Big Gun/Little Gun
S&W Mod. 41 Vs. Beretta Mod. 71 .22 Shootout!
By Jeremy D. Clough
It happens every year: Fall comes and it’s time for the squirrels to change color and start falling off the trees. The squirrel is challenging due to its size, rapid movement and unwillingness to stand still. It can be particularly irritating due to its supremely destructive nature — and tendency to mock you when you miss a shot. Seldom one to do things the easy way, I’ve typically hunted squirrels with a pistol as a matter of choice. In a situation where circumstances limit your options, though, a handgun may be the only gun available. For those who choose to plan for this eventuality, it makes sense to consider pistols capable of performing more than one role: target, hunting or even defense.
From this framework, the .22 often comes up due to its versatility and both the relative availability of ammo — compared to, say, a .480 Ruger — and the ability to carry a fairly large quantity of ammo with minimal weight and bulk. While it’s nobody’s idea of a good stopper, the traits making one .22 pistol better than another as a defensive pistol are the same traits making it a good small game gun. Low recoil, which makes it easy to shoot (especially in rapid fire), and exceptional accuracy are both attractive features. With this in mind, let’s look at three rimfire semi-autos which can pull triple duty.
Now readily available from Century Arms, the .22 LR Beretta 71 is justly
famous both for its superb reliability and its use by Israeli security
forces. While in the same size range as a PPK, it’s still capable of
sub-2″ accuracy at 25 yards. The knife is an Ox Forge Special Forces bowie.
S&W Model 41
Probably the premier American .22 target pistol (with all due respect to the fine Ruger MK III and its forebears), the history of the 41 begins strangely enough in Belgium with the Clément pistol S&W copied for its first semi-auto pistol, a .35 caliber released in 1913. Both it and a refined successor in .32 ACP performed dismally and disappeared from the market in 1936. Smith pplied its efforts to the revolvers for which they are justly famed, and about 20 years passed before they ventured into the auto-pistol field again.
When they did, they cautiously took their time. Tool room prototypes of what would become the 41 were debuted in 1947 (some less-reliable sources say as early as 1941) at the National Matches at Camp Perry, where S&W gathered feedback on the design from their intended audience. After 10 years of refinement, the finished gun was released in 1957. Perhaps the most obvious sign of its development in a military context is its grip angle.
While most .22 pistols feature the raked-back angle better suited to feeding the rimmed .22 LR cartridges, shooters required to shoot an M1911 in competition preferred a rimfire with a grip angle closer to that of the .45. Incidentally, this preference is also what led to the creation of the High Standard “Military” model, which differs from their earlier pistols primarily in its more-vertical grip angle and was supposedly created to overcome the Army’s preference for the M41.
What survived of S&W’s early Clément-based pistol are two of the distinctive features of the 41. The fact the sights are mounted directly to the barrel, eliminating the play from having one or both on the slide, and the use of a trigger guard takedown system, a feature perhaps best known on the Walther PP/PPK series pistols, can be traced back. In all fairness, Smith’s 9mm M39, the first American DA auto, was released about the same time and was clearly influenced by Walther’s P38, so it’s probably appropriate to give credit to both European makers.
Lineage aside, the 41 was well-received, and for good reason. Its solid heft, crisp single-action trigger and superb accuracy are the perfect recipe for a target pistol. In 1958, when the military tested the 41 for use as a possible match pistol, they found it shot an average group of .87″ at 50 yards. Its performance was later used to develop their formal standards for .22 target pistols, which did not exist at the time it was tested.
A slightly simplified version called the 46 was developed at the request of the Air Force, as well as a .22 Short version for Olympic competition (conversions were available for the .22 LR pistols), neither of which were particularly long-lived. Fortunately, the 41 remained, and is still in Smith’s catalog today.
Using some of the same design elements as the 41, the Marvel precision
.22 conversion is capable of equal accuracy while allowing you to use
the familiar frame of your defensive pistol. The .45 is a Nighthawk
Falcon, capable of outstanding performance in its own right.
All of which brings us to our test gun. The 41 sent for testing weighed in at a hefty 2 pounds 15 ounces, nearly a half-pound more than my Smith Performance Center M1911 .45. No doubt, part of this is due to the slab-sided 51/2″ barrel. While the 73/8″ barrel of the original 41 is beveled on the top and has an M1911-like stirrup cut on the bottom, the current production 41 retains the full profile of the barrel, adding stabilizing weight towards the muzzle (a 7″ version is also available).
Sights consist of a square Patridge front sight and an adjustable rear with a broad, flat serrated face. The trigger’s finely-serrated face is almost fully as wide as the trigger guard. While it’s advertised at 23/4 to 31/4 pounds, our well-traveled gun broke crisply at 1 pound, 10.9 ounces as measured on a Lyman digital trigger scale sourced from Brownells. The sculpted checkered wood target grips, with their prominent thumb rest and ’50’s style flair at the bottom, fit comfortably in the hand.
Think of it as a responsive implement of your will seemingly able to intuitively hit wherever you mean for it to. After a decade and a half of testing pistol accuracy in the Ransom Rest (which we did not do with the 41), it’s been my experience there’s a noticeable cutoff when pistols average 11/2″ or better at 25 yards. They simply seem to have a “can’t miss” quality making them far easier to shoot accurately. This characteristic is even greater with the 41, which can shoot groups that size at four times the distance.
In addition to our iron-sighted 51/2″ test gun, Smith also offers an optics-ready version from the Performance Center having an integral 1913/Picatinny rail on top of the barrel and a removable front sight. In addition to time on the square range, I had the chance to shoot both models of the 41 on an S&W-sponsored varmint hunt at the Silver Spur Ranch outside of Encampment, Wyoming and those results were even more impressive.
Surrounded by the Rockies and the Sierra Madres, the 43,000+ acre Silver Spur offers lots of opportunity — and even more if you can make long shots. Compared to hunting grey squirrels in the forests of the Southeast, the long, open vistas of the West require much finer accuracy and the 41 did not disappoint. When I checked the zero on the PC pistol, it shot a little more than an inch at 100 yards. That’s right: one minute of angle, with a .22 pistol. That’ll do.
While I didn’t do a formal accuracy test with the iron-sighted gun, it performed beautifully over the course of two days shooting prairie dogs and ground squirrels and I found I shot it better than the scoped PC pistol. The only problem I ran into the 41 (which occurred much later in the test) is it developed a habit of failing to extract as it got progressively dirtier. This is not surprising: the way you get accuracy is to reduce tolerances, which means less room for dirt and grime. To fix the problem, clean the chamber regularly. I have it on good authority every 500 rounds is a good benchmark, but I tend to shoot things until they don’t work anymore before cleaning.
The only drawbacks to the 41 are its price (it has three zeroes …) and the bulk, which makes the gun easy to shoot well but may be a drawback for some. But like anything excellent, the enjoyment of ownership remains long after the price is forgotten. Apologies to Rolls Royce for that bit.
Marvel Precision Unit 1 .22 conversions in Commander (top) and
Government Model (bottom) configurations. Also available with a
traditional full slide, both models can be had with extended,
threaded barrels for use with suppressors such as this Gemtech Outback.
To take the 41 down, the barrel comes easily upward and
out, and the slide can be drawn back, lifted up, and run
forward off the frame.
On a different side of the scale is the Beretta 71, which has a substantially lower price (often in the mid-$300 range) and is both smaller and lighter. A smaller-caliber, evolutionary step between Beretta’s 1934 pocket pistol — its Walther-influenced 951 9mm (of which the commonly-found Helwan Brigadier is a copy) and the 92F adopted by the US military — the 71 is perhaps best known for its use by the Israeli Mossad, purportedly as an assassin’s tool.
While 70-series Berettas (there’s also a Model 70 as well as 72-75) originally came in .380 ACP, .32 ACP and .22 LR, the .22 is the one with the notoriety, and which also hasn’t always been easy to find. This changed when Century Arms began importing 71’s in quantity a couple years ago, reportedly from Israel. The Century Berettas are now readily available and come with a fake suppressor installed to gain the points required for the gun to be imported. While the fake suppressor installation is a permanent one, it can legally be removed by the end user and most enterprising gunsmiths will have no trouble getting it off the barrel. In addition to cutting a pound of weight off the gun, removing the fake can reveals 1/2 x 20 threads on the muzzle, to which we quickly added a Silencerco 1/2 x 28 adaptor. This let us run a suppressor on the 71, and we shot it both with and without the can.
Reputed to be the most reliable rimfire semi-auto in the world, the alloy-framed, single-action 71 weighs barely over a pound and is also quite accurate. I shot groups as small as 1.5″ at 25 yards with it, hampered only by the smallish sights. With its open-top slide and sleek, contoured trigger guard, the 71 has a distinctively raked-back look. While it feels quite different in the hand from most centerfire defensive pistols, it’s quite comfortable. The original 8-round magazines are difficult to find, however aftermarket ones are readily available.
Other than the grips, which tend to be a bit bulky, it’s in the same general size range as the Walther PPK. While not in the same accuracy class as the 41, it’s an easily concealable .22 which can be suppressed for quiet practice and is still capable of accuracy well beyond what you’d expect from a pistol of its size.
The scoped Performance Center 41 after checking the zero at 100 yards.
Yes, four of the five shots are in about an inch. The Model 41 is capable
of one minute of accuracy at 100 yards with the right ammo!
The superb accuracy, fine trigger and ergonomics making the S&W Model 41
a first-rate target pistol also make it an excellent choice for small
game. The knife is a UK Bushcraft from Spyderco.
.22 Change-Out Magic
The third gun isn’t a pistol at all: it’s a conversion. .22 conversions can be had for virtually all the major defensive pistols, from SIG SAUER to the Browning Hi-Power and guns from Beretta, CZ, GLOCK and of course the M1911. Conversions give you the option of being able to use the heavier, centerfire cartridge for defensive work while still being able to practice and hunt with .22 ammo.
Rimfire conversions have been made for the M1911 for almost as long as it has been around and there are many fine options on the market. The best known for accuracy, though, is the Marvel Precision conversion, which is routinely found on the firing line at Camp Perry and rivals the Smith 41 for ability to put it shots close together. How close? The first two Marvels I had in the Ransom Rest averaged 1″ at 50 yards, with some loads averaging .5″ — again, one MOA. Clay pigeons on the 100-yard berm are fair game and it’s your fault if you miss.
In all fairness to the 41, some of the Marvel’s accuracy results from design features borrowed from it (and which also appeared on the Kart and Day .22 conversions which came before the Marvel). Unlike most conversions using a full size slide, the Marvel uses the 41’s split slide design with the sights fixed to the barrel, which locks down on the receiver with a clever screw serving double-duty as a recoil spring guide rod. Not only does this eliminate movement of the sights relative to the barrel, the reduced mass of the lower-profile slide is easier for the anemic recoil of the .22 LR to cycle.
For those who prefer the aesthetics of a full size slide, Marvel offers a “Unit 2” version with a full slide, but the original (known now as the “Unit 1”) can handle a broader range of ammunition reliably and is the more accurate of the two. Both are available with an extended, threaded barrel for those who legally possess suppressors. For those attached to the power of their .45 ACP, it’s hard to think of a better way to make the same gun useful for so many things.
For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/index
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