Like long-playing vinyl records, cassette tapes, and drive-in movie theatres, the once highly-popular .38 Special cartridge has faded into the shadows. As newer calibres, or perhaps more correctly, newer delivery platforms in the form of high-capacity, semi-auto pistols increasingly gained ground, the writing was on the wall for the old war horse. Or was it?
The .38 Special first saw the light of day in 1898 when it was chambered in the original Military and Police K-frame revolvers of Smith and Wesson (S&W), the most produced revolver line in history. The earliest cartridges were charged with 21 grains of black powder, but just a year later the switch to smokeless propellant took place.
This cartridge was designed as a higher velocity cartridge with better penetration potential than the .38 Long Colt used by US forces in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. During that conflict, the Americans discovered that their .38 Long Colt revolver bullets wouldn’t penetrate the shields of the insurgent Philippine Morro warriors – often with disastrous consequences – so the US Government approached Smith & Wesson to develop a new revolver cartridge. The result was the .38 Special, which pushed a 158 grain bullet 150fps faster than the cartridge it replaced.
The new calibre enjoyed immediate success, quickly becoming the choice of police departments and Federal law enforcement agencies across the United States and in other parts of the world.
The .38 is in itself a misnomer, in that its bullets are .357 inches in diameter. The original loading was a 158gr round-nosed bullet made from soft lead, launched at a velocity of about 800fps. It was the S&W K-frame revolver’s design and size that made it an immediate favourite of both law enforcement and the military in the US. Superbly accurate, it did the job that beat-cops and Federal agents wanted, and it was only in the 1920s that the call came to beef up the .38 Special, when cops started coming up against better-armed gangsters who often took cover behind cars and other barriers.
In 1930, Smith & Wesson introduced a large-frame .38 Special revolver with a 5-inch barrel and fixed sights intended for police use, the S&W .38/44 Heavy Duty. The .38/44 can be considered the first .38 Special +P round. It was simply a hot-rodded .38 Special, designed to be fired only in the bulkier, new revolver. A year later a new high-power loading, called the .38 Special Hi-Speed, with a 158gr metal-tipped bullet, was developed for these revolvers in response to requests from law enforcement agencies for a handgun bullet that would penetrate auto bodies and body armour.
The .38/44 was a fine idea, but because the only thing that differentiated it from a standard .38 Special cartridge was the head-stamp, it was inevitable that the hotter round would be fired in revolvers not designed for it, a fact that resulted in unwanted media attention and negative publicity for Smith & Wesson. This eventually led to the company developing, in 1934, a completely new cartridge with a longer case – the .357 Magnum.
It would be easy to suppose that the new, ‘most powerful handgun calibre in the world’ (which it was at the time), would topple the .38 Special from its position as law enforcement’s first choice, but that proved not to be the case.
Read the full article in the December 2019 issue of Magnum.