.38 Special

Loads For The Trail

Smith & Wesson Handgun

A light but effective .38 Special Trail Gun is this S&W Model 60 Heavy Barrel — dubbed the Trail Masterpiece. Below: The effectiveness of the .38 Special is increased greatly by upping the muzzle velocity by 150 fps or more and replacing the round-nosed bullet with a semi-wadcutter.

The .38 Special arrived around 1900 in the S&W Military & Police. It soon became the number one cartridge for law enforcement use chambered in both S&W and Colt revolvers, but performance was limited. The Roaring ’20s saw the rise of fast-moving criminals driving V-8 Fords, armed with 1911 .45 Government Models, Thompson submachine guns, and in some cases even Browning Automatic Rifles. Both Colt and S&W looked for a way to better arm peace officers. Colt came up with a new loading for what had been a standard cartridge. They simply increased the powder charge of their .38 ACP and the result was the .38 Super. S&W did the same thing by bringing out a heavier loaded .38 Special, the .38 Special High Velocity. To shoot this new loading Smith chose their Model 1926 .44 Special chambered in .38 Special. It was known as the .38/44 Heavy Duty. It was around this time Col. Doug Wesson and Phil Sharpe began experimenting with the .38/44, eventually leading to the .357 Magnum in 1935.

Before Smith & Wesson came up with the .38/44 Heavy Duty and the adjustable sighted version, the .38/44 Outdoorsman, Colt already had two revolvers capable of handling Elmer Keith’s heavy .38 Special load — his #358429 Keith bullet of around 170 grs. over 13.5 grains of #2400 — namely the Colt Single Action and New Service. The New Service was a DA revolver, larger than the S&W.

I’m more nostalgic in my old age and have recently been looking at loads for these historic revolvers that would do to wander the sagebrush. Loads able to handle anything likely to be encountered. Of course, they’re not designed for big game hunting, however a full house .38/44 would not be found wanting for close range shots on deer-sized game.
For this journey back into history my revolvers of choice are the two Smith & Wesson .38/44’s, the Colt New Service, a Colt-like USFA 51/2" .38 Special Single Action and a pair of Great Western .38 Specials, one with a 71/2" barrel and the other fitted with a Colt Single Action 51/2" barrel.


Great powders for the .38 Special trail loads are likely on most reloaders’ shelves.

Heavier Loads

My bullets of choice are the Lyman/Keith #358429 at 170 grs., the Lyman #358477 at 155 grs. and very close to the original .357 Magnum bullet designed by Phil Sharpe, the Speer 158-gr. LSWCHP, and finally a 167-gr. powder coated, gas-check hollow point bullet supplied by my friend Dick Thompson. The Speer bullet is a swaged lead bullet and is phenomenally accurate when loaded over 10 grains of #2400. In my old .38/44 Outdoorsman it clocks out at 1,025 fps and shoots 5/8" groups. Powders of choice are about as standard as you can get being Alliant’s Unique and #2400 and Hodgdon’s IMR 4227. I did not limit myself to just full house .38/44 loads which will do well over 1,300 fps in most sixguns but also looked for loads in between this high-power loading and standard .38 Special loads.

I’ve been loading for the .38 Special for over 60 years. In the 1950s it was not easy to find .357 Magnum brass, however .38 Special brass was easily obtainable so thousands of these were assembled using Elmer Keith’s Heavy Load with his bullet. I later found the Thompson Gas Check bullet was much more accurate, at least in my sixguns. Today this load is still being used with the Thompson bullet and clocks out right at 1,350 from an S&W .38 Special Outdoorsman. I would warn against the use of this load in any .38 Specials except those which are heavy frame.

Speer Ammunition

John’s most-used bullets for .38 Special Trail Loads are the Speer 158-gr. LSWCHP, the Lyman #358477, Lyman/Keith #358429 and a 167-gr. powder coated, gas-check HP.

Lighter Loads

My lightest trail load for the .38 Special is assembled with two Lyman bullet designs, the 155-gr. #358477 and the 170-gr. #358429 Keith over 5 grains of Unique. This load is about 150 fps faster than the original .38 Special loading, plus the flat nose bullets are certainly more efficient than the original round nosed. For my heavier loads I go with either #2400 or IMR 4227. The former is mostly used in charges from 10 to 12 grs. with standard primers, while the latter is normally used in charges of 11 to 12.5 grs. using magnum primers. Muzzle velocities will run from about 900 at the lower level up to about 1,100-1,200 fps at the higher levels. Accuracy is excellent while felt recoil is quite manageable. These are pleasant shooting loads for the trail and will handle both two-legged and four-legged varmints. They also work well in most .357 Magnums, of course.

For more info: https://www.lymanproducts.com, Ph: (800) 225-9626