Revisiting the “Game Getter”
“Shot Or Ball in a .44”(or even a .45 for that matter…)
© 2014 – Ed Harris
Marbles Game Getter
Before WW1, light, break-open utility guns suited for use with either shot or ball were popular for small game hunting. Farmers and outdoorsmen used .44 shot and .44-40 cartridges interchangeably in H&R and Iver-Johnson break-open single-barrel guns, Stevens "pocket shotguns", and the famous Marble’s Game Getter. The .44 Game Getter Ball cartridge, loaded with 30 grains of black powder and a 115-grain, .425" diameter round ball, produced about 1000 fps, having ballistics similar to a Civil War-era .44 cap & ball revolver. These tiny smoothbore guns were well liked in their time and took small game cleanly within 20 yards or so, but were not effective very much farther.
Common .44 shot cartridges used the “Long” (1.305”) .44-40 case with over shot card and roll crimp; or alternately, a shot-filled paper or wooden capsule with profile resembling a bulleted cartridge, in a standard .44-40 case, so that those cartridges could be used in either break-opens, repeaters or revolvers. The .44 “Extra Long” used a roll-crimped, extended case with over-shot card or rounded rosette crimp, to hold more shot. Its 2-inch overall length precluded its use in revolvers or repeaters, as it was intended for use in break-open guns only.
Bob Sears wrote in the May 1981 American Rifleman that the first .410 shot shells were loaded in paper-tubed cases which had originated in Europe as the 12 mm gas cartridge. The barrel of my pre-WW1 H&R .410 I got from Nick Croyle in a trade (which became the platform for my .32 S&W Long Bunny Gun) is marked ".410-12 mm." The 12 mm (.472”) dimension refers to the diameter of the .410 chamber, not its bore or choke diameter. Some barrels were marked ".410-12mm choke," indicating that the gun had a choked barrel, but not all choked barrels were so plainly identified, which I found out the hard way…. Shooting an oversize ball through a choked .410 will burst indeed the barrel! Details on that exciting experience follow later….
The 12 mm gas case was 50 mm, or nominally two inches long, loaded with 10 grams (between 1/3 and 3/8 ounce) of shot. Two-inch .410 chambers accepted either early .410 paper-cased or the various .44 shot cartridges then-common. Some barrels were marked ".410-.44" to exploit this versatility, which soon drove the .44 shotguns from the market, especially after introduction of the 1/2oz., 2-1/2” .410 shell. Production of .44 shotguns ceased quickly after WWI, being replaced almost entirely by the 1920s with 2-1/2” .410s.
Frank Marshall told me about how he used to shoot .44-40 round balls in a .410, so of course I had to try it. I made up rounds using cast balls I already had for a .44 Remington cap & ball revolver, with 5 grains of Bullseye, which Frank suggested. These were great fun as 50 foot can plinkers. I shot several hundred of them over several years until one day I came across a ball I had cast of something of other than soft pure lead, which had evidently age-hardened and the harder ball simply refused to go squeeze down through the full choke.
Upon firing, the gun made a hollow, funny sound and actually recoiled FORWARD! I looked at the muzzle and found it had split about 3” behind the muzzle, spreading open like the hood of a cobra! A few passes with a tubing cutter removed the split muzzle end, producing an Official Boy Scout neckerchief slide I presented later to a Hunter Safety Instructor as a gift “from the NRA.” We carefully inspected and slugged the remaining barrel behind the cutoff, the bore ahead of the forcing cone being verified sound and now a true .424” cylinder bore.
“Now you’ve got a real .44 Shotgun ‘me Boy!”, said Frank, imitating the actor Robert Newton as Captain Long John Silver in Treasure Island! A new front bead was installed, the muzzle re-crowned and I was back in business with a 20” cylinder bore snake gun I still have.
While .410 chambers accept .44 shot cartridges, the .410 case is cylindrical. The .44 Shot, “5-in-1 Blank” cases from Starline which I use to load .44 shot are tapered so they will fit in anything from a .38-40 to .45 Colt or even a .45 ACP Blackhawk! Upon firing, the mouths of .44 cases expand grossly to fill the .410 chamber walls. Because of risk of case body splits, firing .44 Shot in .410 chambers is discouraged today and not recommended.
44’s fired in a .410…
In my experience the Starline “5 in 1 Blank” cases work fine for loading shot in REVOLVERS using MILD charges. I emphasize light loads because these cases have an oversized 1/8” flash hole intended to prevent them from backing out and freezing cylinder rotation against the recoil shield of revolvers when firing blanks. Using large flash-hole cases in loads exceeding black powder pressure is hazardous, due to risk of blown primers. They work fine with standard .44-40 or .45 Colt charges as long as the shot load is much lighter than a standard bullet for the caliber, 1/3 oz. is about 150 grains, vs. a 200-grain bullet in .44-40 or 250 grains in .45 Colt. It is OK to use 5-6 grains of Bullseye or similar powders, but no more. I load a Federal .410 shotcup cut flush to the case mouth, 1/3 oz. of No.9 shot, and a Walters .36 card wad glued over the shot.
Speer produces shot capsules for loading in .44 Magnum or .44 Special brass.
Speer Shot Capsules
These hold the same 1/3 oz. payload as the old .44 shot cartridges. Speer capsules are two-piece, consisting of a rigid blue plastic shot container which breaks apart upon firing and a soft plastic base obturator which plugs the open end of the capsule, retaining the shot inside and upon ignition serving double-duty as the over-powder wad.
The effective range of .44 shot is limited to about 20 yards at best. No. 8 shot was used in early .44 shot loads, and is the largest which makes any sense in the .44 shot load. Loading shot larger than No. 8 is impractical, because with larger sizes patterns become ineffective, due to low pellet count. Successful hunting of edible small game such as squirrels, rabbit, woodcock, quail or grouse at woods range, requires about 150 shot in the pattern to reduce cripples from game escaping through thin patterns produced from a revolver or cylinder bore gun. No. 9 shot has 585 pellets to the ounce, so 1/3 ounce is 195 pellets. No. 8-1/2 shot are 497 to the ounce, reducing the pellet count of 1/3 ounce to 165 pellets. No. 8s are 410 to the ounce, so 1/3 ounce has only 136 pellets. No. 7-1/2s are 350 to the ounce, so 1/3 ounce has only 116 pellets. The trend being illustrated should now be obvious!
Speer capsules come in boxes of 50 each. Fast-burning pistol or shotgun powders work best. Suitable charges for shot loads approximate those of “Cowboy Loads” and standard weight bullets in the respective caliber. To load, fill a shot capsule with fine shot, of No. 8 or smaller, insert the base plug, and load the shot assembly into a charged, primed case, crimping it in securely place. The payload of 1/3 ounce or 145 grains of shot in the assembled capsule provides a total projectile weight of 155-158 grains. Speer capsules fit friction-tight in cases, being held sufficiently in place as long as cartridges are not handled very much. But for pocket carry, crimping is highly recommended!
Speer load data suggested for shot capsules in the .44 Special is safe in the .44-40 because it has greater case volume, lowering pressure and velocity slightly, but not enough to impair performance. Speer cautions that the base plug of the shot capsule requires internal support of the case wall to keep it from falling out. The inside diameter of .44-40 brass enlarges towards the base, risking spilling shot into the powder, unless the plug is either glued in place, or a .44 Special / Magnum size die is used to set back the shoulder of .44-40 cases to a level below the seated plug in the base of the capsule, to adequately support the capsule plug in the assembled cartridge.
I’ve often thought a combination “shot or ball” walking gun would be a useful alternative to my “Bunny Rifle” for the occasional “foraged, feathered feast” which eats so much better than rabbit! Having fooled both .44-40 ball and .410 slugs in my smoothbore .410, as well as trying various .45 Colt/.410 combinations, I wasn’t entirely happy with either shot patterns or the accuracy of bulleted ammunition fired from them.
My experience has been that bullet jump exceeding bullet diameter is detrimental to accuracy. I wanted a walking rifle to be capable of making head shots on small game more easily than firing the same ammunition from my revolver. Inch groups from the bench with iron sights at 25 yards are the goal. Groups slightly exceeding 2 inches are adequate for a trail revolver, but not for a dedicated small game rifle. Ball or slugs fired in a smoothbore .410 group no better than 2” at 25 yards at their very best, in my experience. Rifled barrels give better groups, but patchy shot patterns which are ineffective beyond snake ranges which are close enough you could just as easily fire a bullet to decapitate the rattler!.
So, is the concept of a cartridge gun useable with shot or ball a hopeless fantasy?
In brushy Eastern woods cylinder bore skeet patterns are useful to 15-20 yards where typical small game fare is reduced to feather or fur burgers by the usual too-tightly- choked .410, much better suited to shooting wood pigeon out of tall trees in Tuscany. Firing shot through any rifled bore produces patchy, ineffective short range patterns. Jumping bullets in .45/.410 or .44/.410 chambers and also attempting to fire shot in their rifled barrels curses you with the worst outcomes possible from both worlds.
When developing .45 ACP shot loads in the 1970s, I successfully used a .410 shot cup, significantly smaller than the bore diameter of the rifled .45 barrel, to contain the shot. It did not engage the rifling, and produced even patterns with fine shot from an M1911 pistol, which were adequate to take rabbits or quail to 25 feet or so or break skeet targets from the close stations.
USGI 45ACP Shot Cartridges
I surmised shooting .44 Speer shot cups in a .45 barrel should produce similar results, and could done by using a properly dimensioned chamber which would also provide normal, accuracy with ordinary .45 handgun loads.
At the time I was experimenting with .45 “Cowboy Special” brass in the .45 Colt. I was disappointed in the accuracy I was getting, compared to firing .45 Colt or .45 Schofield loads in my Ruger Blackhawk and Colt New Service revolvers. Firing .45 Colt ammunition, the best loads in the Ruger grouped 1-1/2” at 25 yards and in the Colt New Service slightly over 2 inches. Schofield loads were less accurate, but still acceptable, 2-1/2 inches in the Ruger and 3 inches in the Colt. Loads assembled in .45 Cowboy brass and shot in the .45 Colt cylinder exceeded 4 inches at 25 yards from the revolvers and no better than 4 inches at 50 yards when fired from a rifle. OK for shooting big steel targets up close, but no good for the field.
I found out later (after lapping the ball seats in my Ruger .45 ACP cylinder, to break a sharp wire edge turned up by the chambering reamer, at the shoulder where the case mouths headspace) that I could use the .45 Cowboy Special brass in the ACP cylinder with normal accuracy, using bullets which “fit” cylinder throats properly, in suitable loads. This planted the idea that a .45 rimmed case had shot or ball potential in a chamber optimized for it.
45 Shot Cartridge Prep…
The .45 Cowboy Special is a .45 ACP case draw (.895 inch length), with a .45 Colt head with .512” diameter rim 0.060” thick. I thought that it should be possible to cut a .45 ACP chamber with a rim seat which would accept either .44-40 or 5 in 1 brass for shot, or .45 Cowboy Special brass for bullets, as the critical dimensions where they matter, are close.
Rim diameter of the .38-40 and .44-40 is .525” vs. .512” for the .45 Colt and .520” for the Schofield. Rim thickness is 0.065” vs. .060” for the .45 Colt. The slightly larger rim seat and headspace dimension of .38-40 or .44-40 vs the .45 Colt or Schofield dimensions is not serious enough to cause any difficulty.
Comparing .38-40 and .44-40 chambers with the .45 ACP is interesting. The base-to-shoulder lengths of the .38-40 and .44-40 are .922 and .927”, respectively. Shoulder diameters are .454 and .457”, respectively. Shoulder angles 6 degrees, 48 minutes, and 4 degrees, respectively. Headspace length of .45 ACP is .898” at the mouth diameter of .473”.
I brainstormed a Green Mountain .45 pistol blank of .442” bore and .452” groove with 16” twist rifling and having John Taylor rough the chamber with his .38-40 reamer, using a .45 pilot, so that its .418” neck diameter would not cut into the bore diameter of the .45 ACP blank, using only the back half of the reamer. This would provide a rim seat for .45 Cowboy brass, and a .454” diameter ball seat .024” long with 6 degree, 48 minute forcing cone after a standard .45 ACP reamer was used to finish-cut the .45 ACP chamber body, including a stop surface for rimless cases to headspace on their cases mouth. My .45 Game Getter Gun!
The above concept gun is currently a work in progress as we speak…. So stay tuned!