The Desert Eagle is invariably described as “iconic” and with good reason. Various versions of this powerful semiautomatic have appeared in tons of movies, television shows and video games. Magnum Research—the company that originated the design and now builds the Desert Eagle at its Pillager, Minnesota, facility—has capitalized on this fame by offering it in a wide spectrum of finishes.
You can have gold tiger stripe, black tiger stripe, titanium gold, all-stainless, all-black, case-hardened, brushed chrome, polished chrome and more. But what if none of these standard options appeal to you?
Not to worry. Magnum Research now has a “build a Desert Eagle” website where you can choose the options that appeal most to you. It makes total sense: If you’re going to be spending that sort of scratch, you should get exactly what you want.
Jump on your computer and go to CustomDesertEagle.com. Scroll down just a wee bit and you’ll see “Your Dream Gun Realized.” Click on “Build Yours Now” and away you go. There you can make choices on caliber, frame, barrel, grips, finish and more. As you click on each option, the main image of the gun changes to reflect what the gun would look like with that choice.
I went with a matching burnt bronze slide and frame. Since I do like stainless steel, that’s what I chose for the barrel, and I think the contrast of the stainless and the burnt bronze looks great. I also opted for the integral muzzle brake. For one, I wanted to tame some of the recoil from the .44 Magnum chambering I picked, but even more so, I like the aggressive look it offers.
I’m not normally a bling guy, but I chose brushed chrome hardware: safety, hammer, mag release, slide-stop lever and barrel lock pin. This hardware doesn’t match the stainless barrel exactly, but it definitely provides some pizzazz.
For sights I went basic: black fixed rear and plain front blade. Magnum Research offers two adjustable rear sights and a Hi-Viz front, but I knew I’d be hanging a red dot on the barrel’s Picatinny rail for testing.
I originally ordered the test gun with Hogue G10 grips, but the next thing I knew I was getting a call from Scott Dobbs at Magnum Research customer service. He wanted to be sure the G10s were really what I wanted. And, no, he didn’t call because I was writing an article on the gun. He said he calls whenever he’s not completely sure a customer will be satisfied with his or her choices.
In this case, he anticipated the reason I selected the Hogue G10 was because they matched the burnt bronze frame and slide.
“They’re really greener than you think they are,” he told me. “I’m going to send you a picture.” A few minutes later, an email arrived showing my original choice of grips laid on top of a burnt bronze slide, and sure enough, they didn’t complement each other as I’d imagined they would.
Dobbs and I talked about other choices, with both of us on the website and clicking through options. He suggested black, which I thought might work as well, and then it came down to a choice between the finger grooves and the standard grips.
Dobbs likes the look and feel of the finger grooves, but he told me they do add some girth to the grip. Since I have medium-size hands and prefer my grips on the smaller side, I went with the standard black.
While I had him on the phone, I asked what advice he would give people who decide it’s time to add a Desert Eagle to their collections.
“The number one thing I tell them is, ‘You’re buying a Ferrari, so don’t put E85 gasoline in it,’ ” he said.
As Dobbs pointed out, the Desert Eagle is a gas-operated gun, unlike most other semiautomatics, and requires ammo generating a certain level of pressure to cycle correctly. In other words, buy good ammo, and if for some reason your Desert Eagle isn’t functioning properly, try another brand or load.
Magnum Research maintains a “recommended ammo list” on its website, but I’d already collected a bunch of loads, so I soldiered on with what I had. Aside from energy levels, my particular sample was also sensitive to overall length. Ammunition that ran close to SAAMI’s max OAL for the .44 Magnum of 1.610 inches didn’t provide a good shooting experience in most cases. Of all the ammo tested, only the Magtech load (which is on the approved list) proved completely trouble-free. This flatpoint jacketed softpoint averaged 1.567 inches in overall length, nearly a full .030 inch shorter than every other load.
However, I experienced very few problems with the Remington load—also a flatpoint jacketed softpoint and also on the list. But this load measures 1.595 inches on average, so bullet shape and probably crimp are at least part of the functioning equation as well.
Desert Eagles also call for a lot of attention to proper technique. Dobbs told me the second issue people have is limp-wristing.
“You have to remember it’s basically like holding a five-pound bag of sugar at arm’s length,” he said. “The average person is not used to having to do this, and as you get tired, you start to bend your elbows to bring that weight closer to your body.” And at that point you’re not providing a solid enough platform to permit the gun to cycle properly.
In other words, this isn’t like stuffing ammo into your favorite revolver and blazing away. By the same token, the first time I shot a Desert Eagle was during a filming session of the old “Handguns” TV show. We’d finished up our last shoot for the season, and I was cleaning up the range after everyone had left. Lo and behold, I discovered we still had a couple boxes of .50 Action Express left over. Waste not, want not, I always say. I spent half an hour shooting mag after mag of .50 AE and never had a malfunction.
All in all, shooting the .44 Magnum version was a blast. Literally. The integral muzzle brake makes it pretty loud on a covered range—I wore earplugs underneath muffs—and you do get treated to a fair bit of blast. But this is a .44 Magnum, dammit, and it’s supposed to be fearsome.
But get off the bench and out from under cover, and the Desert Eagle is a dream. The brake, operating system and gun weight make the .44 Magnum not only manageable but enjoyable. The trigger has about an 1/8-inch take-up and then about that much creep before breaking at seven pounds, eight ounces. It’s a heavy pull, but once you learn how to stage it, it’s fine.
To do the accuracy test, I used an Aimpoint H2 Micro mounted to the barrel’s integral Picatinny rail. If I was going to hunt with the gun, this is the way I’d go, but the iron sights—both front and rear set in dovetails—are easy to shoot well.
As you can see from the accompanying chart, it’s capable of good accuracy. Functioning issues with some ammunition aside, it was pretty darned accurate. After the bench testing was done, I burned up the rest of the Magtech ammo, shooting offhand at 25 and 50 yards. I was able to get fist-size groups at 25 and palm-size groups at 50—plenty of accuracy not just for fun plinking but also for hunting deer, wild hogs and the like.
There have been a number of versions of the Desert Eagle, and the custom build is based on the Mark XIX. As mentioned, the pistol is gas-operated and employs a rotating bolt, one that will be familiar to any AR-15 shooter. It’s a modular system allowing you to switch from .44 Magnum to .50 AE and the new .429 Desert Eagle (see accompanying sidebar) by simply swapping barrels—which can be done in seconds—and using the right mag.
To swap barrels, remove the magazine and ensure the pistol is unloaded. Place the safety on Fire, grasp the hammer with your fingers and press the trigger, gently lowering the hammer. Then draw it back to its half-cock notch and press the barrel lock pin on the left side while swinging the barrel lock on the right side. The barrel pops right off.
To complete the field-strip, remove the twin-rod spring and the piston from the frame. When reassembling, the only tricky parts are ensuring the twin-rod spring fits into the holes in the frame and that the piston is correctly positioned. Magnum Research’s instructions on this are easy to follow, and once you do it a time or two, it’s a snap.
If your base Mark XIX is a .357 Magnum, to switch to .44, .50 or .429 you’ll have to install a new bolt, but this isn’t hard. With the pistol field-stripped, all you have to do is disassemble the slide. Magnum Research supplies a tool to help with the process, and again, the instructions are pretty easy to follow. On my first try it took me less than 10 minutes to take apart the slide and reassemble it.
So where does this leave us? If you’re in the market for a Desert Eagle, I highly recommend the custom-build route. You’ll get exactly what you want, and you’ll own a pistol that’s uniquely yours. Sure, sure—someone at your gun club or one of your buddies might make the exact same choices you did, but what are the odds?
There are two things I would do differently. First, I’d go for one of the two adjustable rear sight options. I realized that even though I’d mostly use an optical sight on this gun, I do like shooting iron sights, and it’s nice to be able to easily adjust sights to a given load.
I’d also opt for the .50 AE or .429 DE. Yes, as demonstrated by the recommended Magtech and also the Remington ammo, the gun will function fine. And yes, I could handload if I didn’t want to use the recommended ammo. It wouldn’t be hard to come up with a safe load that would run like a champ.
But there were enough malfunctions—whether my fault or the ammo’s fault—that unless you’re simply a .44 or .357 Magnum junkie, I think the smarter option is to go with cartridges specifically designed for the action. That’s the .50 AE and the .429 DE. You’re going to get all the power you could possibly want, and you know from the get-go the gun is going to run without issue, as long as you do your part with proper technique.MAGNUM RESEARCH CUSTOM DESERT EAGLE
TYPE: gas-operated semiauto
CALIBER: .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum (tested), .50 Action Express
BARREL: 6 in. stainless w/integral brake and Picatinny rail
OVERALL LENGTH: 10.5 in.
WEIGHT: 66 oz.
FRAME/SLIDE: burnt bronze Cerakote
GRIPS: black synthetic rubber
SIGHTS: fixed black front and rear
TRIGGER: 7.5 lb. pull (measured)
SAFETY: ambi thumb
MANUFACTURER: Magnum Research, CustomDesertEagle.com