Consider the Forgotten .38 S&W

By Mike Hudson

It's a cartridge that's gone by many names over its long and colorful career: the .38 New Police, British .380 and Belgian 9mm Revolver. Loaded with 200-grain bullets it's been known as the .38 Super Police and .380-200. The stubby little round and the guns that fire it have made a lot of history.

Not to be confused with the .38 Special, with which it is not interchangeable, the .38 S&W is superbly accurate at practical handgun ranges, recoils gently, and produces a mild and not at all unpleasant report when fired. And thinking about it now, I believe I've owned more revolvers chambered for what is commonly known as the .38 S&W than for any other centerfire cartridge.

The full sized guns include a Colt Police Positive and a commercial Smith & Wesson Military and Police, purchased not only because they were less expensive than their .38 Special counterparts, but also because of the superb fit and finish those early 20th Century revolvers. A Harrington and Richardson hammerless top break with a five-inch barrel and oversized grips that was traded away at first opportunity, and a big Enfield No. 2 Mk. 1 that stayed around awhile.

And then there were the pocket pistols. A top-break Smith & Wesson with a fine nickel finish, another Harrington & Richardson, this time with a hammer and a much better arrangement all around, and a poor German copy of a Remington over and under derringer.

In the field, I've always considered the .38 S&W a small game round, and have taken squirrel, rabbit and woodchuck with it. Once, using the Colt with its implausibly long six-inch barrel, I connected with a quartering shot on a feral dog involved in running down a small whitetail doe that had flown past seconds earlier, so close that I could see the sweat on her shoulders and the terror in her eyes.

The 146-grain slug anchored the mutt, and I don't believe he would have gotten up again, but he was still alive and I quickly dispatched him with a brain shot delivered at point blank range. Having made the Pennsylvania woods safe again that day, I felt well satisfied both with my marksmanship and the revolver I'd chosen to take along on my walk.

The .38 Smith & Wesson round was introduced by the company in 1876 in its single action, spur triggered First Model revolver and it was an overnight success. Metallic cartridge revolvers had been in use for less than two decades at the time, and most of those were either large caliber Army-sized guns or tiny pocket pistols firing the seriously under powered .22 or .32 short rimfire loads.

Indeed, most small self-defense weapons employed at the time of America's Centennial were either of the edged variety or single-shot percussion pistols and derringers. The five-shot Smith and Wesson product was deemed a great leap forward at the time. Fully loaded, it weighed barely a pound and was compact enough with a three-inch barrel to be carried discreetly in a coat pocket or ladies' handbag.

The gun's success spawned many imitators, and soon revolvers accommodating the .38 S&W round were being manufactured in Great Britain, Europe, and throughout the world. In this country, companies sprung up overnight, producing knockoffs, some of good quality and others not so good, and keeping pace with Smith & Wesson's design updates almost as quickly as they could be introduced. These guns played a role in the taming of the American West, often seeing service as a hideout or backup revolver in the hands of lawmen and desperadoes alike.

Eventually the U.S. Cavalry would give the .38 S&W field trials, and it was officially adopted as a service cartridge by Great Britain, most of her former colonies, and Israel during its war for independence. Countless police departments in the U.S. and around the world also adopted the cartridge.

The 38 S&W was still in official use as late as the 1970s in those parts of Africa and Asia once controlled by the Brits and, even today, artisans in the troubled border region of India and Pakistan still turn out the notorious "Khyber Pass Specials," handmade reproductions of the Webley and Enfield revolvers designed more than a century ago. Some of these, long considered dangerous to fire, have been brought into the U.S. recently as battlefield pickups by returning Afghanistan veterans.

Presidential assassins in this country also showed a strange affinity for the round and the handy weapons that fired it. On July 2, 1881, a deranged lawyer named Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield twice at the train station near the U.S. Capitol using a cheaply made "Boston Bulldog" revolver of uncertain manufacture. The first shot merely grazed Garfield's arm, but the second hit home, striking the president in the lower torso.

Garfield never lost consciousness, and in fact walked from the train station after the shooting. But infection set in and he lingered for 80 days at the White House before dying on September 19.

A .38 S&W revolver was used in the attempted assassination of Teddy Roosevelt on Oct. 13, 1912 by John Schrank, a disturbed New York poet and saloon keeper. The slug hit Roosevelt in the chest, but a twice-folded copy of a 100-page speech he was set to give, along with the metal case he carried for his spectacles, were tucked into his breast pocket and slowed the bullet's travel. Roosevelt took charge of the pandemonium following the attempt, yelling, "Quiet! I've been shot."

He delivered his speech as planned and only later went to the hospital. Doctors found that the bullet had pierced Roosevelt's chest at the left nipple, cracking a rib. His long windedness and poor eyesight had saved his life, they said, but because the bullet was lodged close to the heart, no attempt was made to remove it.

For his part, Shrank said he was ordered to kill the Bull Moose by the ghost of William McKinley, whose assassination two decades earlier facilitated Roosevelt's first ascension to our nation's highest office. He spent the rest of his life in a mental institution.

And, while debate still rages over whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, most everyone agrees that he did murder Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit later that afternoon. The weapon used was a Smith & Wesson Victory Model, manufactured for export to England as part of the Lend-Lease program in W.W.II, and brought back into this county following the war. Tippit was struck four times at nearly point blank range and died instantly. Despite their storied history and notorious record as an assassin's weapon, revolvers chambered for the .38 S&W cartridge are what they always have been, light and handy weapons suitable for a wide variety of applications.

Ammunition manufacturers have long under loaded the round because of the number of cheap and elderly weapons chambered to fire it, but even factory rounds can produce desired results when fired from good quality guns. As loaded today by Winchester, Mag Tec and Fiocchi, the .38 S&W spits out a 145 or 146-grain round nose lead bullet at 685 feet per second, producing 150 pounds of muzzle energy. These ballistics can be significantly improved by handloading, but the very fact that three different companies are producing the round is a testament to its continuing popularity among shooters, despite general condemnation by gun writers for more than 50 years.

In his 1955 classic Sixguns, the great Elmer Keith wrote that the .38 S&W was a very accurate round and confessed to having owned several guns in that caliber. But, he added, "it was a pip squeak load and accuracy was about its only virtue."

"The load is due to be discarded even though it will be in strong demand for many years to come, because of the many guns now in existence chambered for it," Keith quite correctly predicted.

For a half century since, gun writers of a certain type, some of whom probably never in their lives fired a revolver chambered for the round, have aped Keith's more negative comments regarding the .38 S&W., even as they touted the latest development in ammunition for the anemic .32 automatic, souped-up versions of which push a 65-grain pill at 950 fps and generate 130 pounds of muzzle energy. Clearly, the .38 S&W outclasses the .32 ACP in most respects, especially when the automatics' often finicky performance when using bullets of different weight and style is taken into account.

That performance factor cannot be overstated. Most people buying a firearm for home defense tend not to put in a lot of range time acquainting themselves with the weapon and experimenting with different loads to determine which works best in their particular gun. They should, but they don't.

And if there's anything worse than not having a gun when you need one, it's having one and finding out it's not working properly at the critical moment. With any automatic, feeding problems and other malfunctions have to be cleared manually, unlike the revolver, where problems can generally be solved with another pull of the trigger. Add to that the fact that good double action revolvers are inherently safer than any automatic, and the argument is pretty much settled.

The case becomes a bit cloudier when the .380 auto is brought into the mix, with its standard loading firing a 95-grain full metal jacket bullet at a reported 950 fps and generating 190 pounds of energy at the muzzle. Although I wouldn't relish it, I'd far rather take a hit from a FMJ-style bullet than one cast of nearly pure lead, and when safety and the functional problems of small automatics using different loads is taken into account, the .38 S&W revolver is again the better choice. (Several popular .380 ACP loads using JHP bullets outclass the .38 S&W LRN load, however. -Ed.)

The key to all this is to equip oneself with a good quality gun, not some relic that's been rusting away in the fishing tackle box of its previous owner since the Eisenhower administration. Well cared for .38 S&W revolvers are plentiful, and can often be had quite cheaply, especially those of the old top break design. Additionally, one can completely avoid the cumbersome pistol purchase legalities by selecting a gun manufactured prior to 1899, as such weapons are considered antiques rather than firearms under federal law.

Recently, I had the opportunity to put a box of Mag Tec ammunition through a top break revolver manufactured in the 1880s by Otis Smith of Rockfall, Conn. The gun was solid, tight and in fine condition, nickel-plated and equipped with a 3-1/4" barrel. The mild report and minimal recoil made it almost like shaking hands with an old friend.

Fast, double action fire at 10 yards resulted in five-shot groups of around six inches, while aimed single-action shooting at 25 yards produced three-inch groups with almost boring consistency.

That's not bad for a mediocre pistol shot using a 110-year-old pocket pistol! In the end, I wouldn't feel uncomfortable with a .38 S&W revolver resting on the nightstand by my bed or tucked unobtrusively in my back pocket on a tromp through the woods or an evening's fishing on some secluded stream.

You never know when it might come in handy.

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Copyright 2007, 2016 by Mike Hudson. All rights reserved.