By Allan Jones
This isn’t the more famous .38 S&W Special but rather its stubby ancestor from 1877 that is still available today.
In its time it was a groundbreaker. When many revolver cartridges were still using heeled, outside-lubricated bullets held over from rimfire practice, the .38 S&W started with a proper inside-lubricated bullet like today’s revolver ammo, at least for quality revolvers with stepped chamber throats.
The .38 S&W was a popular upgrade from the more common .32 S&W Short and .32 Short Colt found in “pocket” revolvers of the time. It produced about 140 to 150 ft-lbs of muzzle energy compared to about 100 ft-lbs from the .32-caliber rounds.
Current SAAMI specs call for a maximum average pressure of 14,500 psi moving a 145-grain bullet to 680 fps from a 4.0-inch test barrel. One would think Smith & Wesson would have used the case dimensions of the 1877 version when it developed the .38 S&W Special. It didn’t.
Industry specifications for the two cartridges show the only shared dimension is the rim diameter. The .38 S&W case body is 0.007 inch fatter than the .38 S&W Special. The bullet diameter is slightly larger. And the rim thickness is 0.004 inch thinner.
The .38 S&W, also known as the “.38 Colt New Police” when loaded with a 150-grain flatpoint bullet, was popular with America’s detective forces. Compact snubnose revolvers were unavailable for the .38 Special until about 1927, so the .38 S&W owned that niche. Interest in “more stopping power” led to the development of a 200-grain lead-bullet load that was called the “.38 S&W Super Police,” or simply “.38/200.” There were even shotshell loads.
Our British allies also liked the .38/200. They replaced the .455 Webley Mk II cartridge with the .38 S&W in 1931 as their standard sidearm cartridge in Enfield break-top revolvers. They called the .38 S&W the “.380 Revolver” cartridge. They retained the 200-grain lead bullet until just before World War II, when authorities felt the soft-lead bullets might be construed as “exploding or expanding” as defined under the Hague Accords of 1899.
An FMJ bullet addressed this, but weight had to be reduced to keep muzzle velocity up and pressure safe. The result was an oddly profiled 178-grain FMJ bullet at the same velocity as the older 200-grain lead version, about 620 to 660 fps from the Enfield’s 5.0-inch barrel. The cartridge was given the identifier “.380 Revolver, Mk IIz” and led to one of the odder CCI-Speer projects.
Former British possessions were given surplus Enfield .380 revolvers after the United Kingdom adopted the 9mm Luger cartridge. Our overseas distributor reported one such country had issued a “tender” for a very large quantity of newly manufactured .380 Mk IIz ammunition. No new .380 Mk IIz ammo had been made in years—and no one was bidding.
We also thought “no bid” until an engineering manager said, “Not so fast.” Through our contracts department, they had developed and supplied CCI Blazer .38 S&W unprimed cases for a client who made grenade launcher training cartridges powered by a .38 S&W blank. That meant we had tooling for cases, the hardest and most time-consuming component to develop.
We said we were interested if they would accept a modernized version with new component designs and U.S. pressure standards. They were ecstatic to get any interest and said, “Send samples!” All they asked was that we work up the loads to produce 640 to 660 fps from an Enfield No. 2 revolver. That set a lot of things in motion.
Our purchasing staff located surplus Enfields for testing, ranging from “average” to “unissued” condition. We had our very adaptable Speer TMJ series, so it did not take long for us to create a 178-grain, 0.359-inch Speer TMJ profiled to match the original Mk IIz design.
We had several propellant candidates, and the finalists made 660 fps within SAAMI pressure standards from the test Enfields. We also tested it in worn Enfields to check for “old-revolver” issues. Everything performed without a hitch. The ammo even shot very close to point of aim at 25 meters.
The clients were ecstatic with the samples but had an odd request: reduce the velocity. Their old ammo, stored in horrible tropical conditions, had lost some of its oomph, and testers complained about the new ammo having more recoil. They said if we loaded to 600 to 620 fps, they should be able to order.
Then the deal fell through. The country had another department, clueless about the .380 Mk IIz project, that negotiated the purchase of used 9mm Luger Browning Hi-Powers from another country. All Enfields were pulled from service.
A waste of time? Absolutely not! We had young engineers for whom this was a priceless exercise in manufacturing flexibility and reaction time. It went on to pay for itself many times over in subsequent ammo projects where short turnarounds were critical.
Frankly, I would avoid shooting old American pocket break-top revolvers, but a Webley or an Enfield in decent shape has a robust, confidence-inspiring latch. S&W made M&P revolvers in .38 S&W for England during World War II, and those are superb shooters if not “hacked” to .38 Special. The heaviest .38 S&W revolver I examined was a Colt Official Police bearing British proof marks and marked “.38/200.” Those military revolvers were sighted for heavy bullets; current 145-grain ammo will shoot quite low. Rather than grind on the sights, I handloaded 190-grain cast bullets from an Ideal mold No. 358430 for my “Victory Model” S&W.
The .38 S&W should be a historical footnote, but Remington, Winchester, and Fiocchi still catalog it. Major reloading companies offer loading dies, and Starline sells new unprimed brass. However, I suspect its days are numbered. Still, it’s an interesting old cartridge with many variants and a rich history to appreciate.