“I Feel Lucky,” Smith & Wesson’s Model 29 .44 Magnum opus

By David Tong

S&W Model 29
S&W Model 29. Illustration courtesy of Smith & Wesson.

There are a lot of famous revolvers out there. Hollywood popularized the western movie and along with it the already famous Colt Single Action Army. General George Patton famously carried both one of those as well as a Smith & Wesson 3-½” Model 27 in .357 Magnum, describing the latter as his “killing gun.” J. Edgar Hoover was the first recipient of that length M27, shortly after its debut in 1935.

The apogee of the N-framed Smith is, not, however, the .357, even if it was the first “Magnum” handgun. That title belongs, properly, to the Model 29, a revolver that actually suffered from slow sales when first introduced in 1956. A development of the .44 S&W Special handloading experiments by the late Elmer Keith, who espoused the use of a heavy caliber, fast moving revolver bullet for field use, S&W produced one of its finest handguns ever, while Remington gets full marks for the design and production of the initial factory loaded cartridges, which came with a 240 grain lead semi-wadcutter bullet at a MV of 1,400 fps.

Originally available in 4”, 5” (rare), 6-1/2” and 8-3/8” barrel lengths, the Model 29 has always been known for its good finish, superb accuracy and smooth as glass single action trigger pull. I remember competing in vain as a teenager with my dad’s 6” Python .357 Magnum at an International Handgun Metallic Silhouette Match at the old Angeles Shooting Ranges in Pacoima, CA and watching the near endless number of “old hands” using the Model 29, because it simply flattened the steel ram targets at 200 yards better if hit properly.

Other barrel lengths produced over the years included the 3” Lew Horton Distributor’s special run round butt guns, the factory “Silhouette Model” with its 10-5/8” tube and the so-called "Classic" stainless steel models of today with their underlugged barrels imitating the styling of the Colt Python, usually seen in 5” length. Stainless steel versions are called "Model 629's" in typical S&W fashion. Add to those the bright nickel options available over the years and the recent re-introduction of the regular M29, and there is practically no limit to the number of M29 variations one can collect.

However, the most famous 29 of them all has to be the version Clint Eastwood used in his portrayal of the San Francisco homicide detective, Harry Callahan, in the “Dirty Harry” series of five films from 1971 to 1988. While Warner Brothers used both the externally similar .41 Magnum Model 57 for some shots and might have interchanged the original 6-½” for a later 6”, we all know the basic gun well. It only figures that John Milius, former NRA director and screenwriter, produced the films.

Once the province of the dedicated handgun hunter or competition shooter, the “myth of the M29” reached record proportions in the 1970s and early 1980s, examples sometimes selling for 2 or 3 times the MSRP. I can clearly recall thinking, in my early 20's, that 500 1980 dollars was more than I could afford. Later versions were "cheapened," in that the unnecessary recessing of the case rims in the chambers, as well as the cross-pinning of the barrel threads in the frame, were eliminated. Here are some typical Model 29 Specifications.

  • Caliber: .44 S&W Special and .44 Remington Magnum
  • Capacity: Six rounds
  • Barrel length: 6" (other lengths available)
  • Weight: 48 ounces with 6” barrel
  • Finish: Blued carbon steel (bright nickel and stainless steel also available)
  • Sights: White outline square notch rear, Baughman-type red insert serrated front
  • Trigger: .560” width target, serrated
  • Hammer: .500” width target, checkered
  • MSRP: $263.00 (blue, 1977); $851 (stainless, 2008)

I have owned two of the 4” models and one 8-3/8” in stainless, but only recently acquired a 6” after having shot it at the range with both Federal .44 S&W Special 200 grain lead semi-wadcutter hollow point and Winchester 240 grain .44 Remington Magnum jacketed hollow-point factory loads.

25 yard groups from a sandbag produced no surprises, as all rounds fell within 2”. One thing that small bore shooters occasionally forget is how much easier it is to SEE the big .44 (actually, .429 caliber) holes on targets with aging eyes!

The test pistol has the nearly obligatory Hogue rubber Monogrip to moderate the sting of recoil and aid control. The original factory “target” stocks made of South American Goncalo Alves wood were pretty, but abysmal for comfort. Due to the near vertical frame recoil shoulder, a feature shared by most double action revolvers, muzzle flip is more easily controlled than with single action magnum revolvers.

The double action trigger pull is about 10-11 lbs. estimated, not made easier by the then standard, wide .560” grooved “target” trigger. The single-action pull is up to typical S&W standards, being under three pounds and crisp.

As the test pistol was an older "dash 2" made in 1981, it had the color-case-hardened trigger and hammer with attached firing pin, yet lacked the earlier "bright blue" finish of the early guns. I have heard from S&W insiders that the man who actually invented the polishing and chemical mixture that created the finish took the process with him to his grave and hence we no longer have those.

Nonetheless, I would have no qualms at all about relying on this heavy revolver for any reasonable need as a field pistol. Guns and Shooting Online's Chuck Hawks and I discussed the need for rational defense in the western Oregon woods against both two-legged and four-legged predators and we both agree that a heavy caliber revolver is a better choice than any semi-automatic pistol, which is otherwise my preference.

Stand-off range, flat trajectory, proven stopping power, long sight radius and that great trigger makes it so, but let’s not forget all the different loads that have come along since Harry Callahan shot those “light Specials” all those years ago on celluloid, including 300 grain Federal hard cast semi-wadcutters with a very flat meplat (nose), as well as CCI/Speer #12 shot (snake) loads.

I also remember when the .44 Magnum was about as powerful a handgun cartridge as one could get. Nowadays, with the .454 Casull, .475 Linebaugh, .480 Ruger, as well as Smith & Wesson’s X-Framed .460 and .500 Magnums, the big .44 is far from "The Most Powerful Handgun In The World," but to me it remains the most bang that most people can control and easily carry, and a lot of people agree.

For most North American game, especially heavy-boned species such as elk, the .44 Mag. easily surpasses the .357’s killing power, so long as one can shoot it accurately. It remains a revolver for the seasoned shooter due to the recoil of the relatively lightweight (for a .44 Magnum) M29, but it is also probably the most popular sidearm used by Alaskan salmon fishermen, due to the presence of brown bears.

The .44 Magnum is not really a top choice for self protection against human aggressors, as most magnum bullets are driven too fast and are too stoutly constructed, thus over-penetrating without causing the massive tissue damage needed for immediate incapacitation. Probably Callahan was right about those Special rounds after all!

It might be best known for its charisma on the silver screen, but Smith & Wesson’s Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver is still a great choice for nearly anything one could reasonably expect a portable handgun to do.

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Copyright 2009, 2012 by David Tong and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.