Subtlety is a quality that's rarely found in modern action movies or television programs, and Magnum Research is well known for its anything-but-subtle handguns. Not everyone who has seen an action show in the last 25 years knows its name, but just about any movie fan will recognize the profile of a Desert Eagle. With roughly 500 appearances in film and television, as well as roles in several video games, the Desert Eagle has a resume many famous actors can only dream of.
It’s rarely noted that the Desert Eagle, known for its brawn, is also brilliant. Magnum Research’s dedication to a unique design and constant innovation over the years have kept this pistol on the cutting edge as well as on the silver screen. With the recent conversations on AmercanRifleman.org about popular guns in movies and television, it seems like the perfect time for an interview with one of shooting's biggest stars.
Production History The Desert Eagle was first conceived in 1979, and became the founding idea behind Magnum Research, Inc. of St. Paul, Minn. The goal was to create a gas-operated, semi-automatic pistol capable of firing magnum caliber ammunition. Its basic design was patented in 1980, with working prototypes completed in 1981. Final touches to the pistol were completed under contract with Israel Military Industries (IMI). The earliest variant to go into production was the Mark I, first available late in 1983 and chambered in .357 Mag. With the design finally perfected in 1986, the Desert Eagle premiered again as the very first successful semi-auto handgun chambered in .44 Mag.
The physical characteristics that demark the early models are the single-step slide release, the teardrop-shaped safety lever and the absence of an integral slide rail. The Mark I made its film debut in 1985 in the hands of Captain Stanley White, played by Mickey Rourke, in the movie “Year of the Dragon.” That same year, it was further popularized in the movie “Commando,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though the Mark I is the dominant model in movies made prior to the 1990s, it has continued to make appearances in more recent films.
The .357 Mag. chambering represented just the first step in the Desert Eagle’s history of continuing enhancements and improvements. In 1987, the pistol was chambered in, what was at the time, the innovative .41 Mag., although it is no longer in production. By 1989, the Mark VII model became the next standard for the Desert Eagle. All subsequent pistols contain the changes to the Mark VII, which include a two-stage trigger, an enlarged slide release and a re-designed safety lever. This is the model most likely to be seen in movies during the 1990s. Film appearances include “Predator 2” (1990), “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man” (1991) and “Escape from LA” (1996).
It was in the mid 1990s when the Desert Eagle became a super star, in more ways than one. Magnum Research released the Desert Eagle chambered in .50 Action Express. Once thought to be an impossible handgun to build, this was the first .50 caliber semi-auto to reach the market, and the only one still in production. It was during this time that the Mark XIX specifications were added to the design. This involved the adoption of a single-size frame for all calibers in order to allow for quick caliber conversions. Trading out the barrel, magazine and bolt allows the Mark XIX to shoot the full range of currently available calibers, from .357 Mag. to .50 Action Express. The Mark XIX update also includes one of the most noticeable changes, an integral sight rail.
The powerful .50 Action Express was quickly hired to appear in several movies, including “Desperado” (1995), “Bad Boys” (1995) and “The Boondock Saints” (1999). It was also cast in one of its most famous rolls as the side arm of The Agents, namely Agent Smith, in the 1999 to 2003 “The Matrix” trilogy. And the list goes on from there.
But the Desert Eagle is much more than just hired muscle. Under all of that gleaming 4140 chrome-moly steel is a smart design. The polygonal rifling of the hammer-forged barrel does not foul as quickly as tradition rifling. All barrels are manufactured with a hard-chromed chamber, which helps to prevent rust and scratches from forming in the chamber. The multi-lug rotary bolt improves accuracy and aids in the extraction of spent brass. Optics are much more likely to stay sighted in because the sight rail is integrated into the fixed barrel. The recoil is managed with two heavy recoil springs, both made of three-braided wire, making them some of the most durable springs on the market.
At The Range For this review, a Mark XIX .50 Action Express model in a brushed chrome finish was provided. Some companies have let their names continue to sell its products while allowing their quality to slip. Magnum Research, on the other hand, has been careful to not let fame go to its head. The fit and finish of the pistol was superb. The single-action trigger was crisp, with a clean breaking weight of 4 pounds, 9 ounces. The latest sight rail has been modified with additional grooves to facilitate a greater variety of optics options.
The Desert Eagle Mark XIX in .50 Action Express is a handful. The grip frame is large and the controls are a bit spread out. Having smaller hands, I had to modify my pattern of operation to successfully work the pistol. This included using the thumb of my non-firing hand to manipulate some of the controls. Once I got the hang of it, the gun was relatively easy to run.
Despite its 4-pound 7.4-ounce weight, the pistol is surprisingly well balanced. This particular Desert Eagle's Hollywood appeal was enhanced by the addition of an optional, removable muzzle brake and a set of custom aluminum Bone Yard grip panels from Hogue's Extreme Grip series to swap out with the existing rubber grips. Both of these additions proved to be functional as well as good-looking.
In movies, suited super agents can rapid fire a .50 Action Express pistol single-handed. Not to be outdone by the men, snappily dressed actresses can launch two-fisted barrages with a matched pair of gleaming, golden Mark XIXs, one in each hand. It may be that I'm not paying my special effects crew enough, but I found the Desert Eagle to be strictly a two-handed shooting affair.
The Magnum Research.50 Action Express 300-grain jacketed hollow point yields 1,531 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle of a 6-inch barrel. This places its performance somewhere between a hot .44 Mag. (240 grains, 1,350 foot-pounds) and a .454 Casull (300 grains, 1,813 foot-pounds). However, don't let the movies fool you. The recoil is stout when shooting .50 Action Express ammunition. Folks at Magnum Research refer to the Desert Eagle as a "hand rifle," and advise shooters to use a firm, two-handed grip right in the owner’s manual.
The newly added muzzle brake worked well to significantly reduce felt recoil and muzzle flip. Tests were also conducted at an indoor range with a standard, no-brake Mark XIX .50 Action Express from its handgun rental case. Shooting the same ammunition in both guns, the difference in felt recoil was clear.
The Desert Eagle proved to be accurate. The gun was fired from the bench with targets at 25 yards. The Magnum Research brand .50 Action Express ammunition, loaded with 350 grain jacketed soft points, produced the best 5-shot groups with an average of 2-inches. Hornady's Custom 300-grain jacketed hollow points came in second with 2.5-inch groups, followed by the Magnum Research 300 grain hollow points, with an average of 2.85-inch groups.
The Desert Eagle Mark XIX pistol continues to be an icon of popular culture. It is an exciting gun to shoot, and its high level of quality and large caliber options make it an ideal handgun for hunting, silhouette shooting or just showing off at the range. In June of 2010, Magnum Research, Inc. was purchased by Kahr Arms. Kahr is known for its dedication to quality and innovation as well. The new gun I worked with shows that the new owners plan to maintain the high standards Magnum Research is known for. Based on this range test, the Desert Eagle star should continue to shine on the range and on the screen for years to come.