.38 S&W (The Other .38)
If you’ve ever paged through a reloading manual or a copy of Cartridges of the World, you’ll find a lot of the smaller non-mainstream handgun cartridges described as useful for “taking small game” but little is said about their potential effectiveness in an anti-personnel role. Like most of these cartridges, they exist in the twilight between “insufficient” and “suitable” when considering their self-defense utility. The reasons for using them in that role are often based on some kind of trade off between size or cost but in the case of the .38 Smith and Wesson, it may simply be that the gun in question is available as a relic from some former life and other better options are not (or would require money that’s not available).
The .38 Smith and Wesson cartridge enjoyed a respectable 100 year service life as it evolved from the weaker black powder pocket pistol cartridge to a more potent military round in its day using heavy bullets and smokeless powder. Other names for the cartridge exist like “.38 Colt New Police”, “.380 Rim”, and “.380-200” depending on the market and manufacturer.
While the guns slowly fade into obscurity, so many have been made and remain serviceable that new ammunition can still be found if you look hard enough. This author is aware of no firearms currently produced in this caliber and the few sources of factory ammunition available can universally be counted on to be of the type safe enough for use in the least common denominator of those guns. Fragile break top revolvers from the end of the black powder era were often made by companies that did NOT make a name for themselves in the pages of gun-making history and the phrase “wall hanger” is frequently applied to them if they show functional imperfections.
When it can be found, expect to pay a lot for new factory ammunition which will consist of a ~146 grain lead round nose with muzzle velocities in the 600-700 feet per second range. Such rounds will be accurate, have low recoil, and tend to cause a report that’s very mild, even if the shooter forgets their ear protection. While these may perform on par with modern cartridges like .380 ACP or 9x18mm Makarov, reloading is essential if affordability or enhanced performance is desired. I’ll set aside the oft’ stated concerns over using hand-loaded ammunition for self defense except to say that I am aware of more cases where a particular choice of a powerful caliber/cartridge (such as 10mm Auto or “Magnum”) was an issue in a shooting incident. In any case, the gun you have when you need it is still better than the best gun that’s not at your disposal!
While care is indicated in reloading for any firearm that is particularly old or of some type of fragile design (such as a break-action), extending the capabilities of an old cartridge through reloading is best left to solid framed guns of excellent quality. The predecessor to the J-frame is the I-frame and, like the early Colts, is shorter than and not as sturdy as those later designs intended to handle the .38 Special. My preference is K or J framed Smith and Wesson revolvers that were eventually adapted to handle .38 Special, +P, and even .357 Magnum chambering, although other promising candidates can be found like the Colt Police Positive for example. Perhaps the most commonly available of these is the Smith and Wesson Victory model, based on the K-frame and made in large numbers to handle the WW2 British military load which was originally a 200 grain Lead Round Nose but ultimately deployed as a 178 grain full metal jacket. Whether as issued or rebuilt for post-war use, these guns will handle any published load for the .38 S&W and can be expected to give continued faithful service to the shooter.
The S&W Victory Model is the author’s choice of test guns if wanting to handload the .38 S&W to its (safe) potential.
Technically, the .38 S&W bore diameter is slightly larger than that of .38 Special and .357 Magnum but in practice, components intended for the latter will work well enough. Some of these early guns were actually re-chambered for .38 Special after the war, although the practice is no longer considered appropriate and guns with this modification may be less desirable. Because the .38 Special cartridge is longer but not quite as “fat” as the .38 Smith & Wesson, cases fired in these modified chambers tend to show a characteristic bulge in the middle. When reloading for the .38 Smith and Wesson, using a hollow based wad cutter bullet is an excellent place to start because any potential loss in accuracy from bore/bullet dimensions will be mitigated by the swelling of the open bullet base to take up the slack. Also, typical wad cutter bullets are in the same weight range as the 146 grain factory bullets so they can be expected to give similar performance. The one caveat is seating dept; fully seating wad cutters into a short .38 S&W case can cause a number of problems best avoided by duplicating the original cartridge over-all length.
The full wad cutter (left) and the round nose are loaded to the same LOA.
Among reloading manuals, the wad cutter loads described are also accompanied by heavier (158 grain) semi-wad cutter loadings. As with many of these lower powered cartridges, the .38 S&W may not ever achieve enough velocity to reliably expand modern hollow point bullets. As such, it’s often best to improve performance by going the other direction and getting heavier solid projectiles that will at least maximize penetration and possibly increase their effect by tumbling as they lose their in-flight stability on impact with the target. Published loads for the original 175-200 grain military loads are as hard to come by as the bullets; however, I’ve had some success with a 190 grain flat point loaded over a published charge of powder intended for a 200 grain bullet. This particular round sailed directly through tissue simulant without the slightest deflection and could be counted on to be the most effective against larger animals than the round was ever intended. I wouldn’t take it into bear country but a feral dog or hog might be suitably handled with one or more of these if properly placed by the shooter. As was said before, this level of ballistic experimentation should NOT be done with older, weaker, break top or smaller frame guns.
Here we see the 9x19mm (right) next to the handloaded .38 S&W with a 190-gr. LFP. Though similar in size, the 9x19mm is loaded to considerably higher pressures and data for it must never be thought of as a substitute for the other!
Here we can see penetration results in tissue stimulant.
One final observation that bears mentioning if one is in the habit of reloading commingled brass; the .38 S&W cartridge is very close in size and shape to the 9mm Luger which, because they are rimless, can become stuck in the resizing die quite easily if not properly sorted. Along with this caveat, I’m ever hopeful that someday the I-frame revolver might be resurrected with modern materials and engineering to accommodate the modern 9mm Luger in a smaller/lighter revolver than the current crop of available .38 Special offerings. Some kind of “smaller than Chief’s Special” in a more up to date cartridge like the 9mm +P could become the new ultimate backup wheel-gun in this era dominated by smaller semiautomatic pocket pistols.