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A Powerful New Revolver Is Already Drawing Fire

Times Staff Writers

Even the most ardent firearm lovers acknowledge that Smith & Wesson’s new .50-caliber Magnum revolver is more gun than anyone needs.

It has double the power of most assault rifles in America. Its kick can send a grown man reeling; a single bullet can drop a grizzly.

It is so heavy and long that police say no criminal would dare try to hide it in his waistband. It will cost as much as $989.

And gun buyers across the country can’t wait to get their hands on it.

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“The initial reaction has been even stronger than we had anticipated, so we’re ramping up production to meet the demand,” Bob Scott, Smith & Wesson Corp.'s chairman, said from the 2003 Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show in Orlando, Fla.

“Certainly, in our booth it’s the product that has created the most buzz.”

The Springfield, Mass.-based company, creator of the .44 Magnum of “Dirty Harry” fame, unveiled its new offering Thursday as the world’s most powerful commercially produced revolver. Executives for the country’s second-largest firearms manufacturer said they hoped the gun would help regain lost market share by generating excitement among an important, albeit niche, market of big-game hunters, collectors and recreational target shooters.

But even before the weapon’s wide distribution, scheduled for next month, forces on both sides of the firearms debate are taking aim at its social effects.

Gun control groups condemned the Model 500 as an example of the industry’s “deadlier-is-better” mentality, predicting that the new model would soon find its way to the streets.

“A hunting weapon? That’s a joke,” said Luis Tolley, director of state legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “What we have here is a weapon that’s designed to appeal to people who just want to make a bigger hole in whatever they’re shooting at. And, hopefully, they’re not living next door to me.”

Said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center: “This gun is not being made for hunters in Africa. It’s being made for bored white gun owners in America. Why are they putting so much firepower into people’s hands?”

The real question, one gun expert says, is: Why are people demanding it?

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Adam Firestone, editor of Cruffler.com, a Web site for gun collectors, said he viewed demand for Smith & Wesson’s new product as more of an outgrowth of America’s obsession with size and status, rather than an indicator of growing paranoia over crime or homeland security.

“How many people do you know have Lincoln Navigators or Hummer H2s?” he said.

“We are phenomenal at buying beyond our needs. And with regard to the firearm industry, if it is bigger, if it is more expensive ... we will line up around the corner to buy the darned thing, regardless of the fact that there may be six other guns that cost half as much and do the job just as well.”

Not everyone is excited about the new firearm. If a Smith & Wesson dealer tried to sell one to George Ashkar, a Santa Monica financial analyst, he would say, “Thanks but no thanks.”

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“As a novelty gun, as something that let’s you say, ‘I’ve got a .50-caliber,’ that might be OK,” said Ashkar, 56, a former hunter and competition shooter who owns shotguns, rifles and handguns.

But Ashkar thinks it would be of little use for self-defense or hunting because it is too large, it has too much recoil and the ammunition probably will be much more expensive than what people are used to paying.

“Once you take it out a couple of times and feel the recoil and see how difficult it is to handle, it will not be your first choice the next time you go out.”

He said the gun would be too heavy for most people to carry around while hunting.

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Ashkar said he would have doubts about the accuracy of the weapon and the difficulty of firing a second shot after the recoil from the first.

Smith & Wesson executives hope that the revolver, one of nine models introduced at the Florida gun show Thursday, will put it back in the good graces of a gun-buying constituency that remains sore over the company’s decision in 2000 to sign agreements with the federal government that promised to put locks on all firearms it sold.

That backlash served as a double whammy, taking away sales from Smith & Wesson even as the entire industry was in decline.

“We’re in the process of winning back market share or business that was lost as a result of negative reaction by consumers to the decisions by the previous ownership,” said Scott, the company chairman.

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Smith & Wesson has built its reputation by building bigger guns.

The .357 Magnum, introduced in 1935, was considered a breakthrough because of its muzzle energy that delivered impact at 535 foot-pounds, said Roy G. Jinks, the company’s historian.

The weapon, developed at the behest of hunters, gained favor with police during the mobster era because it could shoot through a car’s engine block, he said.

In 1956, Smith & Wesson introduced the even more powerful .44 Magnum, the gun made famous years later by Clint Eastwood in his crime-fighting movies as “Dirty” Harry Callahan, a San Francisco cop.

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With Thursday’s unveiling, the company leapfrogs ahead of its competitors, which had surpassed the .44 Magnum with more potent weapons.

The Model 500 uses a bigger frame, takes a new .50-caliber Magnum Smith & Wesson cartridge and packs a muzzle force of 2,600 foot-pounds.

Though there are single-shot, custom pistols that use larger ammunition, the new gun is the largest production revolver or semiautomatic pistol.

At .50-caliber, the cartridge is about half an inch wide but is more powerful than other such ammunition because it is longer and can pack more powder, said Garen Wintemute, a gun expert and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis.

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He said the gun’s cartridge has about twice the muzzle energy of most rounds for common semiautomatic assault weapons used in America, such as the AR-15, a civilian version of the military’s M-16.

Wintemute predicted that it would be a smash with gun enthusiasts, who can order one with a barrel as long as 10 inches.

One such enthusiast is Marc Halcon, owner of American Shooting Center in San Diego.

He said the allure of the weapon “has something to do with the artistry of creating a mechanism that will do something that no other will do. It’s another step in science and engineering.”

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Speaking for himself, Halcon said, “I already own the most powerful handgun on the market, and if they build a more powerful one, then I want to buy it.”

Sam Paredes, executive director of the Gun Owners of California, feels much the same.

“I can’t wait to shoot one of these things,” he said.

Paredes acknowledged that the Model 500 could be portrayed as the “boogeyman of all guns.”

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He said its recoil would pack such a wallop that it would be virtually impossible for criminals to rely on it -- a sentiment shared by Lt. Bruce Harris, the firing range master for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

“It’s a little tough to have one of those under your shirt,” Harris said, adding that he didn’t believe it would become a street weapon, because “gangbangers don’t have $900 to spend on a Smith & Wesson revolver.”

Legislation regulating the sale of .50-caliber rifles is scheduled for consideration in the state Assembly and the L.A. City Council, said Tolley of the Brady Campaign. But government officials said Thursday that they had no plans to include the new gun in the restrictions.

Still, Tolley said, his group will work to bring the Model 500 under some kind of control because, despite Smith & Wesson’s intentions, the weapon is bound to end up in the wrong hands.

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“They’re marketing this weapon to people who get off on the idea that they have the biggest, baddest gun on the block,” Tolley said.

“Unfortunately, a number of them are going to juvenile gang members and people who have an unhealthy fascination with firearms.”

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Times researcher John Jackson contributed to this report.

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