I recently saw for sale an old Herter’s .44 magnum revolver. Now, I need another .44 mag like I need, well – another .44 mag! Although I have a couple of .44 mag revolvers, a Contender single shot (and extra .44 mag barrel), and a Ruger .44 mag semi-auto carbine, the big .44 is my favorite cartridge. I reload for it, so I keep a good supply of brass, powder, primers, and bullets for it on hand – and usually a supply of loaded ammo. The Herter’s asking price was reasonable, I thought, and the seller was willing to entertain trades. We ended up making a deal with him taking my old Charter Arms Bulldog .38/.357 that I originally bought as a truck gun after a disturbing incident found me unarmed when I would rather have been “carrying”, and these days it was mostly being used as a “door gun”, kept in a hideout in the front room of the house. Although a 5 shot, it was a double action with a 6 inch barrel, and pretty accurate for a gun with basically no sights. My justification for wanting to trade it was that I much prefer a heavier bullet at lower velocities – for both hunting and home defense.
The deal actually cost me more than the trade gun, as I had to drive to Dallas to get the .44, but we found a couple of other excuses to make the trip more worthwhile.
My main incentive for wanting the old Herter’s gun, was that a similar Herter’s revolver was the first .44 mag I ever owned – or shot. I got that one in a trade that also brought me a Ruger Blackhawk .357 mag. The Herter’s was a very heavy gun, but had a 4″ barrel – which made it a rough introduction to the big .44 – that thing kicked like two mules! It kicked so hard that after firing only a few rounds I had to tighten all the framing screws, and the cylinder base pin was prone to “jumping out”. Still, I enjoyed the feeling of sheer power that came with touching the thing off! Getting another one was a nostalgia thing at first, but then I refreshed what I may have known about the Herter’s revolvers – or maybe not, as there was no inna net in those simpler times.
Herter’s was a big mail order sporting goods company, based in Minnesota, and the revolvers were made in West Germany, by J.P. Sauer & Sons, in the days before they began making semi-auto pistols and sub machine guns. This would suggest a level of quality above the average “mail order Saturday night special”. The first thing I noticed when getting reacquainted with these guns was that they are not made like the New Model Rugers – no transfer bar safety – and they still had the old 4 click cocking sequence that uses a “half cock” position as a sort of safety feature and as the free spin position for rotating the cylinder for loading. Interestingly, they also share the 3 screw frame construction – although the slotted heads of the screws are on the left side of the frame, instead of on the right as with an Old Model Ruger. They are, however in the same positions on the frame as the Ruger screws. As I intended from the start to “restore” this gun as much as my limited talents allow, I first tried to fit some extra Ruger parts on it. An extractor rod housing (and rod/spring) from a Super Blackhawk should work, although the one I had on hand was off a flattop .44 Special with a 4 5/8″ barrel, and was a bit too short. A Ruger cylinder base pin fits and presumably functions – good news in case this one wants to shoot out, and can be replaced with a locking base pin from Belt Mountain designed for the Ruger.
One disappointment was my “extra” nickel plated Ruger .44 mag cylinder does NOT fit the Herter’s. Overall size appears the same, but the gears on the end are cut differently. Grips are another difference that sort of disappointed me, since I have quite a collection of custom Ruger grips I could have used. The Herter’s grip is huge – at least a half inch longer than a Ruger Super Blackhawk grip. The overall shape resembles that of a Ruger “plow handle” grip frame, however. The grips that were on the gun were in such sad shape I did not even take photos of them as they were, and may have been “home made” from a piece of plywood. Until I could do something else, I sanded them down and refinished them, but still found them sadly lacking.
With the grips off, the main spring was revealed – a sturdy piece of spring steel instead of coil springs like a Ruger. This is NOT meant as an indictment of coil springs, as Ruger obviously switched to that type for a good reason – I am just pointing out a major difference in the construction of the two guns.
The Herter’s grip frame is longer, but otherwise the two revolvers look very similar – even though I have been told the Herter’s was more of a “copy” of a Colt revolver than a Ruger. Interestingly, Herter’s original trade name for their revolver was going to be the Single Six, until Ruger threatened court action!
Some readers may remember that my Ruger Blackhawk .45 Colt wears custom grips made from a piece of Lacewood that was once on my beloved Bertram 31. No more of that wood exists, but I did find a piece of what I think must be white oak that was a part of the stringer/engine bed system in Curtis Boler’s old 39 Post – “The Rascal”. I think this piece was removed during remodeling – maybe to make better room for the generator? It fits my “theme”, and cleaned up pretty nicely. Doesn’t have a lot of fancy figuring, but shaped well into attractive grips.
The front sight would warm the soul of disciples of the late, great (at least according to HIM!) gun writer Elmer Keith. Keith wrote a lot about long range shooting with revolvers, mostly in .44 magnum caliber. His “secret” seemed to be that if you employ a very tall front sight blade, and sight the gun in to hit zero at 25 or 50 yards with the top of the front sight nestled snuggly in the “vee” of the rear sight, then when you move that front blade up in the rear sight it raises the point of impact (and the barrel). If you have the front blade high enough to be almost sighting down the barrel, you move your shots out to 400, maybe 500 yards – IF you believe that raising the line of sight that much with a short range pistol cartridge will do that. Personally, I don’t.
Of course, in the real world, a .44 magnum does not have the ballistics to shoot consistantly at 400 yards from a rifle with it’s much longer barrel, and certainly not from a 4″ hand gun barrel, as Keith used. I actually read Elmer’s book on “Sixguns” – and not an easy task that was – and when he discussed “lobbing” shots at such distances, he admitted it was “stunt” shooting, so I suspect old Elmer wrote with tongue firmly in cheek.
The Herter’s rear sight is adjustable, and has a gold semi-buckhorn blade.
The cylinder of the Herter’s features recesses for the cartridge case heads – something normally found only on custom revolvers these days. These recesses allow the case head to lie flat against the face of the cylinder – or maybe even a bit lower – and is mostly the reason the cylinder-to-frame fit on this gun is so tight for the rear of the cylinder and the loading gate. This system also offers more support for the entire cartridge, adding needed strength for firing heavy magnum loads. Of course, as that old “sixgunner”, Albert Einstein, once observed, every “action” can have an equal and opposite “reaction”. In this case (pardon the pun!) some clearance is probably a good thing. I found that a couple of chambers did not seat the cartridge deep enough, causing it to “hang” and lock up the revolver instead of rotating properly. Part of this was easily diagnosed as carbon build up inside the chambers from a previous owner shooting too many .44 Special loads without properly cleaning the gun. The shorter “Specials” will shoot just fine in a .44 mag chamber, but because of their reduced length unburned powder tends to collect in the chamber, in the area where a magnum case would extend further to the end of the chamber. If this area is not cleaned thoroughly and regularly, a “ring” can form that will make it difficult for full-length magnum rounds to chamber properly. Running a wire brush chucked into my cordless drill over these spots after wetting them well with Hoppes #9 got most of it out, but them I found a “scar” in one chamber where it looked as though someone had used a screwdriver and hammer to “extract” a cartridge at one time. This was also keeping a round from seating properly, until I went over the spot with a small, half-round gun smith’s file.
At this point, all was pretty good, but one chamber still had some drag when rotating – sometimes still locking up the gun. I cleaned the recessed area as well as I could with a variety of tools and cleaners, and finally settled on using only new Star-Line brass, and making sure the primers were well seated. Of course, if I want or need to shoot other ammo than my tailor-made hand loads, I can simply NOT load a round into the chamber that gives me trouble. This is not a bad practice, actually, since this type of action (without the Ruger transfer bar safety) should really be carried with an empty chamber under the hammer, for safety purposes.
Another pleasant surprise was found when checking the trigger pull – my gauge showed it “breaking” at 3 – 3.5 lbs, which is in the range I personally prefer.
I will want to do something to the finish of this old gun – even though it really was not all that bad. There was no surface rust at all, and when I rubbed it briskly with a silicon-impregnated rag, it shined up nicely. I like the concept of removing all the blueing and leaving the gun “in the white” – when done properly and kept polished it looks almost like stainless steel – and since anything I did to it would require the old finish to be removed, I used oven cleaner and a Scotch Brite pad to get started. It did not come out bright and shiny, though – like the cylinder on my Ruger Flattop did. This one ended up more of a grey, similar to the Target Grey of my .480 Ruger Super Redhawk. I think it contrasts nicely with the blued frame. What it looks like is that if the finish is scrubbed off with a WET pad, I will end up with the gray color. If the metal is allowed to dry, then worked with a dry Scotch Brite pad, it will polish out bright and shiny. Actually, I think I like the grey better. When I put on a coat of a stainless steel polish and then buffed it a bit with a Dremel wheel, it actually looks a lot like pewter! I plan on either leaving it the way it is, stripping the finish completely from the gun and leaving it that way, re-blueing the blued part, or CeraCoating it. The beauty of a project gun is trying different things to see which you like best.
Removing the finish from the grip frame and trigger guard area was a bit more tedious than the same task applied to the cylinder and/or barrel, but I like the result. As noted, the “unfinished” steel after polishiung looks a lot like pewter. At this point, I am considering a “rust brown” finish on the cylinder frame, for contrast.
This is only the second set of grips I have made, and I feel certain the guys who do this “for money” have more tools available than a Dremel, a Skill Saw, and a sander! Still I don’t think these look half bad, and certainly better than what was on the gun when I got it!
Naturally, the proof of any gun is in the shooting. My first effort with this gun was more of a function test than one of accuracy. I first fired six rounds of .44 Special semi-wadcutter rounds at around 15 yards, offhand. While the results were not anything to write home about, all the shots DID hit somewhere on the target.
Next I ran through 6 rounds of my “mild” .44 magnum loads – 310 gr Hard cast bullets pushed to just over 1000 fps by a charge of Titegroup powder. These were more interesting. As expected, the heavier bullets hit high with the same hold at the same distance – still offhand – BUT, the first three holes were almost touching. This is not the type of accuracy I normally get offhand with open sights – so I was impressed! The next three I experimented with the sight picture, but I think I am confident of hits in the vitals on hogs at 15 – 25 yards.
By a lucky coincidence, I had a fairly large supply of 292 gr cast lead bullets I acquired with the vague expectation of loading them for use in my .44 Special – before I realized they were a bit heavy for that use. These should be near perfect for the old Herter’s revolver. Loaded to 900 – 1000 fps they certainly will not strain the gun – or require me to have additional Carpal Tunnel surgery. Bullets in this weight class should put a good whack on hogs, also.
UPDATE ON SHOOTING THE HERTERS .44:
When trying to solve the problem on the one chamber that did not allow the shell to seat deeply enough to properly operate, I tried the loads I just mentioned, and they clocked right at 1000 fps on my chronograph. Then I loaded some .44 Special power level loads averaging 750 fps using 255 gr Hard Cast flat nosed bullets in new Star Line .44 MAGNUM brass. This gives me a .44 Special load that will not result in a carbon ring in the chambers. These round fired well, and operated perfectly as far as cylinder rotation. My next batch of reloads will be with the 292 gr cast lead bullets loaded “down” a bit, to maybe 700 – 800 fps. These should operate well in the gun and provide a little more “knock-down” power than the 255 gr bullets.
What it seems I am doing here is making a “Special” .44 Special out of this old .44 magnum, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. I had already checked some .44 Special loads that chronoed 770 fps out of my .44 Special Flat top Ruger with it’s 4 5/8″ barrel, but increased to 800 fps out of the 7 1/2″ barrel of a Super Blackhawk .44 mag. The Herter’s 6 inch barrel should fall between these tow with a similar charge and bullet weight, but the apparently heavier construction of the gun should handle the heavier bullets better than most purpose-built .44 Special revolvers. I LIKE .44 Specials! Using the Herter’s as just a big Special is not a problem for me, especially since I have a several .44 magnums to hunt with – allowing me to reserve the Herter’s as strictly a gun for “fun’ and opportunity.
My next “shoot” will be with loads using powder charges at a level in between .44 Special and sub sonic .44 “magnum”, with 292 gr cast bullets in .44 magnum brass. When I checked these in the gun for function, the cylinder rotated freely, with no rounds rubbing. Should be good to go for another session with the chronograph!
Project guns, of any age and type, are pure fun – and make it very hard to see a firearm as “evil”!