The .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum

By Chuck Hawks

.500 S&W
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

Smith & Wesson officially introduced the .500 S&W Magnum revolver cartridge at the 2004 SHOT Show and the companion X-frame double action revolver to shoot it. Cor-Bon did the cartridge development work and provided the first factory loaded ammunition for the new caliber. The combo is intended to appeal to big game hunters (or perhaps hunters with big pretensions).

There is always someone who insists on creating the biggest or most powerful cartridge, regardless of its actual necessity or utility. No doubt someone will someday shorten a .600 Nitro Express elephant rifle cartridge and create a revolver for the result. If so, someone else will then perform the same feat using a .700 NE cartridge. For now, the .500 S&W Magnum owns the title.

The .500 S&W was intentionally designed to be so large that existing revolvers could not be chambered for it, a prime example of corporate megalomania. An obsession with the grandiose taken to the point where it will negatively impact the future sales of the cartridge. S&W wanted to be the sole supplier of .500 S&W revolvers. However, Taurus subsequently offered a long frame version of their Raging Bull revolver in .500 S&W caliber.

Cor-Bon originally supplied .500 S&W ammo, but the caliber is now also loaded by Federal, Hornady and Winchester. .500 S&W ammo is expensive, because the market is small and it is expensive to produce.

Briefly, S&W's new Model 500 X-frame revolver looks like a greatly enlarged version of the Model 617 L-frame revolver. The finish is matte stainless steel. The big 5-shot cylinder has an extra ball detent latch to help insure that it stays closed. (All S&W cylinders rotate counter-clockwise, which means that they naturally try to rotate out of the frame.) The standard 8-3/8 inch barrel (4" and 10" barrels are also available) sports the full length underlug S&W copied from the Colt Python some years ago. There is a muzzle brake at the end of the barrel. The Model 500 revolver carries a 2013 list price over $1300. The K-frame size grip is finger grooved black rubber from Hogue. The Model 500 is actually a pretty conventional appearing S&W double action revolver, despite its oversize frame and undersize grip. However, it is huge, weighing some 72.5 ounces.

The .500 Magnum cartridge is based on a new case that looks like a scaled-up .454Casull case. It is a typical straight, rimmed case designed for use in revolvers. The rim diameter is .556", the body diameter is .528", the maximum case length is 1.625" and the overall cartridge length is 2.10". The actual bullet diameter is .500".

The SAAMI maximum average pressure for the cartridge is 60,000 psi. However, cartridges loaded to this pressure have a tendency to stick in the chamber after firing, so most factory loads have been scaled back to somewhat lower pressure, allegedly around 55,000 psi, for reliable ejection from revolvers.

Cor-Bon initially offered three factory loads for the .500 Mag. cartridge. They have since added additional loads, but the original loads are representative. The "moderate" load drives a 275 grain Barnes X-Bullet at a claimed muzzle velocity (MV) of 1665 fps with muzzle energy (ME) of 1688 ft. lbs. This load is presumably intended for deer and other medium size game animals. With almost twice the ME of typical .44 Magnum loads, it is no picnic to shoot.

A more powerful alternative is a 400 grain Hawk JSP bullet at a claimed MV of 1675 fps with ME of 2500 ft. lbs. That ought to get anyone's attention! This load is presumably intended for large game, from elk on up.

Then there is a 440 grain hard cast flat-point bullet at a claimed MV of 1625 fps and ME of 2580 ft. lbs. This bullet is not intended to expand and should offer the deepest penetration of the three bullets. Why Cor-Bon went with hard cast lead instead of a full metal jacket I have no idea. Be sure to buy your Outers "Foul Out" electro-chemical bore cleaning system and plenty of "Lead Out Plus" cleaning solution before shooting this load.

Kudos to Cor-Bon for clearly printing the bullet type and weight, velocity and energy on the end flap of every box of ammunition. I wish that all other manufacturers would do the same.

Here is some reloading data courtesy of the Hodgdon Powder Company for the 325 grain Barnes XPB bullet:

  • Starting Load - 42.0 grains of H-110 powder, MV 1813 fps, 40,000 PSI.
  • Maximum Load - 45.3 grains of H-110 powder, MV 1961 fps, 48,900 PSI.

These loads were developed in a 10" test barrel using Starline cases and Winchester LR primers. NOTE that Starline .500 S&W brass is specifically designed for use with large rifle primers. Large rifle primers should not be used in brass designed for large pistol primers, as the primers may protrude from the case when fully seated, causing an unsafe condition.

Needless to say, the muzzle blast of the .500 S&W Magnum is frightening. Never shoot this gun without maximum ear protection, not even when hunting. It is interesting to watch someons shoot a .500 revolver. Even in bright daylight, a couple feet of flame visibly shoots from the muzzle with each shot.

The recoil is, in a word, punishing. The shooter attempting to master a .500 S&W revolver should have a very strong grip, considerable forearm strength and understand proper shooting technique. This is not an easy caliber to master and anyone considering the purchase of a .500 S&W Magnum gun should insist on firing a few groups at the range before they seal the deal.

Very few shooters, including experienced handgun hunters, are going to be able to shoot this monster with the accuracy required for humane bullet placement on big game animals. So far, in the course of observing ordinary shooters at a local range with a new Model 500 S&W revolver, their groups seem to average in excess of 12" for three shots at 25 yards. At 100 yards, about 2/3 of the shots seem to miss the paper altogether. This is truly dismal shooting, the worst results I have seen in over four decades of shooting handguns and observing other handgunners in action.

Bullet placement, not raw power, is the key to killing power and a handgun hunter would be far better off with a .44 Mag. revolver that he could control than a .500 S&W that he cannot. If a handgun hunter cannot empty the cylinder of his revolver into a 9" paper plate at 100 yards, he needs to practice until he can, regardless of the power of his weapon.

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Copyright 2003, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.