Gun Review: The IMI/Magnum Research Desert Eagle

The IMI/Magnum Research Desert Eagle wasn’t the first large-caliber autopistol to reach production. That honor belongs to the .44 AutoMag, which was then succeeded by the Wildey Auto, as famously wielded by Charles Bronson in Death Wish III. The Desert Eagle (DE) was, however, the first large-caliber auto pistol to catch the public imagination. Even casual firearms enthusiasts can immediately identify it, as can players of first-person shooters like CounterStrike (where “deagling” refers to making one-shot “kills” to the head). The shooters who haven’t fired one yearn to do so, while those who have are rarely without a strongly-held opinion for or against the big autopistol. Perhaps most interestingly, the Desert Eagle serves as a powerful, elegant argument against that old argument that “guns have no purpose but to kill.”

The Desert Eagle isn’t about killing. It’s about romance.

 At its heart, the DE is an interesting solution to a difficult problem: how to fire high-power rounds from an auto-loading handgun.

There are two types of automatic pistol in common use: blowback and recoil. Blowback guns, such as the Walther PP, use the energy of the fired round to press backwards against a spring, cycling the action. Blowback guns are “unlocked” and therefore rely on the strength of the spring to hold the action together long enough for the bullet to leave the barrel.

In larger calibers, this design becomes impractical. Recoil-operated handguns use the recoil motion of the pistol to “unlock” the barrel from the slide. This permits the use of a larger caliber and reduces the felt recoil for the shooter; still, most shooters are unable to effectively use a recoil-operated pistol in a caliber stronger than .45 ACP.

The original AutoMag pistol used a smaller version of the rotary-bolt principle, as seen in the M16, to allow a high-power round to be fired in an auto pistol. This is how it works:

1. The powder burns when the primer strikes, creating expanding gas.

2. This gas is vented through holes in the barrel, down a tube, where

3. It forces the slide backwards.

4. As the slide moves backwards, it uses a cam to rotate the bolt, which then

5. Unlocks” and moves backwards with the slide.

This is an extremely strong design; it permits a very powerful cartridge to be used. There are also some recoil-absorbing aspects to it which are beneficial.

Although the Automag design worked, it had a few drawbacks. To begin with, it wasn’t terribly reliable. Worse, it used a “wildcat” cartridge obtained by cutting-down .308 Winchester cases. Last but not least, the gun was underpriced. As a result the design went through several different hands before finally disappearing.

The brilliance of the Desert Eagle: the manufacturer’s decision to use existing revolver cartridges. The original DE was chambered for .357 Magnum. This was a mere tease. Once the gun was available in the iconic .44 Magnum caliber, sales went through the roof. The success of the revolver-cartridge guns made it possible for Magnum Research and IMI to develop the .50 Action Express, a rebated-rim cartridge which delivers approximately twice the muzzle energy of .44 Magnum cartridges from a six-inch barrel.

I first shot a Desert Eagle in 1993 or thereabouts, in the .44 Magnum caliber. At the time, I was doing pin matches with a Smith & Wesson 629 Classic 6″ barrel. Compared to the Smith, the Eagle was a pleasure to shoot. But I recall experiencing about a one-in-thirty jam rate with commercial ammo.

My .44 Mag handloads couldn’t be used in the DE as I was using all-lead bullets from the National Bullet Company at the time. Accuracy was solid, within the two-inch range at fifteen yards off-hand.

The .50AE chambering was quite a different animal, recoiling with the thunder and menace of a four-inch Smith 29. Although I shot the “fifty” several times, I was always happy to put it down after a magazine or two, particularly given the cost of the ammunition.

My choice for a Desert Eagle would have been a .44 Mag in two-tone chrome and gold.

 Chrome and gold, you say? Of course! Starting in the early Nineties, Magnum Research offered no fewer than eight boutique finishes on the Desert Eagle, plus combinations of those finishes. While I never actually saw a gold-plated DE, I know they exist, and I’ve seen plenty of photos and videos.

For the avid handgun hunter, there are also ten and fourteen-inch barrels available. Think of it as a T/C Contender rival; instead of taking down one deer with a single shot, you could knock down seven or eight at a time, assuming time and sufficiently deaf whitetails.

If you’re starting to think that unreliable operation, massive weight (seventy-two ounces in the case of the .50 AE model), considerable recoil, custom finishes, and optional hunting barrels are perhaps not the qualities of a Glock competitor, you would be right on the mark.

Although Desert Eagles appear in the movies as legitimate combat weapons, in the real world it’s virtually the worst weapon possible with which to defend one’s self. It would be virtually unusable in a “drive-by”, since it would either jam or recoil into the automobile’s ceiling trim. It cannot be concealed by any reasonable method. The safety almost requires a third hand to operate. Hell, most of them don’t even have a firing-pin block, which makes it that rarest of all modern guns: the drop-and-shoot kind.

These drawbacks are all well-known to the vast majority of Desert Eagle owners. And yet they remain passionate about collecting, firing and modifying their pistols. Could it be that not every single handgun is purchased for reasons of aggression, or even for reasons of self-defense? Could it be that some people simply enjoy owning and firing a unique handgun? It might not make sense to Diane Feinstein, but I suspect that if you try a few rounds through a Desert Eagle, it might make sense to you.


Style * * * * *
The Mark XIX is a bit over the top, but the earlier models are visually perfect for their mission

Ergonomics *
It’s basically a first-generation single-action pistol. With the useless safety-level positioning of a double-action

Reliability * *
I wouldn’t stake my life on it.

Customize This
Yes, starting with a custom finish

I’d rather have a .44 AutoMag, but this is the best overall big-bore auto in history.