I’ve enjoyed working with ST Editor Joel Hutchcroft for close to 19 years, and during that period, I’ve discovered most of his firearm fetishes. We both enjoy shooting .32-caliber revolvers. Among other interests, he has a thing for the .41 Magnum and recently acquired a 45/8-inch-barreled Ruger New Model Flattop. I suggested he might not find this particular handgun so pleasant to shoot.
"I know…that’s why I need your favorite .41 Special handloads. In fact, write a column on the .41 Special and share your experience with the readers," said Hutchcroft.
By this point, many readers may be wondering if ".41" is just a typo. At least some of you are asking just what is a .41 Special. Well, it’s just like a .38 Special or .44 Special–except they’re factory loads–while the .41-caliber version is a wildcat round based on a shortened .41 Magnum case. Elmer Keith touted the virtues of a .41 Special in his book Sixguns, saying, "The cartridge case should be the same length as the .44 Special…with a 200-grain slug….and (a charge of) No. 2400…easily give 1,200 fps."
When the .41 Magnum was introduced, the "Special" step was skipped in the development process. Remington and Smith & Wesson had previously collaborated on the .44 Magnum. A few years later (1964), they concluded the law enforcement and sporting market just needed a couple different revolvers and two distinctly different performance level factory loads.
S&W introduced the Model 57 target and Model 58 M&P models. Remington offered 210-grain, 1,400+ fps jacketed magnum ammo and a similar lead bullet police load traveling approximately 1,050 fps. However, unlike the shorter .38 and .44 Special loadings, the reduced-power police load was assembled in full-size .41 Magnum cases. The .41 Magnum never caught on with many law enforcement agencies, and the special police load has long since been dropped from production.
Custom pistolsmith Hamilton Bowen resurrected the .41 Special concept in the late 1980s to complement a custom Ruger Speed-Six revolver. Bowen recently reminded me his effort wasn’t a unique epiphany and that other gunsmiths had experimented with similar wildcats in the 1920s and ’30s. Again, according to Keith’s record, gunsmiths Pop Eimer and Gordon Boser altered .30-40 Krag and .401 Winchester Self Loading cases to make brass for their wildcat .40-caliber revolver rounds. Keith concluded his remarks by stating the .41 Special’s performance would be "…superior to the .357 Magnum."
It’s been nearly 15 years ago that I sent an old model Ruger Blackhawk and a GP-100 double action to Bowen to convert from .357 Magnum to .41 Special. Both handguns are hell for stout and plenty hefty to handle the power and recoil generated by any reasonable handload. By that I mean pushing a 200-grain bullet to 1,100 fps and a 180-grainer to 1,200 fps max.
At first, I loaded mostly cast bullets, but the .41 Action Express was still viable back then, and Speer offered an excellent 180-grain Gold Dot HP component bullet. Of course, I had to roll a cannelure into the jacket so I could securely crimp them in place. I have a few boxes left and that’s still my favorite bullet for the short-barrel GP-100.
Loading The .41 Special
Since there’s no .41 Special factory ammo or brass, I guess you actually load instead of reload it. First, you prep a batch of .41 Magnum cases by shortening each one 1/8 inch. It took nearly two hours to trim and deburr 50 pieces of new WW Super brass, even using RCBS’s excellent power tools. But after that tedious effort is accomplished, the rest of the process is a piece of cake.
I always resize new hadgun cases to achieve consistent bullet grip and then expand and slightly bell the case neck so a cast bullet can be seated without shaving lead. I also prefer using the RCBS Lil’ Dandy powder measure when charging handgun ammo. It has multiple interchangeable rotors, each with increasing size cavities to accurately dispense fixed powder charges. What it lacks in flexibility, it makes up in convenience for most of my needs.
Although Winchester Action Pistol (WAP) propellant was discontinued several years ago, I have enough on hand to stoke many more .41 Special handloads. Alliant’s Power Pistol has proven to be a ready substitute, yielding similar ballistic performance with both cast and jacketed bullets. IMR’s Trail Boss came along years after I first loaded this round, so I enjoyed working up a couple more excellent cast-bullet loads with it for this column.
Hornady’s New Dimension seater die features a telescoping internal sleeve to help properly align the bullet as it’s inserted into the case. Fortunately, the .41 Magnum seater die also has sufficient vertical adjustment so I could readily roll crimp the shortened case.
Years ago Accurate Arms Ballistician Bill Falin tested several of my .41 Special loads in a .41 Magnum copper crusher pressure barrel. I’ve since misplaced those results, but as I recall, none exceeded 25,000 CUP. That’s quite a bit greater than .38 or .44 Special factory loads but much less than typical magnum revolver pressure levels. And just like
Keith suggested, the old reliable 2400 propella
nt remains the go-to choice for a max cast-bullet load in the .41 Special.
If you’re an avid firearms enthusiast and handloader, the fact that there are no factory .41 Special revolvers or munitions are just minor details easily accommodated today as it was years ago by a competent custom gunsmith. I’m also sure Hutchcroft will greatly appreciate shooting my Special loads after he’s fired a few rounds of .41 Magnum ammo in his new Ruger.
Editor’s Note: I think the Ruger Flattop is going to be my favorite single action, but Lane’s comment about shooting full-bore .41 Magnum ammo is definitely correct. I checked Hodgdon’s latest reloading data and plan to work up a Trail Boss/cast-bullet handload in regular .41 Magnum brass–I’m not as ambitious as he is when it comes to handloading!
–Joel J. Hutchcroft