Key point: These semiautomatics are different, but powerful.
Semiautomatic handguns typically differ from revolvers in offering a higher ammunition capacity over cartridge stopping power. The disparity doesn’t result in less powerful handguns, just in handguns that are dangerous in different ways. Accuracy, power and ammo capacity are all a factor in determining the most deadly semiautomatic handguns, and the most dangerous may favor one factor over the other. With that in mind, here are the five most deadly semiautomatic handguns on the U.S. market.
AutoMag .44 Magnum
Developed by the Auto Mag Corporation and first made for sale to the public in 1972, the AutoMag was for a time the most powerful semiautomatic handgun on the market. The AutoMag carried seven .44 AMP cartridges in an internal magazine, and was made of stainless steel with plastic grips. The AutoMag had a 6.5-inch barrel, and its overall length was 11.5 inches. This made the AutoMag rather heavy, and it weighed three pounds unloaded. The .44 AMP round is basically a 7.62×51-millimeter rifle round cut down for handgun use. Police Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan carried an AutoMag in the film Sudden Impact. Production of the AutoMag ceased in 1982.
Desert Eagle .50 Action Express
Introduced in 1983, the Desert Eagle brought rifle technology to the world of handguns, with gas piston design that siphons off hot gases from burning gunpowder and uses them to cycle the handgun. The Desert Eagle also uses an M-16 style bolt face to ensure a tight lockup against the high chamber pressures. The pistol has a six-inch barrel and seven-round magazine, and weighs nearly four and a half pounds unloaded. The .50 Action Express round generates up to 1,600 foot-pounds of energy, four times as much as a nine-millimeter Parabellum round.
1911A1 .45 ACP
Originally released in 1911 by the prolific arms inventor John Moses Browning, the 1911 was updated to the -A1 standard in 1924, essentially the handgun that we know today. The 1911A1 fires a smaller .45 ACP cartridge than other handguns on this list, but its advantage in other areas makes up for its lack of power. The 1911A1 is overall a more practical fighting handgun than the other guns listed here. The 1911A1 is smaller, has less recoil and is more concealable than the AutoMag or Desert Eagle, and its slim, flat profile makes it concealable with the right holster. John Browning’s masterpiece typically carries between seven and eight rounds, with magazines available to carry up to ten rounds.
Most handguns on this list are ear-splittingly loud, the result of heavy Magnum and .45 calibers that require large amounts of gunpowder. This not only makes them painful to shoot without ear protection but easy to pinpoint their location. The Maxim 9 pistol has a built-in suppressor that lowers the sound of a typical 160-decibel nine-millimeter pistol shot to a tolerable 139 decibels. As the U.S. Marine Corps recently learned, shooters who don’t have their hearing blown out by gunshot noise are able to communicate and work together more effectively, as orders and directions are more easily heard across a noisy battlefield.
The presence of the Glock 17 on a list of the most deadly semiautomatic handguns, may seem unusual, but the Glock’s simplicity, reliability and high magazine capacity are too important to ignore. In the original Austrian Army trials that started the Glock on the road to success, the Glock 17 jammed only once in ten thousand firings. A Glock will work—period—in dusty, dirty, demanding conditions that will cause other handguns, especially larger caliber ones, to fail. The Glock 17’s fifteen-round magazine is more than twice the capacity of other guns on this list. While the nine-millimeter cartridge is as much as one quarter as powerful as the .44 AMP, proper shot placement on target can easily make the Glock 17 as dangerous as its much larger cousins.
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 last year.