The Desert Eagle Has Landed

by Howard E. French

The Desert Eagle is a brand new autoloading pistol chambered for the standard .357 Magnum revolver round. That's right, it chambers and feeds a rimmed wheel gun round and does it flawlessly when fed the right ammo. The factory recommends the exclusive use of 158-grain cartridges but we tried everything from 110-grain to 180-grain loads.

The 110-grain rounds just did not have the poop to cycle the action and, while they ejected the empty, the slide short-shucked and failed to feed a new cartridge. With 125, 158, and 180-grain loads, cycling was normal in our test piece, one of the first production run of guns to reach these shores from Israel.

The one real problem we ran into was when using the aluminum-cased Blazer ammunition. While this ammo is absolutely reliable in any .357 revolver we have tried it in, it just wasn't up to the violent extraction of an autoloader. The first and only round of Blazer we fired had the head of the case ripped off leaving the body of the case in the chamber. There was plenty of oomph to this load so that a fresh, unfired round was also competing for the limited chamber space now also occupied by the forward part of the just-fired case - a classic jam. This was obviously not a fault of the ammunition or the gun, we were asking them both to do a job they were not designed to do.

Any autoloader will have limitations; however, we found the Desert Eagle to have surprisingly few, but they must be recognized. The slide release is one item that needs a little tender loving care. It is miniscule and is sans either checkering or grooves. In short it is almost impossible to operate unless you are blessed with the finger power of an orangutan. Starting with the slide in the locked open position, all of our test shooters elected to pull back on the slide to release it rather than attempt to trip the slide forward with the release lever. In talking with Magnum Research's Doug Evans, he stated that a revision was in the works. Obviously, this is a minor matter that seems only to be recognized when guns are tested not just by engineers but by shooters in the field.

The Desert Eagle is manufactured by Israel Military Industries (IMI) and imported into this country by Magnum Research Inc. of Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is a strapping big pistol: our test piece weighed in at 4.37 pounds with a full complement of ammo, nine in the magazine with a tenth up the spout. The trigger is single action and, due to the width of the grip, it is doubtful if a double-action trigger could be adapted to this handgun. As it stands, it is already a fistful, and people with small hands might well have a bit of difficulty reaching the current trigger, much less one that would require even more finger reach.

The action utilizes a bolt locking mechanism using an interrupted thread, similar to the old Auto Mag or the breaching in a cannon. Indeed it is sometimes referred to as a "cannon" breech. Suffice it to say it is amply strong to contain .357 Magnum pressures. The bolt is counterbored to enclose the head of the rimmed case and uses a plunger-type ejector that throws empty cases well clear of the shooter. Cycling is assisted by a gas system that helps to propel the slide to the rear during the firing. A tiny amount of gas is bled off just in front of the chamber mouth and is channeled to the rather bulbous muzzle of the barrel. The muzzle, of necessity, is enlarged because it contains the cylinder that mates with the gas piston. The piston itself is mounted on the front of the slide and serves to drive the slide to the rear under the tension of twin, captive recoil springs.

The gas port was not readily apparent to the naked eye, located as it is in the chamber where the mouth of the case meets the barrel lead. It was confirmed using a bent paper clip as a probe. At the time of our testing there was no factory literature on this revolutionary new pistol. However, past experience tells us that this is a firearm that will thrive on factory jacketed ammo as well as jacketed bullet reloads, but it will probably balk at a forced diet of lead, lubricated rounds. Minute particles of lead as well as lubricant will almost certainly foul up this gas system if used extensively, just as it has in other, somewhat similar actions we have tested. Consequently Guns & Ammo recommends that you don't waste your time trying to build cast bullet loads for this arm; we didn't!

Another advantage of the Desert Eagle's design is that the barrel itself does not recoil and is rigidly held both fore and aft in the massive frame. This rigidness was obviously conducive to accuracy, and the results were plain to see on the target frame. While some shooters may be somewhat concerned with the heft and bulk of the Desert Eagle, it certainly does dampen both recoil and muzzle flip.

Calculated free recoil energy in foot pounds showed that the Desert Eagle, despite its giving higher velocity with identical loads due to the integral chamber/barrel configuration, had a significant loss in recoil over a conventional - albeit lighter - revolver. However, there is no free lunch; the Eagle gives you less muzzle flip and faster target recovery time as well as significantly less actual and felt recoil - all at the expense of more mass. How much increase in velocity do you gain with the chamber-in-the-barrel system of the Desert Eagle? That depends on the load that you are using and varies considerably. We got from 31 to 117 feet per second (fps) more from the Desert Eagle than from a conventional revolver. The least amount of velocity increase was with 110-grain loads; the most, 117 fps, from the 125-grain cartridges. The 158-grain round had an increase of 90 fps for the Eagle, or about 9 percent.

The fixed barrel offers another plus for the Eagle as it has an integral rib that can be used for scope mounting. Anybody who has tried to mount a scope on an autoloading firearm where the scope itself is subject to both movement and recoil can appreciate this design and convenience. It will conserve both scopes and the shooter's nerves. Standard rimfire mounts, such as those used on current .22 rifles with grooved receivers, can be clamped to this rib so that long eye relief scopes can be mounted with little difficulty. In addition, Aimpoint is developing a conversion mount for their popular sight.

Our test gun sported a nominal six-inch barrel, although when measured by chambering an empty case and then sliding a cleaning rod to the case web, the distance was just 5 3/4 inches. In the near future, the pistol will be offered with 8, 10 and 14-inch barrels specifically for the hunter and silhouette shooter. There will even be an optional gas piston replacement that will allow use of .38 Special +P ammo, presumably exclusively for the six-inch barrel version.

There was considerable disagreement between G&A staff members on how you compare an auto with a wheel gun. Do you say that the nominally six-inch barreled Eagle, which actually measured just 5 3/4 inches, should be compared to a six-inch barreled sixgun, or should you measure both guns equally - from the muzzle to the base of the empty cartridge case? In this instance, we elected to chronograph the Desert Eagle against a four-inch barreled Llama revolver. Using the above method of measurement, the Llama worked out to have a total chamber/barrel length of 5 1/2 inches - just 1/4 inch shy of the Eagle. You may not agree with this method, and we freely allow you, the reader, to add or subtract a few snippets of foot-seconds to adjust velocities to suit your own ballistic ideas. At least all our readings were consistent and are relative to these two pistols.

Our test pistol featured rugged, fixed combat sights, a natural for an arm that is regulated for a single factory load. However, adjustable sights are just down the pike and will probably be available by the time you read this. Even the fixed sights will have undergone a minor change; the vertical front post will be replaced by a serrated ramp less prone to snagging in holster or clothing.

The trigger is a two-stage affair and will be adjustable in later production models. There is an ambidextrous safety - not shared by the magazine release - and the front of the trigger is of the squared-off, combat style.

What was it like to shoot the Desert Eagle? A lot of fun. This is a .357 that doesn't hammer you with a vicious slap, but more with a gentle push. True, you are packing around a heavier piece of ordnance, but you are enjoying your shooting more. It was obvious during our chronograph sessions that, regardless of bullet weight, the Eagle was a mere pussy cat to shoot, while a conventional revolver really lets you know when you touched it off.

How important is this? That is for you to judge. It depends on whether you are going to shoot scores of shots, one after the other, or just an occasional round. Without question the silhouette shooter will appreciate the heft, balance and reduced recoil over the grueling course of fire he faces. After all, if you are more relaxed at the end of the run, you are probably going to end up shooting better.

For the man who carries a backup pistol on a big-game hunt, this is probably not the gun for you. It should be considered as a primary hunting arm rather than as a secondary one. Equipped with a scope, it will sit solidly in your hands as you line up on a trophy. It is a specialty pistol for the hunter, silhouette shooter and the firearms aficiondo who wants to have an arm that combines the autoloading advantage of a fixed breech handgun with increased firepower and accuracy.

It is certainly exciting to see a new pistol arrive on the American shooting scene; one that is quite different and that may well prove to be a challenge to the classic .357 revolver. The price is a tad higher than other premium handguns as it lists for $699 with one magazine. Other accessories, such as spare magazines, holsters, cleaning kits and adjustable sights will soon be offered.

first published in the November 1984 edition of Guns & Ammo