Smith & Wesson had been at the forefront when developing powerful handgun cartridges such as the .357 S&W Magnum and the .44 Remington Magnum. However, since 1960 the company’s .44 Remington Magnum, which it had developed in partnership with Remington, was eclipsed by the .454 Casull. Since then, several other more powerful cartridges had been developed by Action Arms, Linebaugh, Ruger, Wildey, and Winchester for repeating handguns.
In 1971 Smith & Wesson had experienced a dramatic surge in orders for their Model 29 revolver in the .44 Magnum cartridge with which S&W production was not able to keep up. Available Model 29 revolvers were being sold for two to three times the suggested retail price, due to the low supply and high demand for the revolver. This surge in demand was due to the Dirty Harry movie, where the Model 29 revolver was billed as the most powerful revolver (The .454 Casull designed in 1955 was not in commercial production until 1997). With the entry of the .500 S&W Magnum and the Model 500 revolver, Smith & Wesson recaptured the title of the most powerful handgun, and with it an increase in sales.
The .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum was designed from the outset to be the most powerful production handgun cartridge. S&W product manager Herb Belin proposed the idea of developing the revolver and cartridge to the S&W sales team. With the backing of the sales team, the project was approved by S&W President Bob Scott. The ammunition would be developed by Cor-Bon and Peter Pi in partnership with the S&W X-Gun engineering team of Brett Curry Lead Design Engineer, Rich Mikuta, and Tom Oakley. Eleven months later on January 9, 2003, the team unveiled the S&W Model 500 revolver and the .500 S&W Magnum cartridge. According to Belin, the cartridge was designed from its inception to be substantially more powerful than any other production handgun cartridge before it. Cor-Bon would later go on to develop the .500 S&W Special cartridge.
The .500 S&W Magnum is a semi-rimmed, straight cartridge optimized for use in revolvers. The cartridge is designed to headspace on its rim. However, unlike rimmed cartridges such as the .44 Magnum and other cartridges designed for use in revolvers, the cartridge can be cycled more smoothly and more reliably in tubular or magazine rifles, due to the semi-rimmed design.
The .500 S&W Magnum was designed to fire a bullet with a diameter of .500 in (12.7 mm) unlike the .500 Linebaugh, which fires a .510 in (12.9 mm) bullet. This was done so as not to run afoul of the National Firearms Act and be considered a Destructive Device as had happened to Whildin’s .50 AE cartridge, which at first was designed to fire a .510 in (12.9 mm) but had to be redesigned to fire a .500 in (12.7 mm) instead.
The .500 S&W Magnum has a maximum working pressure of 60,000 psi (4,100 bar). However, most factory ammunition is limited to 50,000 psi (3,400 bar) to help ease extraction of fired cases. The cylinders of the S&W Model 500 revolver are engineered to be capable of withstanding 50% over pressure. Regular proof-load testing is performed at 20% over pressure.
Cylinder bore ∅ is given as .500 in (12.7 mm). SAAMI recommends a 6 groove barrel with each groove being .130 in (3.3 mm) wide. A barrel with a bore ∅ of .4880 in (12.40 mm) and a groove ∅ of .4983 in (12.66 mm) is also recommended. The recommended twist rate is 1 in 18.75 in (476 mm). While the bore diameter of .4880 in (12.40 mm) is consistent with other firearms which fire a .500 in (12.7 mm) diameter bullet, the groove diameter of .4983 in (12.66 mm) is an oddity as most firearms which fire a .500 in (12.7 mm) will have a groove diameter of equal to the diameter of the bullet. For this reason regular cast lead bullets should not be fired in the revolver as excessive leading of the forcing cone and barrel will occur, leading to excessive pressures or the deposited lead acting as an obstruction in the barrel or forcing cone.
While the overall length is given as 2.300 inches (58.4 mm) by many sources, some revolvers will not be able to accept cartridges with bullets seated to this overall length. This is because the cylinders of the revolvers are too short to accommodate such cartridges. The now-discontinued Taurus Raging Bull 500 is an example of one such revolver. It has a cylinder which is about .200 inches (5.1 mm) shorter than that of the S&W Model 500.
The .500 S&W Magnum is considered the most powerful commercial sporting handgun cartridge by virtue of the muzzle energy it can generate. Cor-Bon (now a Dakota Ammo brand) who together with Smith & Wesson developed the .500 S&W Magnum cartridge, offers several loads which include a 325 gr (21.1 g) at 1,800 ft/s (550 m/s), a 400 gr (26 g) at 1,625 ft/s (495 m/s) and a 440 gr (29 g) at 1,625 ft/s (495 m/s). Compared to the next most powerful commercial sporting handgun cartridge, the .460 S&W Magnum, which can launch a 325 gr (21.1 g) at 1,650 ft/s (500 m/s) or a 395 gr (25.6 g) at 1,525 ft/s (465 m/s), the .500 S&W Magnum produces about 15% to 40% more muzzle energy than the .460 S&W. The .500 S&W Magnum comes into its own when used with heavier bullets, particularly those with weights of 500 gr (32 g) or greater. When possible these bullets should be seated as far out as possible to take advantage of the complete cylinder length, so as to maximize the powder capacity which the case can provide.
Several manufacturers currently produce the S&W 500 Magnum cartridge, with some of the top-performing rounds delivering 3,031 ft·lbf (4,109 J) of energy with a 350-grain (23 g) bullet traveling at 1,975 feet per second (602 m/s). It is claimed to be the most potent handgun cartridge on the market and provides power similar to long-established wildcat cartridges such as the .375 JDJ (J. D. Jones) and pistol loadings of the .45-70 Government. Indeed, some rounds use bullets weighing almost 1 oz. (28 g ~ 440 gr.), which are sent at about 1,500 ft/s (460 m/s) – essentially the same performance of a 12 gauge shotgun slug.
Bullet weights available for this cartridge range from a 265-grain (17.2 g) jacketed hollow point to a 700-grain (45 g) hardcast lead bullet. Moderate velocity, heavy bullet loads for the .500 S&W Magnum are similar in performance to the black powder .50-70 Government.
Low recoil or reduced recoil ammunition is manufactured by the Grizzly Cartridge Company and Winchester. The low recoiling ammunition reduces the recoil by lowering the velocity of the projectile and/or the mass of the projectile. Winchester's reduced recoil X500SW ammunition propels a 350 gr (23 g) bullet at 1,400 ft/s (430 m/s). Although such ammunition is considered low recoiling, due to having about one-third of the recoil energy of full-power .500 S&W ammunition, even these are a significant step up from most of the .44 Magnums, as they produce twice the recoil energy of a latter cartridge.
Cor-Bon introduced the .500 S&W Special in 2004 as a lower energy and lower recoiling alternative to the .500 S&W Magnum cartridge. This cartridge is compatible with handguns chambered for the .500 S&W Magnum and fires a 350-grain (23 g) bullet at 1,250 feet per second (380 m/s). These low recoiling alternatives to the full-power 500 S&W Magnum, significantly reduce the felt recoil in the shorter 4-inch-barrel (100 mm) handguns. At present, only Cor-Bon, manufactures ammunition for the .500 S&W Special in three load configurations.
The .500 S&W Magnum has a very high recoil energy and recoil velocity. The high energy and velocity of the recoil will cause the muzzle to rise when shooting the cartridge. Smith & Wesson incorporated design features to help mitigate both the perceived and actual recoil of their Model 500 Smith & Wesson revolver chambered for the .500 S&W Magnum. The revolver is equipped with a compensator and Hogue Sorbothane grips. The revolver's considerable weight of 56–82 ounces (1,600–2,300 g) plays a role in moderating the recoil of the cartridge.
A double-discharge effect is sometimes observed with the cartridge. The heavy recoil causes some shooters to inadvertently squeeze the trigger as a reflexive action to hold on to the revolver soon after the discharge of the previous round. Furthermore, some shooters have experienced the cylinder unlocking and rotating after the firing of cartridge which is a partial manifestation of the same phenomenon.
The .500 S&W Magnum was designed to be primarily a handgun hunting cartridge. It also serves a secondary purpose as a back-up survival handgun cartridge as a defense against the large bears of North America. Due to its power, recoil and size, the 500 S&W Magnum is a poor self-defense or concealed-carry weapon, especially in an urban environment.
The .500 S&W Magnum’s success with large, dangerous game is in part due to the availability of heavier bullets with exceptional sectional densities. Bullets above 500-grain (32 g) have the sectional densities required for hunting heavier African dangerous game. As a hunting cartridge the .500 S&W Magnum has been found to be effective against elephant and African buffalo as long as ranges are kept within reasonable limits. Bullet selection is extremely important when hunting thick-skinned dangerous game. Smith & Wesson bills the Model 500 revolver as "A Hunting Handgun For Any Game Animal Walking".
In North America, it serves the purpose of hunting all North American big game species. The cartridge has had success in harvesting of Alaskan brown bear, American bison, moose, and elk. It is also used to hunt black bear, whitetail deer, wild boar, and feral hogs. The cartridge gained some notoriety as being the cartridge which was used to hunt the supposed Monster Pig.
Bullets ranging from 275–325 gr (17.8–21.1 g) can be used for light CXP2 game species. Bullets heavier than 350 gr (23 g), including Winchester’s reduced-load ammunition, are appropriate for use with CXP3 game species. Bullets over 500 gr (32 g) can be used for dangerous game. Hornady’s 500 gr. SP load is rated for CXP4 class dangerous game by Hornady out to 200 yd (180 m) against dangerous game, based on Hornady Index of Terminal Standards (H.I.T.S.) calculations.
The .500 S&W Magnum is available in firearms more convenient to carry than a full-sized rifle. This lends to its use as a defensive carry firearm in areas where dangerous predatory species may be encountered. The .500 S&W Magnum cartridge has found use in survival guns such as the NEF Handi Rifle and the S&W Survival Kit. It is carried in Alaska for defense against the bears. Smith & Wesson manufactures a 2.75-inch-barrel (70 mm) version of the Model 500 revolver (model 500ES, whose production ended in December 2009), which is included in the S&W Survival Kit. This shorter-barreled revolver is handier, weighing 56 oz (1.6 kg) and has no muzzle brake as are included with the more common Model 500 8.38 in (213 mm) revolvers.
Currently there are several .50 caliber handguns, which are capable of firing the .500 S&W Magnum. These types of revolvers normally have five rounds to allow for thicker cylinder walls to accommodate the pressure generated by the large and powerful cartridge. The single shot Thompson-Center Encore, NEF Handi Rifle, and Towner pump rifle are also chambered for this round. It is currently the most powerful production handgun cartridge available.
Ammunition for the .500 S&W Magnum is available from many mainstream ammunition manufacturers. Recently many of these manufacturers have expanded their .500 S&W offerings, which speaks to the popularity of the cartridge.
In addition to these manufacturers, smaller manufacturers such as Double Tap Ammunition and Magtech Ammunition offer ammunition for firearms chambered for this cartridge.