Desert Eagle.

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Shared February 9, 2014

The pilot episode of Iconic Arms.
A history of the Desert Eagle and a cultural context within games.
Next up: the AK-47:

Beware, major plot spoilers for the COD: Modern Warfare series within.


The Desert Eagle isn't a very good handgun - but nonetheless it is remarkably popular: it features in hundreds of movies, television shows and video games.

So how did such an unwieldy weapon become so iconic? Why is the Deagle a trademark of many first person shooters? And is bigger always better?

The Desert Eagle was designed as a semi-automatic rival to large-frame, high calibre revolvers: a gas-operated pistol able to feed from interchangeable magazines and with superior capacity to a typical 6-round cylinder.

Design started in 1979 at American co Magnum Research, Inc. - with the first finished pistols produced in 1982 by Israeli weapons manufacturer IMI.

The latest iteration - the Mark XIX - emerged in 1995, and like some kind of fashion accessory, even comes with a number of choices as far as finish is concerned.

Amongst them, the most demure is plain Black: others include three chromed options of various lustres; nickel either satin or bright; and gold both 24 karat and in a more durable Titanium variant; and if either gold finish isn't suitably ostentatious - then there's always the tiger stripes.

There are also more practical options, such as the choice of either a 6-inch or 10-inch barrel: and your calibre preference, either .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum or .50 Action Express.

The latter cartridge was designed specifically for high-calibre semi-automatic pistols, and indeed the Desert Eagle was the first handgun chambered for it: a performance jump from the already mighty .44 Magnum round, and right on the cusp of calibres deemed legal.

The .50 cal chambering set the pistol above most other magnum options, which in turn has led to it finding popularity in action films since the 1980s - supplanting Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum as the most powerful handgun in the world.

For almost as long as video games have existed, they have been influenced by cinema.

While the firearms in early games were often made generic through lack of resolution, as the number of polygons possible to push on-screen grew, weapons were able to be rendered in ever greater detail - giving rise to games with realistically rendered arsenals.

However, due to concerns over the use of trademarks, the real-steel Desert Eagle's name hasn't always matched its in-game appellation.

Sometimes it's known by generic terms that allude to its higher calibre - the 'magnum pistol', 'heavy handgun' or '.50 AE' offering a clue as to the handgun's power.

Sometimes the name is a mite more imaginative: and while the 'Silver Talon' in Soldier of Fortune, 'Desert Ranger' in Tomb Raider, or Counter-Strike's Night Hawk .50 cal' might not be instantly recognisable by name, the imposing sillhouette of the Deagle is unmistakeable.

Counter-Strike in 1999 was one of the earliest realistic depictions of the gun: the game was originally a mod for Half-Life, and eventually graduated to a full retail release.

The weapon's digital rendition mirrors the real steel's power: while magazine capacity was limited, its high damage and one-shot headshot potential more than made up for any shortcoming.

The game graciously overlooks the weapon's impracticality for combat use, with the firearm eventually becoming a fast favourite for use in tandem with a primary weapon.

The powerful pistol returned in Counter-Strike: Source, and once again more recently in Global Offensive - each time filling a similar high-powered backup role.

Stylish, powerful and capable of skillfull headshot kills - the Counter-Strike depiction is a definitive one: with the game enjoying huge popularity over its lifespan, particularly in a world before Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

In the opening scenes of COD4 the Desert Eagle is very prominent: as a deposed president, you're bundled into a car, given a none-too gentle buttstroke, frogmarched to a pillory - and then, after some posturing - shot in the head by the golden high-calibre pistol.

It's fatal punctuation for a coup d'etat: a show of force in public execution - and that's what the Desert Eagle is all about: exhibition. A vulgar display of power.

It's a compelling moment, and the Desert Eagle is the totem of such potential: setting the story in motion in an explosive fashion.

It's not until the very end of the campaign that the pistol makes a return: this time as a grim portent of doom, executing a squadmate and moving towards your position with similar intent - only diverted by a timely distraction and some quick-thinking by Price.

It seems like every do-or-die moment in the Modern Warfare series simply must include the weapon - but I suppose if you're going to threaten the player with a gun to the face, there are few weapons with as imposing a profile as a .50 calibre Desert Eagle.