108 Years after Introduction The .38 Is Still Very Special
by Jim Williamson
The .38 Special is no spring chicken. It is, in fact, rather ancient, having been introduced in 1899 with Smith & Wesson’s Military and Police revolver. (Remarkably, this gun remains in that company’s line more than 100 years later, as the Model 10.)
Initially loaded with 21 grains of blackpowder, it was intended to improve on the US military revolver cartridge of the day, the .38 Long Colt. That item was loaded with only 18 grains of the smoky propellant. At that time, the power of pistols was usually rated in terms of how many pine boards the bullet would penetrate. The higher velocity of the new .38 Special would show up a bit better than the 150-grain bullet of the Long Colt. Velocities were 730 feet per second (fps) for the Colt and 870 fps for the new S&W product. There is a difference there, but probably not enough to matter in real combat, although the Special may indeed penetrate just enough deeper to reach a vital organ in a marginal case. But the new .38 did not raise the caliber to a whole new class.
Before long, the M&P revolver was being made with a front lock for the extractor rod (under the barrel) and its trademark cartridge was being loaded with smokeless powder.
By the 1920s, the .38 Special and the .38 Colt Special were clearly the up-and-coming police cartridges. What’s a .38 Colt Special? People on the Internet sometimes ask that, mainly when someone finds an old box of it in his deceased grandfather’s attic. It’s nothing more than the .38 S&W Special with a slightly flatter point. The whole idea was to let Colt chamber for the basic cartridge without admitting that they were offering guns for a round developed by their arch rival. The Colt Special designation has long since gone the way of the pterodactyl, and only real gun enthusiasts and collectors know about it. Until some guy finds a box in the attic and gets on the computer about it.
By the 1920s, the emerging police sidearms were the S&W Military & Police, the Colt Army Special (renamed Official Police in 1926), and the Colt Police Positive Special. The latter was smaller than the other two, and sometimes preferred by forces that wore the gun under the uniform coat. All took the .38 Special, as did the S&W .38/44 Heavy Duty, introduced in 1930. This one also accepted a high velocity loading of the .38 that would soon shake lighter guns loose if shot frequently. Colt countered by offering their heavy New Service and Single-Action Army for the new cartridge. All of these guns were made on frames originally used for .44 and .45 caliber loads. Then, in 1935, Smith & Wesson created a legend with their .357 Magnum, which would also accept the .38 as a light load.
I think the .38 was once loaded a little hotter than it is now, and probably reached the claimed 870 fps or close to it in six-inch barrels. If anyone has access to actual chronograph tests done from revolvers (not pressure barrels) from the 1930s until the mid-1950s, please let me know, via this title.
By WW II, the .38 was easily the most popular police load, from the US Border Patrol and the FBI to the five-man force in Tumbleweed, AZ. The war expanded its horizons. It had already seen some US military use, and the Coast Guard had obtained some .38s by the 1930s. The War saw it issued to the majority of Navy and Marine aviators and Coast Guardsmen, as well as to OSS and other clandestine operatives. After that great fracas, the US Air Force adopted the .38 as the standard sidearm, and the Army handed out .38s of several models to pilots, as did the Marines to embassy guards. Not until the Beretta M-9 was available in quantity in the 1990s did this change.
The .38 did double duty as a preferred hideout gun for detectives and private citizens who had need of protection. This began with Colt’s Detective Special in 1926, followed by S&W’s “two-inch” M&P in 1933. S&W set the cop world afire in 1950 with the Chief Special, a smaller, five-shot snub .38 that held only five shots, but was smaller for its power level than anything before. It soon had hammerless and other variants, and they became hugely popular. The first stainless steel handgun, in 1965, was the Chief Special made of that relatively rust-free metal.
These little guns would fire even the hot .38/44 load in an emergency, although they were never “rated” for it, and such use would stretch the frame and cause excessive cylinder end-shake and timing problems if done much. Still, they packed more power in a smaller package than anything else available then.
This brings us to a very controversial aspect of the .38: the Plus P loads. These arose about 1967 when Lee Jurras founded Super-Vel, and began selling hopped-up ammo.
Jurras claimed 995 fps with his 110-grain bullet from a snub .38, and much higher speeds for longer barrels, naturally. This frightened the big ammo companies into getting off their duffs and making similar products, as it should have. It also produced inconsistent pressures from one company to another, and consumers couldn’t always be sure what they were getting. In 1974, the industry created a Plus P category, limiting pressures to 18,500 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure to the 17,000 pounds for standard .38 ammo. That is still a very useful increase.
Plus P Doubter
One fellow on an Internet gun forum insists that older standard .38 Special ammo was loaded as hot as current Plus P, and delights in demeaning modern Plus P ammo, inferring that it isn’t anything special. I disagree, and suggest that readers heed the warnings about using the hotter stuff in guns warranted by the manufacturer to withstand such cartridges. Other guns usually won’t blow up, if made reasonably recently by major companies, but wear will be accelerated. Some cheap guns from Spain and elsewhere made years ago may actually be unsafe to fire.
One of the most frequent questions on the Net forums is whether the asker’s gun will handle Plus P ammo. I can say that Colt has specifically stated that their Detective Special should be inspected by the factory or an authorized warranty station after 3,000 rounds of Plus P, and the light alloy-framed Cobra and Agent need to be seen by the gun doctor after only 1,000 rounds. S&W has rated their J-frame guns for it only in recent years. I know the factory told me that the stainless Chief, M-60, is okay to use hot ammo if the model suffix is 4 or higher. (M60-4, etc.) Check with them for other models.
Rather remarkably, they now rate even some Airweight and other very light alloy guns for Plus P, apparently due to improved metallurgy and better heat treating. Older guns may stretch frames and have other wear issues prematurely.
K-framed S&Ws made after 1957 and marked with a model number in the frame are safe with Plus P, but the later ones are doubtless more likely to have improved heat treating and to endure better. That fellow who dismisses Plus P pressure so lightly has apparently ignored that the USAF found increased wear on their M-15 S&Ws when they went to high velocity ammo for increased lethality. Most of those guns were rebuilt at least three times before they got the 9mm auto they wanted to replace them. Be guided accordingly.
Taurus now rates some of their M-85 series for Plus P, even the light ones, for “duty use” and occasional practice. Check with them for details.
All of Colt’s guns built on the .41 frame since at least the 1930s will take hot loads, as will the .38-framed Police Positive Special (PPS). However, I’d use them much more sparingly in the PPS than in an Official Police or Trooper. Ruger’s .38s have always been brute tough and as far as I know, have always been “rated” for Plus P.
How many shots of Plus P can you use annually in a K-frame S&W or similar gun? I ran that question past several gunsmiths, telling them that I might shoot six to 12 rounds of Plus P and maybe 50-100 rounds of standard speed ammo per monthly range session. The consensus was that the gun would last “forever,” and I’m quoting one gunsmith. That’s surely an exaggeration, but you get the idea.
Obviously, having a second or third gun to share the work load will extend the life of all. At this writing, I have two small .38s and a pair of .357s. At the rate I get to the range, I may never even have to have any of them re-timed! Those who shoot a great deal will have to adjust their expectations accordingly. Those who really shoot a great deal might want to buy a Ruger GP-100, which has a reputation for endurance beyond that of older designs. I know of two ammo companies that bought these Rugers to test their products, and men I asked there said that the guns have held up beyond their expectations. Most other revolvers don’t come close when the going gets really tough. Yet, if the traditional .38s are fired the normal amount for the average citizen, they last quite well.
Back when S&W designed the Model 10, few shooters fired even 500 shots a year through any one gun. I daresay that many didn’t shoot even a hundred times! Ammunition was considered fairly expensive, and not wasted by the ordinary gunowner.
Just don’t go hog wild and shoot mainly Plus P, and today’s .38 will also last long and do well by the owner. Paper targets, tin cans, and small game animals just don’t need full power, and the game may be unpalatable if shattered with high speed HP bullets.
That said, which Plus P ammo is best for when you do want the confidence of that added power? Depends on who you ask! Is Ford better than Toyota? We do know from its track record that the lead HP from major factories tends to drop felons about as well as does .45 hardball. It also has good penetration, something often untrue of light projectiles that expand more rapidly, but which lack the mass to get in deep.
I also admire the Speer Gold Dot in both its original 125-grain form, and the new 135-grainer meant specifically for short barrels. These and the Winchester 130-grain SXT have performed so well in several published gelatin tests that I doubt there’s significant routine difference between them in the field. The Gold Dot loads will often exceed 900 FPS even in a snub gun, and that’s very impressive. Yet, unlike the .357 Magnum in such small guns, one can control the recoil and place shots well on target. Federal is reported to be revising or discontinuing their famed Hydra-Shok, but I feel that it has a good track record, and will usually deliver the goods with a solid hit in a vital zone. It’s often what I have in my own guns, partly because the jacket doesn’t discolor as much as the copper one on Gold Dot ammo does when the gun is left loaded for prolonged periods.
I recently saw a case on the Web in which a man posted that he had to kill a vicious dog with a snub .38 loaded with Hydra-Shok’s 129 grain .38 load. The bullet hit in the frontal center chest, and ranged back through the length of the dog, expanding well, and dropping the dog dead on the spot. Dogs are tough, and if this account is true, it’s impressive.
Personally, I refuse to use .38 Special bullets lighter than 125 grains, wanting confidence that there’s enough mass and length to overcome clothing and other items that may impede the penetration of the projectile. (In .357, I use 140 grain and heavier bullets.)
When the late gun writer Larry Koller tested the then-new Colt Diamondback, he used a 125-grain bullet (handload, I think) to kill a whitetailed deer. It worked, but this is not an endorsement of the .38 Special as a hunting gun. It does show what one can do under survival conditions, if one can get into a good position to take a fairly close range shot, and can place his bullets well.
Normally, I think the .38 is best confined to taking animals no larger than a big raccoon, or comparable weight beasts, such as coyotes and bobcats. We’re talking here of weights around 40 pounds, or not too much more. A friend once shot a javelina (collared peccary) with a .38 lead HP from a four-inch S&W .38. He said that the bullet hit “behind the shoulder,” as good a description as I could coax out of him. I suspect that it struck mainly lung tissue, not expanding much. Several more shots were required to down the animal. I think that’s marginal performance, and would much prefer to use a .357 on game of that size and toughness.
However, if one is trapped into killing a large animal with the .38, it can be done. There is a case of a NYPD cop who had to shoot a polar bear at a zoo. His gun was an S&W M-10, but accounts vary as to whether he used the lead HP or just a SWC. Everyone agrees that it was a Plus P load, and hollowpoints were banned by his department. A well-known gun writer who had inside information told me that the bullet was an HP, in spite of “regs”.
Anyway, the single bullet struck the standing bear at about where the throat enters the chest cavity, and it was an instant kill. I know of a case in which a Canadian fisherman stabbed an attacking black bear there, with similar results. Given the grace of God, one can sometimes make such kills with marginal weapons. I’d a lot rather have a .38 Special than nothing, but I bet that cop wished for a .44 Magnum as he pressed the trigger.
The .38 Special still has much to offer, though, and few of us need to shoot bears with one. It is the choice of many in small revolvers, and huge numbers of citizens still feel it’s the ideal home defense gun with a four-inch barrel, and it can still hold its own in matches where one can compete with revolvers. It’s all the angler needs for snakes or turtles, or to collect a rabbit for the evening meal. And, the .38 Special is perhaps the easiest cartridge of all to learn to handload.
The wide availability of used .38s on today’s market is a major boon, especially to students, retirees, and others on a limited budget. One can literally get a good S&W M-10, M-64, or equivalent Rugers for less than half of what many new autos sell for. That is a heck of a good deal in terms of gun value! In truth, in most hands, the .38 revolver is a better choice for most needs. This especially applies to new gunowners, who haven’t become fully comfortable with the more complicated safety and maintenance needs of autoloading pistols. It also avoids the problems of a woman or an elderly man having the strength to cycle the slide of an auto, or field stripping one without losing control of a powerful spring. The person who just keeps a handgun for home defense needs nothing better, but the .38 is still versatile enough to meet the requirements of most hikers and campers where large wild animals aren’t likely to be encountered. I think the .38 is the ideal small game sidearm, being much more positive than the .22 rimfire in cleanly killing the larger end of the menu in camp fare. The old K-38 (S&W M-14) is perfectly suited to this sporting need. With all that in mind, I’d say that the ancient .38 is still pretty Special. It sure is in my book, and I plan to get another!
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