THE .38 SPECIAL
Smith & Wesson has made and continues to make some of the most beautiful revolvers in the world. Beginning in the 1860's with the various American, Russian, and Schofield Models, Smith & Wesson began a tradition of building reliable as well as esthetically pleasing revolvers. The tradition almost died in 1880 with the introduction of the first Smith & Wesson double action, a leading candidate for the ugliest revolver of all times.
Then in 1899, Smith & Wesson introduced a sleek new double action and a new cartridge. The new revolver was the first of the basic Smith & Wesson double action revolvers of today and was catalogued as the .38 Military and Police. By 1942, 1,000,000 M&P's had been built. Only one-third as many of the famous Colt Single Actions were made from 1873 to 1941.
If the M&P became the standard for double action revolvers, the cartridge became the standard revolver cartridge. In 1899 the government cartridge was the .38 Long Colt. Smith & Wesson increased the length of the cartridge case from the 1.035" length of the .38 Long Colt to 1.155" and the .38 Special was born. At the same time the powder charge was increased from 18 1/2 grains of black powder to 21 grains and the bullet weight was increased to the standard 158 grains at a velocity approximately 100 feet per second faster than the Long Colt.
The .38 Special Military & Police never became much of a military sidearm, but it was the police duty weapon for many years. The great versatility of the .38 Special cartridge can be appreciated by looking at two things that happened in the a few years from 1927-1930. And these were two totally opposite events.
The Smith & Wesson Military and Police and the Colt Police Positive were the standard police service revolvers. The need arose for a more concealable handgun, so what else to look to but a .38 Special? Colt simply rounded the butt of the Police Positive, cut the barrel length to two inches and the Detective Special was born. Who would have ever believed that sixty years later ignorant individuals would refer to such fine weapons as the Colt Detective Special and the later Smith & Wesson Chief's Special as "Saturday Night" Specials?
Shortly after the .38 Special became a detective's favorite in the Colt sixgun, Smith & Wesson answered the call for greater power, again with the .38 Special by introducing the .38/44 Heavy Duty and the companion .38/44 Outdoorsman in 1930-1931. These were massive revolvers, built on what is now known as the N-frame, designed to handle a pre-Plus P full house Hi-Speed .38 Special load consisting of a 158 grain bullet at 1175 feet per second. Elmer Keith and Phil Sharpe's experiments with the .38/44 led directly to the .357 Magnum in 1935.
Police sidearm, detective's favorite, and outdoorsman's powerful sixgun. Could the .38 Special fill any other slots in the shooting world? It certainly could and did with the coming of the .38 Special target revolvers in the 1940's. Some of the most accurate revolvers ever built bear the names Smith & Wesson K-38 Masterpiece and Colt Officer's Model Match, both naturally in .38 Special.
The .38 Special has resided in some of finest sixguns ever made. Besides the above mentioned large frame .38/44 Heavy Duty and Outdoorsman, and the target frame K-38 and Officer's Model Match, the .38 Special was also found in the very large Colt New Service and the Colt Single Action Army. All but the K-38 are long gone. Today the .38 Special is found mostly in small frame revolvers from S&W, Charter Arms and Ruger, and imports such as the Taurus.
Like most reloaders, the .38 Special was one of my first cartridges, second by a few months only to the .45 Colt. The first two revolvers I loaded for being the Colt Single Action .45 Colt and the Ruger .357 Blackhawk, "The Flat-top". I really had no intention of reloading for the .38 Special until I loaded my first .357 Magnum rounds and found the bullet I wanted to use, Lyman's #358429, Keith's 168 grain SWC, would not chamber in the short cylinder of the Ruger .357.
The obvious solution was to get another bullet mold, but I came heir to a whole batch of Winchester-Western .38 Special cases, stumbled onto Keith's .38 Special load, and I was in business. The standard Keith .38 Special load has been around for nearly sixty years now and is still one of the best for those .357 Magnum revolvers that do well with cast bullets. The load is put together with Keith's #358429 over 13.5 grains of Hercules #2400 in .38 Special brass with standard primers.
This is a Heavy Duty Plus P Plus Plus load and only for use in .357 Magnum revolvers and heavy frame .38 Special revolvers such as the Colt Single Action and Heavy Duty Smith & Wesson. It does 1314 feet per second in the four-inch Model 19 and over 1400 feet per second in the Model 27 with eight and three-eighths inch barrel. My Model 27 had to be specially designed for the Keith .38 Special load. It shoots it that good!
Skeeter Skelton also favored the use of .38 Special brass in his .357 Magnums, favorites of which were the six and one-half inch Ruger Flat-top, the four-inch Model 19, and the five-inch Model 27. Skeeter used Lyman's Ray Thompson designed #358156 semi-wadcutter gas check bullet seated in the bottom crimp groove over Elmer's powder charge. This load is less powerful by about fifty feet per second than Keith's .38 Special load.
I not only use Skeeter's load in .357's, but also in my .38 Chief's Special. This is not a recommended load. But I shoot it sparingly and it is very comforting to me to know that the little two-inch Chief's Special will deliver the 158 grain SWC bullet at over 1100 fps.
Actually I prefer either the Keith bullet or RCBS's 150 grain SWC "Keith" in .38 Special brass instead of messing with the gas-checked Thompson bullet normally preferring to save them for full-house .357 loads.
More traditional loads for the .38 Special are assembled with 158 grain cast bullets from Bull-X (102 S. Main St., Dept. AH, Farmer City, Illinois 61842. Phone 309-928-2574.) My longtime standard .38 Special regular load has been a 158 grain SWC over 5.0 grains of Unique. At 850 feet per second, this is a fine varmint/jack rabbit load and certainly much better as a defensive load than the round-nosed .38 Special. The 158 grain Bull-X SWC .38 Special bullet fits the bill nicely.
The same results can be had with 4.0 grains of WW452AA, 6.0 grains of AA#5, or 7.5 grains of AA#7. Going to 5.0 grains of Herco or 7.0 grains of HS-6 results in about 100 feet per second more velocity and 11.0 grains of H4227 nudges the 158 grain .38 Special bullet over the 1000 foot per second mark and right into the Plus P category.
Actually, I get very little practise with standard .38 Special loads. What I do get is a lot of practice reloading and watching my wife shoot them up. The Hornady ProJector is kept set up for .38 Special/.357 Magnum and cranks out a lot of 900-1000 fps loads for my wife to shoot up in a Ruger Flat-top and an eight-inch Python. She's worth it.
Many police departments allow the carrying of .357 Magnum revolvers but require the use of .38 Special ammunition. There are several reasons for this not the least of which is the fact that all officers, whether they carry .38's or .357's, will have interchangeable ammunition.
This situation has given rise to the Plus P .38 Special loads, normally with lightweight bullets at higher velocities. I prefer to assemble my Plus P loads with either of three bullets: Lyman's 165 grain #358429, Lyman's 155 grain #358156, or RCBS's 150 grain #38-150KT. All are loaded over 6.0 grains of Unique for around 1000 feet per second in four-inch guns and 940 in the two-inch Chief's Special.
The .38 Special also sees much use in the silhouette game. Perhaps I should say has seen. Before the advent of the .357 SuperMag, the Dan Wesson .357 Magnum was used with .38 Special brass and 200 grain bullets at 1000-1100 feet per second. Three-five-seven brass was too long to use with 200 grain bullets but .38 Special brass did fine. Chalk up one more notch to the .38 Special's versatility.
It would be impossible to talk about the .38 Special without mentioning the "standard" target loading. Tons of Hercules Bullseye has been consumed, 2.7 grains at a time, under 148 grain SWC bullets in the .38 Special. Speer's excellent 148 grain hollow base wadcutter will do from 750 to 800 feet per second with 2.7 to 3.0 grains of Bullseye and do it accurately again and again and again.
I started loading for the .38 Special before the days of carbide sizers, but today all loading is done with either Lyman or RCBS Carbide .357 Magnum dies except for the use of my old .38 Special crimping die to allow the separation of seating and crimping in the Hornady ProJector.
At its best, the .38 Special is certainly inferior to the .357 Magnum. But as an understudy for its bigger, younger brother, it does its part admirably. I would guess that more .38 Specials are consumed in .357 revolvers than any Magnum loads. Much more. I would guess my personal ratio is about 10:1, .38 Specials to .357 Magnums.
I would not want the .38 Special as my sole armament. By the same token, I would hate to see it disappear from my loading bench. I mentioned how much my wife enjoys shooting standard .38 Specials in Magnum revolvers. If one is contemplating introducing someone to handgun shooting, this combination can only be bested by the use of .22's. Often when we head for the mountains, our companions are a large box of .38 Special ammunition and various .357 Magnum sixguns. Of course, there is a big bore in the Bronco, just in case......
.38 SPECIAL LOADS
FIREARM: SMITH & WESSON K-38 6" BRASS: WINCHESTER
PRIMER: FEDERAL #100 TEMP: 75 DEGREES
CHRONOGRAPH: OEHLER MODEL 35P
|BULL-X 148 GR. WC||2.7 GR. BULLSEYE||663|
|3.0 GR. WW231||681|
|3.0 GR. WW452AA||728|
|3.0 GR. HP||736|
|SPEER 158 SWC||5.5 GR. UNIQ||934|
PLUS-P LOADS. USE SPARINGLY IN .38 SPECIAL REVOLVERS
M19 .357 4"
M36 .38 2"
|RCBS #38-150KT||6.0 GR. UNIQ||1035||952|
|LYMAN #358156GC||6.0 GR. UNIQ||1008||929|
|LYMAN #358429||6.0 GR. UNIQ||1018||941|
|SIERRA 125 GR. JHP||11.0 GR. HS-7||1181||1073|
|SIERRA 125 GR. JHP||9.5 GR. AA#5||1091||1021|
|SIERRA 125 GR. JHP||8.0 GR. UNIQ||1164||1072|
|SIERRA 125 GR. JHP||8.5 GR. HERCO||1196||1108|
|SIERRA 140 GR. JHP||8.5 GR. HS-6||1030|
|SIERRA 140 GR. JHP||11.5 GR. #2400||1082|
|HORNADY 140 GR. JHP||8.5 GR. HS-6||1029|
|HORNADY 140 GR. JHP||11.5 GR. #2400||1088||1032|
|SPEER 140 GR. JHP||6.0 GR. UNIQUE||937||863|