We probably have more handgun calibers than we need. Some should be allowed to die a quite death. Just the same, during my career I remember scrambling to locate and actually fire such oddities as the 7.65 French Long, .32 Rimfire, and the .41 Rimfire. Quite a few old numbers might be useful even in modern times. Then there is the family heirloom that we just may want to fire.
Firing an old handgun that once belonged to someone 100 or more years ago is like shaking hands with the past. We just like to get the feel of the implements of the day. However, our overwhelming concern must be safety. There have always been more cheap guns than good guns, and some were none too safe even when they were new.
For example, the .41 Remington Derringer I tested is made of soft iron. It is famous for breaking at the hinge point. however, it sends its bullet along at about 550 fps! On the other hand, the .32 French Long is like owning a .32 Magnum automatic. I have handloaded the Hornady 60-grain XTP to well over 1,150 fps in this well made pistol. In a pinch, some of the older handguns might be pressed into service, if there just isn’t anything else available. But otherwise, their use is for recreational value only.
.38 Short Colt and .38 Long Colt
These cartridges are immediate ancestors of the .38 Special. The groove and land diameter varied in early handguns. The .36 Colt Navy had a respectable reputation due to the fact that it had enough velocity to cause expansion in its .375-inch ball.
When cartridge conversions were undertaken, the .38 Rimfire was developed. The outside lubricated heel-based bullets picked up a lot of lint and were not as robust as the later inside lubricated bullet.
The centerfire .38 Colt cartridges featured the type of crimp we know today. Firing them in Navy Colt conversions gave problematic accuracy at best. The later purpose designed .38s, such as the Colt Lightning double-action revolver, were more accurate.
I own a rather homely Hopkins and Allen double-action .38 that was minted some time prior to 1900. There were many more cheap guns than expensive guns then—the same as today. The Hopkins and Allen was among the more useful. As a hideout, or for those on a budget, the gun had appeal. I checked mine as thoroughly as possible for safety. It locks up tight and functions.
I do not recommend firing such an old revolver, but it is what I do. I test fired the piece under controlled conditions, using a remote trigger and fixture. I used custom grade ammunition from Jamison Brass and Ammunition. This company loads difficult to find ammunition and offers brass for reloaders. It ended up working quite well.
At seven yards, the old .38 would group three shots into 4 inches. This was a good standard for the day. The same load grouped three shots into 1.1 inches at 25 yards with the Colt Python. These loads are well suited to older revolvers, such as the Colt Lightning and the Colt 1892.
.38 Smith and Wesson
The short, fat .38 Smith and Wesson will not chamber in the .38 Special. If you have a .38 Special Military and Police that accepts the .38 Smith and Wesson, it is an ex-British Victory Model. Many of these chambered for the .38 Smith and Wesson, and famously loaded with a 200-grain bullet, were bored out after the war to take the .38 Special. This isn’t rechambering! These butchered guns swell cases when fired with the .38 Special, since the .38 Smith and Wesson has a smaller head diameter. It would be a disaster to fire a .38 Special +P in these revolvers.
There are three classes of .38 Smith and Wesson revolvers. The first are the break top type, usually five shot, double-action revolvers. Examples of the breed were manufactured well into the 1930s. H and R offered a version at least into the early 1970s, with a long barrel and target grips. These revolvers must be fired only with standard loads, which means a 146-grain RNL bullet at 700 fps.
At one time, conversion cylinders for the .38 Special wadcutter were offered. They are very rare today. The second class are the large frame revolvers, such as the Colt Police Positive and the Smith and Wesson Military and Police. In these revolvers, the short .38 is a very accurate loading. These revolvers will take .38 Special class pressure. A handload worked up in these revolvers is versatile, but if it found its way into a break top pocket gun, the result would be a disaster.
The next class is the break top Webley and Enfield type. When the British adopted a .38 caliber revolver and replaced the .455, they realized that engineering would only allow a short cartridge. The .38 Smith and Wesson with a 200-grain bullet was adopted. Sometimes called the .380 Revolver or the .38/200, I have handloaded these with the Magnus 2200-grain RNL bullet to 775 fps. These loads demonstrate excellent penetration.
For this test, I selected three representative revolvers. First up was a vintage Iver Johnson top break. I have fired it a little and found it to be safe. Next was an original transitional Colt marked New Police, but it is a Colt Police Positive.
The six-shot double-action-only Enfield is, in my opinion, the best designed combat revolver ever manufactured. The high sights are very fast to pick up, and the revolver offers excellent hit probability. With the difficult to find speedloaders, it is a fast revolver to reload. The problem is the cartridge. It isn’t powerful enough for personal defense. Just the same, the Brits got by with the revolver as a badge of office and taking prisoners at gun point.
I have fired the Iver Johnson with PPU ammunition. It breaks 570 fps and from the Colt Police Positive, 588 fps. The Colt isn’t made for accuracy, but a two-inch 7-yard group was fired. Fiocchi’s 146-grain RNL is more energetic and breaks 717 fps from the Colt, with superior accuracy. Firing from the Enfield DAO with care, I have fired a two-inch 15 yard group.
Buffalo Bore offers a modern loading that is designed to get the many Military and Police and Official Police revolvers up off their knees and into useful personal defense category. This load must NEVER be fired in break top revolvers of the early 20th Century type. The Enfield, however, is rated for this load. Just the same, use caution.
When handloading the .38 S&W in solid frame revolvers, I have coaxed a 158-grain SWC to 850 fps. Buffalo Bore dropped the weight to 125 grains, and using a hard cast SWC achieves 917 fps from the Colt Police Positive and 1,015 fps from the Enfield. This certainly gets the revolvers into the useful range. I keep an Enfield stashed in a hideaway in this 110 year old house, and it is loaded with the Buffalo Bore loading.
.32 H and R Magnum
The .32 H and R Magnum isn’t an older cartridge, but to the best of my knowledge no revolvers are currently chambered for this cartridge. My only .32 is whimsical purchase that I have enjoyed very much. After much good service with the Heritage .22 revolvers, I obtained an example of their 3-inch barrel, Birdshead grip revolver, a piece long out of production. Most factory loads do not impress. Buffalo Bore offers a 100-grain JHP at a strong 1,100 fps. This gets the revolver into field-grade power, and would serve against coyote at moderate range. A hard cast 115-grain bullet from Buffalo Bore achieves about the same velocity. I like these loads. This little gun isn’t that accurate, but it is easy to use well, and it is certainly up to the task of popping pests to 15 yards or more.
With careful searching you will be able to get older revolvers up and running and find them useful for recreational shooting. Back to the wall some will serve for personal defense and give the owner a measure of peace of mind.
Do you own a really cool old revolver? What model? Share your answer in the comment section.
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 Shooters 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.
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