By: Greg Chabot
Photos: Sasha Steadman
“This is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world.”
That iconic statement in the 1971 film Dirty Harry saved the Smith and Wesson Model 29 from passing into history. And yes, the Model 29 was the most powerful production handgun in 1971. Bulit on the large “N” frame, the .44 Magnum was introduced in 1955. In 1957, S&W changed their catalog to number designations with the .44 Magnum becoming the Model 29. The early five-screw pre-29s are highly sought after by collectors and can fetch a hefty sum if they are in good condition.
When the movie was released, S&W was on the verge of discontinuing the Model 29 due to poor sales. Producers had a difficult time trying to obtain guns for the film, so writer John Milius lent the production his personal one. The script originally called for Harry to carry a 4” Nickel plated version. None were available, so the 6.5” became the Harry’s trademark. After the film’s release, the Model 29 became S&W’s best-selling model with production unable to keep up with demand. This resulted in shooters paying a premium to obtain one. This trend continued every time a Dirty Harry film was released. Many of these fine weapons ended up being shot once and put away, due to the stout recoil the .44 magnum generates.
The Model 29 is also famous for being the first handgun to kill a Polar Bear in the wild. This feat was accomplished by Robert E Petersen in 1965. It took five shots at 25 yards to bring the 14-foot tall, 1500-pound beast down! The gun and bear are on display at the NRA museum.
My grandad collected N frames; it was always a thrill for a young like me to shoot his “Dirty Harry Special,” a 6.5” just like the one in the movies. He would put in light handloads and let me have at it. Although I’m a .41 magnum man, I have always had a soft spot for the Model 29. Foolishly, many years ago, I sold mine and have always regretted it. Recently, I was able to acquire a Model 29-2 to T&E, and it was a trip down memory lane.
The test weapon is a factory nickel-plated Model 29-2 with a 4” barrel. Mechanically sound with some cosmetic wear, the sample is in excellent condition for its 50-year age. Like all Magnums of that era, it is pinned and recessed. A target trigger and hammer come standard as do adjustable target sights.
The sample came with a beautiful set of “Coke bottle” grips that were added by a past owner. These grips were handmade in the S&W factory, and no two sets are identical. In good condition, they go for hundreds of dollars. Due to cost, S&W switched over to flat-sided target grips in the mid-1960s, which were cheaper to produce.
Timing was spot on with no cylinder-end shake. Double-action trigger weight was an even 7 pounds with a 2.3-pound pull for single action. The trigger was butter smooth, which enabled accurate shots on the range. The weight is a hefty 2.7 pounds unloaded, which helps to tame the recoil of this fine weapon.
I was able to test a variety of ammo thanks to my local shop, which hooked me up with partial boxes including the grandfather of the .44 Magnum, the .44 Russian. Yes, a .44 Magnum revolver will chamber .44 Special and Russian cartridges. This gives shooters a variety of loadings they can try out. Accuracy was good with all rounds; I shot my best with the 200 gr .44 Russians. I attribute this to the low recoil and controllability while shooting double action. My worst group was with some Buffalo Bore 240gr JHP, which were very stout and, to be honest, very unpleasant for me to shoot. I didn’t miss, but the steel looked like a shotgun pattern with that loading.
The weight of the weapon also helps mitigate recoil as will a strong grip. Recoil in a Model 29 depends on the loads; full Magnum loads can be a challenge to control for follow-up shots. This is why many shooters will use specials for self-defense and Magnums for in the woods. The Coke bottle grips helped with recoil control. They worked for my hands using a one- or two-handed grip. I had no complaints about the trigger; the wide target type made shooting double action a pleasure. Accurate, long-distance, single-action shots were a breeze with the light 2-pound pull.
To master the Model 29, I recommend shooters put in the range time and find a load that works for them. One can also change the grips to ones that absorb recoil and provide a more ergonomic grip. I also recommend building hand strength; a strong grip will make you a better shooter regardless of caliber or handgun.
I enjoyed my time with this piece of Americana from a bygone era where skilled craftsmen took pride in their work. Sadly, the new production N frames are a shadow of their former selves. They use shrouded barrels that are known to fail and have that silly Clinton lock. The new production N frames are not worthy to be a paperweight in my opinion. If one wants a real Model 29, I recommend one made before 1982 that is pinned and recessed. They can be found in good condition for decent prices. Many have spent more time in the safe than on the range, which is a shame. They are meant to be shot, not looked at.
Big Thank You to the Gun Closet