September 30, 2020
By Patrick Sweeney
The year was 1982, and I was involved in a lot of endeavors. I was doing radio broadcasting, where I had learned the motto: “Some is good, more is better, too much is not enough.” I was working as a part-time gunsmith, learning that most customers problems were created through a lack of maintenance, and that if someone ever came up with a firearm that didn’t need TLC, they would make a mint. Plus, I was President of my IPSC club (this was before the USPSA was formed, we, like all clubs then, were direct members of IPSC) where I learned that if there was an advantage to be gained through design, modification or handloading, someone would do it. If the advantage was real, whoever did it first had a leg up for a short while.
And Magnum Research came out with the Desert Eagle.
At the time, the prevailing locking system used by pretty much all pistol manufactures was the tilting barrel Browning system. Oh, there were a few rotating barrel designs extant, mostly French. (There’s apparently something irresistible to the French designers about rotating pistol barrels, and a few other odd design approaches. Go figure.) What pistols that were out there that didn’t use the Browning design were blowbacks, because not every pistol cartridge needed a locked breech.
The Desert Eagle was and is different. It uses a reversed spigot, a short-stroke piston that drives the slide. The closest I can think of that might be familiar is the Ruger Mini-14, but with the piston on the slide, not the operating rod. The gas venting out of the barrel pushes the piston, and since the piston is attached to the slide, the slide goes back, it cams open and takes with it on its journey a four-lugged bolt. The lugs are spaced as if there should be five of them, but one location is taken up by the extractor.
The cammed-open bolt is held in place by a plunger that locks it in the open position, so the bolt can’t move around and get out of alignment when it is then driven back as the slide cycles. Having extracted and ejected the empty case, it moves forward, slides a fresh round out of the magazine, and begins the closing process.
On closing, the bolt locator (the part that keeps the bolt fixed in place when open) is pressed back into the slide by the barrel, unlocking the bolt and allowing it to cam closed and lock, driven by the slide.
Why do it this way? Simple: in other rotating bolt designs, the bolt is kept from rotating out of alignment by receiver rails, or a cam track, or the cam lugs of the operating rod. All of those approaches take up space and add weight. On a rifle or light machine gun, the extra weight is no big deal. On a handgun it is a big deal. The spring-loaded plunger, working as the bolt stabilizer, is compact, light weight and reliable. But why do all this at all? Power.
In 1982, we were told that the world’s most powerful handgun was the .44 Magnum and we had little cause not to believe it. Oh, the .454 Casull had been invented/developed 25 years earlier, but it wouldn’t be chambered in a commercial handgun until 1983. The .475 Linebaugh debuted in 1988. The .357 Remington Maximum, with more horsepower on paper, like the Casull wasn’t going to show up until 1983. We’d have to wait until the 21st century to take advantage of the .480 Ruger, .500 Special, .460 S&W, the .500 S&W, and other heavy-hitters. In 1982, the .44 Magnum was the big dog. If you wanted to build a self-loading pistol chambered in .44 Magnum, you weren’t going to do it with a Browning tilt-barrel design. Cartridge mavens will recall that the .45 Winchester Magnum was introduced by Winchester in 1979. However, when you could find anything chambered in it, they would be T/C single-shot pistols, the rarely-encountered Wildey pistol which came out in the late 1970s, and somewhat more common LAR Grizzly pistols. When the Desert Eagle hit the market, .44 Magnum handguns were as common as dirt compared to any contender for “most powerful.”
The requirement to use the .44 Magnum brought with it other design restraints. Well, there’s the rim. Designed to work in revolvers, the .44 Magnum has a rim that is .0057" larger in diameter than the case (.514" vs. .457", nominally). This means a special magazine, built to both accommodate the rim, and to prevent the upper round of any pair in the stack getting its rim behind the lower one. The length of the cartridge, at 1.610", exceeds that of the .45 ACP, (1.275") and as a result, the magazine has to be longer. This results in a really big grip area, but if you want the power, you have to take the grip. Still, for all the adjustments needed, the Desert Eagle grip isn’t enormous, and can be managed by most shooters. When I pulled this one out of the box, I was reminded, and pleasantly so, as to how well the designers managed to fit a frame around a magazine that holds .44 Magnum cartridges.
The action is a single action, with a firing pin blocking and sear disengagement safety mounted on the slide.
The end result is a pistol that is perhaps too large to be considered a belt pistol, but certainly one powerful enough to hunt with.
One advantage of the design is the modularity of it. The barrel is a readily-removable assembly, with its own caliber-specific gas system parts. By removing the barrel, you can readily replace it with one of a different length, profile or caliber. If the caliber you switch to has the same rim diameter as the bolt installed, then you don’t even have to swap that assembly. Magazines are caliber-specific, even within rim diameters. As a result, you can swap to a different barrel in the same caliber, swap to another-caliber barrel with just the barrel, or have to swap barrel, bolt and magazine.
You Get All That In One Pistol
At the time, the Desert Eagle came on the scene, I was deep into IPSC competition, starting bowling pin shooting, and had given up on metallic silhouette. I had no real use for a .44 Magnum, and had even been doing my M-S competition with an S&W M-57, in .41 Magnum. (I had the reloading setup necessary to load .41s, so that was an easy call in the early days when M-S was a competition option.)
The various shops I worked in, however, carried them, and they sold well.
The first two movies that I recall seeing the Desert Eagle in them were Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando and actor Lance Henricksen using one in Near Dark: “I rode for the south.” After that, it was all over the place, with the original model and subsequent versions having over 100 movie and television appearances that I can find.
Then, in 1988, the Desert Eagle got supercharged, with the .50 Action Express. We were just talking about caliber conversions, right? OK, so you take a regular .44 Magnum bolt for the Desert Eagle, and forward of it you design the largest-diameter case the barrel can hold, taking the largest-diameter bullet Federal regulations permit. That means a .500" diameter bullet, and to hold that bullet, the case had to be larger in diameter than the rim was.
A brief aside: the original intention was for the .50 AE to use a bullet of .510" diameter, but the way such things were measured, the ATF determined it was a “Destructive Device” and would require onerous taxing and paperwork. So, the cartridge was re-designed to use a .500" diameter bullet. That’s why the .50 AE case has a visible taper to it, instead of being a straight cylinder. And from the viewpoint of a gunsmith and designer, I have to think the taper is good, allowing for easier extraction.
The .50 AE has it all over the .44 Magnum, pushing a heavier bullet (300 to 325 grains for the .50 AE) faster than the .44 Magnum (1,450 to 1,600 fps for the .50 AE) and let me tell you, you know it. As far as energy, the .50 AE delivers about 400 ft. lbs. more energy than the highest .44 Magnum loads. The .50 AE is a cartridge you can shoot more than a few times because it is chambered in a self-loading pistol. Were it doing the same work in a revolver, it would either have to be massively larger, or subject you to onerous recoil.
Now, nearing the end of the second decade of the 21st century, we have a new cartridge for the Desert Eagle; the .429 Desert Eagle. The process is simple: take the huge .50 AE case, neck it down to accept a .430" diameter bullet, make the neck long enough to provide a secure hold on the bullet, and crank in a sturdy, sharp-angled shoulder for positive headspacing. Yes, it uses the same bullets as the .44 Magnum, but the case has greater capacity, and the Desert Eagle can readily handle higher pressures than DA revolvers chambered in .44 Magnum should you wish to do that. The resultant velocities are predicted to be 1,750 fps for the 210-grain bullet, and 1,625 fps for the 240 grain bullet. Obviously, cast bullets need not apply, jacketed only.
The 429 uses the same magazines as the .50 AE, so changing calibers is simple. With one frame, one slide, two sets of magazines and three barrels, you could shoot .44 Magnum, 429 Desert Eagle and .50 Action Express all in the same range session.
The 429 Desert Eagle that arrived here at Gun Abuse Central is all-stainless. The steel frame, complete with a Picatinny-spec rail on the bottom of the dust cover, came with black rubber grips. Inside there is a seven-shot .50 AE magazine. As mentioned, magazines are a caliber-specific item, made for the parent cartridge. So, if you have another Desert Eagle, in .50 AE, then the magazine from that one will work in your 429 and vice-versa.
The frame has the magazine catch, a button behind the trigger guard on the left side, and a slide stop lever. All right where you expect them to be, and made of blued steel. The barrel lock pin and barrel lock, needed for disassembly, are also made in blued steel. The back of the frame sports a large tang, to protect your hand from the slide in recoil, and to distribute the felt recoil over a larger area. And with any Desert Eagle except the .357 Magnum, there will be recoil.
The slide is also stainless, and has cocking serrations on the rear, and the safety lever. That one is blued steel like the other small parts on the 429, along with the sights. On the safety, up is Fire and down is Safe. As an added reminder, there’s a small dot milled into the safety recess on the slide, filled with red paint. See red, things are ready for noise-making. Inside the slide, the bolt is carbon steel, for maximum strength even if it means ease of cleaning has to be a secondary detail.
The barrel is the big deal, and the determinative part as far as caliber is concerned. As-shipped, the 429 DE-chambered Desert Eagle has a six-inch stainless barrel, with an accessory rail on top, and ports for the muzzle brake on the front end. If you want a different look, Magnum Research offers extra barrels in Polished Chrome, Brushed Chrome, Burnt Bronze and Black. However, only the stainless steel barrel has the muzzle brake ports. If you already have a Mk19 Desert Eagle chambered in .50 AE, then simply acquiring one of those 429 DE barrels from Magnum Research gets you into the .429 game. If your Desert Eagle is a .44 magnum, you’ll need a barrel and magazine to switch to .429 DE Magnum.
Loading is easy. Wrestle the cartridges into the magazine. It holds seven rounds. Slide the magazine up into the frame until it locks in place. Keeping the safety on, pull back the slide its full extent (this is not going to take an inconsequential effort) and then release it. Alternately, you could retract the slide when the empty magazine is in place, locking the slide to the rear. Then, after you have inserted the loaded magazine, pull back the slide to allow the slide stop to release, and then let go of the slide.
Do not ease the slide forward. You do not want to abuse any firearm, but easing the slide forward, “babying” it, is just asking for inconsistent or incomplete lockup and unreliable chambering of that first round. Let it go, it is built to work that way.
Before we get to the shooting, and since a big advantage of the Desert Eagle is the easy barrel swap, let’s get to just how you do that.
Make sure your Desert Eagle is unloaded. Then lower the hammer fully. Now gently cock the hammer only partially, until you hear and feel the click of it settling into the semi-cocked position. Move the safety lever to the Safe position. Now, press the barrel lock pin on the left side, and once it is depressed, rotate the barrel lock on the right side counter-clockwise.
Pull the barrel forward a smidge and then lift it up out of the frame. There are paired slots cut into the slide, for clearance for the barrels rear lug. You may have to move the barrel forward or back a bit to get the lug to line up with the slots, to lift the barrel out.
If all you are doing is swapping barrels, take the other one, press it down into the frame where the first once came out, and push it back until it seats. Then, holding it back, rotate the barrel lock back to the locked position. Do a function check to make sure it all went back as it should.
If you are disassembling to clean, then once the barrel is out, press the slide forward and off of the frame. Remove the recoil spring unit. The dual-spring, coiled steel spring assembly is a self-contained unit, and won’t come apart when you remove it. The recoil spring assembly has a tab on the front cross bar, and that tab keeps the piston in place in the slide. Once the recoil assembly is out you can remove the piston. Once apart, scrub the grunge off. Use the Magnum Research 5-in-1 tool to ream out the piston cylinder. If you were shooting .44 Magnums in your multi-caliber session, and your buddy thought it clever to use his cast-bullet handloads, this is where you take his name in vain.
Reassembly is the reverse, with a few tips: insert the piston and then use the recoil spring plate to hold it there. Having the slide upside-down at this point helps. Once you see it, it is easy to remember. Plus, If you get the parts assembled incorrectly, you can’t fit the slide and barrel back on in final assembly, so if you get there and it won’t go, don’t force it. It might have slipped out of alignment. Stop, back up, check assembly, and do it correctly. After you’ve done it a few times it will be second nature, and you won’t have to double-check. (Not that double-checking is a bad thing, mind you.)
Ok, the shooting part. In the original .50 AE, the Desert Eagle is a brute. On previous shooting sessions with the .50 AE, I was reminded of my experiences with a pair of Mustang Mach 1s, 1971 versions, back in the day. One was owned by a fellow Tae Kwon Do student, and his sported a 351 Cleveland engine. It was quick, handy, controllable and fun. My dad was an engineer at Ford, and he checked out a Mach 1 from the test pool for me to try, a different 429 than this Desert Eagle. I went out on the weekend to street race with it, and before I had even gotten to the known racing locations, I’d almost put it into the ditch twice. It had too much power and not enough weight in back to hold the tires down. Off the light, if you were careful, it went like a rocket. If you goosed it too much, it was like and out-of-control rocket. I spent that night just tooling around, getting admiring looks. I tried putting enough weight in the back to give the tires traction, but by the time I’d added enough weight, the balance was wrong and I really didn’t want to be pushing it to the max on the street. (Dad had three rules: Don’t race for pink slips. Don’t dent it more than we could fix it. Don’t lose.)
The Desert Eagle in .50 AE reminds me of that 429 Mach 1. Just too much. At least for me, too much recoil. I can’t shoot a .50 AE quickly, not like other big bores. The 429 Desert Eagle, on the other hand, reminds me of my friend’s 351 Mach 1. There’s power, and you know it. But you can control it, and you can enjoy it. The noise is impressive, the recoil is pushy but not oppressive, and the velocity. Oh my, the velocity.
And the trigger was a surprise. It has been a long time since I’ve handled a Desert Eagle for more than just a quick familiarization. The trigger is almost like a rifle trigger. There’s a couple of pounds of take-up with movement, then the trigger stops moving. Once you press with a couple more pounds the hammer falls. It is an entirely live-able, and useable trigger. A bullseye shooter might not like it, but then you don’t shoot bullseye with a Desert Eagle.
I was also surprised by the recoil and ejection, or rather, the lack of each. The .429 DE magnum pushes rather than smacks, and the push is not at all like sumo push of the .50 AE. I was prepared to have to climb the side berm to retrieve the brass, but the 429 DE simply flipped it out to the side a few feet, and dropped the empties in a neat pile.
The ammunition is loaded for Magnum Research by HSM in Montana, in Starline brass and with Sierra bullets, and comes in boxes of 20 rounds.
The price is $2,143, which is a not-inconsequential sum. However, what you get for that is power, and lots of it. And status, as the guy at the range who shoots the pistol with the most power. I said pistol, because there are handguns that dispose of more power (however you care to calculate it) but they are single-shots or revolvers. There, you get one, or five or six shots, and with revolvers, single action is slow and double-action isn’t exactly fast. With the Desert Eagle in 429 DE, you’ve got eight shots as quickly as you can get your sights on-target.
Why would you want the 429 DE Magnum? Well, if you like to post big velocity numbers at the gun club, then I can see reloading the .429 DE Magnum with some Hornady 180 grain XTPs, and seeing what powder lets you break the 2,000 fps barrier. If you want to hunt with something controllable, then a 240 grain soft point, or a bonded bullet, pushed at the 429 DE Magnum velocity is likely to shoot through a moose.
The one drawback, and it is a minor one, is that in my home State, in order for a handgun to qualify as a hunting handgun in handgun-only areas, it has to use a straight-wall case. That may well be the case for you as well, check your DNR regs before you go out hunting. You’ll certainly have the power needed for whitetail.
I was at the range testing the Desert Eagle in 429, when our Editor called me. In discussing the 429, he wanted me to put some optic on it, to really wring out the accuracy at 50 yards. Alas, the only optic I had with me was a 5-25X rifle scope, which not only was unsuited (not enough eye relief) but the mount it was in wouldn’t even fit onto the Desert Eagle. Yes, I tried. He need not have worried, as the pistol shot well, and even produced a rightful bragging group. I’m glad I didn’t stop to see how the groups were doing, because if I had, I likely would have thrown a shot out of that particular group, in the excitement. With irons I don’t think I could shoot one-inch center-to-center groups consistently, but put a low to medium power optic on the Desert Eagle, and then this could well be the norm.
For hunting put a durable red-dot sight on the accessory rail machined into the barrel (and that assembly does not lose its zero when you take it off for cleaning, I might point out) and you would be well-served in the swamps, thickets and small beanfield clearings in your States rifle-hunting zone.
Being all stainless (at least the major parts) you won’t have any problem getting it coated with your favorite aftermarket finish, should you decide that stainless is just a bit too flashy for you, or the hunting fields.
Magnum Research .429 Desert Eagle Specs
- Type: Gas-operated pistol
- Caliber: .429 DE
- Capacity: 7+1 rounds
- Barrel: 6"
- Length: 10.75"
- Height: 6.25"
- Weight: 4 lbs 5 oz
- Trigger: 4.5 lbs
- Finish: Stainless steel
- MSRP: $2,143
- Maker: Magnum Research
Desert Eagle Ammo Ballistics Comparison
Magnum Research .429 Desert Eagle Accuracy Chart