by George Cretton
Few of us who grew up loving to watch the “shoot 'em up” cops and robbers movies will ever forget that great scene from the 1971 movie Dirty Harry where Inspector Callahan pulls out his 61⁄2 inch Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum and blows away the bad guys trying to rob a bank in downtown San Francisco. There was Clint Eastwood, looking all macho and everything, eating a hot dog, firing the “most powerful handgun in the world” while taking down the bad guys all by himself. I went back several times trying to count the number of rounds he fired to see how accurate the film makers were, after watching Clint taunt the bad guy, “I know what you're thinking, did I fire six rounds or only five... well, do you feel lucky, punk?”
It is not known how many Inspector Callahans there might have been in law enforcement carrying .44 Magnums in 1971, but I suspect the numbers would have been few and far between. That's why it was more than interesting that the El Cajon Police Department, in a small town of about 40,000 residents, had authorized their use for general duty purposes as early as 1961, ten years before Dirty Harry. You might say that Chief O'Connor, an old- time western style cop, was leading edge back then when he authorized his department's officers to carry this magnificent but not-so-popular weapon. Having consulted with Officer Elden Carl, O'Connor was convinced the Model 29 had a place in his officers' arsenal of handgun choices, particularly after reading of Elden's incredible accomplishments in pistol competitions.
Smith & Wesson debuted their Model 29 .44 Magnum on December 29, 1955. This handgun was available to the general public, but there is little evidence to support a rush by law enforcement to add this pistol to their list of approved duty weapons. It wasn't until 1971, when the movie was released, that interest skyrocketed and the Model 29 tripled in price overnight. While the 61⁄2 inch model remained very popular, for obvious reasons, today the Model 29 is offered in barrel lengths of 3 inches up to 10 5/8 inches. Even after the increased interest generated by Hollywood, law enforcement was not known for using this pistol for general duty use.
Elden Carl was hired by El Cajon Police Department in October 1959. During his years as a police officer, he continued his interest in handguns and competitive shooting. He competed in many pistol events; perhaps one of the more well-known was the Big Bear Leatherslap which he won three times. In Jeff Cooper's first .44 Magnum shoot held on September 16, 1961, Elden fired his S&W 61⁄2 inch .44 Magnum from a seated position and placed five rounds within a three inch circle on a deer target 100 yards away. Many of his competitors have tried to duplicate this feat without success. It remains one of the most incredible and widely discussed shooting accomplishments of all time. The Student
I met Elden Carl in 1962 when I became a Reserve Police Officer. I remember riding along as his partner and became infatuated with his knowledge and stories about handguns. As interesting as these stories were, I will never forget the first time I saw him quick-draw a holstered handgun. I really didn't believe my eyes, because I had never witnessed anything like that in my life. He would often display this skill in demonstrations, when he would give someone a handgun loaded with blanks, have them hold it pointing at the ground, and tell them to pull the trigger the moment they saw him move. Elden could, in one motion, draw and fire before the person could even react. I witnessed this on many occasions, and never saw anyone beat him.
As far as I was concerned, I was an immediate believer and convert. I soon became his student and learned everything there was to know about safety, speed, accuracy, and emergency contingency plans, and because he carried an S&W .44 Magnum, I decided I would, too. This became my weapon of choice when I was hired by El Cajon P.D. in March, 1963. As far as I can remember, he and I were two of only a handful who carried a .44 Magnum, in part because the size, weight, and recoil were very challenging and required some serious dedication to achieve proficiency.
I credit Elden with teaching me not only the basics of handgun proficiency, but more importantly he demanded excellence from himself concerning all aspects of the pistol's proper use and effectiveness. He always had a plan in place should he find himself in a situation requiring the use of his handgun. This experience rubbed off on me and left me with a sense of quiet confidence, which helped me immensely throughout my police career.
Elden, who left for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department not long after I was hired, recently asked me if I recalled anyone else at El Cajon P.D. carrying the .44 Magnum after he left, and I honestly have no recollection of any other officers doing so. Had I not met Elden when I did, I doubt that I would have done so either. I became most interested in this weapon for its stopping power capabilities. Learning to shoot this pistol effectively took time and practice, not only because of its size and weight but because of its recoil. Chief O'Connor did not authorize full magnum rounds, so at my request Elden loaded up enough rounds for me to carry which were slightly less than full magnums. I carried this 61⁄2 inch .44 Magnum for about six years until I was promoted to Sergeant, when I switched to a 4 inch model of the 29, primarily for convenience getting in and out of the patrol car.
Gun enthusiasts often only read or hear about the legendary exploits of men with guns and their accomplishments. I was very fortunate to meet Elden Carl because if ever there was a legendary figure in modern times, he was the man. He taught me everything I know about shooting and it made me extremely confident in the many encounters I faced during my 31 years in law enforcement. In the future, with Elden's blessing, I hope to share some inside stories about this interesting man who not only was a legend but became my mentor and friend. About the author: George Cretton worked for El Cajon Police Department until his retirement as Lieutenant in December 1993. During that time he received his BA, MPA, and JD and was licensed to practice law in California in 1991. He was an adjunct professor at Grossmont Community College teaching classes in Administration of Justice and also taught at the the Regional Law Enforcement Academy. He began his legal practice as a Personal Injury Attorney, but spent most of his time as a Criminal Trial Attorney. He retired from legal practice in January 2018. He is an avid bicyclist and can often be found on the Pacific Coast Highway riding between Del Mar and Oceanside, California.