Old School Fun – Smith and Wesson Model 41 .22LR, 5.5 inch heavy barrel

With the price and availability of ammunition at ridiculous levels, it falls to the lowly .22 caliber Long Rifle to satisfy the practice demands of a frustrated sporting public.  Pistol shooters have never had such a good selection of polymer framed revolvers and autoloaders in .22 to choose from.  But I like my pistols in steel and walnut, with hand-fitted parts and craftsmanship that companies can’t offer with today’s labor cost.  Let’s take a look at one of the best .22 handguns that Americahad to offer from the 2nd Golden Age of Firearms.

I found this blued beauty sitting in the used gun section of GanderMountainone day for the unbelievable price of $425.  I hurriedly asked the clerk what was wrong with it, and he said not a thing; the store just lists these old pistols at Blue Book.  She had a few freckles of rust on the barrel flats near the muzzle, but otherwise she was in great shape.  The 41 is unique for semiauto pistols, in that the front three-quarters of the top end of the gun is actually the barrel, with the reciprocating slide taking up the small back lower section of the weapon.  This means the sights are fixed in relation to the barrel, and never move.  This helps make the 41 one of the most accurate handguns of the 20th century.  These routinely fought for top honors atCampPerry, taking on High Standards a few Walther Olmpics.  The 41 was actually designed in 1958 to approximate the grip angle and weight of the Colt 1911, the large bore gun of choice atCampPerry and theUS military.  Mine came equipped with target grips that help one handed shooting used in competition, but do little to assist me with my two handed thumb-over-thumb modified weaver pistol hold.  Weight is 41 oz unloaded, and overall length is Magazines hold 10 or 12 rounds, with replacements easily available from online retailers and S&W for ~$28.  Loading magazines is greatly assisted by ambidextrous thumb studs attached to the follower that allows you to remove tension from the magazine as each round is loaded.  Barrels are easily interchangeable, and there are 5” light field barrels, as well as 7” tapered target barrels (with and without compensators and weights).  Some models were paired with aluminum slides and chambered in .22cal short for Olympic Small Bore competition.  Pretty Slick!  There is an identical gun S&W made with a matte finish called the Model 46, with 5.5” heavy barrels, 7” target barrels, and 5” light field barrels and the same magazines.

The one thing that makes the 41 such a fine shooting tool is the trigger and sights.  Barrels contribute the most to mechanical accuracy, and variations in barrel quality will best show up in machine rest comparisons.  But, when shooting out of a 5.5 inch barrel, it’s all about the shooter’s control of the gun.  Can you line up your shot, and will it go boom when (and where) you want it to?  The huge Millett style sights on the 41 are like Johnny Cash – black on black on black.  That tall front site will not draw easily from a holster, it will not self-illuminate in a dark alley; but you will be able to focus on it like a good marksman.  The older models of 41’s are better than newer versions, with much larger rear sight blades to draw the eyes into the notch.  Newer model 41’s may have weaver mounting notches cut directly into the slide, as do some aftermarket custom uppers offered by Clark Customs.  In my opinion it would be a shame to scope out a 41, it is perfect, as is, for training to shoot iron sight pistols.  The trigger on my 41 breaks like the cliché glass rod, at just under 3 lbs.  It has almost no creep or over-travel, and needs no adjustment screws to try and fine tune the set-up.  I spent a lot of money trying to get my custom target 1911 even close to this ideal.  I love loaning it out at the range when I see somebody struggling next to me trying to get hits on paper with a Glock.  In 4 shots they are hitting 2 inch groups.  Their eyes light up like they’ve just shot for the first time, and they ask where to find one.  Once I tell them that new ones are still made by S&W with an MSRP of $1369 – the wind goes out of their sails and they go back to plugging away with their wonder-nine.

The most important factor in shooting the 41 is ammunition velocity.  This gun is set up from the factory to shoot standard velocity 38-40 grain .22 Cal LR.  If you want to shoot high velocity ammo out of a value pack, you must replace the recoil springs with stronger versions.  Wolff offers stronger recoil springs, and a even a calibration pack with several weight springs to help you choose the best weight for your preferred ammo.  If you fail to balance the springs to the ammo, the recoil will batter the gun until the frame is bent out of shape and the gun will rattle like a New Years Eve noise maker. Most of the old guard shooters will tell you to buy CCI Green Tag target ammo for this gun, and they are right about its accuracy.   I do just as well with just about any standard velocity fodder (under 1200fps), particularlyWinchester and Aguila subsonic.  Any of these will shoot into an inch at 20 yards with a steady hand or a rest.

The only way to catch a deal on a S&W 41 is to scour the used gun market.  Hit the old gun shops where they talk despairingly about Tupperware guns, hit Gun Broker and Back Page. Gun shows are a tough place to get a deal on a 41, since all the old hands know their true value.  Most any 41 in my condition would’ve run $800 at the big guns shows.  I got lucky a second time around off of Gun Broker and found a police impound resale S&W 41 with a 7 inch top end.  It did not include the full target match set with weights, no compensator, and it was the more common .22 LR.  It had a police case number electro stenciled into the frame and barrel, just to let everyone know it was involved in some bad business.  I bought it and had it shipped toIndianafor less than $300 total.  The thing rattled like a clapper.  The barrel is held onto the frame through a carefully fitted lug, released by folding down the trigger guard.  Someone had shot so much high velocity ammo through this late 70’s era gun that the cross pin was bent and the matching hole was elongated into an oval.  There was probably an 1/8” of wiggle at the barrel tip if the frame was held solid.  Fortunately, the sights are locked in relation to the barrel.  This means it still shot extremely accurately, because my eye was still aligning the barrel with the target on each shot.  The long, skinny barrel was meant to give a greater sight radius and reduce alignment errors for target shooting.  I found, like most of the target shooters over the years, that the thicker 5.5” barrel on y other gun was just as accurate and dampened recoil a bit better.  After a year or two of leaving the 7” in the safe and always taking the 5.5” to the range, I went ahead and sold the rattler for what I had in it.

Buyer beware.  Much like an Anschutz 54 or a customized PPC revolver, once you shoot a S&W 41 a few times you find that you can’t stand the factory trigger on your other guns.

Good luck and happy shooting!

The Hoosier Gun Guy

Peritus Holdings, Inc., the owner of the Firearms Network, encourages a free and open exchange of ideas by guest blog posts to provided various educational perspectives on the topics within the firearms’ community. However, placement of any such blog post on any of our sites, including this blog post, is not an official endorsement of the good and service and any and all use and reliance by readers is at their sole discretion and should be independently evaluated.