How the Desert Eagle Handgun Harnessed the Power of a Rifle

How the Desert Eagle Handgun Harnessed the Power of a Rifle

Kyle Mizokami

Security, Americas

By DeepThunder - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Now that’s real firepower.

Key point: The Desert Eagle is a powerful weapon, but one that is used more in movies than in real life.

In the mid-1980s, a powerful new handgun quickly achieved gun celebrity status. The Desert Eagle was an innovative design that ported over heavy revolver rounds to the semiautomatic pistol platform. The pistol was featured in dozens of action films, and although expensive and not widely adopted by military services the Desert Eagle gained a cult following.

Traditionally, heavy bullet calibers such as .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum were exclusively used by revolvers. Revolvers, with fewer moving parts, are mechanically stronger and can withstand the pressures of heavy handgun calibers. Semiautomatic pistols, on the other hand, were limited to .45 ACP or smaller calibers. If a gun enthusiast wanted a handgun in .357 or .44 Magnum, he or she was limited entirely to revolvers.

The Desert Eagle changed all of that. First introduced in 1983, it was unlike any other pistol in common use. The bolt face, which uses multiple teeth to lock into battery, was derived from the M-16 and AR-15 family of rifles. Unlike other pistols the barrel was fixed in place, and rather than use a blowback system the Desert Eagle used a gas piston system derived from the Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle. This was necessary to accommodate the high chamber pressures and recoil of using heavy caliber cartridges. Traditional pistols rely on the energy from a shooting a gun to drive the slide backward and cycle the action. The slide grabs the empty bullet casing and spits it out, picks up a fresh round from the magazine, and cocks the pistol.

The large caliber rounds fired by the Desert Eagle release too much energy to make the blowback system practical (or safe), so designers turned their attention to a system where they could regulate how much of the energy was diverted to cycle the weapon. When a user pulls the Desert Eagle’s trigger, the gas system diverts some of the hot gunpowder gases from the barrel to drive a piston that cycles the action. Although common in rifles, the gas piston system was unknown among handguns mostly because it was just unnecessary. In a way, the Desert Eagle is part revolver, pistol and rifle.

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