Handguns, amputation, and silence

Model 29 and Dirty Harry

Americans have an obsession with guns. Although this obsession appears to be focused on assault rifles at this time, in particular the ArmaLite Rifle-15 (AR-15,) it is generally handguns that proliferate.

Handguns, of course, come in revolver and automatic variants (and, for the true connoisseurs, in variants that blend the line between the two.)

Ignoring Westerns, revolvers are perhaps most famous from Mr. Clint Eastwood’s quote in the movie Dirty Harry, where Harry Callahan, an Inspector in the San Francisco Police Department, after having killed two robbers with his revolver, turns towards a third, wounded robber, lying near a loaded shotgun, and says:

I know what you’re thinking: “Did he fire six shots, or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. 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 you, punk?

Inspector Callahan is actually misspeaking, as he is apparently referring to his revolver as a “.44 Magnum,” when, in reality, the .44 Magnum is a reference to the cartridge, a Remington produced, large-bore cartridge originally designed for revolver use. In fact, Inspector Callahan’s revolver is a Smith & Wesson Model 29.

Although this probably is only interesting for the more nutty readers, the .44 Magnum designation is also a bit of a misnomer, since guns chambered for the .44 Magnum case use bullets that are approximately 0.429 inches (10.9 mm) in diameter. Moreover, the .44 Magnum round was not really the most powerful revolver round in 1971, being outgunned, if you will, by the Wildcat .454 Casull, a round introduced in in 1959, which, with a 400 grain load, travels at the 1,400 feet per second (430 meters per second) and delivers 1,741 foot-pounds of force (2,360 Joule,) handily beating the most powerful .44 Magnum round at 1,325 feet per second (404 meters per second) and 1,533 foot-pounds of force (2,078 Joule.)

Anyways, gun-dealers were able to set potential buyers straight and after the movie’s release, the demand for the Smith & Wesson Model 29 exploded.

The Model 29 is a six-shot, double-action revolver chambered for the .44 Magnum cartridge, offered with barrels ranging from 3 inches to 10 3/8 inches. In 1978, Smith and Wesson introduced the Smith and Wesson Model 629, a stainless steel version of the Model 29. General manufacturing of the Model x29 line ended in the late 1990ies, but, from time to time, special editions are manufactured.

Blowing the model 29 away

The creation a civilian market for very large handguns naturally also created competition, and around 2003 Smith & Wesson stepped up, introducing the Smith & Wesson Model 500, chambered for the .500 Smith and Wesson Magnum round.

The gun and the round are remarkable, and I would be negligent if I did not mention that, except for shock value, there is no reason that I can imagine why anyone would want to carry around a Model 500 loaded with the .500 Magnum round (Smith & Wesson sells the gun as a hunting handgun, which, needless to say, is a ridiculous notion given the weight, dimensions, and firepower.)

Model 500 compared to Model 629 and .44 Magnum compared to .500 Magnum

Model 500 compared to Model 629 and .44 Magnum compared to .500 Magnum

The Smith & Wesson Model 500 is a five-shot, single action/double-action large caliber revolver, weighing up to 5.125 pounds (2.3 kilograms) and available with a 10.5 inch (267 millimeters) barrel. The gun and the round is so large that it makes the already obscenely large Model 629 and .44 Magnum round look small, as you can see in the picture on the right. The most powerful of the .500 Magnum rounds can travel at 2,075 feet per second (632 meters per second) and deliver 3,031 foot-pounds of force (4,109 Joule.)

These numbers can be hard to understand, so let’s attempt some referential comparisons … The heaviest Glock handgun weighs around 1.8 pounds (800 grams) and has a barrel length of approximately 4.6 inches (115 millimeters.) A reasonable amount of energy for a 9 millimeter round is 350 foot-pounds of force (470 Joule.) Handgun rounds are normally classified as subsonic, traveling at speeds far below 1,117 feet per second, although their speed vary considerably, with handguns’ muzzle velocity typically ranging from 750 feet per second to 1,300 feet per second.

The Model 500, by the way, is really heavy. Picking up the Model 500 in a casual manner is impossible… you have to focus and actually lift the the gun. In fact, the Model 500 is so heavy that is comes with a sling — a feature normally reserved for rifles.

The energy involved with firing this monster is, of course, immense (1,000 Joule is sufficient energy to lift a 100 kilogram object about 1 meter — or in kinetic terms it is enough to move a tennis ball at a speed of approximately 200 meters per second or 420 miles per hour.)

With rifles weighing between 7.5 pounds and 10 pounds and, typically, firing rounds at supersonic speeds, with muzzle velocity between 1,900 feet per second and 4,000 ft/s (1,200 m/s) and delivering 2,000 foot-pounds of force (2,712 Joule,) the Model 500 is either a very big, heavy, and powerful handgun or a light, small, but powerful rifle.

Energy and speed matters in what is euphemistically known as wound ballistics where there are three mechanisms of tissue damage: (1) laceration and crushing (which is what you see in movies,) (2) shock waves, and (3) cavitation (the effect of which movies always fails to capture.)

Whereas laceration and crushing are generated by the projectile displacing the tissue (and bones) in its track, shock waves causes compression of tissue that lays ahead of the bullet, and cavitation is caused by kinetic energy imparted on surrounding tissue, forcing it forward and producing a temporary cavity or temporary displacement of tissues, which, surprisingly can impact an area up to 30 times the size of the actual bullet. To get a feel for the impact of cavitation, take a look at the YouTube video, below.

Generally, shock wave damage is not a major factor in wounds where the projectile travels at less than 1,000 feet per second and cavitation becomes a factor at around 2,000 feet per second. Unfortunately for victims shot with .500 Magnum rounds, both these metrics are easily achieved, and, so, they are subject to three classes of wound damage.

Self-mutilation by handgun

Anyway, getting back to the point of this posting, revolvers have been surpassed in popularity by automatic handguns, which is probably a good thing, since, perhaps surprisingly to gun novices, revolvers can be extremely dangerous to the operator.

First, powerful revolvers have very high barrel recoil lift, as much of 45 to 90 degrees, literally making it possible for an operator to hit himself or herself in the head with the barrel. More importantly, however, revolver design is such that significant gasses escape between the cylinder and the barrel when the gun is fired, which can cause significant injury.

To understand the potential for injury consider the fact that the .500 Magnum round typically operate at 50,000 PSI (3,400 bar.) If you hold thick cardboard, say a paper target folded 4 to 8 times, next to the cylinder when a round is fired, the cardboard will be shredded, or, rather, obliterated. If your fingers are located in the same position, you risk amputation, as Mr. Todd Brown, who sued Smith and Wesson for negligence and liability, learned when he in 2007 sustained serious injuries to his left hand during the firing of a Smith & Wesson Model 460 revolver.

As the complaint reads (warning: gory details ahead — caution: Mr. Brown’s way of operating the handgun is not the correct one and has the potential for causing great bodily harm:)

Todd went to his regular deer stand and after a time a deer appeared and he began to sight the deer through the scope. Niceties of a table rest to support the Revolver being unavailable in the field as one never knows from which direction game will appear, Todd had to support this very heavy gun entirely with the strength of his hands and arms while trying to steady the cross-hairs of the scope on the deer, and in doing this Todd held the pistol grip with his right hand and placed his left hand under the trigger guard ofthe Revolver and also braced the gun against the window of the deer stand. During this process Todd cocked thc hammer on the Revolver and upon being satisfied that he had the deer sighted-in Todd pulled the trigger and fired the gun. Todd then lowered the gun to see if he hit the deer, and as he was looking for the deer in the moments following the shot he saw blood spurting up in the air and on his gun and clothes, and he looked and saw that his thumb had been severed from his left hand and there was a deep gash in the flesh of the palm of his left hand extending up to his index finger, all of which had been caused by the extraordinarily powerful gasses escaping from the barrel-cylinder gap of the subject Smith & Wesson Model 460 Magnum Revolver gun when fired by Todd at the deer.

You can obtain the complaint from Pacer (Brown et al v. Smith & Wesson Corporation, filed July 18, 2008 as 08-cv-04065-HFB.)

Silencing a revolver

This escape of gas from between the barrel and the cylinder is also the reason why the idea of silencers (or, more accurately, sound suppressors) on revolvers, a notion popularized and perpetuated by Hollywood, is ridiculous — with one exception. The Nagant M1895 revolver is a seven-shot, gas-seal revolver designed in 1886, which upon cocking of the gun moves the cylinder forward to close the gap between the cylinder and barrel, effectively sealing the gas into the barrel where it can be handled by a silencer in the same way that it is handled in an automatic handgun. This feature, quite unique among revolvers, and requiring a special and odd looking cartridge, was introduced to boost the muzzle velocity of the revolver, adding 75 feet per second, or so, in speed.

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