In pursuing my hand-jotted 47 year old records it was discovered that I’ve owned 25 .38 Special revolvers. Add to that a single 38 Special lever gun and there have been a total of 26 firearms into which I’ve fed lead alloy projectiles loaded in .38 Special cases. These have included Smith & Wesson’s small J-frame, medium K-frame, and large N-frame double actions along with a variety of Colt SAA .38s. The single lever gun was a fine quality Navy Arms Model 1866 saddle ring carbine.
Some of these guns were robust such as the N-frame S&Ws and Colt SAAs. They could handle any sort of standard or +P 38 Special load. Others one would not want to get too adventurous with such as my current aluminum frame S&W Model 442 or an S&W Military & Police K-frame from the 1940s.
Let’s take a look at over 110 years of 38 Special history. Both Lyman’s #49 and Hornady’s #8 manuals say .38 Special arrived in 1902 but "U.S. CARTRIDGES AND THEIR HANDGUNS 1795-1975" by Charles R. Suydam and "HISTORY OF SMITH & WESSON" by Roy G. Jinks give the year of introduction as 1899. I consider Jinks’ book as most authoritative since he was Smith & Wesson historian for many years. Even though smokeless powders were present in 1899, the first 38 Special factory loads were charged with 21 ½ grains of black powder under 158 grain bullets. They gave penetration in pine boards (8 ½ boards 7/8 inch thick) two inches greater than .38 Long Colt which was then the serving U.S. military handgun cartridge. To accommodate an extra 3 ½ grains of black powder .38 Colt case length was increased from 1.03 inches to 1.16 inches. For some reason military bullet weight was upped eight grains from 150 grains.
Introductory handgun for this new round was S&W’s Hand Ejector Military & Police built on a new frame. (The only other caliber offered for it at time of introduction was .32-20.) This is the same handgun that gained a Model 10 designation in the 1950s. In America the police usage part of the .38 Special M&P revolvers has been much more common than the military part. For decades 38 Special revolvers were standard issue for most police departments. However, during World War II thousands of S&W M&P 38 Specials were purchased by the U.S. government with many going to naval and marine aviators. (Those flyboys were also issued tracer cartridges identified by red-tipped bullets. Ostensibly tracers were intended for signaling if an aviator was floating around in a rubber life-raft.)
Over the past 110 years 38 Special factory ammunition has come in enough variety that a volume would be required to detail all. By far the most common loading contained 158 grain round nose bullets which were factory loaded over smokeless powders as early as September, 1899. Then in 1930 a high speed loading headstamp .38-44 was introduced. That latter one was meant only for N-frame Smith & Wessons (Heavy Duty and Outdoorsman later aka Models 20 & 23), Colt New Service and Colt SAA revolvers. Approximate velocities of the above types of factory ammo were respectively about 850 fps and 1150 fps.
Starting in the 1960s the 38 Special 158 grain round nose factory load’s poor reputation for stopping power inspired development of the .41 Magnum cartridge and revolvers. Also it caused introduction of a plethora of .38 Special factory loads including many carrying souped up jacketed hollowpoints weighing from 95 to 158 grains. These were labeled +P meaning plus pressures. In practical effect most likely the best .38 Special improvement came from simply changing factory load lead bullet configuration from round nose to semi wadcutter. No matter; the advent of autoloading handguns was upon us and it’s doubtful if any sizeable police department in America now issues .38 Special revolvers although many officers still carry them as off-duty handguns.
Being a dinosaur in so many of my attitudes I feel that 38 Specials still make the very best home defense revolvers – especially for those who may not be dyed in the wool of recreational shooters.
DISCLAIMER: All reloading data in this article is for informational purposes only. Starline Brass and the author accept no responsibility for use of the data in this article.