Review: Desert Eagle L5 .357
August 15, 2017
People who aren't even gun people know about the Desert Eagle line of pistols. They've learned about the gun from movies (Desert Eagles have appeared in more than 500 films, bringing to question whether or not it deserves a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), television and popular video games. But seeing the Desert Eagle on screen can't give them an appreciation of just what the hulking Mark XIX in .44 Magnum or .50 Action Express really feels like in the hand. These guns look formidable on the silver screen, and they are just as formidable on the range.
In 2015 Magnum Research decided that as sensational as the Mark XIX really was, it wanted to lighten the gun to create a more user-friendly range gun.
"The main catalyst behind the design [of the new L5] was to manufacture a Desert Eagle less than 50 ounces, including an empty magazine," says Frank Harris, vice president of sales and marketing for Kahr Firearms Group, owners of the Magnum Research brand.
The resulting pistol, the L5, boasts a five-inch barrel and slips in just under that figure at 49.6 ounces unloaded. It shares the same signature Desert Eagle look and design, but the frame is made from anodized aluminum, and there are cuts made in the muzzle and along the steel barrel to shave mass anywhere possible.
Fifty ounces isn't exactly light, but compared to the larger Mark XIX in .44 or .50, which weighs more than 70 ounces, the L5 is a featherweight. The price is not, though. At nearly $1,800 it's closing in on what you'd pay for a custom or semi-custom 1911.
Functionally, the L5 works in the same manner as its larger cousins, employing the same gas-operated system that debuted in the IWI Desert Eagle guns back in the early 1980s. The system functions more like a semiauto rifle than a traditional short recoil-operated pistol: Gases are bled through holes in the barrel and into a tube below the barrel that channels those gases to a piston located in the bottom front of the slide. This generates the force needed to move the slide rearward, and the rotating bolt unlocks, extracts and ejects the spent casing, making the L5's slide function in a manner similar to the bolt carrier group in an AR rifle.
It's the heart of the Desert Eagle's original design, one that has proven effective for three decades. And, like the other guns in this family, it is a single action.
The magazine release button is located on the frame, just aft of the trigger, and the ambidextrous safety is located high on the slide itself. It's a toggle lever that is pushed up to fire. The slide release is large and easy to use, with a notched design that allows for operation with gloved hands.
Takedown is simple. With the gun unloaded, pressing the button on the left side of the frame (just ahead of the trigger guard) allows you to rotate the takedown lever on the opposite side of the frame
90 degrees. The barrel and slide can then be removed.
The L5 is relatively well balanced for a gun this size. Soft-touch Hogue wraparound grips and deep finger grooves help keep the gun planted under recoil, but this isn't a pistol for those with small mitts. The grip dimensions, particularly the depth, are considerably larger than what you'll encounter on most traditional semiauto handguns, but that extra-large architecture helps keep the gun anchored during firing and allows it to house a nine-round single-stack .357 magazine.
Those finger grooves, along with a pronounced beavertail, promote a high grip on the gun when firing. The Hogue grips also offer a comfortable interface between your hand and the gun, which proved particularly valuable when putting more than 100 rounds downrange in a single test session.
The finger grooves give the L5 a look that's different than other, older Desert Eagle guns. The gun has a matte black finish from stem to stern (the slide and barrel are black carbon steel), and this only adds to its ominous look and impressive range presence.
The L5's combat-style fixed sights are basic, with a black post up front and a notch rear that is dovetailed into the slide. However, the barrel sports a Weaver rail so you could mount an optic up front, an added benefit of the fixed-barrel design.
The hammer silhouette is similar to the other Desert Eagle guns, with checkering on the upswept top surface for easier cocking. Additionally, rear slide serrations help ease that operation. As I mentioned, the integral muzzle brake found on other Desert Eagle guns remains, but this new, lighter L5 should be particularly appealing to shooters in the Empire State since there is finally a Desert Eagle that is New York compliant.
As single-action triggers go, the L5's is relatively light, breaking at 4.5 pounds with significant take-up. The trigger itself is rather long and has vertical serrations, but the space in the trigger guard is rather limited considering the rather generous proportions of the L5. Still, the only difficulties I experienced came when wearing large, bulky gloves.
Despite rather large grip architecture, the space between the rear top portion of the grip and the trigger itself measures just under three inches, which is only about a quarter-inch more than on a standard 1911 pistol.
Obviously, this is not your go-to concealed carry gun, but a .357 Magnum semiauto with a five-inch barrel should work well for stopping predators of all types, and if you are one of the growing number of hunters who favors a handgun—particularly hog hunters who like a compact gun with lots of firepower on tap—the L5 will work.
But the real reason for owning these guns is recreational target shooting and having a firearm that is as much a conversation piece as a functional tool for everyday use. The L5 gets an A+ when it comes to snagging attention at the range, and when I set this pistol on the bags and started touching off rounds to gather test data, I soon saw a ring of onlookers standing with arms folded, wondering about the beast that was bellowing down on Bay 4. The unmistakable lines of the L5 got everyone's attention.
"Is that a Desert Eagle?" someone asked. "Yes," I said. The usual questions soon followed. Is it a .50? No, a .357. Is the recoil miserable? No, not at all. There were lots of nods of approval, lots of "I have to get one of those" comments.
With the crowd mostly dispersed, I went back to shooting, and the L5 proved to be more fun that I had imagined. You might expect recoil to be somewhat unpleasant, but I found the L5 was actually
quite manageable and a whole lot more comfortable in the hand than many ultra-light 9mms with hot defensive loads. The fearsome-looking muzzle brake does an admirable job mitigating recoil, but the blast is, as you might expect, epic.
Shooting from a rest exacerbates recoil, but the L5 was not painful. I even shot the gun one-handed a few times with no trouble. Despite a fearsome faÃ§ade, this is a gun you will enjoy shooting.
Desert Eagle owners past have told me their guns were finicky about loads, and that was certainly the case with this gun. This shouldn't be surprising because its gas operation requires a certain amount of oomph to cycle properly, and the .357 Magnum isn't exactly a heavyweight in this regard. And, in fact, the manual says "at times, a particular model of handgun will not reliably function with a specific load or brand of ammo."
The Speer Gold Dot load had the fewest malfunctions—just one, and that was likely my fault because I put pressure on the slide and it didn't close completely to return to battery—but it also produced the largest groups on average.
On the other extreme was Hornady's Critical Defense 135-grain load, which came within a few tenths of an inch of being the most accurate load in the test yet would not cycle reliably. That actually makes sense since one of Critical Defense's positive traits—low recoil—means it's not pumping as much gas through the Desert Eagle's tube.
Hornady's 158-grain XTP load cycled much better, as did SIG's V-Crown 125-grainer, which also proved most accurate. Federal's Vital-Shok 180-grain load with Swift A-Frame bullets, primarily designed as a hunting load, proved a very interesting pairing with the L5. The heavy load cycled the gun consistently, and accuracy was right above two inches, making this load the potential go-to hunting round for anyone who buys one of these guns for field use.
On the advice of a previous Desert Eagle owner, I broke down the L5 prior to shooting and made certain the internal parts were properly lubricated. Keep this gun well lubricated and find a load it likes and it will run for you. That previous owner also mentioned there is a marked break-in period with the pistol, and I have no doubts that if you shot more than the 200 or so rounds I fired, cycling consistency would begin to improve.
Accuracy was pretty good, likely due in large part to the L5's fixed-barrel design. The sights are rudimentary, but they didn't seem to hinder group size much. The best loads in the test averaged under two inches at 25 yards from a fixed rest, and even the maximum spread was still under three inches on average. If you're serious about producing tight groups and don't mind customizing an $1,800 gun, I suppose you could add a bit of white paint to the sights.
The positioning of the L5's safety isn't ideal, and it operates in the opposite manner as many other semiauto pistols, including the 1911. You raise the lever for Fire and lower it for Safe.
It's relatively easy to engage the safety by tipping the gun a bit and toggling the lever down. If you had NFL wide receiver-size paws you could turn on the safety without moving the gun's position, but I still haven't found a great way to get the gun in firing mode quickly.
The best method I've discovered is to rotate the gun slightly in the hand (making sure, of course, that you keep the barrel in a safe direction) and push up with the ball of the thumb.
The L5 is a gun with a few quirks, but it's a Desert Eagle through and through. If you're the practical sort who wants to be certain every new gun purchase serves a purpose, then the L5 likely isn't for you—and the mention of its $1,500 price tag probably already scared away the practical types anyway.
But if you appreciate the L5 for what it is—a fun gun that is uniquely styled, powerful, chambered for an affordable cartridge and now even more manageable than its predecessors due to downsized dimenions—then you could easily become a fan of this new L5. It's little wonder that the Desert Eagle has become an iconic firearm in popular culture. Despite its beastly persona, the new L5 is really more of a pussycat.