Shock and awe!

Steve Marchant recalls an encounter with the 500 S&W

At 15m the target was reasonably close but as I watched the tip of the front sight bobbing around the centre, accuracy was not uppermost in my mind ‑ that was being to hold on to the gun as tightly as possible. Having verified my grip was as firm as could be and the front sight was still somewhere ‘about right’ I squeezed the trigger.

The shockwave generated when a .50 calibre, 500-grain projectile leaves the barrel of a handgun at 1425 feet per second is particularly noticeable in an indoor range. But what was truly awesome was the recoil, which booted just over 2kg of stainless steel from its horizontal orientation towards the target to a 45-degree inclination above my head, despite my efforts to hold the gun as tightly as I could.

My immediate reaction to this first shot was to check no damage had been done – to me that is! Everything seemed intact albeit somewhat shaken and my focus shifted to the whereabouts of the shot on the target. But before I convey that result, readers unfamiliar with the world’s most powerful production revolver may appreciate a short history of its development and some basic details on the gun and its ammunition.

In early 2002 Smith & Wesson product manager Herb Belin proposed manufacturing a new revolver which could handle the most powerful repeating handgun cartridge. Made of stainless steel with a five-shot cylinder, the S&W 500 had an 8⅜” barrel with a K-frame-sized and round butt profile to accommodate most peoples’ hands.

While the company was configuring its new revolver, US ammunition manufacturer Cor-Bon was tasked with developing the cartridge. The maximum design operating pressure of the 500 S&W Magnum is 60,000psi but most factory ammo is loaded to 50,000psi to ease extraction of cases from the cylinder. The velocity target was 2000fps and this is readily achieved with 300-grain bullets from an 8⅜” barrel.

To accommodate operating pressures approaching magnum rifle cartridge levels, S&W built a larger double action frame ‑ the ‘X frame’. The S&W 500 weighed 2.06kg and had an overall length of 15” with its 8⅜” compensated barrel. This is of a two-piece design with a barrel liner threaded into the frame from the muzzle and a barrel shroud, which is indexed to the frame for proper sight alignment and to lessen stress on the barrel itself. The imposing .50 calibre cartridges are accommodated in a five-shot fluted cylinder and instead of head-spacing on the rim, as is usual with most revolvers, the 500 S&W Magnum headspaces on the mouth of the 1.625” long case.

Additional features include an internal key lock, interchangeable Patridge front sight and windage and elevation click-adjustable rear sight with a white outline. Unlike other S&W revolvers the extractor rod has no front locking lug, rather a ball detent lock on the frame and yolk. The gun is fitted with a .430”-wide hammer and .400” wide combat trigger, ‘S&W 500’ is laser-etched on the sideplate and Hogue Sorbothane grips are provided to help absorb recoil. Speaking of which, the first shots with the .500 S&W mounted in a Ransom Rest resulted in it jumping around the shooting bench so much that extra clamps were required to hold it down!

The S&W 500 Magnum was unveiled at the 2003 US SHOT Show, an annual trade occasion and the biggest event of its type in the world. Retail price for the new X frame back then was $US987 while Cor-Bon’s original 500 S&W ammo came in a 12-round box and cost $US2.38 a round. The following year S&W introduced a 4”-barrel S&W 500 and in 2005 another 8⅜” barrel variant with a red hi-viz front sight and removable compensator was included in the line-up. Three S&W Performance Center 500 Magnums have also been produced: a 6½” barrel version in 2004 and 10½” and 7½” barrel versions in 2005. Demand for the Model 500 was such that by July of that year 45,000 of them had been sold and 20 years on the 500 S&W Magnum still reigns supreme as the world’s most powerful factory produced handgun.

My first ‘live’ encounter with a 500 S&W was in the US in 2018. Unleashing 2254 ft-lb of muzzle energy from a handgun was an unforgettable experience and I pledged that if I ever had the chance again I’d definitely have another crack at it. Then came a long-awaited visit to my son and his wife, who live in Grand Rapids, Michigan and as luck would have it, Silver Bullet Firearms in that city not only had a firing range and hired guns to shoot, one of them on the list was a 500 S&W. And so it was that on a warm summer morning I found myself reacquainted with the ‘hand cannon’.

Before shooting I had to complete a test on safe gun handling and firing range protocol which took about half an hour then it was over to the counter to select a firearm. As mentioned, this was five years ago and after a brief chat to the guy behind the counter about my choice, it was back to the sales desk where payment for the range hire, ammunition along with hearing and eye protection was processed. A verbal revision of the safety rules preceded the moment long-awaited for the handing over of a 500 S&W revolver and five rounds of 500-grain Hornady factory ammo.

Ear and eye protection is mandatory and such is the muzzle blast from the 500 S&W that earmuffs over ear plugs are not uncommon. Side shields on shooting glasses for additional protection against materials blasted from the revolver’s muzzle brake are also often used. The latter is necessary to keep recoil to a manageable level, yet even with the brake and the 2kg-plus weight of the gun it was still substantial.

How was accuracy though? At 15m it’s pretty easy to spot the hole left by a S&W 500 Magnum in a paper target, though there was no hole visible in mine after the first shot. If I missed the target altogether I’d no idea where to aim the next shot, so it was with a feeling of dread I toggled the switch to bring the target back to the firing line. I could now see the first round had just nicked the very top of the target to the right of centre and such was the disparity between point of aim and the impact point – and having only four more rounds at my disposal – there was little to be gained by adjusting the sights.

Moreover, I felt my sight picture had looked pretty good at the exact moment the hammer dropped, so I sent the target back to the 15m line and after ensuring another very firm hold on the gun, changed my point of aim from centre of the black to centre of the bottom of the target. Shot number two was also accompanied by ‘shock and awe’ but this time (thank goodness) a big ol’ hole appeared in the black.

Shot number three put another hole in the black and I was now becoming familiar enough with the ferocious recoil and muzzle blast to realise I wasn’t ‘leaning’ into the recoil enough. The last two shots were taken with more weight on my toes and felt almost comfortable (well, not quite so shocking perhaps). Most satisfyingly though I now had four shots out of five in the black, including two 10s, one of which just grazed the x-ring. It had turned out to be a good morning at the range.

Back home in Australia and I’m typing this ‘memoir’, wondering if I’ll ever shoot a 500 S&W again. I certainly hope so and must end with a big thank-you to the guys at Silver Bullet Firearms for an unforgettable experience. Shooting the 500 S&W ‑ shock and awe? Yes indeed but mainly just good old-fashioned fun. For more on the revolver contact Australian distributor Grycol International at

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