Cartridge Discussion: .38 S&W, Ghost From Bygone Times

Cartridge Discussion: .38 S&W, Ghost From Bygone Times

This is a discussion on Cartridge Discussion: .38 S&W, Ghost From Bygone Times within the Defensive Ammunition & Ballistics forums, part of the Defensive Carry Discussions category; 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 ...

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    Cartridge Discussion: .38 S&W, Ghost From Bygone Times



    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
    130 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.
    www.buffalobore.com/index.php?l=product_detail&p=350

    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 Motors)
    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)

    Ruger Service Six (probably the very strongest of .38 S&W revolvers)

    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.
    Charter Member of the DC .41 LC Society "Get heeled! No really"

    “No possible rapidity of fire can atone for habitual carelessness of aim with the first shot.”

    Theodore Roosevelt, The Wilderness Hunter, 1893


  2. #2
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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

    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!
    Charter Member of the DC .41 LC Society "Get heeled! No really"

    “No possible rapidity of fire can atone for habitual carelessness of aim with the first shot.”

    Theodore Roosevelt, The Wilderness Hunter, 1893

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    VIP Member Array glockman10mm's Avatar
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    Ha! Thanks for the very informative thread Bryan. That 200 grn bullet is indeed intriguing. I would be curious as to the SD measurements and its penetration at those velocities.

    But with those numbers, I'll take it any day over the 380.
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    Great history lesson, Bryan, and well-illustrated!
    Smitty
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    NROI Chief Range Officer

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    Thanks for the great write-up. I had not heard of the 38 S&W until one day at the range when the shooter next to me asked why his ammo would not fit his revolver. I tried and sure enough they would not go in, that is when I noticed they were shorter than the 38 SPL I was shooting and were larger in diameter. Turns out he had gone to the store and asked for 38 bullets and the clerk just grabbed a box without really looking.
    When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.
    "Don't forget, incoming fire has the right of way."

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    Very nice write up with lots of info. I always appreciate learning more about odd or old firearms and development . Thanks.
    "In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock." Thomas Jefferson


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    Member Array LouisianaMan's Avatar
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    Bcgilvray,
    Excellent history & gunnery! You got started on this caliber before I did & probably take a saner approach to it than I do:-) Most likely that carries over into other pursuits as well!

    Owned a surplus British Enfield back in the '70's, but wasn't reloading or casting bullets until much later, and the low power and POI/POA mismatch between commercial 145-46g ammo didn't make for a particularly gratifying plinking performance. As Bryan has noted in his much-appreciated report, those British guns were born and bred for heavyweights whose trajectories differ radically from 145-46g bullets.

    I've pestered the forum about this "oldie" for the past 4-5 years, stumbling across the possibilities inherent in both the cartridge and many of the guns so chambered. Original intent was simply to find a small-framed quality revolver for my wife and girls, and I wanted it to shoot something wider than a .32, pleasant, with lower pressure & lower recoil than the common combination of airweight guns & .38 SPL +P ammo. (As related elsewhere, I had taken that pratfall previously & was trying to get to my feet!) The specific idea was to get several sets of the same gun in both 2" and 4", and then equip all my girls with their individual set of car/carry gun and house gun. Practice with anyone's gun would directly translate for all of them, and there would be less confusion in emergencies. They do very well within their limits, but aren't aficionados--the guns are strictly a tool for them.

    I intended to handload ammo tailored to their needs, and looked forward to casting bullets to boot. Of course I had to get a 4th set of guns so yours truly could play with them, too!

    I went after the S&W mods. 32-1 and 33-1, which were manufactured until the mid-70's. It had dawned on me that this obsolescent caliber would be available in gently-used "dresser drawer" guns, and the clencher was when I learned that it was once available in 200g loadings. That indicated a possibility of developing a serious load for my use.

    Well, it all came together, and the icing on the cake was to find out just how versatile the .38 S&W could be. So far I've used bullets from 110g to 215g, and I'm finally tabulating the results.

    Bmcgilvray has done a fine job of laying out what can be attained, as well as the precautions necessary to do so. I recommend any handloader consider the right .38 S&W as a gun that can range from the sedate performance of a .32 up to the equivalent of some commercial .38 SPL +P loads. Components are NOT a problem, and Lee dies do fine. I look forward to trying out the Buffalo Bore ammo, whose capabilities once more make viable SD/HD choices of some nice revolvers lying unused for many years.

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    Member Array LouisianaMan's Avatar
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    And note that bmcgilvray has used lube grooves to allow long COL's and safe pressures! Ken Waters's 1979 Pet Loads article detailed some incredible results with conventional COL's, but I personally haven't tried some of the most daring ones. The old British service load was 1.24" IIRC, and my vintage Super Police is also 1.17" as Bryan related.

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    BTW, some of bmcgilvray's snubbie loads equal or exceed the typical performance of standard pressure .38 SPL snubs, and ditto for the 200g loads compared to the old standby .38 Special Super Police.

    These two members of the .38 family have more in common than often believed, in terms of performance.

  10. #10
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    Hey LouisianaMan;

    Please contribute your excellent efforts with the cartridge or feel free to begin a new thread to provide your "take" on handloaded use of the .38 S&W cartridge.
    Charter Member of the DC .41 LC Society "Get heeled! No really"

    “No possible rapidity of fire can atone for habitual carelessness of aim with the first shot.”

    Theodore Roosevelt, The Wilderness Hunter, 1893

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    Nice right up Bryan, thanks...
    Don"t let stupid be your skill set....

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    ...enjoyed the lesson in history and now I understand those ads from Argosy magazine where Webley .38 S&W revolvers sold for $12-14...way back when...

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    Thanks for another great write up, btw what is the purpose of the flange in front of the cylinder on the Webley revolver?

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    It's a handy-dandy feature meant to assist with holstering the revolver. May also offer some protection to the cylinder from a sideways or forward blow.

    Another view of the Webley.



    The "flange" also appears on a 1899 vintage Webley Mark IV .455 that lives around here. It's just one of those "British" sort of things illustrating their attention to esoteric details.
    Charter Member of the DC .41 LC Society "Get heeled! No really"

    “No possible rapidity of fire can atone for habitual carelessness of aim with the first shot.”

    Theodore Roosevelt, The Wilderness Hunter, 1893

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    Huh, I would have never thought of that. From looking at some pictures I always thought that it might be there to keep fouling of the face of cylinder.

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