Since 1935, Smith & Wesson has prided itself as being the source of the most powerful handguns in the world. That mantle was just about sacrosanct until Ruger started chambering its Blackhawk revolver in .44 Mag. at the same time S&W introduced it in 1956. Then, four years later, Utah gunsmith Dick Casull introduced his .454 Casull offering 33 percent more velocity and nearly 75 percent more energy than the .44 Mag.
The power race was on, and soon gunsmiths like Wildey J. Moore (1973), John Linebaugh (1986 and ’88), Evan Whildin of Action Arms’ .50 AE and Ruger (2003) vied for top of the heap in handgun power. Freedom Arms, the first to bring a .454 Casull to the market as a factory revolver, pitched in with its .500 Wyoming Express in 2005. To say the field was getting crowded would not be an overstatement.
A .500 S&W Mag. cartridge, compared against .450 S&W Mag., .454 Casull and .45 Colt.
Nonetheless, the granddaddy that brought us to the power dance was still very much in the race. In early 2002, S&W Product Manager, Herb Belin, proposed manufacturing a new revolver—dubbed the X-frame—capable of handling the most powerful repeating handgun cartridge. This new revolver would be made of stainless steel, with a five-shot cylinder and—initially, anyway—have an 8 3/8" barrel and, of all things, a K-frame-sized, round butt profile to accommodate most hands. The revolver debuted at the 2003 SHOT Show, along with a companion revolver in .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum, which we will look at some time in the future.
While Smith & Wesson was fleshing out its new revolver, Cor-Bon, led by Peter Pi, was busy designing the new cartridge. The maximum design operating pressure is 60,000 p.s.i., though to ease extraction of the semi-rimmed cases from the revolver cylinder most factory ammo is loaded to 50,000 p.s.i. Pi’s design featuring that semi-rimmed case exhibited some brilliant forethought, as the cases feed smoothly through the tubular magazine of Big Horn Armory’s Model 89 lever-action rifle.
The author's two Smith & Wesson X-Frame revolvers chambered in .500 S&W Mag.
The velocity target was 2,000 f.p.s., and that is easily achieved with 300-grain bullets from the 8 3/8" revolver barrel. Instead of headspacing on the rim, the .500 S&W Magnum headspaces on the mouth of the 1.625" long case. Bullet diameter is .500", rather than the otherwise normal .510" to avoid getting crosswise with BATFE and the National Firearms Act, which defines a destructive device as being greater than .500" in diameter.
First shots with the .500 S&W in a Ransom Rest found that it pegged the recoil stop in the rest, and it required a couple of extra clamps to keep the Ransom from jumping around the shooting bench. Eye and ear protection were not only mandatory, prudent shooters found they needed to double up on the ear pro with muffs over plugs, and side shields on their shooting glasses due to the significant ejecta coming from the muzzle brake of the revolver. That muzzle brake, by the way, was necessary to keep the recoil to a manageable level. Even then, it remained a handful.
A couple of years after its introduction, I had the opportunity to take the .500 S&W Magnum on a bison hunt in Oklahoma. Our host was Bill Boothe, a retired police officer and firearms instructor for the Oklahoma City P.D. Lanky Bill was blessed with huge hands to envelop the X-frame grip and nerves of steel. I watched him pick off golf balls at 100 yards with an iron-sighted Model 29 in .44 Mag.
The author with a bison that he downed with one of his .500 S&W Mag X-Frames in Oklahoma.
He gave me a couple of pointers on controlling the big revolver, and I took a young bull with a single shot at about 40 yards. Make no mistake, the .500 S&W Magnum is capable of cleanly taking any land animal provided that you can shoot. A few years later, Boothe, Paul Pluff, who at that time was media relations manager for Smith & Wesson and another writer and I went to South Africa with X-frames and enjoyed a very pleasant safari on the East Cape. I took an nyala and a blesbok on that trip, and everything it hit squarely planted the animal’s nose in the dirt post haste.
In 2009, a semi-retired architectural engineer who is also a gun geek came up with a lever-action rifle designed around the .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum. Greg Buchel took the proven design for powerful lever-action rifles—the John Browning-designed Model 1886 Winchester—and scaled it back partway to accommodate the newcomer cartridge. Since it was about halfway between a Model 1886 and a pistol-caliber Model 1892, he christened it the Model 89 and founded Big Horn Armory. In the rifle you can expect a 150 to 300 f.p.s. increase in muzzle velocity from that of the revolver, depending upon bullet weight. The .500 S&W Magnum is a serious cartridge, and the guns built around it are equally so.
The author with a blesbok that he downed with one of his .500 S&W Mag X-Frames in East Cape, South Africa.
Buchel is a stickler for doing things right, and he also realizes that some of his customers may use his rifles to save their lives. Each of these rifles—as well as the others coming out of his shop are handmade. The parts may be jobbed out, but the rifles are hand assembled in his small shop. I reviewed the Model 89 in August of 2014 here. Not everybody is able to pony up some $2,500 for a lever-action rifle, but the Model 89 isn’t a rifle for everybody. Nor is the S&W Model 500 a revolver for everybody.
Thompson/Center offers the .500 S&W Magnum in its Pro Hunter Katahdin single-shot carbine. New England Firearms (Harrington & Richardson) was chambering a single-shot carbine and a slide-action rifle for the big half-inch, but it ceased production in early 2015 as part of the Remington Outdoor Company bankruptcy.
Today Smith & Wesson offers two general iterations of its X-frame .500 S&W Magnum. Its Standard Model S&W500 is available with either a 4" barrel or the standard 8 3/8"barrel. The Performance Center revolvers are available with 3 1/2", 7 1/2" or a 10 1/2" barrel and several other upgrades. Yes, there are a few revolvers and single shots out there with more power. But the .500 S&W Magnum has clearly established itself as the big dog on the truck.