Handguns > Historical

A Look Back at the Smith & Wesson Model 29

This classic revolver is what spawned the big-bore magnum handgun frenzy.


Back in the 1950s a stumpy, vociferous and opinionated cowboy from Salmon, Idaho, was once again stirring the pot of arms and ammunition manufacturers. For decades Elmer Keith had been touting powerful revolvers for lawmen and outdoorsmen. It was Keith, along with Phil Sharpe and Doug Wesson, who developed the .357 Mag. in 1935. Keith’s strategy was simple: Take a heavy-for-caliber cast bullet—often of his own design—and crunch it over a generous dollop of (then) Hercules 2400 powder. Light it off with a magnum primer and see what it would do. Recoil was never considered. He and an ad hoc group of big-bore pistoleros , calling themselves the .44 Associates, had began experimenting under the same strategy with N-frame .44 Spl. Smith & Wesson revolvers as far back as the 1920s.

Keith wasn’t totally dismissive of safety and engineering parameters. He considered loading the .45 Colt to these higher pressures, but soon realized that the thinner case and cylinder walls would not stand up to the constant battering his loads produced. Too, there were more bullet designs available in .44 caliber than .45, providing a better platform for experimentation.

A prolific writer, Keith had no compunction about touting his work in gun publications, notably American Rifleman and Guns & Ammo. Keith, backed by a dedicated cadre of followers, badgered Smith & Wesson and Remington to come out with a revolver mated to the heavy .44 Spl. loads he preferred. Carl Hellstrom, president of Smith & Wesson, and R.H Coleman of Remington took notice of the uproar and began discussions to implement the idea of a magnum .44-caliber revolver. Hellstrom asked Remington to come up with a cartridge design, and by the summer of 1954 Remington sent to Smith & Wesson a cartridge design that was an 1/8-inch longer than the .44 Spl. cartridge.

In mid-July of that year, Smith & Wesson made four specially heat-treated examples of its N-frame Hand Ejector model chambered for the new Remington round. The companies exchanged products and began testing the new revolvers. Test results indicated that the new cartridge was effective and accurate, but it was suggested that the barrel and frame of the new revolver be beefed up for both recoil absorption, as well as longevity. Those changes added some 7 1/2 ounces to the weight of the revolver. Tests of the heavier revolver were conducted during the winter of 1955, and the factory made ready to manufacture the new magnum.

On Dec. 29, 1955, the first .44 Mag. revolver came off the Smith & Wesson line. That revolver went to R.H. Coleman. A second .44 Mag. was completed in January 1956, and it went to Maj. Gen. Julian S. Hatcher of the NRA Technical Staff. A third .44 Mag. was completed on January 27, 1956, and was sent to Elmer Keith.

Initial reports were favorable to the new revolver, and orders were brisk. Though catalogued at the beginning as being available with either a 4- or 6 1/2-inch barrel, the first 500 .44 Mags. were made with a 6 1/2-inch barrel. It would be several months before a 4-inch .44 Mag. was offered. The 8 3/8-inch barrel was made available in 1958. That same year 500 copies of the .44 Mag. were made with 5-inch barrels and are eagerly sought after by collectors for their rarity.

Then a little reality set in. At the time, the .44 Mag. was the most powerful handgun ever produced, and not every shooter was ready to handle it. Stories abounded of .44 Mag. revolvers showing back up in gun shops or up for private sale with a nearly full box of ammunition. It seems that many handgunners found the revolver too tough to shoot.

June 1957, saw the Smith & Wesson .44 Mag. get the name we all know today—the Model 29. That is when the factory decreed that all revolvers were to have their model numbers stamped on the yoke. The Model 29 continued to have strong sales, eventually edging out the Model 24, a.k.a the Model 1950 Target in .44 Spl. from the line in 1966.

Lawmen of the day that were blessed with the freedom to choose their armament initially flocked to the Model 29, especially with the 4-inch barrel. Many, however, got their own reality check. First, the 1,500 fps velocity claims for a 245-grain bullet were achieved with a 7 1/2-inch test barrel. The 4-inch barrel yielded 1,180 fps and did so at the expense of a distracting muzzle blast and recoil that prevented quick follow-up shots. While some officers—primarily rural—clung to the big .44, most found it too robust for their tastes. Also, in urban environs, over-penetration became an issue.

Then came Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” movies beginning in 1971. Eastwood starred as a somewhat rogue San Francisco homicide inspector with a 6 1/2-inch-barrelled Model 29 as a co-star. Each movie in the series featured him using the iconic revolver to blast his way to justice. The movies, Eastwood and the Model 29 were big hits with the public, and there was such a resurgence in popularity of the big Smith & Wesson that it was constantly backordered from the factory and often commanded significant premiums above its list price. Theatric technology of the day gave the .44 Mag. an aura of absolute invincibility and power. But once again, handgunners found the Model 29 tough to handle with full-house magnum ammo, and many “barely used” Model 29s went up for sale.

Handgun hunting began to take off in popularity soon afterward, and is where the Model 29 really shined. Guys began taking a variety of big-game animals with the .44 Mag. all over the world. Everything from white-tailed deer to polar bear to elephant has fallen to Elmer Keith’s brainchild. It was the handgun hunters of the late ’70s, along with the handgun silhouette shooters of the ’80s and ’90s that spawned the search for even more powerful handguns that we see today.

Fifty-seven years after its introduction, many want to dismiss the .44 Mag. as a minimal hunting cartridge and the Model 29 as a weak platform for a hunting handgun. Those who participate in this kind of talk should remember that when it was designed no one was making bullets heavier than 250 or 260 grains for this cartridge. I have cleanly killed many deer and feral pigs with my .44s—both Special and Magnum—and never found it wanting as a hunting cartridge.

The Model 29 has evolved over the years. Modern iterations favor stainless steel—called the Model 629 by Smith & Wesson—often with a heavy under lug to help attenuate the recoil of the modern heavy-bullet loads. But the Model 29 is still part of Smith & Wesson’s vast line of handguns, now under the Classic banner. It is an honor and respect that has been well earned.

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17 Responses to A Look Back at the Smith & Wesson Model 29

Monstersdoexist wrote:
October 26, 2014

bhp9, that was a nice attempt of copy and paste comment you made and you obviously have a real beef with Smith & Wesson products in general. You can stick with your Ruger copies of real pistols and leave the negative comments about Elmer Keith at home.

Mac wrote:
November 12, 2013

bhp9, the model 29 is a colossal failure? Elmer Keith was a liar? Model 29s fall apart will 'real' magnum loads? Admittedly, Rugers are stout revolvers but to imply that the big N frames are delicate toys indicates that you must have been frightened by one when you were a small lad.

Mary O wrote:
September 11, 2013

I have been looking for a Model 29-2, 44Mag, blue with a 6' barrel and wood grips. Any suggestions - I check the gun auctions regularly but no luck. Thanks

Tom Adessa wrote:
August 02, 2013

Bought a Model 29-2 years ago and haven't looked back. Used it to take over 25 deer since 1981 using handloads and factory loads, great deer gun for 125 yards or less.

Dan Corrigan wrote:
July 23, 2013

My first experience with the powerful .44 Magnum came with a Ruger Redhawk in SS with an 8' barrel. Easy to shoot and the recoil was not a problem but the trigger was awful. Try as hard as I could I could never get decent accuracy with that Ruger trigger. I cast up some decent 240 Gr. bullets and over 18.5 Gr of 2400 they were a lot of fun to shoot but the trigger defeated that gun. Then one day I got to shoot another .44 Mag. This was the S&W Model 29 with a 6 1/2' tube in blue finish. Gorgeous gun and the trigger was heaven on Earth. This was a Ferrari of a gun compared to the Caterpilliar Diesel Bulldozer of the Ruger. Although not as robust and overbuilt as the Ruger this gun was accurate, beautiful and a pleasure to shoot and look at. I ended up with one and I also bought a Smith Model 57 with a 4' barrel in blue finish in the unappreciated .41 Magnum Calibre. This one is a very decent field gun and I carry it all day long in a cross draw leather holster. A lot less recoil with identical accuracy and what you shoot with it will not know the difference.

Ron Clate wrote:
June 28, 2013

Just purchased a model 629 stainless steel can't wait to use it at the range. S&W quality guns and American made.

bmatsu wrote:
May 20, 2013

the grips from the x frame fit on the n frame smiths with no problems, it helps me deal with the recoil from full power 44 mag loads.

Slapshot wrote:
May 18, 2013

Took a long time for me to find a Model 29 "back in the day", as they were hard to get at the time, but I finally came up with a 4" barrel 29-2. I had heard of the alleged strength problems, but never saw a problem in my own 29. I poured thousands of factory rounds and stiff handloads through this gun and never saw a whiff of endplay or timing problems. The only thing that got beat up was the skin at the base of my right thumb, as the little beast did kick with the short barrel and heavy loads. I eventually traded it - a profoundly stupid decision on my part. This article has motivated me. No new one for me; I want another 29-2 in mint condition with the 4" barrel, and I will then be reunited with this sweetheart of a sixgun. [And I've just had inspiration for a good topic for a reader forum: "Our Most Stupid Gun Trades or Sales" Anonymous, of course.]

Shawn wrote:
May 18, 2013

The comments made concerning alleged deficiencies in the revolver and alleging that Elmer Keith took credit where credit was not due constitute nothing more than an attempt to rewrite history history or proof positive that the poster is neither well read nor we'll informed on the subject.

Pete wrote:
May 17, 2013

My wife corrected my previous comment on two counts. First, she said the 8-shot .357 is not a model 629 but a model 627. Second, she said it is not mine, it is hers.

Tim Wise wrote:
May 17, 2013

The recoil is less severe with smooth, wood grips, which allows the gun to rock upwards in your palms. Yes, a quick follow-up shot is lost, but your arms, hands, and wrists are saved from the applied upwards torque.

Bill wrote:
May 17, 2013

Bought my blued 8 3/8' mod 29 the day after I saw the great 'Make My Day' Dirty Harry movie. Love shooting it great hand gun just a bit hard to carry concieled lol.

Jerry Bassett wrote:
May 17, 2013

"handgunners found the Model 29 tough to handle with full-house magnum ammo, and many “barely used” Model 29s went up for sale." I've always wondered about that heavy recoil problem until I bought my first 44 mag. about 8 months ago. A barely fired 4" barrel 29-3 born in 1982. Once I replaced the Packmayr deformed condoms with a set faux ivory grips, it became my favorite S&W and shoots great. I don't find the recoil to be the least bit of a problem and I'm a 71 year old with arthritis. There sure must be a lot of wimps out there, but that's fine, more good shooters for me.

bhp9 wrote:
May 16, 2013

The Model .29 was a colossal mechanical failure as it was never designed to handle the .44 magnum cartridge. Bent ejector rods, excess head-space problems, and timing problems, were just a few of its defects. It actually was built around the much more anemic .44 special cartridge. Smith in later years tried to beef up the gun but it was like trying to put a band-aid on a gladius slash on a gladiator during a fight in the Colosseum. Much as I hate to admit it, the cast iron crudely made double action Ruger is the superior gun because it was truly designed around the .44 magnum cartridge. And by the way Elmer Keith did not invent the .44 magnum cartridge. Remington's engineers did in response to Elmer's desire for a .44 cartridge more powerful than the .44 special. Elmer was fond of taking credit for a lot of inventions in the gun world he had little or nothing to with.

Bob wrote:
May 16, 2013

I have enjoyed owning a blued 8 3/8" Model 29 since the mid seventies. Always a hoot to shoot. By the way Pete, the 29 is a .$$ magnum. just thought you should know. :)

John wrote:
May 16, 2013

Try a 329PD with a 4 inch barrel, that grandchild of the 29 is really tough to tame.

Pete wrote:
May 16, 2013

My 629 in the 8-shot .357 magnum version shoots like a dream.