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Geek Guns Part 24: Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum


Whether one looks at comic books, fiction or film, firearms play a huge part in geek culture.  In fact, there’s an entire web site dedicated to document who carried what. Geek Guns takes a look at some of these weapons – focusing on their real-world performance rather than in-universe function.  If there’s something you want to know more about, be sure to mention it in the comments.


Today we’re going to look at the archetypal hand-cannon, the “most powerful handgun in the world,” Dirty Harry’s Smith and Wesson Model 29 in .44 Magnum.




That 70s Show

The early 1970s were very different from today.  The US was reeling from a military defeat, trust in government had bottomed out, violent crime was rising and inflation was robbing people blind.  Okay, all that’s the same, but they didn’t have smart phones.


Anyway, during this time of turmoil, a genre of movies appeared that voiced societal displeasure with the ruling class, particularly its approach to crime.  One branch focused on common citizens taking matters into their own hands and the epitome of this was Death Wish, which was so popular it got four sequels.  The other branch offered a critique of how a combination of court rulings and cowardly bureaucrats were tying the hands of police. 


Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan has become an icon of the angry, rules-breaking cop bent on taking down punks.  It’s entirely appropriate that he carry a massive piece of steel guaranteed to “blow your head clean off.”



Go Ahead, Make My Day

Let’s be clear: the .44 Magnum cartridge is in fact a beast.  Over the last few decades, Americans have gotten a fever, and the only cure seems to be bigger handgun calibers, but even in the age of the .500 Magnum, no one’s going to call the .44 Magnum a “light” cartridge.


I’ll even go so far as to say I see no real point to going heavier – the list of critters that wills succumb to a .50 AE but not a .44 Magnum is vanishingly small.  The real issue is your pain tolerance.


The Model 29 is a beautiful weapon, and vintage ones are justly prized for their old-school aesthetics.  Sales of the Model 29 were very slow until Dirty Harry came out, but they’ve been brisk ever since.  As a weapon, it’s very heavy, but balances well.  As one would expect, the trigger is superb.



The grips, however, have problems.  While beautiful to look at, the sharply-checkered wood grips dig into your palms with each shot.  If you intend to shoot the weapon with any frequency, their replacement is obligatory.  Since Eastwood is using his as a prop (and therefore firing blanks), this isn’t an issue, but for everyone else, it’s seriously painful.


Recently I pitted the Model 29 against a Taurus Tracker in the same caliber.  The Tracker has only a four-inch barrel, but it is factory ported and (most importantly) features shock-absorbing rubber grips.  The result was not even close: the Tracker was much easier to shoot.



The More Things Change

While there are a disturbing number of similarities between the age of Dirty Harry and today, one profound difference is the legal landscape for firearms.  Yes, there are still jurisdictions that attempt to outlaw self-defense, but these are increasingly isolated enclaves.  In most of the country, some sort of concealed carry is legal, and often doesn’t even require a permit.


During the 1970s, the opposite was the case and watching both the sequels to Dirty Harry and Death Wish, it’s interesting to see how some of the shooting events that got the cops all worked up in both films would be ruled as clearly justified today.


As for the Model 29, they are available, but pricey – and the ammunition isn’t exactly cheap.  There are typically several up at online auction sites, so the question you have to ask yourself is: do you feel lucky?


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