When it comes to an analysis of some of the world’s most powerful handguns, it’s hard not to think of Dirty Harry.
The grizzled character uttered one of the most iconic linesever by a gun-wielding movie character. After cornering an uncooperative criminal, he pointed his huge revolver at the perpetrator and said, “I know what you are thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all of this excitement, I’ve kind of lost track myself. But, being that this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?”
It remains one of the most memorable scenes on the silver screen, despite the fact Eastwood wasn’t holding the reigning power champion among handguns. The .454 claimed that title with its introduction in 1957, 14 years before “Dirty Harry“ hit the silver screen—in December 1971.
The Smith & Wesson Connection
Since Smith & Wesson’s public introduction of gun writer Elmer Keith’s .44 Mag. creation in 1956, other pistols have claimed the title of most powerful handgun in the world. Among them are the .454 Casull, .460 S&W, .475 Linebaugh, .480 Ruger, .50 AE, .500 Wyoming Express and 500 S&W. A few gunsmiths have even gone as far as to create handguns that fire massive rifle cartridges including the .450 Marlin, .458 Win. Mag. and the .50 BMG.
Sorted by muzzle energy, rather than caliber, here are a few notably heavy-hitting handguns and the cartridges they digest that exceed Eastwood’s “hand cannon.” Feet per second (fps) and foot-pounds (ft/lbs) or energy reflect figures for the longest barreled versions of each firearm.
Most Powerful Handguns
Ruger Super Redhawk
Ruger originally introduced a Super Redhawk chambered to fire the .480 Ruger cartridge—a shortened version of the .475 Linebaugh cartridge—in 2003. This particular version of the famous revolver weighs 53 ounces, features a 7.5-inch barrel and has a five-shot cylinder.
It’s designed to provide performance between that of the .44 Mag. and the .454 Casull, with a level of felt recoil significantly less than the latter. Consequently, the .480 Ruger was meant to be a potent hunting cartridge more shooters could enjoy and afford to shoot.
For those unfamiliar with the .480 Ruger cartridge, it features the same case dimensions as the .475 Linebaugh, except it’s shorter—1.285 inches instead of 1.400 inches. Hornady’s first .480 Ruger cartridges were 325-grain XTP hollow points that came out of the Super Redhawk’s barrel at approximately 1,350 fps, generating 1,315 ft/lbs of energy at the muzzle.
Freedom Arms Model 83
A relatively obscure single-action revolver called the Model 83 comes next. It’s a semi-custom handgun manufactured by Freedom Arms, which is based in Freedom, WY, constructed from stainless steel. Chamberings include .475 Linebaugh, .500 Wyoming Express and .454 Casull.
Exceptionally tight tolerances and extreme accuracy are trademarks in this five-shot handgun. It’s available with a 4.75-inch, 6-inch, 7.5-inch or 10-inch barrel and has adjustable sights as well as impregnated hardwood grips.
The .475 Linebaugh cartridge, designed by John Linebaugh in 1988, uses the .45-70 Govt. as its parent case and has a case length of 1.4 inches. Thus, it’s a rimmed, straight-walled, handgun cartridge that employs a large pistol primer. It fires a .475-caliber bullet with weights that range from 400 grains with a muzzle velocity of 1,400 fps (muzzle energy of 1,741 ft/lbs) to 440 grains with a muzzle velocity of 1,325 fps (muzzle energy of 1,714 ft/lbs).
Slightly less energy comes with the .500 Wyoming Express chambering, despite its larger .500-inch caliber. Developed by Freedom Arms, these belted rounds are straight-walled handgun cartridges with a case length of 1.37 inches. Large rifle primers start ignition and bullet weights range from 370- to 440-grains. Muzzle velocities and energies are 1,300 fps and 1,388 ft/lbs and 1,200 fps and 1,407 ft/lbs, respectively.
Desert Eagle Mark XIX
Next in line in terms of power is a rather large semi-automatic handgun called the Desert Eagle Mark XIX, which is made by Magnum Research. It fires the largest centerfire handgun cartridge of any magazine-fed, self-loading, semi-automatic handgun—the .50 AE.
Featuring a 6-inch barrel with a seven-round magazine, the Desert Eagle Mark XIX weighs 72 ounces. It uses a gas-operated piston mechanism normally associated with semi-automatic rifles like the AK-47, instead of the short recoil or blow-back designs more commonly seen in semi-automatic pistols.
Combined with a rotating bolt with four locking lugs similar to the AR-15/M16, the Desert Eagle fires larger handgun cartridges than any other semi-automatic handgun presently on the market. Its gas operation significantly reduces recoil, thus, enabling it to successfully compete with magnum-power revolvers.
Evan Whildin of Action Arms created the .50 AE handgun cartridge in 1988. It has a rebated rim, straight walls, case length of 1.28 inches uses a large pistol primer and fires a .452-caliber bullet. Projectile weights vary from 300-grains to 325 grains, delivering between 1,475 and 1,450 fps and 1,449 and 1,517 ft/lbs of energy at the muzzle.
Taurus Raging Bull
The Taurus 454 Raging Bull is a double-action, ultra-magnum power, revolver chambered for the .454 Casull cartridge. Machined from stainless steel, it features a 6.5-inch, ported barrel to reduce recoil along with a five-shot cylinder. It tips the scales at 53 ounces.
It’s fitted with adjustable sights and a recoil-absorbing rubber grip. The Raging Bull has the same appearance and mechanical operation as any other magnum-powered revolver, but it differs slightly in the cylinder latch location, which is in front of the cylinder. With the release mechanism mounted in the standard position behind the cylinder on the frame it requires two hands to open the cylinder rather than one. But, its real claim to fame is the ability to fire the .454 Casull cartridge, making it among the most powerful handguns around. Consequently, the Taurus Raging Bull is suitable for hunting any North American large- or dangerous-game species.
Dick Casull and Jack Fulmer teamed up to create the .454 Casull in 1957, although the public didn’t know about it until a November 1959 issue of “Guns & Ammo” magazine unveiled the new cartridge. Using a lengthened version of the .45 Colt case, the .454 Casull is a rimmed, straight-walled, handgun cartridge with a case length of 1.383 inches that uses a small rifle primer. It fires a .452-caliber bullet with weights that range from as little as 240 grains with a muzzle velocity of 1,900 fps and muzzle energy of 1,923 ft/lbs to as much as 400 grains with a muzzle velocity of 1,400 fps and muzzle energy of 1,741 ft/lbs.
Smith & Wesson .460XVR
The Smith & Wesson 460XVR (Extreme Velocity Revolver) takes fifth-place honors in our list. of the world’s most powerful handguns. This handgun is a double-action, ultra-magnum built on the company’s X frame (its largest frame size). Chambered for the .460 S&W cartridge, it can also run .45 Long Colt and .454 Casull cartridges in the same cylinder.
Like the Taurus Raging Bull, the model 460XVR primary mission is hunting large and/or dangerous game species. It’s also machined from stainless steel and features an 8.38-inch ported, barrel to reduce recoil. The revolver has a 5 shot cylinder, weighs 72.2 ounces and comes with adjustable sights and a recoil-absorbing rubber grip. But, unlike the Raging Bull, the 460XVR can fire the fastest handgun cartridge in the world.
Smith & Wesson and Hornady introduced the .460 S&W, based on a lengthened version of the .454 Casull, in 2005. Thus, it is a rimmed, straight-walled, handgun cartridge with a case length of 1.8 inches that uses a large rifle prime. It fires a .452-caliber bullet with weights that range from as little as 200 grains (muzzle velocity of 2,300 fps and energy of 2,350 ft/lbs) to as much as 395 grains (1,525 fps at 2,040 ft/lbs).
Smith & Wesson 500
Smith & Wesson’s 500 comes next, another double-action, ultra-magnum power revolver made by the company. Also built on the X frame, it chambers .500 S&W Mag. cartridges. Like Dan Wesson revolvers, it features an internal barrel sleeve tensioned between the frame and the barrel shroud, which makes it less expensive to produce and increases its accuracy. Hunting large and/or dangerous game species is its primary role, like the model 460XVR, constructed from stainless steel. The cylinder holds five rounds, the compensated barrel is 8.38 inches long and it weighs 69.1 ounces. Other features include sights and a recoil-absorbing rubber grip.
The .500 S&W cartridge was a joint effort of CorBon and Smith in Wesson. The rimmed, straight-walled handgun ammo first rolled out of factories in 2003. Case length is 1.625 inches, it uses large rifle primers and launches .500-caliber bullets. Weights vary from 300 to 500 grains, with a muzzle velocity of 2,075 fps and a muzzle energy of 2,868 ft/lbs to 1,425 fps and of 2,254 ft/lbs, respectively.
Powerful Handgun #6: Magnum Research BFR
The BFR (Biggest Finest Revolver) is made by Magnum Research and is a single-action, ultra-magnum power, revolver chambered for .480 Ruger, the .454 Casull, .460 S&W, .50 AE, .500 JRH and .500 S&W. Some models digest .444 Marlin, .450 Marlin and 45-70 Govt. rifle ammo. It’s also designed to serve as a hunting handgun for large and/or dangerous game species.
Machined from stainless steel, the BFR features a five-shot cylinder and comes in barrel lengths that range from 5.5 inches to 7.5 inches to 10 inches. Weights vary from 52 ounces to 85 ounces. They come with adjustable sights and hardwood grips.
The .444 Marlin cartridge is a product of both Marlin Firearms and Remington Arms that appeared in 1964. Rimmed and straight-walled, this rifle cartridge has a case length of 2.55 inches. It uses a larger rifle primer and fires a .429-caliber bullet with weights that range from 240 to 300 grains. The heaviest load leaves the barrel at 3,000 fps, which generates 2,665 ft/lbs of energy. If you prefer the lightweight version its muzzle velocity is 2,350 fps putting energy at 2,942 ft/lbs.
Marlin and Hornady worked jointly on the .450 Marlin, rolling the belted, straight-walled, rifle cartridge out in 2000. Case length is 2.1 inches, it uses a large rifle primer and fires a .458-caliber bullet with weights that range from 325 grains to 430. Velocity varies from 2,225 fps to 1,900 and muzzle energy from 3,572 ft/lbs to 3,446, respectively.
The U.S. Government rolled out the .45-70 Govt. cartridge in 1863. It’s a rimmed and tapered rifle cartridge that has a case length of 2.105 inches and uses a large rifle primer. It launches .458-caliber bullets with weights that range from 300 grains (muzzle velocity of 2,069 fps and muzzle energy of 2,852 ft/lbs) to 405 grains (1,394 fps and 1,748 ft/lbs).
Thompson Center Encore Pro Hunter
The Encore Pro Hunter pistol is a break-action, single-shot handgun made by Thompson Center normally chambered for the .223 Rem. and the .308 Win. cartridges. When fitted with aftermarket barrels from SSK Industries, though, it is capable of firing such cartridges as the .300 Win. Mag., .338 Win. Mag., 375 H & H Mag., .458 Win. Mag. and the .50 Alaskan.
Built on Thompson Center’s Encore frame, which is a fusion of the company’s Contender single-shot pistol and single-shot rifle, the T/C Encore Pro Hunter has a 15-inch barrel and weighs 72 ounces. Also, like the various ultra- magnum handguns listed above, the T/C Encore Pro Hunter has large and/or dangerous game hunting in mind. Therefore, it features adjustable sights and a recoil-absorbing rubber grip.
Winchester created the .458 Win. Mag. in 1956 as a dangerous game species load for use in North America and Africa. It’s a belted, tapered rifle cartridge the measures 2.5 inches long. It also uses a large rifle primer. It’s .458-caliber bullet vary in weight from 300-grain versions that leave the gun at 2,605 fps, where it generates 4,525 ft/lbs of energy. Five hundred grain loads can also be found, with figures of 2,192 fps and 5,336 ft/lbs.
Triple Action Thunder
Last, but not least, we have the Thunder pistol, which was designed by Janos Lakatos of Triple Action out of Logan, UT. Attendees at the 2004 SHOT show got the first glimpse of the handgun. Unfortunately, it is not currently in production due to the company’s inability to find a manufacturer to license the design too.
The prototype Thunder pistol is a large-caliber, single-shot with a 13.2-inch barrel and a weight of 12 pounds. In addition, it also features a small cocking lever on the left side of the gun, and it loads through a scissor breach in the back of the gun. Plus, it also features a patented, hydraulic, recoil-reduction system called a Nitrogen Recoil Controller combined with a massive muzzle brake mounted on the barrel—all good touches because this massive single-shot pistol fires the giant .50 caliber .50 BMG cartridge.
Make no mistake, we’re talking about the same cartridge that set so many long-distance records in the hands of snipers during the global war on terror. The .50 BMG is a product of Frankford Arsenal and Winchester Repeating Arms that entered service in the U.S. military in 1921. It has a massive case length of 3.91 inches, uses a #35 Arsenal primer and fires a .50-caliber, full metal jacket bullet. Weights range from 647 to 800 grains. Muzzle velocity varies from 3,044 to 2,895 fps and energy from 13,310 to 14,895 ft/lbs, respectively.
A Powerful, Useful Hand Cannon
The world’s most powerful handguns or hand cannons depending on your point of view, range in size, power and practicality—from the perfectly reasonable to the seemingly insane. Whether your goal is to hunt North American game species such as elk, moose or brown bear with a handgun or stop a belligerent African Cape buffalo charge, surely one the world’s most powerful handguns listed above will serve your purpose!