.44 Magnum Ammunition Accident

Just received an e-mail with some interesting photos that I thought you guys may find interesting.


It’s an oldie but a goodie.
Overload blew off the top third of the cylinder, ripping the neighboring cases in half.

Those photos have been on the Net for at least three years now. The different theories of how it happened have been tossed back and forth so many times that the real story was lost to history long ago.


I’m not excluding even the possibility, that the author of the pictures ruined this good big thing for entertainment purposes only…

I have had personal experience of a similar Occurrence ( in a .45 Colt Revolver, by way of Forensic examination for the Insurance Co.) --Double charge in the top chamber, causing sympatethic detonation of neighbouring cylinders ( each side), all occuring on First shot with cylinder fully loaded ( 6 rounds). Same top and side blow up of cylinder and top strap, with side cases remaining in situ, but opened up. ( Not “torn up”, as they detonated as well.).

NO damage to shooter, but bystander hit by part of cylinder in Thigh and almost Bled out… ( at about 10 yards away.).

Doc AV
AV Ballistics.
Brisbane Australia.

It looks like sympathetic detonation in the adjacent chambers, but by what mechanism would that happen?

So, overall, this is an ammunition issue and not a faulty revolver?

I would say definitely an over-pressure load, likely either a double charge or using an excessive charge of a fast propellant. It probably would not have involved a factory load, as loading machines are designed to prevent such occurrences, along with normal plant QC testing methods. Unlikely to be attributable to the revolver, at least if the revolver has not been tampered with. I still don’t understand what would cause the apparent “sympathetic detonation”, if that’s what it was. I don’t remember ever hearing that term applied to revolver incidents.

The early postings on this picture pointed the finger at “chinese ammunition” but nobody has been able to establish what “chinese ammunition” meant since it doesn’t seem to exist.

Blow ups like this occour all too often. I have seen a few but not quite as spectacular as this. They are a product of little comprehension of loading tables and idiots who don’t read or understand them.

The Darwin principle of ammunition manufacture

Train wrecks like that are not common but if you shoot enough handgun competition you’ll eventually be witness to one in person. I used to have a S&W K38 that looked just like that 44. Top half of the cylinder gone, as well as the top strap. As is usually the case, no one was hurt. Pieces of steel imbedded in the ceiling and wall, plus an embarrased shooter. I eventually welded a new top strap on and coverted it to a starter pistol for the local Parks & Rec. It’s still ticking AFAIK.

Don’t panic anyone. I fixed it so it cannot chamber or fire cartridges. And it’s well marked.


My old S&W K frame mod 64 Combat Masterpiece .38 Special took loads that it was never designed to take. Over many years I used it as as a magnum in all but name. Never a problem. I got quite blase about it. I was loading ++++Ps for longer range. Eye watering loads.

You have to do something pretty special to disassemble a modern revolver but like you said, I have seen a few let go. Never like that though

Sympathetic detonation:

Smokeless Powder and Modern priming Compositions, however stable, will detonate if subjected to enough of a shock.

That is how primers will detonate if shaken in Bulk and loose ( 1903 Factory explosion in USA…Primers were carried to Case priming Machine in a Bucket, loose… For 30/40 Krag, if I remember the article in either Hatcher or another Book of the 1930s).

Nitrocellulose ( and especially Double Base -NC+ NG) Powders, will also detonate if subjected to intense pressure , heat or shock wave…try it with a few grains on an anvil, and strike with a large Hammer ( just two to three actual grains of Powder…it will explode) Wear Eye and Body Protection…

Quite apart from Small arms ammo, Artillery ammo can also
Sym-det. if even one shell goes off in a depot…see the occasional destruction of Dumps in the Former Soviet Union, or in "Demilitarising "Plants, where Old ammo is broken down.

SA Ammo itself can be reasonably stable, but a strong enough charge of C-4, carefully placed, can cause a Pile of SA Ammo to go in one blast, rather than scattering cartridges over the country side.

Doc AV
AV Ballistics Forensic Services

Smokeless can definitely go high-order, but it usually takes exposure to another detonation to do it. Some blasting agents are compositions of ammonium nitrate, fuel oil (or other organics), and smokeless powder (usually reclaimed military powder). I think this is how Bruce Hodgdon got his start after WWII. I have (legally) disposed of considerable amounts of recovered or scrap smokeless powder by incorporating it into slurry explosives used for quarrying. This is considered by EPA as “beneficial recycling” and bypasses classifying scrap propellant as a reactive hazardous waste, the disposal of which would otherwise be very expensive and a major regulatory compliance burden. Far afield from a blown-up revolver cylinder, but I still don’t see how sympathetic detonation enters the picture.

Several years back there was an article in, I think, The American Rifleman, about the secret PsyWar project during the Vietnam War involving sneaking explosive ammunition into the hands of the VC and North Vietnamese. The purpose was to destroy enemy morale. Weapons that blow up in their hands give soldiers pause about shooting them. Anyway, I remember that it was found this could not be done reliably using any smokeless powder, and they ended up using some type of explosive cartridge filler instead, but I don’t know what it was. The trick was to introduce only a very few sabotaged rounds into the enemy supply chain. I thought that would be a good movie plotline.

I have seen this happen. A member of my club started reloading. This individual was given an absurd loading for his .44 Magnum, a Ruger Super Blackhawk. The first shot fired ripped the Ruger apart. The top strap blew off along with the top of the cylinder.

Fortunately he was alone on the line, we where behind and to his right.The cause was a massive overcharge of powder, he had to compress it to seat the bullets. Let me also say that the powder in question was never meant to load a .44 magnum cartridge.

I have seen “reloaders” have to pound empty cases out of Smiths and Rugers, but the guns did not come apart.

That sounds exactly like something that a lawyer would say. And probably did!