Here’s an Auto Mag for sale on Gun Broker. It’s not just any Auto Mag, as we’ll see, but it serves to illustrate the attractive physical lines of this firearm, which is so rarely seen these days that the only people who identify it correctly on first glance are either hopeless gun nerds, or people who searched the internet after watching Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry movie that features it (we think, Sudden Impact but we’ll accept correction in the comments. One of you gun nerds probably watched it last week).
Seller says (punctuation added, and ALL CAPS “sent down” for the benefit of the reader):
This is from Harry Sanford’s personal collection, the rare of the rare, Serial # 1 and the only one made.
The new b series silhouette 10.5 bull barrel with many accessories and provenance from the family. Will ship over nite with tracking, Fedex.
Harry Sanford was the entrepreneur who brought the Auto Mag to production in the 1960s and early 70s in southern California, when that area was a hotbed of futuristic thinking, from the science-fiction movies being shot on back lots, to the weird but compelling sounds the weird but compelling Brian Wilson was wringing out of the recording studio, to the real space work by SoCal aerospace giants like Lockheed, North American, and McDonnell Douglas and an intricate web of small prototype shots and designers who supported them.
The Auto Mag was originally designed by Max Gera. Sanford had it redeveloped in the then-futuristic gun material, stainless steel. It was chambered (primarily) for a proprietary cartridge, the .44 Auto Mag, which shared a bolt-face diameter with the Mauser rifle cartridges (and therefore with the .308 Win/7.62 NATO and the .30-06, providing AutoMag buyers a source of casings for handloads).
Production was (and is, this photo, a bolt and its drawing, is from a New Auto Mag prototype, 2015-16) mostly based on machining parts from bar stock.
Investment casting also has been used to produce parts. The new guys have a SolidWorks model that enables them to access modern manufacturing technologies. Here’s a new-old-stock raw casting with an experimental print:
The Auto Mag was produced in many different variations — dozens of them — and was also advertised in .357 Auto Mag, a necked-down version of the round, although we’re not convinced any of the .357s or conversion kits ever shipped.
Lee Jurras was also involved and the gun was a darling of the magazines, especially with Jurras’s custom exotic-wood grips. Jeff Cooper, another Auto Mag enthusiast, wrote:
The pistol was designed by Max Gera, and incorporates all the “modern conveniences.” Barrel and sights are in one rigid unit for target accuracy. The trigger linkage is similar in concept to the proven line of Hi Standard target pistols, permitting a very nice adjustment. The sights are fully adjustable and patridge type. The positive, hammer-looking safety is symmetrical and works on either side. Ejection is forward. An accelerator is provided to insure reliable action in sub-zero temperatures. Though the prototype is constructed of a standard chrome-moly alloy, the production model will naturally be made of stainless steel throughout.
Along with the High Standard trigger (these were the auto pistols that dominated smallbore bullseye in the USA at the time), the AutoMag incorporated recoil operation with dual springs like a Walther P.38, a hammer and safety lifted from the 1911 (except ambidextrous out of the box, revolutionary for 1966-70), and a rotating eight-lug bolt like an AR or Johnson rifle.
The Auto Mag’s styling was clean and modern. It is, aesthetically, a beautiful and striking gun. (It’s also huge, something that you have to hold one to appreciate, although it’s a hair smaller than a Smith 29, according to Cooper). There are elements of Luger, a rib taken Genesis-like of Python, a degree of the classic streamlining of the beautiful dead-end Whitney, and classic proportions (at least in the usual 6.5″ version). Only a few thousand were made, and an ordinary one goes for around $4k now to collectors. It’s in the hands of a buyer whether this unique long-barreled Auto Mag is worth the asking price of over $10k.
Originally, the Auto Mag was intended — we are not making this up — as a handgun for hunting big game and dangerous game. But it never crossed the reliability threshold you want in a hunting gun. Many if not most buyers had problems, and not only did the company fail, several subsequent companies and restart attempts failed. The key failing seems to have been the price — around $200 retail, per Cooper, in 1970 — did not cover more than 20% of the cost of goods sold. Sanford’s idea seems to have been to buy market share and visibility at a loss, and then hope for manufacturing to lower costs on a vector that would, at some point, intersect the vector of price increases that he’d be able to do, given market popularity. This never seemed to work, and one group of investors after another would crash on the hard shoals of gross income minus COGS minus expenses.
Today, they are fewer than 10,000 AutoMags ever made are the centerpiece of many handgun collections. Most of them are curios and relics, because even the ATF recognizes this as a collector’s, not criminal’s, gun.
Maybe you don’t want to get this rare AutoMag, or a more ordinary 6 1/2″ barrel version that showed up on GunBroker at the same time (in the usual price range). You can still enjoy looking at them.
Then again, maybe you want a new one. A new AutoMag reboot is under way, as Walter Sanford, Harry’s son, has sold the AutoMag intellectual property, and the guys at New Auto Mag seem to be thinking cautiously and clearly. Lots of cool AutoMag history can be found at AutoMagParts.com. (That’s where we found the vintage pictured in this post). And for all kinds of AutoMag goodness, check out Maynard Arms. And to see what we mean about the aesthetics, here’s an image of a standard .44 AM, courtesy of the New Auto Mag LTD:
And if the New Auto Mag venture, too, comes a cropper, don’t lament that these men did not succeed. Rejoice that they tried.