Smith & Wesson Model 41 .22 LR, $500-$650 used
No one rimfire pistol can do everything. If it’s precise enough for serious NRA bullseye competition, it’s too big and heavy for taking along on a hiking trip. If it’s light enough for trail use, it doesn’t have enough weight for steadiness on the firing line in serious competition. Sure, there are many more uses for .22 pistols, such as hunting, plinking, and the like, but these two extremes give a reasonable picture of the scope of rimfire semiautomatics. No single gun can do all these things … or can it?
Gun Tests magazine decided to test an established pistol that can also be used for the trail, and which also has a stellar reputation in some pretty serious NRA competition: the Smith & Wesson Model 41. The price of an excellent-condition used Smith & Wesson Model 41 has been, until recently, around $500. The current political climate against that firm might let you find one for a lot less, making it a strong competitor, price-wise, to other similar guns. New, the S&W sells for nearly $800. Here’s what Gun Tests found:
Smith & Wesson Model 41
Our recommendation: If you can find a good, used Smith & Wesson Model 41 for a decent price, Buy It! It’ll last forever, will do just about anything you could ever want a pistol to do, and will please you with its reliability, trigger pull, and consistency over the years. You might have to hunt down the accessories you want, and will have a very hard time finding a Sport barrel, but in a pinch you can cut down one of the easily found 7-inchers, just like the factory did, if you must have one. The flare on the bottom of the walnut stocks could be cut down if it sticks out of a holster too much for you, but we like it for offhand shooting. Perhaps two sets of grips would be the solution. If you get yourself a Model 41 we predict you won’t be sorry.
The Smith, as tested, is what we call a “pre-agreement” model; that is, it’s used. We believe the Smith Model 41 is the most versatile setup in a rimfire pistol we’ve ever seen. However, most often you don’t always see it all together. S&W made numerous barrels for this model, and even made a .22 Short version with aluminum slide, but the most commonly seen are the 7-inch barrel tested here, and the 5-inch heavy-barrel version. Another slide was offered in what turned out to be limited quantities. This was the “Sport” barrel, which made the great Model 41 into one of the finest, lightest, most accurate handguns for the field.
In the 1980s Smith offered the “Sport” barrel again, and a friend of Gun Tests bought one. Only thing was, Smith hadn’t actually made them yet. When our friend sent his request, he was told he’d get his slide when they had enough orders in-house to make some. About eight months later the package arrived, but instead of a true remake of the original Sport barrel, the new one was apparently cut down from the 7-inch version, and had an add-on, ramped front sight with red insert attached. Original Sport barrels had integral sights that looked just like that on the 7-inch version.
In addition to three weights of barrel, the Smith 41 had three different tubular muzzle weights that fit inside the barrel at the front. One was aluminum, one steel, and a third weighted. You had your choice of muzzle heft. In addition, a large external two-piece weight could be hung underneath the muzzle to give whatever weight the shooter desired.
Add to all this versatility the finest trigger pull we’ve ever encountered—on rifle, shotgun, or pistol—and you have the match-winning combination of the Model 41 S&W. This pistol today sells new for around $800. It’s complex inside, machine-work intensive, and thus costly to make. The grips are checkered walnut. The gun normally comes with two magazines, and the Smith has made a name for itself in competition that most makers would envy.
Older Smith Model 41s like our test gun had superior wood and metal finish compared to current ones. The bluing on early- to middle-five-digit serial-numbered models was some of the best work Smith has ever done. The walnut stocks were perfectly checkered and the entire guns were first-class examples of everything good a handgun could be. The old Model 41 had everything the new guns have (within certain limitations), and you can get any combination of barrels and weights you’d ever want. Yes, you’re going to have to look for them, but they’re worth the trouble, in our opinion.
The Smith tested here was in excellent condition. The bluing was still shiny and unblemished. However, one of the walnut stocks had been cracked. The owner had repaired it with super-glue. Two ten-shot magazines had come with the gun, just like when it was new. No other accessories were included in the package. The pistol was fitted with the plain muzzle, though a brake was available. The brake tends to pick up crud, we’re told, and unless you clean that diligently, you won’t get maximum accuracy from the Smith 41.
The rear sight on this design is mounted on an extension of the barrel. This means it doesn’t switch position in relation to the bore with every shot, as the Trailside sight does. Although the older Smiths are not drilled for scope mounting, this can be done if needed. We’ve seen a scoped 41, and were told it was a simple job for a competent gunsmith.
The rear sight was fully adjustable for windage and elevation. The clicks were positive and stayed in place. Our only complaint was that the windage screw was much smaller than the elevation screw.
The grip had a swell at the back that filled the hand. The checkering and wood thickness gave most shooters a positive, comfortable, and totally ambidextrous grasp on the pistol. The trigger finger had lots of room for unhampered control of the superlative trigger. The pull was 2.0 pounds, with zero creep and no slop. It was fully repeatable and thoroughly delightful. There was an adjustment for overtravel. Disassembly for cleaning was extremely simple. We removed the magazine and cleared the pistol, then pulled firmly downward on the trigger guard. This permitted the barrel assembly to be removed from the frame. Pulling rearward on the slide and lifting it let us remove it forward, off the frame. The recoil spring and its guide came out with the slide. That was it. There was no need to remove the grips, but they would come off with a single screw.
Our first trip to the range with the 41 indicated some problems. We had many failures to fire, though this was partly because of one brand of ammunition we knew was faulty. We had misfires with some Winchester T22 of dubious age. Most aggravating was that the unfired rounds stayed in the chamber, the extractor failing to drag them out reliably. Finally, the safety was frequently bumped into the On position from recoil.
We disassembled the pistol, including removing the grips, and gave it a thorough cleaning. We had noticed the slide wasn’t going fully home, and it had very little spring pressure. We ordered a new slide spring, and in the meantime stretched the old one. This gave much better slide power. The slide must drive each round fully into the chamber before the firing pin can deliver a solid blow to it.
We bent the detent spring controlling the position of the safety and had no further incidents of its being put on when we didn’t want it on.
The hammer spring seemed weak, and our inspection showed the problem. This spring is closed at one end, squared off, to prevent its slipping too far onto the hammer strut. The other end was simply cut off, leaving the coil unclosed. The spring had been assembled upside down, which caused it to slip too high on the hammer strut, which cut the spring’s power considerably. This was a simple fix.
We cleaned the barrel and chamber thoroughly, and found no damage from firing pin strikes. We scraped all surfaces of the back of the barrel and front of the slide to ensure no wax or old powder built up would prevent functioning, and then we took the Model 41 back to the range.
This time the Smith fired everything we put into it, including that questionable ammunition several rifles had failed to fire reliably. Accuracy was noticeably improved across the board.
Our best groups came with Federal Gold Medal Match. Though most of our testing was five-round groups, the Smith’s best was ten shots into 0.85 inch at 15 yards. We also had good results with CCI Pistol Match, and we had occasional bursts of brilliance with Federal Classic high-speed ammo.