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Old 07-01-2013, 09:35 AM
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Cartridge Discussion: .38 S&W, Ghost From Bygone Times Cartridge Discussion: .38 S&W, Ghost From Bygone Times Cartridge Discussion: .38 S&W, Ghost From Bygone Times Cartridge Discussion: .38 S&W, Ghost From Bygone Times Cartridge Discussion: .38 S&W, Ghost From Bygone Times  
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Default Cartridge Discussion: .38 S&W, Ghost From Bygone Times

This was originally posted on another forum years ago and subsequently lost. It was found again within an old email reply from 2007, sent by a correspondent to whom I'd previously sent a copy. It comes back to life with additional new data.



An ancient handgun cartridge, the .38 S&W was developed, surprisingly enough, by Smith & Wesson in 1875 and first marketed in their .38 Single Action First Model, a top-break, spur trigger revolver. It proved to be a very popular round in its heyday, being featured in revolvers both of quality make and in the inexpensive suicide specials. This popularity didn’t wane to any significant degree until after World War II. Originally charged with black powder, it easily survived the transition to smokeless powder with its popularity intact. Colt appropriated the design, naming their version the .38 New Police. The British military establishment embraced it as the .38/200, loading it with an abnormally heavy 200 grain bullet and pronouncing it to be equal in effectiveness to the .455 Webley. Saying it’s so doesn’t make it so, but the Empire made use of the cartridge for the next 32 years.

Until recent years countless thousands of top break .38 S&W revolvers lurked in bureau drawers and on closet shelves. I am of the opinion that most of these may be now found lurking at the next Dallas Market Hall Gun Show or a show nearest you. The twentieth century saw some really nice .38 S&W revolvers brought out that still could serve as a collectible shooter, historical military curiosity, or could even be pressed into service as a close-in defense weapon.

Performance? Not the Worst Handgun One Could Be Stuck With.


The Baltimore City Police apparently though enough of the .38 S&W to arm its policemen with the aforementioned Smith & Wesson Single Action First Model, which served them from 1876 until 1917.

The stubby .38 is roundly sneered at by all who even bother to comment on it. Modern factory loads as provided by Remington and Winchester are anemic out of concerns that certain reckless elements in the gun fraternity (like your author) will fire their product in the many weak, black powder era, top break revolvers. This practice has been warned against for years. I’ll be frank. I have never heard of anyone blowing himself up firing the suicide specials, however I’ll add my caution to refrain from firing them too. Bits of iron in one’s head are an unnecessary impediment to good health and the wrong way to get one’s daily allowance. For myself, I enjoyed the use of a Smith & Wesson .38 Double Action Second Model for some years, the factory letter of which indicated it was shipped to Simmons Hardware, Chicago, Illinois in 1882. This was a spunky little revolver. The trigger pull, both single and double action, was much heavier than a modern product from that firm. It stayed tight for the years that I owned it, probably firing 5 or 6 boxes of ammo during that time. It was my first small concealable handgun and I used to carry it when arrowhead hunting or fishing. It proved handy to dispatch a copperhead snake on one occasion.

I would feel about as well armed with a .38 S&W revolver as with a .380 auto. The best way to utilize it would be as a “face gun”. One might look at the .38 S&W revolver as “fists in an aerosol can.” It’d be easier and safer to “spray” one’s assailant in the face with some .38 lead than to close with him in order to throw a punch. The slugs are relatively heavy at 146 grains and most loads I’ve encountered contain bullets of very soft lead. The blow inflicted by such a bullet at short range would be distressing to say the least and very likely disabling as well.

A “high performance” option for the .38 S&W owner would be the 200 grain lead round nosed bullet. I obtained a quantity of old Western 200 grain copper plated factory loads a few years ago. These were much more impressive than current factory fodder and were wonderfully accurate in my Webley Mark IV. Unfortunately they are no longer manufactured.

A “low performance” load is the similar, yet very slightly smaller in diameter, .38 Short Colt. This load can be used in revolvers chambered for .38 S&W but there is no particular advantage in doing so. Featuring a 125 grain bullet, it stumbles from the barrel with all the velocity that could be provided by a wrist rocket sling shot.



The .38 S&W shown with the .38 Short Colt.

In some of the relatively modern solid frame revolvers the .38 S& W could be improved by judicious handloading. I would willingly use such handloads in the British military top break revolvers such as the Webley or the Enfield or the 20th century solid frame swing-out cylinder models of Colt or Smith & Wesson make. Of course one will carefully work up any handloads in any .38 S&W or for that matter any firearm, won’t one?

The .38 S&W doesn’t share the .38 Special’s dimensions being slightly larger in diameter. The .38 S&W bullet has a diameter of .359 -.360 and a case diameter of .386. The .38 Special’s bullet diameter runs .357 and the case is .379. Sometimes the .38 S&W may be chambered in .38 Special guns and may be fired in perfect safety. Sometimes they won’t quite fit and forcing the issue will result in a stuck cartridge and the need to find something to prod them out of the cylinder.



The Inevitable Ballistics Chart

2-inch barrel

146 grain factory load 728 fps
200 grain factory load 737 fps
125 grain.38 Short Colt load 610 fps
British military 178 grain load (published data) 630 fps
Handload 158 grain lead SWC/Unique 739 fps

Two manufacturers who still load .38 S&W are Remington and Winchester. Buffalo Bore has only recently added a rather peppy loading of .38 S&W to their high-performance cartridge line-up, a 125 grain lead semi-wadcutter with an advertised velocity of 1000 fps. While it's hard to imagine a company taking up the .38 S&W at this late date, I applaud their efforts and intend to get enough of this ammunition to conduct tests.
38 S&W (38 COLT NEW POLICE) Pistol & Handgun Ammunition

I have two revolvers chambered for the .38 S&W, a Colt Bankers' Special snub and a Webley Mark IV with the standard 5 inch barrel. Both reliably and eagerly function with all loads I’ve fired. The Webley is quite accurate but requires the heavy 200 grain bullets to impact the target in accordance with the sight picture. Brought out in 1927, the Banker’s Special must have been marketed to wimpy bankers who could not manage the recoil of the Detective Special taking the .38 Special cartridge, which was also brought out by Colt about the same time. The Banker’s Special, which was built on the Police Positive frame, was also marketed in .22 for the sissiest of bankers. The .22 variation is quite scarce.


Should You Shoot Yours?


Good, usable revolvers in .38 S&W include:

British military top-break revolvers

Enfield (some mfg’d at Albion Cycle Works)
Webley Mk IV

Smith & Wesson models

Perfected Model (S&W’s last top break design)
.38 S&W chambered Victory, Military & Police (WWII British contract revolvers)
Regulation Police
Terrier
Model 11 (fat chance of finding one)
Model 32
Model 33

Colt models

New Police
Police Positive
Bankers' Special
Detective Special (some few were made in .38 S&W)
Official Police (a few produced on the eve of WW II for a British contract)
Model 1873 Single Action Army (Yeah, you saw right - a few were so chambered)

MODERN Harrington & Richardson top break models

Model 925/935 Defender (mfg’d from 1964 to1986-stay away from 19th century H&R’s)

Though I would shoot the 19th century Smith & Wesson break-open revolver to a limited extent I can’t recommend it to the Forum readership. Any other brand (and there are jillions of names) of these break-open revolvers should be retired to a display case. This includes the Belgian or other Continental European makes.

This modest cartridge may not be on the cutting edge of handgun technology but it played its own part in taming the American West and was in wide use throughout the world in bygone times. I confess to wishing that a few updated loads would be introduced for it but consider myself lucky that it is still loaded at all. If one owns a revolver chambered for the .38 S&W, give it some range time. Just for fun.

Last edited by bmcgilvray; 02-26-2016 at 12:30 AM.
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Old 07-01-2013, 09:37 AM
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Several series of handloads were tested over the chronograph screens over a couple of hours late Saturday afternoon and a couple more hours late Sunday afternoon.

Loads were not uniformly tested in 10-round series due to constraints dictated by the supply of 200 grain bullets but rather were tested in 6 to 10 round series. Therefore standard deviations may be less than truly meaningful in all instances but they were calculated.

Cartridge cases used for these tests consisted primarily of Remington (R - P headstamped) nickel plated cases with one additional box of older Remington-UMC brass cases also used.

In all tests, the cartridge cases gave normal ejection and exhibited normal primers except for the heavy Unique and Herco load when fired in the Webley. A single pierced primer apiece for each load was observed. It was noted that the firing pin has some roughness that needs smoothing, nonetheless this could be an indication that pressure was straining things a bit.

Loading these long and heavy bullets in the .38 S&W is not for the careless handloader with haphazard habits and no attention to detail.

It was arbitrarily determined to disregard the recommended .38 S&W cartridge overall length of 1.20" when producing handloads using long 200 grain bullets. Measurements taken of factory loads proved even shorter, coming in at 1.170". If the seating die was adjusted to factory .38 S&W cartridge lengths in preparation to seat 200 grain bullets, then a compressed or near-compressed powder charge would result. Considering the range of fast-burning powders useful for handloading the .38 S&W, compressing a charge of powder with the bullet would very likely cause a high-pressure event to perhaps dismal conclusions if the resulting loaded cartridge was fired.

A cartridge overall length of 1.273 was settled on as a proper compromise between allowing enough internal space to accommodate all powder charges while insuring the bullets would not crowd the the chamber mouths of the cylinders of the test revolvers.

Each and every powder charge thrown was hand-weighed and any correction was adjusted for. This may have contributed to the pleasingly small extreme spreads generally seen throughout the tests. Old reference works on the .38 S&W indicate it had a reputation for great accuracy and some target arms were turned out by the premier handgun manufacturers of the later 19th century. Perhaps the .38 S&W's extremely small case capacity coupled with low operating pressures contributes to uniformity and makes it a now-unheralded choice for accuracy work if housed in a well-made gun.

And so we come to the Mother Of All Chronograph Testing of the .38 S&W with an emphasis on the 200 grain bullet.

Colt Bankers' Special with 2-inch barrel

Factory Load: Winchester 145 grain round-nose lead

742 fps Muzzle Velocity
177 ft/lbs Muzzle Energy
55 fps Extreme Spread
22.6 Standard Deviation

Factory Load: Winchester 200 grain round-nose lead (probably pre-war ammunition)

647 fps MV
186 ft./lbs ME
18 fps ES
8.4 SD

Handloads used primarily centered around experimentation with a 100 round batch of 200 grain .360" diameter cast lead round-nose bullets.

158 grain .358" cast lead semi-wadcutter, 2.5 grains Red Dot (from a batch loaded 11/23/95)

738 fps MV
191 ft./lbs. ME
25 fps ES
10.1 SD

200 grain Remington .358" lead round-nose, 3.1 grains Unique (from a batch loaded 11/16/95)

741 fps MV
244 ft./lbs. ME
80 fps ES
20.3 SD

All the following loads were produced with a 200 grain cast lead bullet as kindly provided by
LouisianaMan. This bullet differed from the Remington 200 grain component bullet in having a slightly more blunt nose profile.

2.0 grains Red Dot

620 fps MV
170 ft./lbs ME
37 fps ES
15.6 SD

2.2 grains W231

644 fps MV
189 ft./lbs ME
24 fps ES
10.3 SD

2.3 grains Green Dot

635 fps MV
179 ft./lbs. ME
30 ES
12.0 SD

2.4 grains (new) Unique

614 fps MV
167 ft./lbs. ME
59 fps ES
59.7 SD

2.7 grains Herco

Was attempted unsuccessfully. The chronograph gave "no-reads" and on three occasions bullets were stuck in the barrels of both revolvers just ahead of the forcing cones. This load is too light.


"Performance" .38 S&W Loading

The following loads could be considered as unofficial .38 S&W "+P" loads. These would only be suitable in quality late vintage Colt and Smith & Wesson solid-frame revolvers having swing out cylinders, in the Webley and Enfield .38/200 revolvers produced for British military contracts, or their commercial equivalents. Commercial Webley .38 revolvers were produced for many years prior to the adoption of the very similar military issue Enfield No. 2 Mk I in 1931. Early Webley .38 revolvers probably should not be fired using such loads. Any use of these loads in any 19th century revolver of top-break design would very likely come to grief.

A side-by-side test of "old" Unique and this new "cleaner burning" Unique was conducted during this part of the testing in order to discover any differences between the two. While it could only be an indication of lot-to-lot variations, when examined with results from similar chronograph tests in the .38 Special and the .45 ACP it tends to indicate that the new formulation of Unique is a bit more energetic. Old familiar Unique load data for a reloader's favorite cartridges should be retested by working up.

So-called "+P" efforts with the 200 grain bullet in the Colt

3.0 grains "Old" Unique

644 fps MV
184 ft./lbs ME
72 ES
30.3 SD

3.0 grains "New" Unique

689 fps MV
210 ft./lbs. ME
19 ES
7.1 SD

3.3 grains Herco

767 fps MV
261 ft./lbs. ME
31 fps ES
15.1 SD





Webley Mark VI with 5-inch barrel

Factory Load: Winchester 145 grain round-nose lead

712 fps MV
163 ft./lbs. ME
75 fps ES
32.2 SD

Factory Load: Winchester 200 grain round-nose lead
638 fps MV
187 ft./lbs. ME
42 fps ES
18.1 SD


Handloads

158 grain .358" cast lead semi-wadcutter, 2.5 grains Red Dot

714 fps MV
179 ft./lbs.
58 fps ES
24.1 SD

200 grain Remington lead round-nose; 3.1 grains Unique

725 fps MV
233 ft./lbs. ME
59 fps ES
26.0 SD

Handloads with 200 grain bullet provided by LouisianaMan

2.0 grains Red Dot

620 fps MV
170 ft./lbs ME
37 ES
15.6 SD

2.2 grains W231

603 fps MV
162 ft./lbs. ME
19 ES
10.5 SD

2.3 grains Green Dot

595 fps MV
157 ft./lbs. ME
40 ES
18.7 SD

2.4 grains (New) Unique

575 fps MV
147 ft./lbs. ME
10 fps ES
4.7 SD

So-called "+P" efforts with the 200 grain bullet in the Webley

3.0 grains "Old" Unique

635 fps MV
179 ft./lbs. ME
54 fps ES
25.4 SD

3.0 grains "New" Unique

659 fps MV
193 ft./lbs. ME
56 fps ES
20.4 SD

3.3 grains Herco

726 fps MV
234 ft./lbs. ME
52 fps ES
20.5 SD

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Old 07-01-2013, 09:37 AM
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Some Observations

These were velocity tests only. Penetration tests in water-filled gallon milk jugs and other "non-tests" will be conducted at a future date.

I was surprised to find that the 5-inch barrel of the Webley consistently clocked slower velocities than the 2-inch snub Colt. An examination of the Webley showed a somewhat larger barrel/cylinder gap than I had remembered in the revolver. End-shake was apparent and the revolver could benefit from a shim.

It was curious how the light charge of Herco was a bust, too weak to propel the bullet reliably yet the maximum charge of Herco used gave the 200 grain bullet the highest velocities of the day. When one considers that the difference between the two charges is only 6/10ths of a grain it becomes apparent that cartridges with very small case capacities have less room for error.

Webley bore diameter slugs .360". Colt bore diameter slugs .359".

I've loaded .358" 158 grain lead semi-wadcutter bullets in the .38 S&W for years, using them in both of the test revolvers and enjoying perfect satisfaction at ranges to 15 yards. These bullets group quite well despite what is sometimes claimed on firearms forums about shooting undersized .38 Special bullets through the larger .38 S&W bore.

The Webley loves the 200 grain bullet and shoots it accurately and to point of aim. The lighter 145 grain factory loads and the 158 grain handloads shoot low. The Colt shoots the 200 grain bullet 8-10 inches high at 10 yards.

I cannot explain why the old 200 grain Remington .38 Special bullet used with 3.1 grains of Unique (741 fps from the Colt), as loaded in 1995, registered such a higher velocity when fired in the same chronograph session as the two different lots of Unique loaded to 3.0 (the fastest lot of Unique at 689 fps as fired from the Colt ). Bullet was different than LouisianaMan's batch in the following ways: diameter .002 smaller, bullet was longer, lube is different and the crimp may have been heavier on the Remington bullet (don't remember 18 years later).

Only a moderate crimp was utilized with this batch of 200 grain .38 S&W handloads. The case mouth was turned into the bottom of the second driving band just enough to maintain tension. No bullets jumped their crimps. Of course even with these heavy bullet loads the recoil of the revolvers is more of a push than an abrupt impulse.

I sometimes refer to the Bankers' Special as "the plucky little Colt" and it lived up to it's nickname during the test. It churned through the entire test with nary a bobble or complaint. With the 3.3 grains of Herco, it felt much like the Detective Special in recoil. The square butt frame makes it a non-issue.

To Summarize

The average runt .380 automatic pistol holds the same number of cartridges as the Bankers' Special. The .380 bullets typically weigh 100 grains or less, giving the pistol a 600 grain payload when fully loaded. One the other hand, the very compact Bankers' Special revolver can be loaded with 1200 grains of heavy lead and fling the bullets to adequate velocities.

Even the 5-shot Smith & Wesson Models 32 and 33, Terriers, Regulation Police, and general run of I-Frame and J-Frame .38 S&W revolvers can field 1000 grains of lead. Of course one has to reload the .38 S&W to gain performance of this sort.

What all this means is that the .38 S&W reigns supreme and the .380 eats dirt!
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Old 07-01-2013, 02:45 PM
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I like the 38 S&W and I have a feeling if there weren't so many weak revolvers out there preventing the pressures from being increased that cartridge would be just as efficient as the .38 Special but in a shorter case. With all the new powders and bullet design enhancements the 38 S&W could be very popular again because it's a smaller cartridge and could reduce the size of the J frame even further.

I load a 170gr and 200gr bullet for use in an Enfield and because that revolver is so strong I can load them hotter than commercial ammo.
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Old 07-01-2013, 04:25 PM
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I shot factory ammo in it and remember the sound more as a 'pop' than a 'bang'.
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Old 07-02-2013, 04:38 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by rwsmith View Post
I shot factory ammo in it and remember the sound more as a 'pop' than a 'bang'.
Oh come on now, the 38 S&W isn't that light! A 145gr bullet traveling @700 fps is nothing to joke about and it does not sound like a pop to me.
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Old 07-02-2013, 06:49 AM
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Very interesting information, thanks for the time and effort to post this!
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Old 07-02-2013, 08:25 AM
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Originally Posted by rwsmith View Post
I shot factory ammo in it and remember the sound more as a 'pop' than a 'bang'.
Perhaps the ammunition was old or faulty.

Or, perhaps your ears are even farther gone than mine are.

I'm trying to think which model Colt was a top-break.
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Old 07-02-2013, 10:12 AM
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Great post, bmcgilvray! I have two guns chambered in the 38 S&W. One is a Webley which prefers to act like a shotgun albeit with only one projectile. The other is my grandfather's Iver Johnson.

The Iver Johnson has a huge amount of family history told to me by Mom (unfortunately I was too young to know Grandpa) and is a treasure for me. I'd like to shoot it, perhaps with some ultralight Bullseye loads, just so I could say I fired it. I suspect it falls into the "weak topbreak" category and it may be unwise to fire it. Any comments from the group on firing this relic?
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Old 07-02-2013, 10:38 AM
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Years ago I tried to put down an injured horse with a 38 S&W.
It took two rounds to the forehead to get the job done.

Regardless, I've accumulated several examples in the passing years, as well as dies, brass, bullets, etc. I enjoy shooting them, a pleasant round for a walk around revolver.

Thank you for "reposting" this very informative test article, which sets a standard for excellence for the rest of us.

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Old 07-02-2013, 03:15 PM
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Hi Krogen;

You're just going to have to "do as I do and not as I say" with the Iver Johnson. Officially, it must be said that most of these ancient top-break revolvers need to be placed in retirement.

Practically speaking, I'd have to shoot it, at least a little. If the thing closed tightly and action was in time I'd shoot it with factory loads which are weak in the extreme these days. Maybe just for one range outing but I'd shoot it.
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Old 07-02-2013, 04:06 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ArchAngelCD View Post
Oh come on now, the 38 S&W isn't that light! A 145gr bullet traveling @700 fps is nothing to joke about and it does not sound like a pop to me.
Doesn't mean I would stand in front of one

Ok maybe it had some bang mixed in with that pop. And these were factory ammo designed for all the clunkers out there. I'm not sure what the what the weight of bullet and velocity was but they were RN lead jobs. I just shot some off in the woods near my house.

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Old 07-02-2013, 11:31 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by bmcgilvray View Post
Hi Krogen;

You're just going to have to "do as I do and not as I say" with the Iver Johnson. Officially, it must be said that most of these ancient top-break revolvers need to be placed in retirement.

Practically speaking, I'd have to shoot it, at least a little. If the thing closed tightly and action was in time I'd shoot it with factory loads which are weak in the extreme these days. Maybe just for one range outing but I'd shoot it.
Thank, bmcgilvray. I'm just itchn' to shoot it. Just one cylinder would do it and I'd be content to retire it. I've had it for 25 years or so and I figure it's time to put a few rounds down the tube. I think Grandpa would probably grin at me.
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  #14  
Old 07-03-2013, 06:09 AM
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I agree, good post! I have an 33-1 that I shoot and enjoy the little beast but got only fair accuracy and a few keyholers with .358 diameter 158gr LSWC's. Started casting my own bullets awhile back and my RCBS .358-150- KT was dropping at 155gr and .362 diameter. Well golly geez, a call to Midway netted me a .360 sizeing die and Walla!, a good shooting .38 S&W was reborn. They are fun little critters are they not?
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Old 07-03-2013, 09:53 AM
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I think the OP's original posts should go into the "expert commentary" section" or a stickie or something.

I voted it excellent

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Old 07-03-2013, 01:20 PM
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good article -- lots of information in one place.
I've enjoyed collecting and shooting a hand-ful of these guns; including a lettered Colt. cause of their age i load light. generally best accuracy is with a midrange amount of bullseye.

these, like the 32 S&W's, are from a time when even 'bad' people disdained being shot. stopping power aside, infection killed more often than the immediate introduction of the lead.
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Old 07-03-2013, 03:31 PM
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Old 07-05-2013, 03:32 AM
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bmc, You've done it again, THANX for the well thought out test info.....................

Have you checked out the data in the 45th Lyman Handbook?
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Last edited by ddixie884; 07-05-2013 at 04:37 AM. Reason: added question
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Old 07-06-2013, 11:23 PM
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I have a Lemon Squeezer from the 1880's. I shot modern commercial but very weak ammo in it.
Now, in your guys experience, would it be safe to do the same in a SAA from the BP days? Say a 45 colt with very mild loads. And if so, any suggestions.
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Old 07-06-2013, 11:39 PM
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Great article and I am in agreement that perhaps .38 S&W data is perhaps anemic for the more modern, solid frame revolvers.

I have a .38 S&W Colt Police Positive from about 1927 that appeared to be in excellent condition, until I shot it. It has three bulged chambers which I can only suspect someone was trying to hot-rod the .38 S&W.

It shoots accurate and I have realized a small advance in velocity with 146 grain loads but am reticent to try to load it too much hotter because of the bulged chambers, they might be bulged enough that they are about to split.

I may not be shooting it at all anymore.

It's a shame because the revolver and its "possibilities" might have lent itself to some loads more powerful (but safe) than the factory standard.
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Old 07-06-2013, 11:54 PM
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This thread made me buy a .38 S&W Terrier earlier this morning.
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  #22  
Old 07-07-2013, 01:20 AM
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I hate it when a thread does that :-)
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