The Son Of The .41 Magnum—The .41 Special—Is
For Handloaders Only.
By John Taffin
One of our best sixgun cartridges is the .41 Magnum, however for some reason it has never received the attention it should have. It is almost treated as being illegitimate. There may be a very good reason for this as the .357 Magnum and the .44 Magnum followed a natural path from their ancestors while the .41 Magnum seemed to show up on the doorstep like an orphan in a basket. It has been treated like a redheaded stepchild for the past 50 years except for those very savvy sixgunners who can see it for the great cartridge it is.
If we look at ancestral heritage, everything was as it should be with both the .357 and .44 Magnum cartridges having ancestors they could look back to at the beginning of the cartridge era. Then came the .41 Magnum.
There was no .41 Special. Several experimenters came very close. In the 1920’s, at least 10 years before the advent of the .357 Magnum, gunsmith Cyril “Pop” Eimer was offering the .40 Eimer Special from his Joplin, Missouri, gun shop. Eimer started with Colt Single Actions in either .38-40 or .41 Long Colt. These were chosen as they normally had 0.403-inch barrels and it only required a new cylinder for his wildcat.
The .40 Eimer Special, also known as the .401 Eimer, was made by shortening .401 Winchester or .30-40 Krag rifle brass to 1.25 inches and loaded with 200-grain bullets. At the time “Fitz” (John Henry FitzGerald, “Mr. Colt”) tried to interest his company in chambering the Colt SAA and New Service in Eimer’s .40 but to no avail.
Two well-known names to handloaders who use cast bullets and study the past, Gordon Boser and Ray Thompson worked with the .40 caliber in the 1930’s and ’40’s. Boser was a Springville, New York, gunsmith whose favorite sixgun cartridge, as so many others at the time, was the .44 Special, however he wanted more than the Colt Single Action offered with this chambering. Using .401 Winchester brass trimmed to 1-7/32-inch, he designed his own bullet, a 195-grain semi-wadcutter offered by Lyman as 401452.
In 1932, Fred Moore (who was the Colt factory superintendent) chambered the Colt Official Police for the .41 Colt Special using 210-grain bullets around 1,150 fps. Remington even supplied the ammunition and, although they would’ve had a jump of three years on the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, Colt declined to offer the .41 Colt Special.
The .41 Magnum came about in 1964 mainly at the urgings of Bill Jordan and Elmer Keith along with Skeeter Skelton (who said he was just along for the ride with the other two.) The .41 Magnum was supposed to be the perfect cartridge for law enforcement, however the guns were too large and the cartridge too powerful. It did not become the latest rage for police use, however, outdoorsman and handgunners in the know accepted it readily. In fact, during the early 1970’s, when .44 Magnums were almost impossible to get thanks to Dirty Harry, many sixgunners gravitated to the .41 Magnum.
I first met Hamilton Bowen in the mid-1980’s and I don’t know which one of us came up with the idea (probably him), but as far as I know we were the first to go with a .41 Special. I do know in 1987 I shot the first .41 Special in a Bowen Security Six at the Shootists Holiday. At the time Hamilton had never worked on Colt Single Actions so I supplied two 2nd Generation Colts for his experimenting. One came back as an 8-1/2-inch .32-20 with S&W adjustable sights while the other was a 5-1/2-inch .41 Special with standard sights and an unfluted custom cylinder. Both proved superbly accurate.
Single Action .41’s in John’s collection include (top right clockwise)
a Bowen Ruger Flat-Top, Bowen Colt Single Action, Gallagher Single-Six
5-shooter, Gallagher Lightweight Ruger Three-Screw, and Reeder produced
Perfect Packin’ Pistol.
Where was I going to get the ammunition? I certainly wouldn’t find any at the local gun shop or anywhere else. This was strictly a handloader’s proposition. There was no ammunition, no brass, however, brass was easy. Standard .41 Magnum brass was simply trimmed to .44 Special length with no inside neck reaming required. Bullets were very easy. Most standard cast or jacketed .41 Magnum bullets work just fine in the .41 Special.
Over the years the .41 Special has gained a very small bit of legitimacy in several ways. It is listed in Cartridges of the World using my loading data and there have been at least two runs of .41 Special brass with the proper headstamp. One is marked Starline and the other is “QUAL CART” for Quality Cartridge. Today Starline currently offers .41 brass in their lineup.
Reloading dies for the .41 Special are no problem as RCBS .41 Magnum dies work perfectly—well almost. I have found it necessary to take some material off the bottom of the crimping die so it will work properly with a shorter case. If you can’t find .41 Special brass, only two things are necessary: trim .41 Magnum brass to the proper length and do the same with the crimping die. That makes the .41 Special about as simple as a wildcat sixgun cartridge can be.
As mentioned, as far as I know Hamilton Bowen was the first sixgunsmith to build a .41 Special. In addition to my original Colt Single Action he also converted a Ruger .357 Magnum Three-Screw Flat-Top to a beautifully finished blued/case hardened .41 Special as well as a Smith & Wesson Model 586 which is now a 4-inch double-action .41 Special. John Gallagher has come up with the smallest .41 Special by turning a Ruger Single-Six .22 into a 5-shot .41. Gallagher also rescued a disaster from another gunsmith and turned it into a 4-inch lightweight .41. Even though it will accept .41 Magnum cartridges, I have never used it with full-house .41 Magnum loads as with .41 Specials it performs just fine for me. I have found most .41 Magnum sixguns shoot very well with .41 Specials and are whole lot more pleasant to shoot.
Gary Reeder is the first to offer a production Perfect Packin’ Pistol. Gary says it has been a while since he premiered a new series, but here it is, so it is altogether appropriate the first production Perfect Packin’ Pistol from Gary is chambered in .41 Special.
These two Hamilton Bowen Custom revolvers in .41 Special are a
Colt Single Action and Ruger Flat-Top. They shoot quite well
and quite pleasantly.
Being a straight-walled pistol cartridge, the .41 Special is just as easy to load as the whole list of other well-appreciated sixgun cartridges. For powders I go with the same propellants I normally use for the .44 Special, namely Unique, Universal, 2400, IMR 4227, and AA9. The goal is not to turn the .41 Special into a .41 Magnum which we already have, but rather to load it at the same levels we normally use for the .44 Special which is from 900 fps to about 1,100 fps. The same Keith or Keith-style bullets, which work in the .41 Magnum are certainly apropos to the .41 Special. The two I use the most are the Lyman 410459KT (which Keith did not approve of) and the Hensley & Gibbs 210KT which he definitely preferred.
Jacketed bullets, of course, abound though not as many as for the .44’s. Favorites include the Sierra 170 JHC and 210 JHC, the Hornady 210 JHP, and most assuredly the bullet, which is no longer available and for which I covet the last few remaining ones I have, being the Speer 200 SWC-HP. This bullet is one of the earlier Speer designs and features a lead core in a copper cup rather than the conventional jacketed style. At one time Speer offered these in .38, .41, and .44. Apparently we have become too modernized for these to be offered anymore. This is unfortunate as these were excellent bullets for both Specials and Magnums.
All of the .41 Special sixguns can be classified as strong sixguns able to handle all of my .41 Special loads using 200- to 220-grain bullets over 7.0 grains of Unique or Universal, 12.5 grains of 2400 or AA No. 9, and 14.5 grains of IMR4227 except I do not go over 6.0 grains of Unique with the Oregon Trail 215 SWC in the Gallagher Ruger .41 Special Single-Six. This gives me just over 800 fps which is plenty in this little 5-shot sixgun. Dropping down to 5.0 grains results in just under 700 fps and a very tight group of 1 inch for four shots at 20 yards.
Bowen Classic Arms
P.O. Box 67
Louisville, TN 37777
3923 Bird Farm Rd.
Jasper, AL 35503
Reeder Custom Guns
2601 E. 7th Avenue
Flagstaff, AZ 86004