Making Harry's Day: The .500 Bushwhacker Story

     Even in a time of inflation and shortages, consumers seldom want for fresh novelties. This is notoriously true of the firearms industry, especially in the area of cartridge development. Each year, a quota of “revolutionary” chamberings enters the SAAMI standards through the patronage of the major manufacturers. Some of these offerings have their merits, to be sure, and a smaller number have staying power, but most are thoroughly redundant ballistic duplicates of existing rounds. Whatever can be said of the cartridge we introduce below, however, I submit that it is an exception to this trend. For there can be little doubt that the .500 Bushwhacker, which for the first time brings the power of the African stopping rifle to the frontier of the hand-held revolver, is in a class of its own.       

     Sometimes a firearm is designed for a cartridge, as in the Second World War, when the German Wehrmacht’s drive for an intermediate service round called forth the 7.92mm Kurz, and later, the famous Sturmgewehr 44 to house it. At other times, a cartridge is designed for a firearm, as is the case with rounds like the .300 BLK and .450 Bushmaster, which enhance the performance of the AR-15 platform for specific applications. The .500 Bushwhacker, being conceived with the Magnum Research BFR specifically in mind, belongs squarely to the latter category of cartridges.        

     The BFR is the largest and strongest single action revolver in production today. The long frame model sports a cylinder of three inches, which is actually longer than necessary to house the .45-70 Government, .30-30 Winchester, or any of the other rifle rounds in which it is available (although it is just right for the longest .410 shotshells, in which it can also be had). At the same time, the platform is sufficiently strong to contain the .500 S&W Magnum, which—while a relatively short round by comparison to the formerly mentioned—features a larger case head and far higher operating pressures.

A pair of Magnum Research BFRs before and after conversion to .500 Bushwhacker.

     The .500 Bushwhacker concept is simple: retain the head size and operating pressure of the .500 S&W, but extend the round to fully utilize the cylinder of the BFR. The end result is a round dimensionally reminiscent of the .50 caliber buffalo cartridges of the 19th century, yet possessing certain important advantages in a handgun platform. The name “Bushwhacker” itself is a reference to the rugged guerilla fighters of the American Civil War, such as Jesse James, William Quantrill, and “Bloody Bill” Anderson. These men were anything but civil, but then again, neither is the cartridge.        

     Prior to our initial testing, I settled on the .375 Ruger for a parent case, which is essentially a longer, rimless, bottlenecked .500 S&W. We fireformed the brass straight using a light charge of Unique and a caseful of Cream of Wheat, then trimmed it to length and threaded the bases for rims. This stopgap sufficed until Bertram Brass USA and Bertram Bullet Company of Australia produced 10,000 pieces of highly satisfactory brass to our specifications, eliminating any need for such tedious contrivances in the future.         

L-R: A .375 Ruger case, an early .500 Bushwhacker case formed from .375 Ruger brass, Bertram .500 Bushwhacker brass, and a .500 S&W case.  

     Actual performance from the .500 Bushwhacker greatly exceeded our initial expectations: our 10.5” barrel revolver handily achieves 2,315 fps with a 400 grain Lehigh copper solid, 2,411 fps with a 410 grain Bengal WFNGC, 2,083 fps with a 520 grain Bengal WFNGC, and 1,895 fps with a 620 grain Bengal WFNGC. Surprisingly, our 7.5” revolver gives up only about 50-75 fps from these figures, depending on the load (cartridges of this class are highly efficient, and do not require the 24”+ barrels with which they are typically equipped). In both firearms, brass falls effortlessly from the long, cylindrical chambers, even with top-end loads. 

     This level of power is very much in line with the celebrated .450 and .470 Nitro Express rifle rounds, which are abundantly suitable for ethically harvesting any game on the planet, including elephant. While the considerably less powerful .375 H&H is still successfully used by many hunters to bag the Big Five, the .470 NE and its equivalents have long been regarded as the benchmark for heavy game, providing greater insurance for those apt to encounter large, aggravated animals at close proximity under circumstances in which a perfect hit may not be feasible.       

     Of course, dangerous game capability depends not only on a given bullet diameter, projectile weight, or velocity, but also on proper bullet construction. As a rule, a premium cast or expanding jacketed bullet will perform well for North American quarry, but a solid copper bullet is advisable for African dangerous game (in the United States, brass projectiles are barred from use in handguns by the ATF). Load data and ammunition featuring the 400 grain Lehigh WFN are available now, and we hope to provide further monometal options to our customers in 2023. We also offer an extensive selection of suitable cast projectiles and loaded ammunition for practice and non-dangerous game.        

     Since the .500 Bushwhacker is nothing more than a lengthened .500 S&W, converting a BFR to the chambering still permits the shooter to fire standard .500 S&W ammunition—as well as .500 JRH and .500 Special rounds—through the revolver. Much as with the S&W Model 460 XVR, this multi-caliber capability allows the handgunner to employ a broad range of ammunition, whether to reduce the cost of shooting, tailor the power level of the firearm to the requirements of various hunting applications, ethically introduce novice shooters to the revolver, or decrease the recoil impulse, all to the effect of extending practice sessions and ensuring greater shooter familiarity with the handgun (naturally, after firing the shorter rounds, the chambers should be cleaned prior to the use of full-length cartridges).  

.500 Bushwhacker handguns can fire a range of ammunition, including standard .500 S&W cartridges.

     Despite the extensive chamber area the bullet must traverse before entering the throat, velocity with our +L .500 S&W ammunition dropped by only about 50 fps after the conversion of our 10.5” BFR to the larger round, and accuracy is still good. Additionally, due to the longer cylinder length of the BFR and the somewhat sloppy tolerances typical of the S&W X-Frames, we have found that any given .500 S&W load is actually more powerful when fired from our .500 Bushwhacker BFRs than when used in our 8.375” S&W Model 500: In the S&W, velocity with our 520 grain +L ammunition is 1,580 fps, while in the 10.5” BFR, velocity is 1,790 fps; with our 450 grain +L ammunition, the Smith & Wesson produces 1,700 fps, while the BFR generates 1,910 fps; and with our 410 grain ammunition, the Smith & Wesson puts out 1,600 fps, while the BFR extracts 1,840 fps. 

Recoil Management

     To master the recoil produced by this unprecedented level of handheld ballistic performance, we knew from the start it would be necessary to install an effective muzzle brake. A 4.5 lb handgun producing 5,300 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy—twice the power of top-end loads in the S&W 500—would simply not be safe without one. However, after some experimentation, it became clear that a steel muzzle brake is less than ideal for the application. Recoil reduction with such a device is substantial, to be sure, but muzzle rise is mostly eliminated by the weight of the steel, and the balance of the handgun is also adversely affected. This causes the revolver to recoil more or less directly into the web of the hand, which is rather painful (muzzle rise may hinder rapid follow-up shots with a 9mm, but with big bore handguns, it is preferable to convert recoil to motion than to directly absorb it). 

     The answer, we concluded, is a titanium brake, such as the Ti Pro Heavy. This product provides substantial recoil reduction, but weighs in at only three ounces, allowing for healthy, but controllable muzzle rise. Plus, the firearm so equipped balances in a natural manner (even our 10.5” test gun equipped with this brake feels less muzzle heavy than the 8.375” S&W Model 500, with its shrouded barrel and full-lug configuration).    


All .500 Bushwhacker conversions feature the Ti Pro Heavy muzzle brake, which is sufficiently effective for use with rifles chambered in the .408 Cheytac cartridge.

     Some may allege that the resulting bulk of the firearm disqualifies it from any practical use, but a 7.5” BFR fitted with a brake is no longer—and noticeably lighter—than the factory 10.5” model or several of the S&W X-Frames, which have been popular from their inception and remain in common use. Besides, compared to the rifles of its power class, .500 Bushwhacker revolvers are at least 50% lighter and vastly shorter and handier (not to mention offering a higher capacity and rate of fire than any safari rifle in current production, completely mitigating the magazine work generally required to feed flat-nose monometal bullets through factory bolt-actions, and rendering moot the historical concerns about extraction problems in the field).        

     It may be true that porting and compensators diminish muzzle rise without seriously addressing recoil, but to discount the effectiveness of modern, rifle-style muzzle brakes on this basis is as intellectually dishonest as it is demonstrably absurd (see the video below for a real-world recoil comparison between the factory compensator and our TII Muzzle Brake Adaptor on a S&W 500 revolver utilizing our +L .500 S&W ammunition). 

     Of course, the increase in muzzle blast on braked firearms is a real drawback for some shooters, but if you wish to avoid this phenomenon, do yourself a favor and stick with less powerful options, at least when it comes to handguns; removing the brake from a .500 Bushwhacker and attempting to use the firearm in that condition would be life-altering in approximately the same sense as it is to detonate a suicide vest.        

     The argument that cartridges like the .500 Bushwhacker are uniquely unsuitable for hunting because they are hazardous without the use of hearing protection is thoroughly unconvincing, because this is true of almost every hunting rifle in common use. While firing a safari-class cartridge through a braked handgun without the benefit of hearing protection is a recipe for disaster, firing .300 magnums or even .223 carbines without some type of precaution is scarcely less perilous, the prevalence of the practice notwithstanding. I do not question anyone’s freedom to deafen himself to bag a trophy, but I have yet to encounter a good excuse for it. Given the availability of quality electronic muffs, I fail to see how the appropriate protection is any more difficult to employ in the field than on the range. Personally, I never even fire my rimfires without at least a set of earplugs. Feel free to call me a softy for it, but be aware that I'll most likely be able to hear you if you do.         

     From the standpoint of recoil, the most unpleasant revolvers I have ever fired were our .500 S&W BFRs prior to their conversion to .500 Bushwhacker. Both were excruciating in a way that the S&W Model 500 and the braked .500 Bushwhacker BFRs simply are not. Perhaps this is due in part to the grip design of the S&W, and undoubtedly it is a consequence of the lack of any sort of compensator on the factory BFR. Regardless, even moderate loads with 275 grain bullets were physically painful to fire from the .500 S&W BFRs, and +L loads with 520 grain bullets were downright dangerous. After the installation of a muzzle brake and conversion to .500 Bushwhacker, both handguns became notably more controllable: with full-power loads, they certainly remain lively, but no more so than many other firearms in current use (if a full-size .454 Casull is within your comfort zone, the .500 Bushwhacker likely is too). It is significant to note, however, that muzzle brakes are more effective with lighter bullets, and felt recoil intensifies with bullet weight. While it might be tempting to launch 700 grain cast bullets at 1,800 fps from the .500 Bushwhacker, it would probably be unwise to do so. For manageable recoil and the best terminal performance, a lighter monometal bullet is the obvious choice.

     Grip design and grip frame shape are further important factors in properly mitigating handgun recoil. Our 7.5” BFR came with a plow handle grip frame and a Pachmayr monogrip, and our 10.5” test gun came with the MRI Bisley grip frame and faux ivory panels. Recoil was manageable with the Pachmayrs, but improved with the installation of a Ronnie Wells “Potato Judge” grip frame. The MRI Bisley is likewise an improvement over the plow handle, and I am personally fond of it, though the Wells design is likely superior in ways. Wells is currently devising a new generation of steel grip frames to better suit the heavy recoiling cartridges of the BFR. When they become available, we will report back on the effectiveness of the changes.  

     While I have no experience with the Hogue grips fitted to the newer crop of BFRs, my experience with the S&W X-Frames and the original Pachmayrs on the 7.5” BFR leads me to believe they would provide mixed results in this application. On the one hand, a properly designed rubber monogrip provides the shooting hand a layer of protection from the steel backstrap of the grip frame, which is the handgun equivalent of a butt plate. On the other hand, the plow handle design tends to produce excessive muzzle flip, and it is seldom preferred on the most powerful revolvers. The best of both worlds would probably come in the form of a Bisley-style grip frame fitted with a rubber monogrip, but such an option is unfortunately not available at this time.       

     It is our belief that an effective padded glove should be in the tool chest of every big bore handgunner. While not absolutely necessary, a glove takes the sting out of the initial recoil impulse of the .500 Bushwhacker, making a BFR so chambered downright manageable to shoot, especially for extended range sessions. For my own use, I prefer the Impacto 501-00 glove liner, which provides excellent protection against the recoil impulse without being so thick as to compromise one's grip on the revolver (on the point of stance, however, it is important not to have too strong of a purchase on the revolver: rolling with the punch is always preferable to whiting out knuckles and locking out elbows; the fear of recoil always aggravates it).   

The Forerunners

     As the preceding paragraphs establish, the .500 Bushwhacker offers a unique level of power from a revolver. However, that hardly means it came out of nowhere, and we certainly wish to give credit where it is due, while also noting the ways in which our product is actually innovative. I will not here recount the development of the .357 or .44 Magnums, the .454 Casull, or the standard Linebaugh cartridges, the facts concerning these developments being generally known and rather far removed from where we are today. I will focus instead on the immediate antecedents to the .500 Bushwhacker: the S&W X-Frames; the BFR conversions to .50 Alaskan, .50-90 Sharps, and .50-110 Winchester; and the B&M series of rifle cartridges.        

     The S&W Model 500 (and, in a similar vein, the Model 460) proved consumers were prepared to tolerate unprecedented bulk and weight in a revolver in exchange for new ballistic possibilities. Just how much power could be harnessed from the platform was initially unclear: despite 2.3” cylinders, factory loads in 2003 were typically limited to a 2-2.1” COL, so it seemed as though the power ceiling had not yet been reached. At the same time, the velocity figures for factory ammunition were (and remain) optimistic, due to the relatively loose tolerances of the Smith & Wesson revolvers. Regardless, the Magnum Research BFR, with its 3” cylinder, offered greater vistas for further experimentation and development.       

     John Linebaugh had anticipated .500 S&W performance in the 1980s with his “Long” .500 and .475, which he built on the relatively svelte Ruger Maximum frame, so more power was certainly feasible from the beefier BFR and its predecessor, the D-MAX. The larger buffalo cartridges were relatively easy to chamber in the MRI guns, and they promised (hypothetically, at least) greater power than the .500 S&W for the few souls brave enough to fire them (technically, the buffalo gun conversions predated the S&W X-Frames by a short interval, but interest in them naturally rose with the advent of that rather successful commercial experiment). 

     The market for single action revolvers is rather nostalgic, and so, unsurprisingly, the early pioneers of maximizing the BFR opted for the nineteenth century American .510” chamberings rather than going to the trouble of developing anything novel. However, to retain a substantial safety margin, the larger base dimension of these rounds necessitates lower operating pressures than the .500 S&W, at least in the context of the BFR. By itself, this is not such a handicap to greater power; what truly paralyzed this undertaking was the refusal on the part of most who commissioned the firearms to install effective muzzle brakes. The resultant recoil of the converted revolvers ensured that in practice, the handguns are more or less ballistic duplicates of the .500 S&W which operate at lower pressures and higher cost. Any additional power which the traditional .510" cartridges promise must go untapped if the shooter values his physical health or personal safety—or unless he is willing to consider a muzzle brake (and, as we have shown with our +L loads, a standard .500 S&W can produce more power than can ever be managed in a non-braked handgun).     

     The .500 Bushwhacker drew much from these earlier developments. At the same time, it reflects a significantly different approach to the basic issues. Accordingly, it offers a more powerful, manageable, versatile, and affordable shooting experience than its predecessors. This is apparent in cartridge design, ammunition availability, the reloading process, and the logistics and price point of the BFR conversions. 

     From the standpoint of cartridge design, there is no question that the BFR is abundantly capable of housing a .530” diameter round operating at 62,000 psi: it was engineered to do so for the .500 S&W chambering, after all, and the greater length of the .500 Bushwhacker has no bearing on the issue of cylinder strength. As noted above, however, the tapered, larger diameter .510” rounds diminish the safety margin on these firearms, necessitating lower operating pressures and producing inferior (if still formidable) performance. Of course, as previously explained, the “stretched” design of the .500 Bushwhacker enables the shooter to utilize standard .500 S&W, .500 JRH, or .500 Special loads through a revolver so chambered. This versatility is lost with conversions to .50 Alaskan, .50-90, or .50-110.       

     Furthermore, we feel confident in offering our customers .500 Bushwhacker ammunition loaded to its full ballistic potential. To do so for the buffalo cartridges or the .50 Alaskan would be unwise, given the possibility that such rounds could be fired in antique or otherwise mechanically delicate firearms, potentially causing harm to the shooter or damage to priceless historical weapons. The cost of our ammunition is comparable to many premium .500 S&W loads, and a discount is available for those who save their fired cases: if a customer returns his brass to us in good working order, we will discount $2 per round from any further ammunition loaded from the cases. This works out to $40 in savings for each 20 round box of ammunition.

     For those who reload, it is significant to note that the buffalo cartridges typically require custom loading dies, which must be specially ordered. These are not off the shelf items by any stretch, and they may take hundreds of dollars and a lead time of several months to acquire. The .500 Bushwhacker, by contrast, utilizes standard .500 S&W dies with only minor modifications: a removable spacer must be added to the seater/crimp die and the top of the sizing die must be bored out in order to fully size the larger case (as a consequence, a universal decapping die must also be added to the die set). We offer the modified dies in our store, and will also alter the customer’s existing set for a fee of $50 + postage, should he prefer it (notably, after conversion to the larger cartridge, the dies are still fully functional for loading the shorter .500 S&W). Additionally, we offer an extensive supply of excellent quality headstamped brass and bullets in our store and on our sister site, and reloading data is available upon request.      

     Finally, since the .500 Bushwhacker utilizes true .500” caliber bullets, there is no need to replace the barrel on a .500 S&W base gun, as is the case with the .510” cartridges (obviously, this process is still necessary if the customer’s base BFR is chambered in a smaller cartridge to begin with, such as .444 Marlin or .30-30 Winchester). This substantially decreases the cost of converting the firearm, which already benefits from the suitability of the existing factory cylinder for the larger cartridge. As a result, the cost of converting a .500 S&W BFR to .500 Bushwhacker is little more than the price of a new Glock. By contrast, the price for refitting a Ruger revolver to .500 Linebaugh (a much more involved process) can easily be the equivalent of two or more high-end hunting rifles.

A Foreign Influence

     A significant influence on the .500 Bushwhacker cartridge and concept actually has nothing to do with handguns at all. It came instead in the form of the B&M series of rifle cartridges pioneered by Michael McCourry. These rounds are based on the Remington Ultra Magnum cases cut down to fit Winchester Model 70 short actions, and they are available in a plethora of calibers ranging from 9.3mm to .500.” McCourry is a staunch advocate of the superior handling characteristics of the carbine, and has conclusively demonstrated that true stopping rifle performance is possible from a barrel bearing a closer semblance to a desk ruler than a yardstick. Furthermore, his central role in developing and advocating today’s monometal bullets should not go unnoted; his extensive, well-documented laboratory and field testing deserves a wide reading

     The .500 Bushwhacker is very nearly a rimmed .50 B&M, and it provides a similar (if slightly lower) level of performance from a revolver than the B&M does from a carbine. The platforms are distinct, to be sure, but both succeed in enabling the hunter to deliver charge stopping power from a more compact package than a traditional express rifle (of course, there is no reason why the .500 Bushwhacker might not be adapted to Thompson Center Encores, Ruger No. 1s, or any number of other platforms besides the single action revolver).   

Conclusion

     The .500 Bushwhacker is currently the most powerful revolver in the world. This is not a title we sought for its own sake, and it matters little to us if it is one we retain. We devised this straightforward, if ambitious cartridge to maximize the potential of the superior BFR revolvers, and open all hunting fields in the world to handgun hunters. We have had a tremendous amount of fun developing it, and have been pleasantly surprised by the extent of its power, the measure of its versatility, and the level of its controllability. If you are interested in acquiring one for yourself or learning of our other offerings, see our Services page or email us at [email protected]

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