The Quixotic Pursuit of the Ultimate Big Bore Handgun

By Will Dabbs, MD, Photos by Sarah Dabbs

If Big Is Good, Then Bigger Must Be Better

Everybody with access to a bit of wilderness needs a reliable and accurate .22 rifle. If your palate favors venison, then you need a decent large bore deer gun with an optical sight. Should you choose to carry a concealed firearm for personal protection, then you obviously need a proper defensive handgun. When it comes to other sorts of guns, however, the scope of the pursuit is limited solely by the imagination.

To investigate something as ethereal as personal proclivities for firearms will inevitably take one outside the realm of the practical. In no other aspect of American culture are fantasies better realized than in motion pictures, so the influence of popular movies on the perception of big bore handguns must therefore invariably be acknowledged. We will flavor our discussion with some of these seasonings as a result.

The pursuit of the ultimate big bore handgun is one of those things that really has no readily quantifiable terminus. In this manner it is not unlike love, greed or the capacity of little boys for mischief. Just about the time you feel like you have found its limits, then some other cool, noisy something shows up on the market to expand the boundaries yet further.

Sam Colt’s Equalizer

The compulsion regarding large-bore handguns is no contemporary addiction. Samuel Colt made a fortune producing quality revolvers 150 years ago and, in so doing, shaped both the American West as well as the rest of the world. Streamlined, aesthetically seductive and ergonomic beyond its years, the classic Colt Single Action Army was actually marketed to the American public before the U.S. military. Heft the Colt SAA while thumbing back its enormous manual hammer and try not to be viscerally moved by the experience. It is hard to fathom why something that looks so unnaturally industrial could so seamlessly interface with the human form, but the Colt Single Action Army is one of the most comfortable handguns in the world, even given today’s modern plastic competition.

John Moses Browning’s Extraordinary 1911

At a time when the world’s militaries seemed satisfied with a 9mm Parabellum round that pushed a 115-grain bullet, the esteemed Mr. Browning simply built one twice as big. John Browning was born five years before the onset of the American Civil War, yet the guns he designed remain in active service even today in the Information Age. Of all the inspired mechanisms to spring forth from the mind of this self-taught engineering luminary, few can compete with the 1911 service pistol.

The 1911 carried American Doughboys through the War to End All Wars and then the 1911A1 served their sons for the planet-wide encore two decades later. Mr. Browning’s powerful hand cannon was not displaced from U.S. military holsters for yet another forty years. Many American gunmen retain bruised feelings regarding its contemporary Italian interloper even today.

In practical use, the GI 1911 has marginal sights and is indeed at the top end of the envelope for small-statured shooters. However, Browning’s recoil-operated objet d’art works every time you pull the trigger and nearly half an inch of copper jacketed pain means not having to say you’re sorry in most any language.

Comrade Kalashnikov and the Spawn of the AK

The AK is an archetype. More than any other physical object, the Kalashnikov assault rifle has come to embody what it means to be Russian. That Mikhail Kalashnikov designed the world’s most prolific firearm is indisputable, but the party line tale of the heroic young peasant designing the Avtomat Kashnikova while recovering from wounds incurred at the hands of the Nazis smacks a bit of the Communist ideologue.

Built in countless variants by most all industrialized nations at one time or another, there are at least 100 million copies in circulation and that number goes up daily. The design is legendarily robust and indisputably effective while being simple enough for a child to use. The misguided teenaged malcontents comprising Liberia’s Lord’s Resistance Army have proven that beyond question.

In the mid-seventies the Kalashnikov got a facelift and the AKM was re-imagined as the small-caliber AK-74. The subsequent Lilliputian AKSU carbine tried to pigeonhole the assault rifle into a submachine gun envelope and, like most compromises, was almost but not quite satisfactory. The weapon is as handy and maneuverable as a pistol caliber subgun but the short barrel, itself roughly half the original length as that of the parent rifle, belches a muzzle blast and flash that are fairly atrocious. To produce something from this platform that will satisfy U.S. import restrictions and gun laws is sufficient to tax the most creative gun-bodger. Fortunately, the good folks at Century International Arms are indeed fairly creative.

The resulting Century PAP 85 is produced in Serbia, chambered for the .223 cartridge and incorporates a lot of the product improvements of the AKSU. The top cover is captive and pivots on the gas block. The rear sight is rigidly affixed to the cover to maximize the sight radius given the abbreviated barrel. The barrel is threaded for the classic conical flash suppressor.

When presented with an outstretched stance akin to that of the stockless MP5K submachine gun, the PAP 85 Frankenpistol is surprisingly effective. Like many of the guns on this list, it might not be the most practical shooter in the vault but it represents a splendid way to turn ammunition into noise on a pleasant Saturday afternoon at the range.

The Cultural Phenomenon That Is the Desert Eagle

If ever there was a production handgun that required testosterone for lubrication, it is the Desert Eagle. The design for this gas-operated behemoth was naturally birthed in the United States, but it was the Israelis who eventually brought the gun to market. The Desert Eagle made its commercial debut in the 1980s and has armed a veritable battalion of action movie stars since that time. Given its ubiquitous prevalence in his films, Arnold Schwarzenegger likely showered with one.

The design is a clever combination of tried engineering concepts that tamed the recoil of the massive rimmed revolver cartridges it fired. The gun was initially available in .357, .41 and .44 Magnum chamberings before being offered in .50 caliber Action Express. If you have never seen the Guy Ritchie movie Snatch with its hilarious commentary on the .50 caliber Desert Eagle, put down the magazine and go watch it now. It will cure what ails you.

The Desert Eagle action is driven by a gas piston built into the slide. The enormous single-action trigger is actually quite comfortable and lends itself to accurate shooting. The bolt bears a striking similarity to that of the M16 assault rifle and the iconic trapezoidal cross-section of the weapon when viewed muzzle-on cemented its unassailable position in movie arsenals. Schwarzenegger’s Commando and his under-appreciated Last Action Hero from the film of the same name, the Agents from The Matrix, and countless other muscle-bound celluloid stars, wearing hats both white and black, kept the gun firmly entrenched in the imaginations of American gun owners.

On the range the Desert Eagle in .50 AE is indeed a handful. The same weapon in .44 Magnum, while indeed sacrificing a few cool points, is the more enjoyable smoke pole. Recoil and muzzle flip are pronounced enough to be comical without crossing the line into pain and emptying a full magazine in a rapid string will indeed put a little hair on your chest, regardless of your gender. The characteristic bi-lobed muzzle flash that the gun produces both forward from the muzzle and downward from the gas port when fired at dusk will elicit the gyrating fantods in even the most jaded observer. Despite a literal lifetime of effort, a legitimate practical tactical application for this gargantuan hand cannon eludes me, yet it remains a personal favorite nonetheless.

Mad Max and Big Bore Handguns Sporting an Unconventional Genesis

To ingloriously paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that Mel Gibson’s Mad Max sporting a cut down side-by-side 12 gauge handgun kicks serious butt. The bit of personal combat that takes place atop a rolling tanker truck filled with dirt in the post-apocalyptic cautionary tale that is The Road Warrior introduced a generation of American males to the sawed-off 12 gauge Sicilian Lupo. Long a favorite of gangsters and similar ne’er-do-wells, the sawed-off shotgun is the only entry on our esteemed list requiring a transfer tax.

A cut-down shotgun is arguably one of the easiest weapons to obtain worldwide yet its practical utility on the range is not commensurate with its aesthetic mystique. A custom-built side-by-side 12 bore handgun will all but wrench your arm off if stoked with high-brass loads. This gun’s ferocious close-range firepower is unmatched in anything that doesn’t pack an impact fuse.

When fed custom-loaded low-recoil rounds or those magnificent Aguila mini-shells, however, the cut down side-by-side 12 bore has some legitimate practical applications. Thirteen deceased water moccasins have fallen to my particular copy in defense of my rural Mississippi farm. However, the trigger guard on my custom gun has drawn blood more than a few times and the rare unfortunate who touches off both barrels at once had better have a good orthopedic surgeon on speed dial.

SIG Gets Strange

One must wonder if Eugene Stoner had any idea what a can of worms he was opening when he had the original epiphany to form a holy alliance between aluminum aircraft technology and small arms. The Space Age assault rifle he sold the U.S. Air Force in the late 1950s, with its aluminum receivers and black plastic furniture, turned the gun world on its ear.

The SIG P516 pushes the very edges of the technical and legal envelope unlike any of its predecessors. The lower receiver upon which the gun is built sports sling sockets, a textured mag well, and ambidextrous everything. The operating system is an adjustable gas piston that is veritably immune to abuse and fouling. The proprietary bolt carrier is lightened, custom-designed, and coated with some bit of extraordinary voodoo finish that shirks filth like a politician shirks responsibility. The truly extraordinary feature that makes the gun revolutionary rather than simply evolutionary, however, is the Pistol Stabilizing Brace.

The SIG Pistol Stabilizing Brace straps to the forearm for a one-handed firepower solution sufficient to induce the vapors in the Terminator. When properly equipped with an EOTech Holosight, a laser designator, and a 100-round Beta C-mag, the SIG P516 is utilitarian and intimidating in comparable measure. The resulting gun tucks behind the seat in the truck, waiting patiently for the inevitable day the zombies come.

Philosophical Musings

Be forewarned, gentle reader, that to embark upon a quest to discover the Ultimate Big Bore Handgun will stress your bank account, your friendships and your marriage. The good stuff is expensive, the results will intimidate all but the most ardent fellow firearms enthusiast, and it is the rare spouse who will not at least raise an eyebrow when you slink in from the local firearms emporium with some of the aforementioned exotic iron in tow. You will engage in hushed conversations along the periphery of the local gun show with your few fellows comparing such seminal features as magazine capacity, calibers and barrel lengths, inevitably interspersed with the occasional giggle or admiring exhortation. Once on the range, the ear-splitting report or the muzzle blast sufficient to dislodge your spectacles serves as its own reward. Once the tendinitis has resolved and the retinal burns have had time to heal, it is the satisfaction that comes from owning something truly weird that keeps us striving for the next big thing. When some enterprising American engineer finally contrives a method of launching 105mm howitzer rounds from a handheld platform, rest assured I will be standing at the head of the line, credit card in hand and divorce papers tucked into my back pocket.


This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V19N10 (December 2015)
and was posted online on October 16, 2015


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