The mighty Desert Eagle is now in its 32nd year of continuous production, and it has become one of the most iconic guns in existence. Its distinctive profile is instantly recognizable, and the gun is symbolic of American ingenuity and brute power. A favorite of collectors and those who appreciate bone-crushing energy, the Desert Eagle is also a versatile gun because you can easily switch barrels and calibers.
“It’s funny how many of our Desert Eagle owners don’t realize they can switch calibers just by changing the barrel and magazine,” confided Frank Harris, the vice president of sales and marketing for the Kahr Firearms Group. We were at a trade show and Harris was showing me a new combo package featuring a .44 Magnum Desert Eagle as well as a .50 AE barrel and magazine. Users can switch between calibers in just seconds by simply switching out the barrel and magazine.
Harris said, “We’ve always offered different-caliber barrels and magazines, but this is the first time we’ve offered them as a package for our two most popular calibers. The advantage is the combo package gives the consumer a significant savings over buying the additional barrel and magazine separately.”
Magnum Research’s founders, Jim Skildun and John Risdall, started the long and difficult process of turning mechanical drawings into a living, fire-breathing hand cannon in 1979. In 1985, full-fledge production of the Desert Eagle started in Israel. Over the years, pistols were made both in the U.S. and Israel. Kahr Arms purchased Magnum Research in 2010, and the guns are currently being produced at the company’s Pillager, Minnesota, factory with production sometimes augmented by Israel Weapons Industries (IWI) to satisfy demand.
My test sample is of IWI manufacture, and it should be noted that the guns are made to Magnum Research’s specifications. The gun was shipped in a polymer, foam-lined case with the complete .44 Magnum Desert Eagle and a matching 6-inch .50 AE barrel and magazine. The pistol sports a utilitarian matte black oxide finish and black synthetic grips. Both of the barrel assemblies feature Weaver-compatible rails for mounting optics, and the front and rear sights are dovetailed into place and can be drift-adjusted for windage.
The Desert Eagle is one of just a few successful gas-operated handguns, and although it’s lauded for its ingenuity, some of its design features are not exactly unknown in the firearms world. The Desert Eagle uses a short-stroke gas piston for operation. When the gun is fired, gas passes through a port in the bore into the gas cylinder, where it pushes the piston rearward. Inertia imparted on the slide drives it rearward, where the bolt unlocks after the pressure subsides and the extraction, ejection and feeding cycle begin. If you’ve ever used or studied an M1 Carbine, this may sound familiar to you, as this was most likely the inspiration for the Desert Eagle’s designers.
The Desert Eagle uses a rotating bolt lockup that is reminiscent of the AR-15/M16 family of weapons. The bolt head locks into the barrel extension to provide a solid lockup at the moment of cartridge ignition. Once the bullet has left the barrel and the pressure has dropped, the bolt unlocks to cycle the action. It is a hearty system developed to handle the significant power of the .44 Magnum and .50 AE cartridges, and the twin recoil guide rods have two springs each to slow the slide’s velocity and return it to battery.
Both the .44 Magnum and .50 AE barrels use polygonal rifling. Magnum Research claims this creates a better gas seal for increased velocity and less projectile deformation for better accuracy. This type of rifling is also incredibly easy to clean. The gun’s manual specifically warns about using lead projectiles—even jacketed hollow points with exposed lead bases—as they will eventually solder the piston in place and turn the gun into a single-shot affair. The manual recommends a 240-grain .44 Magnum bullets for optimum performance and 300- to 350-grain .50 AE bullets.
The Desert Eagle looks and feels like no other gun I have ever fired. Weighing a hefty 4.5 pounds unloaded and possessing a long and thick grip that feels more like a pneumatic power tool than a pistol, there is nothing petite about the mighty Desert Eagle.
While the grip shape is determined by the huge magazines that hold the fat cartridges—seven .50 AE rounds or eight .44 Magnum rounds—its girth spreads the recoil over a larger surface area, and there are no sharp edges to bite the shooter. The frame also possesses a large tang or beavertail to protect the shooter’s hand from the slide.
Even the most accurate pistol would be difficult to create groups with if it didn’t have a decent trigger. In a heavy gun that fires a powerful load, a safe trigger of hearty design is needed. Magnum Research’s solution is both safe and a delight to shoot. The Desert Eagle is single action in operation (the hammer must be cocked to fire), and it uses a two-stage trigger. The first stage is all take-up until you reach the point of resistance. Adding 5 pounds of pressure will drop the hammer. The trigger breaks cleanly and crisply with very little overtravel. For a heavy- recoiling pistol, being able to prep the trigger before the hammer falls makes a great deal of sense.
Users can adjust the trigger by inserting a screwdriver through the magazine housing opening to turn the Adjustable Trigger Mechanism (ATM), and the location of the transition between stages may be adjusted to any point within the trigger travel. It does not, however, change the amount of pressure required to break the trigger and fire the gun.
There is also an ambidextrous, slide-mounted thumb safety on this semi-auto. I found it far much easier to engage and disengage with my support hand as opposed to using my strong-hand thumb from a firing grip. In any event, the Desert Eagle’s manual recommends carrying the gun with an empty chamber.
Desert Eagle Range Thunder
Shooting a Desert Eagle is one hell of an experience! The wrist-wrenching recoil, the huge ball of flame and the ample muzzle blast are enough to induce flinching in even the most experienced shooter. But I discovered it really isn’t a painful gun to fire, and the more I shot it, the less bothered I was by the muzzle lift and blast. With some practice, I was able to double-tap steel targets at 15 yards.
Over the course of a couple of outings, I discovered that my time between shots and accuracy improved vastly from my first session. A firm firing grip must be maintained for the gun to operate properly, otherwise you’ll induce a failure-to-feed malfunction. Shooting groups from the bench, I ended up pushing into the gun, leaning as far forward as possible and locking my wrists and elbows so my shoulder would absorb as much of the recoil as possible. I used my left hand to apply pressure to the front of my right hand. This technique produced the best groups, and I was amazed to see that the Desert Eagle, in both calibers, outshot many of my custom high-dollar 1911s.
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To switch barrels, remove the magazine and clear the chamber. Push in on the spring-loaded barrel locking pin located on the left side of the frame, and turn the barrel lock on the right side of the frame counterclockwise. Pull the barrel slightly forward and lift it from the frame. Insert the new barrel’s locking lug into the frame’s recess and push against the muzzle end and hold the barrel assembly against the frame while swinging the barrel lock clockwise to its closed position. Insert the appropriate magazine and you’re ready to shoot. That’s all there is to it!
Magnum Research’s Desert Eagle is popular for many reasons. Personally, I find the gun’s design and phenomenal accuracy intriguing. Others will appreciate its sledgehammer-like power. The ability to switch calibers by simply changing the barrel and magazine will also be desirable to many. This Desert Eagle combo pack will provide the owner with a great degree of versatility and also save a substantial amount of money.
Caliber: .44 Magnum, .50 AE
BarrelS: 6 inches
OA Length: 10.75 inches
Weight: 4.46 pounds (empty)
Sights: Front blade, notch rear
Finish: Matte black
Capacity: 8+1 (.44), 7+1 (.50)
For more information, visit magnumresearch.com.
This article was originally published in “Combat Handguns” September/October 2017. To subscribe, visit outdoorgroupstore.com.