Cartridge of the Week, the Smith and Wesson .38 Special, .38 SPL, .38 SPC

By CTD Allen published on in Ammunition, Firearms

It does not have to be flashy just dependable. It’s always there and it always works. It is like a good friend in a pinch you can count on it to be there for you. I am a traditionalist. I prefer something proven over the test of time – not the media or Internet hype. I am not a person who follows fads. That is why the next cartridge is so “Special” to me. That good friend throughout the years is the Smith and Wesson .38 Special.

The Smith and Wesson .38 Special

We love to tout the two classic cartridges used today in such quantity as the great old cartridges, the 9mm Parabellum and the .45 ACP. However, the .38 Special was designed during the same year as the 9mm, 1902. Both of these predated the .45ACP, which had to wait almost 10 years.

Upon its design, the cartridge found its place in military as well as civilian law enforcement revolvers. Its career at large in the military was short lived. While it continued in some weapons in the military, the .45 ACP in the Colt 1911 pistol overran it.

.38 Special: The Loyal Friend of Police Officers

Civilian law enforcement is where the .38 Special really shined and secured its place in history. From inception in 1902 – through the mid 80s – this cartridge ruled supreme. At the time it was an upgrade from the standard police rounds in .32 calibers or underpowered .38s. In civilian law enforcement, then and today, a desired caliber is able to not create a domino effect when fired in a populated area. You want to incapacitate the target without the bullet continuing onward hitting unknown or unwanted targets. In military applications, this is less of a concern.

The .38 Special first saw true service in the likes of the Smith & Wesson M&P (Military and Police) and later the S&W Model 10. Colt’s offerings were the Army Special and later the Official Police, Police Special, Police Positive and the .38 New Police. It made a return to the battlefield in the Smith and Wesson Victory model for use by downed pilots.

Smith and Wesson Model 10…”Take Him”

Nevertheless, to me the most iconic weapon that fired this cartridge was the Smith and Wesson Model 10. This was the gun that had formally been the .38 Hand Ejector, M&P and the Victory. This was the Glock of its day and over six million of this variant were produced. From 1899 to the late 1980s this was the gun that most police officers carried on duty or trained with at the academy. In 1985 I put over 1500 .38 Special rounds through this gun during my first police academy.

Prior to the age of firepower in civilian law enforcement, this cartridge and its big brother the .357 Magnum were more than capable of getting the job done and they did soundly. With the glamour of the 9mm in the late 1980s, the .38 Special was relegated to the back row.

Colt Army Special 38

Do not send our old horse to the soap factory yet. With the rise in interest in concealed carry, it has found a new home in a solid platform. One of the great homes for the .38 Special was the little two-inch guns such as the Smith and Wesson J frames and the iconic Colt Detective Special, designed for the expressed purpose of concealed carry. In such guns as the modern Smith and Wesson 642 Airweight this is a great pocket pistol that is easy to use and is much better then a .380 caliber. When unable to carry a larger framed concealed carry choice this is the gun and caliber that goes in my front pocket.

In this video game age, everyone wants glamour and pizzazz. Yes, there are better guns, calibers and more glamorous friends out there. Nevertheless, I will always go with the loyal proven commodity. Is the .38 Special a good round? I’ll bet my life on it.

Smith and Wesson .38 Special

Bet Your Life on It

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Comments (27)

  • Bill


    I’m somewhat confused by the .38 nomenclature. I know the .38 S&W is a different cartridge from the .38 special., so what do I make of a box of cartridges labeled .38S&W Special?


  • Bill from Boomhower, Texas


    I do and have staked my life on a Colt Agent for 24 years now. I also remember when the Air Force issued Military Police Smith &Wessons to pilots, and I used to have a nicholed one myself for quite a few years, wish I still had that one.


  • "gunner"


    note: to clarify, i’m retired now, but “non l.e.o.”, the job titles were usually “industrial security guard (armed)” and “licensed armed courier” and i held an f.f.l. as a gunsmith for 20 years, specialising in military arms, until “bubba” clinton decided to run the small guys out of business. i still keep my hand in gun tinkering as a hobby, but not for trade or profit.


  • "gunner"


    his looks to be sliding into the old arguement over “which caliber it best”. y’all want to remember that while civilians can argue this endlessly, those who get paid to carry a gun, l.e.o. and non l.e.o., like my self, are governed by employer’s rules as to what we carry on the job, when and how. so it’s work with what you’ve got and make it work for you. put in the range time off duty to learn the tools. for the non pros, carry what you like and train with it, but let the other guy, or girl, make their own choices according to their needs and preferences.


  • CTD Allen


    That is why my wife carries a S&W Airweight 642 .38 Special in her purse everyday. No slide racking or magazines. Point click and ship. Thanks All for Great comments. Next week the 10mm Auto.


  • JiminGA


    My wife shoots a Ruger SP101 .38Sp/.357 because she has difficulty racking the slide on a pistol. At the range she shoots regular .38Sp but uses .38Sp +P+ for self defense (.357 is just too much bang for her). She prefers the full size frame Ruger over the “minis” because it helps minimize recoil. Oh, and she has four speed loaders at the ready. She also has a Bersa .380 ACP that she hates to shoot…..too light, too much recoil. There remains a place for the venerable .38 wheel gun for those less than capable or comfortable with a pistol. We’re both in our late 60’s and she isn’t as strong as when raising three kids, so fitting a gun to her individual needs is more important than using the most popular gun. BTW, I carry a 10 year old Glock 17 which she loves to shoot, but can’t chamber the first round without my help.


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