I have owned four revolvers in my life over the years chambered in .44 Magnum and four handguns chambered in .45 Colt. These included Smith & Wesson, Ruger Vaquero, an Italian copy of a Colt SAA and a Thompson Center Contender. I have also owned two rifles chambered in .44 Magnum. So let’s break down the two.
The .45 Colt is the Great Granddaddy of them all. It has been around since 1873 and its record for a personal defense round is solid as granite. During the Indian Wars, the Spanish American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and countless gunfights and skirmishes in the old west and early days of the twentieth century, it served very well.
However as Elmer Keith found out when he hot rodded his .45 Colt revolver and it nearly came apart in his hands, that those old cases could not take a lot of pressure, and neither could the guns of the day. Elmer went on to beef up the .44 Special, which became the .44 Magnum.
The .44 Magnum when it came out was truly a beastly incarnation. When taken out to be used on big game it had no equal and it didn’t for many years. It was a handgun hunter’s dream, but it was too much for personal defense, which many found that out despite Harry Calahan’s exploits. Many in fact found that they could not shoot those early .44 Magnum revolvers well, or at all. Even today with more powerful revolvers on the market, most still stick with the .44 Magnum.
The .45 Colt got a new lease on life with the invention of the Ruger Blackhawk. Bill Ruger believed in building tough guns, and they are that and more. Ever since the early 1970’s since Ruger began chambering their .45 Colt Blackhawks, shooters noticed that the .45 Colt could be pushed a lot further than it had ever been before. Then came the truly massive Bisley, built on the Super Blackhawk frame called the Ruger Super Blackhawk Bisley Hunter and chambered in .44 Magnum, and then the .45 Colt.
This gun begged to be shot with heavy handloads. Reloading manuals soon began to list loads that were listed as “Ruger only”.
For those who are not inclined to handload their own, companies like Buffalo Bore Ammunition brought out there .45 Colt +P which turned the old round into an ideal hunting round, pushing a bullet as large as 325 grains past 1,200 fps. This puts the .45 Colt, provided it is in the right gun, right alongside the .44 Magnum, maybe even a little better.
So which is better between the two? I suppose it depends on what you are going to use it for. For personal defense, in factory guise that belongs to the .45 Colt because it is easier to shoot with standard ammunition. I carried a .44 Magnum for years but I ended up handloading my rounds with lighter loads consisting of a 250 grain cast bullet and 10.0 grains of Unique, which is really in the territory of a hot .44 Special. When it comes to bullet size the .45 Colt has an edge because it is a true .45 caliber while the .44 Magnum is really a .429. When hunting, a bigger hole allows more air in and lets more blood out— everything you want if you need to track a deer.
When it comes to big game hunting, if you are going to go with anything other than a Ruger or maybe a Freedom Arms, then the .44 Magnum is best. I have had Smith & Wesson revolvers in both .44 Magnum and .45 Colt and the .45 could not keep up, simply because I would have had to wear the gun to a frazzle to match the velocity if I wanted to go there. Not saying that it wasn’t a bad round, but it didn’t have the power off the rack of the .44 Magnum.
Having had both, I myself was torn between the two having shot so many rounds out of both, but I have to go with the .45 Colt because of its versatility. In my Ruger revolvers I can keep the factory ammunition for personal defense and if I want to hunt with them I can load it up enough to take on any whitetail or black bear walking. The .45 Colt at one time was nothing more than a cowboy gun, strictly for personal defense.
Bill Ruger was one of the first to see that the old round could be taken past the blackpowder days and beyond. The .44 Magnum has met its match in the old Colt.