INVENTING THE .41 SPECIAL July 31, 2006
By L. Neil Smith <email@example.com>
Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise and to
“L. Neil Smith At Random” at www.bigheadpress.com/lneilsmith
I wonder how many folks reading this site know that a favorite revolver cartridge of mine (possibly yours, too) was never supposed to exist. While a theoretical .41 cartridge — which could, and perhaps should have been called “.41 Special” — had been advocated for many years by such experts as Elmer Keith and Bill Jordan, as a substitute for the pathetically inadequate .38 Special used by most policemen up through the 60s, the one that was developed and released was called .41 Magnum.
And acted like it.
In some ways it’s like the way that Norma presented us with the 10mm Auto cartridge, twenty-five years ago, instead of the milder centimeter-sized cartridge that Jeff Cooper, “Yoda” of the .45 ACP, envisioned.
What, I pretend to hear you ask, is — or would have been — the difference? Well, let’s look at .38 Special for an idea about that, and at its more potent sibling .357 Magnum (they’re both actually the same diameter, 0.356-.358″, the latter name simply being a matter of marketing).
38 Special was a gradual evolutionary development that began in the late 19th century with various shorter .38 cartridges (some interchangeable and some not) made by or for Colt and Smith & Wesson. The cartridge that failed to do the job out in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War and the subsequent Moro Uprising was one of these. In its way, when .38 Special arrived, it was seen as a sort of magnum.
For decades afterward, sixguns from the big N-framed S&W “.38-44″ (meaning a .38 Spl. on a .44 frame) through a number of K-frames (like the famed S&W Models 10 and 15), to the diminuitive five-shot J-frame Model 36 (now 60) “Chief’s Special, were all intended for .38 Special, and after the mid-30s, following the invention of .357 Magnum, even those guns were meant to be used with .38 most of the time. It was believed that a steady diet of the spiffier cartridge would destroy them.
Although more modern (if not more effective) variations exist now, .38 Special is traditonally loaded with a 158-grain round-nosed lead bullet going about 800 feet per second. This yields 225 foot pounds of energy and achieves a modest, if not downright embarrassing 22 on my own scale of “Efficacy” where F (for “efficacy”, of course) equals kinetic energy times the cross sectional area of the bullet in square inches.
I regard F=50 as minimal for adequate self-defense. Weapons that generate a lower number may be handier, lighter, or more concealable, but they require tactics that are very different from those of larger capabilities.
.357 Magnum, which came along much later than .38 Spcial, was a big improvement. The same 158-grain bullet could be pushed faster with more (and better) powder in a case lengthened by a mere 1/10″ to make it impossible to get the more powerful cartridge into a .38 Special chamber — which might convert an otherwise useful weapon into a highly user-unfriendly hand grenade. Velocity was 1300 feet per second, energy was 593 foot pounds, and the Efficacy was a solid 59, exactly the same as that achieved by the world-famous man-stopper .45 ACP.
Now let’s look at another pair of cartridges, .44 Special and .44 Magnum. The former was a product of the late 19th century, replacing the .44 Russian and .44 American that S&W had made big break-top revolvers for. These weapons are making a huge comeback as this is written.
44 Spl., too, was regarded as a sort of magnum. It’s still a fair choice if you avoid the lead round-nosed factory loads. Those bullets weigh 246 grains. They travel at 800 feet per second, generate 350 foot pounds, and barely squeak by at a 51 on my scale of relative schrecklichkeit, proving that my “F-scale” isn’t just about bullet diameter. .455 Webley/Colt is an even worse contender on the very same scale. Without much work or risk, you can load .44 Special to an adequate velocity, fully on par with .45 ACP. However, it was by hot-loading .44 Special in what was supposed to have been an especially strong model of large-frame S&W called a “Triple Lock”, that the legendary Elmer Keith and his buddies invented what would later become known and regularized as the .44 Magnum. The common factory load is a 240-grain bullet at 1350 feet per second, for 971 foot pounds, and an “F” of 140.
No, it’s not “the world’s most powerful handgun” (and it wasn’t, even in the days of Dirty Harry), but it’s absolutely formidable, effective, and vastly easier to shoot than most people anticipate. I’ve never introduced a new shooter to it who hasn’t ended up with an ear-to-ear grin on his or her face after firing it. A big western mule deer shot with a .44 Magnum drops as if a meteor fell on it. For poor little Bambi and his mommy, .44 Magnum is a personal Extinction Level Event.
Since the introduction of the .41 Magnum in 1964, there have been two power levels available over the counter. A 210-grain “hunting load” at an advertised 1500 feet per second yields 1049 foot pounds and an Efficacy of 139. I suspect that 1300, 788, and 104 are more accurate figures. If there’s a difference in recoil and noise between this cartridge and .44 Magnum, I’m not sensitive to it. Ballistically, .41 Magnum will do anything in a 8 3/8″ barrel that .44 Magnum will do in a 6 1/2″ barrel. I have a 4″ “Win Bear” Model 58 in this caliber, an 8 3/8″ Model 657, and a customized 3″ Ruger three-screw Blackhawk. I’d be happy to hunt game with any one of them, anywhere in North America.
The other commercial variant is the so-called “police load”, put up in the same length case as the hotter load, and delivering a 210-grain lead bullet a velocity of 1150 feet per second, an energy of 617 foot pounds, and an Efficacy of 81. That’s still a touch hot for present purposes. It was an attempt to create a load that would entice police departments to buy .41 caliber S&W revolvers, and it didn’t work. For some reason, it hurt almost as much to shoot as the hunting load, leaded barrels badly, and I’m not sure that it’s even made any more.
Now if we wanted to build a true “.41 Special”, an objective still desirable today, what would it be like? First, we would shorten the magnum case by a tenth of an inch. (Later, an outfit like StarLine might manufacture the real thing.) Presumably revolvers (or at least cylinders) could be made for such a cartridge and it would be more accurate and cleaner, if fired in a chamber of proper length. Also, lighter weapons like the Colt SAA could be converted, that would be damaged by the power of the magnum load, and this would help prevent that.
If we wanted to mimic the performance of .38 and .44 Spl., we’d average the bullet weight to 202 grains and drive it at the same 800 feet per second the other two achieve, producing 287 foot pounds, and F=38.
That’s too weak for my taste, but I still want to stay within the non-magnum range. Raising the velocity to 923 feet per second produces 382 foot pounds and a minimally adequate F=50. Raising it to 1000 feet per second produces 449 foot pounds and the same 59 we get from .45 ACP.
I’ve had a lot of fun with the new .45 Colt “cowboy” loads, which vary from 250 to 255 grains in weight, and from 750 to 850 feet per second, all of them very modest, but highly effective and worthy for self-defense. The proposed .41 Special falls into the same performance range and would nicely fill a gap accidentally left by ballistic progress.
It would also make a fine alternative for individuals with small hands or those afflicted with arthritis, osteoporosis, or similar problems.
Award-winning author L. Neil Smith, among other things, is a retired gunsmith, ballistician, and has been called one of the foremost experts on the ethics of self-defense. He is available to write articles and columns on those and related topics. For rates and other details, contact him at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
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