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The .38 Special: Still Fighting
By Jim Waddell
It’s still here. The .38 Special is not only not dead, it’s beginning to resurge in popularity as the number of American citizens seeking concealed carry permits continues to rise.
In 1899 both the Navy and the Army placed orders to Smith and Wesson for several thousand Model 1899 Hand Ejector revolvers chambered for the .38 Long Colt cartridge, the caliber in use at the time. With this order the Hand Ejector Model became known as the .38 Military and Police Model. At the same time, reports coming in from the Philippines from military personnel said the .38 Long Colt was ineffective. Smith and Wesson’s response was the introduction of a new chambering with a slightly longer case called the .38 Smith & Wesson Special (.38 Special). The new cartridge featured a heavier 158 grain bullet and an increased powder charge from 18 to 21 grains of black powder.
In 1902, the .38 Military and Police (2nd Model) was introduced featuring substantial changes. These included major modifications and simplification of the internal lockwork and the addition of a locking underlug on the barrel to engage the previously free-standing ejector rod. Barrel lengths were 4, 5, 6 and 6.5 inches with a rounded butt. Serial numbers for the Military and Police ranged from number 1 in the series to 20,975. Most of the early M&P revolvers chambered in .38 Special appear to have been sold to the civilian market. By 1904, S&W was offering the .38 M&P with a rounded or square butt with 4, 5 or 6.5 inch barrels.
A small police department near my home still has about 20 of the early M&P models still in the inventory.
Designed at the end of the black powder era, the .38 Special was intended to be a charcoal-burner, a fact attested to by its rather large powder capacity. Its popularity took off so fast the gun manufacturers produced it in its original form and never looked back.
The .38 Special enjoyed this high popularity practically from its beginning clear up until the early to mid- 1980’s when its popularity began to decline, not because of its ballistic inferiority but because law enforcement firearms trainers and administrators were coming to realize the six- shot revolver was being defeated in gun battles at an ever increasing rate.
More and more bank and other robberies were being committed by multiple suspects, often armed with high capacity semi-auto handguns. In addition, semi-auto rifles were becoming more popular among modern day outlaws. One, two or even three responding police officers, armed with six-shot revolvers were no match for two or more suspects with military style assault rifles.
This could lead to the often heated and long lasting debate over which is the superior cartridge for defense purposes, the .38 Special or the 9mm Luger (9×19 as its known in Europe). I will not subject myself or Western Powders to a barrage of nasty or hateful letters by declaring one or the other is better. In most factory loadings the 9mm will edge the .38 in velocity numbers but one has to realize the 9 shoots lighter bullets for the most part. Heavier bullets tend to penetrate better and the .38 enjoys a much wider variety of bullet styles, some with a flat meplat and sharp corners (semi-wadcutter style) that will cut and chop its way through tissue, creating a more devastating wound channel. The 9mm or any bullet intended for use in an autoloader must have a more rounded type of bullet nose to ensure proper cycling and functioning. This bullet style tends to push its way through tissues, creating less permanent damage in the wound channel. There are countless tales of suspects being hit by multiple round nose bullets to the torso who kept on doing dastardly deeds long enough to take other’s lives before going down for the count.
In potential stopping power we can give the edge to the .38 Special, IF, and it’s a big if, the proper bullet is used. If one were to rely on the age old 158 grain, round nose bullet, it has no advantage over any of the 9mm loadings. This was about the only loading available in factory ammunition for decades until in the late 1960’s, ammunition makers such as Super Vel (now defunct) and Remington revolutionized handgun ammunition by coming out with lighter weight, copper jacketed bullets with a hollow or soft point.
Problem solved. This bullet, built to function like big game hunting bullets will do the trick. It will zip inside the torso of the bad guy, expand like a hunting bullet and put him down like he was hit in the head with a hammer………. Not so fast.
Back when these light expanding bullets were coming out it was generally agreed upon by ammunition makers and ballisticians, these bullets needed to hit their targets at a minimum of 1000 feet per second to expand reliably. And the term “reliably” can be elusive.
With most big game bullets traveling at 2.5 to 3 times faster than these pistol bullets, terminal performance is almost a sure thing. Now we have these lighter weight bullets traveling fast enough to expand, however as usually happens in the world of guns and shooting, to get something you have to give up something. In this case it is penetration. It doesn’t matter how well the bullet expands into a beautiful mushroom configuration; if it doesn’t reach the vitals, it’s useless.
Hunters of dangerous game in Africa have realized this for years. Those pursuing Cape Buffalo and elephant have mostly given up using expanding bullets in their large caliber rifles in favor of solid bullets, realizing the importance of getting it to the vitals.
There were countless reports of suspects being hit with 110 or 125 grain jacketed hollow point .38 Specials that kept fighting after solid hits to the torso. Mostly these cases were in colder weather climates where heavier clothing such as multiple layer shirts or jackets were being worn. The bullets were performing as designed, they just expanded too early and in some cases didn’t even make it through the clothing. If the bullet doesn’t penetrate to the vital organs, it won’t stop the fight.
My own experience with the .38 Special started when I was 17 which was over 45 years ago. I joined the local sheriff’s department’s cadet program. We were invited to attend one of the monthly pistol qualifications that each deputy had to attend to keep his job. Having had experience with long guns this was my first exposure to handguns. A long and interesting career in law enforcement followed.
At this time in history, police sidearms in the United States, with a few exceptions, was the six-shot revolver. Primarily it was the .38 Special. The .357 Magnum was carried by many officers but few agencies issued guns in that caliber, so it was the .38 that was the premier caliber, which it had been since early in the 20th century.
I started with a four-inch barreled Smith & Wesson Model 15. Oddly enough, the only other .38 Specials I’ve owned over the years was a two-inch Colt Cobra and a Smith & Wesson K-38 I bought to shoot in police pistol competition. After the first year, I sent it to Bill Davis of the Davis Service Company who installed a one inch bull barrel with a Bo-Mar rib. I asked him to put a gold bead on the front sight blade for more accurate shooting at the 50 yard line where we had time to aim and shoot single action.
Most of the .38 Special ammunition I loaded and shot over the years I did so from a variety of .357 revolvers.
Having loaded my own ammunition since I got my first boyhood shotgun, I made it a practice to purchase a set of loading dies to accompany any gun purchase-if I didn’t already own a set. So with that first Model 15, I started assembling a few hundred 38 cases I had scrounged off the sheriff’s department gun range. This being circa 1967, the only commercially made bullets available to handloaders in .38 caliber were 148 grain wadcutters or 158 grain lead roundnose or lead semi-wadcutters.
It was right about this time, Speer Bullets came out with a copper jacketed semi-wadcutter. The shank of the bullet was encased in copper that ended where the bullet was crimped. The exposed portion was a rather hard, lead alloy. This bullet came in two styles, the flat point semi-wadcutter that weighed 160 grains and the hollow point version that weighed 146 grains. To my knowledge, these bullet designs were probably the most effective at putting down game or adversaries of any other bullet weight or style, then or now. Sadly though, Speer discontinued these bullets last year.
Even after the lighter, jacketed soft and hollow points came out, bullets that traveled faster and looked sexier, (as in Remington’s SJHP that had a scalloped copper jacket) none of these newer bullets could be counted on to penetrate enough to do its job reliably and consistently. The older Speer numbers did pass the penetration test and expand or not, their design would normally create a larger permanent wound channel.
Most of the commercial bullet makers such as Sierra, Hornady, Speer and Nosler are producing a large variety of .38 caliber jacketed, expanding bullets. They can be had in 110, 125, 135, 140, 145, 150 and 158 grains. The heavier ones, although slower in velocity and less likely to open up, will penetrate deeper than the lighter ones. If you want to go even heavier there are jacketed bullets weighing 170 grains and maybe even higher. These are designed primarily for silhouette shooting in the .357 Magnum and also for use in the .357 Maximum.
Going back to lead bullets, many long-time .38 Special fans have been using cast bullets for decades. They are still a favorite among many, including several popular gun writers. If you prefer to cast your own bullets, there are molds from RCBS and Lyman that give unlimited choices in bullet weights and designs and you can decide on what hardness factor you want and adjust your lead to tin/antimony mixture. Some use gas checks that will allow for loading hotter powder loads for higher velocity.
Using moderate loadings with lead semi-wadcutter bullet designs are coming back into popularity, as these bullet and load combinations were the odds-on favorites of rural lawmen and hunters who carried these guns daily and who expected to have to use them at any time for duty or for taking 4 footed grocery items.
For those who prefer to purchase lead bullets commercially, Hornady and Speer offer them as well as Oregon Trail, Belt Mountain and several other companies who specialize in lead bullets. These bullets, driven by moderate loads of Accurate #2 and #5 and Ramshot’s True Blue make for a nice, comfortable load that won’t leave you defenseless should you get awakened in the middle of the night by an uninvited guest.
I would like to make clear the .38 Special, or any handgun for that matter, is not my first choice for a home defense weapon. It’s still a good pump shotgun with a short barrel filled with large pellet bird shot or buckshot depending on personal preference. You increase your hit potential in low light with this weapon. With birdshot loads such as #4 or #6, in the short distance of a normal room in a house, they are just as effective as the bigger stuff but with a little bonus. They are less likely to penetrate interior walls to strike family members who may be in other rooms of the house. That said, my handgun will be right there also.
Plated bullets are relatively new on the shooting scene but are making a favorable impression on shooters of both autoloaders and revolvers. They don’t leave as much residue as lead bullets which makes gun cleaning easier, they are far less expensive than conventional jacketed bullets but should still be loaded to moderate velocities as the copper plating will peel if driven too fast.
Some shooters, mostly ones who favor a semi-auto, balk at the .38 claiming it has all that wasted powder space. With modern powders, they claim, sufficiently powerful loads can be had with much less case capacity. I won’t argue that point other than to say the .38 Special with its larger case capacity, gives the handloader more options for choosing powder. One of the things I enjoy most about handloading is experimenting with different powders.
As I mentioned earlier, we are seeing an increase in handgun sales. I believe this is mostly due to the increased numbers of citizens obtaining permits for concealed carry. With the increase in gang activity in some areas, school shootings, mass shootings in theaters, churches and other places, there are more and more people looking to defend themselves. As someone said, the average response time for police after a 9-1-1 call is 25 minutes. The response time of a .38 Special round is 900 feet per second. Click here for a complete list of Western Powders’ .38 Special data: 38 Special and Plus P data
The resurgence of the .38 Special I believe is that some shooters, both experienced and novice, prefer a revolver over a semi-automatic pistol. The perception that wheelers are easier to operate and less troublesome is real to lots of folks and when they choose a small frame, 5 or 6 shot revolver, the only realistic choice is the .38 Special.