“Well, this is the .44 Magnum Auto Mag. And it holds a 300-grain cartridge, and if properly used it can remove all the fingerprints.”
That line comes from the great Clint Eastwood in his role as the legendary Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan in the 1983 film Sudden Impact, the fourth installation of the Dirty Harry franchise. The quote goes to show that the Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver wasn’t the only gun that the movie character made famous.
The .44 Auto Mag was actually well known already to action-adventure novel fans before Dirty Harry’s introduction. That was thanks to Mack Bolan, the hero of Don Pendleton’s bestselling The Executioner series. Surprisingly, despite the notoriety bestowed upon it by cinematic and literary fiction, the .44 Auto Mag was a commercial failure. Now it’s attempting a comeback after all these years.
Gun and Cartridge History
One would think that a semiautomatic pistol option for the .44 Magnum cartridge would be a surefire ticket to success. That was certainly the mentality of designer Harry Sanford when he founded the Auto Mag Corporation and opened a factory in Pasadena, California, in 1970. Sanford shipped the first of his pistols on Aug. 8, 1971, in the same year the original Dirty Harry movie debuted at the box office. What Harry gave us was a short-recoil operated pistol featuring a rotary bolt with locking lugs – similar to the AR-15 rifle action. It was one of the few post-World War II autopistols – another was the Ruger Standard .22 LR – to employ a bolt instead of a slide. But there were problems from the get-go.
For one thing, the Auto Mag wasn’t compatible with the .44 Magnum rimmed revolver cartridge developed by Elmer Keith in 1955. Sanford instead developed the specialized .44 AMP (Auto Mag Pistol) rimless cartridge to emulate the original round’s ballistics. In order to do so, he took empty .308 Winchester or 30-06 Springfield brass cases, cut them to length, and loaded a .429-inch diameter bullet into the case mouth. No other major firearms manufacturer ever built a gun that would chamber the cartridge, but for what it’s worth, the round was used successfully to take down deer, black bears, feral hogs, and wild sheep. (By contrast, the much more commercially successful Desert Eagle semiauto .44 Magnum does use .44 Magnum revolver ammo, though only jacketed bullets. Heck, even Mack Bolan eventually switched from the Auto Mag to the Desert Eagle.)
That aside, Harry’s company and product failed because he and his design team believed that the market would support the sale of thousands of Auto Mags per month. There were also problems related to production costs, reliability issues, and a need for subcontractors to produce many of the parts. The original company declared bankruptcy on May 3, 1972, a mere nine months after the first pistol was shipped. Fewer than 3,000 of the pistols had been built. Fortunately, the gun didn’t die right then and there. From 1973 to 1982 an additional 6,000 such pistols were produced under various company names, most notably Arcadia Machine & Tool (AMT).
What Might’ve Been
It’s a damn shame that the pistol didn’t attain true commercial success, because it certainly had potential. Big-bore handgun guru J.D. Jones, founder of SSK Industries and longtime writer for American Handgunner, was a huge fan of the pistol. Back in the early 1990s Jones wrote that if one understood how they worked, they were “the most accurate and reliable pistols in the world.” Now, in case you’re not familiar with J.D’s personality and writing style, he’s very blunt and does not dole out praise lightly – especially praise of that magnitude. Since I’m fortunate to have J.D. on my Facebook friends list, he recently gave me these extra nuggets on the Auto Mag: “I used them a lot. Almost all problems were ammunition related. Usually too fast a burning powder used.”
Will It Succeed This Time? Do You Want Your Own?
As the saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” As the all4shooters elaborates, “In 2015 a new company, Auto Mag LTD. Corp, was formed to bring this legend back to the market. The new company purchased all of the assets and rights to the Auto Mag and – to cut a long story short – after long testing, some prototypes and many improvements over the original design, in these days the first newly-made pistols are being shipped.”
The anonymous author of the piece goes on to quote the manufacturer’s assertion that their market analysis “’supports sales of the new Auto Mag of approximately 150 pistols per month. As part of this market analysis, we have not planned for an extensive marketing strategy. We believe word of mouth, social media, web traffic and Auto Mag aficionados will drive sales. In general, we would like to sell directly to buyers.’”
The new manufacturer offers three versions on their website:
–“The Raven;” this is a special production run, the Auto Mag® RAVEN features a 6.5-inch barrel with an all-black finish, Hogue wooden grips and a brush satin cocking piece to accent the upper and receiver, and a list price of $3,895.00;
–Auto Mag Model 180-D 44 AMP Classic Edition; 8.5-inch barrel, available in two finish types — Brush Satin or High Polish — and with two different Hogue Grip styles (G-10 or Checkered Wooden), list price of $3,795.00 or $4,070.00 depending on whether one chooses the former or latter finish;
–Auto Mag Model 180-D 44 AMP Classic Edition w/6.5-inch barrel; once again, with the options of either Brush Satin or High Polish finish and either the G-10 or Checkered Wooden grips, list price of either $3,945.00 or $3,770.00.
The manufacturer currently advises that they are fulfilling backorders for all three products, so sales are temporarily paused. Hopefully this is a good sign that the Auto Mag is selling well enough to survive for the long term this time.
Christian D. Orr has 33 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011. In his spare time, he enjoys (besides shooting, obviously) dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.