A “Special” Love

The Great .38 Still Makes Sense!

K-Frame extremes: bottom is a 2" Model 15. Top is an 8-3/8" Model 14.

Like so many shooters my age, I began handloading with the .38 Special in 1966. Throughout life I’ve been a “lister” — my made-up word for someone who keeps lists. By 1980 I’d loaded over 50,000 .38 Special rounds but by then I was handloading enough different cartridges the act of trying to keep a list of them was too involved.

In my early adult years, by now living in Montana, .38 Specials didn’t greatly appeal to me. Going out into grizzly bear habitat north of Yellowstone National Park, I always packed a magnum revolver of some sort — a .357 or .44. Although my .38 Special handguns got shoved to the backburner in those days, I’ve seldom been without one. Also during this time period I still fired quite a few .38 Specials through various .357 Magnums.

Duke’s current lineup of .38 Special revolvers includes a 5-shot S&W J-Frame Model 442 and
a 6-shot S&W N-Frame Model 23.

Manageability, Accuracy

In 1966 my very first .38 Special was a Smith & Wesson K38 (aka the Model 14) with a 6″ barrel. My most recent — purchased in 2018 — is a Colt SAA 2nd Generation with a 5-1/2″ barrel. In between have been virtually every all-steel Smith & Wesson .38 Special and many of their “lightweights” with alloy frames. A single Colt Detective Special graced the line-up.

In my experience .38 Special revolvers are — in general — capable of near phenomenal precision (as in 1″ groups at 25 yards). Once I did an experiment with a late ’50s or early ’60s Colt SAA .38 Special with 7½” barrel. Using a Ransom Pistol Machine Rest, each chamber was fired for five 5-shot groups at 25 yards.

I then fired all the chambers for the same number of groups. Count ’em — 30 groups fired in one afternoon. No cleaning was done between strings of shots and the ammo was Remington 148-gr. Match Wadcutters. As I remember the total average for 30 groups was about 1.10″.

One reason I’ve always liked the .38 Special because it’s a pussycat in the recoil and noise department, at least in full-size revolvers. In small-frame 5-shooters it can be a bit much for extended shooting. With medium-frame guns it’s easy to train people to shoot to a minimum of proficiency, which, I assume, was one reason it became the standard of most American law enforcement outfits for many decades. I remember my hometown, which had about a dozen officers — they were allowed to carry .357 Magnums but loaded with .38 Specials.

The .38-44 was a higher-pressure load intended only for large-frame .38 Special revolvers.

A smorgasbord of factory loads have been offered for .38 Special (from left): 158-gr. RN, 148-gr.
WC, 200-gr. RN, 130-gr. FMJ, 158-gr. SWC, 158-gr. JHP and 158-gr. RN/FP (Cowboy Action).

Accuracy plus: This 25-yard 12-shot group was fired from machine rest with an S&W Model 23.

Power Boost!

My only real shooting buddy was named Mike Bucci (nicknamed “Butch”). His dad was chief of police for our little town. So Butch could have his own .38, his father passed onto him a fine Smith & Wesson Model 20 Heavy Duty, built on the large N-Frame. Those first appeared in 1930 so cops could have a more powerful sixgun. The cartridge introduced especially for it was the .38-44. In all dimensional aspects the .38-44 rounds were identical to ordinary .38 Specials except for their headstamp and a velocity increase from about 850 to 1,150 fps.

At first Butch felt slighted because my K38 had adjustable sights but his Heavy Duty wore fixed ones. To show him the truth of the matter I made some .38-44 equivalent handloads. I wasn’t guessing how — in those days Lyman’s reloading books listed .38 Special loads with higher velocities than seen in manuals today. Then, at our shooting spot, I sat two bricks side by side about 50 feet away. The first one I shot with my K38 with a 150-gr. cast bullet and 3.0 grains of Bullseye. The brick just fell over. Next, I shot one with Butch’s revolver and the heavy .38 Special load. The brick shattered. Butch never felt inferior afterwards although I doubt he ever fired another hot handload through his .38. (Butch was a good friend and lots of fun. Sadly he died of cancer at age 21.)

Quite often over the years people have asked me what handgun I would recommend for home defense. To one and all I recommend a quality double-action .38 Special. Mostly they balk, saying they thought I would have recommended a specific 9mm semi-auto. Some go as far as to ask “Sure, but what do you keep by the bed?” In all honesty I reply, “A 12-gauge pump shotgun … and a .38 Special revolver!”

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