Unblinking Eye
.44 Special Revolvers

.44 Special Revolvers Continued

Smith & Wesson Model 696


Smith & Wesson Model 696

The Smith & Wesson Model 696 was made from 1997 to 2002 and seems to have acquired something of a cult following. I can’t say if the 696 was a response to the Rossi 720 but it is possible. Both are five-shot .44 Special revolvers, made from stainless steel,
Rossi - S&W Comparison - click to enlarge

Rossi 720 and S&W Model 696

with adjustable rear sights and molded rubber grips with finger grooves. The two guns are identical in size, though the 696 is a quarter-pound heavier than the 720. Both guns are astonishingly accurate, but the Smith & Wesson has a superior trigger.

The factory trigger on the 696 was about 12.5 pounds double action and 5 pounds single. I polished all the internal parts and installed a set of reduced power springs from Jerry Miculek. (Miculek also sells the best video I have ever found on how to do a trigger job on a Smith & Wesson revolver.) Now the double action is ten pounds and the single is two. In my opinion, two pounds is too light for a single action trigger but I shoot this revolver double action only and at some point I may bob the hammer.

The modern Smith & Wesson revolvers have a hammer with a shorter arc of travel than the earlier guns, though I am uncertain as to when this change was made. It is difficult to measure, but I tried, and I believe the hammer travel was reduced by about 15 degrees of arc, which is significant. This means the hammer does not have to go as far back during double action shooting. It gives a very different feel to the double action and makes the gun faster to fire.


Smith & Wesson 696 - 5 Shots @ 10 Yards

The 696 has the longer cylinder of a .44 Magnum, even though it is chambered for the .44 Special. Fifteen years after the advent of the Model 696 Smith & Wesson introduced the five shot Model 69 Combat Magnum revolver on the L frame. For the first time in more than a hundred years they moved the front lock to the crane instead of the front of the ejector rod. I am a bit too recoil-sensitive to shoot .44 Magnum so I am happy to stick with my Model 696 in .44 Special.

One last note: My accuracy tests are done single action from a bench rest. The rubber grips seemed to fit my hands just fine in all my preliminary testing. But when I began doing instinctive shooting drills I discovered I was not as accurate with this gun as with other guns, particularly my S&W Model 21-4. I realized that the finger grooves, or possibly the overall shape of the grips, was preventing me from gripping the gun high enough for instinctive shooting. I happened to have a pair of standard L-frame Smith & Wesson wooden grips that I had taken off a gun I no longer own and I put them on the 696 and added a grip adapter: problem solved.

Taurus Model 445

Taurus Model 445 - click to enlarge

Taurus Model 445

The Taurus Model 445 appeared in 1997 and was made until 2003. It was reissued again in 2011. It seems to have replaced Taurus’ previous offering in .44 Special, the Model 441 (with adjustable sight), and the Model 431 (with fixed sight), which are almost twice as heavy as the 445. The gun is marked “Taurus Ultra-Lite” and it has an alloy frame,

Taurus 445 - 5 Shots @ 10 Yards

but the barrel and cylinder are stainless steel. It weighs two ounces less than my 1981 Charter Arms Bulldog.

Internally, the 445 is somewhat similar to a Smith & Wesson but it does not have a rebound slide, though it has a trigger return spring in the same position. The Taurus does not need a rebound slide because, like a Ruger, it utilizes a transfer bar so the hammer never engages the firing pin directly.

The double action trigger pull was over 15 pounds when I got the 445 but I did some polishing of interior parts and put a Wolff reduced power spring set in it, giving it a 12 pound double-action trigger pull. The accuracy is reasonable for a two inch barrel but recoil with this gun is punishing despite the very soft ribbed rubber grips. It is two ounces heavier than the Smith & Wesson Model 296, described below, yet has more apparent felt recoil.

Smith & Wesson Model 296

S&W Model 296 - click to enlarge

Smith & Wesson Model 296

In 1999, two years after the advent of the Model 696, Smith & Wesson issued the oversize snubnose Model 296, a “hammerless” AirLiteTi .44 Special gun with an aluminum alloy frame, a titanium cylinder, and a 2.5 inch barrel. The barrel is a steel insert in an alloy barrel housing. The 296 remains an L frame Smith & Wesson, so it is rather large, but it weighs just under 20 ounces; it is startlingly light the first time you pick it up. The light-weight frame forced Smith & Wesson to limit the 296 to bullets no heavier than 200 grains because the inertia of heavier bullets can cause them to separate from the cartridge case during heavy recoil and lock up the action—the last thing you want in a gun intended for defensive concealed carry.


S&W Model 296 Lockwork

The Model 296 only remained in production for two years. Probably several factors converged to make it a less-than-stellar success. Foremost were the aesthetics—no one really liked the looks of the gun, some calling if flat-out ugly. Then there was the recoil issue—there is no getting around the fact that if you have a light-weight gun and a heavy bullet you are going to experience heavy recoil. Additionally, problems emerged almost immediately with the finish of the gun—it did not take well to gun-cleaning solvents, which only exacerbated the existing aesthetic issues (my gun had its price discounted due to its poor finish condition). I personally think recoil may have been aggravated by the fact that the “boot” grips the gun came with did not cover the backstrap, but I can’t say this from personal experience, as the used gun I bought came with third-party wooden grips. I immediately bought a Pachmayr grip for it.

The 296 quickly became a favorite concealed carry gun. The trigger was about 13 pounds when I got it,

S&W 296 - 5 Shots @ 10 Yards

but I polished and lubricated and replaced the trigger return spring and now it is a very reasonable 10.5 pounds. My entire hand fits on the Pachmayr grip, giving me excellent control of the gun. I usually carry in an IWB holster, but for this gun I dug out an old belly band holster--one of the early ones that is only three inches wide--so I can carry it snug against my side under my left arm. The gun is so light I can almost forget it is there. Loaded with 200 grain Winchester Silvertip ammo, it is well suited for self defense, though recoil is quite heavy and practice sessions with the 296 are necessarily short. Accuracy is good for a double-action-only gun.

One interesting point about the 296 is that it does not have a hammer block. As with other Smith & Wesson revolvers with internal hammers, since the hammer is fully enclosed the rebound slide is the only safety mechanism needed.

The Smith & Wesson Model 21-4


Smith & Wesson Model 21-4

A quick history is necessary in order to catch us up on the Smith & Wesson line of .44 Special revolvers. The Second Model Hand Ejector came out in 1915 and continued in production until 1926. In 1926 the Third Model Hand Ejector appeared with an integral underlug that looked like that of the First Model but without the third locking lug—this was the first Smith & Wesson .44 Special with a hammer block, though the first design for a hammer block was patented in 1910. The hammer block works off the rebound slide, blocking the hammer from hitting the firing pin unless the trigger is all the way to the rear. This is an additional safety mechanism, in case the gun should be dropped and land on the hammer.

World War II put an end to .44 Special productio, but it started again in 1946 with the introduction of the Fourth Model Hand Ejector, with a fixed rear sight, which for a time continued to be known as the Model 1926. In 1950 a Target Model with an adjustable rear sight appeared. Over the next few years the nomenclature evolved, so the Fourth Model with the adjustable sight became the “Model 1950 .44 Target” and the Fourth Model with the fixed sight became the “Model 1950 .44 Military.” Then in 1967 the names changed again. The “Model 1950 .44 Target” became the Model 24, and the “Model 1950 .44 Military” became the Model 21.  All these guns continued to have five screws until 1955 when the upper sideplate screw was eliminated. The screw in front of the trigger guard, along with its spring and plunger, was eliminated in 1961.

In August of 2004 the first round butt N frame .44 was produced as the Model 21-4. This is a CNC machined three-screw gun with an internal locking device and a four-inch barrel. A number were produced as the Thunder Ranch Special but I have been unable to determine exactly how many. According to the Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, only 225 were made with an electroless nickel finish in 2006.

I found the Model 21-4 in electroless nickel on consignment in a local gun shop. I knew nothing about it and was simply attracted by its aesthetics. It looked very impressive in the show case. I tried to talk the owner down a bit, but he held firm and I ended up buying the gun anyway. This was my first .44 other than a Charter Arms Bulldog.

The round butt grip is far too small for any man with normal to large hands. It might fit a woman’s hand, if she had the strength to hold such a big revolver. I bought some oversize grips for it but they never fit my hands properly either and I eventually put the original grips back on and added a grip adapter from BK Grips. Once I started shooting it regularly, I discovered that the 21-4 is an extremely accurate gun with a superb trigger. There is a high berm at our gun range at about 25 yards from the firing line and it is easy to hit clays from 25 yards with this gun, even double action. It is very rewarding to have a gun that shoots where you point it every time.


S&W 21-4 - 5 Shots @ 10 Yards

Internally, the gun does not have the aesthetic appeal of the early Hand Ejectors with their mirror finish parts but the Smith & Wesson revolvers are still precision made and can be easily smoothed and adjusted. The original double action trigger pull was about 13 pounds, which I adjusted down to 11 pounds, giving a 3 pound single action pull. I have to say this is probably my favorite all-time revolver.

For years I never thought of carrying this gun, thinking it was just too heavy. But after I bought a Model 296 and began to carry it in a belly band holster, I wondered if it might be possible to carry the 21-4  and some of my other heavy .44s the same way. I bought a four-inch wide belly band holster and it works great at least for winter carry in Texas.

So far the electroless nickel finish is holding up very well and I have never had any trouble with the internal lock; I wish it weren’t there, but it appears to be harmless. I have never had the key.

The Ruger GP-100 .44 Special

Ruger GP-100 - click to enlarge

Ruger GP-100

Ruger began
Ruger GP-100 Lockwork - click to enlarge

Ruger GP-100 Lockwork

offering the popular GP-100 revolver in a five-shot .44 Special version in December of 2017. The cylinder is long enough for a .44 Magnum cartridge but the gun is chambered for .44 Special. Unlike other guns in the GP-100 line, the cylinder of the .44 Special is not fluted, giving it a distinctive look. The original monogrip by Hogue felt good in my hand, but I found in actual double action shooting that the distance of my finger to the trigger was not optimal. I bought an Altamont compact rubber grip that fits my hand much better.

The double action trigger pull on my GP-100 was a stiff 13 pounds out of the box and the single action was a rough 4.5 pounds. I had never worked on the action of a Ruger before but I decided it was time to learn. There are some excellent videos available on YouTube and replacement springs are available from several sources. The Ruger does not have a sideplate like Smith & Wesson and Colt revolvers but the entire lockwork is attached to the trigger guard assembly and is removable as a unit. The lockwork is very much like that of a Smith & Wesson,

S&W Model 696

Ruger GP-100

with most components in the same position, including the trigger return spring, but there is no rebound slide because the Ruger utilizes a transfer bar mechanism, making a rebounding hammer unnecessary. The trigger return spring also serves to tension the latch for the trigger guard assembly.

I am not an expert on the production methods of the Ruger company but my understanding is that many components are made of cast steel, which is then machined to necessary tolerances. Compared to other revolvers, there is a noticeable gap between the crane and the frame; fortunately the crane is locked in place by a blade at the front which fits into a slot cut in the frame, providing precise positioning, but there is a certain cognitive dissonance when one sees the crane fitment for the first time. The first several times I shot the gun, the pin holding the rear sight worked loose--an application of some red Loctite resolved the problem.


Ruger GP-100 - 5 Shots @ 10 Yards

The action on the Ruger was not noticeably smooth because the lockwork components and trigger guard assembly were only roughly finished. This is a case where simple polishing can make a big difference. The gun is actually quite easy to work on. I polished rough edges off all internal parts, shimmed the trigger and hammer, and replaced the trigger return and hammer springs. Now the double action is a very smooth, even 11 pounds, and the single action, at 3 pounds, is somewhat more crisp and predictable than before. The weight of the Ruger, which is almost the same as that of the Smith & Wesson 696, absorbs recoil well. The Ruger does not have the pinpoint accuracy of my Smith & Wesson revolvers but works quite well for instinctive shooting (with the new grips) and is certainly accurate enough for defensive purposes.

.44 Special Double-Action Revolver Timeline

Revolver Model

Dates of Production*

Smith & Wesson New Century - Model 1908 - 1st Model Hand Ejector - “Triple-Lock”

1908 - 1915

Smith & Wesson 2nd Model Hand Ejector


Colt New Service


Smith & Wesson 3rd Model Hand Ejector - 1926 Model .44 Military


Smith & Wesson 4th Model Hand Ejector - Model 1950 .44 Military - Pre-Model 21


Smith & Wesson .44 Hand Ejector 4th Mod. Target - Model. 1950 .44 Target - Pre-Model 24


Smith & Wesson Model 21


Smith & Wesson Model 24


Charter Arms Bulldog

1973-1998, 2000-Present

Smith & Wesson Model 24-3 Lew Horton Special


Smith & Wesson Model 624


Taurus Model 441/431 (441 w/ asjustable sights, 431 w/ fixed sights)


Rossi Model 720


Taurus Model 445/445CH

1997-2006 , 2011-?

Smith & Wesson Model 696


Smith & Wesson Model 296 Airlite-Ti


Taurus Model 445-Ti


Smith & Wesson Model 21-4 Thunder Ranch Special


Smith & Wesson Model 396 Night Guard


* Production dates are sometimes the best I could find. I welcome more accurate information. The list is not complete.
** I do not have a date for the first Colt New Service produced in .44 Special.

References & Links

  • Boser, Gordon C., “The S&W Triple-Lock and the .44 Special Cartridge,” The American Rifleman, August 1944.
  • Grennell, Dean A., “Cartridges Don’t Just Happen: The Evolution of a Favorite,” Pistol & Revolver Digest, 3rd Edition. DBI Books, Northfield, Illinois: 1982.
  • Kuhnhausen, Jerry, The S&W Revolver: A Shop Manual.  VSP: 1990.
  • Serven, James E. Colt Firearms: 1836-1960. Serven Books, Santa Ana, California: 1960.
  • Supico, Jim, and Nahas, Richard, Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, 3rd Edition. Gun Digest Books, Krause Publications, Iola, WI: 2006.
  • Taffin, John, Gun Digest Book of the .44. F.W. Publications: 2006.
  • White, Henry P. and Munhall, Burton D., Pistol and Revolver Cartridges. A.S. Barnes, New York: 1967.

Copyright 2020 by Ed Buffaloe.  All rights reserved.

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