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The .41 Magnum Turns Gold

The .41 Magnum Turns Gold

Instead of being offered in between the .357 and .44 Magnums as one would expect, S&W waited eight years after the .44 Magnum before introducing its “little” brother, the .41 Magnum. You can well imagine how it was accepted in 1964. One group said it was the best thing ever, while another group said there was no need for it. Actually it’s an excellent sixgun cartridge in its own right. While not quite as prevalent as the “9mm vs. .45” articles, there were quite a few of the .41 Magnum vs. .44 Magnum type. The truth is there is not a deer in the world which would know the difference between being hit by a .41 Magnum or .44 Magnum, while the latter has it all over the former for really large nasty dangerous crittters due to its ability to handle 300-gr. bullets.

Smith & Wesson was the first company, naturally, to market a .41 Magnum sixgun. Although both the .357 Magnum and the .44 Magnum pre-dated model numbers, the .41 Magnum began life as the Model 57, available in both bright blue or nickel, having barrel lengths of 4″, 6″ and 83/8″, with each gun packaged in a presentation case. Although the Model 57 is a popular handgun with collectors and handgun hunters, it never has had the reputation or fame of the Model 29/.44 Magnum. It was a cartridge needed to fill a gap, but for some unknown reason, this model never received the recognition it deserves.

In addition to the adjustable-sighted Model 57, the fixed-sight Model 58 .41 Military and Police was introduced by Smith & Wesson to replace the discontinued .44 Special Military Model of 1950. The production of this handgun had been urged by such famous handgunners as Bill Jordan, Elmer Keith and Skeeter Skelton, all of whom assured Smith & Wesson it was the ideal handgun for law enforcement agencies.
Elmer Keith, in his autobiography Hell, I Was There, shares his part in bringing the .41 Magnum to fruition: “… While we were attending the NRA convention in Washington, DC, Bill Jordan, the old border patrolman, came to me and says, ‘Elmer, you’ve got the .44 Magnum. How about getting a .41 Magnum for the police and sheriffs departments over the country that don’t care for the recoil of the big .44?’ I told him, Bill, there never was a better time. All the arms company heads are here as well as ammunition company heads. So if you side me, we’ll get them all together and get the job done right now.

“I asked them for a .41 Magnum, case length to be the same as the .44 Magnum, bullet diameter to be 0.410″ so that no old .38-40’s or .41 Long Colts could ever be revamped to handle the larger bullet, as they go around 0.403″. I wanted a 220-gr. bullet. Doug Hellstrom also insisted on the 0.410″ diameter to preclude the possibility of a cartridge ever being used in the old .41 guns which would not take its pressures. Earl Larsen of Remington could make the ammunition if the other boys would make the guns. Doug Hellstrom and Bill Gunn of Smith & Wesson agreed to bring out the gun…”

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Taffin’s .41 Magnum Smith & Wesson Model 57 with an 83/8″
barrel wears stocks of bloodwood by BearHug.

Skeeter & Jordan

In his book No Second Place Winner, Bill Jordan shares about the .41 Magnum: “I do not intend to write much of this load because I’m sure that before this book is printed, reams will have appeared about the ‘new’.41 Magnum in the gun magazines. However, regarding all the writers who have climbed on the bandwagon and, I am sure, will now make load claims to have been the Pappy or Mammy of this load, I wish to make a statement! I tagged along with Elmer Keith and said amen while Elmer cornered the firearms and ammunition people, individually and collectively, at that 1963 NRA members meeting in Washington and got commitments which actually started the ball rolling… So, regardless of who set the actual dimensions and specifications, it was that grand old man of the shooting game who did the work that made this load a reality. I had hoped that one of the loads would be named the .41 Keith. It would have been fitting recognition to a man who has given much to shooting.”

That brings us down to Skeeter Skelton’s part in all this: “… the fact is I did little to promote the idea of a .41 Magnum-besides bombarding F.H. Miller, a Smith & Wesson executive, with letters suggesting such a revolver. This took place in the early ’60’s, just after I completed 10 years as a Border Patrolman and Sheriff. While working in those jobs, I had tried about everything in the way of a sidearm, and I believe there was a glaring need for a police revolver with more stopping power than the .357 and less recoil than the .44 Magnum. I felt then and still feel that if the ammo makers had given us .44 special ammunition loaded with a 250-gr. lead semi-wadcutter bullet at 1,000 fps, the result would be the ideal police round. Knowing this wasn’t going to happen, I got on the .41 Magnum kick. However, Elmer and Bill really got the ball rolling when they conferred with S&W and Remington brass at Camp Perry in 1963 and extracted promises from both companies to develop the gun and load.”

Bill Jordan, Elmer Keith and Skeeter Skelton all saw the .41 as a better choice for law officers over what was then available. The idea of a powerful cartridge larger than .38 though smaller than .44 was not a new one. Even Colt had toyed with the idea of a modernized .41 much more powerful than their .41 Long Colt, however they never brought it to production.

In between the two world wars such experimenters as Pop Eimer of Joplin, Mo., and Gordon Boser of New York State both experimented with heavy .40 caliber cartridges using shortened .401 Winchester rifle brass and .41 Long Colt and .38-40 Colt Single Actions with new cylinders to accept their wildcat cartridges. Using 180-gr. bullets they were getting velocities of 1,100 fps, which made them the most powerful sixgun cartridges, other than custom loaded .44 Specials, until the arrival of the .357 Magnum.

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Smith & Wesson 4″ .41 Magnum shown, and some of the factory loads available.
There’s plenty of factory loads available if you’re not a reloader.

Cops Say No

The standard S&W .41 Magnum would last just under 30 years. During this time Smith & Wesson offered two basic models. The Model 57 was simply the .44 Magnum Model 29 with smaller holes in barrel and cylinder and in the mentioned barrel lengths. I never did understand the 6″ since the .44 Magnum came with a 61/2″ barrel. Once again things worked backwards and instead of offering the .41 with a 61/2″ barrel the .44 Magnum was standardized at 6″ in 1979. I much prefer the looks and balance that extra 1/2″ adds. In 1986 the stainless steel counterpart of the Model 57, the Model 657, arrived in the same three standard barrel lengths. Later models would have full under-lugged barrels and before the end of the century the .41 Magnum would be offered in the Mountain Gun configuration.

The second Smith & Wesson .41 Magnum was that 4″ Model 58 which looked much like a slightly larger Military & Police. This one came with fixed sights, standard Magna stocks and the ejector rod housing was not enclosed. It was designed as a police duty weapon using a 210-gr. bullet at around 900 fps. I wished they had stayed with the basic .38/44 Heavy Duty sixgun with its enclosed ejector rod as used for the prototype when they produced the Model 58 instead of using the profile of the Military & Police which did not have the enclosed ejector rod housing.

I believe only two departments ever adopted the Model 58, as most deemed it too big and heavy for everyday carry and also had too much recoil even with the 900 fps load. The Model 57 received a greater reception from a small group of connoisseurs who saw it as an excellent outdoorsman’s revolver with its 210-gr. bullet at 1,400 fps plus. Two attributes of the .41 Magnum over the .44 Magnum were quickly discovered — it recoiled slightly less and also shot much flatter at long distances.

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Custom Ruger .41 Magnums by Ben Forkin and Alan Harton both
have case-hardening frames and shoot exceptionally well.

John Discovers The .41

It took me a while to adopt the .41 Magnum. When Diamond Dot and I visited Elmer Keith in the summer of 1968 he was packing an ivory stocked 4″ .41 Magnum; that same sixgun, along with the other member of the pair presented to him by Smith & Wesson, is now on display in the Elmer Keith Museum. Although I came to know the .41 Magnum late, about 15 years after it first arrived, I finally fell for the Smith & Wesson .41 Magnum and eventually wound up with a pair of 4″ Model 57’s stocked with exotic wood, Skeeter Skelton Kingwood grips by BearHug. These were followed by an 83/8″ version which also wears BearHug grips of very deep red bloodwood. I only just recently added a 6″ nickel-plated .41 sixgun, currently gripped with Herrett’s Jordan Trooper stocks of walnut.

To know the .41 Magnum is to appreciate it. It really does not need to be compared to any other cartridge as it can stand on its own merits. One of these is the fact it can deliver substantial muzzle energy without punishing recoil. Any sixgunner spending much time with the cartridge soon develops some favorite loads. Shortly after the .41 Magnum was introduced in 1964, a standard heavy loading consisting of a 220-gr. Keith bullet over 20 grains of #2400 was developed.

As with the .44 Magnum, I also use a lot of #2400 with the .41 Magnum, however rather than zeroing in at 20 grains, I experiment by using anywhere from 18 to 20 grains looking for the best load for a particular sixgun and situation. While 20 grains of #2400 has been perfectly safe in every .41 Magnum tested, giving velocities from 1,450-1,550 fps depending upon barrel length, I really feel most S&W sixguns will last a lot longer if the load is cut back to around 19 grains. This loading with the 220-gr. Keith bullet will give about 1,400 fps again depending upon barrel length.

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The most accurate sixgun Taffin has ever experienced is
this Freedom Arms .41 Magnum. Those are 100-yard groups!

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Classic Special and Magnum Cartridges: .38 Special and .357
Magnum, .41 Special and .41 Magnum, .44 Special and .44 Magnum.

Easy To Load

This 220-gr. bullet, cast hard, makes an excellent high-performance load whether the targets be live game, steel critters or an elusive tin can on the side of the yonder hill. One of the reasons this bullet is such an excellent performer is its long nose fills out the cylinder to the end. The longer a bullet is, all other things being equal, the more accurate it should be at long-range. I have used my standard 220-gr. Keith bullet/19 grains #2400 on both whitetail deer and one very upset, large feral hog. It has never failed.

While #2400 is an excellent powder for 1,400 fps loads in the .41 Magnum, it’s by no means the only powder to be used though. The same results can be had by employing either 22 grains of WW296, 22 grains of H110 or 22 grains of #4227. The latter powder is a real favorite of those who have found it develops top accuracy in Magnum sixguns, without heavy recoil or bore leading problems.

As with all Magnums, full-house loads are not always necessary or even desirable for the .41. Defensive situations, whether for practice or for real, call for high-performance loads having reduced muzzle velocities. The same is true of the loads which make pleasant Sunday afternoon plinking sessions or for teaching beginners how to shoot.

Loads in the 900-1,000 fps class are needed here. I prefer a #220 .411 bullet from an NEI mold which drops a semi-wadcutter weighing about 200 grains. This bullet has a flat nose which is almost .41 caliber itself. Loaded over 9.0 grains of HS-6 or 7.5 grains of Unique, this bullet at 900+ fps is perfect for these situations. This same NEI bullet over 21.0 grains of #2400 will deliver 1,600 fps from an 83/8″ Smith & Wesson giving a very flat shooting load. At maximum velocities, its large frontal area delivers maximum shocking power whatever the target may be. Its wide flat nose also makes for a defensive choice in short-barreled sixguns even though the velocities are at a very manageable 900 fps.

There are several jacketed bullets available for the .41 Magnum. For a flat- shooting, high-velocity load, Sierra’s 170-gr. JHC can be safely driven to 1,600 fps in a long-barreled .41 Magnum using either 22 grains of #2400, or 25 grains of either H110 or WW296. This is an excellent bullet for thin-skinned game. Sierra, Hornady and Speer all make jacketed bullets in the 210- to 220-gr. range which are top performers in the .41 Magnum at 1,300-1,400 fps in 83/8″ .41 Magnum Smith & Wesson sixguns. These velocities, along with excellent accuracy, can be obtained with 20-21 grains of either H110 or WW296.

Had the .41 Magnum arrived in between the .357 Magnum and the .44 Magnum it would’ve probably received greater respect as a natural step in the evolution of sixgun cartridges. Coming nearly 10 years after the .44 Magnum it instead remains the Sixgun Connoisseurs Cartridge. It’s difficult to not compare the .41 Magnum with the .44 Magnum. However, while the .41 Magnum cannot be made into a .44 — nor should it be — it’s an excellent performer in its own right. Any sixgun capable of delivering 220-gr. bullets at 1,500 fps can easily stand on its own merits. Those who take up the Smith & Wesson .41 Magnum must hold on to them, as while it’s relatively easy to find both Smith & Wesson .357 Magnums and .44 Magnums on the used gun market, one has to do a little searching to come up with a .41 Magnum.

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Other Guns

Although Smith & Wesson was the first to introduce the .41 Magnum they were not the only company to do so. Ruger chambered their Blackhawk for the .41 Magnum very early on and would later offer both the Bisley Model and the Redhawk in .41. Dan Wesson chambered their large frame double-action revolver in .41 Magnum and I cherish my stainless steel Dan Wesson .41 as it came from my late good friend Hal Swiggett. One of the earlier offerings in .41 Magnum, from Italy through Intercontinental Arms, is a single-action sixgun looking much like a Ruger Super Blackhawk except for the brass grip frame and 1-piece Walnut stocks.

The most accurate .41 Magnum I have ever fired, in fact the most accurate sixgun I have ever encountered is the Freedom Arms Model 83 chambered in the Middle Magnum. Using my 101/2″ scope-sighted Model 83 and handloads using Hornady’s 210-gr.XTP-JHP bullets over AA#9 powder groups well under 1″ at 100 yards are easily attained. In fact I have one 4-shot group fired at 100 yards with three shots touching. I have yet to find a .357 Magnum or .44 Magnum sixgun/load combination which can equal this. So Happy Golden Anniversary to the .41 Magnum!
By John Taffin

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