Before there was the Desert Eagle, there was the Auto Mag
The Auto Mag is a cult classic in the world of handguns. Conceived by and designed by Harry Sanford, it saw on-and-off production throughout the ’70s and ’80s and fewer than 10,000 pistols were ever made. Still, its bold lines and retro-future looks gave it a pop culture appeal and it was even carried, for a time, by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry series.
Built from the ground up to deliver .44 Magnum performance using a semi-automatic action, the Auto Mag draws design elements from both rifles and pistols. It uses a short recoil system that unlocks a multi-lugged bolt which cycles separately from the slide straight out the back. After unlocking the bolt ejects the spent case, cocks the hammer and returns to battery with a fresh round ready to fire.
A special rimless cartridge was developed for the Auto Mag: .44 Auto Magnum Pistol. Originally made by trimming .308 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield cases down and loading them with .44 Mag. bullets, .44 AMP would later go into commercial production.
Between the action and the sheer mass of the gun — the gun weighs 3 pounds, 9 ounces — the Auto Mag not only matches .44 Magnum revolver performance, it’s softer-recoiling, too.
Over the years the Auto Mag was rechambered for other cartridges to match other magnum revolvers’ performance. These guns were chambered for .357 AMP and .41 JMP. The three cartridges can be considered rimless versions of .357, .41 and .44 Mag. On top of that aftermarket barrels were made with a wide range of other cartridges in mind including custom cartridges and existing commercial rounds.
The guns were popular while they were in production — they were sold at prices so low, around $200, that the Auto Mag Corporation lost money on every sale, as much as $1,000 per gun in ’70s dollars. Predictably, the company went bankrupt a year after bringing the Auto Mag to life. Later attempts to bring the company and the gun back all failed. The last Auto Mag was built in 1982.
Still, to this day the Auto Mag has maintained a solid user base. The overbuilt stainless steel handguns have long lifespans and loading components are still in production. Like the original prototype ammo, handloaders can also trim rifle cases to .44 AMP length and reload it with standard .44 Mag. bullets.
Today Auto Mag pistols sell for anywhere between $1,500 to upwards of $6,000. Vintage ammo often sells for between $50 and $150 a box.
Last year a flicker of hope came to fans of the pistol when the New Auto Mag website went live, quietly and with little fanfare. But it only had a rendering of an Auto Mag pistol and little by way of information.
In 2015, entrepreneur and Auto Mag enthusiast Patrick Henry purchased all remaining parts and plans from the Sanford family. He brokered a deal with Max Gera, who worked on the original Auto Mag team and improved the design, to put the classic pistol back into production.
This summer the website started posting status updates on their progress, with photos and videos of their working test-fired prototypes. Concept renderings of the final product went up, showing black, stainless and two-tone models in the works, along with glimpses of the machine work going on at their shop.
Their first goal is to develop a new upper based on Gera’s work using modern manufacturing techniques. They have already prototyped the new upper and are working on a revision to improve the manufacturing process. They anticipate finishing the revised upper later this year; as early as next month. If all goes well the revised upper will set the standard for the production upper. If not, it will be re-revised again.
They are also looking at new ways of producing the pistol frames. They have 500 original frames but may choose not to use them depending on how their new production frames turn out. The original frames were cast and new-production frames may be cast as well, but the team is also testing a simpler design that can be machined from billet steel.
All the small parts will be machined as well, not cast or injection-molded, in order to achieve a longer lifespan. By redesigning the gun around machined parts these guns are expected to be even tougher than the originals and be loaded to even higher pressures. New Auto Mag uppers will go on for sale first with complete firearms to follow later.
The team, lead by Henry, is working on getting new frames into production and has posted photos and videos of their prototype slides on original frames. They have a lot of info up now about their progress, what they’ve achieved and what they expect to tackle next. They’ve also opened a parts store to support existing Auto Mag owners. These are original parts for now as new parts aren’t in mass production yet.
At this point only a few things have been set in stone. The New Auto Mag will be chambered in .44 AMP and they’ve talked Starline Brass to whip up a batch of 100,000 cases for handloaders and, hopefully, commercial loading companies. Cases are expected to run about as much as .44 Mag. brass.
One thing Henry has been forward about is connecting with the established and widespread Auto Mag community. He has been active on Auto Mag forums and seems willing to work with experienced owners about what does — and does not — need tweaking.
Chronicler Bert Mason has been following the progress of the New Auto Mag and is hopeful for its success. Not all of it has been a straightforward process. According to Mason, Henry and Gera have butt heads on more than one occasion on the project. The first prototypes weren’t entirely true to spec and some of the changes to the upper turned out to be a mistake (a whoops-full-auto-grade mistake). But in general things appear to be moving in a positive direction — this is Gera’s life’s work and everyone respects that.
A firm timeline and pricing are still too far out to confirm. After all, they are still in the prototype phase. Ultimately the New Auto Mag will be released when it’s ready — not tied to a strict schedule — too many people have already failed to bring the Auto Mag back into production. They need to make sure everything is right.
Old Gun, New Machines
Fortunately, a few things favor the Auto Mag this go around. The design, in any of its original versions, was ahead of its time. Now even small shops have the precision manufacturing equipment needed to produce such a powerful semi-automatic handgun.
The market is also larger — the legend of the Auto Magnum has only grown since it went out of production. There are a lot more shooters interested in getting one of these storied guns. And with people willing to pay thousands of dollars to get them, it’s safe to say that the New Auto Mag will be priced right this time.
They also seem to have more attainable production quota targets. The New Auto Mag team is expecting to build around 150 guns a month, not batches of thousands, at least in the beginning. After nearly 40 years, a little extra waiting now for new guns is nothing.
Should the team succeed the New Auto Mag will be its own gun — an updated, modernized and improved gun, built using the same principles and aesthetics with 21st-century tools — and at the same time, remain true to the classic magnum.