Vintage Wheelguns
for Self-Defense

44

These Buffalo Bore hardcasts bring new life to lower power vintage revolvers.
British Enfield and Webley top-breaks are likely strong enough to contain modern ammo.

Bill, a neighbor, hunting partner, and certified old-timer, dropped by for coffee the other day. I was surprised when he asked for advice on a handgun for defense.

Bill said, “I’m thinking of a carry handgun. Now our state has constitutional carry, and I don’t need to get a license.”

I managed to hold back an eye roll. I’d bet a fair sum Bill hadn’t stepped out the door without something in his pocket for 50 years.

“Get a medium size 9mm semiautomatic with synthetic frame, rust resistant finish, at least 15-round magazine capacity, accessory rail for light/laser, and maybe tritium night sights, assuming you can still see the sights.”

Bill snorted derisively. “You haven’t been in a gun store for a while. The shelves are practically bare. And they told me I have to fill out a form to buy a gun! When did that happen?”

“About 50 years ago. Now they do an FBI background check too.” I remembered Bill hadn’t bought a gun since the 1960s, and they had been used guns even then.

Bill said, “I’m thinking of a revolver my Daddy had, a little S&W Regulation Police. We still have some of daddy’s stuff stored and if I looked long enough, I could probably find it. What do you think, is it a decent defensive gun?”

I was thinking, I bet you could find it all right. I could probably find it right now just by reaching into the pocket of the old hunting jacket you’re wearing. But he was asking for a lecture, and I dearly love to lecture. This is the gist of what I told Bill.

S&W Regulation Police in .38 S&W made on the Improved I-Frame.

The Overlooked .38

The old .38 S&W (also called the .38 Colt New Police) is a cartridge I’ve overlooked for years. I could never see much point in it when .38 Special revolvers and ammunition were readily available.

The .38 S&W has the same limitations as other old timers, such as the .45 Colt, .44 Special and others. Many firearms chambered for these cartridges were made when designs and materials were not nearly as strong as later firearms. When the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) sets industry pressure limits, it has to keep these old designs in mind.

The SAAMI pressure limit for the 1870s-era .38 S&W is 14,500 psi. Many of the handguns made for it were top break revolvers, some of high quality such as those from S&W, others not so much. Personally, I wouldn’t fire a pre-1900 top break except with black powder loads.

There are many fine Colt, Ruger, and S&W small and medium frame handguns chambered for the .38 S&W. Colt offered the Official Police, Police Positive and Banker’s Special in .38 S&W (pardon, .38 Colt New Police). S&W chambered the compact I-Frame with 2″ barrel (Terrier) and 4″ barrel (Regulation Police).

From left, .38 S&W; 9mm Luger; .38 Special. Similar in size,
the 9mm offers significantly more energy.

Bill’s Daddy’s Gun

I happen to have a Regulation Police in my modest S&W collection, so I got it out of the safe. “Yep,” said Bill, “My daddy’s gun looked just like yours. As best I can remember, of course.”

“Of course. This one was made shortly before S&W began stamping their guns with model numbers in 1957. Those old boys surely did know how to fit parts and polish steel. Trouble is the most common factory load is a 145-grain lead round nose bullet at about 650 fps. It would be foolish to use such ammo for self-defense.”

Bill seemed a bit uncomfortable. “Right, no one would be so foolish. What should I do, assuming I find daddy’s old gun?”

“I’d say you have two choices. Sell it to an S&W collector and use the money to buy something modern. Or if you are determined to carry it, get some Buffalo Bore ammunition. They load a hard cast, flat point 125-grain bullet at about 1,000 fps and it’s under SAAMI pressure limits. It’s great ammunition, in my view, essential in bringing some fine vintage handguns back to life.”

“There’s a third option,” Bill mused. “You could load me up a box or two of hot .38 S&W cartridges.”

“Hmmm, let me think it over. Nope. Not happening.”

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