Friday, January 9, 2009

Friday's Catch of the Day - 38 Special

Evolution through revolution. The beginnings of the .38 Special cartridge began before the turn of the last century. During the Philippines Campaign, which began in February 1899, the .38 Long Colt cartridge used by the U.S. Army, failed to stop a Moros uprising led by Filipino Emilio Aguinaldo. The fact that the Moros were usually higher than a kite, was only one factor in the guerrilla warfare that ended up being higher in body count and cost than the entire Spanish-American war. Historians have little doubt that any handgun/ammo combination available back then could have had reliable stopping power against the "one true believers" strung out on drugs and carrying thick wooden shields.
That battle was over in 1901 when Ohio born General Frederick Funston captured Aguinaldo on March 23 of that year at Palanan. Yet the development of an improved .38 caliber round was high on the list "must do's". Hoping he could convince the US Army to adopt it, a man by the name of Daniel B. Wesson designed the .38 Smith & Wesson Special cartridge. It contained 3.5 more grains of black powder (typically18 grains to 21.5 grains) than the .38 Long Colt and increased the projectile weight by 8 grains because of its flat base bullet. (Jihad this!) By keeping relation between the bullet and groove diameters to a much tighter tolerance, the previously required expansion of the bullet’s skirt on firing was no longer necessary. Weight increased as did strength.

Mr. Wesson, was unfortunately, a bit late, for the Army had already got their hands on a .45 caliber round for handguns of the future. By the end of 1899, the .38 Smith & Wesson Special cartridge, together with the new S&W Military & Police revolver, was introduced to the public. Soon most police departments in the United States adopted what became more popularly known as the .38 Special, where it remained the premier law enforcement handgun cartridge until the 1970s, when the .357 Magnum began to replace it as a service round . Only a minority of US police departments now issue or authorize use of the .38 Special revolver as a standard duty weapon, most having switched to the higher-capacity and faster-reloading semi-automatic pistols in 9mm Parabellum. Though I know a few lawmen who still carry their .38 as a backup.

Smith &Wesson, introduced their 38/44 revolver in the 1930's using, in it's heyday, the 158-grain lead bullet as the most commonly employed projectile. Unfortunately and too frequently, this bullet would yaw 180 degrees in living tissue and end its travel in the body base forward, making it a poor performer in soft tissue. Since it does not expand, and could travel 21 inches in soft tissue, the problem of exiting the target and hitting an innocent bystander was ever present.

When expanding hollowpoint ammunition was developed, the .38 Special’s wound ballistics potential began an upswing. In the beginning, these bullets were driven at such high velocities that they invariably over expanded and thus under penetrated. (Don't you hate when that happens). But in recent years, thanks to research at the Army's Wound Ballistics Laboratory at the Presideo, they are now producing bullets that reliably expand to no more than twice their original diameters at moderate velocities up to +P velocities.

If you have the P85 Police Undercover .38, one of the .38 Special ammunition you can stuff into the cylinder of your weapon is Federal’s so-called “FBI Load.’” This features a 158-grain lead hollow-point bullet with a muzzle velocity of 880 fps from a 4-inch barrel. This bullet will reliably expand to .59 caliber, at this velocity and somewhat less, and penetrate into soft tissue as much as 13 inches. Certainly a good ammo for self protection as opposed to simple target practice. Another up and comer is the banging

One of the more popular .38 rounds getting lots of attention for self-defense purposes is the Speer Gold Dot .38+p 135 grain JHP optimized for the short barrel. It's a round that will reliably penetrate and expand from a short-barrel revolver. Another popular choice is the classic 158 grain lead semi-wadcutter, which was carried for many years by numerous law enforcement agencies. There are others and I hope my readers will chime in with ones they've found fitting the job.

Whatever brand of ammo your preference, for concealed, you want a tight, strong gun that doesn't sacrifice stopping power for compact size. Be sure, your favorite little belt-fed just doesn't go with that little black dress any more than it will fit in your nightstand.

Whether you carry concealed every day or just once in a while, you need something that fits the mission, with a minimum of lawyer exposure. With 148-grain bullets, the .38 Special revolver shoots directly to the point of aim, making it a dinner companion you will feel safe with, wherever you go, and for many years as you carry it.
This one is 15 years old, and like a some of the older S & W's, this Taurus seems to just fire much more smoothly than some of the newer models. This model is a self-defense favorite, built on a hammer-forged frame +P rated for duty use. It makes for an uncomplicated carry, even when confidently packing five rounds of extra powerful .38 Special +P ammunition.

Even if you don't find an older one, the concealed hammer and double-action only options on the steel models still have comfortable grips, optional factory porting and the low profile sights. The sights are no better or worse than any snub nose configured for concealed carry, but are trouble-free.
This one original, but has had a Wolf spring kit installed and the trigger redone. It breaks at 2.5lbs single action. Accurate for a snubby, it will shoot under four inch groups at 5o feet with an experienced shooter. The trigger is smooth, which is good for double action shooting.

When fired offhand using a strong, two-handed Weaver hold, slow-fire, double-action shooting will produce groups under 3 inches for a somewhat practiced shooter. Yes, picking up the cadence will increase the group size — and this is how you should practice it. If you're using a gun from concealed it's because you need to. NOW. You should never attempt match level target accuracy in stress environments. Going for all your shots within the approximately 8x12-inch area of the target’s upper torso (the“center of mass” as you hear it called) with as much speed as practical is far more important than obtaining perfectly aimed 1-inch groups.

You also need to practice in varying lights, from different angles and from holster if the range allows. I know without a doubt that if I'm attacked by a piece of paper in broad daylight at 20 feet I'm going to nail him through the heart. First shot. In real life, that's not going to be the case. As the best shooters I know have recommended, practice in varying light settings, in varying weather. Try a pin shoot, or a steel plate shoot. My first one was laughable, but I learned a lot and had a ton of fun after I got over my unwarranted fear of looking foolish (everyone at those events is nothing but supportive). Remember, your targets may not be anything to write home about at the range, but in an actual defense scenario, shoot this way and YOU will be in a position to write home.


  1. Well done Brigid, on account of your post, I have a date with my snubbie this afternoon!

  2. Brigid,

    Excellent summation of the .38 special and the snubnosed revolver.

    While .357 Magnum is my favorite caliber, I have more handguns chambered in .38 special than any other caliber, bar none - even .22LR.

    I need to start reloading...

  3. Good one. I have a Tarus DAO internal hammer stubbie. According to Gun Test mag, Buffalo Bore ammo fired from a 2" stubbie has comparable ballistics and penetration to a .357.

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis.

  4. Really nice revolver, Brigid. Matt G some months ago wrote about Buffalo-bore's 158gr LSWCHP ammo designed for short-barreled revolvers. It's available in standard and +P versions. The ammo was derived from the Speer Lawman loads that are getting harder to find. I ordered my ammo from Buffalo-bore over the internet.

    I load the +P ammo in my 2 1/2" M13 and standard in my 2" M442.

  5. Wonderful run-through of a great caliber.

    I'm also a big fan of many of the guns made by Taurus. There are exceptions, but its hard to beat the value/cost analysis. You can get alot of quality bang for your buck.

  6. One of the best of the .38 Special defense rounds for non-Plus-P rated handguns is the Federal Nyclad 125-grain hollow point. It was discontinued for a while, but is not being produced again after many requests. For someone owning an older .38 Special revolver not rated for +P (or even someone wanting less recoil yet effective stopping power) the Nyclad is a fine round.

  7. Oh, and as to the Moros: Black Jack Pershing came up with an effective solution to THAT problem.

    *laughs uproariously*

  8. Nice essay. I also like the .38 Special in a snubbie revolver, though I no longer own one. But there is a gun store on the way home.


  9. While many Smith purist will never touch a Taurus, I've found their revolvers,having owning many, to reasonable prices, while not sacrificing quality.

    My favorite is the M85 .38 Spcl snub nose revolver.

  10. Nice write-up on the 38 special. It is still my favorite in all its forms. Some day you should take on the 38/44 High Speed round and discuss it as your writing style is great. As a 38/44 collector every time I shoot one of my 1930's Heavy Duty's it brings a smile to my face. Not like when I shoot my Registered Magnum but then that is a different story.

    Please keep up the excellent work!

  11. The United States Gun Owners Association is UP and running, you and your readers are invited!! We need ALL the help we can get!

  12. Excellent post! Thanks for the info.

  13. Speer .38 Special +P 135 Grain Short Barrel Hollow Point.

    It meets all of the IWBA/FBI criteria. In short, it simply does exactly what it is supposed to do.

    At this point, I see no reason to carry anything else in a snub. (Ok, ok, I carry the 200 grain version in the .44 special)

    The 135 SB round is the one my wife carries in her Taurus 85, and the one she will carry in her new Dan Wesson .38 Snub.

    Yeah, I finally found one.

  14. Next post is GET A GRIP - how to change out a grip without valium, chocolate or a gunsmith.

    Now you may not need the chocolate, but it does make things more enjoyable.

  15. Excellent article...well done. Why beat around the bush, will you marry me?

  16. Chocolate is essential to life. Like bacon. the mushroom

  17. It has been 20 plus years since I did any research on the Philippine insurrection but if memory serves, and a lot of times it does not, the conflict actually lasted 14 years.
    After securing Aguinaldo's aid against the Spanish in the Spanish-American War, the U.S. didn't exactly leave the Philippines to Aguinaldo as he kind of believed we would and thus led his revolt.
    We fought the Filipinos for two years and finally defeated them in 1901. With Aguinaldo's capture, all of the ports and most of the cities and villages became ours.
    However, the Filipino capitulation and Aguinaldo's surrender didn't include the jungles inhabited by the Moros. It was over the next 12 very bloody years that we saw the shortcomings with the U.S. .38 Army against the tribesmen.
    The Moros were Muslim but for centuries, even before their conversion to Allah, they had a reputation as fierce warriors. They would take home-brewed forms of Speed and Amphetamines just before they went into battle. Many accounts were reported by our soldiers as fighting on even after they had received fatal wounds. Apparently with their Muslim conversion to they forgot about the no drugs part of the religion.
    There is an old image I have seen that depicts an Army Lieutenant in campaign hat, surrounded by tribesmen calmly dropping them with his new .45 Government, circa 1913. I would love to find a copy of it again.

  18. I've got a newer model 85 and love it. Just so darn convenient to carry, plenty of firepower and reasonable accuracy.

    .38's are my bread and butter when it comes to handguns. I just seem to keep accumulating them. Got stuff in .357 but I lump them into the same group. Hard to beat a good wheelgun.

    When I moved South we took my M85, M66 and Wifeys Charter Arms Pink Lady. That leaves our pistol ammo logistics very simple. Lots of .38 ammo plus a few rounds of .357 to keep in the big M66.

    If for some strange reason I could only have handguns in one caliber it would be .38.

  19. Speaking of Taurus, I gave my daughter a Model 605 in .357 Mag some years ago as a concealed carry piece. Since it has a 2" barrel and she is a little shit (5' 0") the .357 Mag rounds were too punishing for accurate shooting. So I gave her .38+P to reduce the recoil but make it more potent than a .38 since the weapon only has a 5 shot capacity.

  20. I finally put a few rounds through my 642 while I was out hunting two weeks ago.

    Ouch. My wrist was fine, but my trigger finger smarted. Don't know that I could handle much more fun than that. It's amazing that many tout the little snubbies as women/newbie's guns.

    As I recall, the Moros also usually bound their bodies, which would reduce penetration and limit blood loss.


  21. "Remember, your targets may not be anything to write home about at the range, but in an actual defense scenario, shoot this way and YOU will be in a position to write home."



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