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History in a Handgun: Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson

by Doug Wicklund, NRA Museums Senior Curator - Monday, May 8, 2017

History in a Handgun: Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson

Sometimes you have to ask yourself if you “feel lucky” when considering certain guns in the NRA National Firearms Museum collection. 

One in particular, a Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver in .44 Magnum, was touted onscreen and in its film publicity as being the “most powerful handgun in the world.” In the early 1970s, it was a strong contender for that title in revolvers, although some single-shot pistols surpassed it at that time. 

Nowadays, the .44 Magnum has been eclipsed by many more powerful cartridges in handguns, like the custom .600 Nitro Express pistol we fired at the NRA Range on NRATV this past March. We’ve come a long way, baby. 

(Photo courtesy/Film Quad Posters)

Back to the Model 29: in 1971, a young San Francisco police inspector named Harry Callahan first appeared on the silver screen in Dirty Harry. We learned early on that Inspector Callahan got his nickname from not playing nice with criminals. While other police settled for .38 Special revolvers, the N-frame Model 29 Smith & Wesson was what Inspector #2211 carried, albeit loaded with light .44 Special cartridges. 

The original movie script called for Dirty Harry to carry a nickel finish Model 29, but with a four-inch barrel. Early screen tests in different lighting and actor Clint Eastwood’s own test-firing of a Model 29 revolver led to the consideration of using longer barrels. Both an 8 3/8-inch and three 6 1/2-inch Model 29s were procured for filming. The longest barrel was to be primarily showcased in posters, where with special photography, that already long barrel was made to seem even more sizable.

(Photo courtesy/NRA Museums)

But the handgun that Clint Eastwood was to carry under his coat in a shoulder holster was a blued 6 1/2-inch .44 Magnum. There has been some controversy generated by certain gun writers stating that other stand-ins were used. However, the truth is Clint Eastwood never wielded a .41 Magnum in Dirty Harry, and the real reason why the longer barrel length was employed actually came down to availability. It may be hard to believe now, but the Model 29 was not a popular choice in the days before Dirty Harry premiered. Obtaining a nickel 4-inch S&W .44 was not possible, and only by calling in “favors” were the three blued 6 1/2-inch .44 guns found in time for filming. 

After the film debuted, interest skyrocketed, and the going price for a Model 29 revolver quickly tripled. It was said for years afterwards that any Dirty Harry marathon on television would spark an immediate run on Model 29s at local gun shops. Even today, any blued Model 29 can receive considerable interest from those “movie gun” collectors who might never travel to a shooting range and never plan to hunt with it.

(Photo courtesy/NRA Museums)

Serial number #S206921 was one of the three Model 29 revolvers procured for the film, and is reported to have had a rough time of it. In one scene where Inspector Callahan was to toss his sidearm on the sidewalk – which was supposed to have been a rubber replica – Eastwood, extremely tired after a long day of filming, instead tossed the blue steel piece onto a sloping section of sidewalk. Marred with deep gouges and scratches, this damaged revolver had to be returned to Smith & Wesson for refinishing.

Past Hollywood propmasters learned that having another, identical gun ready to put into an actor’s hands would prevent costly re-shoots. Generally, at least three of any firearm featured onscreen had to be available and ready to be shot.

(Photo courtesy/NRA Museums)

Nicely reblued, #S206921 was the Model 29 revolver presented to NRA Board Member and director John Milius as a gift from Clint Eastwood and Warner Brothers for his writing assistance on Dirty Harry, and also for writing the screenplay for Magnum Force. Inlaid into the left grip panel is a shield that is inscribed: ”To John Milius from Warner Brothers and Clint Eastwood for Dirty Harry & Magnum Force 1973.” This double-action revolver was loaned by Milius to the NRA National Firearms Museum, and was featured in both the 2002 exhibit “Real Guns For Reel Heroes,” as well as the current “Hollywood Guns” exhibit.

To see one of Dirty Harry’s famous Model 29 revolvers alongside thousands of other historic, rare and significant firearms, visit the NRA Museums in person or online!

(Main and marquee image courtesy/NoriWHALE)