Multiple Threat Magnum

Powerful and versatile, the Desert Eagle is up to any challenge.
by Clair Rees

When Magnum Research introduced the Desert Eagle in 1982, it caused quite a stir. Chambered for the .357 Magnum, the new auto pistol surprised many shooters by functioning beautifully with rimmed factory loads. Accuracy was excellent. A .44 Magnum version soon followed, and in 1994 the gun was chambered for the potent .50 Action Express cartridge.

The Desert Eagle was - and is - a big handgun. With a 6" barrel, the gun measured just 1 1/4" shy of a foot in length. The frame and slide are nothing short of massive, while the grip is a hand-filling 7" in circumference. The gun's hefty 4 1/2 lb. weight and gas-operated action soaks up magnum recoil with remarkable efficiency.

A Star is Born

The impressively outsized handgun quickly attracted the attention of Hollywood. The Desert Eagle first debuted in "The Year of the Dragon," a 1984 action flick staring Mickey Rourke. Since then, it's been featured in some 400 to 500 motion pictures and TV films, including Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Eraser" and "The Last Action Hero." Whenever a script calls for a wicked-looking, thoroughly intimidating handgun, the Desert Eagle still gets the nod.

Action film exposure has made the Desert Eagle a handgunning icon worldwide. Its distinctive appearance is instantly identifiable, and publicity has helped boost sales. Purchases haven't been limited to those who simply want the biggest, baddest handgun they could buy. Hangun hunters suddenly had a practical alternative to magmum revolvers and single-shot pistols.

The Desert Eagle offered serious hunting power in a fast-firing auto pistol design. How serious? From the Desert Eagle's 6" barrel, the big .50 AE cartridge propels a 300 gr. bullet at 1,500 fps. That translates into 1,500 ft./lbs. of muzzle energy, or 40-50% more oomph than .44 Magnum six-guns offer. The Desert Eagle is also available with a 10" barrel that provides even greater punch.

Because there's no gap between barrel and cylinder, .357 Mag. and .44 Mag. Desert Eagles handily outperform revolvers fed the same ammuntion. In addition to milking greater velocity and energy from each round, the Desert Eagle's heft and gas-operated action drastically reduce recoil. Rounds like the .357 and .44 Mag. become pussycats to control.

The upper surface of each Desert Eagle barrel is flat, with grooves to accomodate Weaver-style rings. No other scope base is needed. Handgun scopes, red dot sights, Holosights or other sighting aids can be mounted - or dismounted - almost instantly. Each gun also comes equipped with a very sturdy rear sight paired with a 1/8" wide front sight. Both front and rear sights are easy to see and can be drift-adjusted in their dovetails to make adjustments in windage.

In 1997, the gun could be quickly converted to handle just three different cartridges - .357 Mag., .44 Mag. and .50 AE - but a brand-new chambering has just been added. By the time you read this, 6" and 10" barrel assemblies chambered for the new .440 Cor-Bon cartridge will be available. These barrel assemblies can be mounted on any Mark XIX Desert Eagle receiver, as well as on .50 AE versions of the Israeli-made Mark VII pistol. (All Mark XIX components are fully compatible with the .50 AE Mark VII platform, but won't fit the smaller frames of the .357 and .44 Mag. guns. At last look, Magnum Research still had a supply of the Israeli Mark VII guns available.)

Developed specifically for the Mark XIX Desert Eagle, the new .440 Cor-Bon cartridge uses a .50 AE case necked down to take a .240 gr. .44 caliber Cor-Bon bullet. The round develops 1,900 fps from a 6" barrel, along with 1,920 ft./lbs. of punch. The new .440 barrels weren't available when this article went to press, so I'm unable to offer any first-hand accounts of how this newest addition to the Desert Eagle family performs.

I was able to get my hands on a variety of Mark XIX system components. This included two receivers, a 6" .50 AE barrel, a 10" .44 Mag. barrel, and magazines for each caliber. I also had a .357 Mag. bar-rel, bolt and magazine. Changing from .50 AE to .44 Mag. was simply a matter of changing barrels and magazines. Converting to .357 Mag. also required changing bolts, as case head size was incompatible with the big .50 AE bolt face.

Switching bolts meant first disassembling the slide. This took a couple of minutes and the help of a combination tool (provided). However, the illustrated step-by-step instructions were easy to follow.

I'd had some past experience with Desen Eagle handguns, including some serious testing of one of the first .50 AE pistols. I'd been impressed with the way the big gun performed.

Tamed Bird

Putting the full Mark XIX Desert Eagle component system through its paces was a fun challenge I decided to share with my son Jamie and Kraig Vamer. Both are serious handgun enthusiasts, and I often tap them to help with field testing. Too, I like to compare my impressions with theirs as the shooting progresses. This was instructive as we took tums firing the 6" .50 AE barrel.

A firm grip is advisable when firing any centerfire auto pistol - but is vitally important with a hard-kicking cartridge like the .50 Action Express. The Desert Eagle does a great job of tatning recoil, but smooth operation depends on creating a stable platform with every shot. The manual specifically warns against "limp wristing" the gun or allowing it to roll back too far under recoil. This can throw off the timing of the gas-operated slide and cause jamming.

For shooting off-hand, a modified Weaver stance is recommended. A two-handed grip should always be used, with the trigger hand pushing forward and the support hand pulling backward on the gun. The resulting isometric tension steadies the gun through the full firing cycle, providing the resistance needed for reliable operation. The manual also warns against exerting upward pressure on the base of the magazine during the firing process. "Desert Eagle Pistol magazines are 'free-floating,"' it says. "Pushing up can cause the subsequent round to jam."

Because the gas-operated Desert Eagle doesn't develop fearsome recoil, shooters aren't punished if they fail to use a really firm grip. When I first fired Dick Casull's then-experimental .454 revolver many years ago, my finger inadvertently brushed the hair trigger before my wrists were fully braced. Accustomed to.44 Mag. recoil, I simply wasn't prepared for the sharply whipping baffel that came back and dented my skull. I was left with a knot and a throbbing head, but my cowboy hat prevented more serious damage. Some guns will punish you if you fail to hang on tight.

The Desert Eagle is almost too forgiving. I watched my son fire the .50 AE version, and sure enough, he allowed the gun to rear back under recoil. He got away with this for maybe 20 rounds, then experienced a stovepipe jam. A minute or so later he had the same experience. When he took my advice to tighten his grip and exert serious fore-and-aft pressure during subsequent firings, the problem went away. Jamie is a seasoned handgunner who does a considerable amount of shooting with his customized 1911 A1. He learned that an even firmer hold is required when firing the .50 AE Desert Eagle.

As I mentioned earlier, .357 and .44 Mag. recoil is at pussycat levels when these cartridges are fired in the Desert Eagle. These guns are extremely pleasant to shoot with full-house factory loads (don't expect reliable functioning with .38 Special or.44 Special ammo - they simply don't generate enough oomph). A relatively weak grip usually won't create malfunctions.

On Target

Accuracy was very good. Tested from a sandbagged rest at 25 yards, the 6" .44 Mag. barrel delivered three-shot 1" groups with three different kinds of factory ammo, including 240 gr. Hornady, Remington and Black Hills loads. The 6" .357 barrel was only marginally less accurate, producing 1 1/8" and 1 3/8" spreads with 158 gr. JHP Winchester and Federal ammo. The big .50 AE Mag. delivered groups averaging 1 3/8" across with Magnum Research .300 JHP factory ammo.

The Desert Eagle pistol is unique in many ways. In addition to its quick-barrel-and-caliber-change versatility, its rotary bolt locks firmly into the barrel during firing. The bolt itself is a marvel of design, with the extractor serving double duty as one of the front-locking lugs. The gas operating system is contained within the barrel assembly, which means no adjustments are necessary when you switch calibers. Disassembly is easy, as the pistol breaks down into just six main parts (including the magazine).

Conventionally located at the rear of the slide, the safety catch is fully ambidextrous. When engaged, it blocks the firing pin and also disconnects the trigger from the firing mechanism. It required minor repositioning of my hand to move the safety on and off.

While the Desert Eagle fires single-action only, the two-stage triggers on my test guns were a disappointment. Both weighed over 8 lbs. as they came from the factory. The triggers are adjustable for weight, but I don't give high marks to their sluggish letoff.

Trigger action notwithstanding, I found a lot to like in the new Mark XIX Desert Eagle. It's accurate, reliable and plenty powerful for serious hunting purposes. The gas-operated action offers fast, controlled follow-up shots and keeps even .50 AE Mag. recoil very manageable. The Desert Eagle is a big gun with heft to match. Hip holsters are available, but shoulder holster carry would be a lot more comfortable. Price? With a 6" barrel, a complete Desert Eagle handgun (any caliber) sells for $1,099. Going to a I0" tube adds $61 to that tab. Want the full system with both 6" and 10" barrels in all three calibers (.440 Cor-Bon barrels not included), all in a black ballistic nylon-covered aluminum carrying case? The whole works will set you back to the tune of $3,341.

first published in the 1998 annual edition of American Handgunner