When these two numbers are put together, people usually sit up and pay attention. John Wayne stands tall with his ‘Colt 45’ and Clint Eastwood faces off with his ‘S&W 44 Magnum’.1 There’s only a hundredth of an inch separating the two calibers, and a generation of contention as to which is the finer round or revolver. The number 45 can be flipped to make 54 and pleasure seeking Baby Boomers come to mind, singing along with the Village People’s iconic tune YMCA against the backdrop of Studio 54, New York’s iconic 70’s disco. So what happens in the brain when it hears something so reduced in size and economical in its symbolism as two numbers, juxtaposed either forwards or backwards?For all of the Steampunk cogwheels and curly-cues of the Victorian age, cartridges and bullets are amongst the most abstract shapes to come out of the Industrial Revolution, a perfect union of straight line and curve.2 From the outside, a cartridge is haunting in its reduced simplicity: little more than a truncated cylinder of gleaming brass filled with gunpowder, into which is wedged a lead bullet. The nose cone of a bullet is a round ogive shape, designed to slice through wind with optimum efficiency. Yet for all its modernist austerity, a bullet is pregnant with the capacity for a life changing, visceral, nasty, messy, causality. Who would have known that such ghastly termination could be born from such pure form? The clue is the ear-splitting crack-bang that accompanies each shot. The raw power of that noise, whose only parallel in nature is a thunderclap, feels like all the noises of the world have been compressed into a split second. Surely that alone tells us something. And not to be forgotten is that when the chips are down, the cartridge becomes currency, not worthless paper money. The real price of life is unambiguously mirrored in the simple form; one is exchanged for the other.3 What we know today as a ‘bullet shape’ started out as a perfectly round sphere of lead used for centuries in matchlock, wheel lock and flintlock muskets and pistols up until the 1830s. Keplarian globes would sail through the air in constellations from massed volleys of smoothbore muskets, from the ranks of British Red Coats and American Revolutionaries alike. The leaden balls would yaw and arc through space, inaccurate and going their own way, hoping for a chance hit upon their unfortunate adversary. The balls were big, slow and heavy, between one-half and three-quarters of an inch in diameter. A musketeer, if his view was unsullied by smoke, could watch the unhurried passage of the ball form a shallow parabolic arc as it wended its way into the heart of darkness. Basic military ammunition is still called Ball ammo, despite no longer being spherical.
|Caliber||Approx. number to 1 pound||Approx. relative size|
|.58 (.57)||25||1/2 weight of .69|
|44 (.453)||.50||1/2 weight of .58|
|.36 (.375)||100||1/2 weight of .44|
|.31 (.320)||150||1/3 weight of .36|
|.28 (.265)||250||1/5 weight of .31|
The diameter of ball ammunition began to diminish when barrels could be inexpensively rifled, as an accurate shot is more deadly although the ball is smaller. When Samuel Colt patented his revolver mechanism in 1836, a new search for the right caliber ball ammo was set in motion. The Colt Paterson .36 cal. revolver, considered by many to be one of the most elegant handguns ever made, could fire five shots in quick succession. For the nascent gun industry, the search was on for a revolving handgun that was the right mix of firepower, caliber, lightness and ease of manufacture to reliably deliver more shots on target if the first one missed.5
Spooked by the Moro Warrior episode, in 1907 the U.S. Army put out a call for a new sidearm that would return to large caliber .45 cal. cartridges.23 The new round had to be rimless so that it could be used for semi-automatic pistols. In one of the most interesting competitions ever held, the major gun makers of Europe and America were pitted against each other to produce the next official side arm for the US Army. The requirement was that it should be powerful enough to fell any foe with one shot to the torso at standard distances. Ten companies entered and the finalists included Colt, Luger and Savage, who had all upsized their smaller .32 or 9mm caliber pistols, developed in the 1890’s, to take the new .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge designed by John Browning.24 Colt had the advantage of Browning designing both the .45 ACP round as well as the Colt .45 semi-auto pistol, and it was thought that Colt’s submission had an unfair advantage. There was the accusation, unfounded, that Colt had put less powder in the competitor’s ammunition so that their actions would not cycle properly. In a pissing contest of epic proportions, hundreds of rounds were run through each gun in a torture test and Colt came out victorious.
The Colt 1911 heralded the third act in the saga of the .45 caliber. It signaled the birth of a new cartridge for a pistol that has become one of the two most famous handguns America has ever produced, both in .45 caliber. The Colt 1911 was accepted by the Army the same year that the Wright Brothers flew the 1911 Wright Model B Flyer but, unlike that particular airplane, the Colt 1911 has remained essentially unchanged for 100 years. It is a perfect, classic design and is still going strong. Thank you, John Moses Browning. Ten years later in 1921, the same .45ACP round was used for the Thompson submachine gun. Thank you, General John Thompson. A single round of .45ACP could be used in both a long gun and a handgun, thus simplifying the army’s ammunition supply.25 Once again, it repeated the concept of interchangeability of ammunition between handguns and long guns that the Colt SAA revolver and the Remington lever action rifle pioneered with the .44-40 cartridge. In 1985, the U.S. Army withdrew the Colt 1911A1 from general service and replaced it with the Beretta 92B, using a 9mm round. Interestingly, after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, soldiers displayed dissatisfaction with the lighter 9mm round and the Army is apparently taking another look at the .45 cartridge, thus repeating a discussion between the .44 and .36 (9mm) families of ammunition. This will be the third time such a discussion has been held over the past 150 years.
Internet chat rooms indeterminably engage in a longstanding banter as to whether the .45 Colt or the .44 Magnum is the more iconic round, or if Colt’s ‘Snake’ revolvers are better than Smith & Wesson’s Model 29, the Dirty Harry ‘hand cannon’. The discussion runs along the same lines as to whether John Wayne or Clint Eastwood better define the American psyche, similar to the indeterminable bar-room arguments over whether a Ford or Chevy is better, or, in the lingo of this readership, a BMW 4 Series, an Audi A5 or Merc A45. Even here, 4 and 5 are once again the pivotal numbers, something that the marketing teams of the automobile industry are surely well aware of. Throughout the long history of both the .45 and .44 rounds, in practical terms the many incarnations of the .44 probably wins the prize. On the other hand, the mythology of the .45 has an unstoppable power in popular imagination. The aura of the .45 round tends towards the semantic rather than the scientific, and the .44 is historically more experimental. If there is a choice, which there often is, choosing the right caliber for a pistol is not an easy decision. Based upon the mystique and quality of invention of the .44 or the .45 cartridges, it would have to be the .44. Then again, with a little more thought, maybe the .45 will do the job just fine. When push comes to shove, no one would ever know the difference. It’s the medium, not the message, which stops people in their tracks. Copyright Ben Nicholson, October 7th 2015, New Harmony, Indiana.