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Old May 9, 2017, 02:56 PM   #1
Remington 51
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History of the .38 Special

When I think "revolver" my mind immediately goes to the versatile and still relevant .38 Special.

I found this interesting and well written history of the cartridge here:

Part 1:
http://www.luckygunner.com/lounge/hi...esson-special/

Part 2:
http://www.luckygunner.com/lounge/ca...entury-part-2/
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Old May 9, 2017, 03:34 PM   #2
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For many reasons, I've been a fan of the .38 Special and revolvers all my shooting life. As a result, the two-part article was more a refresher for me
than learning anything new.

But from what I've read lately, the .38 in Plus P and the 9 mm are better than ever and that I appreciate. The modern .38 loadings and the modern 9 mm loadings apparently are putting into the back seat the .357 Magnum and the 40 S&W as everyday carry/defense rounds.
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Old May 9, 2017, 04:44 PM   #3
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The modern .38 loadings and the modern 9 mm loadings apparently are putting into the back seat the .357 Magnum and the 40 S&W as everyday carry/defense rounds.
At the risk of offending a bunch of people, the above probably has more to do with people these days not liking, or know how to handle, recoil. They comfort themselves with the results of shooting gelatin, thinking the less recoiling rounds are just as good as Magnums, 40s or heaven forbid, the 45 ACP.

This is the opinion of an old geezer so the young whipper-snappers (lol) are free to ignore it.

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Old May 9, 2017, 05:25 PM   #4
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I'm right there with you Dave.
I do prefer the 357 magnum but I have a 45 Colt too.
9mm and 38 specials are so close together in performance, as far as I can see, That they should be treated the same. I do own a 9mm but I bought it to "play" the 3 gun games. I wouldn't consider carrying it for self defense.
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Old May 9, 2017, 05:54 PM   #5
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And if you want to experience what real 38 specials are and get away from the wimpy +P stuff read this article written by our own Saxon Pig. He really tells the tale on what the 38 special once was. I hope he doesn't mind that I posted it. I have it saved and like to reread it every once in a while.

https://shootingwithhobie.blogspot.c...-saxonpig.html
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Old May 9, 2017, 08:10 PM   #6
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I look forward to reading this article. Tamara used to be staff here at TFL.

But, cartridge historian that I am, I have a few nit picks with her.
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Old May 9, 2017, 08:26 PM   #7
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I enjoyed the articles. The .38 Special is one of the great American cartridges.
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Old May 9, 2017, 10:30 PM   #8
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No less than the great Bill Jordan once said that the .38 Special was the most powerful round that most men could properly handle. I tend to agree with him.
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Old May 10, 2017, 01:25 PM   #9
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FWIW, Colt did not simply ignore the advent of the .38 Special. Within a few years they modified the Army/Navy revolver (including military contract guns) to accept the .38 Special (which they, of course, called the .38 Colt Special). At the same time, they changed the barrel dimensions for the .357" bullet which the military had been using all along, giving s great improvement in accuracy.

It is often written that the Colt New Army/New Navy will blow up or fail if fired with .38 Special, but after about 1907, the guns were made for that caliber, although the markings were not changed. If the gun has necked chambers in the cylinder (i.e., not bored straight through) it can accept and fire standard .38 Special in complete safety. (I don't recommend use of "super hot" .38 Special in any of the old guns!)

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Old May 10, 2017, 01:48 PM   #10
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Only tangentially related (but related just the same...) I love to recommend the .38 Special as the best place to start for -any- handloader's first ever foray at the load bench. I personally believe that while many cartridges are a fine place to start the hobby, there simply are none better than the .38 Special... even more so if the new handloader plans to load them for use in a solid .357 Magnum revolver.

.38 Special brass is common and easy to find, it lasts nearly forever and you don't ever lose it unless you are shooting an odd duck like a S&W 52 or a Coonan. (I shoot a heapload through both)

.38 Special published load data is perhaps as/more plentiful than any other cartridge across the board. Powder selection is huge, bullet selection is huge and for handloaders, it's irrationally popular... so there are many hobbyists happy to share experiences.

.38 Special is (comparatively) a significantly lower pressure round than 9mm, .40cal, .357 or .44 Magnum, and this makes your use of the internal space FAR less critical than it does in a high pressure and small case round like 9mm or .40. And even with a low pressure round like .380, the tiny amount of internal space makes your use of it critical. Careful to never get lazy about this (as it's extremely important!) but in .38 Special, it almost hardly matters.

Being a revolver round, you can focus on getting your feet wet with an easy to work with round that doesn't care if it's loaded light or heavy and doesn't mind what bullet weight you wish to use. It's not subject to any feed or ejection cycle, which sometimes throws new handloaders a curve. Also an advantage with .38 Special in a revolver is that crimp isn't nearly as critical with a typical .38 round like it is with a heavy, big bore magnum revolver round. Not important for a proper and even powder burn and typically not important for bullets that may wish to jump-crimp and lurch forward out of the case.

When run in a .357 Mag revolver, you have a platform that was wholly designed for TWICE the pressure you'll be running (and proofed for even higher.) Not that you should look at this as a safeguard against being stupid, but it certainly is a nice insurance policy that will almost certainly be mental and never needed. But this is no bad thing!

.38 is extremely easy to full length size, flare and seat bullets. Sure... most are! But you'll find a few that are much more obnoxious. 9mm and it's tapered case.. .30 Carbine is truly awful... and any bottle-neck rifle round takes a whole different kind of process for full-length sizing. This isn't a huge factor, but it is real.

Ever heard someone say "it's inherently accurate!" Well, this is debatable for sure, but the .38 Special has a long and distinguished pedigree and it also has a couple physical features that certainly help. First is that you'll most likely launch them from a revolver, which typically has a fixed barrel. While many semiautomatic pistols can be highly accurate and repeatable, there is a reason that rimfire pistols are often so accurate, and that is due to a barrel that NEVER ever moves in the frame and revolvers are the same way. On top of that, the .38 Special tends to be a l-o-n-g bullet, for a handgun cartridge anyway, and you get a lot of bullet bearing surface, and this often translates to accuracy. So when a brand new handloader builds his first ammo AND that ammo drops in the X-ring when he does his part... well, there's a whole lot of confidence that builds quickly and leads to a fantastic experience in handloading, and just feeds in to more and more of it.
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Old May 10, 2017, 02:24 PM   #11
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IIRC Jim Cirillo and Charlie Askins used the 38 Special in most of their gunfights.
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Old May 10, 2017, 02:44 PM   #12
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Quote:
IIRC Jim Cirillo and Charlie Askins used the 38 Special in most of their gunfights.
Cirillo and Allard came up with all kinds of whacky loads for their M10s. Jim carried two of them at all times and when the first went dry he pulled the second and this was dubbed "the New York reload" by writer Mas Ayoob. Jim also carried a PPK as a BUG.
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Old May 10, 2017, 05:19 PM   #13
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Saxonpig is exactly right. The 38 Special has been wimped out buy the ammo makers. When I started in this stuff (handgun shooting and reloading) the standard 38 special round/load was a 158g RNL bullet at ~870 fps from a 6" barrel. In a 4" barrel that was down to ~850 fps. Most of today's 158g SWC "FBI" loads don't make 850 in a 4" barrel. I know as I and a friend chronographed several of them.

If you want a real serious 38 Special go back to 1930 and the 38/44. Loaded in 38 Special cases for the S&W Heavy Duty and Outdoorsman, it was a 158g bullet at ~1125 fps in a 4" and 1140 fps in a 5" barrel. The one modern factory load that duplicates this performance is the Buffalo Bore +P 158g SWCHP-GC. This is the only 38 Special factory load I'd consider carrying. (smile)

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Old May 10, 2017, 07:47 PM   #14
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Good Article

Good article. I read both parts.

I'm a big fan of 38 Special for near countless reasons that most everybody has already heard. I'll try to keep this to some original thoughts . . .

I think the industry is missing the boat by being so fixated on 5-shot "J-frames" (and the like) for conceal carry. I fancy myself as being a pretty good shot with a revolver (as I squeeze off hundreds of wheel-gun rounds per month); but I am not good with my Model 60. Step up to a K-frame, and I'm an excellent shot. The main difference being frame size / hand fit, and trigger action.

I'm not a guy bent on fire power (round capacity). But for conceal carry, having only five shots is the point where I get a little nervy. That sixth round brings me a great deal of piece of mind. Another reason why I won't carry my J-frame.

I realize a J-frame can't be beat for concealment (among revolvers). But a K-frame can easily tuck away for most people. In the winter, when I can layer up the clothing, I carry my 7-shot L-frame with no trouble at all (and I don't mind the weight either). Point is, I believe the gun manufacturers are being narrow minded with their platform offerings oriented toward conceal carry (S&W's only two K-frames in production have 4" bbls - if they had 3" bbls, they'd be quite suitable for carry). And that narrow-mindedness is restricting the market and pushing the consumer toward semi-autos; and reducing the popularity of revolvers in general. Just my opinion. I think they're missing an opportunity.
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Old May 10, 2017, 08:26 PM   #15
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Nick I don't think it would take much for SW to make a new version of the model 12 with a lightweight alloy frame. Just use the same materials they are using in the 5 shot J-Frames and add the 6 shot cylinder. And then you would have a new lightweight K-Frame 38 special. And if the 5 shot guns can be rated for +P then the 6 shot guns should be too.

That was supposedly the problem with the model 12. It would shoot lose. The larger size would be the drawback. But the new Colt 6 shot guns sold like crazy so who knows?

Last edited by ratshooter; May 10, 2017 at 08:37 PM.
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Old May 10, 2017, 08:39 PM   #16
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Great article, thanks for sharing. I'm .38 for life.
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Old May 10, 2017, 09:58 PM   #17
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Quote:
I think the industry is missing the boat by being so fixated on 5-shot "J-frames" (and the like) for conceal carry.
You and me, both.

I carry a semi-auto for PD, but the new Colt Cobra caught my eye, mostly due to the 6th round. It's the first snubby I've seen that makes me think, "Well, maybe..."

The new Kimber looks nice too, for the same reason, but I like an exposed hammer that I can cock to go single-action if I want/need to. Then again, I'm not planning on pocket-carrying the thing.
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Old May 10, 2017, 10:11 PM   #18
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Quote:
(S&W's only two K-frames in production have 4" bbls - if they had 3" bbls, they'd be quite suitable for carry)
Forgot to add dittos for this, too.

Seems to me a 3" barrel is a great size for a CCW revolver.
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Old May 11, 2017, 08:10 PM   #19
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At one time, Colt made several personal defense revolvers, all based on the old Police Positive frame with a short barrel. S&W got one up on them in the size and weight categories by producing a .38 revolver (.38 S&W) based on the .32 frame, called the Terrier. But the small size came at a price, and the little gun could not take six rounds of .38. So we have the small S&W's holding only 5 shots. The competition effectively ended when Colt, a company known for "zigging" when everyone else in the business "zagged", decided to terminate its revolver business in spite of having just revamped its line.

In fact, some pretty good shooters and self defense experts are nearly unanimous in feeling that if 5 shots is not enough, you are doing something wrong or have seriously underrated your defense needs.

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Old May 12, 2017, 02:14 PM   #20
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I wouldn't say the ammo makers have "'wimped out" so much as they have to produce ammunition safe to use in guns of wildly varying strength and durability. The 38-44 was the Plus P of its day and like the High Speed/Rifle Only rounds was only safe to fire in heavy frame revolvers.
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Old May 13, 2017, 10:15 AM   #21
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As I've gotten older, I've found I'm actually more fond of the .38spl than some of the other calibers I'm used to. In fact, two of the last 3 guns I've purchased has been .38/.357 revolvers. As big of a 1911 fan as i am, my current favorite gun that I keep bringing to the range is my 686+.
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Old May 13, 2017, 05:51 PM   #22
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It is a good read... personally, I like things that touch on the FBI Miami shootout, being I did my senior paper in college on it.

.38 Special is a good caliber, but it is an old caliber (not date produced, but back when the inception was right at the move from black to smokeless powder). With the exception for some outliers, like 5.7mm, long pistol cartridges aren't the norm. It is also dismissed being it isn't a duty caliber anymore... and as mentioned in this thread, marketed more as a backup caliber.

I have a 642-1, which is my second favorite revolver (first is my 629-1). Problem for me is that reloads are a little too long, so opted for a 9mm. Wasn't a simple decision, but was a simple solution...



A few of the guys I trap shoot with still couldn't comprehend that the 9mm has more energy due to the size of the case, but shooting standard pressure 9mm is comparable to .38 +P, in regards to shootability.

Personally, I'm not a .357 Magnum fan. If I'm going with the flash/recoil/weight, I rather go to a .44 Magnum. .38 is a good cartridge, and has a lot of variation with loadings, but it isn't doing anything that can't be done in 9mm. It isn't bad because of that, but have to consider it.

But when it comes down to it, in roles such as a backup gun, you can save some weight/bulk going with a choice other than .38. If there was a cylinder that was sized correctly for 9mm, the revolver should be shorter than my 642. But even looking at comparable semi-auto pistols, guns chambered in .38/.357 have dimensionally long grips (Coonan, Desert Eagle, etc). It takes a certain desire to go with a .38... usually those who like revolvers.

When you get reliable autos in the LCP and P938 size, it is really hard to choose a revolver over them.
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Old May 16, 2017, 09:46 AM   #23
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As to the 158 gr. bullet weight of the .38 Special, it came about from the 150 gr. weight of the .38 Long Colt round. The .38 Long Colt had a hollow base bullet, to aid in obturation upon firing. This was not necessary for the .38 Special and the hollow base was eliminated. The resulting "plug" added the extra eight grains.

But y'all probably knew that.


As a matter of interest, here are some vintage .38 cartridges. The one on the left is the original round developed for the cartridge conversions of he Colt Navy:



And here, a comparison of the "S&W" rounds compared to the "Colt" rounds:



The short rounds are not interchangeable with the Specials.

And some .38 Long Colt rounds for the Army. Note that the ammunition was loaded during the WW I period when the .45 ACP was in use, both in the M1911 Pistol and M1917 revolvers.






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Old May 16, 2017, 12:59 PM   #24
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IIRC the .38 Colt Navy shown by Bob Wright is exactly the kind of cartridge shown in one of Clint Eastwood's pasta (can't spell spaghetti) Westerns.

Might have been "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." So that part was hysterically accurate if maybe a bit early since the Civil War--War Between the States--War of Northern Aggression was still in progress in the movie.
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Old May 16, 2017, 01:50 PM   #25
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The linked article makes it sound as if though 200 grain .38's were a passing aberration. The heavy round was around, factory loaded, for over 50 years. I have never read or seen anything that made me think they were developed for vehicle penetration either. Ken Waters also had a really great article on the .38 special. It is all the more interesting because it was written a little closer to the beginning of the .38 special. Here is a link to a pdf file of it.

https://riflemagazine.com/magazine/PDF/hl3partial.pdf
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