.38 Special, Was There a Conspiracy?

This is a discussion on .38 Special, Was There a Conspiracy? within the Defensive Ammunition & Ballistics forums, part of the Defensive Carry Discussions category; The other day a discussion was generated on another forum I frequent concerning the fact that the good ol’ .38 Special has been emasculated over ...

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Thread: .38 Special, Was There a Conspiracy?

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    .38 Special, Was There a Conspiracy?

    The other day a discussion was generated on another forum I frequent concerning the fact that the good ol’ .38 Special has been emasculated over the past 25 years or so. It was suggested that it had been a “conspiracy” by marketing departments. The cartridge is much better for most purposes for which one normally uses a handgun than it is given credit in this day and age. At least that’s my view of the .38 Special. It’s been given too little reasoned consideration by the handgunning world of late. Just posting this as food for thought and to see if any discussion is generated.

    I obtained my first handgun, a .38 Special in December of 1975. I don’t recall that Fedingchester was supplying any jacketed .38 Special ammunition to the trade at the time. I only recall seeing and purchasing round nosed lead ammunition in local shops from Federal, Remington, and Winchester. There are Forum members MUCH OLDER than I am, who may have frequented the Fort Worth gun shops where I shopped, and who may remember more of a jacketed .38 Special factory load selection than I recall. Back then I frequented Donn Heath's, Noble Firearms, Ewell Cross, and Knight Bros. in Fort Worth, Buddies Hardware in Burleson, and Gibson's Discount Center in Cleburne.

    A retired fellow who sold me ammo and handloading components out of his house had supplies of the +P 110 grain Super Vel load. The Super Vel was the only jacketed hollow point .38 Special factory ammunition that I initially purchased. A friend of my parents who worked for the Treasury Dept. supplied me with 110 grain +P+ jacketed hollowpoint ammunition in plain white boxes that was made by Winchester Western. Seems that it had some dire warnings about not being warranted for use. Within just a few years I remember seeing Norma ammunition, Smith & Wesson ammunition including the Nyclad stuff and also the 158 grain +P "FBI Load". The Big Three got into the act and provided some loads featuring light bullets that offered more ink on the label (printing that little "+") than actual performance in the cartridge case. I got my chronograph in 1979 and shot all this stuff over it. Both the Super Vel and the Winchester "Treasury Load" were pretty hot, both exceeding 1100 fps and one of the two loads hitting 1200 fps from my 4-inch Smith & Wesson Model 10. The "FBI Load" would hit 1000 fps from the 4-inch barrel. The plain lead round nose 158 grain Norma load was traveling near 900 fps. Fedingchester 158 grain stuff would reach into the low 800 fps range. I kept records of all this and still have them.

    I remember seeing ammunition charts and noticed that a certain .38-44 loading was listed as available but I never saw any of this ammunition on the shelves and never thought to make a request to order some.

    It seemed like a big deal at the time to purchase jacketed hollow point component bullets for the .38 Special and load them using loading data provided by Lyman, Sierra, Hornady, and Pacific. Most .38 Special hand loaders wanted the lighter jacketed component bullets for their "hot" loads back then. I went this route too and made up some really fast loads using both Unique and H110 (was listed in the 1978 Sierra manual with their 110 grain JHC). I don't have any manuals or my own notes to hand but I recall that the '78 Sierra manual shows some very ambitious powder charges with Unique and high performance from their jacketed bullet line. Those who have bashed the Speer No. 8 manual’s publication of the SR 4756 data as being excessive have overlooked this Sierra data for Unique. I'd now be leery of regularly using such heavy charges of Unique with jacketed bullets in the .38 Special though I gleefully did so at the time (even went higher early on). Lyman also showed some decently heavy 2400 charges behind the 158 grain bullet that gen'ed up healthy velocities of well over 1000 fps.

    As an aside, the H110 data in that '78 Sierra manual, published for use with their 110 grain jacketed hollow cavity bullet, yielded over 1600 fps from the 8 3/8-inch barrel of the Model 14 and 1300+ from the 4-inch Model 10! Just what one was supposed to do with such a load is subject to debate. Even at those velocities the bullet still gave only inconsistent expansion in my contrived non-tests. So did that hot Super Vel 110 grain load in the same tests, and on a single application to a downed deer. These 110 grain jacketed hollow point bullets in .38 Special, along with the famed Speer .45 caliber 200 grain JHC “flying ashtray” component bullet, soured me on the vaunted abilities of the expanding hollow point design at handgun velocities. Even the jacketed hollow points in .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum didn’t always open up.

    I picked the 4.8 grain Unique/158 grain lead bullet hand load as my general purpose .38 Special load simply because I wanted to obtain the 860 fps performance from my 4-inch barrel that the ballistics tables of the day gave for factory .38 Special velocities with 158 grain bullets. The factory velocity data was supposedly taken from a 6-inch barrel. A couple of years later when I got the chronograph my “very scientific guesstimate” at the proper powder charge proved to be fairly close; 10 rounds averaged 859 fps.

    It didn't take long to determine that the 158 grain semi-wadcutter bullet when used with the 4.8 grains of Unique was "doing the business" against anything on which I turned the .38 Special, whether it be a 'possum or 'coon on the back porch or a feral dog running the cows. With good hits the varmints went down for the count. This is not a popular notion but I also had surprisingly good results with the plain ol' 158 grain round nosed bullet when employed against critters. I got away from using jacketed bullets after that.

    Not too long after I got my .38 one of my shooting cousins purchased a new S&W Model 39 9mm. Seems like there was some jacketed round nose soft point loads available for 9mm in the mid to late 70s but no fancy stuff. We played with it on a number of occasions along with our .38 Specials and a couple of .380's. 9mm didn’t SEEM to work as well against the critters than did the .38 Special. In the pre-chronograph days we had the impression that the 9mm was closer kin to the .380 than it was to our .38 Special revolvers. This was possibly not a fair comparison since we were ladling in copious amounts of Unique behind the SWC's during some of the time we were playing. My cousin became disenchanted with the 9mm and traded away the Model 39. I believe it went for his Model 29 .44 Magnum.

    Along about this same time a deer lease bud bought himself a Smith & Wesson Model 59. I got to fire this one over the chronograph and recall 1050 to 1100 fps velocities with standard 115 grain and 125 grain factory fodder. Since the Super Vel .38 Special load would beat this with a bullet of similar weight and some 158 grain loads were quite close, I wasn't impressed. I'd gone off the notion of light-bullet, high velocity handgun performance ammunition by then.

    Low and behold, in 1979 the US military retired the mighty 1911 and adopted that Italian job with the sauce and extra cheese, a high capacity 9mm. So we could be NATO standard you understand. By 1980 it seemed that 9mm autos were coming out of the woodwork. The cartridge I thought was made primarily for old war relic Lugers and P-38’s was suddenly THE Latest THING! A Guns and Ammo Annual in the 70’s featured an article on an 18-shot 9mm as an oddity. Seems that it was called the L.E.M. (could be wrong about the name and don’t remember what the initials stood for). The article seemed to regard the high capacity as a curiosity. After all, the Browning Hi-Power could hold 13 rounds.

    A couple of years into the 1980’s and I cancelled my gun rag subscriptions as I was fed up to the back teeth with anything to do with the 9mm (sorta like the AR15 today). I think that one popular monthly magazine featured a photo of a 9mm on the magazine’s cover 10 months out of 12 when I’d decided I’d had enough. I went on to acquire several 9mms of my own; a Luger, P-38, and Hi-Power, but never much cared for the 9mm after that. There were so many 9mms with so many different systems, features, and gimmicks that my pea-brain went numb. Ammo developments kept pace with all this hype.

    Only it didn’t with the .38 Special. “It’s too old and there are old, weak guns out there”! Didn’t matter that the .38 Special is only 3 years older than the 9mm. Didn’t matter that there are foreign 9mm handgun designs out there that should have never been so chambered or that there are also some 9mm pistols in circulation that are hoary of head with age. Didn’t matter that skillful handloaders had been churning out .38 Special ammunition with excellent performance characteristics for years. Didn’t matter that the .38 Special doesn’t suffer from limitations imposed by the feeding/function capabilities of a bullet's design. The factories were having none of that (and let’s water down reloading publications while we’re at it). The .38 Special 158 grain factory loads dropped into the 700 fps range, +P 158 grain loads slid into the 800 fps range. Even the +P light-bullet loads fell under 1000 fps. Super Vel disappeared, as did the .38-44 and the “Treasury Load”. The 9mm was now the performance round with lots of loads created. The factories only paid lip service to the .38 Special and no real R&D was forthcoming. Each time a handloading guide was published the .38 Special was diluted some more. My 4.8 grain favorite load went from a middle-of-the-road charge weight for Unique to over maximum, for +P no less! If one wanted his .38 Special to be as hard hitting as ever he had to hand load for he was ignored by the industry. Frankly, I still think this is true in the main. A revolver was so “Barney Fife” so the buying public shunned some of the best handguns ever built including the Colt Detective Special, Police Positive, and Diamondback along with the Smith & Wesson Models 14 and 15, which were all discontinued to our everlasting shame.

    The .357 Magnum was given “the treatment” as well. I think that the marketing of all things 9mm had something to do with the watering down of .357 ammunition and hand loading data. The trendy 9mm along with the marketing of lighter and smaller .357 Magnum revolvers dented the .357 cartridge’s performance. I recall some sort of blurb in some 1980’s article extolling the 9mm as “far more powerful than the .38 Special…approaches the .357 Magnum in performance!” Get real! I suppose someone was thinking that 9mm was suppose to provide for all mid-bore handgunning chores but they were imbibing too much of the 9mm Kool-Aid.

    To be fair, the .357 Magnum itself made huge inroads into the .38 Special’s turf by offering a distinct performance improvement to the lawman and handgun aficionado. The product improvement that the .38-44 loading represented became unnecessary within a very few years of its introduction when the new Magnum round was introduced. Only thing is, the .357 Magnum is in its natural home in larger revolvers where the operating pressures and recoil may be better managed. Shrunken, concealed carry .357 revolvers smaller than a Smith & Wesson K-frame are a compromise that I can do without.

    While we’re at it the .38 Super IS everything the 9mm has been cracked up to be but isn’t. I haven’t figured out whether the .357 SIG is necessary or not. It certainly does offer a step up in performance over the 9mm. The 9mm doesn’t offer any distinct performance improvement over the .38 Special unless one likes lots a’ bullets. Of course that’s reason enough to like the 9mm.

    This is only my recollection of the .38 Special as I remember it when I first began using it. It’s likely not an accurate depiction of what was actually available 32 years ago. I think anyone with much of a handgun collection at all and who is a handloader should have a good quality .38 Special revolver and I don’t necessarily mean a concealed carry version. I also ended up airing my personal prejudice against the 9mm. Nothing is wrong with the 9mm. It’s a capable cartridge. I’ve even carried my Hi-Power on occasion and a finer auto pistol isn’t made. If I was faced with an emergency and had a crying need for a handgun, I’d be tickled pink if I stumped my toe on a 9mm pistol. The cartridge is better than it’s ever been and offers a balance of power and recoil that most folks can shoot very well and use to good effect. It’s just a cartridge that I personally love to hate.

    Y’all have a ball poking holes in me on this one. You know, they have a saying about opinions…

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    Senior Member Array hudsonvalley's Avatar
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    I recently bought a Model 10-?, bull barrel. I love the gun. D/A trigger is great. Not worked on, just the way they used to make them.
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    Distinguished Member Array Gunnutty's Avatar
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    I'm gonna agree with you! Aren't you surprised? Years ago when I was with a sherriff's department on the west coast we carried revolvers and the 38 special was it for allowed ammo. Our rangemaster drilled shot placement into us constantly. I never felt undergunned with my duty weapon. When the department went to nines it wasn't because the ballistic performance was so much better; it was in order to get a high capacity pistol with less reloading.
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    Member Array forestranger's Avatar
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    Agree! How times have changed. Carried 38 sp. with hot handloads for years in the woods because in the 60s and most of the 70s, there wasn't any decent factory loads. Back then 5.4 gr. of Unique with 160/158 swc or cast lhp wasn't even considered +p. Still have some of those loads from 80s, they chronograph 850 in 2 in. barrel, 925 in 4 in. and almost 1000 in 5 in. barrel. Used that load for years even in j frames with no problems. Now they considered too hot. Rem. 158 lhp +p is the closest to those old loads I've found recently.

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    Senior Member Array cmidkiff's Avatar
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    In a full size revolver, I like the added capabilities of a .357. I have a smith 620 and a colt lawman, both 4", that serve my needs well. I don't really see the benefit in having a shorter cylinder on a mid or large frame revolver with a 4" or longer barrel. You're not saving much weight, and it doesn't make it any more concealable. On a snub nose, then it starts making sense. I have a 3rd gen Detective Special, the only .38 special I own. It's one of my favorite firearms. Love that little 6 shooter.

    I find .357, and to a lesser degree, .38spl, to be a very flexible caliber. From light loads for my kids to knock cans over with, to fairly substantial loads for longer range target work, to full out hotrods for 'recoil therapy'... it's a great all-around handgun caliber. Sort of like a .308 long gun... everybody ought to have at least one :)

    I too shoot practically no jacketed ammo in .38, or from revolvers in general. Plain old lead is cheaper, and just as effective. I haven't been loading long, and all the data I'm using is pretty recent. I guess if I had been exposed to early data allowing much hotter .38 loadings, I might be more likely to use .38 cases rather than the .357's I load so many of these days.

    I enjoyed your write up... Thanks :)
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    You obviously put a lot of thought into your thread/post. Enjoyable reading.
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    My first centerfire handgun was (and still is - I've got it now!) a well-used 6" K-38 5-screw. A friend of mine had it given to him, and he preferred my Ruger standard .22 semi-auto - so we traded straight-up.

    During my bowling pin match phase, I used to load Keith-style 165 grain lead SWC's over 5.5 grains of Unique, for the revolver class. Lots of folks were experimenting with magnums, but I got all the pin action needed out of that 'ol .38 Special. And the empty brass would just fall out of the action, so no excess pressure signs.

    Also in the collection is a 3" heavy-barrel Model 13 round-butt. It's chambered in .357, but I've never felt the need to load anything other than .38 Special in it. Call me old fashioned, but the latest fad isn't always the best.
    Last edited by Geezer58; January 31st, 2008 at 08:21 PM.

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    bmcgilvray:

    That write-up was treat to read this dreary afternoon (it's gray, cold, windy and snowy here).

    I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it a "conspiracy", but I darn sure think pressure to keep coming up with new stuff to generate revenue had a lot to do with it.

    I've got a stable full of .38 Special snubbies. I don't feel outgunned at all, and I use what may have been considered an "ordinary" load back in the day in my non +P's: Buffalo Bore's 158-grain SWC. In my +P's I use BB 158-grain +P load.

    I think that old FBI load (that Remington 158-grain +P is plenty powerful, and easy, for me, to shoot) is just as good now as it was in 1968 (or whenever).
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    Member Array forestranger's Avatar
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    Even though I've got a "stable" full of autos and magnums, I still recommend to folks asking about a first handgun to get a 6 shot, DA, min. 3" barrel 38 sp.(or 357 if they start out with 38s) and a same style 22RF if they can afford 2 handguns. Amazing how many want to start out with a Glock! Just call me old fashioned or ol' geezer, got nothing against Glocks, but a Glock ain't what I'd recommend as a starter gun.
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    Member Array Dan M.'s Avatar
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    Distinguished Member Array mr.stuart's Avatar
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    Good read!I must say,the .38 S&W,and the .357,are my favorite guns.

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    Member Array Hoot's Avatar
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    I too enjoyed your write-up. I shoot more .38 spec. than anything else, primarily because it is inexpensive to reload, and I have more than a dozen guns that eat it. I think you're right, the .38 Sp. has been ignored by the ammo folks. I recall in the early eighties I was taxed with the job of selecting a duty round and the round had to produce at least 250 Ft. pounds of energy. There was only one round commercially available that would do it, the 110 gr. +P silvertip. That is pretty pathetic. So I think ammo was pretty sorry in the day of the .38 unless you loaded your own. I have some of the old SuperVel and I have a box of Norma with a jacketed soft point that I bought in 72. It was better than most stuff, but I preferred handloads or the old FBI 158gr load.

    By the way, if memory serves, the .38-44 was not a load per se. It was a S&W model that was introduced many years before the advent of the .357. It was .38 special caliber but built on the .44 Outdoorsman frame (N frame). It was for handloaders who wanted to push the envelope I suppose.

    There was, and is, a .38-40 round, but it is actually a 40 caliber bullet in a slightly bottlenecked case. It's original charge called for 40 grains of black powder. It was the .357 of its day. I can't imagine why it was dubbed the 38-40 rather than the 40-40. This round was loaded commercially with smokeless powder long after the end of the black powder era. It is still an excellent cartridge even by today's standards.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Hoot View Post
    By the way, if memory serves, the .38-44 was not a load per se. It was a S&W model that was introduced many years before the advent of the .357. It was .38 special caliber but built on the .44 Outdoorsman frame (N frame). It was for handloaders who wanted to push the envelope I suppose.
    Actually, in the 1930s, there was a Remington .38-44 load, dubbed the .38-44 High Velocity or Hi-Speed, dimensionally identical to the standard .38 Special, for use in, as you correctly noted, the .38-44 Outdoorsman revolvers, later known as the Models 20 and 23. This load eventually evolved into the .357 Magnum in 1935.


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    Thanks for your kind remarks. All I can say is that there's a bunch of old-fashioned geezerness in some of the above posts.

    I like those Model 10 Heavy Barrel revolvers. They're great! Good for a newby as a starter and actually good for anyone. A revolver man who is skillfull in the use of speed loaders (like I'm not) and accurate with his revolver in both single action and double action mode is as expert as any auto pistol user.

    I've obtained exactly the same velocities with that 5.4 grain charge of Unique mentioned out of the same barrel lengths. That's a good, healthy load that I've used in the past when carrying handloads for self-defense. The Buffalo Bore +P load looks like the heir apparent to old fashioned hand loading efforts to obtain performance. Good for Buffalo Bore for spending some time on the .38 Special for the benefit of all.

    I've always intended to gather up a supply of factory .38-44 ammunition for limited testing. I do have a few empty cases. They feature large pistol primers. Kind of a bummer to run across one of them when priming a quantity of mixed brass.

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    Senior Member Array coffeecup's Avatar
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    Wish I had the lead back that that cast into the old Lyman/Keith 358 mold. Like you, I wound those things up pretty tight years ago.

    One thing I would like for all of us to keep in mind---Who is it that pays the bills for gun rag publishers? (hint) it isnt the readers.

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