Bigger is Better: A History of the .500 S&W Magnum
When Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan announced in 1971 that his Smith & Wesson Model 29 in .44 Magnum was “the most powerful handgun in the world,” it didn’t matter that he was technically wrong – the .454 Casull eclipsed it just a few years after introduction. Nonetheless, it gave Smith & Wesson a needed shot in the arm, as sales of the gun soared and far exceeded production capabilities. (To be fair to Harry, in ’71, the S&W Model 29 was the most powerful production revolver available, as the .454 Casull was only available in single-shot pistols.)
As time went on, though, the .44 Magnum wave waned. By 2002, Smith & Wesson was ready to embark on a new project to help the company regain the title bestowed upon them by Clint Eastwood.
Herb Belin, S&W’s Director of Emerging Technology (now their Product Innovation Manager), headed up the new endeavor and was determined to create a new cartridge that was as large as Federal law would allow. To avoid having the new arm that would fire the new cartridge classified as a “destructive device” by the ATF, the resulting design could be a cartridge that was no larger than .500 inches in diameter.
And just like that, the basic idea for what would become the .500 S&W Magnum was born, along with a new revolver line built on their largest frame to date: the X-Frame.
Like all good firearms companies do, Smith & Wesson officially launched the new cartridge and firearm together at the 2003 SHOT Show.
The so-called “X-Gun” engineering team from S&W embarked on designed the cartridge and the X-Frame revolver together with the goal of designing a hunting handgun cartridge capable of taking all North American game species.
South Dakota-based ammunition company Cor-Bon was brought into the fold to help bring the cartridge to life.The resulting numbers were impressive, to say the least. The straight-walled cartridge case alone measures 1.625” with an average overall cartridge length of more than two inches. When topped off with a 275-grain projectile, the “light” load has a muzzle velocity of 1,660 fps and a muzzle energy of 1,680 ft-lbs.
The sweet spot is a 300-grain projectile, which produces a muzzle velocity of 2,075 fps and 2,868 ft-lbs of muzzle energy. Even with a 500-grain bullet, it still clocks in at a speedy 1,425 fps with a whopping 2,254 ft-lbs of energy.
Of course, such an imposing cartridge required an equally imposing firearm to handle it. This was a situation where the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” did not apply. Attempting to retrofit an N frame revolver (S&W’s largest frame at the time) to this cartridge would most certainly have broken it. With nothing in the current Smith & Wesson line able to withstand the beast of a round, they created an entirely new frame design to go along with it.
The Model S&W 500 double-action revolver is built on the X-Frame, which makes S&W’s N frame look like its puny kid brother. When equipped with an 10.5” barrel, the gun’s empty weight comes in at 4 pounds, 9 ounces. (For reference, that’s the same as Colt’s massive Walker revolver from the 19th century.) Because of the cartridge’s dimensions, the five-shot cylinder is almost 2” in diameter. A six-shot cylinder was out of the question, as it would have required the frame to be even larger than it already is, making it a truly unwieldy design, so it only holds five.
The cylinder stop notches are different, too. Instead of being located in line with each chamber like on all other S&W offerings, the X-Frame’s notches are located in between chambers, which just so happens to be the cylinder’s thickest location. That’s no coincidence; they didn’t want to remove material from an already-thin location on the cylinder next to the chambers.
One aspect of the X-Frame that’s not beefed up like everything else is the size of the grips. While you might think that an extra large grip would be necessary on a gun of this size, the designers actually went in the opposite direction. The best way to control any handgun when shooting it is to ensure that you’ve got a solid grip. S&W acknowledged that the grips on their N frame revolvers were considered to be a tad too large for those with smaller hands. If they made the X-Frame grips even larger than the N frame grips, then shooters of smaller stature would most certainly not be able to get a good grip on this new monster gun.
With this in mind, the X-Frame is actually equipped with the smaller K-frame grip size, which is often regarded as the “Goldilocks” size of grips – just right. By designing the X-Frame with grips that comfortably fit the hands of most shooters, the designers ensured that people of all hand sizes would be able to get a comfortable—and solid—grip on the modern day hand-cannon that they had dreamt up.
Checkered wood grips have been a mainstay for S&W’s revolvers for more than a century, but like everything else associated with the new design, the grip material on the S&W500 merited a departure from tradition. Overmolded rubber grips rounded out the equation, offering the shooter an extra layer of cushion against the unprecedented recoil of the revolver.
So what, exactly, does one do with such a large cartridge and revolver? Well, basically anything you want! It’s certainly not suited for all-day range trips, but it is great in the field. Many S&W500 owners use them for protection in the woods; I’ve been told they make fantastic bear deterrents and S&W makes a snubby Performance Center version of the revolver with a 3.5″ barrel and an unfluted cylinder to give the gun a bit more weight to help handle the big cartridge’s hefty recoil with Hi-Viz sights that is perfect for this application. They also make a 4″ version with an integrated compensator.
At one time, S&W made a special edition 500S&W as part of its 500ES Emergency Survival Kit. An S&W500 revolver with a 2.75″ barrel and an orange Hogue rubber grip was included in an orange waterproof storm case, along with a Blast Match fire starter, WetFire tinder, a Saber Cut saw, Jet Scream whistle, Star Flash signal mirror, Polaris compass, 2 MPI mylar space emergency blankets, and S&W Extreme Ops liner-lock folding knife, and to top it all off, a copy of “Bear Attacks of the Century – True Stories of Courage and Survival” by Larry Mueller and Marguerite Reiss.
As the popularity of handgun hunting has increased in recent years, the .500 S&W Magnum cartridge has become a very good option for hunters. Whether the adrenaline rush from coming into contact with animals higher up on the food chain is actually part of the plan or not, this gun and ammo combo has been proven to successfully take down all manner of dangerous game, up to and including elephant.
Over the years, Smith & Wesson expanded their S&W500 offerings. Their website currently offers seven different variations of this X-Frame creation. Barrel lengths range from 3.5” to 10.5” and they used to offer a snubby version with a 2.5” barrel length. Even with a short barrel, the gun is still massive: the 3.5” model weighs 3.5 pounds empty.
Both standard and Performance Center versions are available, with optional features including a sling, a muzzle brake, a compensator, picatinny rail sections, fluted and unfluted cylinders, high visibility sights, full and half-length underlugs, and more.
Just as a variety of platform variations emerged, so too did ammo variations. Today, you can get .500 S&W Magnum cartridges with bullet weights ranging from 275 to 700 grains. Bullets can be had hard cast, flex tip, jacketed hollowpoint, semi-jacketed, flat nose, and so on. If you can dream it, there’s likely an ammo company out there willing to build it.
The .500 S&W in Rifles
In recent years, new platforms for the .500 S&W Magnum have emerged. Most notably are the lever guns offered from Big Horn Armory of Cody, Wyoming. Inspired by the iconic Winchester designs, BHA created an entirely new gun – the Model 89 – so named because its action size falls in between the 1886 and 1892. Basically, BHA set out to create something that they envisioned would have come out of John Moses Browning’s brain had he been alive today. It’s worth noting that the Model 89 isn’t made by modifying an existing firearm; it is an entirely new gun.
Other long gun options in .500 Magnum include the single-shot break action H&R Handi-Rifle, which has a 22″ barrel, and the Thompson/Center Encore Pro Hunter Platform, which is a single-shot convertible pistol an rifle—in the latter configuration, it has a 20″ barrel. Both guns weigh 7 pounds.
Even though the .500 Magnum was designed to be shot from a revolver, there are many benefits to creating a long gun for this cartridge. For starters, it definitely helps tame some of the recoil when you’re shooting it out of a carbine that weighs more than 7.5 pounds. There’s also the added stability and control that comes from the inherent design of a shoulder-fired arm over that of a handgun. The extra barrel length, too, helps when it comes to performance. The longer barrel provides for a longer sight radius, which combined with more spin from the rifling, helps to improve accuracy, plus it adds velocity, roughly 400 fps depending on the load.
When equipped with 22” barrels, Big Horn Armory’s Model 89 (also known as the SpikeDriver) has demonstrated exceptional groupings of less than two inches at 100 yards. That’s quite impressive when you consider that the cartridge was designed for use in a handgun with a goal of accuracy at half that distance. The rifle is also available in an 18″ barrel carbine version and a 16″ Trapper model.
The .500 in ARs
With the tremendous popularity of the AR rifle platform, Eugene Stoner’s design has been made available in a wide variety of chamberings. It was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to adapt it to the .500 S&W Magnum.
Because the round was designed to be fired in a revolver, the .500’s case is rimmed in order to hold it securely within the cylinder. Rimmed cases can be fired through lever guns with ease, but they cannot be cycled properly through a semi-automatic firearm.
Once again, Big Horn Armory stepped up to the plate. What emerged was another new rifle – the AR500 – and another new cartridge – the .500 Auto Max. For this design, BHA based the new AR500 semi-automatic rifle on the larger AR10 platform and not the smaller AR15.
The .500 Auto Max cartridge is basically just a rimless .500 S&W Magnum. (Rimless is a misnomer. It still has a rim, albeit much less pronounced.) With plenty of heavy-hitting cartridges already available for the AR platform, why design another one? Well, the numbers speak for themselves. When compared at the muzzle to a 500-grain JSP .50 Beowulf, the .500 AM is traveling 497 fps faster and with 1,851 ft-lbs more energy. At 200 yards, the Auto Max is still travelling 300 fps faster with 796 more ft-lbs of energy. Bullet drop at that distance is 23.2” for the Auto Max, which is 19.2” less than the Beowulf’s drop of 42.4”. It’s impressive, to say the least.
The .500 S&W Magnum was born out of the age-old American desire to be the biggest and the baddest. It’s what Elmer Keith and others had in mind when they designed the .44 Magnum before World War II and it’s what the design team at Smith & Wesson had in mind when they dreamt up the .500 Magnum in 2002.
Will someone come along in the next few decades and kick it up a notch? Probably, but exactly how they’ll do it is yet to be determined. That’s something that they – and the ATF – will decide.