians alike, but not by the US Army overseas.

Spooked by the Moro War­rior episode, in 1907 the US Army put out a call for a new sidearm that would return to large cal­iber .45 cal­iber car­tridges.19 The new round had to be rim­less so that it could be used for semi-auto­mat­ic pis­tols. In one of the most inter­est­ing com­pe­ti­tions ever held, the major gun mak­ers of Europe and Amer­i­ca were pit­ted against each oth­er to pro­duce the next offi­cial side arm for the US Army. The require­ment was that it should be pow­er­ful enough to fell any foe with one shot to the tor­so at stan­dard dis­tances. Ten com­pa­nies entered, and the final­ists includ­ed Colt, Luger, and Sav­age, who had all upsized their small­er .32 or 9mm cal­iber pis­tols, devel­oped in the 1890s, to take the new .45 ACP (Auto­mat­ic Colt Pis­tol) car­tridge designed by John Brown­ing.20 Colt had the advan­tage of Brown­ing design­ing both the .45 ACP round as well as the Colt .45 semi-auto pis­tol, and it was thought that Colt’s sub­mis­sion had an unfair advan­tage. There was the accu­sa­tion, unfound­ed, that Colt had put less pow­der in the competitor’s ammu­ni­tion so that their actions would not cycle prop­er­ly. In a piss­ing con­test of epic pro­por­tions, hun­dreds of rounds were run through each gun in a tor­ture test, and Colt came out victorious.

The Luger, Savage, and Colt pistols were the three finalists for the 1907 U.S. Army trials for a .45 caliber gun. Collection of the author.

The Luger P-08, 9mm and Savage 1907 .32ACP illustrated here are in their original calibers before they were up-scaled for the .45 ACP cartridge. These “Trials” pistols in .45 are immensely rare as very few were made. The stainless steel Colt 1911 Government Model Series 80 .45ACP was bought by the author in 2011 and is marked “100 years of service” to commemorate the pistol’s 100th year anniversary. This particular Luger P-08 was made in 1936, at the pinnacle of its technological refinement, prior to the commencement of wartime production when standards were lowered. The Savage 1907 was a groundbreaking design, the first pistol to be held together with steel pins rather than screws and to have a double-stack magazine for ten rounds in the grips. This Savage 1907 is version 17 Model 2 and recognized to be mechanically the best of the seventeen versions produced.

The Colt 1911 her­ald­ed the third act in the saga of the .45 cal­iber. It sig­naled the birth of a new car­tridge for a pis­tol that has become one of the two most famous hand­guns Amer­i­ca has ever pro­duced, both in .45 cal­iber. The Colt 1911 was accept­ed by the Army the same year that the Wright Broth­ers flew the 1911 Wright Mod­el B Fly­er but, unlike that par­tic­u­lar air­plane, the Colt 1911 has remained essen­tial­ly unchanged for 100 years. It is a per­fect, clas­sic design and is still going strong. Thank you, John Moses Brown­ing. Ten years lat­er in 1921, the same .45ACP round was used for the Thomp­son sub­ma­chine gun. Thank you, Gen­er­al John Thomp­son. A sin­gle round of .45ACP could be used in both a long gun and a hand­gun, thus sim­pli­fy­ing the army’s ammu­ni­tion sup­ply.21 Once again, it repeat­ed the con­cept of inter­change­abil­i­ty of ammu­ni­tion between hand­guns and long guns that the Colt SAA revolver and the Rem­ing­ton lever action rifle pio­neered with the .4440 cartridge.

In 1985, the U.S. Army with­drew the Colt 1911A1 from gen­er­al ser­vice and replaced it with the Beretta 92B, using a 9mm round. Inter­est­ing­ly, after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, sol­diers dis­played dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the lighter 9mm round, and the Army is appar­ent­ly tak­ing anoth­er look at the .45 car­tridge, thus repeat­ing a dis­cus­sion between the .44 and .36 (9mm) fam­i­lies of ammu­ni­tion. This will be the third time such a dis­cus­sion has been held over the past 150 years.

The West­ern Movie defines the Colt .45

There is no doubt that Amer­i­can west­ern movies made dur­ing the Cold War were vast­ly influ­en­tial in pro­mot­ing the mythol­o­gy of the .45 car­tridge. John Wayne took many of the lead­ing roles, bran­dish­ing his Colt SAA revolver that, unbe­knownst to many, was just as like­ly to be cham­bered in .4440 as .45. The genre of the Amer­i­can west­ern was estab­lished in 1939 with John Wayne in Stage Coach, a tense and sul­try movie, whose heroes are the Amer­i­can Cav­al­ry who save the day from Apach­es, a saga that shad­ows the build-up to WWII and America’s pre­em­i­nence against the Axis armies. The scores of Amer­i­can and Ital­ian Spaghet­ti West­erns made from the 1950s to 1970s are thin­ly veiled sym­bols of the show­down between the Good Kennedy and the Bad Khrushchev. The Colt .45 Sin­gle Action Army revolver was emblem­at­ic of the new­ly mythol­o­gized glob­al pow­er of the emerg­ing Amer­i­can Empire, where sher­iffs bring out­laws to heel and hero­ic set­tlers and sol­diers slaugh­ter the back­ward red­skins. Now that trib­al casi­nos have come on line, the tables have begun to turn — lit­er­al­ly. America’s indige­nous peo­ples are now slaugh­ter­ing the wal­lets of the set­tlers to this con­ti­nent, both old and new. Bad­da-bing, badda-boom!

Spe­cial and Mag­num Cartridges

The fourth incar­na­tion of this fam­i­ly of car­tridges is the .44 Mag­num, the mod­ern-day smoke­less pow­der ver­sion of those OF the 1870s.22 With its redesigned brass shell, pow­der and bul­let, the .44 Mag­num is two to four times as pow­er­ful, or hot­ter,” than the .44 and .45 car­tridges of yes­ter­year. The mag­num fam­i­ly of revolver car­tridges was intro­duced in the 1930s, dur­ing the gang­ster and boot­leg­ging era, when the police need­ed a round that would shoot through sheet met­al car doors. Start­ing with the .38 Super Auto and cul­mi­nat­ing in the .357 Mag­num in 1934, the cal­iber was increased to .44 Rem­ing­ton Mag­num in 1955 and then the .454 Casull in 1957. The .44 Mag was pri­mar­i­ly designed for hunt­ing big game. It is too potent for law enforce­ment as the bul­let is just as like­ly to inca­pac­i­tate the perp as well as the per­son stand­ing behind the perp. That is a bad sit­u­a­tion for a police­man, but it didn’t deter Dirty Har­ry from using it for that pur­pose. The .44 Mag­num car­tridge has the same exter­nal dimen­sions as the orig­i­nal 1873 .45 Colt round and was designed for the mas­sive Smith & Wes­son Mod­el 29 revolver of 1959, which was Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Har­ry’ gun of that movie’s name.

Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum. Photograph permission of Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, Springfield, MA. Photograph by John Polak (CVHM 98.00243).

This S&W Model 29 was decorated for the S&W exhibit at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, following a long tradition of making the most artistically decorated gun for exhibition purposes. It was carved and gilded by Smith & Wesson’s Master engraver Russ Smith. He mirrored the style of Gustave Young, who produced his greatest masterpiece, a Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3, for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Gone are the days when firearms are celebrated in a World Exhibition, for the intrinsic relationship between civic and military life is not so accommodating as it once was.

Inter­net chat rooms inde­ter­minably engage in a long­stand­ing ban­ter as to whether the .45 Colt or the .44 Mag­num is the more icon­ic round, or if Colt’s Snake” revolvers are bet­ter than Smith & Wesson’s Mod­el 29, the Dirty Har­ry hand can­non.” The dis­cus­sion runs along the same lines as to whether John Wayne or Clint East­wood bet­ter define the Amer­i­can psy­che, sim­i­lar to the inde­ter­minable bar-room argu­ments over whether a Ford or Chevy is bet­ter, or, in the lin­go of this read­er­ship, a BMW 4 Series, an Audi A5, or Merc A45. Even here, 4 and 5 are once again the piv­otal num­bers, some­thing of which the mar­ket­ing teams of the auto­mo­bile indus­try are sure­ly well aware. 

Through­out the long his­to­ry of both the .45 and .44 rounds, in prac­ti­cal terms the many incar­na­tions of the .44 prob­a­bly wins the prize. On the oth­er hand, the mythol­o­gy of the .45 has an unstop­pable pow­er in pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. The aura of the .45 round tends towards the seman­tic rather than the sci­en­tif­ic, and the .44 is his­tor­i­cal­ly more exper­i­men­tal. If there is a choice, which there often is, choos­ing the right cal­iber for a pis­tol is not an easy deci­sion. Based upon the mys­tique and qual­i­ty of inven­tion of the .44 or the .45 car­tridges, it would have to be the .44. Then again, with a lit­tle more thought, maybe the .45 will do the job just fine. When push comes to shove, no one would ever know the dif­fer­ence. It’s the medi­um, not the mes­sage, which stops peo­ple in their tracks.


By Ash­ley Hlebinsky

The debate between the .44 and .45 cal­iber in regards to com­par­a­tive effi­cien­cy is deeply root­ed. Com­pre­hen­sive­ly address­ing this cen­tu­ry old argu­ment is a daunt­ing task. It has been argued in terms of sci­en­tif­ic advance­ment, his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, and, for most gun afi­ciona­dos, a com­bi­na­tion of the two. Ben­jamin Nichol­son how­ev­er has approached this debate using his back­ground in design. With this per­spec­tive, he jux­ta­pos­es each caliber’s sig­nif­i­cance in both his­to­ry and mythology.

Nichol­son presents the his­to­ry of car­tridge design, from a round mus­ket ball to the con­i­cal­ly shaped bul­let, which tran­si­tions into the self-con­tained metal­lic car­tridge. It’s a com­plex evo­lu­tion that is dif­fi­cult to cov­er ade­quate­ly in a book, let alone a paper. As a result, Nichol­son must address, in a rel­a­tive­ly short word count, a range of top­ics impor­tant to under­stand­ing car­tridge history.

A design approach to car­tridge com­par­i­son is insight­ful and one a tech­ni­cal expert may not con­sid­er in the same way that a per­son with an art and design back­ground would. Nichol­son cov­ers a range of fac­tors that can deter­mine a caliber’s stop­ping pow­er. Most notably, his intro­duc­tion of the design dance” illus­trates just how many vari­ables impact design. How­ev­er, one for fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion is not the design of the car­tridge as it enters the cham­ber of a gun but how design can affect its intend­ed tar­get. A crit­i­cal influ­ence that deter­mines stop­ping pow­er is shot place­ment. In con­tem­po­rary terms, a .22 cal­iber round in the back of the head is more lethal than a .45 cal­iber bul­let in the arm. How­ev­er from a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, even advance­ments of med­i­cine can deter­mine the degree of casu­al­ty. For exam­ple, the design of a round ball ver­sus the con­i­cal­ly shaped car­tridge caused dif­fer­ent lev­els of injury, which changed med­ical tech­nol­o­gy on the battlefield.

Nichol­son infus­es anoth­er lay­er into his car­tridge assess­ment by look­ing at per­cep­tion in pop­u­lar cul­ture. It, too, is a com­pli­cat­ed study; one that could war­rant its own paper. Nonethe­less, the over­all design approach on the .44 and .45 cal­ibers is one that acknowl­edges the intri­ca­cies of ammu­ni­tion. It cer­tain­ly is becom­ing a top­ic of con­ver­sa­tion as evolv­ing car­tridges, specif­i­cal­ly new 9mm designs, are arguably ren­der­ing cal­ibers like the .44 and .45 pos­si­bly obso­lete for self-defense.



The Colt 45” is the Colt Sin­gle Action Army revolver, Mod­el of 1873, which used the .45 cal­iber Colt car­tridge. The 44 Mag­num” is the Smith & Wes­son Mod­el 29, that used the .44 Mag­num cartridge.


The stan­dard, non-spe­cial­ized ref­er­ence on his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary car­tridge is Frank Barnes, Car­tridges of the World, 14th Edi­tion (Gun Digest, 2014). See, also, Michael Bus­sard 5th Ammo Ency­clo­pe­dia (Blue Book Pub­li­ca­tions, Min­neapo­lis, MN, 2014). For a good but slight­ly quirky book on small arms ammu­ni­tion, read Her­schel Logan, Car­tridges: A Pic­to­r­i­al Digest of Small Arms Ammu­ni­tion (New York, NY: Bonan­za Books, 1959). Logan was a wood­cut artist who illus­trat­ed rur­al life Kansas and a writer and avid car­tridge col­lec­tor. He com­bined these tal­ents and made an easy to read, high­ly infor­ma­tive vol­ume that he illus­trat­ed him­self. It is worth not­ing that, of the hun­dreds of excel­lent books on firearms and ammu­ni­tion, I know of only two that are pub­lished by uni­ver­si­ty press­es, an indi­ca­tion of the refusal of acad­e­mia to acknowl­edge firearms a valid sub­ject of inquiry. Muse­ums do pro­duce excel­lent cat­a­logs and bul­letins on spe­cial­ized sub­jects, some of which are referred to below.


My thanks to Richard LaVen, who made a very care­ful read­ing of this text. He not­ed that Martha Phillips Gilson (18961993) spent much of the years 1916 – 1928 in the high Arc­tic. She was a very accom­plished pho­tog­ra­ph­er, and her Arc­tic land­scapes are still con­sid­ered mas­ter­pieces. Martha was a prac­ti­cal car­tridge col­lec­tor and could iden­ti­fy almost any­thing com­mon (from her era) at a glance. She explained, In the high Arc­tic, mon­ey had no val­ue. Car­tridges were the com­mon denom­i­na­tor of barter or com­merce. In North Amer­i­ca, the most com­mon­ly accept­ed were .44 – 40s. After that .30 – 30s or either .303, .3040 Krag or .3006. In Green­land, the Dan­ish cen­ter­fires or maybe Jar­manns. In Spits­ber­gen and Arc­tic Nor­way and Swe­den, 6.5×55. Fin­land and east, usu­al­ly 7.62 Russ­ian. Telling them apart was no more dif­fi­cult than mak­ing change in pounds, shillings & pence.” Martha had lit­tle use for revolvers or their car­tridges. They won’t kill a polar bear. A Krag will, but only just”.


My thanks to Ken Meek, Muse­um Direc­tor of Woolaroc Muse­um, OK, for point­ing out this table from the Dix­ie Gun­works web­site. Note that there is con­flict­ing infor­ma­tion about the weight of a .69 mus­ket ball, which may skew this table. The most log­i­cal for­mu­la is that a .69 cal­iber ball of lead weighs 480 grains which equals 1 Troy ounce. An Avoir­du­pois ounce weighs 453.5 grains, which equals 1.03 ounces. The dif­fer­ence between Troy and Avoir­du­pois ounces is infin­i­tes­i­mal (much like between the .44 and 45 cal­iber bul­lets), but it counts when weigh­ing out gold. If the .69 cal­iber bul­let is relat­ed to the Troy weight, this table may be wrong. The author­i­ty on ammu­ni­tion of this peri­od is Berke­ley Lewis, Small Arms and Ammu­ni­tion in the Unit­ed States Ser­vice, 1776 – 1865 (Wash­ing­ton, DC: Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion Press, 1956; Smith­son­ian Mis­cel­la­neous Col­lec­tions 129, 1960), 219 – 231. On page 189, Lewis sup­plies a table for 1861 Car­tridge Spec­i­fi­ca­tions in which the .69 cal­iber Mus­ket uses a ball of .65 diam­e­ter weigh­ing 412 grains or .94 ounces. The upshot of this is that weigh­ing bul­lets is an inex­act sci­ence as there were so many vari­ables at play, but basi­cal­ly the Civ­il War .69 ball bul­let weighed about an ounce.


Geof­frey Boothroyd, The Hand­gun (Lon­don, UK: Cas­sell, 1970). An excel­lent gen­er­al sur­vey of hand­gun history.


My thanks to Richard Water­man, who made a very care­ful read­ing of this essay on 071915. He notes that the Minié ball was a French inven­tion cir­ca 1851 and was lethal up to four times the dis­tance of a round ball. The illus­tra­tion Bul­lets, 1850 – 1860, Wilcox has scores of pro­files and sec­tions of Euro­pean bul­lets of this type. See Lewis, Small Arms and Ammu­ni­tion in the Unit­ed States Ser­vice, 1776 – 1865, plate 51.


After a year of care­ful nego­ti­a­tion, the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go has approved the author’s course Guns: Myth & Man­u­fac­ture, which will expand upon the theme of this essay.


An excel­lent essay on Flobert was writ­ten by Joseph T. Vorisek and pub­lished as The Flobert Gun (Brighton, MI: Cor­nell Pub­li­ca­tions, 1991).


Lewis, Small Arms Ammu­ni­tion at the Inter­na­tion­al Expo­si­tion Philadel­phia, 1876, 3 – 8.


The Smith & Wes­son Patent 27,933 dat­ed April 17, 1860, Improve­ment in Fill­ing Metal­lic Car­tridges, places the mer­cury ful­mi­nate only in the rim, thus reduc­ing swelling of the car­tridge base that pre­vent­ed the revolver’s cylin­der from turning.


Out­lines of the patents can be found in Report: Com­mis­sion­er of Patents for the Year 1856, sec­tion XIX Firearms and Imple­ments of War, and Parts there­of, includ­ing the Man­u­fac­ture of Shot and Gun­pow­der. http://​library​.si​.edu/​d​i​g​i​t​a​l​-​l​i​b​r​a​r​y​/​b​o​o​k​/​r​e​p​o​r​t​o​f​c​o​m​m​i​s​1856unit


Richard LaVen (per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence, 071915) point­ed out Ben­jamin Tyler Henry’s con­tri­bu­tion to car­tridge design.


For the ear­ly devel­op­ment of Smith and Wes­son pis­tols, see Roy G. Jinks, His­to­ry of Smith & Wes­son (Bien­feld, 1977), 16 – 57, and Jim Supi­ca and Richard Nahas, Stan­dard Cat­a­log of Smith & Wes­son, 3rd edi­tion (Gun Digest, 2006), 60 – 63.


The Smith & Wes­son Num­ber 3 went through sev­er­al mod­i­fi­ca­tions. The last major change was the Schofield” that hinged the top-latch on the frame rather than the bar­rel, which meant that a cav­al­ry­man could reload the revolver more eas­i­ly whilst still hold­ing the reins of his horse.


Richard LaVen (per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence, 071915).




Richard LaVen remarks, The .44 Hen­ry rim­fire was real­ly a .44 with a nom­i­nal bul­let diam­e­ter of .438”. But the .4440 Win­ches­ter uses .427” bul­lets, small­er in diam­e­ter than the S&W series and if you round up, it’s anoth­er .43. Once again, the .44 des­ig­na­tion is anoth­er mar­ket­ing ploy.”


Lewis, Small Arms Ammu­ni­tion at the Inter­na­tion­al Expo­si­tion Philadel­phia, 1876, 42.


Brig. Gen. John Pit­man, Ord­nance Offi­cer in the Unit­ed States Army for thir­ty-nine years, assem­bled note­books in which he drew, record­ed, and added mil­i­tary reports con­cern­ing firearms and their ammu­ni­tion. Fac­sim­i­les have been pro­duced of his note­books as The Pit­man Notes on U.S. Mar­tial Small Arms and Ammu­ni­tion 1776 – 1933, Vol. Two Revolvers and Auto­mat­ic Pis­tols, edit­ed by Paul E. Klatt (Get­tys­burg, PA: Thomas Pub­li­ca­tions, 1990). This vol­ume illus­trates most of the guns referred to in this essay and includes the full Report of Board on Tests of Revolvers and Auto­mat­ic Pis­tols” of 1907.




Dur­ing WWI, when the US Army could not get enough Colt 1911 semi-auto pis­tols that used the new rim­less .45 ACP round, Smith & Wes­son invent­ed the half-moon clip that allowed the rim­less .45ACP to be used with their Hand Ejec­tor swing out revolver and called it the M1917. It is an inter­est­ing moment in design, as a new car­tridge is adapt­ed for an exist­ing firearm. This had been done before with the cap & ball per­cus­sion revolvers that were re-machined to accept metal­lic car­tridges, but in this case only a tiny met­al spring steel form was need­ed to solved the prob­lem, in addi­tion to shav­ing off 1÷16” from the cylin­der to fit it in place.


Richard LaVen remarks, The term Mag­num” comes from the wine indus­try and refers to the heavy glass bot­tles used for cham­pagne. The bot­tles had to be stronger than stan­dard to with­stand the inter­nal pres­sure of car­bon­at­ed wine. IIRC, the term was intro­duced into ammu­ni­tion by Hol­land & Hol­land (high qual­i­ty British gun mak­ers) about 1910 – 1912. They mar­ket­ed ammu­ni­tion with large pow­der charges and heavy (& stronger than nor­mal) car­tridge cas­es for the wealthy chaps who hunt­ed African animals.”


Ben­jamin Nichol­son was edu­cat­ed at the Archi­tec­tur­al Asso­ci­a­tion, Coop­er Union, and Cran­brook Acad­e­my and is now an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go. He has been a guest teacher at SCI-Arc, Cor­nell, and the Uni­ver­si­ties of Edin­burgh, Lon­don, Michi­gan, and Hous­ton. Nichol­son’s pub­li­ca­tions include Appli­ance House (Chica­go Insti­tute for Archi­tec­ture and Urbanism/​MIT Press, 1990), Think­ing the Unthink­able House (Renais­sance Soci­ety at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, 1998), and The World: Who Wants It (Black Dog, 2004). He has exhib­it­ed at the Fon­da­tion Carti­er, the Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Archi­tec­ture, the Whit­ney Muse­um of Amer­i­can Art, and three times at the Venice Bien­nale. With inter­ests rang­ing from agri­cul­ture to gun cul­ture, prim­i­tive geom­e­try to labyrinths, he recent­ly co-edit­ed (with Michelan­ge­lo Sabati­no) the book Forms of Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty: Archi­tec­ture & Land­scape in New Har­mo­ny and is now work­ing on Locked, Loaded & Lib­er­al, a book about America’s gun cul­ture. Email: bnicholson@​saic.​edu

Ash­ley Hlebin­sky is Cura­tor of the Cody Firearms Muse­um at the Buf­fa­lo Bill Cen­ter of the West in Cody, Wyoming. She com­plet­ed B.A. and M.A. degrees in Amer­i­can His­to­ry and Muse­um Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Delaware and first worked with firearms through a cura­to­r­i­al intern­ship at the Sol­diers and Sailors Nation­al Memo­r­i­al Hall in Pitts­burgh, PA. Before becom­ing Cura­tor at Cody, Hlebin­sky held a vari­ety of posi­tions there, includ­ing Buf­fa­lo Bill Research Fel­low, Kin­nu­can Arms Chair Grant Recip­i­ent, intern, firearms assis­tant, and cura­to­r­i­al res­i­dent. Over sev­er­al years, she worked close­ly with then Cura­tor War­ren New­man on exhibits, and she col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Nation­al Firearms Col­lec­tion of the Nation­al Muse­um of Amer­i­can His­to­ry at the Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion in Wash­ing­ton, DC — for exam­ple, on the loan exhi­bi­tion Jour­ney­ing West: Dis­tinc­tive Firearms from the Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion (201315). Hlebin­sky is a con­sul­tant for firearms col­lec­tions around the coun­try, and her work has been pro­filed by the Nation­al Rifle Asso­ci­a­tion as part of its Third Cen­tu­ry NRA project. Email: AshleyH@​centerofthewest.​org