Photos by Mark Fingar
Big-bore revolvers are easily the most misunderstood segment of the firearms industry. When shooters think of a big-bore revolver, they likely think of Dirty Harry when he said, “But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
Harry was wrong on a couple of counts, but that movie and that quote in particular did a lot to make large-caliber revolvers popular. It also made them a novelty to many. They aren’t always a good fit for self-defense when loaded to magnum pressures, nor are the magnums much fun to shoot all day. However, reduced pressure loads are a ton of fun to shoot. Of course, the magnum loads also come in handy when a mean and determined critter is trying to claim the top spot on the food chain. The Most Powerful Handgun, For Real
When we keep the conversation focused on factory cartridges designed for handguns, the most powerful handgun in the world is decisively Smith & Wesson’s Model S&W500. That fact in and of itself makes me want to own one; I know I am not alone.
However, owning and enjoying this powerhouse requires some reasoning behind the purchase, as well as an understanding of how to get the most out of a handheld cannon. My idea of enjoying the S&W500 is ringing steel and having it handy should I run across a bear. The 4-inch Model 500 is ideal for these purposes. It’s big, and its power is unquestionable.
Smith & Wesson is one of the most recognized names in revolvers because they’ve been making them for a long time, and they’re good at it. The Model 500 carries on that tradition with the company’s largest frame, the X-frame. It appears to be a super-sized N-frame, but there are some significant design differences.
The cylinder’s yoke fits to the frame in such a way that the tension between the two increases under recoil. Smith & Wesson uses a ball detent for this lockup, and then uses the barrel twist to help push the yoke into the frame. All this engineering exists to make sure the cylinder stays closed when you touch one off.
Working hard to keep this revolver firmly assembled while firing might sound odd, but the gun is capable of firing such powerful rounds that this effort was necessary. One distinction of the .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum cartridge is that it has a SAAMI maximum pressure of 60,000 pounds per square inch (psi). Most handguns are only rated to 35,000 psi, and many rifle cartridges top out at 55,000 psi. All the .500’s power comes from the combination of huge cartridge case capacity and the high pressure at which it can operate.
Packing all that volume and pressure into a revolver means that full-power loads will never be fun to shoot more than once or twice. Those same loads are also uniquely capable of killing anything that walks the earth. There is a time and place for everything, and being able to fish this revolver out of my pants and stop whatever is trying to eat me makes this gun very attractive. Feeding This Beast
The key to enjoying any revolver chambered in .500 S&W Magnum, but especially a “small” one like this, is using ammunition loaded to the right pressure. Most factory ammunition is loaded under 50,000 psi; however, loads down around 30,000 psi are also available. When buying ammunition from any manufacturer, look at bullet weight and published velocity as a guide to potential pressure.
For example, two of the loads I tested were pretty standard factory loads. Higher-pressure ammo is available if you plan on visiting Jurassic Park, but that wasn’t necessary for any of my testing. Middle-of-the-road pressure was what I wanted.
Magtech makes the least expensive ammo I could find, so I ordered a box of 400-grain jacketed soft-point (JSP), which left the muzzle at 1,261 feet per second (fps). By the way, most velocities posted on the box are from barrels 6 inches or longer, so don’t be surprised when the 4-inch barrel is a bit slower.
Buffalo Bore has one of the most diverse product lines available and is frequently my first stop when trying to find large-caliber ammunition. They have a lot of choices for a .500 S&W Magnum, both hot and middle-of-the-road. I grabbed some of the medium-pressure 440-grain lead, flat-nose gas-check (LFN-GC) ammunition for testing. It left the muzzle at 1,145 fps.
By the way, the hard-cast lead, flat-nose bullet of large caliber is one of the killingest bullets around. If you ever have to face down an angry bear, this best be what you have on hand. When to select and use this type of bullet seems to be a dying art.
A hard-cast, flat-nose bullet doesn’t deform or expand once it hits flesh. The flat nose forces flesh out and away, generating excellent wound channels. The bullet also maintains its shape, so it goes straight through the animal and penetrates very deeply. Five to 8 feet of penetration through bone and muscle at close range is not unusual from lesser-powered handgun cartridges. It’s best to think of a big-bore, hard-cast, flat-nose bullet as a long-distance holepunch. It’s going to go all the way through.
Expanding bullets (anything with a jacket) are a poor choice for large, dangerous animals because they lack necessary penetration. They quickly lose velocity as they expand; however, wound channels are enormous. If you’re hunting deer or elk with a .500 S&W, use an expanding bullet.
The final load I tested was also from Buffalo Bore, but it was the .500 JRH, also with the 440-grain LFN-HC bullet. Jack Huntington designed the .500 JRH, and it is to the .500 S&W Magnum what the .38 Special is to the .357 Magnum.
The .500 JRH is shorter and has a slightly smaller diameter case rim than the .500 S&W (this is to better fit other custom revolvers), but it works very well in any .500 S&W. The only downside to putting .500 JRH cartridges into a .500 S&W is that the extractor star will occasionally slip off the rim when you smack the ejector rod. Since high-speed tactical reloads are not on the menu for me and this S&W500, it wasn’t an issue. Mild .500 JRH loads are also a hell of a lot more fun to shoot than any .500 S&W load, but Buffalo Bore has the only factory ammunition of which I am aware. Kicking Tires & Lighting Fires
Three different loads in hand, it was time to get all dolled up and head to the range. Considering the operating pressure of the .500 S&W and the fact that this test gun also wore a compensator, I used earplugs in addition to earmuffs. This was not totally necessary, but it made shooting easier on my ears.
Recoil was not insubstantial. However, the .500 S&W is not always the wrist-snapping, skull-splitting boogeyman that it is often made out to be. This is mostly due to the test gun’s 56-ounce weight and the selection of medium- to low-pressure loads. Even with the relatively mild loads and the heavy gun, my firing hand and lower arm were ready to stop after 50 rounds. The next morning, my firing arm felt like it had been through some serious weight training. It was stiff with just a hint of soreness but no joint pain.
Accuracy testing a .500 S&W is hard work. While there was never any fear that the test gun would recoil so severely that the front sight would hit me in the face, it did require a firm two-handed hold to control. I also went with a traditional revolver hold instead of the more common thumbs-forward pistol hold.
I recommend holding the S&W500 like the revolver it is. Should a shooter be tempted to use the thumbs-forward hold used on a semiautomatic pistol, there is a chance the tip of the support-hand thumb will creep forward of the cylinder. Letting any finger get forward of the cylinder is a very bad idea.
There is almost 50,000 psi of pressure leaking out of the small gap between the cylinder and frame, and that blast comes right down the front face of the cylinder. It will really hurt if it contacts your fingers. I even made sure to keep the cylinder gap in front of the sandbag I used for support, and the bag was still covered in carbon by the end of my test session.
I shot three groups of five shots for each test load, and that was plenty of .500 S&W for one day’s testing. My best groups were the first ones of the day, and even then, I could only get my courage to hold for four of the five shots before a break in concentration opened groups up. I had one group that put four shots into just over an inch before the fifth more than doubled its size. That said, I was surprised at the big gun’s accuracy.
I also saw no loss of accuracy when shooting the .500 JRH loads, even though they are a lot shorter than the .500 S&W. I selected the mildest Buffalo Bore offering for testing, and I was glad I did. The S&W500 feels like shooting any other mild-mannered big-bore revolver with those in the cylinder.
When stoked with the right load, the S&W500 can do everything from making you giggle while ringing steel to killing a Tyrannosaurus Rex — and the 4-inch version has the added benefit of being something you could actually carry for more than 20 minutes at a time.