By John Taffin
For most shooters .38 means .38 Special. There is another .38 though, a contemporary of the .38 Long Colt. In 1877 Colt brought forth their first double-action sixgun, the Lightning, chambered in .38 Long Colt. That same year Smith & Wesson introduced the .38 Smith & Wesson chambered in their spur trigger revolvers, and then in the early 1880’s it was chambered in their line of Top-Breaks.
S&W would produce approximately 800,000 Top-Breaks in their .38 cartridge, and these pocket pistols were exceptionally popular for several decades on both sides of 1900. With the coming of swing-out cylinder revolvers both S&W and Colt would chamber the .38 S&W, however Colt labeled “their” cartridge the .38 Colt New Police.
S&W chambered their Military & Police revolver in .38 S&W for use by the British, and as Victory Models, they went to England under the Lend Lease program during World War II. When I started seriously shooting in the 1950’s these Victory Models were readily available at reasonable prices. There was a problem, however, as they were re-chambered to .38 Special. The case diameters were different, with the .38 S&W being approximately 0.008″ larger. Often when .38 Specials were fired in the re-chambered cylinders the cases would split. Also, the .38 S&W specs called for 0.360″ bullets so both chamber throats and barrel diameters were somewhat larger than those for the .38 Special. Still, they went “bang” and were fun to shoot.
The .38 S&W handloads look petite
next to a .38 Special, right.
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During a recent weekend, I hit three of our main gun shops and came away from Buckhorn with a 4″ S&W Regulation Police; from Boise Gun with a S&W 5″ 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″ Colt Police Positive and a 2″ Colt Bankers Special. I have much less money invested in these five historical sixguns than many have spent on just one black rifle.
I ordered a set of Lee carbide reloading dies for the .38 S&W and found them to be quite similar to other dies I had, as the sizing die is marked “.38 Auto.” This older .38 S&W uses the same sizing die as the .38 Super! The factory loads feature a 145- to 146-gr. lead bullet at muzzle velocities of 600-650 fps from a 4″ barrel. I duplicate these velocities using the Lyman #358311 round-nosed bullet with 2.5 grains of HP38.
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 so easy to load, as the appropriate charge is to fill a case to the base of the bullet without compression. It’s a natural for older sixguns such as these.
For the .38 S&W Top-Breaks I stick with black powder or a black powder equivalent. I load swaged lead hollow base wadcutters over 10 grains of Hodgdon’s Triple-Seven FFFg grade. With this old Smith & Wesson from the 1880’s muzzle velocity is right at 600 fps and at 7 yards will put all five shots into 1″.
Taffin’s .38 S&W sixguns include the S&W Victory Model, Terrier, and Regulation
Police as well as the Colt Police Positive and the Colt Bankers Special.
In doing a little research I found loads in reputable manuals as high as 4.0 grains of Unique. Since this is pretty much a standard load for .38 Specials I do not want to go this high and instead have pretty much dropped back to 2.5 grains of Unique as my normal load. Factory loads using bullets in the 150-gr. range are kept necessarily mild because of so many older sixguns around, and will chronograph from 550-600 fps.
In a 4″ barrel my cast bullet loads using Lyman’s #358 311RN and #358477 SWC as well as the Oregon Trail 158 SWC loaded over 3.0 grains of Unique generally give muzzle velocities well over 800 fps. By dropping back to 2.5 grains you get a more reasonable 650 fps. Although the .38 S&W really uses .360″ bullets, standard .358″ diameter bullets work just fine.
The 5″ Victory Model I came up with was sighted for 200-gr. bullets however I decided to bring it into line with my other four .38 S&W sixguns and so a little file work was all that was necessary to sight it in for bullets in the 150-gr. range. At least 99 percent of the time old sixguns like these are for enjoyable shooting and these .38 S&W sixguns have provided a lot of pleasure over the past few months. On the upside, they are still viable for self-defense, especially the Pocket Pistol Colt Bankers Special and S&W Terrier — with the right loads. If you have solid-frame revolvers chambered for the .38 S&W and don’t reload, Buffalo Bore is now offering a serious .38 S&W loading using a 125-gr. hard cast bullet clocking out at 900 fps.
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