By Trampas Swanson

Rarely does a firearm come along that is so unusual and powerful, it manages to transcend the firearms industry to become recognized worldwide by shooters and non-shooters alike. Due to television shows such as Miami Vice, The Shield and The Walking Dead as well as movies such as Commando, RoboCop and The Punisher, the Desert Eagle semi-auto handgun has become a star. This highly versatile, multi-caliber platform has even found its way into popular video games such as Rainbow Six: Vegas, Grand Thief Auto: San Andreas and Silent Hill: Downpour to name a few. This week, we explore what is it about the Desert Eagle that is so special it has managed to go from pistol to pop culture.

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Development Of The Desert Eagle

Developed by Magnum Research beginning in 1979 and finally brought into full production in 1985 by the Israel Military Industrial Ltd. (currently IMI), the Desert Eagle is a truly unique gas-operated semi-auto pistol. Using a fixed barrel design, the rotating bolt (think AR-15) works in an operating system very similar to that of the M1 Carbine. When the gun is fired, gas passes through a hole underneath the bore and into the gas cylinder. It then uses that pressure to push a piston rearward. Enough energy is transferred to the massive slide to drive it rearward as well causing the bolt to unlock once the pressures subside and then starts the extraction, ejection and feeding cycle.

Due to the design and weight of slide and bolt, the Desert Eagle’s action is well-known for locking up as tight as a bank vault. This is one of the main reasons these pistols are so accurate, another being the polygonal rifling of the fixed barrels. According to the designers, the polygonal rifling allows for a better gas seal on bullet with less deformation as it passes down the barrel. An added bonus to this rifling is, it tends to provide an easier job in cleaning the barrel and keeping it clear of fouling.

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By using the fixed barrel design, switching calibers is as easy as unmounting the barrel / bolt, swapping for another barrel / bolt combo and changing out for the appropriate caliber specific magazine. Currently, the Desert Eagle is offered in .357, .44 Magnum and .50 AE (tested). Along the top of the barrel is a Weaver-style optics rail machined directly into it. This is ONLY recommended for use with an optic rated to withstand heavy recoil.

For the past two years, I have owned a Desert Eagle chambered in the massive .50 Action Express also known as the .50 AE. Admittedly, this pistol has been shown often to friends, but rarely shot since taking possession of it. Between the violent recoil and higher cost of premium ammunition, this is NOT your typical range gun. When a recent conversation about gun reviews turned to the Desert Eagle platform, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to get better acquainted with one of the more unique firearms in my collection.

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To carry the Desert Eagle on the range, there are not a lot of holster options available. Fortunately, I was able to source a drop leg thigh holster from Blackhawk. With a pistol this large, drawing it from the belt would require a high draw with an awkward angle that would present safety concerns. The Blackhawk holster offers a wide range of adjustments with an adjustable thumb strap to secure the gun in place. The front of the holster has a pouch for an extra magazine with a Velcro strap to secure it as well. This is the same holster used by special operations units for their Glocks and SIGs during airborne operations. While not the most comfortable rig I have worn, keep in mind, there was never anything “comfortable” meant to be associated with the Desert Eagle’s design to start with.

.50 AE (Action Express)

The .50 AE or originally known as .50 Action Express was invented in 1988 by Evan Whildin of Action Arms. At the time, this new chambering was the largest handgun caliber in the world for over two decades. The current bullet diameter of the 50AE is .500 inch with a noticeably tapered case. Due to the rim diameter of the .50 AE being the same as the .44 Remington Magnum cartridge, it offered a unique versatility once the Desert Eagle was developed. With only a magazine and barrel change, Desert Eagle owners could have one gun and two very powerful options. It is not uncommon for factory loaded ammo to push some 300 grain loads up to 1900 fps and a muzzle energy of 2800 ft/lbs. To put those numbers in perspective, .50 AE bullets can travel twice as fast as a .45 ACP and hit with the force of a .308 Winchester.

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Specs (Pistol Tested)

  • Barrel Length: 6”
  • Width: 1.25”
  • Length: 10.75”
  • Weight: 72.4 oz
  • Caliber: .50 AE (Tested), .44 Mag, .357
  • Magazine Capacity: 7 (.50 AE), 8 (.44 Mag), 9 (.357)
  • Grips: Houge Rubber Grips

Test Ammunition

  • Brand: Hornady
  • Bullet: 300 gr HP XTP
  • Muzzle: 1475 fps (Velocity) 1449 ft/lb (Energy)
  • Box: 20 rounds
  • MSRP: $29.99

Range Time

With a quick text to fellow Swanson Media Group writer, Clint Steele with the keywords “Desert Eagle” “review” “range time,” and he was on board 100%! It wasn’t long before our schedules lined up to meet with our SMG teammate, Craig Reinolds at our regular testing grounds known as “The Swamp” to start putting the pistol through its paces. To fuel the machine, I brought along a few boxes of Hornady’s 300 grain Jacketed Hollow Point XTP rounds. According to the data provided by Hornady, these rounds push the massive projectile downrange at around 1475 FPS at 1449 Ft/Lb. Just reading those numbers got my heart pumping a little faster thinking about the power that will be coursing through my hands.

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To kick range time off, Clint got us started by scratching off one of his bucket list goals in shooting the Desert Eagle first. Even in his large hands, the pistol still looked massive as Clint sighted in on the target approximately 25 yards downrange. Before I knew it, the Desert Eagle rocked the Swamp with its massive blast, recoiling upward in Clint’s hands. With a huge grin from ear to ear, Clint sighted back on target and continued to blast away downrange absorbing the punishing recoil. To say Clint was a happy man after shooting the Desert Eagle would be a gross understatement!

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Much like your swing during a game of golf, you want your mechanics as sound as possible when dealing with a heavy recoiling firearm. This allows you to focus on safely placing your shots and maintaining control over your gun. Before shooting, I took a few minutes to dry fire the pistol and sight in on target using the blacked-out iron sights that I noticed were cleanly dove tailed into the slide. Afterwards, I loaded up the harmonica-sized 7 round magazine. Due to the large size of the rounds, it was fairly easy to quickly load. With Clint spotting me as if I was power lifting, I took an aggressive Weaver stance and got into my shooting mindset, sight alignment, sight picture and trigger press. The hand cannon roared to life with fire streaming out in front of the barrel as I heard the steel target Ding! Since it had been over a year since I last shot the pistol, I took a brief second to regain my focus and sight back down range on target. With each press of the trigger, the pistol surprisingly held impressive accuracy.

This would be a good place to point out the trigger on the Desert Eagle. The single action trigger was not the rough, dragging pull you would expect on a large caliber handgun. In reality, the trigger was rather pleasant with a consistent 5.5 lb. pull with very little over travel. Using Magnum Research’s Adjustable Trigger Mechanism (ATM), the Desert Eagle’s trigger pull can be changed via a specialized tool inserted deep into the magazine well for adjustment. In the two years I have owned the handgun, it was not until I researched the Desert Eagle platform until I learned about the ATM trigger. In speaking with other Desert Eagle owners, I learned this makes the Desert Eagle platform in lighter calibers such as the .357 much more manageable and fun to spend more time shooting.

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After my initial shots, it was time for Craig to try his hand at the Desert Eagle as well. Clint and I watched as Craig broke his first shot. The muzzle rocketed upward and stopped abruptly in Craig’s grip as his whole body softly pushed rearward during the blast. Something I noticed the most while Craig was shooting was how each of us had to readjust our grip with every round fired. The frame is so thick and beefy that unless you have larger hands, it is very difficult to establish a firm master grip. Despite this, all three of shooters adapted and overcame to get solid hits on the steel targets downrange.

As each shooter took turns loading up and sending flying ashtray shaped hollow points down range, we compared notes as we switched out. Clint commented on the sights being huge!

It was like looking at the mainsail on a tall ship!” – Clint Steele

Craig observed that his thumb kept riding up while wearing gloves and pushing the slide lock in place. During the third run for both Clint and Craig, what appeared to be jams turned out to be both shooters accidently hitting the magazine lock into place. With an adjustment in grip, this was resolved for both of them.

After breezing through a few boxes of ammunition taking turns getting used to the pistol’s recoil, it was time to wrap up our test session. By this time, the group discussion was on how each of us had a slight bruised feeling on the inside pad of their shooting hand. All three of shooters were very pleased with how accurate the big gun was despite the heavy recoil and uncomfortable grip. Most importantly, all of us were still smiling like kids on the last day of school!

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Final Thoughts

Overall, the Desert Eagle is a very impressive pistol in respect to design, operation and sheer available power. Realistically, this gun should have never earned the success it has due to its massive size and jarring recoil. Often the more extreme something is, the more attention it gains regardless if it is practical or not. No one goes grocery shopping in a Lamborghini using its full 200+ mph capability, just as no one daily carries a Desert Eagle .50 AE for self-defense or duty. Weighing in at over 4.5 lbs., the Desert Eagle is roughly equal to carrying two 1911 style pistols and a spare mag.

Despite practical limitations, the Desert Eagle has garnered a rather large iconic cult following due to exposure through the aforementioned movies and television causing its mere silhouette to be recognizable worldwide. More times than not, these mediums wrongly portray this pistol as having the ability to blow up cars and shoot 90 rounds per magazine. For true gun enthusiasts, getting to shoot a Desert Eagle in .50 AE offers a much better reality than fantasy. Speaking from personal experience, I never have witnessed someone shoot a Desert Eagle without walking away smiling brightly.

True to its Hollywood imagine, the Desert Eagle comes not only in the traditional blued finish and stainless steel but can even be found in 24-kt gold! With a retail pricing between $1500 – $3000, it is certainly an investment in fun but little else. If you have the expendable cash for a gun with not much practical application, I highly recommend owning one. The joy and happiness the Desert Eagle brings to those who love shooting is priceless.