In ROY JINKS’ History of Smith & Wesson, he relates how Elmer Keith, Bill Jordan, and I urged Smith & Wesson to produce the .41 Magnum and assured factory officials it would be an ideal gun for law-enforcement officers.
While it’s pleasant to have my name mentioned in the same sentence with Elmer’s and Bill’s, 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 ’60s, just after I’d 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 believed 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-grain lead semi wad cutter bullet at 1000 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. Actually, the idea of a high-velocity .40 or .41 round was not new even then. Back in the ’20s and ’30s, Joplin pistol-smith Pop Eimer and experimenter Gordon Boser were working the “magnum” .40-caliber revolvers.
They developed these by utilizing shortened .401 Winchester self-loading rifle cases loaded with cast and jacketed .38-40 bullets over heavy powder charges. Their guns were .41 Long Colt and .38-40 Colt Single Action Army and Bisley revolvers properly chambered for this experimental round. To the best of my recollection, they were getting velocities of around 1100 fps with 180-grain bullets. Word of Eimer’s gun and load was spread by his friends and clientele, and Boser wrote about his for the American Rifleman.
What I visualized and proposed in the ’60s was a target-grade Smith revolver with a frame size intermediate between the K- and N-frame models. I was naive. Never dawned on me that great cost would be involved in tooling up for and making an entirely new revolver or that Smith & Wesson wasn’t about to stick its neck out to produce a gun for a new, untried cartridge. Very few police officers handload; for the most part, they use factory ammunition.
I felt police should be offered two different cartridges, one with a lead semi wad cutter 200-grain bullet about 1000 fps for urban use and a full magnum JHP for emergencies requiring more power. Remington came through on this thought. Smith’s .41 Magnum was made on the same massive frame as its .44 Magnum. A big gun, it was dubbed the Model 57. In June 1964, Bill Gunn, president of Smith & Wesson, presented me with one of the early production revolvers, a 57 with a six-inch barrel.
While I would have preferred a four-inch version, this .41 was so beautifully made and finished you couldn’t have pried it away from me. Within a month, I’d left my cattle business and was stationed in Eagle Pass, Texas, wearing the badge of an investigator for the U.S. Customs Agency Service. The .41 Magnum was with me, but it was too big to be appropriate for my plainclothes activities.
I knocked over a couple of javelina and numerous rabbits with it but never got around to buying a belt and holster. I hadn’t owned the 57 very long when I loaned it to a friend, and it was promptly stolen from his car. Soon after its inception, the Amarillo Police Department adopted the Smith 57. They had experienced some negative results with .38 Special revolvers and were looking for a man stopper.
The San Antonio PD also chose the 57 as the official sidearm, and a few other police agencies followed suit. I wish I could say the .41 Magnum was an immediate and overwhelming success with police, but it wasn’t. Police officers are not particularly well versed in firearms matters and tend to be happy with whatever is issued to them (usually a .38 Special). The Model 57 and the Model 58, its fixed-sight version, are large, heavy sixguns.
Some officers didn’t like packing around all the weight and bulk; others, accustomed to the powder puff kick of the .38 Special, found the recoil of even the comparatively mild 210-grain lead police too much to handle. Qualification scores were frequently lower than those the boys were used to earning with the .38 Special. In actual street use, however, the .41 Magnums turned in an admirable record. They were deadly, and the cops swore by them.
According to the Speer Reloading Manual Number Ten: “With full-power loads, both recoil and energy of the .41 Magnum are about 20 percent under the .44 Magnum and about 20 percent over the .357 Magnum.” This seems a fair assessment, but many hunters have reported the .41 Magnum seems to be about as effective on game as the .44 Magnum. It has the benefits of less recoil and slightly flatter trajectory than the big .44.
Although sales have been slower than originally anticipated when the gun and cartridge were introduced 20 years ago, the .41 Magnum lives on. The .41 Ruger Blackhawk has been with us for years, and Dan Wesson recently chambered its revolver for the round. Federal has just added a full-power, 210-grain JHP .41 Magnum to its line. If I Were back in uniform, toting a big holstered revolver on my belt and limited to the use of factory ammo, there would be only one handgun for me: the S&W Model 57 .41 Magnum.