Carry a lot, shoot a little with the Smith & Wesson 329pd Airlite 44 Mag.
Carry a lot, shoot a little with the Smith & Wesson 329pd Airlite 44 Mag. (All Photos by Jordan Bell)
 Comment(s)

The .44 Remington Magnum has been rolling off ammunition manufacturers’ production lines since 1955. Once proclaimed “the world’s most powerful revolver cartridge,” it has since been eclipsed by such rounds as the .454 Casull and .500 S&W Magnum, but it still packs a wallop. But a revolver like the Smith & Wesson 329pd is right at home with this large round.

The Smith & Wesson 329pd Airlite 44 Mag is a Ready Solution

The natural homes for such a cartridge are the large N-frame revolvers by Smith & Wesson, epitomized by the iconic Model 29. Many folks found it unpleasant to shoot with full-power magnum loads—plus the loaded gun weighed the better part of 3 pounds.

Handguns chambered in .44 Magnum generally came to be used by hunters and target shooters who competed in metallic animal silhouette matches. It’s also found in the belt and shoulder holsters of those who hike, fish, hunt and camp in bear country.

Light But Strong

Smith & Wesson has always tried to keep pace with the demands of the gun-buying market. A segment of law enforcement officers and legally armed citizens who carried handguns frequently wanted a handgun that was reasonably powerful, yet less of a burden in the holster. S&W took their J-frame and K-frame revolvers, gave them aluminum alloy frames and called them “Airweight” models.

With standard-pressure ammunition the Airweights held up just fine, but the demand for more powerful .38 Special cartridges led to the development of high-velocity +P ammunition, which was hard on the Airweight frames. In 2001 S&W began mixing scandium into their aluminum alloy, which greatly increased its tensile strength without adding weight. When this frame was mated with a titanium cylinder, it was now possible to make an “AirLite” magnum revolver.

The Smith & Wesson 329pd Airlite

The first version of the Model 329-1 AirLite Personal Defense (PD) was introduced in 2003. It had a ported 3-inch barrel and came from the S&W Performance Center. Today’s Model 329PD has a 4.13-inch barrel, which gives it an overall length of 9.5 inches and an empty weight of 25.2 ounces—about a pound lighter than the Model 29.

The 4.13-inch stainless barrel is covered with an alloy shroud.
The 4.13-inch stainless barrel is covered with an alloy shroud.

It has a stainless steel barrel enclosed within an alloy barrel shroud. The shroud has an integral rib on the top and a full lug on the bottom enclosing the ejector rod. A front sight ramp is incorporated into the rib, the top of which is serrated. Pinned into this ramp is a HiViz red-dot fiber-optic front sight.

Moving back, the rear sight is fully adjustable for windage and elevation. The rear sight blade has a V-notch rather than the usual square notch, and the rear portion of the sight, along with the top side of the sight “tang,” is serrated. You’ll notice that on the bottom of the topstrap at the barrel-cylinder gap there is affixed a small stainless-steel “flash shield” that helps prevent flame cutting.

On the left side of the frame is the cylinder release latch, and just above that is the safety lock. The cylinder stop is an extension of the recoil shield and not a separate part. Markings on the frame and barrel shroud are fairly minimal, which I count as a plus.

Performance and Finish

Of course, this is a traditional double-action (DA) revolver. The single-action (SA) pull is, in a word, “crisp,” and my test gun has a pull weight of 4.1 pounds. I’m going to guesstimate on the DA pull at about 13 to 14 pounds, but it’s fairly smooth. The pull is helped out by the wide and smooth-faced trigger. The hammer spur is also of the wide target type and deeply checkered.

Laminated wood grips with textured panels are standard.
Laminated wood grips with textured panels are standard.

Finish on the frame and barrel shroud is matte black, while the cylinder is the natural dull gray titanium alloy with a clear coat. My test gun arrived with wood laminate grips with finger grooves and rough-textured panels on the sides, along with a laser-cut S&W logo. Also included in the 329PD’s blue plastic carrying case was a set of synthetic, rubber-like grips. These two-piece grips cover the backstrap of the grip frame and have shallow finger grooves, plus are dimpled on the sides. These will likely be put on the AirLite .44 before the shooting test!

Ammo Gathering

One main attraction of the Model 329PD is its versatility. Because it’s so light, it can be both a trail gun and—for those who don’t mind the bulk and use the right holster—it can also serve for self-defense. With these two roles in mind, I selected several different brands and types of cartridges. Some are new and some are rather aged, but ammo isn’t the easiest thing to find these days.

Most readers know that the .44 Magnum revolver will also chamber .44 Special cartridges. The .44 Special is in most cases a much “milder”-shooting cartridge, and in factory loadings is best suited for use against two-legged predators. It may well be good medicine for smaller black bears or mountain lions, too.

The Model 329PD has the safety lock feature (the keyhole above the cylinder thumb latch), and a “flash shield” under the top strap prevents frame cutting.
The Model 329PD has the safety lock feature (the keyhole above the cylinder thumb latch), and a “flash shield” under the top strap prevents frame cutting.

A recent offering in .44 Special by Black Hills Ammunition is called the HoneyBadger. It features a 125-grain Lehigh Defense monolithic bullet that has an X-shaped nose with flutes down the sides. The bullet’s light weight allows a factory-listed velocity of 1,250 feet per second (fps), which produces a tremendous permanent wound cavity (PWC), along with low recoil.

Another .44 Special load is from DoubleTap Ammunition. It features a 180-grain Controlled Expansion JHP at a factory velocity of 1,150 fps. Hornady provided their Critical Defense .44 Special cartridge, which has a 165-grain FTX bullet, a JHP with a synthetic nose cap. It lists a factory velocity of 900 fps. Last up from Steinel Ammunition is the Xcaliber; it has a 200-grain Gold-Dot JHP that looks like a flying ashtray. Its factory velocity is 1,020 fps.

Purpose Built .44 Magnum Loads

I wanted a lightweight .44 Magnum load for the 329PD and chose some vintage Federal Premium loads that carry a 180-grain semi-jacketed HP bullet at a factory-listed velocity of 1,460 fps. This bullet weight could prove to be useful against four- and two-legged critters. The gold standard for the .44 Magnum is the 240-grain bullet.

For use in areas where bigger four-legged critters could be encountered, I chose Remington cartridges. This load has a conventional 240-grain semi-jacketed SP bullet with a factory velocity of 1,180 fps. That equates to 740 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, along with good penetration ability, which could be beneficial against a sudden attack by a big brown, grizzly or Kodiak bear. The seeming beauty of the Model 329PD is that it’s easy to carry, but has this kind of performance on tap if needed.

Leather Rigs

For carry, I decided on a belt holster, and my preference runs to high-riding pancake style with an open top. I found what I needed in the Galco Combat Master Belt Holster (CM126B). This rig is crafted from premium steerhide and is double-stitched for durability. Precise hand molding provides for secure gun retention, and the forward cant assists with a smooth draw along with effective concealment.

The bottom of the holster is open to prevent the accumulation of moisture and debris. It has two belt slots that will accommodate belts up to 1.75 inches and colors available are black or brown. I chose black.

For the practical shooting test of the Model 329PD, the author used a Galco Combat Master Belt Holster with extra ammo in an HKS speedloader and Safariland steel carrier.
For the practical shooting test of the Model 329PD, the author used a Galco Combat Master Belt Holster with extra ammo in an HKS speedloader and Safariland steel carrier.

I’m never comfortable carrying a handgun unless I have at least one reload on my person. For this, I used a Model 29 speedloader from HKS. This loader holds six cartridges in its hard plastic “drum,” which locks in place with a clockwise twist of its knurled locking knob. A counterclockwise twist releases the cartridges to drop into the revolver’s open cylinder. It’s a bit bulky, but keeps the rounds secure and ready.

I paired this with a Universal Speedloader Carrier from Safariland. Essentially it is a single piece of blued spring steel that is shaped to carry a speedloader. The spring action keeps the loader in place, and an integral clip holds it on the belt.

Roaring Range

It was now time to take the S&W Model 329PD to the range and see how it would perform. For the accuracy evaluation, I had planned to use a machine rest, but once at the range I discovered that I’d left my C-clamps at home—these secure the machine rest to the shooting bench. Since it’s a 32-mile drive one way, through heavy road construction, I wasn’t going back. So, I got out my sandbag rest, put on my padded shooting glove and did it all by hand.

After setting up my chronograph, I obtained the average velocity of each of the test cartridges. The data are in the performance table. You will note that on the whole, the actual velocity measurements were not too far from the factory figures. Next came the accuracy potential evaluation. Given the sight setup, I decided on 20 yards rather than the usual 25 yards for a 4-inch adjustable sighted revolver.

Range is Hot

Shooting was done seated at a benchrest, in single-action mode. I started with the Black Hills HoneyBadger load in .44 Special. That turned out to be quite a surprise at the first shot. The HoneyBadger bullets were hitting some 24 inches below point of aim, and several inches to the left. I wasn’t going to change the sight setting for elevation, but I did make a windage adjustment. I ended up making an aiming point on the target that allowed me to get on paper with this load.

To test for accuracy potential, I shot three 20 yard, five-shot groups with each cartridge, from the bench, in single-action.

Turns out this was repeated to some extent with all the other loads, with the exception of the Remington 240-grain .44 Magnum. The best five-shot group was made using DoubleTap .44 Special loads and measured 1.97 inches. The Steinel .44 Special took second, with a 2.11-inch cluster. The best .44 Magnum group came with the Federal load, with five shots in 2.45 inches.

For a practical shooting exercise, I came up with a charging bear target. It had an aiming circle that covered the head and part of the chest below the bear’s muzzle. It’s either reduced size or a small bear. Anyway, I was pretending to be a hiker in bear country, wearing my S&W Model 329PD in my Galco holster with my speedloader on the belt just ahead of my holster.

Smith & Wesson 329pd Airlite 44 Mag performance results

My fellow hiker yelled “Bear attack!” and at 15 yards I engaged the bear with four rounds, double-action, from an isosceles-style stance. To simulate the bear moving forward, I moved up to 10 yards, fired two rounds, reloaded using my speedloader and fired two more shots. I then moved up to 5 yards and fired my last four rounds. I was using the Remington 240-grain JSP “nasty mags,” and my right hand surrendered at this point.

No Pain, No Gain

When I ordered the Model 329PD from S&W, the rep said, “It’s gonna hurt your hand!” That’s an understatement with .44 Magnum ammo, and with all but one of the .44 Special loads—the AirLite .44 was a pussycat. I’m thinking that for personal defense in an urban landscape, I might go with the .44 Special Steinel Xcaliber 200-grain JHP. It hit fairly close to point of aim and grouped rather well. Plus, it was controllable for multiple shots.

For the woods, I’d have to go with the Remington Magnum. The Model 329PD is easy to pack, and I was able to get all but one shot into the target aiming circle. I surmise that with a bear racing toward you, you’d be unlikely to feel the recoil over the adrenaline surge.

The author firing the Smith & Wesson 329pd Airlite 44 Mag

Of note is that I had some trouble extracting empties when firing the Federal 180-grain JHP Magnum load. I literally had to use the wooden bench top to rap the front of the ejector rod and eject the spent cases that way. The primers were flattened, an indication of high pressures. The day’s shooting also caused the stainless steel “flash shield” to separate from the bottom of the topstrap. It came out at the end of the test session when I opened up the cylinder.

While I’m not a fan of fiber-optic sights and they make bullseye shooting challenging—especially with a V-notch rear sight—I did like the way that my eyes picked up on that glowing red-dot sight quickly when engaging Mr. Bear.

A Dual Purpose Gun

In my estimation, if you are looking for a dual-purpose gun for both in-town and in-the-woods defense, a gun that’s easy to pack yet fires effective ammunition, I’d take a really close look at the S&W Model 329PD. For more information visit smith-wesson.com.

Smith & Wesson 329pd Airlite Specs

Caliber: .44 Magnum/.44 Special
Barrel: 4.13 inches
OA Length: 9.5 inches
Weight: 25.2 ounces
Grips: Laminated wood and synthetic
Sights: HiViz fiber-optic front, adjust
Action: DA/SA
Finish: Matte black frame, matte gray cylinder
Capacity: 6
MSRP: $1,179

This article was originally published in the Personal Defense World Aug/Sept 2021 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions at OutdoorGroupStore.com. Or call 1-800-284-5668, or email [email protected]

Up Next

Biden Administration 3D Printing Regulations Attempt to Ban Ghost Guns

A proposed Biden Administration policy for 3D printing regulations serves as a thinly-veiled measure...