The .38 Smith & Wesson (.38 Colt New Police)

By Chuck Hawks

Smith and Wesson devised this black powder cartridge in 1877. It was intended for the relatively weak top-break Smith revolvers of the period. Colt also chambered revolvers for the cartridge, which they called the .38 Colt New Police. As I understand it, the only difference was the flat-nose lead bullet loaded in the Colt version of the cartridge. (The S&W version used a 145 grain round-nose lead bullet.) Both claimed a muzzle velocity (MV) of 730 fps and a muzzle energy (ME) of 173 ft. lbs.

There was also a variation of the .38 S&W called the .38 Super Police or .38/200. These used a 200 grain LRN bullet at a MV of 620 fps with 176 ft. lbs. of energy.

In the late part of the 19th Century and the early years of the 20th, the .38 S&W/.38 Colt New Police actually did see considerable use by police in the US. But after the introduction of the more powerful .38 Special in 1902, it began to fade as a service cartridge.

The .38 S&W hung on for many years in various compact revolvers. These were made by a number of companies in the US and Europe. In the US, S&W and H&R continued to offer snub-nose revolvers chambered for the .38 S&W well into the last quarter of the 20th Century, more than 100 years after the cartridge's introduction.

In addition, during the 1920's the British Army adopted an Enfield revolver chambered for the .38 S&W as a service sidearm, intended as a replacement their old .455 Webley revolvers. They used the .38 S&W in World War II.

Current Remington and Winchester factory loads for the .38 S&W call for a 145-146 grain LRN bullet at a MV of 685 fps and a ME of 150 ft. lbs. It is worth noting that the .38 S&W uses a .360" diameter bullet, not the common .357" bullet used by the .38 Special and .357 Magnum. The .38 S&W case is consequently larger in diameter than the .38 Special case, and the two rounds are not interchangeable. Cut down .38 Special cases should not be used to reload .38 S&W ammunition. They will bulge and often split when fired. Conversely, .38 S&W ammo will not chamber in a .38 Special cylinder.

Reloaders have found that .357" swaged lead wadcutter bullets (as sold by Speer and Hornady for .38 Special target loads) are a pretty good choice for .38 S&W reloads. These relatively soft bullets will usually expand enough to fit the grooves in .38 S&W barrels when fired. The Speer Reloading Manual No. 13 shows that their 148 grain bevel base wadcutter bullet can be driven to a MV of 701 fps by 2.5 grains of Bullseye powder, and 747 fps by 3.4 grains of Bullseye. These loads used Winchester cases and CCI 500 primers, and were tested in a 4" revolver barrel.

Practically speaking, it is hard to see where the .38 S&W fits in today's world. Weak top-break revolvers are no longer manufactured. Virtually all snub-nose revolvers made today are chambered for the superior .38 Special cartridge. Factory loads are available only with inefficient LRN bullets, making the .38 S&W a poor choice for personal defense, and brass for reloading is hard to come by. The future does not seem bright for the .38 S&W.

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Copyright 2002, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.