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Why We Don't Have a .41 Keith

by Tom Ferguson 

(Originally printed in The Shootist, Nov. 1984 - published by John Linebaugh)

The San Antonio, Texas Police Dept. was not a happy one in 1973.  For some time there had been discontent over the issue gun and load which was the S&W M10 heavy barrel .38 Special and Winchester-Western 200 gr. roundnose ammunition.  Many of us felt the gun itself was a good one with excellent handling qualities, but the choice of ammo was among the poorest of all .38 loads then on the market.  The heavy bluff-bowed slug was pleasant to fire due to low velocity, but it had two faults: it shot high in M10's which had been factory regulated for 158 gr. loads, and it had poor terminal ballistics.  Penetration was low and so was shocking power.  Only a precisely placed hit at close range could save an officer in a gunfight.

The matter was brought to a climax that year by a shooting incident involving Officer Tony Canales.  Tony stopped a vehicle on a routine matter only to learn it contained two gunmen who had robbed a service station only minutes before.  When he approached, one of the men shot him in the lower right side with a 12 gauge shotgun, knocking him to his knees.  Tony took the full charge and must have known it was all over for him in that moment, but he drew his gun and fired back at the fleeing vehicle.

His return fire hit the car but the 200 gr. bullets merely ricocheted off the metal making Tony's last courageous fight a futile one.  He died a few hours later in a nearby hospital.

This was a surprise or ambush-style shooting and plainly no gun or type of ammunition could have saved Tony's life.  He was as good as dead before he drew his gun.  Nevertheless he was a popular Officer and his death prompted both sympathy and outrage.  Many Officers felt he might have killed or wounded his assailants had he been carrying more effective loads.  These views were made known not only to the Chief but to the press as well, which gave the event wide coverage.

The Chief of Police at that time was a cool-headed wise veteran of some 30 years service and while not particularly knowledgeable about firearms, was responsive to the needs of his men. He immediately ordered a comprehensive test of all currently available .38 Special loads to be conducted by the forensic laboratory. Along with several other firearms instructors I was ask to help evaluate these different ammo types.  Unfortunately our efforts were largely wasted through bureaucratic mismanagement and other factors, among them the non-availability of some brands of ammunition.  Bluntly put, the "comprehensive" test became a farce and little good came of it.  Somehow on nobody's specific recommendation, the new issue .38 round turned out to be the S&W-Fiocchi 158 gr. jacketed soft-point. Although this cartridge shot closer to point of aim in our fixed-sight M10's it had no better terminal effect than the old 200 gr. slug.  The velocity was in the 800 fps range, too low to expand.  I once viewed the X-rays of a felon's thigh who had been shot with this bullet and it didn't expand.  It could have been retrieved and fired again.

When all seemed hopeless we got another chance.  Budget restraints were eased to a point where it appeared there might be money for new guns.  A firearms study group was authorized by the Chief and charged with finding the most effective gun/load combination for the Department. Only two restrictions applied:  due to the risk of malfunction and accidental discharge no semi-automatics could be chosen; and because of of the risk of over-penetration no .357 Magnum revolvers were to be considered.  Though reasonable these restriction left the firearms committee in a quandary.  What gun could possibly be adopted except the .38 Specials we already had?  It looked a lot like a stacked deck for the heavy S&W N-frames in .44 Special and .45 ACP had long been discontinued.

The answer of course was the M58 S&W in .41 Magnum.  Available since 1964 it had met with limited success and was not well-known in Police circles as late as 1973.  The caliber and its 210 gr. "Police Load" at 950 fps were pretty much the brainchild of Elmer Keith who conceived the idea with the help of Bill Jordan and Skeeter Skelton.  These experienced men felt it would be the ultimate in a Police sidearm and those of us who used it agreed.  The only problem was to convince our skeptical firearms committee and this proved to be an uphill fight in every way.

Officer Bill McLennan, now Detective, was appointed as an official member of the committee while I acted in an advisory capacity only, without a vote.  As longtime fans of Elmer Keith we adhered to his advocacy of large caliber heavy bullets at moderate velocity for manstopping purposes.

During the many days of conferences which followed, McLennan and I gradually swayed  the committee opinion toward this view.  Elmer Keith aided us in every way possible including much correspondence and advice.  Wanting as much prestigious evidence as possible we presented positive comments from Dean Grennell and Jeff Cooper.  There can be little doubt their help was decisive. In the end a decision was made to purchase 400 M58 revolvers for trial issue,  enough for about half the patrolmen on the Department.  We received these revolvers in 1974 and I helped inspect them on arrival.  We rejected 13 for mechanical defects and the rest remained in service until 1979.

Before this purchase was approved an objection was raised that the barrel markings of ".41 Magnum" might cause adverse public comment.  Although we had no intention of issuing true magnum loads both McLennan and I realized the public sensitivity over the word "magnum".  We contacted S&W and they replied that for a fee of $200 another rollstamp could be made to place whatever markings might be desired on the barrels.  The committee was divided on this issue.  Most wanted the barrel to read ".41 Police" while McLennan and I held out for ".41 Keith" in honor of the man who helped so much.  The conflict was resolved when the city government advised it would not pay the extra $200 for the rollstamp. Both Bill McLennan and I offered to pay this modest sum out of our own pockets but this was refused.  

Now you know why we have no ".41 Keith".

No more M58's were bought by our Department and today they are something of a collector's item, traded off in 1979 for M65's in .357.  The .41 succumbed to the popularity of stainless steel revolvers and some inherent faults in the cartridge itself.  

The 210 gr. Police loads leaded badly.  Remington was the sole manufacturer of .41 ammo at that time and we had quite a lot of trouble with it.  In fact both our revolvers and ammunition showed every sign of hasty assembly to meet what was probably an unexpected order for 400 guns and 63,000 rounds of ammunition.  The .41 was tottering on the brink of extinction even in 1974.  We found this Remington Police load gave approximately one misfire every 300 rounds ... totally unacceptable.  Several Remington engineers were flown to San Antonio and I demonstrated this to them.  Later I received word that the priming compound had been left out of several lots of .41 and .44 Magnum ammo by mistake.  I didn't believe this was the complete answer for I had seen several long hangfires with the .41's.  It's possible this was old ammo stored under poor conditions since 1964, but this was never determined.

Next we sought the cause for the leading problem.  The guns leaded so badly after 25 rounds they wouldn't stay on a silhouette target at 25 yards.  This is of no consequence in a gunfight, but it is bad during qualification where many rounds are fired.  Miking the swaged slugs we found many were only .403" and ran to a maximum of .408".  Although fairly soft they apparently didn't upset enough to fill the .410" bore.  This may have been "early" ammo, put through new dies which were expected to wear to larger diameter later on, but this is only a guess.  The leading problem never was corrected.  In fact, when Winchester began marketing their .41 ammo I miked their slugs and found them even smaller than the Remingtons. Remington did correct the defective ammo worry by replacing it with new lots.  Most of the time my .41 held my own handloads of a hard-cast 215 gr. Keith over 9 gr. of Unique for about 1000 fps.

Like Elmer always said, if you wear a gun every day you'll get to know it, and I suppose I know that M58 better than any gun I own. I had been carry a M58 for two years before the Department bought any and then I carried one of theirs for another 6 years.  It has never given the slightest trouble through many thousands of rounds and although I never had to shoot a felon with it I've certainly beat a few to the draw.

Sometime along about 1975 or 1976 some Police official decided they should carry Departmental markings.  Individual letter dies were purchased and all M58's were stamped "SAPD" just ahead of the trigger guard on the left side, below the cylinder well.  The work was so sloppy I refused to let them stamp my gun.  I still have it and to the best of my knowledge it is the only one of the 387 guns not so marked.

In those days, before the advent of bullets which really expand, the .41 with it's wide heavy slug was a good choice and would be even now.  It served the SAPD well in some 26 gunfights and an odd statistic developed. Although it was usually a one-shot fight stopper, it wasn't particularly lethal.  Those not killed outright usually recovered from their wounds.  This suited most of us OK and bears out Elmer's theories exactly.

In the years that followed I often saw Elmer at various gun conventions.  Once accompanied by his good friend Jerry Nelson of Wyoming and Ralph Graham of Idaho.  I never forgot Elmer's help in getting the .41 for my Department and only wish McLennan and I had been successful in getting them marked ".41 Keith".  It would have been an appropriate tribute to a man who has helped so many Police Officers, and who knows the hazards of this work himself.

Although it was not our final meeting, one incident with Elmer stands out in memory.  In October of 1977 he flew in to San Antonio for a deer hunt on the Y.O. Ranch hosted by Hal Swiggett.  McLennan and I met him at the airport and knowing he was uncomfortable without his .44 I brought my 4" M29 for him to wear while in Texas.  He gracefully declined saying he'd borrow one from Hal. 

This meeting was a peculiar instance for me. I have been a Police Officer for much of my life and am very attuned to body language and eye contact.  At times it has meant survival to me.  When I shook Elmer's hand I looked him right in the eye and had the strangest thought:  If I had not known better I'd have sworn I was looking into the eyes of a young man.  Keith's eyes took in every detail of me yet at the same time looked beyond, like a man accustomed to looking far distances.  Instantly I recognized they were the eyes of the mountain man that Elmer Keith truly was.

Reprinted by permission of John Linebaugh 






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