Pre-Historic .410s - The .44 Shot Cartridges

By Marshall Williams.

H&R Handy Gun

 My middle daughter is a nurse in an oncological unit at a hospital some 200 miles from where I live. She believes that an important part of her job is to interact with her patients and help to keep up their morale. Since she is friendly and outgoing, they usually respond well. Recently, in getting acquainted with one of her patients, she discovered that he needed information about a couple of old guns. She might easily have said to her patient, "Iíll get back to you on that." but that is not her way. Instead, standing beside her patientís bed, she called me on her cell phone, handed the cell phone to the patient, and let him get his information straight from the ... um... straight from the horseís mouth. We had a nice chat. Later my daughter said she thought her patient had "perked up" after the call. Good, I perked up too.

The gentlemanís question was an interesting one.  He said that he had an old break-open, single-barrel shotgun which looked like a .410, but its barrel was marked ".44 cal." He wanted to shoot the little gun and needed to know what kind of ammunition it used and where he could find some.

His question came at a particularly opportune time. I had just done a little research on that very subject and was able to tell him that his gun had been made to use the nearly forgotten .44 shot and ball cartridges which were the predecessors of and inspiration for the .410 shotgun shell. Unfortunately, I also had to inform my new friend that no shootable ammunition is available; the little cartridges have been obsolete for half a century.

Long before the .410 bore shotgun shell arrived on the scene, a number of small shot guns were available which used a variety of .44 shot cartridges more or less interchangeably. These guns included not only the fairly common little break-open single barrel guns like my friendís, but smooth-bored Winchester lever action rifles, Colts Lightning slide action rifles, a few Colts big frame revolvers, Stevens single-shot, break-open pistols (commonly called "pocket shotguns"), and the last and possibly most famous gun to use the .44 shotshells, the Marbleís Game Getter. Indeed, the Marbleís Game Getter is so closely associated with the .44 shotshells that old cases often were marked ".44 GG."

The .44-40 shot cartridges appeared in a number of variations. The most common types include: a standard length case with over shot card and roll crimp; a standard length case with a shot-filled paper or wooden capsule which gave the cartridge the profile of a cartridge loaded with a bullet; an extra long case with either an over shot card and roll crimp or a folded or "pie crimp" loaded to the bulleted cartridge profile and providing room for a little more shot; and versions which uses a paper or wooden capsules to extend its length so that it could hold a little more shot.

In addition to these variations, which do not exceed the maximum overall length of the loaded .44-40 cartridge, there is a more or less interchangeable cartridge called the .44 XL. The .44 XL used an even longer paper or wooden capsule to hold more shot. It was loaded to an over all length of about two inches. Obviously this is too long to work in a revolver or short action repeater such as the Winchester 73 and Colts Lightning rifles, but works in a break open single shot.

In addition to the shot shell, there also was a ball cartridge originally loaded with 30 grains of black powder and a .425" diameter round ball weighing 115 grains. A farmer or woodsman armed with one of the little guns, a handful of shot cartridges, and a couple of ball loads was well prepared to take a lot of game as he worked in the outdoors.

In addition to the cartridgeís utility as a hunting or pot shooting gun, there was another use for them. Some ancient film of a performance by Buffalo Billís Wild West survives and often shows up on TVís history channels as a bit of documentary. In giving us a grainy black-and-white glimpse of an American entertainment extravaganza of a another era, it depicts one of the most popular uses of these brass shotshells - exhibition shooting. In the film, glass balls filled with talcum powder or chalk dust are thrown into the air as a rider on horseback gallops in front of the gallery and shoots them out of the air. The powder in the glass balls makes an impressive puff of smoke in the air and puts a visible exclamation point on each hit.

The gun probably is a Winchester Model 73 smoothbore, and the shells, of course, are the brass shotshells. This probably was a bit of legerdemain, and the audience no doubt believed the marksman was using standard ball ammo. In my view, this takes nothing away from the marksmanís performance. Hitting randomly thrown aerial targets from a galloping horse is an impressive feat. (In my personal view, merely staying on a galloping horse is quite a feat.) The smooth bore gun with a light charge of small shot does not make the feat easier, instead, it makes it possible.

While the .44 caliber shotshells were far and away the most popular, very similar shells were made up in .38-40 cases, .32-20 cases and any number of others along with smoothbore guns to shoot them. As the cases get smaller, both shot charge and utility are reduced, and the smaller calibers appear to be far less common.

Friend Bob Sears, a most reliable source of gun lore, has written that the earliest version of the .410 appeared in 1911. In an article which appeared in the May 1981 edition of the American Rifleman1, he notes that the first .410 was loaded in a paper case that had originated in Europe as the 12 mm gas cartridge, hence the occasional barrel marked ".410-12 mm." For those whose barrel is marked ".410-12mm choke," the marking indicates the gun has a choked barrel, however, the choke does not measure 12 mm, a dimension which translates to .472 inches and is the chamber diameter of the .410, not its bore or choke diameter. The 12 mm gas case was 50 mm or two (2, not 2 Ĺ) inches long and could be loaded with 10 grams of shot, a weight which falls neatly between 1/3 and 3/8 ounce of shot which are two other common shot charges for the two inch .410.

The new two inch .410 chamber would accept either the new .410 paper case or the various .44 shot cartridges and many barrels are marked ".410-.44" to show this versatility. No doubt the versatility of the .410 chamber soon drove .44 shotguns from the market, as nearly all of them had disappeared by the end of WWI replaced by .410s.

Although the .410 chamber accepts the .44 shot cartridges, the .410 case is a more or less straight cylinder while the .44 cases, particularly the .44-40 case, are slightly necked or tapered. Upon firing, the .44 cases may expand slightly to fit the walls of the .410 chamber. Or it may not, see below,

Having told my new friend that there was no suitable ammunition available for his old gun, I also told him that I thought I could cobble together some cartridges so that he could have the satisfaction of shooting his old gun a few times.

A proper paper shot capsule for a .44 probably could be made using a wooden dowel of an appropriate size as a form. However, it is not necessary. The Speer Company makes excellent plastic shot capsules intended for reloading handgun cartridges and the capsule for the .44 magnum/.44 Special works perfectly in a .44-40 case. In addition, it holds approximately 1/3 of an ounce of shot, roughly the same as the originals.

The capsule is a two part affair. The front end is a tough but somewhat brittle blue plastic cup which holds the shot. It is approximately .418 inches in diameter and is designed to break apart on firing. The base section is a plug made of a tough pliable material similar to the plastics used in shotgun wads and cupped on both ends. The base section plugs the capsule to hold the shot in place and, on firing, acts as a gas seal and over powder wad to drive the shot up the barrel.

In use, one simply fills the blue capsule with the desired size of shot, inserts a plug, and the assembly is ready to load. The .44 capsule holds approximately 1/3 ounce or145 grains of shot. The capsule assembly adds about 10 grains to that for a total weight of about 155 grains. Capsules come in boxes containing 50 each of the blue capsules and white plugs. Reloading information for use with the .44 magnum and .44 special is located on the bottom of the box.

I no longer have a gun, cartridge cases, or, more importantly, reloading dies for a .44-40. Using the Speer capsules, a proper set of dies would have made reloading the .44-40 shot cartridges a snap, just proceed as if you were reloading bullets. Without a proper set of dies, I had to work by trial and error using what reloading equipment I had. Fortunately, I have been reloading for a long time and have a lot of reloading equipment with which to try and err.

First, I needed cases and a local antiques dealer gave me a handful, enough for my experiments. The cases were an interesting hodge-podge including a few with semi-balloon heads, some with solid heads, and one ancient UMC brand solid head case that took a small size primer rather than the long standard large size.

With cases in hand, I found that a shell holder for the H&H belted head (7mm Rem. mag, .300 Win. mag, et al.) would hold the .44-40 rim. I deprimed them using a Lee Universal Depriming Die, but a small punch would work as well. I resized the first half inch of each case with a .44 magnum/.44 special resizing die. As will appear later, this was a happy accident. I reprimed with a Lee Auto Prime, again using a shell holder for the H&H belted head, and, since black powder is easily ignited, I used pistol primers.

For safety, I had decided to use blackpowder as a propellant, however, the only black powder data that I had was for the round ball load. That information said 30 grains but did not specify the granulation. Nevertheless, 30 grains of GOEX FF would work and keep pressures lower than a finer granulation. Accordingly, I dropped 30 grains of FF in each case.

My reading indicates that #8s was the most popular shot size for the .44 cartridges. Accordingly, I filled and plugged an appropriate number of capsules with #8 shot. I then inserted a capsule in each case. With so much powder in the case, the capsule sticks out of the case too far to be used through a .44-40 repeater or revolver, and my finished product looks more like a .44 XL than a .44-40 shot cartridge. If I were going to make a habit of reloading these, I probably would substitute about 24 grains of FFF. Ballistics and pressures would be about the same and it would permit seating the capsule a little farther into the case.

The capsule was an easy friction fit, and friction alone would be sufficient to hold it in place if the cartridges were not handled much. However, unless the capsules are crimped in place, these cartridges will not stand much handling such as being carried loose in the pocket. To avoid having the capsule fall out, I taped it in place with a piece of cellophane tape. I removed the tape before firing. A proper .44-40 crimping die would have eliminated this concern.

More than 25 years ago, I had a .43 caliber muzzle loading rifle and, being a packrat, I still have some old cast lead balls of the correct .424 diameter. I loaded a single case with a ball for illustration. While the shot cartridges were considered interchangeable in the early .410s, I would not attempt to shoot such an oversize ball through a .410 bore, it is too large and may damage the gun. Or shooter.

Although I used black powder, the Speer capsules come with smokeless powder reloading data for the .44 Special, a cartridge which is loaded to pressures comparable to the .44-40. This data should be safe in the .44-40. In fact, since the .44-40 has slightly more internal space, pressures should be somewhat lower, although not enough to affect performance. However, considering the age and condition of many old guns, I would approach its use with caution.

In preparing this article, I contacted a CCI expert for his opinion on using the .44 special data for the Speer capsules in the .44-40 case. He said that the Speer .44 special data for shot capsules resulted in chamber pressures in the 10,000 to 12,000 psi range and agreed that the data would be safe in the .44-40. However, he informed me that the base plug of the Speer capsule requires the support of the inside of the case to keep it from falling out. He noted that the inside diameter of .44-40 is slightly larger towards its head than the .44 special and, without the side support of a straight case, there was a risk of the base plug falling out, spilling shot into the powder, and generally ruining the reload.

As noted above, I used a .44 spl/mag straight sided resizing die to resize just the forward section of the .44-40 cases, and, by happy coincidence, I had resized down below the base plug of the capsule. This struck me as a highly instructive accident. If one wishes to use the .44 special data in a .44-40 case, simply resize the .44-40 straight down to the level of the bottom of the capsule. This pushes back the slight shoulder of the .44-40 case, but its thin brass reforms easily.

My new friend remains in the hospital, so I could not use his gun to test my product. I previously had used the capsules in a .410 shotgun with good results, as noted, it mikes only about .418, and I decided to shoot one to see what sort of pattern it might give. Most authorities suggest that the optimum range for these guns is about 12 yards. Most of the old guns made for the .44 shot cartridges do not appear to have been choked, so for the experiment I chose a little Italian .410 over and under because its lower barrel is a cylinder bore. At the shot, I was a little disappointed by the relatively modest quantity of smoke. I sometimes shoot a 12 gauge shotgun with three or four times as much black powder, and both the highly resonant kaboom and the white cloud are more impressive.

At 12 yards, the tiny shot charge gave a few fliers, but put more than 90 % of its pellets in a 12 inch circle. More choke would have improved the pattern. Nevertheless, even this pattern would be quite satisfactory for rabbits or grouse and would have been effective a couple of yards farther away. Previous experience with these capsules and number nine shot size shows that the smaller shot would improve pattern density enough to extend its effective range to perhaps 20 yards.

I had expected the tapered and necked .44-40 case to expand to the diameter of the .410 chamber. It did not do so. It was, however, totally covered with a very thick coat of sooty black powder residue. Before it can be reloaded, it will have to be washed in hot soapy water. And before my little over and under could be put away, it, too, had to be washed in hot soapy water.

At this point, further testing awaits my new friend being able to leave the hospital and join me for a little fun.

A day or so after the call, my middle daughter called to say that the prospect of shooting his old gun had improved the morale of her patient. I must add that it considerably improved mine as well.

 Additional info re getting an old 44 shotgun going .. Shooting the 44 shotgun