Bored with the industry-wide trend of incrementally trumping the competition in both size and performance of big-bore revolvers, Herb Belin, Smith & Wesson’s then-handgun product manager, sought to break that pattern while also asserting the firm’s standing by designing the “most powerful production revolver”—a goal the company handily achieved with the 2003 introduction of the Model 500 in 500 Smith & Wesson Magnum (May 2003, p. 54). But Belin, who’s admittedly greedy, wasn’t content with that title alone. Like any addict, he craved more. In this case … speed.
The Cartridge: 460 Smith & Wesson Magnum
From the outset, Belin’s purpose for developing the 460 Smith & Wesson Mag. (and the 460XVR platform) was simple: create the fastest production revolver. The first step, designing a cartridge to achieve that goal, proved to be no easy endeavor.
Surveying the field of cartridges for which revolvers were manufactured at production levels, the .454 Casull stood out prominently to Belin, again—as loaded by Cor-Bon, the cartridge’s muzzle energy levels served as performance minimums in the development of the 500 S&W Mag. More importantly, though, at least in regard to the 460 S&W Mag., were the velocities the .454 Casull achieved to produce those energy levels.
Approaching the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute (SAAMI) maximum average pressure (MAP) of 65,000 p.s.i., Cor-Bon’s 265-gr. bonded-core, hollow-point .454 load attained 1725 f.p.s., producing 1,751 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle. Even the 300-gr. jacketed-soft-point round reached 1650 f.p.s., for 1,814 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy. To earn the title “fastest production revolver,” Belin needed to exceed the performance of those loads.
Knowing the problems associated with bottleneck cartridges in revolvers, Belin opted for a straight-walled, rimmed case for the new design. He chose to make the cartridge a .45 caliber because, among other reasons, reducing diameter in a straight-walled case would lessen propellant capacity, not to mention negatively affect external and terminal ballistics and efficiency.
Wanting to take full advantage of the X-frame’s (Extra Large Frame) pressure capability and cylinder length, and aware of the velocities achieved from the .454 Casull’s 1.383" case when loaded near its MAP, Belin determined the new cartridge required pressures of 60,000 p.s.i. or higher, as well as additional case length—ultimately, 0.417"—for propellant, to achieve his target velocity: 2500 f.p.s. from the 460XVR’s 83⁄8" barrel with a 200-gr. bullet. In addition to the velocity requirement, Belin mandated the 460 S&W Mag./460XVR combination produce 1-m.o.a. or better accuracy.
For cartridge development, he employed the services of Cor-Bon and Hornady; however, neither ammunition company communicated with the other during the process. Instead, Belin relayed performance updates between the two. As it turned out, this helped in the development of the cartridge. How? As each company reached a performance plateau and announced such to Belin, he passed the news along, pitting both in a healthy competition to outdo the other. Sneaky, but effective.
According to Mitch Mittelstaedt, then-project manager for Hornady, shortly after the project began the company encountered a major setback. When using Belin’s prescribed 200-gr. bullet weight, the propellants initially tested gave less-than-acceptable performance, forcing the company to consider switching to heavier bullet weights—upward of 360 grs. Of course, this would be counterproductive to the goal for which the cartridge was envisioned. Thankfully, Hornady’s powder supplier had a solution—a propellant with the optimal burn rate for the cartridge. With a burn rate slightly faster than Hodgdon H-110 and a tad slower than Accurate Arms No. 9, the undisclosed, non-canister-grade propellant proved to be ideal.