Out of production and somewhat obscure, the Smith & Wesson Model 29 was once well known only to serious big-bore handgunners. Then in 1971, it became one of the most famous and desirable handguns of all time. Do you know why? Well, do ya?
There is only a handful of motion pictures in which a specific gun played a starring role. “Winchester 73,” a 1950 Western that follows the trail of a stolen lever-action back to its rightful owner, and “Carbine Williams,” the 1952 film about David Marshal Williams and the M1 carbine, are two that come to mind. Interestingly, both starred Jimmy Stewart. But in these movies the guns took second billing to the starring character.
Such was not the case with “Dirty Harry” in 1971, starring Clint Eastwood, for the Smith & Wesson Model 29 that he packed in a Bucheimer-Clark shoulder holster and that was interwoven into his movie character, Inspector Harry Callahan. Who can forget those taunting, haunting words uttered by Eastwood as he squinted down that 6½-inch barrel aimed at actor Albert “Poppy” Popwell:
“I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
What erupted immediately after that wasn’t the roar of a .44 Mag., but a frenzied public clamoring for an S&W Model 29—which, at that time, really was the most powerful commercially made handgun in the world. The sudden nationwide desire to own a .44 Mag. took S&W by surprise, as prior to the release of “Dirty Harry,” demand for the bulky, hard-recoiling handgun had fallen so low that the Model 29—though still cataloged—was out of production. Then, overnight the Model 29 was on everybody’s “most wanted” list. As a result, Model 29s were selling for as much as three times their suggested retail price of $194—when they could be found.
Demand continued two years later when, in the “Dirty Harry” sequel “Magnum Force,” Eastwood repeats his “This is a 44. Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world” soliloquy during the opening credits, as he cocks and aims his Model 29 at the audience. As Dirty Harry, Eastwood packed his Model 29 three more times, in “The Enforcer” in 1976, in “Sudden Impact” in 1983, and finally in “The Dead Pool” in 1988, the last Dirty Harry movie he swore he’d ever make. But to this day, whenever a Dirty Harry movie airs on TV or cable, Model 29 sales surge.
The Dirty Harry blockbuster franchise was fortuitous for Eastwood (who took the role only after it had been turned down by Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen and John Wayne, among others), Warner Brothers (who got the script when Universal Studios let the rights to it elapse), and most of all, S&W, who had the right gun at the right time. But the Model 29 Eastwood packs in the films was not quite the gun originally depicted for his character in the script written by writer-producer-director and NRA board member John Milius, who wrote the first two films, although he is uncredited in the first one.
“This is the gun Dirty Harry should have used,” Milius told me at his home a few years ago, as he reached into his desk and pulled out a 4-inch barreled Model 29 with ivory stocks. Indeed, his Sept. 23, 1970, movie draft calls for exactly such a gun in nickeled finish. But, as previously noted, Model 29s were in short supply at the time (due to lack of demand, not popularity, as is commonly believed) and there were no 4-inch models to be had. Consequently, according to S&W historian Roy Jinks, Kelly Lookabaugh, S&W’s West Coast Representative who had close ties with Hollywood, brought a 6½-inch blued model to the Warner Brothers studios. The gun had been assembled in the late 1960s by Archie Dubia, foreman of S&Ws hand-fitting department. Studios normally like to have at least one backup gun and preferably two, in case the primary gun gets damaged during filming. Thus, Milius lent, gave or brought (the details vary, depending on who you ask) two 6½-inch Model 29s to the studio. Later, he presented one of these guns to Clint Eastwood, who, last I heard, still has it.
But a different version of the first “Dirty Harry” Model 29s is chronicled by the Internet Movie Firearms Database (IMFDB). According to it, when a 4-inch Model 29 proved unobtainable, Eastwood personally contacted S&W representative Bob Sauer, who in turn had Fred Miller (who originally had helped develop the production model of the .44 Magnum) at the factory assemble two guns, one with a 6½-inch barrel and the other with an 83⁄8 inch, from parts on hand.
It is unclear which of the two versions are true, but this much is known: after the completion of “Magnum Force,” Warner Brothers presented Milius with a Model 29 with an engraved silver shield inlaid on the left grip which reads:
The gun, serial number S206921, on loan from Milius, is currently on display at the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va. Thus, we can lay to rest the recurring myth that because Model 29s were unobtainable during the filming of the first Dirty Harry film, the look-alike .41 Mag. Model 57 was used instead. As the facts attest, that simply is not true. And to further set the record straight, although the first guns used were N-frames, in the final three films the Model 29s used were all N-frames rented from Ellis Mercantile, a well-known Hollywood prop house no longer in business. In addition, a rubber mock-up Model 29 was used in scenes that called for the gun to be thrown. In one verified “Dirty Harry” incident filmed near Coit Tower, however, Eastwood throws his real gun, which is supposed to land on an off-camera padded blanket, but it misses. That metallic clattering you hear in the movie of the S&W rattling along the sidewalk is real!
“That’s the gun I really wanted,” Milius lamented during the 2001 NRA Convention, “because you could prove it had real screen-time.” But that gun had disappeared. As an aside, the Bucheimer-Clark shoulder holster Eastwood used in the first two Dirty Harry films was rented from Ellis Mercantile but was for a gun with a 5-inch barrel, which caused the Model 29 Eastwood used to ride high in the rig.
Eastwood wasn’t the first actor to use a Model 29. In 1967 Lee Marvin packed a 4-inch version in “Point Blank,” faking recoil (only blanks are used in movies) in one scene, but forgetting to depict it in another. (On the other hand, Eastwood—ever the consummate actor—took a Model 29 to the shooting range to experience the recoil of a .44 Mag. so he could accurately portray firing the gun on screen.) And in 1973 James Bond, played by Roger Moore, used a nickeled version briefly in “Live and Let Die,” while 10 years later Chuck Norris upped the ante by brandishing an engraved, nickel-plated Model 29 as Texas Ranger J.J. McQuade in “Lone Wolf McQuade.” Nonetheless, the first actor to actually own a Model 29 was the late Jack Webb, star of TV’s “Dragnet.” On Feb. 29, 1956, S&W presented the actor-producer-director-writer with serial number S130714 (Webb’s Dragnet character, Sgt. Joe Friday, carried badge number 714 on the popular detective show). It was the 12th .44 Magnum produced by Smith & Wesson.
But television and movies aside, the real story of the Model 29 began during the late 1930s with a group of big-bore revolver aficionados, including such luminaries as Elmer Keith, P.O. Ackley and Townsend Whelen, who weren’t satisfied with the S&W Registered .357 Mag., which at that time, really was “the most powerful handgun in the world.” They wanted something more, and just as the .38 Spl. begat the .357 Mag., they turned to the .44 Spl. as the basis for their proposed powerhouse cartridge. Having been developed in 1907 as a longer-cased smokeless-powder version of the old .44 Russian blackpowder cartridge, and specifically chambered in S&W’s First Model Hand Ejector of 1908, a sturdy double-action also known as the Triple Lock, the .44 Spl. was loaded to blackpowder velocities, which did not do justice to cartridge or gun.