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The .41 Magnum turns 40 - The Sixgunner
American Handgunner, Nov-Dec, 2003 by John Taffin

It's a shame things don't always turn out the way they're s'posed to ... nothin' ever turns out right!" So said Harry Carey as the Marshal, to John Wayne as Quirt Evans in the 1947 production Angel and the Badman. He was speaking of being cheated out of hanging the reformed gunfighter-turned farmer, but he could just as easily be speaking of the .41 Magnum. If ever a cartridge did not turn out the way it was s'posed to, the .41 Magnum is it. What went wrong?
Several things have worked against the .41 Magnum almost since its very inception. Instead of welcoming a new cartridge, several gunwriters did their best to scuttle it from the very beginning. They did the same thing with the .357 Maximum. Perhaps they were upset because of its illegitimacy. It just didn't follow the natural flow of things. Before the .357 Magnum of 1935, there was the .38 Special of 1899, and even before this, there was the .38 Long Colt and the .38 S&W. In 1930, the .38 Special was hot-loaded to the .38/44 Heavy-Duty and then lengthened to become the even more powerful .357 Magnum.
The .44 Magnum also has a natural ancestry. The .44 S&W American arrived in 1869, it was modernized to the .44 Russian in the early 1870s, which was then lengthened to become the .44 Special in 1907. Several big bore sixgunners, most notably Elmer Keith, began heavy loading the .44 Special even before the .357 Magnum arrived. After three decades of promoting his heavy loads in the Special, Keith and his cohorts were rewarded in late 1955 with the first .44 Magnum. Everything had moved along naturally just the way it should have.
It Just Ain't Nat'rul
On the other hand, the .41 Magnum cannot point to a specific ancestry complete with father and grandfather. Colt produced both the .38-40 and the .41 Long Colt in their Single Action Army, which came close to .41 caliber with a barrel groove diameter of approximately .403", the same barrels being used for both calibers. Custom gunsmiths such as Pop Eimer and Gordon Boser use cut-down .401 Winchester brass and new cylinders in these Colt Single Actions, to produce .40 caliber Magnum sixgun cartridges. Call them uncles of the .41 Magnum.
Colt came oh-so-close to producing a true .41 in 1932. Both the Official Police and New Service revolvers were chambered to a .41 Colt Special. Three years before the arrival of the .357 Magnum Colt had a true .41 with a muzzle velocity of over 1,100 fps from the New Service. Did they produce it? Did they promote it? Did they send test sixguns and ammunition to the gunwriters of the time? Nope! They did none of these things. The project was shelved and never to be seen again. Perhaps Colt felt the Depression would keep it from becoming a success. Perhaps. However, that didn't stop Smith & Wesson from introducing a new sixgun and cartridge in the midst of the Depression three years later. It sold so well the gun makers at Springfield could not keep up with the demand. Call the .41 Colt Special the long-lost father of the .41 Magnum.
The Colt version of the .41 Special may have disappeared, however some of us--with the aid of gunsmiths such as Hamilton Bowen--have tried to rewrite history by building our own .41 Specials. Bowen converts the Colt Single Action, the Ruger Old Model .357 Blackhawk and the S&W L-framed Model 586 to .41 Special. Brass is made by simply trimming .41 Magnum brass to .44 Special length. Some would view this as a step backward. I see it as using an excellent cartridge, and at the same time, trying to provide a legitimate ancestry to the .41 Magnum.
The .41 Magnum is also considered to be somewhat of an interloper since it arrived at the wrong time. An ordered universe called for the .357 Magnum to be followed by the .41 Magnum, which in turn would unveil the future .44 Magnum. Instead of following this natural order, the original Magnum arrived in 1935, followed by the .44 Magnum 20 years later in late 1955 and the .41 Magnum in 1964.
The .41 Magnum not only arrived at the wrong time it also arrived in the wrong package, at least wrong for its intended purpose. Elmer Keith and Bill Jordan, together, cornered Smith & Wesson and Remington in 1963 and exacted a promise of a new sixgun and cartridge for peace officers. Remember at this time, most defensive ammunition was still of the rounded-nosed lead version. The .357 Magnum JHP ammunition we have today was not yet readily available. Most .45 ACP ammo was hard ball and the .44 Magnum was too big, too heavy and recoiled way too much for use by most law-enforcement personnel.
The Vision
Keith and Jordan visualized a .41 Magnum with both a police load and a full-house Magnum load. They did get both their wishes, however the police load was heavier than it needed to be and the new guns were larger and heavier than most peace officers preferred to carry. The smaller framed Combat Magnum .357 had arrived nearly ten years earlier. Instead of developing a new frame somewhere between the K-frame and the N-frame, Smith & Wesson simply chambered the existing .44 Magnum for the new .41 Magnum, resulting in an even heavier sixgun. This was known as the Model 57, and by removing the adjustable sight and the shrouded ejector rod, it became the Model 58, a somewhat oversized Military & Police version of the new .41. Lately, the idea of a Mountain Gun has become very popular. Perhaps Smith & Wesson would have been better off to use the original Mountain Gun, the 4" 1950 Target .44 Special, as the platform for the .41 Magnum--especially for peace officer use.
A few, very few, police departments adopted the Model 58. However, the round police were looking for would not arrive until the 1990s as the .40 S&W, and in a semi-auto instead of a revolver. Perhaps the .41 was just ahead of its time. Perhaps it would have been more eagerly accepted in a smaller package. Perhaps loaded to the specifications of what became the .40 S&W it would still be in service. Perhaps.
Not Done Yet
However, all is not lost. In spite of the dream of Elmer Keith and Bill Jordan for a sixgun/cartridge combination to aid peace officers, we instead received an excellent outdoorsman's cartridge and revolver. For deer hunting, there is not an animal in the world that can tell a difference between being hit by a .41 Magnum or .44 Magnum. I have shot deer and feral pigs with both the .41 Magnum and the .44 Magnum, and the results were the same. However, when we get to larger, heavier-boned and muscled critters, the ability of the .44 Magnum to handle 300 grain bullets places it at a distinct advantage. The heaviest practical bullet for the .41 Magnum is around 250 gr. and this bullet does not shoot well in all manufacturer's .41 Magnums. I have only been satisfied with results using heavy bullets in .41 Magnums produced by Freedom Arms and Dan Wesson.
Four decades after its inception, the .41 Magnum remains the connoisseur's cartridge. At one time Smith & Wesson offered the Model 58 with a 4" barrel in either blue or nickel, the Model 57 with barrel lengths of 4", 6", or 8 3/8" and in either bright blue or nickel. The companion stainless-steel Model 657, came with the same barrel lengths. Only the 6" Model 657 remains in the catalog.
Ruger took to the .41 Magnum early by offering the Blackhawk with both 4 5/8 and 6.5" barrels, and then in the 1980s added the Bisley Blackhawk and the Redhawk chambered in .41 Magnum. Only the Blackhawk remains cataloged. Dan Wesson offered both blue and stainless .41 Magnums at the height of long-range silhouette popularity. Very few are made today, however they are still cataloged.
Hope Exists
One really bright spot in the troubled history of the .41 Magnum is the fact it is chambered in both Freedom Arms sixguns. The large framed Model 83 has proven to not only be the most accurate .41 Magnum I have ever shot, it's also the most accurate centerfire revolver I have ever encountered. Hornady's 210 gr. XTP over 22 gr. of AA#9 (A load only for use in the Freedom Arms Model 83!) clocks out at 1,740 fps from a 10" Freedom Arms Model 83 and shoots 1" groups at 100 yards. Yes, I said 100 yards, not 25! This is using a scoped revolver from a solid rest, of course. The Model 83 has now been joined by the mid-framed Model 97 in .41 Magnum, which is a near-perfect packin' pistol.
My heavy load for the .41 Magnum is the Lyman #410459 220 gr. Keith bullet over 19.5 gr. of #2400 for right at 1,500 fps from a 7.5" Ruger Bisley or 8 3/8" Smith. It is accurate and very flatshooting. The same bullet over 8.0 gr. of Unique is a very pleasant shooting 1,050 fps. Substitute Speer's copper cupped/lead core 200 gr. JHP for explosive results with either load.
"Nothin' ever works out right!" Had the .41 Magnum arrived in-between the .357 and .44 it would probably have been hailed as a great step forward and would now be one of our most popular cartridges. Instead it is appreciated only by a relatively few sixgunners. Count me as one of them. Happy 40th Birthday to the .41 Magnum. May it be around for its Golden Anniversary, and may I be here to help celebrate it.
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