Do you Feel Lucky Punk?
With a deep growl, Clint Eastwood’s inspector Harry Callahan catapulted Smith & Wesson into popular culture. The premier of “Dirty Harry”, with its now iconic Smith & Wesson’s 44 magnum inserted itself into the 1971 moviegoers’ collective consciousness worldwide. Sales of the S&W 44 magnum were so high that gun shops had the hand cannon back-ordered for months to meet the clamor for “the most powerful handgun in the world”.
Other manufacturers capitalized on S&W’s success. Examples like the 454 Casull and 480 Ruger eventually found their ways into gun shop cabinets, sharing display space with rare and pricy custom-built 475 and 500 Linebaughs. They had a reputation as big caliber revolver masters, producing the 357 magnum (1935), 41 magnum (1956) and the legendary 44 magnum (1961). Time eventually came for Smith & Wesson to re-establish themselves as number one.
In February 2002 the initial design for the 500 magnum was presented to the powers that be at Smith & Wesson, and approved. Driven by computer-integrated manufacturing, in less than a year’s time S&W was ready to present their newest offering at the January 2003 SHOT Show and once again claim the title to the most powerful production handgun in the world.
S&W incorporated many new design elements into their X-frame 500, including an improved yoke/frame interface that was created to take advantage of recoil energy, which actually tightens when fired. Along with the standard rear cylinder pin lock, S&W’s engineers added a ball detent at the front of the frame to secure the crane in place. The 500 magnum comes with relatively tiny K-frame-sized grip dimensions, providing for the HOGUE rubber grips to enclose the rear of the backstrap and better surround the grip frame. There are also “ABSORBATHANE” inserts in the HOGUE grips where the web of the hand rests for additional reduction of recoil forces.
Shooting the 500 magnum is a big event. Flame from the cylinder/barrel gap extends a foot on both sides and there’s a roar that sounds more like a shotgun. Even though the muzzle will come to rest facing skyward at the conclusion of the rising arc, the recoil is manageable. Shooting any 357 magnum is considerably more punishing, and the 454 Casull with heavy loads is an absolute self-imposed misery to shoot compared to the big, heavy 500, thanks in part to the weight of the full-length barrel underlug.
Trigger pull in single action is right around a crisp 4lbs and near 10lbs for double action, but feels lighter thanks to the wide trigger pad. The hammer spur comes with classic and effective checkering, and S&W has seen fit to mount excellent adjustable sights, with an option to install a scope mount.
Retailing new in the $1000-1600 range depending on options, the Smith & Wesson 500 magnum has kept up with demand. As with any firearm purchase, there are positive and negative aspects. These, in general, are-
- Extremely robust, well thought out design
- Second to none in the “WOW!” factor
- Relatively light trigger pull in both single and double action
- Excellent front and rear sights
- Well-designed HOGUE grips that cover the back strap
- Varity of ammunition options and adequate availability
- Ballistic energy that greatly exceeds other big-bore handguns
- Capable of taking down the biggest dangerous game in the world
- Recoil, although significant, is manageable in experienced hands
- Very good accuracy with iron sights, especially with 8”+ barrels (1”/25yds typical)
- Ammunition is expensive: $3 a round is not unheard of
- At 73 oz. for an 8-5/8” compensated barrel, it’s weight is substantial
- Cylinder capacity is five rounds, instead of S&W’s more-common six round cylinder
- Follow up shots take time
- Additional cost for an optical sighting system to take advantage of accuracy potential
- NOT for novice shooters
- Limited practical applications
- Big, bulky handling
- Ammunition not readily available in department stores or other common ammo sources
- Large grip will not suit small hands
A very tight, fine fit and finish are what would be expected from Smith & Wesson’s hand assembled offering, and this example does not disappoint. For most average to larger hands, the HOGUE grips render a hand placement favorable for correct trigger pull. At 6’3” and 230lbs, I don’t find the 500’s X-frame size and weight an objectionable deterrent to comfortable and frequent firing, nor do fellow shooters of smaller stature.
I did experience a single malfunction: during the initial trip to the range, while loading and firing one round at a time, after several shots the cylinder locked up. Research confirmed that without five cases (even if empty) in the cylinder to provide support around the entire rear of the cylinder, the crane was able to flex enough during recoil to impinge and prevent the cylinder from rotating. Lesson learned! Fill all five chambers and leave empties in, to support the cylinder during recoil even if firing only one round at a time.
Overall length is 15”, weighs 73oz (over 4 ½ pounds!), and the barrel is 8-5/8” long including the 3/4” triple ported compensator. Other models have interchangeable compensators, as well as different barrel lengths. The cylinder is 2-1/4” long (room enough for a 5.56mm NATO round) and just shy of 2” in diameter. The 500 includes a means of locking the internal trigger mechanism through a small hole in the frame where a key (provided) can be inserted and turned. Seems to me to be an answer to a question nobody asked, but we live in the most litigious society on the planet so I’ll hazard a guess that it’s a lawyer-driven design.
With more energy going down range than the original 40/70 rifle round, S&W turned to CORBON, a cutting edge ammunition manufacturer, for the cartridge design. Originally S&W offered 500 magnum ammo in 275-grain Barnes copper, 400-grain Hawk Precision Jacketed flat point and a 440-grain Cast Performance FP. Today a much wider variety of ammunition is available, including up to 700-grain cast bullets for reloaders. For the tale of the tape comparison, the hottest 44 mag load (from a 20” barrel, no less) produces 1600 foot/pounds of energy at the muzzle, and a 454 Casull, 1925 f/p. The mighty 500 generates 2578 f/p of force, easily a quarter greater by comparison, and without nearly the internal pressures. In fact, S&W successfully proofed a 500 cylinder a 71,000 psi, far beyond the <50,000 psi common with standard 500 magnum ammo. Then as an experiment, they subjected a cylinder to a calculated 91K psi in an attempt to find the limits of the cylinder design. Only a slight bulge was noted.
So, what do you do with this beast of a hand cannon? Put it on a wheeled carriage and install a lanyard? Four-inch versions are carried in Alaska for managing ill-tempered bears, and others may carry one for self-defense (which I would strongly advise against; just five rounds, slow recoil recovery and over penetration comes to mind). In my case, it’s worn in a shoulder rig during elk season sporting a Leupold Deltapoint optic, or shot at the range, working up loads for the next elk season. For casual (and unless you handload, expensive) plinking, I can think of other guns I’d rather shoot, but for any shooter in the Land of the Free, you don’t need a reason. And if you don’t have one now, I’m sure you’ll be able to think of one.
In the realm of big bore handguns, given that a Casull will cost you hundreds more, and pistols chambered in 475 or 500 Linebaugh are even more expensive, the S&W 500 magnum fits the bill well. The Ruger 480 usually costs hundreds less, but like the 460 S&W magnum, it’s considerably less in the ballistics department. As the King of the Production Handgun Hill, the Smith & Wesson 500 magnum has no peer.