Cartridge: .38 S&W


March 8, 2012, 10:33 PM
A few weeks ago my friend told me his grandmother gave him a revolver his grandfather used to carry as a cop in a small town. I was instantly intrigued and had to see it. It was an S&W, small in size, and either stainless or nickel. The DA was amazingly smooth (I had never pulled the trigger on a DA revolver before) and the SA was naturally insanely light. My friend then said it was an odd caliber: .38 S&W. Now my friend is not a gun guy by any means, so I thought he was mistaken. However, the barrel said .38 S&W. I had never heard of this round before and was perplexed.

Fast forward to a few days ago, on aimsurplus I saw .38 S&W ammo for sale. It got my curiosity going again.

How common was this round and how did it stack up to its competition?

I'm sure you guys have far more entertaining stories and information than a wikipedia article. :)

If you enjoyed reading about "Cartridge: .38 S&W" here in archive, you'll LOVE our community. Come join today for the full version!
March 8, 2012, 10:47 PM
The 38 S&W was popular in compact revolvers from the 1880s up to the Second World War.

Like this one:

This was also the caliber of choice for Great Britain's military for several decades. It was used in Webley and Enfield revolvers like this one:

S&W supplied about a million revolvers to Great Britain during WW II. They were basic Military & Police Models in 38 S&W. Most had 5" barrels. Here's one:

S&W made the Regulation Police (4" barrel) and the Terrier (2" barrel) in 38 S&W from the 1930s until the 1970s. Slightly smaller than the J frame 38 Special revolvers, they have sort of a minor cult following. I am a member.

Most shooters would call the 38 S&W a bit underpowered for serious use. The ammo is also hard to find and pricey when you do. Makes it a bad choice for the casual shooter. If one loads his own ammo, the 38 S&W is not a problem. Cases are available and I use lead bullets sized .359" and they seem to work fine.

The 38 S&W measures .360" in bore size compared to the .357" of the 38 Special. Many of the WW II S&Ws have been reamed to accept the longer 38 Special ammo but this isn't a great idea.

March 8, 2012, 10:48 PM
38 S&W is a much older cartridge than the .38 special, and is not really related (The special is a derivative of the 38 long colt.) It was originally a black powered cartridge for small defense revolvers like you have.
The British military developed a service load from the 38 S&W specification that is known as the 38/200 or 380/200. They liked the large weight bullet (200 gr) vs the Special and Colt.
Due primarily to the use in the commonwealth this cartridge stayed fairly popular until after the war S&W even made 38 S&Ws into the 70's I think.

Most of the factory ammo is going to be loaded pretty week so to not damage those old revolvers that are built for Black Powder. The ammo costs much more than .38 special. So there is no practical reason to shoot .38 S&W instead of .38 special. But that does not mean you should not give it a try.

March 8, 2012, 10:49 PM
How common was this round and how did it stack up to its competition?

It is not common at all today, and is quite anemic by modern standards, about on par with .32 ACP performance-wise. The standard loading is a 145 gr. LRN at 700 FPS.

If he plans to shoot it much, he'll want to handload. It's not cheap ammo. Also, he needs to make sure his revolver can handle smokeless powder loads; Not all of the older guns can take it.

March 8, 2012, 11:32 PM

March 9, 2012, 12:39 AM
Thanks everyone!

The pics were a nice touch too.

He doesn't really plan on shooting very much. I know he said he wanted to shoot it atleast once, but its not a high priority for him.

March 9, 2012, 01:54 AM
I reload pyrodex .38S&W for my old I.J break top. Fun to render an indoor range unusable with!

Old Fuff
March 9, 2012, 11:43 AM
If this revolver has a square butt, and the serial number is stamped on the front of the handle part of the frame, above a screw, and also in the rear face of the cylinder and bottom of the barrel toward the back; you have a REGULATION POLICE model, and the serial number could help to approximately date when it was made.

If the above description doesn't fit then it's probably something else, and more information and a photograph would be necessary to identify it.

In any case if the cylinder swings out to the left for loading and unloading it is not a "top break" and can be fired using cartridges loaded with smokeless powder.

It would be nickel plated, as S&W never made revolvers chambered in .38 S&W in stainless steel.

March 9, 2012, 12:53 PM
This .38 S&W Safety 2nd Model was shipped in 1888. The DA trigger isn't bad at all.

Here's a pair of the same except they're 4th Models. Shipped in 1908.

March 9, 2012, 01:03 PM
Nice pictures!

March 9, 2012, 01:17 PM
My Colt Police Positive has the best trigger of any gun I've ever shot. Like everyone says, ammo isn't cheap, and since I don't reload, it doesn't get shot much.

Deaf Smith
March 9, 2012, 11:09 PM
Yep the .38 S&W has been here a LONG time!!

And this is my Webley Pocket Pistol made sometime in the early '50s. And it shoots dead on with lead .38 S&Ws. I'd be tempted to get some cast .361 lead SWCs and handload it. And I bet .360 MAK 95 gr XTP JHPS would be interesting to!


Owen Sparks
March 10, 2012, 12:22 AM

I believe that is an I Frame not a J Frame.

The difference is that the J frame holds a longer cylinder so that it can use the longer .38 Special.

March 10, 2012, 08:40 AM
I find it strangely interesting that many consider the .38 S&W to be 'anemic', and of little use in today's day and age...

Then many of the same people will argue that one needs to 'load down' so as to not 'over-penetrate' in an HD situation...

I feel the .38 S&W is perfect for HD because of it's lower power, and round nosed lead bullet...

March 10, 2012, 08:47 AM
The case on the left is a .38 S&W. The case on the right is a .38 S&W Special

S&W Victory Model

H&R 925

Colt Police Positive

148 & 158 Gr loaded rounds.

March 10, 2012, 09:53 AM
I played with some SD loads for my Terrier and went to 975 FPS with a 125 JHP from the 2" barrel. In the end I figured the miniscule difference in bulk between the I frame Terrier and the J frame in the more powerful 38 Special didn't warrant going with the smaller cartridge.

March 10, 2012, 11:57 AM

Those are BEAUTIFUL!

If you enjoyed reading about "Cartridge: .38 S&W" here in archive, you'll LOVE our community. Come join today for the full version!