Ever since gunpowder was invented, shooters have been making handguns with the biggest hole down the barrel that they could safely shoot. Early horse pistols and backup hunting sidearms tended to swallow projectiles the size of large marbles, and they spit them back out with admirable gusto upon request. The thrill of shooting a really big bullet has never diminished, even though most of today’s personal protection sidearms are wonders of efficiency and comfort.
Only recently has handgunning turned the corner from mostly practical to mostly recreational. Not too long ago, folks commonly carried “hand-gonnes” on their saddles, on howdahs (elephant-riding platforms), on trains, while working in the outdoors and so forth. When brigands and highwaymen, lions and leopards, tigers and Zulu warriors are more common than black widows; knowledgeable shootists wanted something with horsepower. Comfort and efficiency forsooth!
Following is a list of the greatest big-bore hand cannons. Do not mistake: Some of these are not your best bet for satiating your modern thirst for thunder, but all, in their day, were marvels of authority — and most still are. Here, in order of chronological appearance, are arguably the eight most significant big-bore handguns of all time:
Howdah Pistol (late 1700s)
In the days that spawned Churchill, Hitler and other men of incredible leadership —for good or evil — it was much en vogue to sojourn abroad to India or Africa to earn one’s stripes, serving military duty and hunting the less civilized of the local wildlife. It was during this period that the Howdah pistol was at its pinnacle, though it had found its beginnings over a century earlier.
Best described as “…good for scraping an irate tiger from the trunk of one’s riding elephant,” howdah pistols were double-barreled hand-cannons that chambered banana-size cartridges. No, shooting them wasn’t pleasant, but it was far more so than being sliced and diced by a quarter-ton feline. Rare indeed are they today, but if you wish to experience the essence of very early howdah pistols, you can purchase a 20-gauge muzzleloading version from Cabela’s for about $700.
Colt’s Walker (1847)
Sam Colt’s first successful revolver — the Patterson — debuted 11 years before the Walker, but real men just didn’t dig its puny little .36-caliber bore or delicate mechanism. Mr. Colt collaborated with Texas Ranger Captain Hamilton Walker and built a real man’s version: It weighed in at 4-1/2 pounds, took as much black powder as many rifles and a .454-diameter ball and held the title of “most powerful repeating handgun” for many decades.
Proven in furious combat with Comanche Indians — which the Rangers had previously struggled to keep up with — the Walker Colt became the stuff of legend even before it’s smaller, much lighter, better-balanced siblings became the sidearms of choice during the Civil War. Hollywood made it famous by putting a brace of Walkers in the capable hands of the outlaw Josey Wales, sometimes also known as Clint Eastwood.
Original Walkers are quite rare and are valued accordingly, but you can pick up a well-made Italian reproduction from a variety of retailers for about $400. Again, Cabela’s is a good place to start.
Colt’s Single Action Army (1873)
Probably the single most recognizable handgun anywhere, the SAA is legitimately the revolver that won the west. Originally chambered in the potent .45 Colt, which drove a hefty conical lead slug ahead of a tablespoon full of black powder, it was adopted by the U.S. Army in 1873 and played a significant roll in just about every Indian war, range war, bank robbery, stagecoach holdup, cattle drive and Hollywood film for at least a half-century. General Patton carried a highly engraved Colt SAA with carved ivory grips that he special ordered when still a lieutenant.
Colt’s Single Action Army proved reliable, accurate and very user-friendly. Just about every movie star for the first 50 years of motion pictures carried and used them in various films. Today, the study of the various generations of the SAA and collecting them has driven the price of originals beyond the price range of most shooters, but you can still order a new Colt SAA for somewhere north of $1,500, and reproductions are available from A. Uberti, Pedersoli and others for a third that.
Ruger Blackhawk (1955)
With Colt temporarily no longer making single-action revolvers, yet demand skyrocketing due to the popularity of cowboy movies, a fledgling company called Ruger heard a call and answered it with a revolver that would become the everyman’s choice for the foreseeable future. Much stronger than its ancestral Colt, Ruger’s Blackhawk and Super Blackhawk single-actions easily handled the tremendous pressures of the newly developed breed of magnum cartridges. This included the .44 Magnum, which drove long, heavy .430-diameter bullets faster than anything before.
Legendary handgunners such as Skeeter Skelton and Elmer Keith preferred them for hunting and serious heavy-handload work because of outstanding durability and robustness, and savvy gunsmiths could tune a Blackhawk to perfection. Best of all, these revolvers weren’t priced out of reach of everyday shooters, nor have they been since. You can still pick up a Blackhawk or Super Blackhawk for around $600 — less if used — depending on finish (blued or stainless), and it will still serve you with the reliability of an Abrams tank.
Smith & Wesson Model 29 (1957)
A superb pistol in its own right, the Model 29 owes its ridiculous success to a nefarious law character that walked the lamp-lit reels of Hollywood: Dirty Harry. Dirty Harry — again, played by Clint Eastwood — made the .44 Magnum wheelgun famous as “the most powerful handgun in the world,” and urged bad guys to “go ahead, make my day,” while glaring down the gleaming barrel of his latest hand cannon. Through the various Dirty Harry films Eastwood used several different iterations, with barrel lengths reaching as long as 8-3/8 inches.
Standing apart for the uncommon smoothness of its superb action and for outstanding accuracy, the Model 29 was and is a favorite of big-bore enthusiasts, handgun hunters and revolver collectors. Today, a $949 variant in stainless steel is dubbed the Model 629, and it is arguably the most practical high-end production big-bore available. Of course, traditional, blued-steel Model 29s are still available in Smith & Wesson’s Classic line of revolvers for around $1,000.
Freedom Arms Model 83 (1983)
If single-actions, Swiss watches and extreme big-bores are your thing, nothing will do but a Freedom Arms Model 83 in .454 Casull. Fully the equivalent of a premium custom rifle, these shooters are tuned to perfection, run like a Cadillac and tend to be obscenely accurate. Sporting a five-round cylinder chambered for a high-octane cartridge that pushes heavy .454-diameter slugs to previously unheard-of velocities, Model 83s (in .454 Casull) make Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum look like a kids’ plinking cartridge.
To support its extremely high chamber pressure (60,000 CUP), the .454 Casull uses small rifle primers rather than standard Large Pistol Magnum primers. Known for its sharp, biting recoil and outstanding terminal performance on the receiving end, the cartridge is suitable for hunting any hooved big game in the U.S. With careful projectile selection and shot placement, it can also handle some of the biggest bears, and the Model 83 revolver itself is arguably the finest wheelgun available.
Desert Eagle .50 Action Express (1985)
Few indeed are honest big-bore semiautomatic handguns, largely because the grip — through which cartridges must feed — just can’t be made large enough to house proper big-bore rounds and still be comfortable. However, the Desert Eagle gives up little ground to big-bore revolvers. Coughing a true .50-caliber slug out of the muzzle at admirably ridiculous velocities, the .50 Action Express cartridge has authority to spare. And while the grip is anything but hand-fitting, a Desert Eagle is actually less aggressive to shoot than similarly powerful revolvers because the operating mechanism harnesses energy to function, thus bleeding off a bit of recoil.
It’s said that the Desert Eagle has been used in close to 500 movies, and indeed, it’s not uncommon to see some swanky slender star swinging upside down from a live high-voltage wire and blazing away with a Desert Eagle in each fist. (I’m always amazed at how those finely boned wrists control recoil.)
In the real world, the .50 AE Desert Eagle is arguably the only semiauto really appropriate for hunting big dangerous game such as brown bear. Other than that, it lives gloriously as a recreational cartridge — fewer things are cooler than pulling out a bona fide .50-caliber semiauto and wowing your friends at the range.
Smith & Wesson Model 500 (2013)
The daddy of all big-bore handguns is — as you might have suspected — also the most recently designed. Giant “X-Frame” revolvers chamber two surpassingly powerful cartridges; of them, the abnormally large .500 S&W Magnum puts all other big-bores into a sub-category. Can you tell me of another handgun cartridge that can push a 700-grain bullet at 1,200 feet per second (fps), or a 350-grainer at almost 2,000 fps?
Practical for big, gnarly dangerous game such as brown bear and cape buffalo, the X-Frame in .500 S&W Magnum is the single most capable hunting handgun in the world, providing you can handle its very stout recoil and the shocking muzzle blast created by the muzzle brake that makes shooting it tolerable. Assuming you’ve got nerves of titanium and the discipline of an Asian Olympic diver, the monstrous wheelgun will reward you with very fine accuracy, too.
Other than that, the X-Frame .500 S&W Magnum is good only for novelty-type recreational shooting. But no matter how impractical it is for everyday use, it has one thing going for it that no other does: It’s the bloody World’s Most Powerful Handgun.