Return Of A .22 LR Gem.
It took Smith & Wesson 105 years to deliver a .22 semi-automatic to the shooting public, but when they did, it was a doozie. Introduced in 1957, the Smith & Wesson Model 41 was an overnight sensation, and frankly, the old wheelgun company was caught completely off guard. It took 3+ years of production to come even nearly satisfying the demand for what was then considered to be the finest quality, .22 semi-automatic made in America. Now, 56 years later, the famous target-quality, Smith & Wesson Model 41 has been given a remarkable facelift by S&W’s Performance Center. You wouldn’t know the old girl.
The Smith & Wesson Performance Center is unique in the firearms industry. Composed of senior craftsmen, it is has proved to be a hotbed for the development and production of innovative, refined and, in many cases, very highly stylized handguns and long guns. If it’s stamped “Performance Center” it’s a special creation and available only in limited quantities.
The skeletonized front sight (above) is a racy concept from the Performance Center staff,
providing a crisp, clear front sight. The Model 41’s rear sight (below) is uncluttered, clear
The Performance Center is also the source of precision gunsmithing services at S&W to upgrade, enhance and refurbish customers’ revolvers and pistols as well as being the source of the “Pro Series” of competition enhanced revolvers and pistols that qualify as “factory stock” in competitive matches.
The mission statement of the Performance Center is worth reviewing. It states, “The S&W Performance Center builds firearms of uncompromising quality for sophisticated firearms users with specific expectations and exclusive applications. To meet their requirements, Performance Center gunsmiths conceptualize, engineer and handcraft our products from the ground up. The team comprises the ‘best of the best’ with an average length of service with S&W of over 23 years.”
From that mission statement flows a stream of competition-quality revolvers and semi-autos, the familiar Thunder Ranch specials, unique M&P AR’s and those really exotic models like the .460 XVR revolver with its spacey 14-inch barrel and mounted bipod. I think the key word at the Performance Center is “conceptualize.” The ability of the Performance Center craftsmen to dream up a completely new design or to refurbish and refine an existing design really gives Smith & Wesson a creative edge in the industry. The new Model 41 is a perfect example.
When it made its debut in 1957, the Model 41 had really been rolling around the course for 10 years. In 1947, then newly elected Smith & Wesson president, Swedish-born engineer, Carl Hellstrom, refocused the war-weary company on the design and production of entirely new lines of handguns. Two Model 41 experimental prototypes, the X-41 and X-42, were produced that year. For the next 10 years at venues like Camp Perry, Hellstrom subjected the prototypes to the rigors of competition and to the design recommendations of experienced handgun competitors.
When finally released in 1957 as the Model 41, Smith & Wesson’s first .22 semi-auto, was a highly refined target design and not inexpensive.
Leafing through a 1961 edition of Stoeger’s Shooter’s Bible, I found the Model 41 carried a retail price of $100 while S&W’s top-of-the-line, K-22 target revolver was pegged at $81 retail. At the time, Smith & Wesson also marketed a plainer model of the semi-automatic, designated the Model 46, for $85, but competitors wanted all the bells and whistles the Model 41 offered. The Model 46 was discontinued.
As originally released, the Model 41 sported a 7-1/2-inch barrel with a muzzlebrake and a 3/8-ounce barrel weight. A lightweight 5-inch field barrel was soon added as an accessory from the parts department. In the years that followed, a variety of barrel lengths, weights and even extended sighting radius models were offered, including a .22 Short model for International Rapid Fire competition.
Certainly one of the unique features of the Model 41 is the ease with which an owner can change out barrels. You merely unload the pistol, lock back the slide, rotate the triggerguard down, lift off the barrel, replace the barrel, close the triggerguard and release the slide. It’s that simple. Machined tolerances on the Model 41 have always been held to a minimum, and the unique barrel retention system is rigid and wear-compensating.
The new Model 41 is an eyeful. Speak about styling! From its integral Picatinny rib to its skeletonized front Patridge sight, it bespeaks character.
In a day when optics are almost essential at competitive events, it was a masterful touch to machine a Picatinny rib into the 5-1/2-inch barrel. During my testing, that new rib just demanded some good optics, and I complied with the addition of a reliable 4×28 Bausch & Lomb pistol scope. On the other hand, the micro-adjustable, factory open sights are exceptionally uncluttered and clear, just great for precision target work if open sights are required.
Because it’s always been first and foremost a competitive handgun, the Model 41 has routinely been factory fitted with a light, crisp trigger, adjustable for minimal overtravel with an Allen head screw positioned at the back of the triggerguard. Smith & Wesson still supplies an Allen wrench with its pistol so it’s worth fiddling with the factory trigger stop adjustment a bit to suit your fancy.
The Performance Center specifications call for a factory adjusted, weight-of-pull, ranging between 2-3/4 and 3-1/4 pounds. The trigger of the test gun averaged exactly a crisp 2-3/4 pounds on a Lyman electronic gauge. It’s a great Performance Center trigger and easy to master.
If you are a lefty, one of the nice features of the Model 41 stock is that it’s ambidextrous. The controls are right-handed, but there’s a comfortable thumb rest shaped into both sides of the checkered target grips.
How did the racy Model 41 with its 5-1/2-inch button-rifled barrel perform? Over a rest at 25 yards mounted with the 4×28 B&L scope, the Model 41 loved the German-made Wolf Match Target load, grouping five shots into 1/2 to 3/4 inch. CCI’s consistently accurate Mini-Mag load produced groups in the 7/8- 1-inch range. CCI’s Mini-Mag or Winchester Power-Point would be my hands-down choices for small game hunting, and that’s not the first time I’ve made that observation.
Rimfires are choosy, and the Model 41 is no exception. There’s no right answer, even when shooting the same model side-by-side. For accuracy, you just have to experiment with each individual piece and then buy as much ammo, hopefully from the same lot, as you can afford (or is available these days).
Depending upon demand, Smith & Wesson’s classic Model 41 comes and goes. There have been years when the Model 41 was never even produced. This is not one of those years, and this is certainly not just another Model 41. It’s a certified Performance Center model, and if history is any teacher, it won’t be offered for an extended period of time.
By Holt Bodison
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