July 2000

All-Round Utility .22LRs: Used S&W 41s Are Worth a Long Look

We compared this “pre-agreement” semiauto to SIG’s Trailside and a solid Ruger Slabside to see if any of them can do it all. The answer? Yes.

[IMGCAP(1)] 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?

Many shooters have asked us if the new SIG Trailside can satisfy these disparate needs, so we decided to compare it to a couple of established pistols that can also be used for the trail, and which also have a stellar reputation in some pretty serious NRA competition. These are the Smith & Wesson Model 41 and the Ruger Government Competition, also known as the Ruger Slabside for the shape of its barrel. 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 the other two guns tested here. New, the S&W sells for nearly $800, and that’s twice the street price of the Ruger (list is $441), so we wouldn’t consider it against the other two new guns tested here. The Trailside Long Target Package is $489, looks to be a great gun for the field, but we didn’t know how well it would work for serious target use. We shot these guns side by side to see which one offers the best value in terms of accuracy, function, and usefulness. Here’s what we found:

SIG Trailside Target
Our recommendation: We believe this attractive and friendly pistol as tested would make an excellent handgun for the trail, or for any casual use to which you might put a .22 pistol. It could be used for beginner-level NRA bullseye competition as is, but although SIG calls this model the “Target,” we feel it doesn’t have enough weight or accuracy as tested for that specialized work. SIG offers a “Competition” version of the gun, with muzzle weight and specialized grip, that might be more suitable for serious paper punching. However, the muzzle weight of the Competition version could be installed in place of the plastic piece now under the barrel of the Target. Then, if a suitable optical sight were installed onto the barrel, the target-punching world might open up for you. With its price of $489, we’d give it a strong Buy It rating for field use.

Click here to view the SIG Trailside Target features guide

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This new and attractive two-tone, 6-inch-barrel pistol was made in Switzerland by Hämmerli. It appeared to contain numerous investment castings. The slide and frame both began life as steel castings, but the frame was machined on nearly every surface, inside and out. The slide was machined on most of its surfaces. The trigger and its guard had minimal machining.

The surface finish and all machining were very well done. The steel slide was finished white, in what looked like hard chrome. The barrel was matte black, as were the sights and lower receiver and hinged trigger guard. The grips were gray-and-blue laminated wood, completely ambidextrous, and without any checkering. Sticking prominently out of the chamber was a red plastic flag, which the excellent instruction manual informed us was a warning to never dry fire this pistol. That can damage it. The internal design was superficially similar to that of the Smith & Wesson Model 41.

First impressions on handling the Trailside were that it was very light, and the grips were almighty slippery. However, most of our shooters didn’t mind the smooth grip. Others thought the grips were too wide. SIG has an optional polymer grip that might fit your hand better. Warning: There’s a small hairpin-type spring under the right-side grip that lifts the trigger bar into contact with the sear. The bar is not pinned in place and can fall off. That little spring can fly out easily if you look at it crosswise. We glared at it, then spent considerable time on the floor with a magnet until we found it. Leave the grips alone unless you really need to take them off, and then be careful.

The Trailside is not a big pistol. The frame actually quits about an inch above the bottom of the grip, at a length that would permit only two fingers to grasp it. Another version of this pistol has a 4.5-inch barrel instead of our 6-inch version. There are actually three versions of the Trailside, the Standard, Target, and Competition models. The Standard version has fixed sights and either a 6-inch or 4.5-inch barrel. The Target, which we tested, has either 6-inch or 4.5-inch barrels and adjustable sights. The Competition has a 6-inch barrel only, and of course adjustables. The short barrel might be better for strictly trail use, but we like adjustables. However, SIG provides numerous different heights of rear sight to adjust the impact by 2-inch increments at 25 yards.

The adjustable rear sight was relatively small and made of steel. It had positive click-stops for elevation and windage. It took very little adjusting to get the Trailside to hit where we looked. The sight was secured in a crosswise dovetail by a locking set screw. It provided an excellent sight picture. One problem was that the sight moved with the slide, and hence would never provide the accuracy of a pistol that had the sights fixed in relation to the barrel.

However, the barrel in front of the slide is grooved for scope mounting. We don’t like scopes on pistols, but if you must have one, it would be easy to mount one on this handgun, and it would be independent of the slide’s motion, so you’d get the most out of the available accuracy.

The white-finished slide had the “Trailside” name plastered prominently on both sides. The left side also read “SIG Arms INC.,” and “Exeter-NH-USA.” The right side had a glaringly ugly “READ MANUAL BEFORE USE,” and under that, “Hämmerli Made In Switzerland.” We keep waiting for some manufacturer to print on some gun, “This is a gun. It can be dangerous. WATCH OUT!” That might actually look better than all the other things we’ve seen emblazoned on otherwise attractive firearms. Aside from these markings, the finish of the Trailside was very good.

At the range the Trailside proved to be user-friendly. We had one malfunction, after some 150 rounds, where the second round out of a fully loaded (10 rounds) magazine popped completely out of the gun along with the spent empty case from the first round. The chamber was left empty. We became aware of this before we dropped the hammer on the empty chamber. Apparently, with that brand of ammunition (Remington high-speed hollow-point, not included as part of our test evaluation), it was possible to load the magazine in a way that caused the nose of the round to be depressed slightly in the magazine. Then the rim of the ejected round caught the next, live, round and threw it up and out of the gun. We made sure the magazine was carefully loaded thereafter, and the problem never resurfaced.

The single extractor was mounted on the right side of the slide and the ejector fixed to the frame on the left side, so empties went to the right side as they departed. Lefties were not bothered by this.

The 10-round polymer mag was easy to load because of a pin protruding out both sides that provided a means to depress the magazine spring as rounds were inserted. All three pistols had something like this on their magazines. By the way, we got only one mag with the SIG, and you really need two for serious NRA competition, where you are permitted to load only five rounds into your pistol at a time. This small point is worth noting if you plan to try bullseye competition with the Trailside. Both the other guns in this test series came with two mags.

The trigger broke at 4.5 pounds. It was free of creep, although the trigger mechanism was two-stage. One shooter felt like he had to move the trigger too far forward to reset it between shots, but no one else mentioned this. In use, we couldn’t fault the Trailside’s trigger.

The safety was a marked lever on the left rear of the slide. It was easier to take off (down) than to put back on, and we found it easiest to use the supporting hand to move it.

The Trailside achieved its best accuracy with Federal Classic high-speed ammunition. This averaged 1.1 inches, with a best group of 0.9 inch at 15 yards. Next best was Federal Gold Medal Match with 1.4-inch average groups.

We found something when we cleaned the SIG. Disassembly was simple, requiring only a screwdriver to loosen the clamp screw on the side of the plastic piece located in front of the frame, just under the muzzle. This piece slid off forward. Next we pulled down on the trigger guard and pressed it to the left side, locking it open. Then we were able to draw back the slide, lift it and ease it forward off the gun to the front. That’s when we discovered the Trailside has gain-twist rifling. The lands start out noticeably straighter right in front of the chamber than they are an inch farther up the bore. They actually curve slightly left, then change to right-hand twist. We found no lead in the barrel whatsoever, probably because of the gradual easing of the bullet into the rifling. The manual gave the twist as 1 turn in 16 inches.

Ruger Competition Target
Our recommendation: We’d give the Ruger a Buy It rating for target work, but a Conditional Buy for utility. It didn’t provide the overall good accuracy that the Smith 41 did with all brands of ammunition, even though it was extremely accurate with the Federal target fodder. We’d never choose this big handgun for the field. Ruger makes a much lighter version (the Standard) for the field that costs a lot less, though it lacks adjustable sights. The big Ruger Slabside is made for serious production of tiny groups on paper, and for dedicated rimfire hunting with scope attached. We don’t consider it to be an all-around handgun.

Click here to view the Ruger Competition Target features guide

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This $441 version of the Mark II Ruger pistol comes in all-stainless steel, with a 6-inch heavy barrel that has a flat milled into each side. This gives the pistol its “Slabside” appearance and nickname. Fitted with fully adjustable all-steel target sights and an excellent trigger, the Ruger has been a viable competitor on the bullseye circuit.

The laminated wood-tone grips had a thumb rest that made this pistol uncomfortable for lefties. Left-handed versions of the grips are available, though. Right off the bat we’ll state that either you like the Ruger’s grip angle or you don’t. The grip angle was much greater than that of the Trailside or Smith 41, which more closely approximate the angle of the Colt 1911 pistol. This might make a difference in NRA target shooting, when you switch to the centerfire and .45 pistols required for a full three-gun target event. Most advanced paper punchers use a 1911-style .45 auto for both centerfire and .45, so it seems like a good idea that the rimfire pistol match the others as closely as possible.

Externally, the Ruger Slabside looked and felt great. The finish was dull stainless except for the blued sights and nicely checkered grips, and was smooth to the touch. The finish was very good to excellent. The two magazines were blued steel with plastic bases and followers, and had a thumb-assist for easier loading (10 rounds maximum). When we broke the Ruger down for cleaning, we found many sharp edges inside that ought to have been removed with a three-cornered scraper or other deburring tool. To keep from cutting our fingers, we used a scraper before we cleaned it.

The Ruger Competition Target came in a lockable plastic container with a padlock, an excellent manual, scope base and rings, and two magazines. The gun was drilled and tapped for the scope base. Prominently displayed inside the container was a sticker carrying the American flag and a “Made in U.S.A” promotion. In case you didn’t know, the “Standard” version of this pistol is what put Sturm, Ruger & Co. on the map. The company sold countless thousands of that pistol for just $37.50. The trigger pull of this heavy target pistol was 3.0 pounds. It felt a bit spongy, but not at all creepy. As we pressed the trigger, we could see it move, but could not feel any drag. There was a fair amount of take-up also, which made it more like a two-stage trigger. The first stage was against a very weak spring. You guessed it if you said a few of us didn’t care for this trigger.

On the range the Ruger showed its stuff, but not without a few bobbles. The first round through the gun failed to eject. Then we had no problems for about eighty rounds, but that success was followed by an occasional failure to eject. We attributed that to dirt and a new pistol, so we cleaned the gun thoroughly, but still had failures to eject. This didn’t happen with any of the match ammunition we tried. Tight chamber? Perhaps.

With Federal Gold Medal match ammunition, we fired some of the smallest groups we’ve ever fired with any handgun. Our best was five into 0.4 inch at 15 yards, and we had another group of 0.7 inch. The Ruger also liked Viper high-speed ammunition, getting an average of 0.8 inch for the few groups we tried with it. They actually beat the results with Federal match ammo. We didn’t test all the guns with that Viper, though. We mention it only because the Ruger didn’t like any of the other types of ammo we tried, so we fired some of the high-speed Remington Viper fodder to see if the pistol would work with more than one brand of ammo. The next-best results to the Federal match were with CCI Pistol Match ammunition, which gave 1.25-inch average groups, quite a letdown from the Federal. Winchester T22 averaged 1.5 inches. The Ruger Slabside was too heavy for field use. There would be little need to pack a .22-caliber pistol weighing 2.8 pounds. That weight would accommodate a .44 Magnum nicely. However, for serious target competition or hunting small game, the Ruger would be a fine choice.

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.

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson Model 41 features guide

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The Smith, as tested, is what we call a “pre-agreement” model; that is, it’s used. We included it here as a measuring stick for the other guns, because 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. This is what compelled us to compare an old Smith 41 with the new Trailside and the classic heavy-barrel Ruger. 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. The Smith 41 liked more brands of ammunition than either of the other two pistols tested. Though it didn’t beat the best Ruger group of 0.4 inch, it came close, and made numerous five-shot groups of less than an inch with a variety of ammo. The Ruger wouldn’t do that.

Gun Tests Recommends
Smith & Wesson Model 41, $800 new, $500 to $650 used. A Conditional Buy, but our first pick. If you’ve got a problem with the current political and business situation Smith has caused, then you’ll perhaps want to pass on the new 41s for that reason alone. But what about the used ones that predate the “agreement?” There are great values out there on used Model 41s. If you can find one in good shape, Buy It.

Ruger Competition Target, $441. Buy It for target work. Pass on it as a utility gun. It was extremely accurate with the Federal target fodder. It’s too heavy for the field. We don’t consider it to be an all-around handgun.

SIG Trailside Long Target Package, $489. Buy It for the field, but the other guns are much better, in our view, for serious target use.