There are many iconic handguns in the collective consciousness of gun enthusiasts. There are fewer, but still several iconic handguns in global culture. These latter icons tend to be associated with a larger-than-life appearance on the silver screen. But even amongst the most iconic and awe-inspiring handguns ever to make viewers’ eyes widen and chins drop – there is one that sits at the very top. The .44 Auto Mag.
The Dirty Harry movies from the 1970s and early 1980s are required annual viewing for anyone who calls himself a handgun enthusiast. The title character, immortalized by Clint Eastwood is famous for the icon status of the S&W Model 29, .44 Magnum revolver. In fact, that gun is quite possibly deserving of equal top-billing in the film credits. But in 1983’s “Sudden Impact” a new character was introduced that instantly became the “it” gun that everyone had to have. Introduced early in the film as having been a gift to Detective Callahan (Eastwood), it is called upon at the film’s climax shootout scene after Harry’s beloved six-shooter takes a dip in the Pacific. In 1983, guns didn’t look like this. It was ultra-modern and high tech, yet a big-bore powerhouse that could, according to Dirty Harry – “remove the fingerprints” of the perpetrator shot with it. Like every red-blooded male in every theatre seat everywhere in 1983 – I was mesmerized by the gun. Problem was… there were none to be had. The 44 Auto Mag had made its introduction to the market over a decade before the film was made, and after selling roughly 3,000 pistols the company went under and production stopped. In addition to that – those guns that did exist did not have the long 8 1/2″ barrel seen on the big screen – that was a custom piece made for the movie. The resale market for the original Auto Mags skyrocketed. If you could find someone willing to sell one, you were going to pay up for it.
The Auto Mag company, much like a cat, lived many lives and the guns were manufactured in a number of variations and several calibers with roll marks and serial prefixes changing each time. But those original 3,000 Pasadena pistols will forever be the “real” Auto Mag and sit at the top of the collector’s wish list. I am proud to own two of those guns.
Fast forward to the modern era, just a few years ago – when the rumors began to vibrate around the industry that the Auto Mag was going to be re-made. Being an Auto Mag enthusiast, I began a crusade to learn more. This put me in touch with Patrick Henry, who purchased the name, trademark, rights, and all existing assets of the Auto Mag company, and who was on a mission to resurrect this legendary gun and restore it to its original glory – while using modern manufacturing capabilities to improve both the process and the gun. The objective was to remain completely loyal to the original pistol and make true Auto Mags, not replicas – while allowing the technology now available to make them better wherever possible.
Looking through the lens of today, the specifications of the .44 Auto Mag Pistol (AMP) cartridge might not raise many eyebrows – but circa 1970 this was virtually an unheard-of challenge. Semi-autos had not yet reached the mainstream lexicon of handguns, and most of those were either of a Browning design or a derivative thereof, and none approached the firepower of the .44 magnum. This was a new beast altogether – with a locking bolt like the AR-15, but no gas system – and two recoil springs and guide rods to control the timing save the gun and shooter from undue wear and tear. As often happens in innovation and business, the first to market is not always the successful product, or even the best designed – but in its short-lived glory, the Auto Mag inspired not only an industry, but a generation of enthusiasts. The silhouette of the Auto Mag is incredibly distinctive, and to this beholder’s eye, it remains as alluring today as it was 50 years ago.
It is not lost on this writer, nor should it be on the reader, just how big an undertaking Auto Mag Ltd., led by Patrick Henry has been. “If I’d known five years ago how long it would take, and how many millions it would cost, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”, was the sentiment that Patrick expressed during one of our conversations, “but”, he continued, “once you get half-pregnant, you just have to go with it”. Fortunately for us, Patrick is a gun-maker and not an obstetrician. But, if you sit down and talk with Mr. Henry, you will soon realize that he is a passionate enthusiast of the .44 Auto Mag, whose dream is to not just re-make this iconic pistol but to make it what it always should have been. That dream is shared by many lovers of the Auto Mag, because pre-orders for pistols that were still just a glimmer in Patrick’s eye started rolling in from day one.
The new Auto Mag can be ordered in several configurations, starting with the Founder’s Edition, which was a limited run offered to early pre-order customers. The Classic Edition is the version that was sent to me for testing and review, with the optional 8 ½” barrel. The high polished finish is also an option – and is a very labor-intensive process which makes the stainless-steel shine like drag pipes on a new Harley. There are options to choose from when it comes to the grips also – my preference being the beautiful wood stocks, but there are also very nice G10 grips available – both options are made by Hogue. And wonderful news for owners of original Auto Mags – grips, magazines, and other critical internal parts can all be purchased from Auto Mag, Ltd. And because this is “the real thing” and not a tribute gun or reproduction, the parts are nearly all compatible.
So, who exactly is the .44 Auto Mag for? There can be no doubt that the Auto Mag has always been, and continues to be, a boutique gun. Arguably one of the most elite boutique guns ever made, and certainly coveted by collectors. I think the market for this gun is diverse and eclectic, ranging from the man who is regretting he never bought that one he saw 30 years ago… to the young enthusiast who has a keen eye and appreciation for the extraordinary… to the trophy collector who simply wants one because he wants one. And don’t leave out the recoil-junkie – that guy that loves big bore thundersticks and always draws a crowd at the range. In a recent conversation with my friends on Handgun Radio, we were discussing the Auto Mag in contrast to similarly priced high-end 1911s with which we are all familiar. I asked, “but tell me… which of those guns is a .44 Auto Mag?”. And there, I believe, is the answer. The Auto Mag is for the person who wants an Auto Mag. The 44 Auto Mag is the DeLorean of handguns.
But what about shooting the Auto Mag? After all, this is a gun review – and in gun reviews we talk about shooting and performance. As a legacy .44 Auto Mag owner, I am familiar with firing this handgun and so I had expectations and questions as I headed to the range with the brand-spanking-new version. The first thing you’ll likely notice is the size and weight of the gun. As tested, this pistol weighs 4 lbs. and is 14-1/8” in overall length. The grip portion of the frame is large and hand-filling, even for those with large hands. And yet, despite those dimensions, it is remarkably ergonomic and comfortable to grip – this was my thought the first time I held an Auto Mag. And as for the weight – you’ll be glad of it when you touch off that first round.
The sights on the Auto Mag were always of high quality. The front sight is a permanent machined fixture that ramps up from the vented rib that runs atop the barrel. It is serrated for reduced glare, but otherwise unadorned. Auto Mag Ltd. has not modernized this by adding any visibility enhancements – which this enthusiast appreciates. The blade of the new front sight looked a bit thinner to me in back-to-back shooting, so I measured them and found that the front blade is 0.010” thinner and the rear notch is also 0.015” wider on the new gun versus the old. That twenty-five-thousandths is enough to notice. The rear sight is of similar design to the original, but changes have been made to the mount to accommodate the modern Kensight. It is fully adjustable and is a flat black with anti-glare serrations. In an era before video games and sights that light up and flash and holler “he went that way”, these were top of the line – and suit this gun just fine. The front sight looks identical to the original Pasadena gun, but is in fact a more modern sight that could be replaced if needed. A look at the muzzle end of both guns also demonstrates one of the opportunities that Auto Mag Ltd. has taken to improve the gun in a subtle way. The old gun looks much like someone trimmed the end of the barrel with a band saw and knocked off the burrs before shipping it out. The new Auto Mag has a nicely rounded and crowned tip, offering the same head-on look but in a more refined way.
As far as accuracy goes, I have to admit that because I have owned original Auto Mags for years, I already had a hunch that it would “put ‘em where you point it”, and indeed it does. Unfortunately, there is not a variety of .44 AMP ammo from which to select a sample for testing – and this writer is aware of only one company making commercial ammunition – SBR. So, I reversified the logic of the standard test and used one load from two different guns – the new Auto Mag, and a 50-year-old original. “Age before Beauty”, as they say – so the little old lady from Pasadena was up first and put five shots into a very respectable group from a rest at 20 yards. Up next, the shiny new gun made an even tighter group. Given the addition of more than 2” of barrel, I was not surprised. I found the sights on the new Auto Mag to be a bit nicer and I felt it was easier to hold finer aim with the new gun.
Recoil is what you might expect from the .44 Auto Mag, and if you’re not sure what that even means – let me put it this way – it kicks like a mule. Don’t watch “Sudden Impact” and get the idea that the recoil you see Clint Eastwood experience with movie blanks is how it will be for you. I was given some good advice years ago that the Auto Mag likes loads just hot enough to reliably cycle the action. This was in reference to the old guns of course, but I suspect the same advice might be prudent today. While I have no doubt that this new gun is built stronger and could handle the occasional hunting load – for the long-term well being of gun and shooter, I would stick to a 240-grain bullet moving at about 1250 fps, and not much more. Even so, when fired with one hand the Auto Mag will unleash a sharp recoil energy that will soon have you back in a two-handed grip. That said, this 4 lb. mass of stainless steel does do a good job of smoothing out the otherwise hellish .44 magnum rimless cartridge.
Range work with the Auto Mag was not without some challenges and a few malfunctions. Intermittent feeding stoppages became less random and seemed to have a common source. Once I examined and eliminated a magazine that seemed to be the culprit – it was smooth sailing for the remainder of the day. Loose tolerances of today’s polymer-framed guns have greatly reduced the likelihood of this problem, but 1911 lovers will tell you that the first place you look to resolve many common errors is the magazine. The magazines for the Auto Mag are made of stainless steel with polymer followers. They are capable of holding 7 rounds. When loaded full, the spring is nearly at full compression – those last couple rounds go in tight. I found myself sticking to five most of the time, it made it easier on my thumbs, and helped me ration my ammo better. And while I’m giving advice, another very important discovery people make when they handle an Auto Mag for the first time is just how hard it is to pull that bolt back. And with the length of travel, the largeness of the grip frame, and difficulty fighting the strong springs – working a thumb into place to push up the bolt-stop is a feat for orangutans. It can be done – but you don’t want to be on candid camera when you try it. Solution – insert an empty magazine and seat it properly, then pull back on the cocking ears while pushing forward on the grip frame. You’ll thank me.
JUST MY OPINION
It is important to evaluate the Auto Mag in the proper context, as a historically significant gun that had a very limited original production, achieved notoriety – even iconic status, and is now being manufactured anew with full respect to the original design. To try and judge the gun by either the standards of a newly designed firearm or by the vintage classification of a relic, is to miss the point – in this writer’s opinion. It would be a similar discussion if someone were to re-make the broom handle Mauser in strict accordance to the original design, with all of its inherent positive and negative qualities – but as a newly manufactured functioning handgun. And because I am a collector of the Auto Mag and know a bit about the gun and its history, I had expectations based on that philosophy.
First and foremost – high marks indeed for remaining faithful to the original design of the gun, and avoiding the temptation to modernize the look or even improve on the cast-frame cosmetics. The patina of the Auto Mag is perfectly true to the original gun. The polish on the upper is optional – and while I am not usually one for the BBQ gun bling, I have to say that having seen it like this – that’s how I would want it. The only downside is that the cocking ‘ears’ also have the high polish which makes them very difficult to grasp. The Auto Mag is a son of a *** to cock under the best circumstances and that didn’t help. But I would suffer the difficulty during the occasional range trip to have it look the way it does. Besides, it is really the rear sight that prevents one from getting a manly grip on the bolt cocking piece without ripping out hunks of flesh. A perfect example of a design that could have been better in 1970, but if it were changed now, it would change the gun.
The bottom line on the new .44 Auto Mag is that it is almost exactly what I had hoped it would be – the next best thing to a time machine and access to Dirty Harry’s nightstand drawer. This gun is for people who want a .44 Auto Mag. The great news is that it truly is art you can shoot. It’s a stronger gun than the original. It cycles better. Its accuracy and power make it an interesting option for the handgun hunter (I happen to know that several hogs have already been taken with it). More than fifty years since its introduction to the market – the Auto Mag is now ready for the range as well as the display case.
Again, I am not an expert on the Auto Mag, but I have been fortunate to have learned from many over the years whom I consider to be experts. I’d like to thank Patrick Henry, Jeffrey Kelley, Brian Maynard, and Bruce Stark for their contributions to my knowledge.
Watch the full video review of this gun, with lots of shooting, here:
I will leave you with a quote that I really like about the original Auto Mag, from Bruce Stark’s book, “Auto Mag, The Pasadena Days – The Years 1966-1972” – “The scope of the efforts and the accomplishments that took place in such a very short amount of time are staggering. For an inexperienced company to design and manufacture a completely new semi-automatic handgun, made of exotic metals to shoot non-existent ammo to be sold to a non-existent market seems ill-advised to say the least. The end result was the most beautiful handgun ever to be made. The Auto Mag is an American classic.” Stark’s book is a must-have for all Auto Mag enthusiasts and is still available. In fact, you can even get a signed copy at a cost of just $45. If interested, contact Stark at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are interested in the history of the Auto Mag company and Harry Sanford, I highly recommend a video on the YouTube channel of Jeffrey Kelley – do a search for that.
Learn more about the new Auto Mag pistols and company, here: Auto Mag Ltd.