It can be easy to forget (or never know in the first place) that as far as turn-of-the-20th-century handgunning in America went, the .38 Special was the hottest ticket in town. As the world transitioned from black-powder cartridges to the new smokeless rounds such as Smith & Wesson’s “Special,” men like John Browning and Elmer Keith began designing new cartridges and projectiles specifically tailored to this new propellant. Performance increased drastically, and all of a sudden, a bare-lead, round-nosed slug ambling along at 650 feet per second was as cutting-edge as a powdered wig as far as the cool kids were concerned.
But guns last for a long time. What was a man to do, sell all of his favorite firearms and replace them with the new smokeless-charged models? Maybe if he was Teddy Roosevelt, but everyone else was probably going to have to make do with what he had — at least until he could get to T.R.’s garage sale.
It’s the Little Things in Life
The .38 S&W wasn’t a powerhouse when it was first released in 1877, but in its defense, that was never the intent. Its selling point was not its power but rather how well it paired with small, easily concealed revolvers of the day.
The .38 Special surpassed it by the end of the 19th century. By the early 1900s, Browning’s .45 ACP downright walloped it. The .38 Super and .357 Magnum continued to embarrass the .38 S&W through the 1930s, but only in ways that didn’t matter. Then as now, what mattered was whether the firearm in question was a firearm that users would actually carry and whether they would be comfortable enough shooting it to reliably land shots.
None of its shortcomings hindered its popularity. Through the first half-century of the smokeless era, the .38 S&W was widely available, and the guns that ran it were usually very affordable. This was also back in a time before antibiotics, so catching a round right in the groceries from any firearm at any velocity was often a guarantee that you would suffer a slow, grim death.
A .38 Smith & Wesson wasn’t going to help you stop a motorized bandit’s V8 Ford like a .357 Magnum or .38 Super would, but it worked for keeping a gaggle of street toughs at bay or routing an invader from your residence. It is also worth noting that though the hotter cartridges were the law enforcement darlings of the day, there were plenty of Colt New Police and K-frame Smith & Wessons chambered in .38 S&W that rode on policemen’s hips for decades.
The burly little fireplug held its ground through the Second World War and even into the 1950s, especially internationally as a service cartridge in Great Britain and its Commonwealth countries. Here in the U.S., the smaller revolvers were standards in homes and businesses. You’d even see the odd cop or deputy carrying a full-sized revolver chambered for .38 S&W well into the 1970s in some areas patrolled by part-time constables rather than full-time LEOs. In fact, it’s still in thousands of homes today. After all, if you don’t shoot much, and if you love the gun you inherited from your father or grandfather, what’s not to like about a soft-recoiling revolver?
The Madre of Invention
Col. Rex Applegate, author of Kill or Get Killed and one of the pioneers of American combatives and tactical firearms technique, wound up in Mexico in the years following the Second World War. He was working for that nation’s military as a contractor, bringing its forces up to a more modern standard. One afternoon in the countryside, around 1950, he and a Mexican army officer were waylaid by a local who intended to murder them with a machete. As most anyone with the option would, Applegate drew his sidearm and opened fire, barely stopping the attacker before disaster struck. This was fortunate, as the Mexican officer beside him was still fumbling with the cumbersome, outdated cavalry-style flap holster in which he was carrying a .45 Automatic.
Applegate understood that one of the contributing factors to his close scrape was the handgun he’d deployed: the five-shot Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless pictured here, a top-break revolver produced from the late 1880s through 1940 and chambered in .38 S&W. It was a handy little number for its time. Its top-breaking action loaded quickly, and when you ran the cylinder dry, breaking the pistol open simultaneously ejected all of the empties. Even better, the double-action-only mechanism had a completely concealed hammer, which made for a revolver that was exceptionally slick out of the pocket. It’s just that now and again, you’d have to shoot an assailant five times in the chest for him to break off his attack.
We’d just finished a war that fostered more advancements in manufacturing and materials science than any other four-year period in human history. There had to be a better way.
Just to head off anyone who would accuse me of beating up on a classic cartridge, the .38 S&W, called the “.38/200” by the Brits after they got done making their own permutation, was the same cartridge that the Germans declared barbaric during World War I. They claimed it was an inhumane load and that the use of a bullet so prone to tumbling in its recipient was the international warfare equivalent of cruel and unusual punishment. During WWII, over 500,000 Smith & Wesson Model 10 “Victory” revolvers chambered for it were manufactured for the Brits and Commonwealth countries and deployed in every application.
It’s not like no one ever successfully stopped an attack with a round of .38 S&W. It’s that, as the world turned and men like Applegate thought hard about handgunning, it seemed like there should be a revolver about the size of the “Lemon-Squeezer” that hit a lot harder. It was, after all, The Atomic Age, and we’d just finished a war that fostered more advancements in manufacturing and materials science than any other four-year period in human history. There had to be a better way.
Applegate’s idea was to mate the .38 Special cartridge — then the standard for police work in the U.S. — to the smaller, recently introduced J-frame and include the concealed hammer of the old Safety Hammerless. The .38 Special was a higher-pressure cartridge than the .38 S&W, which meant that the 19th-century top-break design was going to have to go the way of the cavalry saber. Something that could be as easily drawn from cover as his old Safety Hammerless but built on the J-frame and chambered for the .38 Special was just the ticket, he thought, and Applegate was certain that had he been carrying such an arm when he was attacked in Mexico, he’d have stopped his attacker far sooner.
After some cajoling and hemming and hawing on both the parts of the Colonel and Smith & Wesson, in 1951, S&W President Carl Hellstrom presented Applegate a prototype of one of the first “Centennials,” Serial No. X-84: a 1.875-inch-barreled, five-shot .38 Special that would become synonymous with plainclothes police work, concealed carry and self-defense. And, in a very real way, it all began with that humble little citrus-squishing Smith that almost didn’t save the day.
As for how it wound up in Mike Janich’s basement, you’ll have to check back in the February/March 2020 issue. It’s a story rich in intrigue and unpredictability, much like the lives of the men involved.
Rex Applegate was hand-picked to serve as a bodyguard to President Franklin D. Roosevelt during a secret meeting with United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill held at Shangri-La, also known as Camp David, in 1943.
by Ed Combs, Senior Editor
It’s the most commonly asked question about the .38 S&W (pictured below, left): Is it the same thing as the .38 Special (pictured below, right)? Absolutely not. Not only are the case shapes different enough to make them incompatible, the bullet diameter of a .38 S&W is 0.361 inches while the bullet diameter of a .38 Special is 0.357 inches. Those are your first clues that you should never try to load .38 S&W into a gun chambered for .38 Special. Atop that, you wouldn’t be able to load them into a Special’s cylinder, as the case is too wide. This is a positive, as were you to somehow hammer one in there and cook it off, the caliber disparity described above would catch up with you pretty quickly. At best, the longer, slightly fatter bullet wouldn’t react well to the .38 Special-tuned barrel, and your results would be lower than suboptimal. At worst, you would damage the revolver and possibly injure yourself.
The second most commonly asked question is whether grandpa’s old Iver-Johnson or Harrington & Richardson top-break can be used with modern defensive ammo from companies such as Buffalo Bore. That’s another resounding negative.
Fortunately, most of the .38 S&W — also called “.38 Colt New Police” — sold today is lead round-nose loaded to pressures that are more than safe for granddad’s old tackle box gun — provided it’s in good working order. But if the company that’s selling you the ammo specifically tells you not to use it in a specific kind of firearm, follow its instructions. Top-breaks like the Colonel’s were not designed to handle the kind of rounds that Tim Sundles over at Buffalo Bore (BuffaloBore.com) whips up for defense against dangerous humans and bad dogs and, as such, should only be used in solid-frame revolvers or the behemoth British military top-breaks that can double as wire-cutters and police batons. When an ammo manufacturer tells you something, listen. If the box says it’s only safe for use in solid-frame revolvers, heed that advice. If the box says it’s safe to use in solid-frame revolvers and top-break Webleys and Enfields, go for it. But always be sure you know what you’re doing when it comes to guns and ammunition. The stakes are just too high to take chances.