A Brawny Handful of Revolver and the .38-44 Buffalo Bore

By Bob Campbell published on in Ammunition, Firearms, Reloading

Most feel the .38-44 set the stage for the .357 Magnum revolver—and it did—but the .38-44 is more than a footnote in history. This is a fine revolver that is useful on its own merits. Buffalo Bore is famous for first-class loads that maximize the caliber, and this is no exception.

Hard cast bullet

The hard cast bullet outdoors load is a potent loading.

After World War I, there was a great deal of development in service guns for the police and military. Military 1911 handguns were tightened up and began to make impressive showings at Camp Perry. Most police revolvers were double-action revolvers with a swing out cylinder.

The most common caliber was .38 Special. Some were fitted with adjustable target-grade sights and proved accurate at greatly extended ranges. A big problem with the prosperity of the 1920s was that the bubble had to burst. And burst it did in 1929.

The Great Depression brought with it a new type of bandit. Bank robbers and thieves of all sorts were nothing new, but their mode of conveyance was. The automobile featured steel bracing and heavy wooden floors. This construction was a big obstacle to common revolver bullets. Once safety glass became common, even windshields presented penetration problem.

The organized crime empire, created by prohibition, faded slowly but along with the Dillinger and other heavily armed gangs, the police were woefully outgunned for the most part. The Winchester .351 self-loading rifle and Remington Model 8 in .30 or .35 Remington were good answers, but something more powerful on the hip was needed as well. Colt introduced the 1911 Super .38 in 1929. While a fine weapon, we were a nation of revolver men, and the Super .38 was expensive.

Military and Police .38, top, .357 Magnum Traditions revolver, below

The Military and Police .38, top, isn’t the best candidate for .38-44 loads. The .357 Magnum Traditions revolver, below, is a joy to use and fire with heavy loads.

Smith and Wesson took a hard look at the situation. The most powerful cartridge the average officer could control with the level of training presented was the .38 Special. However, the .38 Special lacked adequate penetration for use against vehicles. The truth of the matter was the .38 wasn’t very effective against felons shot without cover.

Handloaders, such as Elmer Keith, had developed a number of ‘outdoors loads’ for the .38 Special. The improvement in the bullet itself was as important as the increased power. Keith developed a semi-wadcutter bullet—basically a target wadcutter with a long nose. This cut flesh rather than pushing it away, and the sharp driving shoulder of the SWC bullet also cut a hole in flesh rather than pushing it aside as a round nose bullet might.

Velocity was increased from 800 to 1,100 fps with the new load. This produced a useful loading with greater penetration and wound potential. While the experimenters blew up some revolvers, the real problem was small parts wear. With heavy loads, some of these loads reached 1,200 fps—a medium frame revolver such as the Smith and Wesson Military and Police might have been knocked out of time quickly.

Bullets

All loads burned clean and ejected without undue effort.

While each worked independently, both Colt and Smith and Wesson improved an existing cartridge. The result was a more powerful loading, with the same exterior dimensions as the original. As Colt changed the .38 ACP to the .38 Super, Smith and Wesson developed the .38 Special into the .38-44.

Smith and Wesson took its heavy frame .44 Special revolver with a .38 Special barrel and cylinder—this revolver became the Heavy Duty. Colt also made a Single Action Army in .38 Special—this revolver was equally well suited to heavy loads.

The Heavy Duty revolver was popular with peace officers and filled a real need. Even after the introduction the .357 Magnum in 1935, the Heavy Duty remained popular. While a fine revolver, the Heavy Duty cost half the price of the .357 Magnum.

The first Heavy Duty revolvers were shipped in April 1930. These revolvers are great shooters. Recoil, with standard loads, is modest and with heavy .38 Special loads and controllable for those who practice. The revolver was offered with adjustable sights as the Outdoorsman. Both models were produced until 1966. At the time of its introduction, the Heavy Duty revolver had the greatest penetration of any factory production revolver loading due to its hard cast bullet at 1,125 fps.

Smith and Wesson heavy duty .38, top, Smith and Wesson Combat Magnum, bottom

The Smith and Wesson heavy duty .38, top, and Smith and Wesson Combat Magnum, lower, are well suited to heavy .38 Special loads.

The SWC bullet was more effective than the FMJ .38 Super, and when loaded with cast lead hollow point handloads the Heavy Duty was among the most effective revolvers of the day. The revolvers were heavy but well balanced. The Heavy Duty remains one of the great revolvers of the previous 100 years, and a revolver appreciated by serious handgunners.

Most feel the .38-44 set the stage for the .357 Magnum revolver—and it did—but the .38-44 is more than a footnote in history. This is a fine revolver that is useful on its own merits.

Buffalo Bore Ammunition offers a .38-44 load in its Heavy .38 +P Outdoorsman. Buffalo Bore is famous for first-class loads that maximize the caliber, and this is no exception. This load is consistent, accurate, and powerful. For heavy frame .38 revolvers still in use, or the .357 Magnum revolver, this is a fine load.

I tested the Buffalo Bore Outdoorsman load in an original Heavy Duty revolver and a Traditions Sheriff’s Model. Each turned in groups of 2 to 2.5 inches at 25 yards. This loading doesn’t have the flash blast and recoil of the .357 Magnum, but it offers excellent penetration and long-range accuracy. A few 100-yard shots at range debris confirmed the hit potential of this loading, even from the short-barrel Sheriff’s Model. Actual velocity was 1,145 fps from the four-inch barrel Smith and Wesson and 1,130 fps from the Sheriff’s Model.

All-lead hollow point bullet

This all-lead hollow point offers excellent wound ballistics.

Another loading that offers promise is the lead SWC hollow point. There is no need for a jacket to prevent damage during the load cycle—an advantage over the self-loader. Expansion is guaranteed.

Buffalo Bore’s loading isn’t much different than the service load recommended by the great lawman and writer Skeeter Skelton. Skelton used a heavy load in .38 Special cases comprised of a heavy dose of #2400 powder and a cast gas checked hollow point. Buffalo Bore’s version breaks 1,120 fps from the Heavy Duty revolver. Testing in water shows the loading demonstrates excellent expansion potential.

(By comparison, the Remington .357 Magnum 158-grain SWC breaks at 1,088 fps from a four-inch barrel Model 19 revolver.)

The final load tested is suitable for those preferring a modern jacketed hollowpoint bullet. The 125-grain JHP breaks just over 1,100 fps. The balance of expansion and penetration was good. For a fast opening defense load, you need look no further. For most shooters, most of the time, the heavy .38 is a better choice than the .357 Magnum.

These loads are well suited to personal defense, and with the Outdoorsman load, we have a credible load for defense against feral dogs and the big cats, but one with modest recoil compared to the performance offered. Accuracy was excellent, and the loads demonstrated a full powder burn. I will be deploying the Outdoorsman load in the Heavy Duty during those long walks in the wild when it is comforting to have a capable revolver on the hip.

Are you a fan of the .38-44? Do you have a Buffalo Bore story? Share your Buffalo Bore or .38-44 story in the comment section.

SLRule

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

View all articles by Bob Campbell


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Comments (4)

  • JimK

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    I have a S&W Outdoorsman( target model of the .38-44) 6in in 38Spl as well as a Colt Trooper 1959 vintage also in 38 Spl. The Outdoorsman is unusual in that in features a ramp sight instead of the target sight. Both are a lot of fun to shoot and the Trooper makes a good bed side gun.

    Reply

  • Firewagon

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    Have run the gamut of nearly any .38 loading in a handgun. Own 38 and 357 revolvers, like them all, Ruger brand being my fav. Interesting to see Buffalo Bore making 38-44 stuff. The 38, as well as the 9mm, has definitely experienced somewhat of a renaissance, of sorts, with the bullet improvements over the past 50 odd years. That said, as old Jeff Cooper, I believe once stated, “any caliber is fine, as long as the number starts with a 4.” Again, that was influenced, no doubt, by the lack of adequate bullet performance of the day. The wheel gun is certainly a viable choice in a self-defense arm. My choice, however, is my 10mm pistol w/180 grain Speer GDHP bullets, as loaded similar to that offered by Buffalo Bore. Out of my 3.7″ barrel, I chronograph 1250 fps, which rings up 600+ foot pounds of energy! For me, my Glock 29 is adequately controllable that I am able to get two rounds on target, @21 feet, under 2 secs from concealment. Reason for the G29?, NO manufacturer produces a ‘highly concealable,’ and reliable, pistol with the power that approaches a 41 magnum! Perhaps one might develop a pistol in 38-44? 😉

    Reply

  • DaveW

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    My spouse bought me a S&W Mod 19 for my birthday in 1975. I still have the Mod 19. Have not seen the spouse in about 35 years. S&W makes a darn good, lasting firearm! lol

    The Mod 19 has handled all the .38 SPL ammo it’s been fed with little complaint from me. On the other hand, .357 ammo is a handful, but what it does to what it is pointed at is instant nullification.

    Reply

    • Joe M.

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      Dear Dave W. Just finished writing a review and found yours here this afternoon. Around the same time your ex bought yours I bought mine. Paid $86 new for it/ How about you? Still have it. Never gave it high rating for anything but it shot well all the time. can’t imagine how many rounds I put through it. Speer bullets were real savages to shot in it I remember.

      Reply

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