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A little clarification on the "Widow Maker"

Discussion in 'Handguns: Revolvers' started by Snowdog, Aug 20, 2005.

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  1. Snowdog

    Snowdog Member

    Dec 24, 2002
    Hendersonville, WNC
    A buddy of mine was for a short time convinced the .38 special 158gr lead round nose was a super-lethal cartridge to keep in his revolver because it had a tendency to penetrate deeply and earned the nickname the "widow maker". I informed him that to my knowledge, if the round was known for creating widows, they were most certainly the wives of the officers who were asked to trust this cartridge with their lives.

    If memory serves me correctly, this particular cartridge/loading had a horrible reputation among law enforcement and earned this name due to the lack of performance.

    Once again my memory, which historically has never been all that great, has become slightly dubious. I do believe I've read the history of the infamous 158gr .38special LRN somewhere and believe I'm correct for the most part.

    Any information on exactly how the .38 special 158gr LRN earned the name the "widow maker" will be appreciated.

    Thanks in advance.
  2. grendelbane

    grendelbane Member

    Jan 4, 2004
    Opinions on the effectiveness of cartridges have changed over the years. Most of the WWII generation thought that the .38 Special in its classic form was a great cartridge. Now, it is considered a poor choice.

    For a while, the 9mm was considered by many to be extremely potent. Now, many consider it weak. For some reason, many consider it to be a recent development, even though it was originally adopted by Kaiser Bill's military over a century ago.

    Also, the ammunition factories tend to download some cartridges over time. I believe that the .38 Special has suffered this fate.

    Prior to WWI, there were some hollow point and soft point pistol bullets offered for sale. After WWI, this line of development slowed greatly. Likewise, after WWII, more attention seemed to be paid to making the bullet go faster. Attention to good bullet design improved in the late '60s and '70s.

    There is an article in the '56 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica which says that the soft lead bullet of the .38 Special increases stopping power. These concepts were well known in the 19th century, but it seems like it is in only the last 3 decades that the ammunition manufacturers seem to have used these ideas to improve their products. Occasional exceptions along the way exist, of course.

    The RNL .38 Special is probably more lethal than the various hollow point designs most prefer. Penetration leads to more lethal injuries, and since people don't stop as quickly when hit with non-expanding bullets, they tend to get shot more with the deep penetrating bullets.

    Lethality is not related to "stopping power". The .22 is plenty lethal, and so is the .38 Special. Your opponent may return fire in the time it takes for him to die, however.

    I believe that the nickname "widowmaker", refers to the poor stopping power of the old RNL .38 loads. This does not mean that they are not lethal, however. They are quite lethal.
  3. Old Fuff

    Old Fuff Member

    Dec 24, 2002
    From the late 1920's through the 1960's the .38 Special "standard" load with a 158 grain round-nose lead bullet was carried by well over 90% of this country's law enforcement officers at all levels. As a consequence most "failures to stop or disable" occured with this cartridge, and dominated the numbers regardless of the rounds effectiveness.

    In later years much improved ammunition became available, including +P and +P+ versions. Unquestionably these are the better choice in revolvers made to use them, but at the same time it should be noted that the older .38 Sprcial loading put an awfull lot of people down for the count. All and all, it's bullet placement that counts - then and now.
  4. dfariswheel

    dfariswheel Member

    Dec 26, 2002
    As above, the old .38 Special standard load with the 158 grain round nose lead bullet gained the reputation of making widows of cops wives.

    The problem wasn't that the round wasn't lethal, it was it's reputation as a round that failed to stop the Bad Guys.

    The 60's and 70's was a time when the increased use of drugs and the number of police shootings caused a wave of "failures to stop", where criminals were hit numerous times by the load but failed to go down.

    They often died.......eventually.
    Which was of no comfort to the cops who got good, solid hits only to see the subject continue to attack or shoot.

    After a number of well-publicized law suits by police unions and police widows, law enforcement was forced to admit that the old Turn-of-the-20th Century load was not up to modern needs.

    At this time, most agencies began to issue the +P 158 grain, lead, semi-wadcutter, hollow-point load.
    This is known by a variety of names, depending on where you live as the: FBI, Federal, Chicago, New Orleans, LAPD, St Louis, etc. load.

    Street cops often referred to it as the ".38 SPLAT", for the sound it was supposed to make when it hit.

    The new +P soft lead hollow-point was and is, about the best .38 Special defense load of them all, and pretty well ended police complaints about failures to stop.
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