May 20, 2020
Seldom has a new cartridge introduction been propelled by such a cast of sixgun luminaries as the .41 Magnum. Depending on whom you talk to, Elmer Keith, Bill Jordan, and Skeeter Skelton all had a hand in convincing Smith & Wesson (along with ammomakers Remington and Norma) to join forces on the .41 project back in 1963.
The Middleweight Magnum
The initial rationale for the two resulting Smith & Wesson .41 N-Frame revolvers was twofold. One, the adjustable-sight Model 57, was intended as a serious big-game revolver. The other, the Model 58, primarily envisioned by Keith and Jordan, was to be a powered-up police revolver with fixed sights. The Model 57 was intended to use a 0.410-inch-diameter 210-grain JHP at a velocity of 1,400+ fps, while the 4.0-inch-barreled, bare-bones Model 58 (essentially an N-Frame take on a heavy-barreled, medium-frame Model 10—sort of an M&P on steroids) was to be employed with a 210-grain lead SWC at a considerably more manageable 950 to 1,000 fps in “Police Load” trim.
In addition to coming with a micro-adjustable rear sight, the Model 57 also had target-type stocks. Except for the bore diameter, it was a dead-ringer for the .44 Magnum Model 29 and could be had in several of the Model 29’s cataloged barrel lengths (4.0, 6.0, and 8.38 inches). My well-worn 1969 Guns & Ammo Annual lists identical prices for both guns: a cool $165. As befits a sidearm intended for the LE market, the Model 58 could be had for a department-friendly $96 (blued). However, the Model 58 didn’t catch on for a couple of reasons (see the accompanying sidebar). But the Model 57 did, although primarily with discerning sportsmen (and, yes, collectors) seeking something different.
Even though Keith is reflexively associated with the .44 Magnum, he gave the new .41 Mag. Model 57 a serious big-game test, which he recounts in detail in Hell, I Was There. He took one of the first 4.0-inch specimens with him to Alaska and brought down a pair of caribou (at typically lengthy Keith yardages), and he was thoroughly impressed with the cartridge and the revolver.
One of the earliest “talking points” concerning the .41 Mag. was that it generated less recoil than the mighty .44 Mag. Of course, this proved to be a highly subjective assessment. While the difference may be noticeable if you’re talking about the old .41 “Police Load” or Winchester’s current 175-grain Silvertip, at a full-house power level many experienced handgunners—including Jeff Cooper—claimed to be unable to see any significant difference between the two. But many .41 Mag. adherents point to the fact that—given similar bullet weights—the .41 will shed less velocity at long yardage than the .44.
Besides the Dirty Harry mystique, the .44 Mag.’s great advantage was that it had beaten the .41 Mag. to market by nearly a decade, and it offered an easy-shooting, easily obtainable .44 Special alternative in much the same way as .357 Magnum users can enjoy a more laid-back .38 Special option.
But the .41 Mag.—much like the 10mm Auto—has managed to gather a dedicated cult following. Enough so that Smith & Wesson has kept the Model 57 in the stable as a member of its highly regarded Classics lineup. If you want a new, blued S&W these days that’ll combine vintage appeal with performance, the company’s “Classics section” is pretty much where you’ll find it.
What’s Old Is New Again
At first I thought the Classics line was part of the company’s Performance Center. Turns out, I was a bit off the mark. S&W’s Matt Spafford set me straight:
“The Smith & Wesson Classics line is a subset of the main Smith & Wesson line…. They do not feature the traditional Performance Center upgrades (action package, tuning, etc.) but are really fully functioning reproductions of the products that were once a part of the standard S&W line.”
The current Classics iteration of the Model 57 comes with a 6.0-inch barrel, blued finish, and the key-lock safety feature. Other departures from the original format would be the frame-mounted firing pin and the crush-fit barrel. Pinned barrels went out in 1982, along with the slightly shorter counter-bored cylinder. The grips on today’s Model 57 Classics are different from the originals in that they are not as beefy as the target-type grips on the original, but the gun does have the true square-butt frame like the original and unlike most other current S&W revolvers that share a common K/L/N-Frame round butt.
From Mild to Wild
The cross-section of .41 Mag. factory ammo I was able to dig up for the Model 57 covered the cartridge’s mild-to-wild range of performance (more or less). Loads included Speer’s 210-grain Gold Dot HP, Federal’s 250-grain CastCore, Winchester’s Supreme 240-grain Platinum Tip and Super-X 175-grain Silvertip HP, and Hornady’s new 190-grain polymer-tipped FTX. The Silvertip offering—rated at 1,250 fps—is as close as you’re going to find to “mild,” even though it’s practically a dead-ringer for the 10mm Auto Silvertip load.
So what about “wild”? Well, to me the Federal CastCore and Winchester Platinum Tip represent the top end of anything I’d want to want to run through a nice N-Frame revolver. Of course, for day-in, day-out recreational shooting, handloaders can always brew up civilized facsimiles of the original Police Load (or even something kinder and gentler). So, if you want to replicate the .44 Special’s stand-in role for the .44 Mag., this would be the way to fly.
In shooting the new Model 57, I was extremely impressed with all loads both in terms of accuracy as well as consistency. The lowest velocity extreme spread was 42 fps, and the highest was 63 fps. No shockingly spiky leaps were to be seen here.
The velocity champ was Hornady’s 190-grain FTX LEVERevolution loading. Although it obviously didn’t reach advertised carbine levels of 1,600 fps or so from the 6.0-inch barrel, it did average 1,418 fps and was quite accurate. It should be noted that felt recoil was particularly “felt”—not surprisingly—with the 250-grain Federal CastCore and 240-grain Winchester Platinum Tip. Either of these would do nicely for large hogs and bears, while everything else would certainly fit the bill for deer.
At 3.5 creep-free pounds, the Model 57’s single-action trigger pull really lived up to the crispness clichés of breaking icicles and glass rods. And should you ever envision rapid-fire double-action shooting, the pull there was a short, manageable 10 pounds with no stacking that I could discover.
Interestingly, the elevation range in point of impact for all five loads tested at 25 yards was about 4.5 inches, well within the adjustment range of the Model 57’s excellent micro-adjustable sight. So unless you lay hands on a load that’s really out of the ordinary, you’re unlikely to run out of clicks.
In the interest of full disclosure, most of my previous shooting experiences with the .41 Mag. have been with an old pre-transfer-bar Ruger Blackhawk single-action revolver. With the gun’s traditional plowshare grips, heavy loads tend to cause the gun to roll upward in recoil. Single-action fans often claim this makes recoil less onerous. I’ve found this to be true as far as it goes, provided you don’t bark your thumb on the edge of the hammer (ask me how I know this).
With an S&W N-Frame of any vintage, the gun pretty much comes straight back—which allows for quicker recovery between shots but can also pound the web of the shooter’s strong hand (which in my case gets a bit “weak” at the end of an extended session). I’d really like a beefier set of stocks on it if I were going to do a lot of shooting—something that would cover up or help spread the impulse from that exposed steel backstrap. But again, even a 6.0-inch N-Frame is not the item for promiscuous blasting with darn near any magnum beginning with the number “4.” Or at least it isn’t for me. But this is—I admit—irrelevant whining from a cowardly .38 Special K-Frame kind of guy.
I was very impressed with the Model 57 Classics. It’s accurate, good-looking, and classy. It is a powerful tool capable of launching a large, fast projectile suitable for anything you’re going to use a magnum revolver on.
Smith & Wesson Model 57 N-Frame SpecsManufacturer:
Smith & Wesson; smith-wesson.comType:
.41 MagnumCylinder Capacity:
6.0 in.Overall Length:
6.0 in.Weight, Empty:
Micro-adjustable white-outline rear, pinned red-ramp frontTrigger:
10-lb. DA pull, 3.5-lb. SA pull (as tested)Safety:
Transfer-bar firing mechanism, key-activated lockMSRP:
Smith & Wesson Model 57 N-Frame Accuracy & Velocity