Smith & Wesson Model 29: Gun History
How the “most powerful handgun in the world” got its start—and its fame.
“Go ahead, make my day.” Clint Eastwood, playing police detective Harry Callahan (aka “Dirty Harry”), said that line in the 1983 film “Sudden Impact.” The American Film Institute (AFI) ranks that line as number six on the top 100 all-time greatest movie quotes.
Unless you’ve been totally shut off from the entertainment world for the last 40 years, you know that Dirty Harry’s famous words just wouldn’t have had their bite if it wasn’t for Eastwood’s co-star, the Smith & Wesson Model 29, a Large Frame revolver chambered in .44 Magnum.
The first film in the series, “Dirty Harry,” opened just a few days before Christmas in 1971. The film was followed by four sequels: “Magnum Force” in 1973, “The Enforcer” in 1976, “Sudden Impact” in 1983, and “The Dead Pool” in 1988. From the first film in the series, Dirty Harry set off a buying frenzy for the “most powerful handgun in the world” that would last for two decades.
As Dirty Harry put it in the first film: “…being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you punk?” (That line, incidentally, ranks number 51 on the AFI’s list.)
The Beginning and Elmer Keith
The history of this behemoth revolver begins in the early 1950s, when venerated outdoor writer and hunter Elmer Keith (1899-1984) worked with Smith &Wesson’s President Carl Hellstrom and the research and development team at Remington Arms Company to come up with the ultimate handgun cartridge. Keith who was synonymous with the notion that a shooter should “use enough gun,” hunted with handguns, and wanted a cartridge that could handle the game he was after.
Similar projects had been undertaken before. Keith and Douglas Wesson (a grandson of one of the founders of Smith & Wesson) had successfully developed and brought the .357 Magnum cartridge to market in 1935. Their idea was to take the vacant space left in the .38 special cartridge and fill it with more gunpowder, creating a load that would have more stopping power.
Twenty years later, Keith applied the same idea to the .44 special cartridge, and S&W developed the Large Frame revolver to handle the massive amount of pressure the new cartridge generated. The result was the Model 29 chambered in .44 Magnum: A handgun that fired a cartridge with a 240-grain bullet capable of reaching speeds in excess of 1500 feet per second and delivering over 1,000 foot pounds of energy. It was the magnum of magnums.
The Model 29 Gets Famous
The new revolver found a niche within the growing community of hunters who preferred to hunt with a handgun, but by most accounts, law enforcement and target shooters found the cartridge to be a bit too much to handle on a regular basis.
Sales were considered lackluster for the first 15 years of production. Then in 1971, S&W got the biggest Christmas present any company could ever ask for: the first of numerous blockbuster films featuring their Model 29 in the hands of one of the most popular actors of the time, playing an unconventional police detective armed with grit, determination, and the “world’s most powerful handgun.”
Sales skyrocketed and the revolver was quickly backordered. Model 29s routinely sold for prices far exceeding the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, as demand was high and supplies limited.
But the backstory of the gun in the movie, as told by screenwriter and director John Milius, tells a tale of what might never have been.
Originally, Dirty Harry producer and director Don Siegel, along with writer John Milius, went to see Frank Sinatra about accepting the role of Harry Callahan. At the time, Harry was envisioned carrying a sawed-off shotgun in a case.
Sinatra readily agreed but insisted on using his own Colt Detective Special revolver. Siegel and Milius tried to explain that the whole movie centered around the massive revolver and that a puny Detective Special .38 wouldn’t carry the message that screen writers Harry Fink and Milius were trying to convey.
Sinatra, however, had broken his wrist while filming The Manchurian Candidate eight years earlier and felt that he couldn’t support the weight of the big gun in his hand. So he passed on the offer. The role was offered to a number of A-listers of the time before the much lesser known Clint Eastwood was offered the part. The rest, as they say, is history.
Originally, the filmmakers wanted to use a Model 29 with a 4-inch barrel, a stout and powerful gun that was a little more realistic for an Inspector to carry. This was a problem, the Model 29 was no longer in production when the film was made, and they hadn’t sold very well, so finding any guns for the movie was proving difficult.
Eastwood reportedly contact Bob Sauer, who worked for S&W at the time, to see if he could help. Eventually, enough guns were assembled from spare parts left at the factory to be used for Dirty Harry (1971). However, the only barrels that could be found were 8-3/8″ and 6-1/2″. Both length guns are used in various scenes and alternate at random (yes, if you thought the gun looked bigger in some scenes, you’re right, not crazy).
In the following four Dirty Harry movies, Callahan carries the 6-1/2″ version only.
Although the Model 29 was again discontinued by S&W in 1999, a “Classics” version is still in production, and used 29s with varying barrel lengths and finishes abound. If you decide to take one to the range to recreate that Dirty Harry feeling, consider buying a box of .44 Specials. The load will chamber in the Model 29 and your wrist and hand will thank you later.
You can see the actual Model 29 used in Dirty Harry at the NRA’s National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia, which is open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free.