Rambling Thoughts on the .38 Special
by Greg Ritchie
The 38 special descends from the 36 cap and ball < 38 Colt < 38 Long Colt < 38 Special.
[.38 Special loads, right to left - FMJ, LRN, LSWC, JHP (wikipedia image)]
The 38 special was introduced in 1898 and first chambered in the S&W model 1899 also known as the 38 Military and Police 1st Model. ***this is debated, most say it was introduced in 1902, but Roy Jinks, S&W Historian says different. I defer to him***
The 38 special was an improvement for the 38 Long Colt which is noted as the worst handgun cartridge ever adopted by the US military as borne out during the Phillipine Insurrection. The 38 Long Colt was loaded with 18 grains of black powder pushing it's 150 grain bullet at a velocity of about 750 feet per second. The 38 special used 21 1/2 grains of black powder and would push the 150 grain bullet to about 900 feet per second, however the 158 grain bullet became standard at a muzzlevelocity of 850 feet per second. Penetration in pine boards was around 2 inches more than the 38 Long Colt.
The 38 special is an easy cartridge to handload for, and a great cartridge for new reloaders to learn on. It heads paced on the rim, has straight walls and is a low pressure cartridge. It's also very accurate. It works well with many powders, but Alliant Bullseye is considered vote powder" for the 38 Special.
A few side notes:
The 38 S&W is often mistaken for the 38 Special. It's a very different cartridge though, the 38 S&W having a larger diameter bullet and a shorter case. The 38 S&W and the 38 Colts New Police are essentially the same, the Colts round having a different bullet profile.
Why is it called the 38 Special and not the 357 Special? The 38 Colt (grandfather of the 38 Special) was designed as a conversion cartridge for 36 caliber cap and ball Colt 1851 Navy Revolver. Essentially, the cylinder of the 1851 was drilled straight through. The 1851 had a chamber diameter of approximately .374 / .375. The case of the 38 Colt was made to fit this chamber and used an outside lubricated heeled bullet. The lubrication would attract debris and wipe off. This was remedied by using an inside lubricated bullet. To fit inside the case, the bullet had to be reduced in size by the case wall thickness times 2. This came out to .357. The subsequent revolvers had throated chambers and tighter bored barrels. (At least some did, others relied on hollow based bullets to blow out and engage the rifling of the now oversized barrels.) But the name stuck. Therefore the .38 refers to the approximate outside diameter of the case, not the diameter of the bullet.