38-40 info needed


October 26, 2004, 01:55 PM
My son-in-law just inherited a 38-40 lever action rifle and wants to get a revolver in the same caliber. I've looked high and low and done searches but can't come up with anything. Is anybody making revolvers in this caliber. Thanks

If you enjoyed reading about "38-40 info needed" here in TheHighRoad.org archive, you'll LOVE our community. Come join TheHighRoad.org today for the full version!
Jim March
October 26, 2004, 03:06 PM
Ruger has done several limited-production runs of 38-40 single action revolvers, both Blackhawk (adjustable sights) and Vaquero (fixed). These were usually double-cylinder guns with one cylinder in either 40S&W or 10mm and the other in 38-40.


There's two Vaqs in 40S&W/38-40 combination and one in 40S&W alone.

If you find a good deal on a 40S&W or 10mm gun, the 40S&W cylinder can be inexpensively converted to either 10mm, 10mmMagnum or 38-40; 10mm cylinders can be converted to 10mmMagnum or 38-40. You would only need to ship the cylinder off to any reasonably competent gunsmith who has a 38-40 chamber reamer.

Another option:

Say you have a 40S&W Vaquero and you don't want to give up the ability to use that very common cartridge, but you also want 38-40. Take the gun to a gun show and look around for used Vaquero/Blackhawk "New Model" cylinders in some caliber smaller than 40/10/38-40. The 357Mag, 9mm or even 30carbine would do. Check the endplay, cylinder gap and timing fit on your gun until you find one that works - use the "revolver checkout thread" procedures to check fit, they'll work even though it's the wrong caliber. On average, the odds of a given Ruger New Model cylinder fitting another gun without timing or endplay mods with all parts in good condition is around 50/50 and with these guns so common, one or two gun show trips should net you a good candidate cylinder. Send that cylinder off to the gunsmith for reaming to 38-40 and bingo :).

The final option is a full caliber conversion up to 38-40 starting with a common 357 or whatever...and this could be done in just about any revolver that's got enough cylinder "beef", such as a DA S&W N-Frame six-shot 357 or a 357 single action by USFA, Beretta, Uberti, etc. Ream the cylinder bigger and swap barrels...any decent gunsmith can handle that, although prices are significantly higher than just a cylinder ream. Still, an S&W model 28 converted to 38-40 would be way cool and very weird :). It *might* be practical on an S&W L-Frame (six shot, not seven!) platform or the GP100...you'd be pretty low on cylinder wall thickness but then again it's a low-pressure cartridge...consult a competent gunsmith before going that route.

NOTE: in some cases, Ruger has shipped "double cylinder" guns such as 44-40/44Mag or 357/9mm where the barrel specs are a close but imperfect match, leading to one caliber or the other shooting poorly with at least some ammo. This is NOT the case with the 40/10/10Mag/38-40 family - they really do all use the same barrel so there's no accuracy compromise.

October 26, 2004, 03:24 PM
Thanks so much Jim, this will let him know where to start.

October 26, 2004, 03:50 PM
Many of the Italian makers of SAA replicas chamber models for .38/40, as it has some sizeable following amongst the Cowboy Costume Show crowd. With some astute gunshow trolling, you might even be able to find one relatively cheaply due to the fact that the .45 Colt and .44/40 examples move quicker.

There are even a few early DAs out there chambered for it, like the Colt DA Army "Frontier" and New Service. Also some examples of the S&W HE 2nd Model that were so chambered, but they are relatively rare.

IIRC, most if not all of the Ruger .40 S&W - .38/40 convertibles were special contract runs for Horton's and the like. I don't know if they are or were ever a regular catalog item. Either a Vacquero or a Bisley would probably hold up to a lot of use better than most of the SAA clones, IMO.

Jim March
October 26, 2004, 06:55 PM
Exactly, the 38-40 Blackhawks/Vaqs were never Ruger factory cataloged, they were done in special runs of 500 to 1,000 for various distributors (Davidson's mostly, some Horton's, maybe some Lipsey's?) but they do turn up on the various online gun source places fairly often. Enough different runs were done that they outnumber the Italian SAA clones in 38-40 by a big margin.

The 38-40 is actually a neat cartridge in that it delivers 40S&W external ballistics at low pressures - to the point where you open the loading gate, point the nose up, spin the cylinder and the rounds all drop free assuming a clean gun and a mild cylinder bore polish. And being very slightly bottlenecked, rounds drop into the gun pretty fast too...you can make a good argument that this is the best self defense caliber possible on the SAA/Vaq platform for these reasons, when you handload to get 40S&W performance. I suspect that this "bottleneck speed loading issue" was one reason the Old West civilian market seemed to have a preference for 44-40 and 38-40 over the 45LC - only the military's use of the latter ensured it would be a contender.

Even at that performance level (155gr. @ 1,100fps or so with a JHP) you're not going to tear up a good quality SAA clone like the USFA or Beretta Stampede any time soon. Esp. not if most of your practice is in lead "cowboy grade" fodder.

Reloading the 38-40 apparantly takes a bit more care not to crush it but given the availability of modern high-quality Starline brass, this is less of an issue than it used to be from everything I've read.

October 26, 2004, 07:55 PM
Let me add that 38-40, while a wonderful round to shoot, is a bit of a pain to reload.

The other major problem is that most of the older guns, figure pre-1964, are rifled for lead bullets, and will not shoot jacketed rounds well. My Colt's will shoot heavy lead bullets into 4" circles at 25 yards all day long. But jacketed stuff goes all over the place. You may just want to advise him to buy an old Colt. Certainly he will not loose any money on it in the future.

Last, the ammo is expensive (mainly due to the pain of loading) compared to any other "cowboy" caliber.

October 27, 2004, 01:11 AM
Finding a Ruger from one of the special runs isn't too tough. The 38-40 has very thin brass. While the Starline brand isn't terribly thicker, it is the best stuff out there.


October 28, 2004, 12:22 AM
If your son in law is not necessarily looking for a singler action revolver both Colt and S&W have made double action 38-40 revolvers. The S&W's aren't at all common, but the Colt New Service is fairly easy to find in this chambering.

Unlike the experience that Traveler reports, my 1920 manufactured Colt New Service shoots both lead or jacketed bullets well.


October 28, 2004, 12:29 AM


Could someone explain that to me?

Is that some sort of cartridge that can be used in both .38 and .40 caliber guns?

October 28, 2004, 01:39 AM
A New Service is a great idea! They can still be had at a reasonable price.

Jim March
October 28, 2004, 01:55 AM
JPL: late 19th Century US calibers often had a surprisingly good naming system.

The first number was the bore. The second was the number of grains of black powder used to push the standard weight round.

It worked well in part because for a given caliber, there usually wasn't a broad range of projectile sizes and types like we have now. And you could compare the size and power level at a glance.

As one example, in rifles you had the 45-70 fairly common round, plus the longer and more potent 45-90, 45-110, etc, all for the big single-shot "Bufallo rifles" although a few 45-70 repeating (lever) rifles were made late in this period. There was the 44-40, 38-40 and 32-20 all meant for smaller grade lever rifles and were also commonly chambered in handguns.

Many more. All this needed to go away with smokeless and the modern variations of projectile types and weights available...but some of these calibers persist with the 45-70 being probably the most common.

October 28, 2004, 07:17 AM
"The first number was the bore. The second was the number of grains of black powder used to push the standard weight round."

Which is generally true as you explained, except in the case of .38-40. The .38-40 uses a .40 cal bullet and was originally loaded with 40 gr of BP.

Jim March
October 28, 2004, 07:38 AM
The "38 versus 40 bore size difference" in this case is probably related to a heeled bullet in the ancestral mix.

Same reason the 38spl is .357, the 44Russian/Special/Magnum family is .429, etc.

October 28, 2004, 09:42 AM
Jim--If the 38-40 is a pretty good round for self defence and about equal to the 40S&W, how does the 44-40 rate??? A better than S&W40? That is the question. Off topic rambling to follow. Need not read.----
Thanks, Tom
I once had a collection of 44-40 Winchesters (92s and 73s) and one Colt 44-40 1st gen. single action. Also had 1 (one) box of 44-40 ammo. (d-i-v-o-r-c-e)

Jim March
October 28, 2004, 10:24 AM
Well...the annoying thing about .44-40 is that it's proper barrel bore dimension is .427" whereas the 44Spl/Mag is properly .429.

Despite that, "double caliber" guns by Ruger and others have shipped, but generally with .429 barrels, sometimes the throats on the 44-40 cylinder all screwed up, and poor accuracy overall. (The proper throat size appears to be a matter of some dispute?) Accuracy didn't always suffer, but it was often enough so that Ruger has completely abandoned the 44-40 due to complaints. As has Beretta (Stampede no longer ships in 44-40.

The 38-40 on the other hand is 100% projectile-compatible with the 40/10mm modern rounds :). And everybody seems to be working off a close enough set of blueprints...

So while the 38-40 is maybe down on peak power a bit vs. the 44-40, you get one guess as to which one I'd want to mess with!!!

October 28, 2004, 11:08 AM
Jim-- Just ballisticly speaking. So if the 38-40 equals the modern 40 S&W, the 44-40 must surpass?? The 44-40 is about 100 years older and superior? Yes, I know the case is vastly different, but just from the practical point of view, those old guys must have had some potent handguns. You would think I had no idea where to find a ballistics chart but it's more fun and a lot easier to ask someone who already knows the answer. So, thanks.---Tom

Jim March
October 28, 2004, 03:44 PM
Think of the 44-40 as "44Special, but not as good" in the following respects:

1) Oversize bottleneck case is a reloading pain.

2) Bigger but no more powerful...

3) Funky projectile size (limited stuff available in .427).

4) The "not quite a normal .429" spec means that a lot of "stupid hybrid" guns got built that had 44Special/Mag spec barrels on what was supposed to be a 44-40 cylinder. Ruger was by no means the only offender. If that's what you end up with, you're limited to your own handloads for decent performance and it still may be so bad you'll never get it right.

In it's day, the 44-40 was better than it's contemporary, the 44Russian. But in the early 20th century when the Russian was stretched and beefed to the Special, it surpassed the 44-40 in practicality.

The 38-40 isn't really all that practical either, EXCEPT that the bottleneck shape crams into an SA loading gate faster than just about anything else. And at least with the 38-40, your projectile choices are excellent and there's no confusion over the exact specs.

October 28, 2004, 04:37 PM
"The "38 versus 40 bore size difference" in this case is probably related to a heeled bullet in the ancestral mix.

Same reason the 38spl is .357, the 44Russian/Special/Magnum family is .429, etc."

The .38-40 doesn't use a .38 or .357 bullet. It uses a true .40 cal bullet. If they were using the heeled bullet measurement it would have been something on the order of a .43.

October 28, 2004, 04:41 PM
Didn't mean to hijack this topic. I am not a fan of the 44-40 nor do I now (weeping) even own a 44-40. I was just surprised at the performance of the topic caliber, the 38-40 and wondered about the 44-40. But now you raise another question. The plain old .44 Special in factory loads is on a par with the mighty .40S&W??? Feel free to tell me to go find ballistics chart. It is the progress or lack off in handgun cartridges that has me asking all these questions. Other than the .357 and the .44 mag (forget the .500s and other rounds chambered for 7 pound "handguns") it appears to me that progress (ballistics, at least) stopped about 100 years back. The .45 long Colt being what it was as compared to the .45 ACP. Wrong????-----Tom

October 28, 2004, 04:59 PM
Thanks for the explaination.

My head hurts...

But, I recognize the .44-40 as being one of the calibers of the Old West.

I had always heard that it was about as powerful, or a little more powerful, than the .45 Colt, and that one was pretty powerful.

.44 Special?

What's so special about it? ;)

Bad Flynch
October 30, 2004, 11:15 PM
Just bought two of the .38-40/40S&W Ruger convertibles from Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna, GA. Contact Terry Carter if you want some. He might still have some.

They are good samples, but both of them will need to have the undersize cylinder throats reamed for best results. Ruger does this on thier .38-40s, .44-40s, and .45 Colts fairly regularly, so it is not unexpected.

The rest of the guns are quite good and will make a fine basis for tuning.

October 31, 2004, 11:54 AM
Yes the good old .38-40 is the exception to the rule in nomenclature.
The original loading was 38 grains of black powder. Making the naming of it sort of backwards.

Shortly after it's introduction the load was increased to 40grains of powder. This pretty much stuffed the case full. Today we would refer to a load like that as a compresse charge.
There were some problems with the 40 gr loading causing the soft cupped primers of that era to flow back into the firing pin holes of the earlier revolvers.
Both loads were listed for years in catalogues. Usually blackpowder loadings where the powder charge wasn't additionally listed used the lowder 38 grain loading.

Today the .38-40 is the bassackward stepchild of the old western calibers. It is very overlooked and it's a shame. It was and is a very good cartridge.
Even 100 years ago there was a good market for a "mid-bore" cartridge.

As a side note.
When Jeff Cooper & Commrades were originally designng the Bren Ten it was Remington Soft Point .38-40 bullets they used. They were the only .40" bullets available back then.

With all of the .40 caliber bullets available today the .38-40 could become a serious contender again.

If you enjoyed reading about "38-40 info needed" here in TheHighRoad.org archive, you'll LOVE our community. Come join TheHighRoad.org today for the full version!