Being a semi-automatic, this small rifle is naturally a little more picky about groceries than a lever action rifle would be, because a certain amount of oomph is required to operate the gun's action. It also used a shallow type of rifling, and that made a difference in its diet, too.
When I was 13 years old, I began toting a Ruger 44 Carbine in the deer woods. One of the first things Dad taught me about that gun was that it had been designed around a 240-grain jacketed bullet, and that the ammo needed to be loaded towards the warm side of hot.
Make it Heavy
The bullet weight requirement was pretty much a no-brainer; 240 grains is just about ideal for big game with the modest velocities provided by the 44 magnum cartridge. To design a semi-automatic's action for that bullet weight only makes sense. Over the years, we tried 180, 270, and 300 grain bullets just for kicks, but they didn't do well at all.
It also makes sense to make the gun work with hotter loads, because when hunting big game it's never a good idea to use underpowered ammo - and the 44 magnum's range is limited in the best of conditions.
As for the jacketed bullet requirement, that has to do with two things: The shallow rifling in the barrel, and the "hotness" needed to cycle the action. Shallow rifling like Marlin's much-touted Micro-Groove rifling is designed to work with hard metal jackets rather than the softer metal of cast bullets - and when loaded hot, cast bullets tend to melt and lead the barrel. It's not hard to figure that in those conditions, shallow rifling would quickly fill up with lead and cause accuracy problems.
240s, Jacketed, Hot
So - the bottom line here is that you should use 240-grain jacketed bullets in ammo loaded with plenty of punch. Try to avoid ammo that specifically says "handgun" on the box. Back in the day, 44 magnum ammunition loaded hot and intended for use in rifles was commonly labeled as rifle ammunition, but that time had pretty much passed when I began hunting in the early 1980s.
Read the Fine Print
The above-mentioned rifle ammo used to be packaged in long, skinny 20-round boxes. That's why I grabbed a particular box of Hornady groceries back in the late 1980s - because it was in that type of box. I headed down to the pit and tried it out, but it wouldn't cycle my rifle's action. A closer look at the box revealed the words "handgun ammunition." Hornady had obviously loaded this stuff on the wimpy side. Bummer.
Hollow Point vs. Soft Point
I never noticed much difference in terminal performance between hollow point and soft point bullets when hunting deer with the 44 magnum. I've killed more than a dozen deer with the cartridge using both bullet types, and I've never lost a critter yet. Both types of bullets work fine in my opinion - but be sure that the bullet you use is designed to expand. I bought some lead-tipped jacketed PMC ammo years ago and found that it wouldn't expand. I still recovered my critters, but it was touch and go at times and I quickly switched ammo.
So, there you have it. I've found a number of different loads that do the job, from Winchester to Remington to Fiocchi, and certainly not limited to those. Hunt down some hot-loaded 240-grain jacketed bullets designed to expand, and you should be in fine shape come hunting season.
- Russ Chastain