The (Almost) Forgotten .38

Some Are Bargains Now.

By John Taffin

Thirty-eight. Mention this to a bunch of shooters and the images they’ll conjure up will differ according to their reference points. For most shooters .38 means .38 Special, while others if they are Cowboy Action shooters may immediately think .38 Long Colt and the semi-automatic connoisseurs will think .38 Super. These three cartridges have a total of nearly 325 years of history behind them chambered in millions of guns and they have had time to gather many followers.

The .38 Long Colt first arrived in 1875 chambered in the single-action, spur-triggered Colt New Line pocket revolver. In 1877 Colt’s first double-action revolver arrived as the Lightning chambered in the new .38 Centerfire cartridge. The Lightning loaded and unloaded the same as the Colt Single Action Army with a loading gate to access the cylinder for inserting cartridges and an ejector rod for ejecting spent brass. The main difference between the smaller Lightning compared to the full-sized Single Action Army besides the obvious double-action feature was the new grip frame. The Single Action Army grip frame was designed to roll in the hand as the gun was fired allowing quick access to the hammer to cock it for the next shot. The double-action Lightning grip frame was designed to do just the opposite, that is, to stay in place in the shooting hand for easier access to the double action trigger. The grip frame on the Lightning is now often found on custom sixguns and is known as the Bird’s Head.


The .38 S&W Colt Bankers’ Special is a very compact little snubbie. Colt
marked their revolvers chambered in the .38 S&W as being in “.38 New Police.”

Ballistic Blunder

In the 1880’s Colt produced their first swing-out cylinder, double-action sixguns with the Army and Navy Double Action Models. The first of these were chambered in .38 Long Colt and .41 Long Colt. In the 1890’s the US military made one of their greatest weapons blunders of all time replacing the tried-and-true proven man-stopping .45 Colt with the .38 Long Colt.

Theodore Roosevelt, who had carried a 7-1/2-inch .44 WCF Colt Frontier Six-Shooter during his ranching days in the Dakotas was armed with a Colt Double Action .38 Long Colt as a leader of the Rough Riders during the Spanish American War. The main objective in adopting the .38 was to switch to a more “modern” double action sixgun, however in the process they sent a boy—a very young boy—to do an experienced man’s job.

It was inevitable the .38 LC would be found wanting and this happened in the Philippine campaign resulting in .45 Colt Single Actions being removed from storage and put back into use. This led to the adoption of the Colt .45 New Service Model 1909 which was soon replaced by the 1911 Government Model .45 ACP. Perhaps the .38 Long Colt was necessary to get us to the Government Model.

The .38 Special, more powerful than the .38 Long Colt, first arrived in the Smith & Wesson Military & Police in 1902. The M&P had arrived in 1899 and included both US Army and US Navy Models chambered in .38 Long Colt. The arrival of the .38 Special began a long law-enforcement adoption which would last for nearly 3/4 of a century with virtually every police officer carrying either a Smith & Wesson M&P or Colt Official Police chambered in .38 Special. Both Colt and Smith & Wesson also offered pocket version .38 Specials such as the Detective Special, Cobra and Chief’s Special.


All of these revolvers are chambered in .38 S&W. From top right clockwise
they are Colt Police Positive, Colt Bankers’ Special, Smith & Wesson
Regulation Police, Smith & Wesson Terrier and Smith & Wesson Victory Model.

Heavy Duty Power

With the coming of Prohibition in the Roaring ’20’s, new criminals arrived running illegal liquor, robbing banks, and not only driving fast cars, but being heavily armed with military weapons often stolen from armories. To combat the new criminal, two new cartridges arrived (actually they were only heavier loadings of already existing cartridges) and shooters were expected to be smart enough to know which guns took which cartridges. The .38 Special with its 850 fps loading was used as the basis for the .38-44 at 1,150 fps and chambered in the Smith & Wesson Heavy Duty, which was simply a .44 Special chambered in .38 Special. This double action sixgun, perhaps the finest of all time for speed shooting, arrived in 1930.

Colt took a different path in 1935. They already had the .38 ACP cartridge, which they now heavy loaded and chambered in the 1911 Government Model. It became the .38 Super which lies somewhere in power between the .38-44 Heavy Duty and the .357 Magnum. Both the .38-44 and the .38 Super offered metal piercing rounds which would puncture criminals’ automobiles. The .38 Super was resurrected a few decades ago for use in combat-style competition shooting. It is to semi-automatics what the .44 Special is to sixguns, namely a true connoisseur’s cartridge.

However, there is another .38, which arrived before the .38 Super, before the .38 Special and about the same time as the .38 Long Colt. In 1876 Smith & Wesson chambered their spur-triggered, single-action revolver in their own cartridge, the .38 Smith & Wesson. The .38 S&W is a shorter, slightly fatter cartridge than the .38 Long Colt and the .38 Special, which came later. In 1880, Smith & Wesson offered their first double-action top-break revolvers chambered in .32 S&W and .38 S&W. Seven years later the Safety Hammerless, or “Lemon Squeezer” arrived in .38 S&W. This little pocket pistol featured a hidden hammer and a grip safety. Altogether Smith & Wesson produced a combined total of more than 800,000 double action top-break pocket guns chambered in .38 Smith & Wesson.

Even though the .38 Special became very popular in the early decades of the 20th century, both Colt and Smith & Wesson produced many versions of their double-action, swing-out cylindered sixguns chambered in .38 S&W. Since this cartridge is shorter and less powerful than the .38 Special it could be chambered in smaller and lighter revolvers.

For Smith & Wesson this meant a 5-shot I-frame revolver such as the Regulation Police and the Terrier, which were smaller than their .38 Special counterparts the Military & Police and the Chief’s Special respectively. During World War II Smith & Wesson manufactured over a 1/2 million M&P Victory Models chambered in .38 S&W under Lend Lease for the Brits. This was known as the .38/200 British Service Revolver and used a .38 S&W loading with a 174-grain bullet.

Colt offered two lines of .38’s in the early decades of the 20th century. The Police Positive and Police Positive Special look very similar, however the former is slightly smaller and chambered in .38 S&W, or as Colt called it, the .38 Colt New Police, while the latter, as its name implies, is in .38 Special. These two PP’s were used to make Colt’s Pocket Pistols with the Police Positive Special having its barrel cut to 2 inches and becoming the Detective Special while the Police Positive with a 2-inch barrel was the Bankers’ Special.

During the recent feeding frenzy over reloading components, ammunition, and especially firearms, it has been possible to find these older guns at relatively inexpensive prices. While others have been looking at black plastic guns I have been able to find some real bargains chambered in .38 S&W. Being a shooter and an accumulator, I am not looking for pristine collectors items but rather good shooters which have not been abused. One weekend I hit three of our main gun shops and came away from Buckhorn with a 4-inch S&W Regulation Police, from Boise Gun with a Smith & Wesson 5-inch Victory Model, and at Cabela’s I found a .38 S&W Terrier. Just prior to this I came up with two .38 S&W sixguns, a 4-inch Colt Police Positive and a 2-inch Colt Bankers’ Special. I have less, much less money, invested in these five historical sixguns than many have spent on just one black rifle.

One of these .38 S&W chambered sixguns came with three boxes of ammunition and I was even able to find 500 rounds of new Starline brass. The factory loads feature a 146-grain lead bullet at a muzzle velocities of 600 to 650 fps from a 4-inch barrel. I duplicate these velocities using the Lyman mold 358311 roundnosed bullet with 2.5 grains of HP38, or for even easier shooting loads at about 100 fps less velocity I go with the same charge of Hodgdon’s Trail Boss. This powder is as easy to load as the appropriate charge is to fill a case to the base of the bullet without compression. It is a natural for older sixguns such as these five, however for the .38 S&W Top-Breaks, I stick with black powder or a black powder equivalent.

The feeding frenzies, which started in 2008 and then again in 2012 with even greater intensity, will eventually pass, however it is much easier to survive through them if we look at other options which the main buying public ignores. Without the frenzy I may have never discovered the joy of these .38 S&W sixguns.

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