Another Blast From The Past – George Herter’s Revolver/Cartridge

This is little doubt about which caliber this revolver was chambered for!

This is little doubt about which caliber this revolver was chambered for!

When the Herter’s mail order catalogue company was at the peak of its business period, they marketed a branded line of single action revolvers, based on the single action Colt “Army” revolver – as were most other modern handguns of the type. The Herter’s guns were made in Western Germany, by JP Sauer & Sohn, in .357 magnum, .44 magnum, and a propriatory cartridge – the .401 Herter’s Powermag. The .401 came before and probably influenced the .41 Remington magnum, but never acheived a lot of popularity. This is often blamed on the “looks” of the gun it was packaged in, which was heavier and less graceful in its lines than a Ruger. At the same time, the price of the Herter’s guns was considerably less than a Ruger, even though Ruger was pretty much a bargain in the handgun world. The quality of the Herter’s was not “cheap”, and it used German innovations and workmanship to good advantage.

This is what makes it go "boom"! The massive hammer and frame-mounted firing pin. Those rear sights are heavy-duty, also - and adjustable.

This is what makes it go “boom”! The massive hammer and frame-mounted firing pin. Those rear sights are heavy-duty, also – and adjustable.

On the left is my "new" .401 Herter's Powermag revolver, on the right my Herter's .44 magnum. Both guns were made in 1966

On the left is my “new” .401 Herter’s Powermag revolver, on the right my Herter’s .44 magnum. Both guns were made in 1966

I have gone over the Herter’s .44 magnum in other posts, as I have been restoring and updating one I traded for a couple of months ago. This has been so enjoyable that I noted in one of the posts I was looking another Herter’s to play around with. The first reply I got to my want-to-buy ad seeking Herter’s guns was a scam in which a bogus seller offered me a Herter’s .401 Powermag for $270, shipped. The gun in the pictures he emailed me looked pretty good, with a case color hardened cylinder frame – but it was some sort of Colt clone, with an obvious Colt front sight, no rear sight, and a Bisley hammer and grip. Even more telling was that the seller refused to send a picture of the barrel’s markings, which should have verified it was a Herter’s, and of what caliber. When I insisted as a condition of the transaction continuing, he sent a shot of the very end of a different barrel than the one in the previous pictures, stainless, and with the beginnings of the “lawyer warning” about reading the manual before operating the firearm, which was not done on 1960’s era guns! This person also was very reluctant to tell me where he was located, finally saying only, “Kansas” – yet his manner of speech suggested an internet thief from the far east! I suspect he pulled the photos off the ‘net, and did not actually have a handgun for sale!

After this disappointing experience, I was amazed when my next contact came from an actual Herter’s collector who lives in Santa Fe, Texas – about 30 miles from my home! This gentleman had a .357 Herter’s, a .44 magnum, and four .401 Powermags, and was willing to sell me one of the .401’s! He also had a large stash of brass and loaded ammo, but wanted to save this for his grandkids, so I ordered ammo from GAD Custom Cartridge, which had ammo loaded in original Herter’s cases – made by Norma – and also in cases formed from .41 magnum brass. When I get this shipment in, I will be able to test fire the gun and chronograh loads. My seller also is a bullet caster, and has all the molds made for the .401, so I will likely have him mold some heavy hard cast for me to reload. Dies for “obsolete” cartridges like this can be pricey, but I am told 10mm dies will work for most steps of the process.

I think this Herter's looks better with the white oak grips, but overall is a nice looking revolver, for being made in 1966 - and used a bit.

I think this Herter’s looks better with the white oak grips, but overall is a nice looking revolver, for being made in 1966 – and used a bit.

As an update, I finally got my ammo from GAD, 50 rounds in original Herter’s head stamped brass, and 50 rounds in brass formed from .41 Remington magnum brass. The .41 mag brass had to be first “sized” down in a .401 sizing die, then further turned on a lathe. .401 cases can also be formed using .30-30 brass. These were loaded with 170 gr lead semi-wadcutter bullets, and when I shot them the recoil was similar to my .44 Specials – VERY pleasant to shoot! The gun also “shoots to the sights”, and very accurately. I later was able to chronograph some of these rounds, and got an average pf 1040 fps – which explains the light recoil. Most folks with experience reloading for this round suggest using .41 mag data and reducing it by 10%, and a 41 mag load with a 170 gr bullet would be 1,400 – 1,600 fps, so what I got was a light load. This doesn’t bother me in the least, as I mainly wanted to “make brass” out of these rounds. I have a set of original loading dies coming from Buffalo Arms and plan to reload with hard cast bullets in the 245 gr range for hunting loads. That light trigger pull certainly makes for easy shooting, after the first few shots to get used to it. I did have one chamber of the cylinder that would not let the cartridge seat fully – the same problem I found on my .44 mag – but it turned out to be a small chunkc of debris on some kind in the case head recess, and once that was removed the revolver functions perfectly.

Top, my .44 mag Herter's. Bottom, the much rarer .401 Herter's Powermag

Top, my .44 mag Herter’s. Bottom, the much rarer .401 Herter’s Powermag

I also learned that Bernold Nelson, owner of GAD, worked for Herter’s when he was younger. He tells me he met George Herter, and considered him a very nice gentleman who always treated him with respect.

This revolver is in better shape than was my .44 mag Herters when I found it. The action is tighter, and except for a slight turn ring on the cylinder, the bluing is better, It wears the original black plastic grips which are in good shape and are going in my gun safe. For now the gun is wearing the white oak grips I first made for the .44, but I will likely make another set of purple heart grips and use magnets to hold them in place as I did with the .44. What really stands out on this revolver is the trigger pull, which seems to have come from the factory at a crisp LESS THAN TWO POUNDS of pull! This contrasts considerably with the 4 pound pull of my .44! I really don’t care for triggers set so light, and especially in a gun with the original Colt style “half cock” lockwork, where the hammer is best kept down on an empty cylinder, extra care should be taken to performing this process with a very light trigger. I once had the hammer on an Old Model Ruger .357 wearing oversized grips “get away” from me when letting it down on a LOADED cylinder, and an “accidental discharge” – which luckily caused no harm – resulted. Also, the fingers should be kept safely away from the trigger on this gun, until it is time – for sure – to actually pull the trigger!

This handgun came wearing the original black plastic grips, with a Herter's emblem. Those are going in the safe!

This handgun came wearing the original black plastic grips, with a Herter’s emblem. Those are going in the safe!

At this point, I want to spend some time shooting this gun before making drastic changes, and the .401’s do have some collector value – but I might strip the bluing and rust brown the whole revolver. Another option is that Numrich Gun Parts has a brass grip frame listed that fits a large frame JP Sauer revolver that might well “bolt up” to this one.

Numrich also has some parts still in stock for Herter’s revolvers, including new cylinders in .357, .44, and .401 calibers. Some folks have had .357 cylinders bored to 10mm, resulting in a “conversion” gun with a cylinder in a modern – and desirable – caliber. .401 cylinders can also be modified to shoot .38/40 rounds, and both these conversions match up to the original .401 barrel. I recently saw a Ruger “Buckeye” conversion Blackhawk revolver with cylinders in .38/40 and 10mm (but NOT .401) offered for sale at $800, and that is a reasonable price for such a Ruger – yet the Herter’s can be made even more versatile for less of an investment.

Since my original post, I have talked to Houston pistol smith Alan Harton about converting the .357 mag cylinder I did purchase from Numrich to 10mm. I just want to shoot the gun as is a bit before turning it over to him to do the job – and I am working on an assignment for an article on the Herter’s guns for the online version of American Handgunner for which I need real-world experience with the .401. The other possibility I am looking at is to obtain another .401 cylinder and have it rebored to 38/40 – an old blackpowder cartridge which seems to provide great performance when updated to modern powders. This would make the Herter’s a 3 cartridge gun – and a very interesting one.

As noted, there is some collector interest in the Herter’s revolvers, and it seems to be growing. For right now, the guns CAN be found, and prices are reasonable. I recently talked to the owner of another custom brass and cartidge reloading company who told me he had a .44 mag Herter’s some time back and foolishly – his words – sold it. He considers them excellent guns, and wishes he had that .44 back. Having gone through the same thing, I agree completely. They probably won’t fund your grandchild’s college education, but it would be hard to lose money – and there aren’t many investments other than firearms that can be used recreationally and regularly and also put food on the table and provide home and family defense!

UPDATE: Since I now have loaded ammo, brass, and reloading dies – including a Lee Factory Crimp die meant for 10mm – I only needed bullets to be in the .401 reloading “bidness”. After talking to Missouri Bullet Company, I got them to make up a sample pack of 100 bullets cast to a Brinell Hardness of 18, and size them to .401, instead of .401. I think .403 would have been even better, but these were coated with their Hi-Tek coating AFTER sizing, si they should be just about right. My first test run of these 180 gr bullets used 7.5 gr of Unique powder. The load data I was able to find said 8 gr Unique should produce a muzzle velocity of 1000 fps – which is my go-to velocity for hard cast bullets in hog hunting. Range testing showed velocities running from 902 – 920 fps, so I will likely increase my charge weight for future loads. Original Herters load data shows 9 gr of Unique producing 1336 fps, and 13 gr pushing that further – to 1428 fps. Since this is an older revolver, I don’t plan to load it to max velocities, but may go to 8.5 gr ( a few grs at a time) and go to 1200 fps and see how I like that load.

UPDATE: a load of 7.9 gr Unique with the 180 gr Missouri Bullet Company hard cast bullets gives me 1075 fps.I may go to 8.5 gr next, “shooting for” 1200 fps (pun intended!)

Who knows, I might skip that 10mm conversion and just shoot .401!

About MikeH

Texas hunter and fisherman for 50 years, published outdoor writer since 1979, licensed charter boat operator from 1982 to 2013. Past Member, Board of Directors, National Association of Charterboat Operators, current member Environmental Advisory Committee to the DOE and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Married to Dorothy since 2000, one son, Michael who is recently married and living in Nederland, Texas. My wife and I live in Oyster Creek, Texas, near Freeport, and have a hunting property outside of Brazoria, Texas.
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