View Full Version : S&W .38 Special -Split barrel---

July 6, 2008, 06:54 PM
A friend of mine just yesterday showed me an old S&W Nickel .38 Special
that he just bought for $50.00
It has a split and bulge in the top of the barrel about 1 1/4 inch in front
of where the barrel screws into the frame. It has the old round top front
sight and the nickel is flaking off on about 40 % of the finish.
He said the guy he got it from told him he had ordered a NEW Barrel
and it would be shipped in a few days.
I told him I thought the guy was lying and I'm sure he can't get a
new barrel. Looks to be a 5 inch length.
He has pushed the barrel pin out and tried to get the barrel out.
What choices does he have ??? I told him I thought that he was in
for a lot of expense and trouble.


July 6, 2008, 07:24 PM
In most cases, you should save your breath.

First, finding a 5" nickel plated S&W barrel for a model that old, in usable condition is VERY difficult.

Second, revolver barrels are NOT just pieces of threaded pipe you can screw on and off at will.
Revolver barrels are VERY much gunsmith fitted parts, and the gunsmith MUST have special, and expensive tools to change and RE-FIT the new barrel.
Try it with the old hammer handle through the frame trick, and he can kiss whatever he has goodbye.

Next, a barrel split like that usually means the frame has been damaged, and the gun may well be unsafe.

You can tell your friend all this, but people hear what they want to hear.
What he probably wants to hear is that he can just unscrew the damaged barrel, screw the new one in, and it's off to the range to shoot it.

If he's at least willing to listen to reason, here's something I wrote on how to change a revolver barrel:

Changing a revolver barrel
A common question is “How do I change my revolvers barrel”?

Barrel work is a MAJOR pistolsmithing job and requires a considerable amount of very expensive equipment.
It involves a lot of steps that most people, including a surprising number of gunsmiths, don’t even know is required.
Failure to do the job correctly insures an inaccurate revolver at best, and a destroyed frame at worst.

The common do-it-yourself technique is to use “expedient” tooling techniques that are found in old gunsmithing books, and can still be found mentioned occasionally in gun magazines.
These methods range from wrapping rope around the barrel and using it with a stick to form a sort of tourniquet to unscrew the barrel, to the most common, which is to use a hammer handle through the frame window as a “wrench”.

The hammer handle method is to make up a pair of wood barrel blocks for the barrel.
The barrel is sandwiched between the blocks, and are locked in a shop vice. One writer said to “Tighten the vise until your eyes bug out”.
A hammer handle or a shaped wooden 2x4 is shoved through the frame and is used as a “wrench” to twist the frame off.
The new barrel is fitted by hand filing the barrel shoulder until the front sight is at 12:00, the rear of the barrel is filed, if necessary, to provide a small gap between the barrel and the cylinder, and you’re off to the range to shoot your fresh re-barrel.

At least that’s how it’s touted as working.

In reality, when the hammer handle is used to turn the frame, one of two things happen:
Either the frame bends, or it breaks.
Revolver frames are a lot softer and easier to bend then most people suspect, and when the frame itself is used as a wrench, the frame will almost always bend.
Once bent, the frame is ruined even though it may still be shoot-able.
A bent frame will often have timing problems, and always has alignment problems. All of which cause inaccuracy and possible spitting of bullet metal.
Some owners who’ve tried this method of barrel work, are surprised that the factories do not have some kind of machine or device that will straighten the frame like bent car frames can sometimes be straightened.
The fact is, once bent the frame can never be repaired, and the best a factory can do is replace it.

The second thing that can happen is the frame will break.
If you look at a revolver frame just under the area where the barrel screws in, you’ll see that the frame is very thin in this area.
When the unsupported frame is unscrewed with the handle, it can crack right through the threaded portion.
While there are ways to weld the crack, the very high expense of having a top level custom pistolsmith/welder do it is very prohibitive, and is reserved for repairs to revolvers of high historical value, with NO guarantee that it will work.

The advice to hand file the barrel shoulder to align the barrel and to file the end of the barrel to provide the barrel/cylinder gap always ruins the barrel, since it’s near impossible to keep the surfaces perfectly square.
The result is tilted barrels due to uneven shoulders, and the end of the barrel not square with the cylinder.

When re-barreling a revolver, the first thing you need is a USABLE barrel.
This is much harder to get then you’d think, since a good percentage of barrels for sale at gun shows and on eBay are defective.
Major reasons for selling a used barrel are, the barrel was defective to start with, or it was damaged during removal, using the hammer handle method.
This damage may not always be readily apparent, and sometimes isn’t revealed until the pistolsmith attempts to install it.
Damage can run from tiny cracks in the forcing cone to pitted bores, to bent barrels.
I once saw a Diamondback barrel that someone had TWISTED, probably by attempting to unscrew it from the frame the wrong way.
This wasn’t apparent until, suspicious, I checked it with a straight edge.

Cracks in the forcing cone are common, and contrary to popular opinion, a cracked barrel is almost always toast.
Cracks in steel tend to continue to spread, even if you cut the cracked end off, since cracks are a sign of metal fatigue caused by blast damage.
Some gunsmiths will attempt to save a barrel with a cracked forcing cone by setting the barrel back, but this almost always fails, and the crack continues to spread forward.

Here’s a brief description of how a revolver barrel is changed correctly:
First, the barrel is locked in a special barrel vise.
I had two, one was a small scale copy of the larger hydraulic jack type vises that gunsmiths use to change out rifle barrels.
I used this one for older round barrels like the Colt Official Police.
The second vise was large Wilton vise with heavily modified jaws.
I had sets of custom machined brass or aluminum barrel inserts that were fitted to specific makes and models.
As example I had sets for Pythons, Trooper Mark III’s, King Cobras, shrouded Detective Specials, etc.
These inserts are installed around the barrel, then clamped in the barrel vise.

The action, or frame wrench, is installed on the frame.
This wrench is a universal revolver wrench that fits around the front of the frame. It is fitted with brand and type specific hard plastic inserts.
These inserts very closely fit the front of the frame around and below the barrel area to fully support the frame.
Again, I had inserts for specific guns. I had one set for Colt “E & I” frames, another set for “J” frames, another set for “D” frames, etc.
These inserts support the frame and spread the torque over a wider area to allow unscrewing the frame without over stressing the frame and damaging it.

With the frame and barrel tightly locked up, and with no “spring” to the setup, the barrel is unscrewed.

With the barrel off, the frame threads are cleaned up with brass brushes, solvent, and if necessary are “chased” with a tap to insure clean, uniform threads.
The replacement barrel is closely inspected and it’s threads are cleaned and chased with a die if necessary.

The barrel is test fitted to the frame to determine where the front sight is and how much material has to be removed to allow the front sight to be at 12:00 top-dead-center after being torqued in place.
How much to remove is largely a judgment call based on experience.
Using a lathe or a bench trimming device, that amount of metal is removed from the barrel shoulder.
The barrel threads are coated with anti-seize compound and the barrel is threaded on the frame, everything is relocked in the barrel vise and frame wrench, and the barrel is torqued in place.
If the barrel is torqued with insufficient torque the barrel will vibrate loose.
Too much and you run the risk of pressure dimpling or constricting the bore in the thread area, or even cracking the frame.

With the barrel in place, the barrel/cylinder gap must be set.
This is done with a special cutter tool that works down the bore.
A Tee-handle rod is put down the bore and a cutter tool is attached on the end. The rod is pulled outward and rotated, trimming the end of the barrel.
Care has to be taken to insure the end of the barrel is not scalloped from uneven pressure.

With the barrel/cylinder gap set to an ideal .005”, the forcing cone has to be re-cut.
The forcing cone is very misunderstood, and even some gunsmiths have no idea it has to be re-cut and gaged or that it must be gaged at all.
The critical dimension of the cone is not it’s “length” or taper, but the outer diameter of the mouth.
If the outer mouth is too big, the gun will be inaccurate. Too small and it’s inaccurate AND will spit bullet metal.

The same Tee handle tool is inserted down the bore, but this time a cone-shaped cutter head is attached.
The cutter heads come in various tapers, and you can set a barrel for exclusive use with lead bullets by using a longer taper, or for jacketed with shorter tapers.
The factories use a good compromise that works with everything.
The Tee handle is pulled outward, pulling the cutter into the forcing cone. The handle is rotated and the cutter head cuts the cone.
Again, care is taken to prevent scalloping and the progress is checked often with a special plug gage.
This drop-in plug gage gages the outer diameter of the cone. The difference between too large and too small is very small, so gauging is done often.
The cone cannot be "eyeballed", it has to be gaged.

After the cone is cut, yet another head is attached to the Tee handle, this time a brass cone-shaped lapping head.
Valve grinding compound is applied to the lap, and the forcing cone is lapped to a smooth finish.

After lapping, the barrel and frame is carefully cleaned of all metal chips and lapping compound, and the revolver is reassembled.
The last step is firing the revolver for function, and to check accuracy off the sandbags.

As you can see, there’s a LOT more involved than first thought, and all steps are CRITICAL.
Unless you’re willing to invest quite a bit of money in custom made tooling and spend the time learning how to properly use it, attempting a do-it-yourself re-barrel job is a very fast way to ruin a good gun.

July 6, 2008, 09:55 PM
Lock this thread, there is NO way anyone can top that post! :cool:

July 6, 2008, 11:27 PM
Whew, I'm going to tell him to forget it and try to get his money back.

Thanks a Bunch for the detailed post.

July 7, 2008, 03:06 PM
If it is an older smith, and the gun is not otherwise rusty or ate up, he might get his money back parting the gun out. I think he has just encountered that big piece of hardware with the spiral groove around it and flat on one end, pointed on the other. In a manner of speaking.

July 7, 2008, 04:16 PM
:eek: WOW! I never thought it was that detailed thank you for opening my eyes. new respect when that job is done.

July 7, 2008, 04:41 PM
Lock this thread, there is NO way anyone can top that post!

+1! Awesome description of the right way to get it done. Thank You!

July 7, 2008, 09:17 PM
while its not a screw in job, finding older smith parts is not the lost cause its made out to be. There are millions of them made, and millions made means a lot got screwed up, blown up, etc, and parts are findable.

A split barrel DOES not mean a blown or stretched frame, the barrel was meant to s plit and vent before the rest of the gun blew up.

Call S&W or some of the other known smiths and see what can be done, it just might be that that nickel smith is a 38/ 44 outdoorsman, or a triple lock or a registered magnum and its worth putting money into it.

July 7, 2008, 11:49 PM
It looks like an old pre-model 10 nickel.
I've tried to change his mind but he's dead set on getting it fixed some how.


July 9, 2008, 03:35 PM
Actually, replacement barrels are readily available - gun parts corp even lists some that are already nickel plated. See http://www.e-gunparts.com/products.asp?chrMasterModel=1980zVICTORY&MC= However, before purchasing, you will need to line up a gunsmith who is both willing and able to do the work. It would probably be better to let the gunsmith order the barrel, too.

I had a similar experience many years ago - a friend had an old K frame S&W with a split forcing cone. When we took it to the gunsmith, he already had a replacement barrel, new in the wrapper, waiting to go. He said that he had bought a bunch of them on sale many years earlier.

September 18, 2008, 10:47 PM
Just wanted to let you all know how this story is ending.
I just got my friends .38 S&W back yesterday from a gunsmith friend
of mine. He found an old 6 inch nickel .38 Special barrel and installed
it in place of the one that was split and did some lathe work to it.
Took it out yesterday evening and it shoots Great and about 1 inch
high at 15-18 yards with 125 gr bullets. The cylinder / barrel gap
measurement is about .004.
We got Lucky----Thanks Very Much for all the advice and tips.

September 18, 2008, 11:20 PM
Excellent, we'd love to see a pic, if possible.:cool:

James K
September 19, 2008, 07:27 PM
When shooting that old gun, please stick to standard velocity - no +P, +P+ or other "hot" loads.


January 22, 2014, 11:54 AM
I found this googling changing barrels on a revolver.

I received a S&W snub nose (10-5) and I was hoping to find out if a 4-5" barrel could be made for it so that I could interchange the barrels as needed.

What I gather is it is not easy to remove the barrels. True?

James K
January 22, 2014, 10:46 PM
True. Those guns were never made to have interchangeable barrels. Besides, you would not only have to swap barrels but swap ejector rods (or whole cylinders) as well, since the front lock is further out on the 5" barrel.

By the time you buy the new parts and find a gunsmith willing to try that job, and pay out a whole heap of money, it would be better to just buy another gun with a 5" barrel.


January 23, 2014, 03:09 PM
Will I rebarrel revovlers with a shop made wrench and barrel blocks that go in a bench vise.

The wrench is made from 1/4 steel bought from hardware store and oak and brass.

Make the blocks from oak and use JB weld.

January 23, 2014, 03:35 PM
As I am not a gun expert. I have always wondered why:

1) Revolvers were not made to exchange barrels.. this way you could have a carry and a target gun in 1

2) why shotguns do not have extensions. I hear how some like a 26" for this and a 30" for that. With threads for screw in chokes, why couldn't a 2", 4" and a 6" extension be made to lengthen the barrel so you could own 1 shotgun? The threads for screw in chokes could be added to the extensions.

I know some like to have reasons to own a lot of guns... :D

January 23, 2014, 03:45 PM
Here's a revolver that is designed to change barrels.


January 23, 2014, 03:54 PM
That is exactly what I was thinking... thanks

Although that one appears to be a collector instead of a shooter..

January 23, 2014, 04:24 PM

Could you go over that one more time. This time in detail??


James K
January 23, 2014, 05:31 PM
Yes, the DW was designed for interchangeable barrels as well as interchangeable grips and front sight blades, and the scheme works quite well. The idea, as first advertised, was that police officers could come home, take off the 5" or 6" barrel and put on the 2.5", change the big grips for more concealable grips swap the service holster for a shoulder rig, and take the family out to dinner.

It was not a bad idea, but in practice no one (or very few) ever did that. I seem to recall a survey by the company that showed something like 97% of the owners put on one barrel and one grip and left them there.

But the fact that DW did it with a unique design doesn't mean that rebarrelling an S&W or Colt is as easy as just unscrewing the barrel and sticking another one on.


January 23, 2014, 07:48 PM
Unless you are willing to relook at design technology, and give up certain so called improvements....

sure the jframe is a nice little gun, but the company that makes it doesnt expect it to last for more shots then their smokeless framed top break models. so is that nice one piece forged frame an improvement?