Large-caliber semi-automatic pistols, up until the mid-1960s, were exceedingly rare. Prior to that, the category consisted largely of the rarely-encountered Mars pistol. Then came Harry Sandford's short-lived Auto-Mag (made in Pasadena of all places!) which was short-recoil operated and featured a rotary bolt, enabling it to shoot a rimless shortened equivalent of the .44 Magnum, the .44 AMP. Following up on that in the 1970s was Wildey Moore's eponymous gas-powered autoloading pistol, which incorporated, like the Auto-Mag, a rotating-bolt design. The Wildey ran a series of new and ultimately elusive cartridges including the .45 Win Mag and the .475 Wildey Mag, all in an attempt to give .44 Magnum-level performance to a semi-auto.
Then came the Desert Eagle, which could shoot standard .44 Mag cartridges, and it was a game-changer in its category.
To be sure, although many think the Desert Eagle was an Israeli gun, it came from Minnesota with Magnum Research. With work on the large-framed semi-auto icon going back as far as the 1970s, Bernard White in 1983 filed a 14-page patent for the design of a gas-operated pistol with a rotating bolt and twin recoil springs. A short-stroke piston in a gas cylinder under the fixed barrel drives the slide to the rear.
"It's the USA's first successful magnum pistol," Jim Tertin, head of R&D for new products & design for Magnum Research told Guns.com on a recent visit to the facility in Minnesota. Tertin has been with the company since 2005. "The Coonan and the Desert Eagle were neck and neck back in the mid-80s and the Desert Eagle won out and introduced their .357 version first, immediately followed by a .44 Magnum."
Lacking manufacturing capabilities, the design was shopped around with Israel Military Industries finishing it and putting it into production for Magnum Research.
When the original Desert Eagle Mark I headed to market in 1984, it was advertised as "invented, patented and marketed" by Magnum Research and "manufactured and developed" by IMI. Available in a 10+1 capacity .357 Mag, or (starting in 1986) a 9+1 .44 Mag, the beefy pistol had a 6-inch barrel. It was marketed for hunting, self-defense, silhouette shooting, and general target practice.
As soon as it was introduced in 1985 the new gun, with its dominating profile, hit the movies, sparking a career that has since spanned hundreds of appearances on screens small, medium, and large. In its inaugural year, the "Deagle" was used by big-gun aficionado Tackleberry in the "Police Academy" franchise, Mickey Rourke in Michael Cimino's "Year of the Dragon," and the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle "Commando," which gave birth to the now-common gear-up scene.
I think it’s just big and bold and loud makes a great Hollywood scene," says Tertin. "It's got the look. It's got the feel. Big."
The Mark I went the way of the dinosaur in 1987, replaced by the Mark VII (no one ever said what happened to the Marks II through VI), which included variants in .41 Magnum. With optional 10- or 14-inch barrels, the extended length was attributed as making the handgun capable of 300-yard shots. Guns in .50 AE came out in 1991.
Eventually, manufacturing shifted to machine-gun maker Saco Defense in Maine in 1995 and then back to Israeli production in 1998. Along the way, the more updated Mark XIX design replaced the Mark VII, and it is the standard today.
Beginning in 2006, the engineering of the Desert Eagle started returning to America with an eye to be produced in Pillager, Minnesota. The first Minnesota-made Desert Eagle prototypes were produced in 2009, transitioning to limited production later the same year. The next year, the company became part of the Kahr Firearms Group. After that, Magnum Research stepped up the numbers of U.S-made guns while reducing imports.
Today, Deagles are 100 percent domestically produced with the Israeli contribution slowly decreased until 2018, by which time the guns became wholly American-made.
According to federal regulators, in 2019, Magnum Research produced 8,749 semi-auto pistols in the U.S. that year. The figure includes 8,148 handguns chambered in a caliber larger than 9mm (i.e., .41 Mag, .429 DE, .44 Mag, .50 AE).