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Anyone carries a 38 S&W top break?

Discussion in 'Handguns: Revolvers' started by batjka, Aug 15, 2009.

  1. batjka

    batjka Well-Known Member

    Saw a 2" barreled top break revolver in 38 S&W. Seems like it would be an interesting carry option. The ballistics of the cartridge look pretty decent. Wonder if anyone carries them. How is the size compared to a j-frame?
    Any pictures would be appreciated as well.
    Thanks in advance.
  2. Old Fuff

    Old Fuff Well-Known Member

    Not carrying one at the moment, but I have carried a Smith & Wesson .38 Safety Hammerless on occasion. It has an enclosed hammer and grip safety, and is smaller and lighter then a current J-frame.

    The Smith & Wesson .38 Safety Hammerless was made from 1887 to up to the beginning of World War Two, and I consider those made during the 1920’s and 30’s to still be viable weapons.

    With the exception of Smith & Wesson's most other small top-break revolvers that copied them were pretty low quality - and most were intended for black powder cartridges. Any that you find will be at least 70 years old, and most of them are over 100. As such they don’t make a very good carry option.
  3. wnycollector

    wnycollector Well-Known Member

    H&R model 925's were made from the mid 1960's-1980's and can be found in LNIB condition for less than $200. While not as polished as Colt or S&W top breaks, they are solidly built.

    The major drawback for the .38S&W is limited, anemic and high priced ammo! The most common loading is a ~145gr RNL load that clock in ~680fps. If you reload the options for a hotter SWC (or WC???) load would make owning and carrying the .38 S&W much more viable.
  4. Japle

    Japle Well-Known Member

    Gotta be careful with top break .38 S&Ws. Some of them were made over 100 years ago for black powder. They aren't safe with smokeless.

    I had 2 of those "suicide specials" that I inherited from my step-grandfather. They were both from the 1880s and pretty beat up. I turned them in for $75 each on a gun buy-back and put the money toward a real gun. :neener:
  5. cyclopsshooter

    cyclopsshooter Well-Known Member

    i was thinking about getting one to hide inside a hollowed out book on my headboard- how do you tell the difference between a shooter and a black powder version?
  6. Oro

    Oro Well-Known Member

    Date it by the s/n. The heat treatment started around the very early 20s IIRC. The ones after '23 or so will be treated, the earlier ones will likely have become more brittle with age.

    The break-point for M&P treatment has been documented - 316xxx. I try to keep that number in my head when poking around at gun shows or elsewhere. Maybe someone knows a more exact s/n point for the break-tops, but I don't.
  7. Old Fuff

    Old Fuff Well-Known Member

    First of all, before going further - it needs to be pointed out that there are .38 Smith & Wesson's, and then there are other makes of top-break pocket revolvers chambered to fire the .38 S&W cartridge. So far in this thread I have limited my recommendation to a particular model made by Smith & Wesson.

    That was the .38 Safety Hammerless, although there was a .32 version that was smaller. The other possibility is the .38 Perfected model, which was a cross between a hand-ejector and top-break. It is interesting, but seldom seen.

    Returning to the Safety Hammerless models: The little .32’s that were made between 1909 to end of production in 1937 are safe to use with smokeless factory loads. Look for revolvers in a serial number range running from about 170,000 to 242,981. As for the .38's, look for ones made from 1907 through 1940, within a serial number range between 220,001 and 261,493.

    In all cases these revolvers did not have heat-treated cylinders, although they were made from far better material then they're competitors used. They are more then safe with current mainline manufacturers' loads, or handloads that duplicate them. When I carried a .38 I substituted a 148 grain full wadcutter bullet in exchange for the usual 146 grain lead/round nose. I never worried about the cartridge doing the job it was intended too do.

    So I am sure some of our more tactical members are by now asking, “Why would anyone in their right mind carry such a thing, when by later standards it was old, obsolete and under-powered? Well yes, it was all of that, but it pointed naturally, was completely ambidextrous, easily and quickly reloaded with a speed loader, and the recoil was quite manageable for fast, but accurate follow-up shots.

    Oh, and one was occasionally found on the person of a tactical nobody named Col. Rex Applegate. Maybe you recognize the name? :eek: :D
  8. Oyeboten

    Oyeboten Well-Known Member

    I have carried an Ivor Johnson 'Break Top' in .38 S & W years ago, or incidentally since, and recently got a Factory 2 inch, 3rd Model 'Bicycle Gun' version, also in .38 S & W.

    I believe the 3rd Model Iver Johnson 'Break Tops' were entirely re-designed, and, every bit the equal, if not superior, of S & W far as Metalurgy and ability to handle the then or since 'Smokeless' Rounds.

    If one can put one's shots where one wants them, and, with alarity...and if one really likes the Revolver all round, and is confident with it, then sure, carry it knowingly, and respecting it's merits and it's limitations...bearing in mind, it does not have a lotta 'punch' for anything less than precise shots to stop an aggressive or determined threat.


    I do not know what the Ballistics are for a 2 inch Barrelled .38 S&W Cartridge situation...

    Any one have any guesses?

    650 fps?
    Last edited: Aug 15, 2009
  9. Oro

    Oro Well-Known Member

    They never heat treated any of the cylinders on these? I thought they implemented it across the line in the early 20s (but you know better).

    Thanks for the added info - I've also toyed with getting one to carry sometimes. The virtues in them are quite strong like you mentioned.
  10. batjka

    batjka Well-Known Member

    Wikipedia lists a load of 158 gr SWC at 767 fps, developing 206 ft-lbs. That is very much into the .38 Special territory. Not anemic by any means.
  11. Old Fuff

    Old Fuff Well-Known Member

    The following comments are mostly limited to the Smith & Wesson .38 Safety Hammerless, also known as the New Departure.

    When it was introduced in 1887, a part of the grip safety was tensioned by a very-difficult-to-make flat spring. At S&W such parts were routine because labor costs weren’t that high. But after awhile they switched to a much simpler (and less expensive) coil spring.

    Fast forward. I am examining one of the last .38 Safety Hammerless revolvers made. It dates from 1939 or the early 1940’s, but has the 1890’s spring. I enquired about this and found out they were still using up parts made “back when.”

    About 4 years ago I purchased a brand new, semi-finished barrel. It was completely done except for final polishing and fitting to a frame. Yup, they were still around.

    I’ll have to see if I can find the dates when heat-treating was introduced, but it was generally during the 1920’s. The models I am aware of are the K-frame .38 Special and .32-20, and N-frame models in .38 Special, .44 Special. .45 Colt and .45 ACP. The .357 Magnum cylinders were made from a special steel alloy and double heat-treated.

    Why not the others? Because the maximum pressure of the cartridges involved didn’t require it, and heat-treating added to the expense. However they were always made from the best steel alloys that were available at the time. The greater problem with earlier cylinders was seams in the bar stock they were made from, not general weakness. Black powder burns relatively slower, and peak pressure is distributed more toward the barrel. Thus flawed cylinders better tolerated black powder over smokeless when it came to bursting. That’s why today we sometime get a dingbat that says, “I shoot EVERYTHING I got,” as he slips a modern smokeless cartridge into an antique and then wonders why the topstrap isn’t there any more… :banghead:

    Smokeless powder cartridges evolved from the early 1890’s, and by 1907 were quite common.
  12. Old Fuff

    Old Fuff Well-Known Member


    This load, and many like it are intended to be used in late production Hand Ejector revolvers, not top-breaks. If you reload be sure the data you are following is not one of these.
  13. cane

    cane Well-Known Member

    Don't forget the various Webley/Enfield revolvers of various barrel lengths that were issue weapons in WWII.
  14. Jim Watson

    Jim Watson Well-Known Member

    I would not put that heavy a load in a top-break pocket pistol, it should be limited to the hand ejectors or maybe to a big Webley or Enfield. Gotta be careful with Wiki, it is just an internet blank check not difficult to get misinformation on. Henry Stebbins wrote of a guy who made the mistake of shooting a .38 Super Police with 200 grain bullet in a top-break and kicked the latch right off the gun.

    David Chicoine, who gunsmiths them, says he would only shoot smokeless powder in .32 DA 5th model, .32 Safety Hammerless 2nd and 3rd model, .38 DA 5th model, and .38 Safety Hammerless 5th model, plus the Perfected Model; which concurs with Old Fuff's information. You gotta be careful with the exposed hammer double action S&Ws, though. They have a delicate cylinder stop and when it breaks, the gun is done for, there are no replacements.

    A lot of CAS pocket pistol side matches are shot with assorted top breaks. The IJs and H&Rs seem to hold up about as well as the S&Ws, but five shots a month is not heavy use.

    A writer once applied the various ballistic figures of merit to the .38 S&W and concluded it would be about as effective as a .380 ACP. And a lot of people depend on .380s.
  15. Old Fuff

    Old Fuff Well-Known Member

    Yes, these are much stronger (and larger) then the pocket models under construction. However the service ammunition they used was not loaded to higher then standard specifications.

    I have a friend that shoots those CAS side-matches with an Iver Johnson and downloaded ammunition. He is lusting after a S&W however, because of better accuracy. It seems that accuracy can count when they determing a winner over the also-ran.
  16. MCgunner

    MCgunner Well-Known Member

    That's okay. I'll keep my +P rated ultra light .38.
  17. Old Fuff

    Old Fuff Well-Known Member

    Well I have one of those too. But it's larger and fatter then my Safety Hammerless. Sometimes "slim is better." As for Plus-P ammunition, I don't need it. If you do go right ahead. ;)
  18. MCgunner

    MCgunner Well-Known Member

    Well, that's why I normally carry my P11 Kel Tec, though I have no problem with the .38 in a pocket. But, 11 rounds of +P 9x19 pushing 410 ft lbs a piece is nice in a 14 ounce compact gun. Near .357 snubby power with .38+P recoil and muzzle blast. I could carry a P3AT or LCP at 9 ounces if I didn't care about ballistics. Still a better round than the .38 S&W if only because of the modern loads that are available.

    Yeah, we've got better choices in carry guns now days IMHO than a 70 year old top break, but call me crazy. Just figured this thread needed an antagonist. :D
  19. Old Fuff

    Old Fuff Well-Known Member

    No, you’re not crazy, but you fail to understand that numbers on paper and affect on jelly doesn’t always determine how a shooting ends up. Good bullet placement usually does.

    So it boils down to, how accurately can you place a bullet, and how quickly can you do it?

    I have no objection to folks carrying the latest in high performance ammunition, but there are too many instances on record where in and of itself, multiple hits failed to immediately stop an aggressive attack. Of course so-called “inadequate cartridges” have failed too, but usually not when they damaged something in an attacker’s central nervous system.

    Winning is seldom because of a choice of a weapon/cartridge combination – although as a rule-of-thumb, bigger is better. But even “bigger” depends on bullet placement for sure results.

    The worst mistake one can make is to believe they have some sort of invulnerability because they carry this or that gun, loaded with the latest craze in ammunition.

    Welcome aboard...
  20. MCgunner

    MCgunner Well-Known Member

    I understand that, but I'd rather put my 410 ft lbs in the same place. I can knock down 6" falling plates 6 out of 8 shots on average, rapidly with my P11 at 25 yards off hand. I've put a lot of lead down range over the years with that gun and even used it to defend myself against a dog attack. I carried my .380 and my .38 when the cops had it for about 6 months until they dropped the charges. Could have killed a human and I reckon there'd been no questions asked. :rolleyes: But that's another story. I even shot well with it in IDPA a few times just for grins. Just because I like horsepower in my load, don't mean I can't shoot. I've won a lot of shoots over the years, was shooting expert in IDPA when I quit. I can handle a handgun better'n most, ain't no Jerry Miculek, but not many are. And, I sure couldn't shoot any better with a top break .38 S&W, though it'd be a nice collector piece to own.

    Heck, there are times I carry a .22 mini revolver because it's all I can carry, but I sure would rather have my 9 along. I usually carry both.

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