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In the mid-1950s, Smith & Wesson announced to the public their new Model 29, chambered in .44 Magnum. This gun was the culmination of the work of Elmer Keith: Rancher, author, and firearms genius. This offering in .44 Magnum was successful with the big bore and hunting crowds, but failed to take off with the public.
I Blame Clint Eastwood
In 1971, Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan brought to the double-action Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44-Magnum revolver to the mainstream, with these words:
“’Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
From that moment, the success of the Model 29 was a lock. Many were purchased for full retail plus a nice premium. More than a few were only shot once before they were put up on a shelf along with the words “This is my Bear gun—I can’t bear to shoot it.”
Smith & Wesson was the king of big bore double action pistols until the .454 Casull came along. The .454 was developed in 1957 by Dick Casull and Jack Fullmer.
Second Place was Just the First Loser
In 2002, Smith & Wesson’s Herb Belin proposed the idea of developing a gun to regain the title of the world’s most powerful production revolver. The work would be split with Cor-Bon and the S&W X-Gun engineering team (Lead Design Engineer Brett Curry, along with Rich Mikuta and Tom Oakley).
The design requirements given to Cor-Bon were to launch a .50-cal projectile in the 400-grain range at around 1,600 feet per second (fps) and produce 2,200 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy. As a comparison, the vaunted .44 Magnum can push a roughly 250-grain bullet at around 1,300 fps with muzzle energy in the 1,000 ft.-lbs. range. The .50 AE round for comparison pushes a 300-grain projectile around 1,500 fps for 1,400 ft-lbs. or so of energy, while the .454 Casull pushes a 300-grain bullet at around 1,600 fps for a muzzle energy of 1,800 ft-lbs.
To meet those requirements, a whole new frame that could accommodate the new .500 round would have to be designed. The decision was made to create the X Frame. The design’s success and speedy creation were facilitated by the SOLIDWORKS design software.
The sheer weight of the resulting gun was impressive, ranging from 56 ounces to 82 ounces. The lockup was designed around a center pin in the rear of the cylinder, mated with a ball detent in the frame. The barrel was torqued into the frame to form a solid rear attachment point, and then a shroud was installed over the barrel. The butt of the gun was taken directly from the K/L-Frame’s round-butt frame design, to allow a firm grasp on the beastly thing. The grips for the new Model 500 were designed by Hogue: A full-wraparound type (verse the open rear common for K/L frame) with recoil-cushioning inserts. Smith & Wesson brought back the fourth side-plate screw that left in the late 1950s to stabilize the revolvers larger side plate.
My First Time
I distinctly remember the first opportunity I got to shoot the X-Frame. I was at a local indoor range that was hosting a Smith & Wesson Day event in late 2004. For a mere $10, one could fire three rounds through their choice of the .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum or the 460 XVR. I happily threw down a crisp $20 bill and took my turn on each of the guns. The .500 Magnum was clearly the big dog, and I was sure that I had experienced the new King of the Hill, but I still had questions.
A number of years later, while on a hog hunt with several members of the Chicago Police Department SWAT team, one of my cohorts hefted out his 8.38-inch X-Frame. Naturally, we set up bowling pins and I got to take my turn on the big bruiser. I was able to control the gun, and you’ll be relieved to hear that we vanquished the bowling pins and suffered no casualties in the battle. Needless to say, the bowling pins were only able to absorb one direct hit from the 300+ grain projectiles we were launching… but it was a tense skirmish all the same.
I’ve fired countless guns over the years, but I vividly remember these two stories because this is a gun of consequence. Its sheer weight and size alone command respect, but the ability to combine both speed of (up to 1,800 fps) and mass (up to 500 grains) on target makes the .500 Magnum a truly awesome weapon.
When the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance to test the 4-inch Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum. This gun actually has a 3-inch barrel with a choice of two interchangeable muzzle brakes that are easily installable via the included Allen wrench. Although I would hesitate to call it a “carry gun,” the 4-inch barrel on this one makes it more practical as a portable howitzer for self-defense—possibly in deep bear country? The trigger breaks at 11 lbs. 8 ozs. double action, and 4 lbs., 8 ozs. single action.
The 4-inch 500 Magnum is equipped nicely with a rear adjustable sight mated with a black front post with a red insert. The top of the barrel shroud is adorned with milled lines that match those on the inset rib of the rear adjustable sight. There was only the slightest play on the cylinder, both side to side and end to end, and the cylinder was timed precisely with a crisp lockup. This big gun was not clumsy at all; it felt and handled like a well-proportioned precision machine. The custom grips designed by Hogue for this gun felt good in the hand, and I appreciated the wraparound design even before shooting the gun.
- Chambering: .500 S&W Mag.
- Barrel: 4 inches
- OA Length: 10.25 inches
- Weight: 56 ounces
- Grips: Synthetic
- Sights: Adjustable rear, red ramp front
- Action: Double-action
- Finish: Stainless steel
- Capacity: 5
- MSRP: $1,369.00
What I Wanted to Know
Flashing forward now to late 2016, this gun has been available for well over a decade, and the lore surrounding the brute force of this massive handgun is legion. There have been plenty of tales about what this gun is capable of doing, both to the lackadaisical shooter and the intended target. I decided I needed to sort through some and separate fact from fiction.
I’ve read stories about people who left their thumbs in front of the forcing cone, and as a result had their skin peeled completely away. I’ve heard about people pulling the 500 as a last-ditch effort to repel an animal who was swapping the roles of prey and predator. I also wanted to try shooting the gun one-handed to see what effect that would have on both accuracy and the well-being of said hand. I have been told that the muzzle blast from the ports on the end of the barrel were extremely violent towards anything around or above the muzzle.
Some Sort of Gun Review
Knowing that this was not going to be my typical gun review, my trip to the range was going to involve shooting different kinds of media. I first selected my round, which would be the Federal Premium 275 Grain Barnes Expander, which lists a velocity of 1,660 ft./s at the muzzle. Keep in mind that this ammunition runs about $3.25 a round.
My next task was to gather the test medium necessary for what I had in mind. This required a trip to the local grocery store, where I purchased hotdogs, soft aluminum pie plates, gallon jugs of water, and cases of 12-ounce bottled water. Then I loaded up several blocks of clear ballistic gel, cardboard targets, and every pair of shooting gloves that I could find.
As I pulled out of my driveway to head to the range, I was thinking to myself … “This is by far the strangest kit that I have ever loaded out for a gun review.”
Boy, Did I Find Out
The first order of the day was to chronograph the rounds and determine just how much velocity the 4-inch Smith & Wesson X frame would deliver. I set up the Caldwell Ballistic Precision Chronograph G2; I got my first look at the G2 at the Shot Show earlier this year. This is a revolutionary new design that mounts the lights underneath and the recording instruments on top. This simple solution resolves many of the problems that I’ve had in the past when trying to get the right amount of light above the windows. It also came with its own tripod and paired via Bluetooth to my iPad, which made recording the velocity data almost effortless compared to what I had endured for years with my other chronographs.
The results of chronograph testing on the round revealed a consistent velocity of 1,532 feet per second, with very little deviation from the 4-inch sample. I believe that with the longer barrels available, the advertised 1,660 ft./s of the Federal Premium 275-grain Barnes Expander would be quite achievable.
I wanted to do some accuracy testing next, and I was looking for a more real-world test than your typical bench test. I settled on a distance of about 21 feet and fired the gun first with both hands, then strong hand only, and then weak hand only. The accuracy was more than acceptable, but I would be remiss if I did not mention that the robust recoil supplied by the gun detracted from my work. Once you’ve fired about 25 rounds from this gun, you’ve had all you want for the day. The five-shot groups that I was able to turn in were about 1.5”. They were a little low and left, and I’ll readily admit that that was all me. I think with a rest the gun would shoot 1” at 50 yards without a doubt.
I’ve found that a couple of good benchmarks for a round’s power are containers of water and ballistic gel. I set up seven one-gallon containers of water and let loose from about 10 feet. After the shower was over, I found the Barnes 27-grain solid copper bullet lodged in the fourth plastic jug. Next, I hurled a round into a case of 24-12-oz. water bottles to see how robust of a shock the round carried. The .500 took out 14 of the 24 bottles, with only six being in the path of the round.
The next test was to deliver a round into a 10% 16x6x6 Clear Ballistic Gel, as per the FBI standards. Knowing that this shot was going to anything but standard, I lined two of the 16-inch blocks end to end. This resulted in the round coming to a rest 3½ inches into the second block. 19.5 inches of penetration and the wound cavity were impressive enough, but I wanted to try one more test. Specifically, I wanted to get a visual of the results of a contact shot. I felt that this would somewhat replicate firing on a predator that was upon you. I placed the muzzle against the first block and let loose the round with one hand on the gun. The blast launched the gun backwards almost uncontrollably. The block of gel catapulted into the air and flipped end over end, bounced off the table and landed a few feet away! The projectile came to rest in the second block of gel, at almost the exact same spot the first round settled on.
Finally, it was time to poke at some stories I have read on the internet. The first one was the end of a thumb being blown off and peeled to the bone by the blast from the forcing cone. The test I had devised was to insert a ¼-inch metal rod into a hotdog and fire the gun while holding it to the side of the gun. The results were swift and certain: It peeled the hotdog back about an inch, and the force was substantial. This was no rumor—had I put my thumb there instead, I have no doubt that I’d have had a bad day.
It was time to put the legendary muzzle blast to the test. I wanted an idea of the force of the blast, not just the fire, so I wrapped a pie pan over the top of the muzzle. I had to watch the video to get an understanding of what had happened—it was like a metal snowstorm.
I was hoping to find an urban legend in the mix, but this gun and round delivered on every outlandish claim that I could find.
The Bottom Line
The S&W 500 is clearly every bit the gun you’ve heard it is—I was unable to find any evidence of exaggeration. Now, this gun is big, heavy and expensive to shoot, but it definitely delivers what most handguns will never approach. It can clearly be used as a backup gun for any large game. It can undoubtedly be used as a backcountry self-defense gun for any kind of predator that you would encounter. However, this gun is not to be treated with anything but a healthy dose of respect; it will punish you for the smallest lapse in control. If you have a need for this gun, there are probably only a few other replacements available to you. I suspect that the vast majority of these live calmly in a safe, only to be drawn forth when absolutely necessary: To establish who at the range has the biggest, baddest handgun. When the S&W 500 does make its rare appearances on the range, it is definitely a smile-maker. Everyone that I offered the chance to took me up on the opportunity to take a shot, and even though it does buck, none regretted taking their turn on the X-Frame.
So, if you want to get one, you can be assured you are getting one of the most interesting revolvers on the market, and one that harnesses an unbelievable amount of power. So, mind those fingers, hang on to that grip and trip off this portable howitzer on the range or in the field. You will not be disappointed.
To learn more, visit https://smith-wesson.com/firearms/model-sw500-4.
To purchase on GunsAmerica.com, click this link: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.htm?T=SMITH%20%26%20WESSON%20500<id-all=1&as=365&cid=645&ns=0&numberperpage=50&.
I own a 500 Smith with the 4″ barrel (acually 3 in. because the muzzel break is an inch) and its the best hand gun I have ever fired,accuracy is second to none,trigger is great,the Houge grips are just what it needs so dont even think about dolling it up with nice wood grips,it kicks but it wont hurt you,double ear protection required,keep your wienie scratchers away from the cylinder and muzzle brake,load your own as soon as you can or it will bankrupt you.I loaded up some Hornady 350 XTP hollow points with A 5744 powder and it gives good accuracy and is not hard on your hand but still runs 1400 fps and is a pleasure to shoot,even a girl could handle it.Full house 500 grainers are strictly for business only so be forewarned but there is nothing on earth that walks crawls or runs that the 500 gn. load cant take down with a single shot.
I own an 8 3/8 S/W 500 topped with a leupold FX ll 4×28 silver I hand load everything I shoot except for 22s.
this BABY gets a Sierra 350 gr. JHP #5350 with 37.3 gr Lil Gun Power 1600 fps 1990 ft lbs. This load can do it all. I retired my 44cal. contender and i can say ONE WELL PLACED SHOT or NONE practice is the key, shot hot don’t flinch. I’ve got it to $.65 a round not not bad.
Close to 400 rounds and still going. Oh i forgot I’M 72 yrs. young and enjoy every day the LORD gives me.
.500 s@w is nice but i would love it in a rifle style is it possible
Very well penned/video article, yes the 500 is a beast. I went of the XVR 460 instead (8″) due in part the ability to send 45 Colt, 454 Casull and 460 Hornady (H developed this round in conjunction with S&W). Now I’m not implying the 460 is better then the 500 but both are to be treated with respect, not for the faint of heart. Having taken many white tail in the past 7 years the XVR was the way to go. Granted either will take anything with jaws, claws, paws or hooves globally. I topped mine off with a AimPoint 9000SC 2 moa “0” at 50yds and shoots flat out to 100 with 200 gr FTX a couple of bucks will attest to that. Not quit sure if the 500 would be consistent out that far. They both are for the most part identical in appearance and hefty weight. Speaking to the ammo cost at $3.00 +/- for the 500 2 boxes of hot Hornady under $60.00 “twice the bang for the buck”! I would agree as a back up side arm in bear country the 500 would be the best choice. No mater how you count it a hand cannon is “We The People Hunting”.
I prefer my howitzers on wheel. Mine shoots a six pound ball over a mile.
I have the “big boy” long barrel. Put an EoTech sight on it. I have taken 3 deer with it. Loud but doesn’t kick any more than my 45’s and definitely not as bad as my 357 S&W airlight carry gun. Fun to shoot and impressive to look at and hear but expensive to shoot
I’ve shot 454+44 a lot. I shot the 500 three times. Laid it down. Have not shot it anymore. This is not a pussy cat. If i was in bear country a lot. I would be carry it. Not saying that a 454+44 would not work. They are good to.
I remember when the 500 was only in magazines and we attended John Linebaughs conference in Cody WY and Smith & Wesson sent 3 guns and 4 cases of ammo my wife shot it turn after turn she said my 5 1/2 45LC 335grn hard cast over 22.5 of 296 were about the same and that’s before they beefed up the springs she would fire double action and two would go off or fire one and it would skip around so you got 4 a click then a bang it was fun to be around Kent Lamont the human computer for everything gun and reloading
I just want to say that I like the s&w 500 but I advise people if you are carrying other smaller caliber hand guns that you shoot them first before shooting the 500 because of the recoil from the 500
I have 1 comment. In the dirty Harry movie When Eastwood says ‘But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”, in the original version Eastwood says ‘ you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, buck?”
Never shot a .500, but I’d give it a go just to fire it and see. The .44 Mag is at the top of my recoil tolerance to shoot on a regular basis, if stoked with hot loads like Buffalo Bore or Garrett Ammo. If I need more power than that, it’s rifle time….. .300 Weatherby, Marlin .45/70 Guide Gun and CZ 550 Safari in .458 Lott in the safe.
I’m 62 years old, and I love my 500. It’s accurate and deadly! I also have some light loads that my wife shoots with ease. I’ve bagged a few white tails with it, and they crumbled on impact. Granted, shot placement has a lot to do with it, but I’ve known friends with 44s that never recovered their animal. With the 500, never been an issue!
I to the range, and it’s no fun shooting next to a hand cannon. The owner of the Smith talked me into shooting it, after hearing the price per round I had to be coaxed. The human sillouette target was 15 yds was thinking about the Recoil and I took a perfect Weaver stance. No shaking, deep breath . Hit theat sillouette in the middle of the forehead. That was it quit while I am ahead, didn’t want to show anyone up.
Here’s a true story. Different pistol range. A nerdy looking guy stood next to me with a different hand cannon. DE 50. He spent about 20 minutes setting up then hanging his target. The first shot he bloodied his hand. He took his marbles and left.
Well if DNA geneticists every clone T-REX this .500 will have a target niche 🙂
The gun is basically an engineering exercise.
I have shot a large variety of big bore handguns. One of my friends brought this gun over to the house one day to play with. He loaded it with Hornady XTP I think, the ones with the red tip and handed it to me. I never even thought about wether to use both hands or one. So I shot it just like my .480 Ruger Super Redhawk, one handed. I fired all five rounds in less than 10 seconds. It is defiantly a gun you don’t want that other hand anywhere near the end of the cylinder, the people beside me that wanted to see what is was like moved back about ten feet behind after that first shot. It’s report was deafening without hearing protection, and the fireball flash out of it would make getting back on target at dusk or night almost impossible. I didn’t have on any shooting gloves, and it stung the palm of my hand for several minutes. It was about like catching a baseball hit line drive with your bare hand! He had brought three boxes of shells with him and after firing all five rounds I went to hand it back to him and he hands me five more rounds. I reloaded it and fired them, and finished the whole box off by myself. After shooting all 20 rounds my hand stung for an hour and looked kind of raw, but damn what fun!!! No one else there would shoot it one handed, and I never even thought about wether to use both hands or not I just shot it like everything else. They couldn’t believe I shot the whole box with my strong hand. Been trying to get him to sell it to me about every time I see him. He was in a accident at work an is unable to shoot it, but he still will not sell me that 4 inch howitzer. I loved shooting it, and can’t wait to get him to sell it to me!!
Gary (Shooter) Shankle
Why don’t you just buy one then?
If I remember correctly, the instructions that came with the gun said that one brake was for lead projectiles and the other was for jacketed projectiles.
They did a test like this on Myth Busters. The guys replicated a human hand by sewing drumsticks together and placed it by the cylinder gap. It broke the drum stick (index finder drum stick) and the only thing holding them together was a tendon. I would have to say you would not make that mistake twice.
It’s called SELF-CORRECTING BEHAVIOR! LOL!
That’s one impressive Bear gun there folks.
Thank God there are no thousand pound bears here in sunny Florida. Maybe some hybrid thousand pound Hogs, but no big bears or moose or elk.
That being said my trusty old pre lock .44 mag model 629 is more than sufficient for my old hands to operate. I gotta say that the 8″&3/8″ths barrel brings the target into focus well, and the kick is not problematic.
But we DO have some HUGE gators….just sayin’…
I got the 10.5″ performance center version of the .500…awesome.
When people see the rounds…next to a puny .45 …they are pretty amazed
Yep, I remember pulling into the parking lot at the employment agency in 1987 and had to leave because an eleven foot gator was hanging out in the parking lot. As I recall that one went 900 pounds.
Interesting reading, but mentioning cylinder gap in the headline then omitting said information entirely is BAD form. All the more so given that it’s a simple thing to measure. What, no feeler gauges for $4?
Cylinder Gap ‘Blast’ my friend, which was covered.
He blew up the hot dog to show what happens …did you even read the article?
I don’t have, nor have I ever fired, the .500.
I own a long-barreled (8 3/8″ ?) .460, and have fired it a few times. Have a scope on it, and a chest rig holster….for deer hunting (I’m a decent shot, but too impatient to be a great hunter – so ‘deer hunting’ is actually more of ‘enjoying a walk through the woods carrying a gun during deer season,’ but I digress). ANYWAY – the .460 is accurate, and has plenty of capability (accuracy and power) for thoughtful 100 yard shots.
At the target range (indoor range), shooting it gets attention (like a thunderclap in the room).
As enhancements, I had the gun converted to single action, and the trigger bits replaced with tool steel parts. Cylinder timed, too. It is now a 2 1/2 lb single action target-quality gun.
Also had it polished and engraved – I bring this up (1) to brag, and (2) to address the frame durability – the engraver said the frame was the hardest, toughest frame he’d ever attempted to engrave. Tougher than the Freedom Arms .454. And he will NEVER engrave another.
It’s an heirloom piece.
Excellent review of one of my favorite handguns. The .500 S&W is an awesome cartridge. If you are interested in extracting more power from it with less damage to your hands, try it in one of our leverguns. Our Big Horn Armory Model 89 is chambered in .500 S&W. That particular Federal load achieves 2238 fps in our 18″ barrel. That is just shy of 3100 ft-lbs of muzzle energy. There are a number of factory loads that reach into the 4000+ ft-lbs range. One even gets over 4600 Ft-lbs.
The .500 S&W really achieves its potential in the longer barrels of our lever guns without the cylinder gap.
yeah but, I can buy two S&W 500’s (one for each hand) and a bunch of ammo for what a Big Horn levergun costs.
Good lord, that Model 89 carbine is amazing…I’d love to pick one up. But the MSRP makes my little 4″ .500 look like a thrift store bargain.
The frame looks too weak for extended life, same problem the Mod 29 had/has with bear loads…
Thank you for your great, informative article and accompanying video of a super impressive revolver, Jon! I congratulate Smith & Wesson (and CorBon) for their successful effort in regaining the title of the most powerful (double action) handgun on the planet! That said, I and my old, arthritic hands have absolutely NO desire to ever shoot a .500 S&W revolver! One hundred rounds?! To quote Rudyard Kipling, “You’re a better man than I, Gunga Din!” 🙂
Not an OLd Mans pistol
Not an old man’s gun? I’m 71 and love to shoot the 500 mag. I’ve found it to be a very accurate revolver and fun to shoot. I also enjoy shooting the Desert Eagle 50 AE.
Well, I am only 56. I have shot a 500 S&W revolver a friend owns several times at a range, and we owned (and shot) a 50AE Dessert Eagle. I will not likely fire either of these cartridges in a PISTOL again. I have kept the Ruger SBH in .44 for whatever might require a really large pistol round, it is small enough so sufficient practice with my own cast loads does not injure me.
They are both great carbine rounds, but I have no grizzly bear or T-Rex in my neighborhood requiring that much cartridge for a carry pistol…
If “more is allways better” floats yer boat, go for it! I still have about 80 rounds of factory 50AE and some 1X brass, if anyone wants to buy it?
Capacity: 6 ? Really?
It hold 5 rounds trust me more than enough rounds to get the job done!!!
Yeah” He is counting 1 in the chamber :-).
I have (2) S & W 500’s. the 4″ and the 8 1/2″ version. I got ripped off both of them only have 5 round cylinders……