The .500 S&W Magnum cartridge - Taffin Tests
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American Handgunner ^ | Jan 2004 | John Taffin

Ten years ago I boldly wrote the following, truly believing sixguns could not get any more powerful: "I will say we simply cannot get any bigger. We have reached the ultimate top. There is no way to get any more power in a portable revolver and also have anything even close to being manageable by anyone. The .500 Linebaugh Long is right at the edge of manageability and then only with tremendous concentration and strength can it be handled." John Linebaugh's stretched .500 Linebaugh, the .500 Linebangh Long, used a .348 Winchester case trimmed to 1.610", blown out straight, with a 440 gr. bullet at 1,400+ fps. Recoil was absolutely brutal in a 50 oz. sixgun.

Obviously I was not a very good prophet, as we now have a .50 caliber sixgun capable of handling 440 gr. bullets at 1,650 fps and more. Shooting that original Linebaugh Long actually made me physically ill. My standard procedure was 20-40 rounds each morning, which required so much physical strength and concentration I would be so wiped out I would spend the afternoon resting. With the new .500 S&W Magnum, I was able to shoot 100 or more rounds each morning without the mandatory rest in the afternoon, is spite of the fact I'm 10 years older!

Even though the .500 S&W Magnum travels several hundred feet per second faster, the difference is a sixgun weighing 72 oz. or more. That extra weight takes the Model 500, the X-frame Smith & Wesson off the Perfect Packin' Pistol class, however it's much appreciated each time the hammer drops. Make no mistake, with full house loads the Model 500 kicks heavily. However, it's still easier to handle than the much lighter Custom Ruger Bisley Maximum. Call them Brutal 1 and Brutal 2.

In addition to the Model 500 from Smith & Wesson, Magnum Research offers an even larger sixgun by chambering their 10" BFR .45-70 in .500, while SSK is producing custom Encores chambered for the newest Magnum. In addition to performing at higher speeds and pressures than the .500 Linebangh Long, the .500 S&W also differs in having a case length of 1.625" as compared to 1.610", and also uses a true .500" bullet rather than the .511" size .500 Linebaugh and Linebaugh Longs utilize.

Handloading Happiness

The .500, if sales and components are any indication, has captured sixgunners much quicker than the three previous S&W Magnums, the .357 in 1935, the .44 Magnum in 1955 and the .41 Magnum in 1964. As this is written, the Model 500 has only been available for a very few months and yet we already have everything we need for tailoring custom handloads. Both Buffalo Bore and CorBon offer factory loadings, RCBS provides the dies, while Starline is producing excellent brass, jacketed bullets are available from Barnes, and cast bullets are available from at least two sources, BRP, and Cast Performance Bullet Co. Actually BRP's 380 gr. plain based bullet was designed for the .50 Action Express, however it performs accurately when loaded to 900-1,000 fps for use in the .500 S&W Magnum.

Barnes has the 275 XDB and 325 XDB .500" bullets. The former is an extreme hollowpoint while the latter is a spire point better suited to larger game at longer ranges. Cast Performance Bullet Co.'s two offerings are both heat-treated, gas-checked LBT Flat Nosed Hard Cast Bullets designed for deep penetration with heavily muscled, large-boned critters. The same powders normally used for standard and heavy loads in other Magnum sixguns apply here also. For my lightest loads, I used Unique, WW231, and HS-6, and for heavy loads AA#9, Lil' Gun, H4227 and H110. For all loads, CCI #350 Magnum Pistol Primers, inserted with an RCBS Hand Priming Tool, were used for ignition and RCBS standard reloading dies performed the sizing, de-priming, belling, seating and crimping operations while mounted in the indispensable RCBS Rock Chucker press. Powder charges were dropped from the RCBS Powder Measure, which was set by using an RCBS Electronic Scale. The bright brass from Starline was definitely surrounded by green during all loading operations.

Aside from the fact cartridges must be lubed before being run through the non-carbide sizing die and also the fact the powder measure emptied rather quickly, the .500 S&W Magnum is loaded exactly as any other magnum sixgun cartridge. Before sizing I place about 100 rounds in the bottom of a cardboard tray and apply spray-on lube. Cases are wiped with a terrycloth towel after loading. Once the cartridges are loaded, the next problem is what to do with them. I prefer plastic cartridge boxes for all of my handloads, however nothing is yet available of the right size for the .500. With 500 rounds of brass from Starline to work with, I purchased five MTM 100-round 20 gauge shotgun shell boxes to keep everything in order. They are quite handy as they are made up of two 50 round trays, top and bottom, with each separated into two 25-round sections. The lid has to be filled with some kind of padding, I simply use folded up newspapers, to prevent cartridges from spilling in case the box tips over.

I'll admit I do not want to fire any more 440 gr. full house loads than necessary. Sight 'em in, take 'em hunting, is plenty for me. The heaviest recoiling load used with the 440 is 39.0 gr. H110 for over 1,640 fps from the Smith & Wesson, A slightly less heavy load, enough to make a real difference when many rounds are fired with the 440, is 35.0 gr. of Lil' Gun clocking out at 1,561 fps over Doc Oehler's skyscreens. However even this is more than I need with this heavy bullet. My choice is 33.0 gr. of Lil' Gun for 1,482 fps and four shots in less than 1" at 25 yards. For hunting, if I can't take the critter with this load, I can't take it. A more comfortable shooting load is assembled with CPBC's 370 gr. Hard Cast over 34.0 gr. of H4227 with virtually the same muzzle velocity and accuracy.

More Fun To Shoot

"Light" loads with these same two bullets as well as BRP's 380 gr. bullet are put together with 10.0 grs. of Unique or WW231 for 800-900 fps, while 15.0 grs. of HS-6 bumps the muzzle velocity up to 1,000 fps. We may call these light loads, however I would certainly expect any bullet at this weight traveling 900-1,000 fps to penetrate any deer and handle all hut the largest feral pigs or black bear. Not only will they handle most of our hunting chores, they are actually pleasant to shoot in these heavy guns. The accompanying chart has loads running from slightly over 800 fps right up to 1,700+ fps chronographed in three separate and distinct handguns chambered for the .500 S&W Magnum. These are Smith & Wesson's Model 500 with an 8 3/8" barrel, Magnum Research's 10" BRP, and SSK's Custom 12" Encore. It's most interesting to compare the velocities and see how each powder and bullet combination reacted to the different firearms. For example, with H110 the BRP shot the fastest however switching to Lil' Gun saw a total reversal with the SSK Encore having a distinctive advantage.

Switching to jacketed bullets we have the two choices from Barnes. The 275 XDB has a huge hollow cavity designed for maximum expansion, while the balance of the bullet provides deep penetration. J.D. Jones turned me on to AA#9 with this lightweight .50 caliber bullet and even staying well below maximum with 38 gr. we pick up 200 fps over factory loads with a muzzle velocity of over 1,900 fps in the Smith Model 500 and over 2,000 fps in the other two handguns. Going up to 41.5 gr. of AA#9 takes the muzzle velocities up to 2,000 and 2,150 respectively. I believe that is what is known as sizzling! Full house loads with this bullet are easily manageable, however they are extremely noisy when shot through ported barrels. Practicing or sighting in on a public shooting range is a sure way to become very unpopular.

The Barnes 325 XDB is designed for use on heavier animals and also to allow shooting at longer ranges. With 40.0 grs. of H110, this bullet achieves approximately 1,600 fps in the Model 500, 1,825 fps in the BFR, and fight at 1,900 fps in the Encore. That is a lot of horsepower.

I had a fourth .500 chambered handgun for testing, a relatively lightweight Maximum frame Bisley gripped custom .500 from Gary Reeder. One load with the 440 at 1,350 fps through this 8" sixgun brought back not-so-pleasant memories from 10 years ago and the testing of the .500 Linebaugh Long. I decided I did not want to go there and instead experienced a relaxed time shooting loads with Unique, WW231 and HS-6. This turned it into a most enjoyable shooting sixgun.

The .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum has one major use and that is the hunting of large and/or dangerous game. It's more powerful than anything we have seen heretofore. This means it should do anything the .44 Magnum, Heavy .45 Colt, .454 Casull, .481) Ruger, or .475 Linebaugh can do and do it more decidedly. My prophecy of 10 years ago fell flat. Surely I can now safely say we cannot get any bigger. If we do, don't call me. I have reached, perhaps over-reached, my limit.