Key point: The most powerful—and practical—handgun still in production.
Few handguns combine power and cachet, but the Smith & Wesson Model 29 manages to do so with ease. Described by fictional San Francisco Police Department Detective Harry “Dirty Harry” Callahan as “the most powerful handgun ever built,” the Model 29 indeed held that slot for many decades. Although more powerful handguns and ammunition types have since appeared, the .44 Magnum Model 29 is probably the most powerful—practical—handgun still in production.
In the first half of the twentieth century the largest revolver calibers were .45 ACP, used in revolvers such as the M1917 revolver, .45 Colt, a round used in older Colt revolvers, and .44 Special. While all of these bullets exceeded a diameter of .40 inches, they were eclipsed in energy delivered by the .357 Magnum. Although a narrower bullet, the .357 Magnum delivered a very respectable 494 foot pounds of energy, while the .45 ACP delivered 365, the .45 Colt 444, and .44 Special a mere 295 foot pounds. The .44 Special was also significantly slower, at 776 feet per second. All three of the big bore rounds flew at subsonic speeds. The .357 Magnum round, by contrast, broke the sound barrier at 1150 feet per second.
The heavier, bigger bore class of ammunition had clearly not yet found its champion. Gun enthusiasts, including the legendary writer Elmer Keith tinkered with the .44 Special round for years, trying to coax greater performance out of the cartridge by modifying the bullet and powder. The result: the .44 Magnum.
Introduced in 1950, the .44 Magnum had both the energy and speed gun owners wanted. It delivered 767 foot pounds of energy against targets, and at 1,200 feet per second achieved supersonic speed. The result was an excellent round for hunting sidearm, capable of defending a hunter from a charging boar, bear or other dangerous animal.
As an anti-personnel round, however, the .44 Magnum is not suitable for everyone and takes some getting used to. The .44 Magnum is an intimidating—some would say very unpleasant—round to shoot. It generates a punishing amount of recoil and is not enjoyable for most people shooting at the pistol range.
One of the first, if not the first handguns to take advantage of the .44 Magnum round was the Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver. A blued, six cylinder revolver, the Model 29 weighs nearly three pounds loaded, 50 percent more than a polymer and steel Glock 9mm pistol. The Model 29 came in a variety of barrel sizes, from four to ten inches. Although a longer barrel length increased weight, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: a heavier weight will absorb more recoil. A variation on the Model 29, the 629, featured all stainless-steel construction.
An interesting variant on the Model 29 was the Quiet Special Purpose Revolver (QSPR). The QSPR was designed during the Vietnam War for U.S. Army “tunnel rats,” soldiers who specialized in exploring and securing Viet Cong tunnels. Tunnel rats needed a compact handgun that was lethal at point blank ranges. That called for a shotgun-like pistol round, but the round would need a large bore cartridge to carry an appreciable amount of buckshot. The .44 Magnum cartridge was the ideal choice.
Developed by U.S. Army Land Warfare Laboratory, Aberdeen Proving Ground and the AAI Corporation, the QSPR was a commercial Model 29 fitted with a 1.3-inch barrel. It fired specially developed cartridges, each of which contained a relatively small amount of gunpowder and fifteen tungsten balls. Range and velocity were terrible at normal ranges, but at point blank range, the typical engagement distance in a Vietnamese tunnel, the cloud of tungsten balls was very lethal.
The QSPR was not only designed to be lethal, it was also designed to be quiet. In enclosed, underground tunnel spaces ordinary gunshots could be disorienting and downright painful to the shooter. In addition to being lethal, the QSPR ammo was designed to be “internally suppressed,” bringing down the volume of a gunshot to just 110 decibels—the average human pain threshold.
After not being produced for years, Smith & Wesson recently placed the Model 29 back into production. Blued with reddish brown grips and a large, hoodlike ejector housing, the Model 29 has classic look that few other guns do. While not an ideal anti-personnel weapon for anyone but the likes of “Dirty Harry,” the .44 Magnum handgun does fill a niche, satisfying gun enthusiasts, hunters and fictional police detectives alike.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami. This article first appeared several years ago.