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The .41 Mag: if only we could do it over.

Everybody I know including myself has one something in life that we would like to do over. Life is just that way. The firearms industry is in some vein the same. Timing is everything. The correct product at the correct time can be boon or bane. The .41 Magnum cartridge may be a perfect example.

Cartridge History

Introduced in the mid '60s, the .41 Magnum was considered by some to be the optimum self-defense cartridge and load for American law enforcement. Historically, it can be traced to a wildcat cartridge called the .400 Eimer, which was on the drawing boards as early as the 1920s. In its initial introduction the .41 Smith & Wesson Magnum was brought out in 1963-64 mated to the Smith & Wesson Model 57. The Model 57 was a large, adjustable-sighted, six-shot N-frame revolver. Shortly afterwards the factory folks at Smith & Wesson introduced a beefed-up Model 10-style fixed-sight version numbered the Model 58.

Concept and Purpose

The .38 Special was for many years a pretty universal cartridge for the law enforcement community, often with dismal results. It failures are well noted and early attempts such as the 200-grain .38-44 Super Police load still did not bring the .38 to acceptable standards of stopping power. The .357 Magnum was the upgraded version of the .38, but even in this mode it still lacked cross-sectional density, which is always helpful in a fighting handgun cartridge. The .44 Magnum was in fact too much gun for general police use and the closest it came to solving the problem was the Remington 240-grain mid-range load. The shooter of these mid-range loads still needed to be attentive because the recoil for the sane was still a handful. The .41 Magnum gave better cross sectional density than the .38 Special and the bullet weight at 210 grains could be an attention getter on the misbehaving.

Unfortunately at its introduction the .41 Magnum received mediocre support from the big-named shooters of the era who were supporting pet projects of their own. Bill Jordan was fostering the Model 19 .357 Magnum and Elmer Keith plugging the Model 29 .44 Magnum. Yesson The .41 Magnum took a 57 (it's OK back seat in the industry. In red-sight addition, two other key ingredients helped seal its law enforcement fate, politics and ammunition.

What's in A Name?

The political correctness of the '60s and '70s was one of those you almost had to see to believe. The Vietnam War was in full swing and the fruits and nuts were proving that the country doesn't always run on democracy, but was in fact being converted to the principle of the squeaking wheel--actually the loudest squeaking wheel--gets the oil, deserving or not. At issue was the word Magnum, which was roll stamped on the barrel. The issue was so intense that the City of San Antonio, Texas, for example, actually bought the guns but went through a load of sheer nonsense trying to get the barrels roll stamped with options such as .41 SAPD, or .41 Police or .41 Special. The then Chief of Police was adamant he would not accept the nomenclature .41 Magnum, as it was in his opinion not politically correct or acceptable. To show how subtle issues can affect history here is an example.

Bill McLennan, a now retired 30-year veteran SAPD officer who was on the equipment committee states, "We issued the Remington 210 lead semiwadcutter amino. The Chief would not accept the name .41 Magnum but we sold him on nomenclature of .41 Police.

"Smith and Wesson declared they would stamp anything on the barrel we wanted if we ordered over 200 guns. We selected .41 Police but a finance guy at City Hall nixed the $50 charge for the roll stamp that was required for that designation."

That ended that part of the story. In 1974 the San Antonio Police Department issued 400 Model 58s with a 4" barrel, blue finish and the smaller magna-style grips. The barrel was stamped .41 Magnum and the die was cast.

What's in A Load?

Two factory loadings were available. The barnburner was the 210-grain jacketed soft-point, which ran the gates at a smoking 1,500 feet per second declared and a probably true 1,400 fps. It was--and is--too much load for the average shooter and the police community has many average shooters. The second load was a 210 lead semiwadcutter cruising across the chronograph at a nominal 1,150 fps declared. In reality, it was probably closer to 900 fps. It was plenty of load with plenty of projectile for the average shooter, and probably on the verge of too much. I think that one of the key ingredients in the failure of the .41 Magnum was the unclear boundary between the two loads. Had the .41 Magnum been loaded to a nominal 850 to 900 fps with a 210-grain LSW from the get go, I believe it would have been force to be reckoned with.

What's in An Opinion?

During this time SAPD contacted the experts of the time and this is what they said of this issue.

Bill Jordan said, "Go to the Model 19 and train with .38s and issue .357s for duty. A group of officers so far out of training as SAPD has no business with .41- or .44-caliber pistols."

Elmer Keith advised go to .44s.

Jeff Cooper recommended the 1911 and did not understand why SAPD didn't go with that pistol even though the Chief of Police mandated a revolver.

Charlie Askins recommended staying with the .38, saying it was easier to train with. George Nonte recommended the 9mm. So there was a consensus--no one agreed.

As a point of interest, the SAPD .41 Magnums lasted until 1980 when they were replaced by the .38 Special.

The .41 Magnum Today

The .41 Magnum is alive today and holds a strong following in small enclaves. I personally like the caliber and just successfully completed a three-day defensive handgun course using a 4" nickel-plated Smith & Wesson Model 57 revolver in a class filled with semiautomatic handguns. Using HKS speed loaders, I at no time felt outgunned or behind the power curve. As an interesting note I shot several strings of fire during the course with full house .41 Magnums and it caused quite stir.

Seems many of the folks thought a cannon had been brought on the firing line. Many of today's shooters only know semiautomatics of 9mm and .40 caliber and in all candor are intrigued by the boom and bullets of the big bore revolving handguns.

Handloading, using quality 215-grain semiwadcutter bullets made by Laser Cast Products and pushed by WW231 powder, I am sending the Silver Bullets downrange at a nominal 900 fps with excellent results. I took the .41 Mag hunting this year for Texas deer and the cartridge performed more than well enough to fill the freezer with venison.

I have been in the wrong place at the wrong time on a couple of occasions in my life. At my advanced age knowing there are no do-overs, I have no qualms about defending myself or my family with the Smith & Wesson .41 Magnum cartridge. I can pay the revolver and caliber no higher compliment.
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Title Annotation:Ranging Shots
Author:Smith, Clint
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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