Powerful, accurate and reliable, the .38 Special is among our most under-appreciated cartridges. While most sales in premium ammunition these days gear toward the defensive shooter packing a two-inch barrel revolver, the .38 has much utility in the field.
Let’s Begin with a Bit of History
The original mid-bore handgun in widespread use was the .36 Colt Navy, a cap and ball revolver. In common with the modern .38 +P, the .36 Navy was effective when the soft round ball expanded. At longer range, when expansion fell off due to a loss of velocity, the effect was less.
The era of cartridge revolver and centerfire handguns introduced the .38 Smith & Wesson and the .38 Colt. The .38 Colt was offered in the short Colt with a .765-inch case length for conversion of the black powder cartridge revolver. The Colt Lightning, and later the dismal 1892 Colt, used the .38 Colt cartridge. The .38 Smith & Wesson is a short fat obsolete cartridge that uses a .360-inch bullet.
When chambered in the Military and Police revolver, the .38 Smith & Wesson is a very accurate number. It also received a new lease on life as the .38/200 Webley when loaded with a 200-grain bullet. The .38 Smith & Wesson Special is based upon the .38 Long Colt, an interesting situation. None of these loads was as effective as the earlier Colt Navy, as the bullet simply did not upset as the softball had.
Found to be a worthless martial cartridge, some effort was expended to upgrade the .38 Long Colt was cartridge. The Colt 1892 revolver’s lockwork was less than robust. Smith & Wesson received the contract award for their new Military and Police .38 caliber double-action revolver. In 1899, Smith & Wesson introduced the cartridge along with the M&P in 1899. With a 1.155-inch cartridge case, the .38 Special is slightly longer than the .38 Colt. The ballistics advantage was deemed significant with the Special jolting a 158-grain bullet to 850 fps versus the Colt’s 152 grains at 750 fps.
The .38 Colt cartridge could be fired in the Special cylinder. The .38 Smith & Wesson—shorter and fatter—can not be chambered in the .38 Special cylinder. The chamber dimensions simply made complete sense, as the new revolver would accommodate considerable stores of the Colt ammunition. The .38 Special did not prove to be a good man stopper in the original loading. It was a more powerful cartridge than the .38s that came before it however, and had plenty of stretch for development.
The new revolvers were heat-treated for smokeless powder pressures and that is where things became interesting. There was a lot of development with the new powders. New bullet designs from Ideal, Lyman and others were developed. Many of these bullet designs are still useful today. The full wadcutter was developed to give the .38 target grade accuracy. With a full driving band that met the bore tightly, the 148-grain wadcutter bullet showed excellent balance. Usually loaded to about 750 fps, this is still among the finest target loads ever designed. When coupled with a target-sighted revolver, accuracy is excellent to 50 yards or more.
Let’s Move Forward to Today
Today manufacturers load a 148-grain wadcutter that is highly sought after by target shooters and small-game hunters alike. The full caliber profile was designed to cut a nice hole in the target and it does the same on edible game. Other manufacturers and handloaders went the other route and developed heavier bullets up to 200 grains for the .38 Special. Among the most useful was the 173-grain SWC. Later, most shooters settled upon a 158- to 160-grain SWC.
The semi-wadcutter design is kind of like a wadcutter with a nose on it. The semi-wadcutter features long driving bands for accuracy. The full shoulder and blunt nose produce a cutting effect far superior to the round nose bullet. Coupled with a higher velocity, the SWC design made the .38 far more effective. A softer casting with a hollow point bullet is particularly effective and is still a fine defense loading. Experiments with the .38 Special and this bullet and new powders—and the heavy frame Smith & Wesson .38/44 revolver—resulted in a loading that jolted a 160-grain SWC to a full 1200 fps. The .38 took on a new life as an outdoorsman’s revolver. The new Buffalo Bore Outdoorsman load duplicates this loading. For heavy frame .38s and the .357 Magnum, this is a very accurate loading.
The .38 Special is a great sub loading for the .357 Magnum. The .38 Special introduced the concept of different levels of power in the same caliber. While there were gallery loads of various types during the formative years of centerfire cartridges, for the most part the .38 Colt. .44-40 and .45 Colt were offered in the same loading from the different makers. Also, the .38 Special was among the first of the universally adopted calibers. A generation before it was the .44 Remington, .44 Colt and .44-40 Winchester—all distinct cartridges—and .38 Smith & Wesson and .38 Colt.
The .38 Special was so popular every maker had to chamber its handguns for it. The standard loading was a general-purpose load not good for much but the 148-grain wadcutter was a great target load. The heavy handloads with SWC bullets were fine field loads and good defense loads. The manufacturers eventually gave us the .38/44, an early +P loading. Most of these loads jolted the 158-grain bullet to about 1125 fps.
The .38 Special is as powerful as the occasional shooter can master. For those with little time to devote to training and practice the .38 Special is a reasonable choice for personal defense. The quest for more power resulted in lengthening the .38 Special cartridge case by 1/10-inch and creating the .357 Magnum cartridge. The Magnum is a great cartridge, no doubt about it and is more than many of us wish to tackle in lightweight revolvers.
The .357 Magnum seemed to eclipse the .38 Special, and that is a shame. The .38 isn’t a weak cartridge by any means. It is a high-power revolver cartridge with much to recommend it. Quite a few shooters found that by following the recommendations of the late Bill Jordan and practicing with the .357 Magnum with a steady diet of five to 10 .38s for every Magnum, the revolver and the shooter last much longer. Today most .38 Special revolvers sold are two-inch barrel versions.
The ammunition makers have tailored their defensive loads to this market. This means that most of the personal defense ammunition in .38 Special will demonstrate a full powder burn in these short barrels. As an example, the Cor-Bon 110-grain hollow point breaks over 1000 fps in a two-inch barrel, penetrates about 12 inches in water and expands to a plump .64-inch.
That is impressive.
If you deploy a four-inch barrel revolver, the heavy 158-grain Buffalo Bore lead hollow point breaks well over 1,000 fps and expands well. Load selection is important, and if you are using a short barrel revolver, recoil comes into play—particularly if you are using an alloy frame design. Lead bullets are not recommended for aluminum or scandium frame revolvers. The heavy recoil might cause the lead bullet to jump its crimp and tie the rotation of the cylinder up. Use a modern JHP in these revolvers. When all is said and done the .38 Special is still very special and a useful cartridge.
Author’s Note: The .38 responds well to a careful handloader. This is a well-balanced cartridge, the straight-walled case is easy to work with and the .38 may be reloaded for a pittance. A combination of cast lead bullets, fast-burning powder and the Hornady press will give the handloader many hours of shooting on a tight budget.
What are your thoughts about the .38 Special? Share them with us in the comment section.