Breathing New Life Into Old Cartridges

By Bob Campbell published on in Ammunition

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.

Enfield revolver opened with ammunition

The Enfield has been fired extensively and is a fun revolver to use.

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.

Box of old .32 rimfire ammunition

.32 Rimfire loads were quite a catch—so anything is possible!

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.

Colt Police Positive revolver left profile

The Colt Police Positive is a piece of history. Fiocchi loads are clean burning and accurate.

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.

.38 Short Colt and .38 Long Colt loads

.38 Short Colt and .38 Long Colt loads are cutting about 700 fps with 125- and 158-grain bullets, respectively.

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.

Enfield cylinder loaded with Buffalo Bore cylinder

There were no excess pressure signs with the Enfield/Buffalo Bore combination.

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.

Bob Campbell shooting an old revolver

At the exact moment of firing, there is no muzzle flip with this combination—a big plus in the view of the British Army that adopted the piece.

.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 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 (31)

  • erik nickel


    I must point out an issue with your otherwise excellent article. I just purchased a new manufacture Charter Arms snub nose in .32 H&R for my aging mother. At 16oz’s and with .32 Long wadcutters she thinks she’s shooting a .22LR. Fit and finish is what you’d expect with Charter but it functions well and is accurate for her. This may very well be the only .32H&R being produced today other than derringers but non the less I own the proof.


  • Dave Keithley


    While not old, I have a Ruger .32 Federal Magnum. It shoots .32 short; .32 Long; .32 H&R Mag, and of course the Federal Mag. It is as well built as all Rugers, and is a lot of fun to shoot. The lighter loads are about like a .22 or .22 mag.


  • Debbie


    Great article! Quick question, doesn’t Ruger currently manufacture revolvers in 327mag, the magnum magnum of the 32HR? Also, doesn’t the 327mag chamber most of the 32 revolver ammo, 32HRmag, 32special, 32 SW long, and 32SWshort?


    • Bob Campbell


      Ruger makes the .327 Magnum GP100 and it will accept all of those cartridges.
      Thanks for reading


  • george doby


    need to get a better proof-checker
    ‘2200 grain bullet’? for the 38 S&W?
    the 38S&W is larger than the 38S&W Spc. not smaller that’s why the special will swell and split when fired in one of the converted Victory revolvers.
    otherwise good article on older cartridges. i own several of these calibers and shoot them occasionally. even have a cpl of boxes of 180 gr brit military ammo


  • Pigman


    I have a .38 S&W 5 shot Harrington & Richardson break top. From all the research I’ve been able to do it’s an Auto Ejecting Third Model, first variation. I believe it was made in 1905 and at one time belonged to a New York City police officer as it has a deeply cut second serial number etched on the butt. The finish is good without any deep pitting and shoots very well. My daughter presently has it as a home protection piece. We fire monthly on our indoor range. The only problem we’ve found is that the break pivot screw sometimes loosens slightly.


  • Frank


    Re: 32 H&R Magnum – in 2011 I purchased a new .32 H&R Magnum Single Action revolver from Ruger. It is stainless with a birds head grip. The one I purchased is a John Wayne Commemorative, so I haven’t fired it.


  • james fink


    I have a 32 h&r magnum revolver. it is a smith & Wesson
    that I purchased new about 8 years ago.


  • Rob Hailes


    I traded a Taurus PT145 for a Husqvarna Model 1887 6-shot Revolver with a 4.5″ octagonal barrel in straw and blue finish manufactured for the Swedish military in 1908. It’s in perfect condition and shoots modern 32 S&W Short, 32 S&W Long and 32 H&R Magnum. Best trade I ever made.


  • kynn mccafferty


    I inherited a colt 38-40 5inch nickle plated, that according to colts serial # was made in 1917. I bought ammo, but am trying to preserve it, do you know the pistol. I am pretty sure 5″ barrel.down in the safe to lazy to go measure on a scale of 1-10 I give it an 8. very minor pinpoints in a few spots wood grip perfect. no issues I can see. It kind of resembles a python.I said kind . thanks


    • bob campbell


      What a find!

      I would shoot that old gun if it is in good mechanical condition.

      This is among the strongest handguns ever built.

      .38 40 cowboy loads are available from Black Hills Ammunition. They are loaded light and will be accurate in period revolvers.


  • Randy Donk


    I shoot a Colt Police Positive Special in 32 WCF, it is a tack driver. I cast the Original 118 gr bullet cast from an original Ideal mold. I also shoot a .Ruger Single-Six chambered for 32 H&R Magnum. while factory loads are not much more than glorified .32 S&W longs, hand loads really make this round perform. I am able to get 85 gr JHP bullets to leave the muzzle at approx.. 1400 fps and 100 gr cast lead bullets nearly 1300 fps. it is deadly at ranges up do 100 yards. because of the weak H&R revolver it was designed to operate in, factory loads, in their anemic state never really caught on, and the cartridge faded away. had the cartridge been factory loaded to its true potential, and the H&R revolver been constructed a little stouter, I believe this misunderstood cartridge would have caught on. I still think it deserves a closer look by anyone wanting a light mild varmint and small game handgun.


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