41 caliber

The Sad Fizzling Of The 41 Caliber

The .41 caliber family of cartridges is small and at this point, more or less forgotten about. Since the late 19th century, there have been attempts to create the ultimate middle ground cartridge, which is usually .41 caliber.

Small enough to be shootable, but with enough wallop to put down the bad guy. The modern version, of course, is .40 S&W and that round's star is said to be fading.

Once quite popular, the .41 caliber family of cartridges faded into obscurity (though not without reason) and is now a total niche. Here's why that's kind of a shame.

.41 Long Colt Was The .40 S&W Of It's Time

41 caliber

The .41 Long Colt was an attempt to bridge the gap between the .38 caliber rounds of the day (.38 Long Colt and .38 Short Colt) which were pretty weak and the .44 caliber and .45 caliber rounds, which usually required a bigger gun.

The .41 Colt wasn't a barn-burner; ballistics for a 200-grain .41 LC is/was about on par with a modern-day 158-grain .38 Special (about 800 fps and 200-ish ft-lbs of energy) but with a .406-in diameter bullet.

The purpose was to devise a better fighting round for use with Colt's (then) new double-action Model 1877 Thunderer revolver, and it proved itself capable to the task. It was also offered in the Peacemaker, and was a strong seller in that platform as well. Civilians and law enforcement agreed, and it was a popular caliber into the early 20th Century.

Sounds a bit like the story of .40 S&W and the FBI, doesn't it? 10mm was too hot and the guns were too big, so they made a smaller round that was bigger the popular .38 caliber round (in the case of .40, that's the 9mm) and it caught on.

Elmer Keith rated it well over .38 Special as a personal protection gun. The early editions of .38 Special, you see, were far weaker than that round is today, as it has warmed up a touch as powders improved. Speaking of Mr. Keith…

.41 Magnum And .41 Special Promised Much, Then Blew It

41 magnum

A second renaissance could have happened for the .41 caliber with the .41 Magnum and the planned .41 Special, but it just didn't work out.

As the 20th century dawned, the .41 Long Colt began to fall out of favor. Smokeless powder gave .38 Special a little more zip and those that wanted more more punch tended to prefer .44 Special or .45 Colt. It was, though, still offered in the Colt Official Police revolver (which was actually built around the .41 caliber round; the Police Positive was built around a .38 caliber cartridge) until the late 1930s.

Then, the .357 Magnum came out and pretty much snuffed any need for the .41 Colt. Anyone looking for a bit more edge than the .38 Special suddenly could find it with .357 (or by switching to a Colt 1911 in .38 Super) and that was pretty much it for some time.

By the late 1950s, some of the handgunning elite noticed the .357 Magnum, despite being excellent overall, was a bit lacking for terminal performance. (Jacketed hollow point ammo wasn't a thing yet; lead semi-wadcutters were your lot in them days.) However, the .44 Magnum was overkill ballistically and wasn't easy to shoot. On top of that, the large frame required for the round made a .44 a bit much for the average officer to tote.

Therefore, they cooked up the idea to create a new .41 caliber round, with a .41 Magnum for handgun hunting and a .41 Special for law enforcement use, so it could be controlled under rapid fire but pack enough punch to put hostiles out of business.

Unfortunately, it all went haywire.

Smith and Wesson agreed to make the gun, but made it on their N-Frame. Since the magnum craze was in full swing and all some people wanted was MOAR POWAHHHH! the ammunition company that was lined up to make the rounds (Remington) didn't create the .41 Special as conceived (basically a slightly warmer .41 Colt) but rather a (barely) light .41 Magnum.

Police didn't go for it. Why switch from a Police Positive or Model 10 (both about 35 ounces and of reasonable size) for an N-frame (50 ounces loaded and huge) that still kicked like a mule compared to .38 Special? It's worse to carry and a lot of officers wouldn't shoot it as well.

Enough handgun hunters bought it to keep the .41 Magnum alive to date, but the .41 Special was pretty much dead on arrival.

Magnum Research/IWI tried to revive the idea with the .41 Action Express, which replicated the intended performance of the .41 Special (800 to 900 fps, about 300 ft-lbs of energy) but could be loaded as hot as a 10mm. There were some limited adopters, but since they had the back luck of doing it at the same time that the .40 S&W was coming out...it fizzled.

The .40 S&W Is Going The Same Way As .41 Caliber

41 caliber

The .41 caliber family addressed the same problem that that .40 S&W successfully did, at least for a time. The .40 S&W was born from an attempt to get more horsepower but without having to go up in frame size or have the round be unshootable by the average person.

After all, that was the point of the .41 LC. The Thunderer was smaller than the SAA, but the .41 Long Colt offered a bit more punch than the .38 caliber rounds of the day. That was also the point of the .41 Magnum, which was a little less harsh than .44 Magnum but still offered a good amount of wallop.

The .40 S&W offered more punch than 9mm - 9mm hollow points of the day weren't as good as they are today - and guns in that chambering were more manageable than those in 10mm.

However, just like the .41 caliber rounds of years gone by...the .40 is starting to fade. Law enforcement just isn't as crazy about it as they once were and the gun-buying public isn't as crazy about it either. 9mm is cheaper to shoot, capacity is better and is less of a handful in compact handguns.

So here we are, in 2018, and we're pretty much in the same place as we were in 1900. You have .38 caliber bullets (.38 Special, .357 Magnum, .380 and 9mm) and then .44 caliber/.45 caliber and very little in between, at least when it comes to handguns. Granted, 9mm ammunition has caught up so well that there's barely any need for a middle ground.

Sam Hoober 

About The Author


Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.

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