The 1920s were a time of unprecedented economic growth in the United States, which came to a screeching halt with the advance of the Great Depression in 1929. We emerged from WWI as the reigning superpower, and the modern era had begun. It would be a decade of automobiles for the blue-collar worker, the rise of radio and the beginning of talking movies. Old traditional social morays were discarded and the decade became known as The Roaring Twenties — it was also a time of unprecedented crime. In January of 1920 the Volstead Act became the law of the land, basically stopping the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. It stopped the production and sale of legal liquor, however illegal alcohol flowed as underground breweries and private clubs known as speakeasies emerged everywhere. Men like Al Capone made millions during prohibition. Alcohol was legalized once again in 1933, however with hard economic times a new breed of criminal had arisen specializing in robbing banks.
Not only had criminals discovered fast-moving automobiles they did not hesitate to arm themselves with a gun that became known as “The Chicago Chopper” and also “The Gun That Made The Twenties Roar” — Col. John Thompson’s .45 fully automatic Thompson. Police were armed with standard .38 Special revolvers using 158-gr. roundnosed bullets with a muzzle velocity under 800 fps. They simply bounced off car bodies. The call went out to Colt and Smith & Wesson to provide better handguns for peace officers. Colt was the first to respond. They took an existing cartridge, the .38 Colt, increased the powder charge, and chambered it in the 1911 Government Model. The new .38 Super used a full metal jacketed 130-gr. bullet at 1,300 fps.
Smith & Wesson .38/44 Heavy Duty sixguns were offered in barrel lengths of 4″, 5″, and 61/2″.
The Heavy Duty
Smith & Wesson took a different path. They had been producing the standard police revolver, the .38 Special Military & Police for 30 years. With the existing metallurgy of the time period there was no way to increase the power of the .38 Special for use in this revolver. So Smith & Wesson looked to their large-framed revolver, the .44 Special Model 1926, fitted it with a .38 Special cylinder and barrel and the result became known as the .38/44 Heavy Duty. This burly sixgun could not only use standard .38 Special ammunition but the new .38/44 round as well.
This latter round was simply a hot-loaded .38 Special with a muzzle velocity of 1,125 fps. Notice in that time frame both Colt and Smith & Wesson used existing cartridges, loading them hotter, which made them dangerous to use in either existing .38 Colt semi-autos or .38 Special Colt or Smith & Wesson revolvers. They expected people to be smart enough to know which ammunition was to be used in which firearm. There were no warning labels obscenely printed on firearms, no lengthening of brass to keep it out of the older guns. Were people that much smarter in the 1920s/1930s?
Smith & Wesson’s .38/44 Heavy Duty arrived in April 1930. The standard model featured a 5″ barrel with fixed sights and it truly was a heavy-duty sixgun, having been built on the .44 platform with smaller holes drilled in both cylinder and barrel. It made the recoil of a standard .38 Special round feel like a .22, while the new .38/44 round was easily manageable. The old pre-war super-smooth long action of Smith & Wesson sixguns is legendary, and many have commented shooting the .38/44 Heavy Duty double action was made easier, as inertia seemed to take over to help rotate the cylinder.
In addition to the 5″ standard model, Smith & Wesson also produced both 4″ and 61/2″ versions. It was only a few years ago when these guns could be picked up in excellent shape for $300 or less. Those days are now gone and expect to pay at least double or more than that today. The Heavy Duty was designed with law enforcement in mind, however Smith & Wesson did not take long to realize the versatility of what they had, and in late 1931 brought out the .38/44 Outdoorsman. This was nothing more than a Heavy Duty fitted with target sights for, just as its name suggested, outdoor use. The .38/44 Outdoorsman was cataloged only with a 61/2″ barrel, however more than one peace officer had the Outdoorsman cut back to 4″ for duty use, or in this case Heavy Duty use. I have a picture of Col. Walter Walsh, who was an FBI agent prior to WWII, dated 1954 and it shows him using a 4″ .38/44 Outdoorsman.
Need a big gun? S&W had one for you!
Of course, manufacturing of the Heavy Duty and Outdoorsman ended with the beginning of World War II, however production resumed in 1946 with approximately 2,500 of each being produced, until they became the Model of 1950. The old long action disappeared with the new models which became the Models 20 and 23 respectively in 1957, when all Smith & Wessons lost their wonderful names and became numbers. Both models were removed from production in 1966.
In Major D.B. Wesson’s 1932 book called Burning Powder, we have one of the first reports on the then new .38/44s.
This particular section was written by US Navy Captain James Baldwin: “For over a quarter of a century there has been a demand for a handgun of unusual abilities, one which at 100, 200 or even 500 yards could, if necessary, in lieu of a rifle being handy, down a large animal, or be used to kill such an animal at close quarters, when the rifle had failed to kill at long ranges. It was also demanded that this handgun be a target gun of unusual accuracy and also one for personal protection, and even if heavy, so perfectly balanced that its weight would not be felt above that of a gun used solely as a protective weapon, and carried in the waistband or holster.”
I don’t know about using the .38/44 on large animals at any range!
Long action and short action compared.
This old .38/44 still shoots very well.
Elmer Keith really pushed the envelope with the .38 Special in the .38/44 Heavy Duty. He said he used what powders were available at the time, which weren’t very many, and settled on #80, which has been out of production for 70-plus years now. He used 10 grs. and shot hundreds of loads, then moved up to 11 grs., and while he said it worked well in both the .38/44 and the Colt SAA .38 Special, he decided to have it pressure tested. Sending them off to Peters Cartridge Company he found they were operating at 42,000 pounds pressure! Is that scary or what? The later .357 and .44 Magnums operate at much lower pressures than this!
A S&W 38/44 Outdoorsman and Heavy Duty. Note the adjustable sights on the Outdoorsman.
To duplicate the original .38/44 factory load I use the Keith bullet (Lyman #358429) over 11.0 grs. of #2400 for just over 1,100 fps. I also like the lighter RCBS #38-150KT (about 155 grs.) and the Lyman/Thompson #358156 gas-checked bullet all over this same powder charge. There was a time in my younger years when I had to load everything to the hilt. Today I can’t see any real reason to go over 12.5 grs. of #2400 for use in .38/44 loads except when crimping in the bottom crimp groove of Lyman’s #358156GC, I then use 13.5-gr. #2400. I have used the heavier load in heavy-framed .38s and still use it occasionally. It is for use only in .38/44 sixguns, but it’s best to use it only in .357 Magnum sixguns. For most of my .38/44 loads I prefer 12.0 to 12.5 grs. of 4227. It is mild shooting and accurate, extremely so with the RCBS #38-150KT.
The .38/44 was a great step forward, both in the two models of Smith & Wesson sixguns and the accompanying ammunition. Not only, as Captain Baldwin said, did it fulfill the need for a heavy-duty sixgun capable of target accuracy, long-range accuracy and self defense, it set the stage for the arrival of the first Magnum 5 years later.
By John Taffin