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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.