The Desert Eagle is a firearm that was just MADE to appear in movies.
It is big (perhaps that’s an understatement), aggressive-looking, and powerful, especially when chambered in the calibre it’s most known for, the giant .50 Action Express or, as Bullet-Tooth Tony famously puts it in one of the firearm’s most memorable movie scenes: “Desert Eagle point-five-oh.”
The Desert Eagle is a textbook case of a firearm that ended up as a common sight in movies purely due to its formidable looks.
As an actual pistol, it is fairly impractical, to say the least, being not very well suited for self-defence, nor law enforcement/military use due to its massive size and limited magazine capacity.
Anyone who has ever actually handled one and felt its ridiculously fat grip and huge, stubby controls will agree it is the handgun equivalent of an oversized clown shoe: comically large for seemingly no other reason than to put a grin on your face.
But on the screen it’s a winner, having reportedly been featured in its different variants and calibres in over 500 movies, television shows and video games, used in the hands of both hero and villain.
Part of the reason for this pistol’s proliferation in the entertainment industry is the fact that manufacturer Magnum Research actively solicited prop houses to use the Desert Eagle in movies during the early 1990s. This definitely contributed to the pistol’s overall commercial success, for without the appeal and demand created by the entertainment industry, the market for this type of firearm would have remained relatively limited.
The first version of the Desert Eagle was designed and built in 1981, and is noteworthy for being the first semi-automatic pistol to successfully chamber and fire the rimmed .357 Magnum cartridge, a round that up until then had been used exclusively in revolvers.
The .357 Magnum cartridge was an incredibly popular round at the time, known for its superior power and accuracy.
The designers wished to take advantage of these favourable ballistic characteristics as the original intended purpose of the Desert Eagle was target/silhouette shooting and hunting.
However, the first working prototype didn’t function perfectly. Therefore Magnum Research sought assistance from Israeli Military Industries (IMI Systems), which helped redesign the prototype into a fully-functional pistol. By 1983, it was put into production.
Development of the Desert Eagle continued, and in 1986 the .44 Magnum version was launched successfully, the first .44 Magnum semi-automatic pistol to be brought to market.
The ‘firsts’ didn’t end there, with Magnum Research releasing the Desert Eagle chambered in .41 Magnum in 1987 (now out of production), and then more notably in 1996, it introduced the now-famous Desert Eagle chambered in .50 Action Express, the world’s largest production semi-automatic pistol.
Above: The rotating bolt of the Desert Eagle
Aside from all of these accomplishments, the pistol also has a few interesting, and fairly unique, design characteristics.
Unlike other semi-automatic pistols, the Desert Eagle utilises a gas blow-back and rotating bolt-reloading mechanism more commonly found in semi-automatic rifles.
In fact, many people comment that the gas system in the Desert Eagle closely resembles that used in the Mini 14 rifle, while the rotating bolt is very similar to that of the M16/AR15.
For those unfamiliar with this mechanism, gas-operated firearms function by venting some of the high-pressure gases created by the fired cartridge back towards the bolt carrier. These gases then force the bolt carrier backwards (either directly or via a piston), cycling the case ejection and reloading mechanism of the firearm.
This type of system is suitable for use in semi-automatic rifles due to the high amounts of gas and energy released when firing rifle cartridges.
The reason that such a gas-operated mechanism is possible in the Desert Eagle is due to the large-calibre handgun cartridges it uses, which are powerful enough, and produce sufficient gas, to reliably cycle the heavy slide.
An advantage of using this type of mechanism is that the recoil is reduced by redirecting some of the energy produced from the fired cartridge into cycling the firearm.
This is an important consideration when you’re firing a pistol chambered in some of the largest handgun calibres available.
The movie credited as being the first to ever feature the Desert Eagle is the 1985 action film ‘Year of the Dragon’, appropriately wielded by Hollywood tough-guy Mickey Rourke.
He would wield it again in 1991 in the more mainstream ‘Harley Davidsons and the Marlboro Man’, which really showcased the gun when the actor mentions it by name during a scene, as “.44 Mag Desert Eagle, eight in the clip, one in the pipe.”
Left: Mickey Rourke wields the Desert Eagle on screen for the first time in ‘Year of the Dragon’
The Desert Eagle’s next movie appearance was even more serendipitous, as the world’s biggest semi-automatic pistol ended up in the hands of one of the world’s biggest (literally) movie stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the 1985 blockbuster ‘Commando’.
This was the first of many movies where these two stars shared the screen, from ‘Predator’ to ‘Last Action Hero’, ‘True Lies’, and ‘Eraser’.
Quite frankly, I don’t think you could find a more appropriate sidearm for Hollywood’s greatest, and largest, action hero.
Above: Arnold Schwarzenegger racks his Desert Eagle in ‘The Last Action Hero’
An interesting, and slightly unusual, Desert Eagle/Schwarzenegger movie match-up is the 1988 action-comedy ‘Red Heat’, where Schwarzenegger plays a Russian police officer who teams up with the fast-talking James Belushi.
In this movie, a Desert Eagle is modified to create a fictional firearm called the Podbyrin 9.2mm, supposedly a powerful Soviet handgun, large enough to match Arnold’s hulking character in the film, like a Russian ‘Dirty Harry’ (there is even a scene where they reference ‘Dirty Harry’ and his powerful .44 Magnum).
Right: Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘Red Heat’ with the fictional Podbyrin 9.2mm, built from a Desert Eagle
The Desert Eagle quickly became an entertainment industry favourite, appearing in all manner and genre of movies, TV shows, and computer games.
There are, however, two films in particular that for most of us have cemented the Desert Eagle’s place in cinema history.
Chronologically, these are ‘The Matrix’ (1999) and ‘Snatch’ (2000).
‘The Matrix’ blew everyone away with its original storyline, explosive action, astounding special effects and, most notably, its innovative cinematography.
These days we take all those ‘bullet time’, slow-motion, 3D spinning special effects for granted, and sometimes forget it was ‘The Matrix’ that pioneered those techniques and, indeed, a whole new style of film-making.
Thanks to this new cinematography and special effects, we were shown the Desert Eagle in ways we had never seen on screen before.
With many highly-detailed, close-up, and slow-motion shots focusing on the pistol in action, it was beautifully showcased from every conceivable angle.
The Wachowski Brothers chose the Desert Eagle specifically as the sidearm for the Agents in the film, which perfectly enhanced their already deadly and menacing characters.
Left: A beautifully detailed, slow-motion, birds-eye-view shot of the Desert Eagle firing and cycling, from ‘The Matrix’. Notice the empty, ejecting case is clearly that of a blank firing cartridge.
Guy Ritchie’s highly popular and successful crime-comedy ‘Snatch’, released the following year, was a very different film to ‘The Matrix’, but still managed to shine the spotlight on the Desert Eagle, giving it one of its most memorable movie moments.
In this particular scene, hard-as-nails bruiser ‘Bullet-Tooth Tony’, played by Vinnie Jones, calmly delivers a hilarious and highly-quotable monologue where he persuades three armed would-be robbers to retreat and leave the establishment empty-handed.
He does this by gently placing his “Desert Eagle point-five-oh” on the table next to him, while wryly pointing out that the thieves are, in fact, only carrying replica firearms.
I think it’s fair to speculate that, after watching this scene, a fair number of self-proclaimed tough-guys went out and purchased their very own Desert Eagle ‘point-five-ohs’, and then memorised that speech in anticipation of one day having the opportunity to repeat it.
I think this pretty much sums up the mainstream appeal of the Desert Eagle.
Above: Bullet-Tooth Tony, played by Vinny Jones, and his now famous Desert Eagle point-five-oh in the movie ‘Snatch’
It’s the gun for the guy who wants to have the biggest, flashiest stick on the block.
A gun to pull out at the firing range and let everyone marvel in awe at its huge size and impressive looks.
A gun that induces nervous chuckles whenever one fires it for the first time and feels its immense power.
It’s a gun that you want to have, because you saw it at the movies.
By Alessandro De Grandis, first published in On Target Africa magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 4, March 2018
Note: Some of the layout, formatting, images and content of this article has been edited and differs slightly from the original, published version.