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22nd Sep 2021

Source Credit | CHRIS EGER

The famed Magnum Research Desert Eagle handgun has a lineage that goes back over 35 years with lots of twists and turns, but its future is bright.

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.

Desert Eagle patent
White's original 1983 Magnum Research patent, which was granted in January 1986, after the pistol was in low-rate production.

"It's the USA's first successful magnum pistol," Jim Tertin, head of R&D for new products & design for Magnum Research told 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.

Desert Eagle patent
Ilan Shalev's patent on behalf of IMI and Magnum Research for "a fully gas-operated pistol." The patent was filed in Dec. 1985 and approved in Oct. 1986.

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.

Desert Eagle ads
"The only handgun that is controllable and comfortable in Magnum calibers," boasted Magnum Research when the first Desert Eagles hit the market in the 1980s.

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.

Desert Eagle ads
The Mark XIX was introduced in the mid-1990s and, after 2009, carried options for a Picatinny bottom rail and Weaver-style top accessory rail. Besides .357, .41, and .44 Magnum, it was briefly offered in .440 Cor-Bon. Since 2019 it has been available in .429 DE.

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.

Desert Eagle Mark XIX
The Magnum Research Desert Eagle Mark XIX is today's gold standard for the model. (Photo:

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).

Desert Eagle close up
Today the Desert Eagle is made in the USA, where it was born. (Photo: Chris Eger/