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.
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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.