The buck was working his scrape line and had no clue that the orange-clad hunter was watching from a nearby tree. I’d been hunting our “farm” for most of the season and time was running out. I had my electronic EAR protection in place and quietly thumbed the hammer of the big Smith & Wesson (S&W). Seconds later it was over and the real work began.
My daughter and I have been trying to tally the whitetail bucks we’ve taken off of our “deer farm” over the last 10 years or so, and we’ve come up with 25 to 30. None of them have been record-book bucks to be sure, but all have been nice representative bucks that capture the essence of hunting here in northeastern North Dakota.
This season I was well-equipped for the task at hand. Nestled in a black nylon Uncle Mike’s shoulder holster was a brand new S&W 629 .44 Magnum stuffed with six WW Platinum Tipped JHPs. This neat load suggests that one might be well-equipped for vampires and the like, but the shiny bullets work just fine on whitetail deer too.
Smith & Wesson got this whole ball rolling in 1955 at the urging of Elmer Keith. The first .44 Magnum to hit the street was the S&W Model 29. Built on the new N frame, this new double action set the rules for a new game right off the bat. While everybody has chambered their arms for this great cartridge since, the old Model 29 remains one of the slickest .44s in the business.
Along the way, Clint Eastwood, aka Dirty Harry, made everyone aware of what a Model 29 looked like from the front end, and we got to hear it and see it kick in several of his great movies along the way. S&W didn’t mind the pat on the back, and getting your hands on a new Model 29 during Dirty Harry’s time was downright difficult. It was common to see a new Model 29 carrying a price tag that had several hundred dollars tacked on to Smith’s MSRP. “Go ahead, Punk. . . .” And the rest is history as they say.
Based on 629
The 629 appeared shortly after the stainless K frame line hit the streets. A 29 in stainless steel could only be better, and the 629 soon made up a bulk of S&W’s .44 Magnum sales. Today, it is the only .44 Magnum game in S&W’s ballpark. The custom offerings that S&W comes up with are now based on the stainless 629 whenever the .44 Magnum cartridge is being considered.
Few serious shooters haven’t shot one of these big S&Ws, and no serious firearms collection would be complete, should a 29/629 be missing. While there are many other .44 Magnum revolvers and single shots thumping around out here, it goes without saying that the 29/629 is about as good as the .44 Magnum game gets. Out of the box, S&W triggers are the stick against which all other triggers are measured, and while constant use of the heaviest loads might loosen it over the years, it remains a solid contender for arm of the century in my book.
Typical of marketing strategy, over the years the 29 and 629 have continued to evolve as has Smith & Wesson. Often small changes have been made to improve the line-up or production process, while they’re obvious to only the most discerning S&W collector. There are a few early Model 29s thumping around, for instance, that feature a cylinder stop screw in the front of the trigger guard, but this feature was eliminated in 1961.
Along the way S&W has changed the shape of the cylinder release, and recently, they added a key-operated action lock immediately above the cylinder release. Supplied with a pair of keys, it’s possible to instantly lock the action by turning the lock a quarter-of-a-turn counterclockwise, while turning it back in the other direction renders the firearm a firearm once again. I understand the impetus behind this action lock thing, but I’d sure hate to fumble for the key with someone coming through the front door at 2 a.m. too.
This latest work hinges on another new 629 massaged by S&W’s famed Performance Center. Dubbed, appropriately I might add, the Comped Hunter, this is one of the slickest double-action wheelguns I’ve wrapped my hands around. In fact, I’m secretly hoping that no one at S&W will read this issue of Gun Week and that they’ll forget where this one went.
Sporting a 7.5-inch barrel that features a streamlined underlug that tapers toward the muzzle, this hunk of stainless steel looks slick right off the bat. Up front, and in keeping with the name, S&W has installed a muzzle brake aimed to tame the substantial recoil generated when you launch a 250-grain slug at 1,400 feet-per-second (fps) or so. If there’s any room for criticism of this piece I’d aim it in this direction, too!
While the two slots are angled forward and probably are designed to control muzzle flip, every braked firearm I’ve worked with barked like a banshee in the process. I don’t have any way to measure sound pressure levels here on the farm, but this baby is among the loudest .44 Magnums I’ve fired. The others which come to mind, also sported brakes.
In addition, I’m used to shooting single-actions that roll upward in the shooting hand, dissipating recoil in the process, but this baby kicks, too. Shooting off the bench, I quickly learned to pad my elbow because while the muzzle doesn’t flip too much, this one kicks back with authority. During the range session, I ran 75 rounds downrange in one sitting (the wind was down) off the bag, and I was pooped when it was over. This is still a work cartridge, not necessarily to be confused with casual plinking.
In line with the purpose of this rig, the guys at the Performance Center milled the top of the barrel to perfectly engage either a stainless steel insert or a Weaver-style scope base, before drilling and tapping four holes for attachment screws. While the rig is shipped with a stainless steel insert filling the slot, the Weaver-style rail makes attaching a scope a breeze. You don’t even have to be “mechanically inclined” to slip a scope on this baby.
In this light, it took but 10 minutes for me to install a new S&W 1.5 to 6.5 power variable scope on the Comped Hunter. I planned to use S&W rings as well, but S&W couldn’t oblige. Instead, I used a pair of bullet-proof titanium rings from Excel Industries (4510 Carter Ct., Dept. GWK, Chino, CA 91710; phone: 909-627-2404) to complete the package. Designed to take heavy recoil, these rings make sense on a hard kicking .44 Magnum. Should open sights be your choice, the Comped Hunter has a great orange ramp behind the muzzle brake up front and one of their great, click-adjustable, white-outline rear sights to complete the package.
The cylinder rotates counter clockwise, of course, and is locked into its shooting location by a spring-loaded ball in the front of the yoke, while the rear is locked into place when the base pin engages a hole in the recoil shield. This one feels and sounds like a bank vault with little discernable end shake or unwanted movement when the cylinder is locked into place.
S&W triggers tend to be the benchmarks against which other triggers are measured. This trigger is a tough act to follow, single-action or double-action. The Lyman digital trigger gauge makes it easy to check a trigger and this gem averaged 3 pounds, 11.5 ounces. It is clean with no discernable creep or take-up and it breaks like ice. Ah yes, this is what a trigger is supposed to feel like. DA this one takes the cake too, averaging 9 pounds, 14 ounces. This one is as smooth as glass and should make quick follow-up shots as easy as they can be.
Pistols shipped from the Performance Center are special and they should be packaged well, too. S&W takes care of this by shipping each of these in a classy, locking aluminum case complete with two sets of grips. The form-fitting laminated rosewood grips feature a rounded rear section with three finger grooves at the front. Fitting the round grip frame like a glove, I considered ’em for a minute and then decided that since I was taking this baby hunting, I’d replace them with the included black rubber Hogue Monogrip®. With the black S&W scope in place with the black grips, the Comped Hunter looks like a real hunting tool.
I went hunting before I got the chance to do the extensive range session, but I knew this one was a shooter right off the bat. After running half a dozen rounds into my 25-yard bullet trap, my son-in-law and I moved back to 100 yards to check our two .44 mags for deer season. Jason’s first and second rounds were right there, so I sat down and picked another target. The two 250-grain WW Platinum Tip JHPs were centered in the Birchwood Casey Shoot-N-C target and we were ready to hunt.
Typical of North Dakota (the weather will change, take my word for this), opening day never managed to get above zero and Jason and I froze, to say the least. The deer weren’t cooperating, either, with young bucks and does the rule.
I hunted hard the days that followed, but finally with less than a week left, the nice 4X4 was working his way along a scrape line when the Comped Hunter spoke. Seconds later the buck was down for the count, we had our winter’s supply of meat, and it was time to get to work. The work does start after the shot, you know. While I had but a 100-yard drag to get the buck to the 4x4 Ford Super Crew, 100 yards seems to work out to 500 yards when you’re 57 years old! From now on I’m carrying a loooooong rope!
Back home on the range so to speak, it was time to see how this big S&W shoots. Yesterday worked out to be perfect for a shooting session, with temperatures hovering around 35 degrees and negligible winds to boot. I picked three stout factory loads to wring this combination out. Because I’d used WW’s Platinum Tip JHPS for hunting, I started the session with this load and the first five out of the barrel at 25 yards slipped into a one-hole group that measured but 8 tenths of an inch or so. This load left the 7.5-inch barrel averaging 1,279 feet-per-second (fps) with an extreme spread of 87 fps and a standard deviation for the 20 rounds of 27 fps. This load generates 907 foot-pounds (FP) of energy, 15 feet from the muzzle and the five 5-shot groups averaged 1.0 inches at 25 yards. Ah, yes, it’s nice to work with a revolver, isn’t it.
Next up, Cor-Bon’s fantastic bonded core 260-grain JHP, would quickly take charge before the dust settled. Twenty of these hard hitters averaged 1,366 fps, 15 feet from the muzzle, exhibiting an extreme spread of 85 fps and standard deviation of 23 fps. This load generates 1,077 FP of instrumental energy and averaged just under 1˚ inches at 25 yards. Generating substantial recoil, this is one stout .44 Magnum load.
Last and far from least, came 25 of Hornady’s great “Custom” 240-grain XTP JHPs. This load left the 7.5-inch S&W doing 1,396 fps, with an extreme spread of 66 fps and standard deviation of 17 fps. Generating 1,038 FP of instrumental energy, this load also took accuracy honors, with the 25 rounds averaging .94 inch, center-to-center. The Hornady Custom ammunition took group of the day honors, as well, with five of ’em slipping into .71 inches. All three loads averaged 1.14 inches center-to-center.
The Performance Center Comped Hunter carries a suggested retail price of $1,105, and it looks like a bargain to me. Sporting a pair of grips, a bullet-proof, non-gunsmithing scope base, great looks, perfect trigger, and shipped in a great box to boot, I have to call this the slickest double-action .44 that I’ve had in my hands. If I could keep it, I think I could often account for sub 3-inch, 100-yard groups with the best loads, and I know I could continue putting meat on the table for the duration.
While there are other handgun cartridges that do as well as the .44 Magnum in the field, few if any are more effective. There are more powerful cartridges out there, but how much power do you need when this cartridge and load will shoot completely through a whitetail buck leaving an impressive exit wound in the process.
The only reason I was able to recover one of the two slugs fired during hunting season, is that I hit the buck too high with the first shot, hitting the top of the shoulder in the process. The slug penetrated the top of the shoulder blade, the back and ended up under the skin on the far side. The second shot went behind the shoulder and through both lungs and out into Mother Nature, leaving a huge exit in the process. The buck dropped at the shot. It really doesn’t get better than that.
While this rig is about as good as it could be, had I been asked to help, I would make it perfect by changing the stainless steel insert used when the scope base isn’t installed. I think it could be reshaped and restyled to perfectly match the rail on the top of the barrel, obvious then only because of the four Allen screws in the top. Then, while I was working on the barrel, I’d lob about 1-inch off the front end, eliminating the brake in the process. Voilàperfection. Still, the guys and gals at S&W have done another bang-up job with this 629.
Indeed, the stainless steel Comped Hunter from S&W’s Performance Center may be one of the best whitetail deer rigs in the business, at any price. Stuffed with any of these three loads, it’ll get the job done, time and again. The .44 Magnum cartridge (and the Model 29) will soon be 50 years old. Both of them are, quite honestly, still winners.
Specifications S&W Performance Center Comped Hunter
|Maker:||Smith & Wesson 2100 Roosevelt Ave. Springfield, MA 02201
|Action:||Double Action Revolver|
|Construction Material:||Stainless steel|
|Barrel Length:||7.5 inches|
|Overall Length:||12.6 inches|
|Grips:||Rosewood Laminate/Hogue MonoGrip® Black Rubber|
|Sights:||Orange ramp up front/ adjustable rear Weaver- style scope base included in package|