The Fine, Old .41 Long Colt

By Mike Hudson

Colt .41 revolver
Colt .41 revolver. Photo by Mike Hudson

Maybe it�s all the gun writers I read as a kid, but I�ve always been a sucker for the oddball cartridges. I�ll take a .38 S&W revolver over a .380 Auto any day as a pocket pistol and, for my money, the 7.62 Nagant and the seven shot revolver that fires it stands head and shoulders above the .32 S&W, the .32-20 and even the .32 H&R Mag as a trail outfit.

My go-to rifle is chambered in the wonderful 6.5 Arisaka and, if I was headed for Africa, I think I�d have to buy a Ruger Mk. 1 in .405 Winchester. My shotgun is, of course, is a 16 gauge, a fine old Fox B Model with the 2-3/4� chambers I prefer.

Each of these cartridges, it seems to me, has been shamefully neglected by the big gun and ammunition companies over the years and also by the modern gun writers who depend on the corporations for their livelihoods. Their stories are tales of woe, as the guns that made them famous were gradually phased out by the manufacturers (if they were ever commercially produced at all), leading the ammo producers to gradually limit and, in many cases, discontinue the rounds completely. Oftentimes, a new cartridge was introduced and touted as being equal in performance to the old one, or said to be vastly superior, although they rarely have been.

Which brings me to my current obsession, the .41 Long Colt, a cartridge remembered mostly today because the company�s popular Python model and others chambered in .357 Magnum are said to be manufactured on the �. 41 frame.� Introduced in 1877 along with the famous Colt Lightning double action revolver, the .41 LC was immediately popular. Colt also chambered its Single Action Army for the round and it became the fourth most popular chambering in the venerable old sixgun.

Billy the Kid had a .41 Colt Lightning on him the night he was shot from ambush by Sheriff Pat Garrett and John Wesley Hardin was similarly armed when he was shot in the back of the head by old John Selman at the Acme Saloon in El Paso in 1895. In 1892, Colt introduced its New Model Army and Navy in both .38 and .41 Long Colt, turning out 291,000 of them before production was discontinued in 1904. Teddy Roosevelt carried one of these in .38 caliber during his famous charge up Kettle Hill in the Spanish American War, killing one enemy rifleman and missing another. �My revolver was from the sunken battleship Maine and had been given to me by my brother-in-law, Capt. W.S. Cowles of the Navy,� Roosevelt noted.

For civilian use, experienced handgunners chose the .41 for social purposes. Even today it is nearly ideal for home defense, firing a heavy, blunt lead bullet at a relatively modest velocity and with modest recoil, while still packing plenty of punch.

Elmer Keith waxed eloquent on the merits of the .41 LC, comparing it very favorably to the .38 Special in a discussion of Colt�s Army Special, which was available in either caliber. �In .41 caliber, the Army Model became much more popular than in .38 caliber, as the big, blunt nose 200-grain slug was an excellent manstopper while the round nose .38 Special definitely was not,� he wrote.

Keith was, of course, talking about the original loading of the .38 Special, which pushed its 158 grain pill out at 770 feet per second, generating 200 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. Better loads are certainly available today, but the old loading remains popular, filling the cylinders of thousands of revolvers intended by their owners to provide for self defense.

In comparison, original loadings for the 41 Long Colt threw its soft lead 200 grain slug at 750 fps with 237 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, a loading that remained constant until Winchester-Western, the last company to offer the round, finally discontinued it in the late 1970s. At longer ranges, the .38 Special has it all over the old .41. However, up close and personal I�d take the .41 LC any day of the week.

Reloaders can match the old factory ballistics by using 3.5 grains of Bullseye behind any of a number of Rapine hollow-based .386� diameter bullets offered by the various bullet makers. Those who don�t mind shooting black powder can fill the cases with 19 grains of FFFg with the same bullets for nearly identical results. New brass is available from Starline.

The hollow based bullet, looking rather like a Civil War Minie Ball, was designed to upset the enough when fired to fill the revolver�s bore, which measures .401�. As I indicated, the .41 LC is not a target round.

Keith wrote that he was able to get 880 fps by using 5.0 grains of Unique, but I don�t believe I�d want to try that load in my Colt New Navy, which left the factory brand new just 111 years ago. The load was carried for years in the old Ideal Handbook, but today should only be used in the Colt Single Action Army or New Service models, which are built on .45 frames, or the Official Police model, which was chambered in .41 LC between 1928 and 1930.

Those who don�t reload are rather more limited in their choice of ammo. Stars and Stripes Custom Ammunition and other specialty manufacturers offer .41 LC, but it ain�t cheap. The alternative is to scrounge around at gun shows and on the Internet looking for some shootable originals, which aren�t cheap either, generally running around two-thirds the price of the new stuff. I�ve found all of it to be acceptable, delivering groups of between two and three inches at 15 yards, which is more than adequate for personal defense. Recoil is mild.

When Cowboy Action shooting began catching on a few years back, I thought it would lead to a resurgence of the .41 LC. Sadly, my hopes were dashed. While guns and ammo became available in such infinitely more obscure and inferior calibers as the .44 Colt, .38 Long Colt, and the .45 Schofield became available, the .41 LC remains in limbo.

Which is too bad. Because, when used for the purpose for which it was designed, short range defense, the .41 LC remains as effective as it ever was.

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