When Dirty Harry dropped his famous line back in 1971 about the .44 Magnum (specifically the S&W Model 29 revolver) being the most powerful handgun in the world, he was technically wrong; it was the most powerful production handgun in the world until a factory wheelgun could be engineered to contain the power of the 454 Casull cartridge.
The 454 Casull is a magnum revolver cartridge used across the world to take down the largest of game animals. Born in 1957, this cartridge yields nearly twice as much energy and recoil as the .44 Mag. The 454 Casull was so large when it came out, that there wasn’t a revolver frame on the market big enough to handle it without extensive modifications.
This .45-caliber magnum came on the heels of the introduction of the .44 Mag, which in turn was introduced more than 20 years after the .357 Magnum hit the scene. Thanks to Elmer Keith, there was a lot of excitement about new magnum cartridges during that era. The term “magnum” refers to a cartridge that is loaded hotter (with more powder) than normal. The term was first introduced by the legendary gunmaker, Holland & Holland in 1912 when they brought the timeless .375 H&H Magnum to market.
Today, the 454 Casull is still known for being a powerhouse in the handgun-hunting world. Freedom Arms, Ruger, and Taurus all have production revolvers chambered in the mighty magnum, and there are a number of single-shot options out there as well. While the 454 has been surpassed in power by newer handgun cartridges, its characteristics make it a continued favorite of handgun hunters.
The Birth of the 454 Casull
In 1957, magnum pistol cartridges were all the rage. The .357 Magnum surpassed 20 successful years on the market, and the famed .44 Magnum and Smith & Wesson’s Model 29 revolver was introduced two years prior. Meanwhile, a Utah gunsmith named Dick Casull and associate Jack Fulmer was trying to build a revolver strong enough for the hot new, and powerful wildcat cartridge, the 454 Casull.
Progressing from .357 to .44, it only made sense that the .45 would be the next caliber in line to get a magnum designation. There were a few problems with building a .45-caliber magnum revolver at the time: the diameter of such a cartridge, the weight of the bullet, and the pressures that would be required to push that bullet to high velocities.
Casull blew up countless Colt Single Action Army revolvers in the development of the 454. At the time, there were no other revolvers on the market which could house the large diameter cartridge and be modified to withstand the extreme pressures. He finally solved this problem by modifying Colt cylinders to hold only five rounds instead of six. This, in conjunction with eliminating the flutes on the cylinder, provided sufficient steel around the chambers for the magnum pressures. This is no easy feat and requires reengineering most of the revolver’s internals.
In November of 1959, P.O. Ackley published an article in Guns & Ammo magazine announcing the cartridge. The new cartridge surpassed the .44 Mag as the most powerful handgun cartridge in existence. After 39 years, the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, or SAAMI, finally accepted the 454 Casull as a standard cartridge in 1998.
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The 454 Casull was borrowed from the other magnums and was built off of an already successful cartridge, in this case, the .45 Colt (aka .45 Long Colt, .45 LC). This new magnum .45 used the same .452-inch diameter bullets as the old .45 Colt did, but the pressures were much higher, which produced considerably better ballistics. SAAMI lists the average pressure generated by the .45 Colt at 14,000 psi. The 454 Casull comes in at 65,000 psi.
Both Casull and Fulmer were aware of this dramatic difference in pressures and made the case slightly longer to prevent chambering and potentially damaging the .45 Colt revolvers. The 454 Casull maximum case length is 1.383 inches, or 0.1 inches longer. The .45 Colt can be safely fired in a 454 Casull but not vice versa. A similar thing was done for the .38 Special and .357, and .44 Special and .44 Magnum.
The case head of the Casull also differed in that it was much stronger, designed to withstand the significant pressure increase. Instead of using large pistol primers like the .45 Colt, it is designed to use small rifle primers. The cup of rifle primers is slightly thicker and therefore stronger and can take higher pressures than pistol primers. The smaller size allowed for more brass in the case head which made it stronger yet.
Carbon rings can form in the chambers and cause excess pressure when firing full-power Casull loads. Therefore, thoroughly cleaning the cylinder after shooting a .45 Colt in a .454 Casull chamber is important.
454 Casull Ballistics
The 454 Casull demonstrates impressive ballistics for a handgun. It is extremely versatile and can be loaded with anything from a 200-grain bullet up to a massive 360-grain bullet, like the ones Buffalo Bore lists as capable of taking big game up to 2,000 pounds.
On the low end, Hornady’s 454 Casull 200 gr MonoFlex Handgun Hunter ammunition is advertised for medium and large game up to 1,500 pounds. Tested out of an 80-inch barrel, this copper alloy bullet has a relatively flat trajectory when sighted in at 50 yards, only dropping 1.5 inches at 100 yards. The velocity at the muzzle is 1,950 fps, producing 1689 ft-lbs of energy. This, combined with a solid bullet that retains 95% of its weight, makes for deep penetration and an outstanding bear defense cartridge.
In the middle is Hornady’s 454 Casull 300 gr XTP Mag. Shot out of a 7.5-inch barrel, this load moves a little slower than the 200 gr but produces more energy due to the heavier bullet. At the muzzle, it has 1,813 ft-lbs of energy and a velocity of 1650 fps.
When compared to the original 45 Colt, it’s impressive to see the difference. A .45 Colt loaded with smokeless powder in a revolver could fire a 250-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of about 900 fps. That same bullet out of a 454 Casull moves at 1,900 fps: more than twice the muzzle velocity of the .45 Colt.
“The 454 Casull is at its best with heavier bullets, either for their momentum or for their penetrating power on game animals.” – Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading.
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Production Revolvers Chambered for the 454 Casull
Throughout much of its existence, the 454 Casull was considered something of a wildcat. No commercially available revolver was chambered for the round for more than 20 years. If someone wanted the power of the 454, they had to have a Colt Single Action Army modified and fitted with a new beefed-up cylinder. Freedom Arms changed that when they worked with Dick Casull to introduce the Model 83 in 1983. Since then, Ruger and Taurus have both introduced successful 454 revolvers to the market.
Freedom Arms Model 83
The Freedom Arms Model 83 is a five-shot single-action revolver closely resembling a Colt Single Action Army. Largely considered to be a semi-custom firearm, it can be purchased in any number of configurations.
The “Field Grade” model starts at $2,750, while a “Premier Grade” begins at $3,225. They are expensive, but you get what you pay for. The Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading describes the Model 83 as “… not only extraordinarily well made, precise in fit and finish, but a gun that inspires confidence.”
Ruger Super Redhawk
In 1997, Ruger began chambering its Super Redhawk for the 454. This would be the first 454 Casull double-action revolver available on the commercial market.
The Super Redhawk boasts other benefits, including integral scope mounts and included scope rings. Adding a pistol scope or red dot to a platform like this really increases its versatility and range when hunting. The suggested retail on this revolver is $1,459.
Taurus Raging Hunter
A year after Ruger introduced the Super Redhawk, the five-shot Taurus Raging Bull was introduced. This allowed hunters to own a double-action 454 Casull revolver for a more affordable price. At $649, it was a major success for Taurus. Since the introduction of the Raging Bull, they’ve brought out multiple other models chambered for the cartridge, including the Raging Judge M513, which can eat 454 Casull, .45 Colt, and .410 shotshells. In fact, all 454 Casull revolvers can also shoot the much lighter kicking, and much less expensive, .45 Colt (aka .45 Long Colt) ammo. Some can even run .45 ACP with moon clips.
The Raging Bull has since been discontinued and replaced by the Raging Hunter line in the Taurus catalog, which won the 2019 American Hunter “Hunting Handgun of the Year” award.
A pair of 454 Taurus revolvers recently saved two Alaska hunters from a charging moose — one of the hunters, Tana Grenda, had used her Taurus last year to kill a charging grizzly bear.
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As a Hunting Cartridge
The 454 Casull is an excellent big-bore revolver hunting cartridge. Dick Casull’s combination of heavy bullets and high velocity meant good knock-down power — and that is, after all, the entire purpose of creating such a magnum cartridge: the power to take the largest game animals with a handgun.
In Handbook for Shooters and Reloaders by P.O. Ackley, he says the minimum energy required to kill an elk- or bear-sized animal is 1,500 ft-lbs. The 300-grain bullet loaded in a 454 Casull achieves that energy out to 50 yards with factory loads. To put that into perspective, a 150-grain .30-06 load with a muzzle velocity of 2,900 fps will hit with 1,523 ft-lbs of energy at 300 yards.
Comparing it to rifle cartridges isn’t fair, as they are used for two entirely different hunting styles. Let’s instead compare it to the .44 Magnum with the same weight bullet (300-grain). That bullet will leave a 7.5-inch barrel at 1,150 fps and hit with 881 ft-lbs of energy at 50 yards. You read that correctly, the 454 Casull hit almost twice as hard as the .44 Mag at 50 yards.
“Throughout the bullet weight range the .454 Casull maintains a 25-percent to 33-percent velocity advantage over the .44 Remington Magnum,” wrote Dave Campbell in the pages of American Rifleman.
That power comes at a price. Firing such hot loads out of a handgun is punishing. The recoil is brutal. According to Chuck Hawks’ handgun recoil table, the felt recoil of a 454 is nearly twice that of a .44 Mag load when fired from guns of similar weight and size. This isn’t a cartridge to go out plinking with. At anywhere from $2 to $3.75 a round, 454 owners might want to consider practicing with .45 Colt loads.
However, there is no denying the effectiveness of the 454 Casull for the hunter. For most of its life, there were no cartridges that came close to the pure power this magnum round puts out.
No Longer the Most Powerful Handgun Cartridge
Eventually, Smith & Wesson — the company that brought us the .44 Magnum and held the title of the most powerful production handgun in the world for a time — found a way to make an even more powerful handgun cartridge than the 454 Casull. And they did it twice
Both the .460 S&W Magnum and .500 S&W Magnum cartridges beat out the 454 Casull when it comes to sheer power. The .460 came around in 2005; it can push a 240-grain bullet over 2,000 fps! Essentially an elongated 454 Casull, the .460 S&W pushed new boundaries as far as .45-caliber power is concerned.
Then came the .500 S&W Magnum. This is currently the largest and most powerful revolver cartridge ever mass produced. The recoil is punishing, but the cartridge and the equally huge revolvers chambered for it can hurl 500-grain bullets at over 1,300 fps.
That’s nearly 400 fps faster than the 454 for the same bullet weight. Simply put, it’s a lot of gun.
The Future of the 454 Casull
Despite being overpowered in the past couple of decades, the future looks bright for the 454 Casull. It’s been around the block long enough to be considered a classic and has killed big game on all seven continents.
The 454 continues to be carried afield by countless handgun hunters each year. Thanks to companies like Freedom Arms, Ruger, and Taurus, there are several options on the market. If you are on the fence about a big-bore revolver, the 454 Casull is an excellent choice and will not disappoint.
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