The Smith and Wesson 500
Last in this last of my series on pistols, I have tried is the Smith & Wesson 500, a large-frame revolver that is notable for its strong swing away from general purpose and toward wretched excess. This is because it is designed to do one thing only, and that in order to accomplish this one thing, many other desirable characteristics must be sacrificed. The S&W Model 500 is a .50 caliber Magnum revolver designed for use as a big-game hunting handgun, and by big game, I mean anything that walks or crawls on the planet. Its success in this venue, combined with its high reliability, has also led to its popular use as a defensive sidearm in areas where large, aggressive predators roam free. Fur-bearing four-legged ones, I mean.
On the hunting end of things, I don’t hunt, because I don’t need to. I apparently lack the “sport hunting” gene, so I must admit that I’m not real clear on the appeal of hunting with a pistol instead of a rifle. In relatively open areas, a rifle is inherently a more effective hunting tool, if your purpose is to put meat on the table the old-fashioned way. With more power for any given caliber and much more accurate aiming, a rifle’s effectiveness at long distances greatly decreases the need to closely approach game animals. Perhaps, like bowhunters, pistol hunters consider that rifles have made hunting too easy and effective. I assume that they like the challenge of having to successfully get close without spooking the animal, since the inherently sloppy aiming of a pistol at distance means that you must get close to bring the animal down. Otherwise, you’ll have a long walk ahead of you, tracking it. The so-called “kill shot” becomes more difficult with a pistol, and in the case of a truly large wounded predator, personally very risky. A good deal of this sloppy aiming is popularly tightened up by mounting a scope on the Model 500, which performance-wise puts it into bad rifle territory.
Bears are hunted by stalking, which generally doesn’t work, the problem being that bears tend to know about your presence long before you know about theirs. They are also hunted by using dogs to find and tree them, the goal being to reach that location and shoot the bear before it makes a head count and descends the tree to tear through the dogs. The third and most common way is to set up a blind on the ground or in a tree, and set up bait. Their ability to discern trouble is pronounced though, and in a thick forest, the difficulties mount up. It’s got to be quite a challenge. As hunter Dick Metcalf claims, “Absolute discipline and concentration are essential when hunting over bait. While you sit unaware, bears may often circle you, testing the wind for any hint of an alien presence. Unless you’re motionless, silent and scent-free at all times, he’ll never appear at all, and you’ll never know he was even near. And if the bear does come, it’s still extremely unlikely you’ll have a hint of his presence until he’s actually at the bait, where he’ll be close enough for you to smell him.”
Powerful, large-bore pistols like the S&W 500 have a practical use besides sport hunting however and, as mentioned, that is personal defense in areas where large predators roam. In Alaska, for example, grizzly bears are not the most dangerous breed attitude-wise (young black bears are), but once motivated by circumstance, they can be especially difficult to dissuade because of their sheer size. This poses a problem for the various kinds of outdoorsmen who must work in Alaska’s wilderness. As a result, there are Ranger’s tales of lone pistols being discovered on the ground, magazines expended, with no owner to be found. .45-caliber semi-automatic pistols are considered the watery minimum for personal carry up there, but even they often prove completely ineffective in a surprise attack situation, and there are several good reasons for that.
Mind you, it’s not like walking around in bear country is an invitation to be mauled. Most bears, in most places, will avoid you like the plague if given a calm choice. The great majority of encounters either barely happen, or end happily with everyone going their own way. It’s the few problem encounters that defy the happy pattern. If the plan is to hike in nature with absolutely no means or methods of dealing with potential natural events in that area, then the outcome may not not be what you are assuming. Assumption is often based upon either the perception of unvarying predictability, or ignorance. The odds are that if you venture out into bear country or any area known to contain large predators, like mountain lions, you will return intact, same as always. Bears will usually avoid you when they become aware of your presence, but to assume that can be a mistake. Certain specific behaviors and situations can make a new outcome likely. You don’t want to surprise one, unknowingly approach the carcass of its downed prey, get in the vicinity of a mother and cubs, come across one who appears agitated at your presence, or come upon one which is young enough to not fear humans. Direct eye contact is not advisable, nor is hiking alone or in a group with children in tow. Running away in the presence of either a bear or mountain lion will kick in their chase instinct, so that’s not an option either. If you’ve been a noisy hiker, broadcasting your presence ahead of you from the start, any avoidance tendencies they have will surface, and they will probably avoid you well before you would become aware of their presence. Probably.
The problem here when things go wrong is that there is virtually no similarity between a bear attack and bear hunting. Bear hunting works to place the bear in a defensive, uncertain position, with you having the element of surprise on your side. It tends to involve distances that separate the shooter from the bear, a rifle that can be aimed accurately over those distances, a hunter focused entirely on hunting, and a wary but unaware bear positioned to expose his vitals to the aim of the hunter. In an attack situation, none of these elements are present, including the rifle, which could be difficult to unsling and bring to bear in time anyway, pun intended. It is the bear who, with much better senses, stealth capabilities and speed, is on the offensive, in search of the intruder, and is able to close distances very quickly.
In the case of a bear attack, the bear has the element of surprise, often begins at close range, can cover ground very rapidly, and is extremely difficult to stop in his tracks when approaching head-on. The task of the intended victim is to instantly recognize that an attack is in progress against him, access his defensive weapon, aim it accurately at the most vulnerable spot accessible, and get off multiple shots to that vulnerable, disabling spot before the animal can reach him. In an attack, the overriding goal is not to kill the bear – which takes time – but to end the attack before it can reach you. This is what makes bear spray the preferred alternative. Overall, it has been estimated to be effective about 90% of the time, where the same cannot be said of firearms. Overall, bear spray is a more easily used and more effective solution to stopping an animal attack than any gun is, and is not lethal to the animal. It has saved many people from bears, mountain lions, moose, elk, wolves, and feral dogs. I’ve found no references to wild pigs, probably because no one thinks to carry bear spray in areas where large predators are not present. If anything, they carry general purpose hardware. There are situations where bear spray is not deployable or is more disabling to the hiker than anything else, but keep in mind that this post is not about the best way to protect yourself against animal attack, or about hunting large game. It’s about the Smith & Wesson Model 500 as a defensive tool.
Each of these requirements – recognizing an attack in time to deploy an effective defensive weapon – is fraught with difficulties. Bears don’t advertise when they’re stalking their prey and then blow a horn when their charge is about to begin. They just appear, can accelerate quickly, and are capable of speeds around 30 MPH, which can close the short remaining distance astonishingly fast. It is not that unusual to have time for just one shot. Distracted by the task at hand, the intended victim may not have more than a few seconds to recognize what’s going on and access his defensive weapon. In the woods, the most likely place for an attack, that generally calls for a can of bear spray or a fairly compact pistol pulled out of a pocket or holster that isn’t submerged inside fastened clothing. A rifle can prove to be problematic to swing around in the brush.
Succeeding in this, the real challenge begins, beginning with the established fact that bears are not disabled by pain when their emotions are up. During an attack, they are in battle mode, and pain just does not register as anything more than additional motivation. Thus, they do not stop when struck by one bullet or many, regardless of how fatal the wounds might ultimately prove over time. With that part of their nervous system effectively switched off, they must become damaged by the fire in such a way that a continued charge becomes physically, mechanically impossible. Such an instant result is very difficult to achieve under stress regardless of what firearm is used.
What in hunting is a valid kill shot simply does not work during an attack. Bears are notoriously tough, and the distance can be closed long before shots to the lungs or even heart have time to take their effect. Even broken legs, joints, or shoulder blades do not necessarily stop them in time, and none of these areas are easily accessible during a head-on charge anyway. Part of this is simply the mediocre aiming of a pistol on a moving animal in such an extremely high-pressure situation. Part of it is that their frontal skin, backed by fat and muscle, acts much like stretchable kevlar, absorbing much of the energy of a bullet and preventing deep penetration to the vital areas, if there is any penetration at all. Against Grizzlies in Alaska, this issue is what has kept the low-velocity M1911 .45ACP “man-stopper” from being a bear-stopper. That, and the tapered shape of the skin on their front makes a heart shot extremely difficult, not only from its relatively small size and the fact that the animal is running, but because the bullet is so unlikely to reach and pass through it. And, there can still be a time delay before it takes effect.
The only assured way to instantly stop a charging bear in its tracks with a pistol is the same as that needed to stop a meth-head with a machete – by putting its brain or neck vertebrae out of commission, and you won’t be surprised to hear that even that is not easily done. It’s not only the difficulty of aiming of a short-barreled pistol on the bear’s moving head by a surprised and terrified victim. The bear charges teeth first, looking at you, not downward. That presents a minimal, bobbing target. As if that weren’t enough, it has a thick skull, thick enough to ward off glancing shots from inadequate ammunition. With closing speeds and short distances making it a lucky thing just to get off a couple of shots while your fine motor skills are disappearing just as quickly, accuracy counts. So in conclusion, trying to stop a charging bear before it can get to you is a challenge that many fail at, and for good reason. It’s the fortunate outdoorsman who has advance notice that a bear is present and is taking an unhealthy interest, at distance.
Some armchair gun enthusiasts like to think that the best defense would be a .45ACP or some similar caliber in semi-auto form. That’s because you can successfully hunt bear with .357, .41 or .44 Magnum, .45ACPs, and what have you. But hunting is not defending. A few daydreamers like the thought of a military Uzi set for fully automatic fire. They’d simply pepper away, pop in another magazine, and load the bear with lead – so they like to think. Others prefer a shotgun loaded with two buckshot shells to hopefully blind the bear, followed by deer slugs. Many who are more familiar with defending against human perpetrators dismiss pistols like the 500 because its violent recoil prevents rapid re-aiming to get off a second shot, let alone a third, which is a fatal flaw in a firefight. They equate a bear attack to a combat scenario, where a flurry of shots improves the odds of a lucky one. But a pistol hunting or combat approach has already proven to be inadequate, since little of the spray against a forward charge is able to penetrate into vital areas – let alone have an effect in time – and the badly rattled defender, having observed no effect except more anger and less distance, is aiming for the general mass instead of the head. Peppering with lead does not count for much in a such a charge. Aim does.
If there is any defense, it’s my opinion that assured deep penetration with one or two well-aimed shots is much more valuable than what has already proven unlikely to work. The key to the bulky and heavy Smith & Wesson 500 is its ammunition, which by appearance looks like a cross between a rifle round and a pistol round. The unusually long casing, packed with powder, is capable of propelling a heavy-grain bullet at speeds much higher than normal pistol casings can, simply because there’s more powder behind it. The result is a fast-moving, truly heavyweight projectile which will deeply penetrate whatever it hits, angled or not. The end result is a hell of a lot of damage wherever it enters. Because of the difficulty in dealing with the 500’s insanely high recoil, it behooves the shooter to try to stay calm enough to aim and place his first shot accurately at the head, with the hope that even a glancing blow is likely to create enough bone shrapnel to at least interrupt the charge and perhaps allow a second aimed shot. Unlike less powerful pistols, there is no spray of bullets possible with the 500, hoping for the one lucky shot that somehow gets through to a vulnerable area. With the 500, they all get through to something. The only question is where, how many, and the immediate effects of them. When only one or two shots are possible anyway, what each does really counts.
Notice here that, again, an attack situation is different from hunting in terms of take-down time. A hunter has time on his side, as well as much better access to vitals. He can use rather modest-bore rifle cartridges because they definitely have the speed and inertia to penetrate from the side. No bazooka is needed, and this is where smaller magnum pistol rounds can be quite effective. A delay in dropping the bear is of little consequence as long as its wounds are rapidly fatal. Now put the hunter in camp, place the aggravated bear about 150 feet away and switch him into battle mode. Suddenly, quick firearm access is needed, and bore sizes need to go up without slowing the bullet down from any lack of powder to propel it. The effect of impact must be immediate and effective.
As you might expect, there is a great deal of speculation and debate about firearms in a predator attack situation. I tend to place my weight not on hunter experience or individual anecdotes, but on those few who are familiar with and experienced with bears attacking them in the bush. They lean away from a spray of fire from normally-adequate pistol hunting calibers, and toward maximum penetration and as many carefully aimed shots as time allows. After all, if the enraged bear is five seconds away from you and yet thirty seconds from death, what distinctly unpleasant activities are you likely to experience in the interim? Such attack-experienced outdoorsmen aren’t much for believing in the effects of “knockdown power”, “hydraulic shock”, or mortal wounds, probably because bears don’t seem to pay much attention to them either. Lung shots are a waste of precious time, and even broken shoulders or legs are not immobilizing. Even heart shots can simply start a countdown rather than stop the clock. Such people have voiced that instantly stopping an attack can only be assured with a single shot placement: knocking the central nervous system out of commission. That’s sure not easy, which is what makes bear spray the preferred first line of defense. Sure, there are accounts of the critter(s) simply dodging to one side of the spray or fog cloud, but on average, it’s not the test of skill and nerve that a firearm presents.
Let’s look briefly at ammunition specs, since penetration and terminal energy or “stopping power” are related to them. Magnum ammunition of one caliber or another is considered most effective in pistol hunting, mainly because the greater amount of powder in each cartridge results in higher bullet velocity. That leads to greater penetration and, combined with a pellet that is heavy enough, a lot of damage at the receiving end. There are only a couple of easily-measured performance factors for pistol ammunition, speed through the air and the muzzle energy of the bullet when it is fired. What follows is the depth of penetration, which can be measured in a reasonable way, and the permanent cavity, which is the amount of disrupted space left in the body tissues in the wake of the pellet. More depth equals more damage. Now, I mentioned “stopping power”, but there really is no such thing for pistols. The temporary wave of energy created by the pellet as it momentarily goes beyond the permanent cavity, transferring its remaining energy to tissues still in front of it before being pushed back, is present but not measurable. In essence, the pellet no longer cuts through tissue, but shoves it. In sufficient quantities, this shove can momentarily disrupt the animal’s central nervous system. In hunting game, the goal of this disruption is to delay the animal’s escape long enough for the mechanical damage to have its terminal effect. This has been dubbed by one manufacturer as hydraulic shock. Although the S&W 500 magnum round is capable of approaching the magic 2,000 feet-per-second minimum for the additional tissue damage that high-powered rifles can exert, and can also exceed a very stout 3,000 foot-pounds of energy, it’s no rifle. But it is one potent pistol. Derated cartridges with just 1/3rd the recoil energy of normal full loads (to make practice firing it a less painful ordeal) still produce twice the recoil energy of the Dirty Harry’s famous .44 Magnum.
There are also many different constructions of bullets, from round-nosed to flat tips, to “hollow points” that expand as they enter. These latter ones make for a wider hole for more tissue damage and blood loss, but at the cost of less penetration. This penetration decrease is more academic than practical with the S&W .50 Magnum than with others, since it is so abundant in any case. More aggressive hollow points may fragment, creating multiple smaller holes a very short distance away from the main path. It’s all fascinatingly technical, but for the sake of large predators in our attack situation, I’ll ignore it all here and just stick with the basics of velocity and muzzle energy in a generic sense. As described, these are all commodity production rounds, rather than more exotic stuff or hand-loaded cartridges.
I mentioned some people in Alaska trying to use .45 ACP ammo for defensive purposes in a bear attack. This round is commonly used in sidearms like the semi-automatic M1911, some Glocks, and many, many others. The ballistics for a 230 grain bullet, a common weight, will typically make it travel at 837 feet per second, and strike its target with 356 foot-pounds of “man-stopping” muzzle energy. Compared to contemporary pistol ammunition of its time, .45ACP cartridges were proven to aid the results in military combat where all others had failed. These characteristics make it an excellent all-around defensive choice against human home invaders and the like, which is why it is often automatically pressed into service in the bush as what people already have. Against bears though, there are much more effective choices.
I wrote about firing a .40 S&W Glock Model 23 semi-automatic in my last series article so, just for fun, I’ll note sample ammo for it here. A lighter 180 grain bullet will reach 990 feet per second with a muzzle energy of 390 foot-pounds. That’s a little better all around, making for slightly more penetration, if any. Better, but still wholly inadequate. Still, such stats are so dependent on ammunition selection that such a boast is hollow. I’ve seen real-world performance results that indicate the .40 S&W is comparable to slightly less effective. Cartridge performance is not interchangeable between different manufacturers.
The highly-regarded .357 Magnum ammo in a common weight is lighter still at just 158 grains, yet will attain 1,235 feet per second with a muzzle energy of 535 foot-pounds. Quite a whack! This and all the ammunition below are revolver rounds, since the pressure stresses created in firing these rounds are bad for complex semi-automatic pistols, the glamorous Desert Eagle .50 semi-auto debatably aside.
As mentioned, the .44 Remington Magnum is the gun used in the old Dirty Harry series of films, where he claimed that his S&W Model 29 to be (incorrectly) “the most powerful handgun in the world, and can blow your head clean off” in the movie. At a common weight of 240 grains, it can reach 1,180 feet per second, with commendable a muzzle energy of 741 foot-pounds. Here we begin to reach calibers that have enough poop in the casing to push a modestly heavy bullet at high speeds, with a resounding hit at the opposite end. Notice also that the recoil is pronounced enough to prevent rapid fire, a trait that makes it less than desirable against human perpetrators, and a hazard in close quarters, where the round can travel through walls and strike innocents beyond. Hunting large, thick animals, yes. Hunting deranged urban home-invading perps holding guns, not appropriate. You’ll be receiving three or four bullets for every one you dispense, and each of your misses will be going through walls to penetrate into the adjoining bedrooms or out into the ‘hood. Legal counsel advised.
Specialty rounds like the .454 Casull, created in something like 1957, were designed solely for big game pistol hunting. The cartridges are over-length to allow for more powder. At 260 grains, it can reach an astounding 1,800 feet per second, with a whopping 1,871 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. Push bullet weight up to 360 grains, and muzzle velocity is 1,425 feet per second, with 1,623 foot-pounds of energy. With both figures dropping as weight rises, this is an indicator that the long casing still isn’t large enough to hold the powder needed to push truly heavy rounds. But, it’s a real hunting powerhouse with moderate 260 grain rounds.
The more recent .480 Ruger round is also designed for hunting. A 325 grain bullet can reach 1,350 feet per second, and hit with 1,315 foot-pounds of energy. A tubby 425 grain round can reach 1,200 feet per second, and 1,359 foot-pounds of energy. No match for the Casull, but still, a gain in energy as pellet weight goes up. But, pickiness aside, it is still well within large predator hunting capability and, like the Casull, makes for a fine, reliable defensive bush revolver.
Smith and Wesson was not just sitting on its hands, however. It came out with a .460 S&W round in order to use its Model 500’s jumbo “X” frame, since that frame allows for a powder-packed cartridge that’s even longer than the .454 Casull. That nets it the award for the fastest production revolver cartridge extant, with a lot of energy behind it. Here’s a quote from one source: “Smith & Wesson says that the .460 S&W is the highest velocity revolver cartridge in the world, firing bullets at up to 2409 ft/s. With Buffalo Bore’s loadings, the .460 S&W can achieve 2,826 ft lbf of energy by driving a 300 grain .452 caliber bullet at 2060 ft/s and 2,860 ft lbf of energy by driving a heavier 360 grain .452 caliber bullet at 1900 ft/s. For comparison, Hornady’s 9249 load for the .500 S&W Magnum cartridge offers a bit more energy at the muzzle, achieving 2,868 ft lbf by driving a 300 grain (19 g) FTX bullet at 2,075 ft/s (632 m/s). Buffalo Bore’s loading for the .500 S&W Magnum cartridge offers much less energy at the muzzle, achieving only 2,579 ft lbf by driving a 440 grain .500 caliber bullet at 1625 ft/s.” If you haven’t fallen asleep yet, here’s more.
The S&W .500 at just 275 grains can reach 1,667 feet per second and generate 1,696 foot-pounds of energy. A high performance 350 grain bullet will travel at 1,975 feet-per-second and punch in with 3,031 foot-pounds of energy, nicely matching a 12-gauge shotgun slug in a much more compact package, and with deeper penetration due to its smaller diameter. (Such a shotgun slug is very close to 3/4″ diameter.) A heavier 440 grain bullet can reach 1,625 feet per second with 2,579 foot-pounds of energy. This is all a lot of oomph, as you will see later. Notice that this casing, long and a full half-inch wide, has limited issues with increasing bullet weight simply by virtue of its sheer powder capacity. In fact, specialty rounds are available all the way up to 700 grains, which is mainly just an item for “bigger is better” show-offs and braggarts, really. But production rounds are readily available up to 540 grains, which reach 1,380 feet per second and 2,284 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, making the lighter 440 grain round a better maximum choice, and premium 350 grain rounds the “best” – strictly going by specs. The usual recommended round is 440 grains and above when hunting bears. Limited to five shots in order to enable it to avoid structural damage from the even more powerful hand-loaded rounds that many sportsmen use in it, it is a revolver with very heavy compromises toward that single end.
A camp gun or all-around sidearm, it is not. It’s more appropriate to think of it as a hand cannon. The only other practical use of the Model 500 that makes it a poor camp gun is that, at the cost of weight and bulk, it makes a very effective snake gun, should a poisonous one appear in camp and appear disposed to stay. Specialty cartridges called shotshells are available that contain ¾ of an ounce of #9 shot, the same load as a 28 gauge shotgun shell. The result of a single shot at a 7-inch target at a distance of 4 feet is below. (A cheaper, more adventurous alternative is a shovel or, if you’re skilled enough, a golf club. Just don’t miss.) Some rattler species are protected in Arizona due to dwindling numbers, so shooting snakes for sport on a hike is a bad idea all around. It’s their turf, after all. Think ecosystem.
Now, there’s plenty of room for debate in the specifications wars, but while all of these choices are usable for hunting, the field narrows considerably in a bear attack scenario, where the S&W 500 and Casull 454 come into their own. Never say never, but I seriously doubt that there will ever be a larger production pistol made than the Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum, simply because it has already edged just past the safety envelope and pain threshold for a handheld firearm, once bullet weights above 300 grains are used with full loads. Below that, it is distinctly unpleasant to practice fire, and commands considerable respect to avoid an unfortunate incident. Above 300 grains, you’ve got your hands full, literally. There is little worry about going broke on its very expensive ammunition ($2.50 or more per cartridge), when practice firing it is so punishing in itself. The other reason no larger caliber will be used in the U.S. is that the National Firearms Act categorizes larger cartridges to be “destructive devices”, or illegal in civilian hands. Case closed.
Although it makes a very effective hunting and predator defense pistol, there are many caveats to be aware of when packing one. Three barrel lengths are available, the short 4-inch barrel being the most popular for Alaskan use with heavy clothing. 6.5″ and 8.38″ barrel versions round out the choices. Although relatively compact for its capabilities, it’s still remarkably large, and wide at a couple of inches. Its weight of four pounds unloaded can make it a trial for all-day carry. Being a revolver, its barrel is high over the grip, which magnifies the effects of recoil on the hands. But it’s not all barrel lift, as there’s a definite rearward shove as well. Make no mistake, this is strictly a two-handed pistol, period. 275-grain cartridges produce a hard kick when firing, and very great is the manliness of any shooter who can still be smiling after 10 shots with it. The kick from the 440 grain cartridges is so violent as to visibly bruise one’s hands and/or cause joint aches that can last for days. Two shots will suffice for that, and to fire all five is an unhappy test of grim will. You’d have to be young, husky and have hands like hams to enjoy shooting this thing. Fortunately, for basic handling and shooting practice, “soft loads” are available that ease the recoil a bit. There’s nothing wrong with the pistol’s shock-absorbing Hogue grip, mind you, but that much wallop is a challenge that’s hard to dampen. Slow-motion videos show that it moves rearward, distorting your hands, no matter how tightly it’s held.
The Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum requires great concentration and a careful deliberation to fire, for two reasons. The first is that the hand grip taken on it must be perfect as well as very firm. Being a revolver, it cannot rotate its cylinder for the next round without a very slight clearance between the cylinder’s forward edge and the rear of the barrel. This gap is extremely tight, but the extraordinary combustion pressures will still drive flames out to the side at very high velocity. Folks used to firing semi-automatic pistols are usually taught to extend the thumb of their overlapping hand forward along the frame, which is an extremely bad idea with this revolver. No part of either hand can extend to the front of the cylinder/barrel joint without losing some precious tissues when the round fires, and we’re not talking boo-boos and band-aids.
Second, despite being equipped with a barrel compensator (a few upward vents carved into the tip of the barrel that allow combustion pressure to momentarily help push the barrel down from the escape of gas), it still kicks up like a mule. Among plain mortals, the 500 must be fired straight-armed, with practically no bend at the elbows. Otherwise, as is visible on YouTube videos and one episode of the Mythbusters TV show, you may well wind up with the barrel next denting your own forehead, if not aimed at it. Even Smith & Wesson has tried hard to impress people that the recoil and flyback may cause some individuals to instinctively react by clenching the pistol harder, sensing that their initial grip was not tight enough. That can actually cause an unintended second trigger pull (although it’s a pretty stiff trigger), and they can shoot themselves in the head as a result. I’ve seen skinny women shoot the thing (straight-armed and gripped firmly) and do commendably well with light, low-recoil hand loads, while some husky but careless male “I’m gonna shoot a 500!!!” types assume that they know what they’re doing, and pose a serious danger to themselves and everyone on the range. If you have developed any lax or bad pistol handling habits, the Smith & Wesson Model 500 will promptly bring them to your attention. This is not a macho fun gun for bolstering one’s limp self-image. Nor is it a funny joke to hand it to a girlfriend or anyone who has no experience with it, since the second, unintended shot can and has taken out the shooter or the “instructor”. The recommended practice is to load just one cartridge, so that a second shot cannot be possible. In no sense is it a “fun gun”. Lose control of it or even just fail to respect what it’s about, and it will be happy to fix your wagon as you try to impress your buddies with its sheer size and power. Best tuck your ego away in a box, and pay attention. It’s a purpose-built tool, not a rite of manhood.
Likewise, some armchair gun enthusiasts like to think that the 500 would make a delightful personal defense weapon, because more is better, right? Dirty Harry on steroids! BOOM!…BOOM! That’s what I want!! With its bulkiness, weight, recoil and energy, it’s hard for me to think of a worse choice there. Against an armed perp in low light, you’re night-blinded and completely deafened at the first shot, and in any case can’t muster more than a shot every few seconds while you struggle for control and aim. Meanwhile, he’s peppering you. Whether you hit him or not, every one of your shots will go through your house and the neighbor’s, and quite possibly his neighbor’s. A few inexperienced enthusiasts think that would be oh so cool, but the lawyers and courts do not. Such people just completely lose track of what the goal is, and how it is best accomplished. It would be like trying to assemble a thin decorative wood cabinet with tent stakes and a sledge hammer. Competency comes only by way of training and regular practice. Getting any practice with one is not all that that easy either, given that most indoor ranges do not allow them. They are extremely loud, particularly indoors where their sound reflects nicely and goes right through protective earmuffs. That drives other paying range shooters out, which is not a helpful thing. Their energy capability is the other factor, and few are the indoor ranges capable of handling all those foot-pounds of whack. In a defensive situation in the bush, where hearing protection is not desirable or practical, you have to accept that some degree of permanent ear damage may be the price of survival. Not to mention the weight, which will resolutely test any holstering system you chose to carry it with. Concealed carry is not an option with this thing, unless maybe you’re pushing well over 350 pounds and your fashion signature is to mimic a tent.
So, let’s get back to the 500’s secondary purpose of being a defensive survival handgun. When in large predator country somewhere, anywhere, given all the factors, let’s again mention something which has been proven to be much more effective to end a bear approach, charge or attack. Bear spray. It nearly always works, and functions well even when the hiker’s nerves are rattled. Unlike a gunshot, bear spray will not be likely to enrage the bear and so convert threatening behavior into an attack. However, bear spray is not unidirectional. Sprayed even remotely into a facing breeze, it is just as likely to disable you as it is the bear, and appearing wounded in the presence of a bear is often considered to be a call for dinner. Instincts kick in, much like their chase instinct if you attempt to run away. Wind is much more of an issue in the open scrub of the West than it is in a Michigan forest. Even so, bear spray is the first and far more effective choice, especially if a young bear is casually approaching and trying to gauge what his odds are against this potentially tasty new creature in front of him. If wind conditions are definitely not appropriate and time allows it, the Smith & Wesson 500 would make a decent last-ditch crisis backup in the bush, when push insists on coming to shove. It’s one of those things which would be a serious nuisance to strap on or tuck inside, and be difficult to deploy, but in the unusual and unexpected situation, well, better to curse it than to wish you’d brought it along. But keep the bear spray easily accessible. It usually works better and is the definite first choice.
Want cheaper options for a backup to bear spray in large predator country than a $1,200 revolver? Try these:
- Don’t boondock in true wilderness areas, far from the most heavily-used hiking or camping areas near civilization. That is, stick to where human activity has kept them away. The exception is of course parks like Yellowstone or Grand Teton, where heavy tenting and food-laden campsites have trained them to be opportunistic and aggressive in a consequence-free environment. Stay out of the wilds of Wyoming and Montana.
- Do not hike solo.
- Do not walk your dog unleashed.
- When you hike in a group, always hike with someone whom you are certain that you can outrun, or can use as a shield.
- Failing that, carry a very inexpensive .22 pistol. As the joke goes: “What is the smallest caliber you trust to protect yourself in bear country? My personal favorite bear defense gun has always been a Beretta Jetfire in .22 short. I have carried it for many years, including while hiking. I never leave without it in my pocket. Of course, the first rule when hiking in the wilderness is to use the ‘Buddy System’. This means you NEVER hike alone, you bring a friend, companion or even an in-law because if something happens, there is someone to go get help. I remember one time while hiking with my brother-in-law in northern Canada. Out of nowhere came this huge charging brown bear, and was she mad! She must have had cubs. If I had not had my little Jetfire I would not be here today. Just one shot to my brother-in-law’s kneecap and I was able to escape by just walking at a brisk pace.”