The characteristics of the most powerful handgun are constantly evolving as gun designers tinker with new cartridges and develop more powerful loads. Power in the context of small arms typically refers to kinetic energy, half the projectile’s mass times the velocity squared. This is the energy that an object has when in motion, directly affecting the damage a projectile causes to its target.
If you select a handgun for self-defense or hunting, muzzle energy is not the only factor you should consider when assessing its power. The cost and availability of the ammunition, recoil and controllability, magazine capacity, practical accuracy, size, and weight of the firearm all contribute to the level of power a handgun offers.
In the 19th century, some of the most powerful handguns were designed for emergency self-defense against dangerous predators, such as the Bengal tiger, in the Indian subcontinent. One of the most famous examples is the Howdah pistol, a big-bore, multi-barreled handgun.
When the .44-caliber Colt Walker was introduced in 1847, its chambers could hold 60 grains of black powder, allowing it to produce impressively high muzzle energies.
1847 Colt Walker Revolver (Image source: Wikipedia)
Until the introduction of the .357 Magnum in 1935, the Colt Walker was the most powerful repeating handgun in the 19th century. It’s also the most powerful handgun ever issued by the United States army. Although the .357 Magnum remains a viable option for self-defense, duty, and hunting, modern handguns have significantly outclassed it.
Once described as “the most powerful handgun in the world,” Smith & Wesson introduced the .44 Remington Magnum cartridge in the Model 29 revolver in 1956. The product of experimentation by the author Elmer Keith, the .44 Magnum, is derived from the earlier .44 Special cartridge.
Designed for hunting and defense against dangerous fauna, the .44 Mag became iconic in 1971 when featured in the blockbuster film Dirty Harry. While not the most powerful handgun in the 21st century, having been eclipsed repeatedly in the past 50 years, it is still a potent round.
The standard load for the .44 Magnum cartridge, in a 6½” barrel, produces a muzzle velocity of 1,450 ft/s with a 240-grain bullet, producing more than 1,100 ft-lbf of muzzle energy.
.44 Auto Mag Pistol (AMP)
The .44 AMP cartridge was developed for use in the Auto Mag Model 180, which is a recoil-operated semi-automatic pistol with a seven-lug rotating bolt. The round was initially produced by necking down the .308 Winchester rifle cartridge case to accept .429-caliber bullets.
The .44 AMP is a powerful round, delivering ballistics that either meet or exceed the .44 Remington Magnum in a rimless cartridge that can cycle more reliably in semi-automatic actions.
.45 Magnum and .475 Wildey Magnum
The Wildey is a semi-automatic, gas-operated pistol with a double-action/single-action trigger designed in 1977. Upon its introduction, it was available in several powerful cartridges, including the .45 Winchester Magnum and the .475 Wildey Magnum. However, the Wildey became iconic in 1985 when featured in the Charles Bronson film Death Wish 3.
The .45 Magnum is roughly equivalent to a .44 Magnum in kinetic energy but uses a shorter, rimless cartridge case and a .45-caliber bullet. When loaded with a 230-grain bullet, the .45 Magnum can achieve muzzle velocities in a pistol of approx. 1,500-1,600 ft/s; between 1,150 and 1,300 ft-lbf of muzzle energy.
The .475 Wildey Magnum, loaded with a 250-grain bullet, can achieve a muzzle velocity in the Wildey pistol, depending on barrel length, of 1,850 ft/s. This generates 1,900 ft-lbf of muzzle energy. As a result, the Wildey may be the most powerful semi-automatic pistol available by sheer numbers.
.500 Smith and Wesson Magnum
The .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum, also known as the .500 Magnum, is the most powerful production handgun cartridge currently available. The Smith & Wesson Model 500 and its corresponding ammunition were introduced in 2003.
When loaded with a 440-grain bullet (about one ounce), the cartridge can generate a muzzle velocity of approximately 1,625 ft/s in the barrel of the Model 500 revolver. The result is more than 2,500 ft-lbf (foot-pounds force) of kinetic energy at the muzzle. This is about the same as a .30-06 rifle or a 12-gauge shotgun firing slugs.
.50 Action Express
One of the first .50-caliber semi-automatic pistols was the Desert Eagle, chambered in .50 Action Express. Designed in 1988, this rebated-rim cartridge propels a 325-grain bullet to a muzzle velocity in the Desert Eagle of approx. 1,450 ft/s. This generates more than 1,500 ft-lbf of muzzle energy, making it one of the most powerful pistols on the market. While .50-caliber Desert Eagles may have some limited uses as a hunting gun, they’re mostly owned for collecting and target shooting, as one of the most recognizable movie guns.
.50 BMG Pistol
The Desert Eagle is not the only notable .50-cal pistol. The .50 BMG cartridge is associated with the M2 Browning machine gun and the Barrett “Light Fifty” semi-automatic rifle. A .50 BMG cartridge in a pistol sounds like a fantasy, but one example is the Triple Action Thunder, introduced in 2004.
This single-shot pistol, weighing 12 lbs. when unloaded, uses a scissor-breech locking system and a massive muzzle brake to dampen the recoil of this .50-caliber behemoth. It’s not clear whether this weapon was ever produced for sale, but a lighter variant on the market is called the Texan.
Holsters for Handguns, Big and Small
At We The People Holsters, we appreciate all handguns and their history. This includes heavy, powerful handguns designed for emergency defense against dangerous wild game or a fun day at the range. However, for concealed carry, you don’t necessarily need the most powerful handgun in the world to defend yourself and your family.
Full-size and compact handguns chambered in 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP offer sufficient energy and wounding capability for most self-defense applications. When you find the right handgun for your defensive needs, you also need to find the right holster to retain and protect it. Check out our line of Kydex and leather holsters.