I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a 44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?
– Dirty Harry
Psychopaths. Vigilantes. Terrorists. Serial killers. Whenever San Francisco was threatened by the worst of the worst, we could always count on one man to save the day: Inspector Harold Francis Callahan.
Better known as “Dirty Harry” for his ruthless yet nevertheless effective methods, a man like Callahan needed a weapon just as big as his personality. And if Callahan ever happened to tell you what that weapon was, you’d know your goose was about to be cooked.
What Kind of Gun Does Dirty Harry Use?
Dirty Harry carries a Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver chambered for 44 Magnum. S&W introduced it to the market in 1955 and still produces it to this day.
The Model 29 had enjoyed some popularity with target shooters, cops and hunters until the debut of Dirty Harry in 1971, at which point every Tom, Dick and Harry wanted one. Firearm dealers had difficulty keeping the big-bore revolver in stock until S&W caught up with demand in the early ‘70s. Even so, gun shop owners could always count on a shortage of Model 29 revolvers whenever a Dirty Harry movie marathon ran on TV.
The Dirty Harry script originally called for a Model 29 with a 4” barrel. After taking some test footage the filmmakers realized so short a barrel just didn’t have the “stage presence” they were looking for. With a little help from S&W (who undoubtedly appreciated what an advertising coup it would be to have one of their firearms featured in a Clint Eastwood movie) the filmmakers got what they were looking for: a Model 29 with a 8-3/8” barrel for the movie posters, and another with a 6-1/2” barrel for actual filming. (The images you see with this article are the 6.5″ version.)
Smith & Wesson retired the original Model 29 but since started offering a Classics line of revolvers that includes the Dirty Harry model. The new models aren’t exactly the same as the originals but Smith & Wesson touts they have made some improvements as technology has improved since most models were first introduced.
How Powerful Is the 44 Magnum?
Dirty Harry wasn’t lying whenever he promised his revolver would “would blow your head clean off.”
Famed writer and outdoorsman Elmer Keith developed the 44 Magnum. He basically maximized the potential of the 44 Special until it became worthy of its own name, and then petitioned S&W to produce a commercial revolver capable of handling so much power. That revolver would become known as the Model 29.
A typical 44 Magnum cartridge is capable of achieving a 1,230 fps muzzle velocity out of a revolver’s 4” barrel. At that velocity, which is about 100 fps faster than the speed of sound, a 44 Magnum’s 240 grain bullet boasts a muzzle energy of 806 ft lbs. In comparison, an AR-15 only offers roughly 50 percent more muzzle energy than a handgun which can fit in your pocket.
And thanks to its longer 6-1/2” barrel, Dirty Harry’s 44 Magnum would only become more powerful. A longer barrel gives more time for propellant gasses to transfer their energy to the bullet. So, a 6-1/2” barrel would deliver a muzzle velocity closer to 1,400 fps. That would give Dirty Harry’s Model 29 over 1,000 ft lbs of energy at close range, which is more powerful than some of the lightest 223 Rem loads!
To put it all into perspective, this is what Dirty Harry’s revolver would do to a watermelon at 50 yards:
(Video credit skipjack2000)
Is the 44 Magnum “the Most Powerful Handgun in the World?”
Dirty Harry was technically correct when he delivered his famous “Do I feel lucky?” monologue; the 44 Magnum was “the most powerful handgun in the world” in 1971.
But the 44 Magnum wasn’t the most powerful handgun cartridge at the time. The 454 Casull was developed in the late ‘50s and delivered approximately twice as much energy as the 44 Magnum (and 75 percent more recoil), although revolvers chambered for it wouldn’t go into commercial production until 1983.
And the 44 Magnum is by no means the most powerful handgun anymore. Since 1971 it has been eclipsed by rounds like the 50 Action Express (1,449 ft lbs muzzle energy), 460 S&W Magnum (2,350 ft lbs), and 500 S&W Magnum (2,868 ft lbs).
You wouldn’t want to use any of those handguns for personal protection. They would be overkill to say the least, not to mention extraordinarily heavy in terms of both weight and recoil.
Did Dirty Harry Use 44 Special Instead of 44 Magnum?
In Magnum Force, the second film in the Dirty Harry series, Dirty Harry tells a group of rookie cops that he uses a “light special” load. He explained it gives him “more control and less recoil than a 357 Magnum with wadcutters.”
This line often bothers Dirty Harry fans. They interpret it to mean their hero uses lower-powered 44 Special rounds in his mammoth hand cannon. But in his audio commentary for Magnum Force, screenwriter John Milius reveals that Eastwood was actually supposed to say “special, light load” – he just flipped the words around. Exactly how much lighter is impossible to say, but at least Milius assures us that Dirty Harry wasn’t holding back.
Not that we’d have any less respect for him if he did. Dirty Harry is one of our favorite movie characters, and Dirty Harry’s 44 Magnum is one of our favorite movie firearms. Without them we doubt that San Francisco could have become the vibrant, promising city that it is today!