Smith & Wesson Model 29: Dirty Harry’s Go-To Pistol

(Photo Credit: Warner Bros./MovieStillsDB & Annoyedman at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Trixt using CommonsHelper, Public Domain)

The .44 Magnum, the most … famous handgun in the world. The original quote is about the Smith & Wesson Model 29, a double-action revolver that fires six .44 Magnum cartridges. This beast of a sidearm has become an icon of both cinema and firearms, thanks to its title as the most powerful handgun in the world and Dirty Harry’s quote, which is also about it being the most powerful handgun in the world.

The weapon could be purchased in a number of different barrel lengths ranging from 3 to almost 11 inches. No matter which one you ordered, though, one thing was for sure: whatever it hit it would kill.

The Model 29 is no longer the most powerful handgun in the world, but it is still famous for the title it once held.

Origin

This large and extremely deadly firearm was built to handle the .44 Magnum round, which was designed as a more powerful version of the .44 Special by Elmer Keith. The .44 Magnum’s case is slightly longer and loaded to higher pressures. The length increase was not for the extra propellant, but to stop the powerful round from being loaded into weaker guns chambered for the .44 Special. Keith intended the round to be used by hunters’ sidearms to handle dangerous or large game, but the round is occasionally used for defense.

44 magnum bullet
A 44 magnum bullet with other bullets of different sizes in background photographed at Diamond Jim’s in Pasadena (Photo Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

After creating this round, Keith spoke to Smith & Wesson and Remington, urging them to commercially produce the round and revolvers that could fire it.

In 1955, Smith & Wesson produced their first handgun chambered in .44 Magnum. This weapon was named the Model 29 two years later.

Soon after, Ruger introduced their Blackhawk revolver chambered in .44 Magnum.

The round is capable of taking down medium-sized game, even when it is fired from a handgun. Newer rounds have since overtaken the .44 Magnum in terms of sheer power – like the .500 S&W Magnum – but it has remained popular for its blend of stopping power and controllability.

Model 29

When the Model 29 was introduced, it was the most powerful handgun in the world. Weighing in at nearly 3 lbs, the gun is certainly hefty. It is a double-action revolver and holds six rounds in total, each of which carry 767 foot pounds of energy and break the sound barrier on their way to the target. The weapon came in a number of different barrel lengths, reaching up to 11 inches long. Despite the intimidating physical appearance of these versions, the extra barrel length increases the handgun’s weight, and therefore reduces its immense recoil.

S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum
S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum (Photo Credit: By Stephen Z – S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum, CC BY-SA 2.0)

As a pistol primarily designed for gun enthusiasts and hunters, the Model 29 has not seen much use in law enforcement or military roles. Its recoil makes rapid fire difficult, and its size and weight are the last thing a soldier or police officer wants to be burdened by.

However, one variant – the Quiet Special Purpose Revolver, or QSPR – was designed for military use. The QSPR was developed specifically for “tunnel rats” in Vietnam; these men crawled through small and pitch-black tunnels, digging out anyone who could be hiding inside. The US Army wanted a weapon that was deadly in the dark at point-blank ranges. The best way to do this was with shotgun-like rounds, but a weapon with a large bore was needed so the ammunition could carry a meaningful amount of buckshot. It also had to be small.

The Model 29 chambered for the .44 Magnum was the perfect choice. It was fitted with a 1.3-inch barrel and loaded with special rounds – making it the QSPR. Each round contained 15 tungsten balls, which shredded targets at point-blank ranges. Anything further than this and it was basically useless.

Dirty Harry publicity still
Dirty Harry publicity still (Photo Credit: Warner Bros. & MovieStillsDB)

Over the next few years, the Model 29 received a few changes, but remained a firearm mainly known to enthusiasts. This all changed in 1971 though, when it was used as the weapon of choice by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. The weapon exploded in popularity almost immediately.

The Model 29 was discontinued in the late 1990s, but Smith & Wesson has brought the weapon back – sometimes in different variants – on a limited-time basis.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE