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Anyone carries a 38 S&W top break?

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

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  1. batjka

    batjka Member

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    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 Member

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    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 Member

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    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 Member

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    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 Member

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    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 Member

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    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 Member

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    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 Member

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    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.

    Edit:

    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 Member

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    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 Member

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    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 Member

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    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 Member

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    Warning!!!


    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 Member

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

    Jim Watson Member

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    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 Member

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    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 Member

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

    Old Fuff Member

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    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 Member

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    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 Member

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    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 Member

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    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.
     
  21. Old Fuff

    Old Fuff Member

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    But 410 ft/lbs isn’t what buys you anything – it’s the central wound channel.



    Very good! But the last two plates will kill you. :D Also how rapid is “rapidly?”
     
  22. MCgunner

    MCgunner Member

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    Good enough to win this in a pepper popper shootout with cops from this and five surrounding counties. :D It was me against an IPSC type civilian in the shoot out. There were nearly 100 cops there and none of 'em made it to the final. :D It involved 8 pepper poppers. Each two shooters squared off, shot from outside in, had to go back after any he left before he shot the last one. The last two were arranged to fall over each other so the one that put his down first would be on the bottom. You drew from leather on the command. AND, I was using a Milt Sparks IWB to shoot it, not race leather. Like I say, I shot slow expert in IDPA, never made it to master class. I probably couldn't have anyway, but I'd been a fast expert except for having to do reloads. Reloads were my downfall. This competition didn't involve reloads....thank God.

    I don't have a timer, so I can't tell ya how fast is fast, but I'm pretty fast. I like to practice on those falling plates. Plinkin' is more fun than paper. I'll shoot paper at close range practice because I fear lead fragments off steel, though.

    And we disagree on wounding, but I don't really wanna turn this thread into that. We've been down that road before. I agree with Dr. Michael Courtney, not Fackler. I've studied and read a lot on the subject, not because I think it matters in the real world all that much, but just out of interest and my own knowledge. I say, shoot what you feel comfortable with and what you can conceal comfortably with your everyday dress. Lots of variables in what a guy chooses. Good thing there's lots of choices. But, .380 ballistics just don't give me the warm fuzzies.
     

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  23. Old Fuff

    Old Fuff Member

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    Well I'm getting a bit worried about getting jumped on by a moderator over thread drift, so I'll stop going in this direction. In closing I'll agree that .380 ballistics don't necessarily make me warm and fuzzy, but they also don't cause me to feel that I have to give up the ship.

    Someone must agree - for some months this country's supply of .380 ammunition has literally been sold out. In some places it still is, although other kinds of handsgun ammunition is becoming more available.

    Does make one wonder... :scrutiny:
     
  24. MCgunner

    MCgunner Member

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    Hey, I ain't got a problem, mods! :D See, I'm smiling? :D

    Yeah, the little .380s are ultimately carryable and concealable and make great carry guns and I reckon if you put a couple of 'em in the right spot, no problem with "stopping power". I think they're popular, though, because where else can you find a 9 ounce gun the size of a .25ACP (that I used to carry) that fires a 9mm bullet? I mean, compared to the .25, the thing should have "magnum" in its name. And, well, it is adequate for the job. I just prefer more if I can, that's all. I have a .38 Smith M10, but I'd rather hunt deer with a .357 magnum for the same reason. I've shot hogs in the trap with a .38, but .357 is a better hunting round for a good reason, it's called 1470 fps with a 165 grain SWC.

    The same logic would go for the .38 S&W in a top break if it were 9 ounces and the size of a Baby Browning, but it's not. It ain't THAT much smaller than my little alloy .38 and I don't think any smaller than my 9x19 Kel Tec. I mean, if I found one in good shame, I'd buy one just because if the price was right and it was in good shootable shape. I don't think it'd see much carry, but it'd be fun to own. I just can't see a guy (the OP) would be better off buying an old top break specifically for a carry gun when the .380 is about the same ballistically and just look at the neat little guns from Kel Tec, Ruger, and Kahr that come in that caliber. Talk about NIFTY concealment.

    Yeah, I've been thinkin' of getting an LCP for a while now, but little stuff like car repairs keep diggin' at my wallet.:banghead: Saw a P3AT for a little over 300 the other day. Now, that seems high to me, but Academy is selling LCPs for 350. The market for those little guns is NUTS and has been since November. I do have ammo and reloading dies in the caliber, BTW.

    There was a little P32 Kel Tec at a gun show a few years ago for 200 bucks. I passed on it 'cause I'd rather have a 9mm bullet than a .32 caliber one. Seems like a real steal in today's market. I think you can NEVER have too many carry options and, heck, if I had a top break .38 S&W, it WOULD be an option. I just have better options at present. But, you never know, might need it sometime. That's why I like having lots of options in my collection. I do prefer 'em all to be DA so they all work the same as far as draw and fire with DA trigger.
     
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2009
  25. golden

    golden Member

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    Don't carry

    BATJKA,

    The .38 Smith&Wesson cartridge is a bad choice for self defence in any gun. The standard round will have a slightly lighter bullet at a lower velocity than the .38 Special lead round nose load that the police carried for many years.

    In many departments, the .38 Special LRN load was known as the "WIDOW MAKER" for its lack of stopping power. MARSHALL & SANOW rated it at 50 percent stopping power from a 2 inch barrel.
    The .38 S&W will have even less power than the "WIDOW MAKER".

    About 30 years ago, GUN WORLD magazine tried a load that duplicated the British .38 Smith&Wesson load in a comparison test with other handgun rounds. It would not even penetrate the safety glass of an old car when fired from a snub nose revolver!

    While you could really improve the performance with handloads, I would never shoot them in a break open revolver.
    FEDERAL once produced a round called the 9m.m. FEDERAL. It duplicated the velocity and power of a 9m.m. +P in a revolver using what was essentially a .38 Smith&Wesson case with a 9m.m. bullet at 9m.m. pressure levels.
    This round would probably damage a break open gun and maybe the shooter as well.

    If you do not want to spend the money on a J-frame S&W in .38 Special, then I would find a CHARTER ARMS or TAURUS 5 shot model instead.

    It may be fun to shoot, but I would not carry it if I had a choice.

    Jim
     
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