.38 Special or .38 S&W?

This is a discussion on .38 Special or .38 S&W? within the Defensive Carry Guns forums, part of the Defensive Carry Discussions category; Forgive the ignorance of this question, but I have a rather nice old Colt. The barrel says its chambered in .38 S&W. Is that a ...

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    Member Array Boracho's Avatar
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    .38 Special or .38 S&W?

    Forgive the ignorance of this question, but I have a rather nice old Colt. The barrel says its chambered in .38 S&W. Is that a .38 special or one of the older .38's that predated the .38 special?

    A .38 special round fits perfectly in the chamber. But I sure don't want to shoot it if the .38 special wasn't the round this gun was built for.

    Thanks for the help.
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    sgb
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    38 spl - 38 S&W
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    Distinguished Member Array claude clay's Avatar
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    sgb.....good pic

    besides being shorter, the case is .03" to .04" wider
    so a 38 spl will fit--loosely in a 38 S&W chamber if the cylinder is long enough to accept it. the earlier I frames are not.
    some later models are.
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    Ah. Thanks. This gun will just be a collector item as opposed to a shooter, then.

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    Is your old Colt a Police Positive or the earlier New Police? Or perhaps an uncommon Banker's Special or Official Police which was produced for British contracts? Any of the above Colts that were originally chambered for the .38 S&W shouldn't take a .38 Special cartridge at all. Perhaps you have a Police Positive Special or a Detective Special.

    Any of the above Colts are great fun at the range. Don't relegate it to duty as a dust catcher. The .38 S&W is still available and while a bit anemic, would serve just as well as any .380 load since the .38 S&W throws a heavier soft lead slug. The handloader can jazz up the .38 S&W to be quite sprightly with perfect safety if a suitable solid-frame Colt or Smith & Wesson revolver is chosen. Think, fully equal to standard velocity .38 Special. With the right bullet shape one could do worse.

    I do actually tote a compact little Colt Banker's Special loaded up with 158 grain lead semi-wadcutters on occasion. I'm out the door to a local board meeting and believe I'll make it my pocket companion based on your influence in posting this thread.

    Let us here more about your Colt. I'll bet we could identify it. Photos are always appreciated too.
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    VIP Member Array TedBeau's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Boracho View Post
    Forgive the ignorance of this question, but I have a rather nice old Colt. The barrel says its chambered in .38 S&W. Is that a .38 special or one of the older .38's that predated the .38 special?

    A .38 special round fits perfectly in the chamber. But I sure don't want to shoot it if the .38 special wasn't the round this gun was built for.

    Thanks for the help.
    I guess I am confused. The OP states that the 38 special round dose fit the gun, and I thought that was why the 38 special round was made longer, so it couldn't fit into a 38 S&W.
    If it is indeed a 38 special then why wouldn't you want to use it as a carry gun, range gun?

    I say find out for sure and then have fun with it.

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    Member Array Boracho's Avatar
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    I'll round up some photos of it, I'll try and post them this evening. I believe that it is a Colt Police Positive. 4 inch barrel. I inherited this one. Very smooth trigger in both single and double action. I'm with TedBeau above, I want to know for sure. I have the feeling it will shoot terrifically, once I figure out what it shoots. As noted, it chambers the 38 special perfectly in its cylinder. Somewhere in storage I have a great book about everything Colt, just don't know where the goofy thing is these days....it would be a good resource.

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    sgb
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    If it's a Police Positive Special it uses the .38 S&W Special cartridge and should not be shot with +P ammo
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    sgb's right, it should be a Police Positive Special. And he's correct to caution about use of heavy loadings in it.

    It has to be a .38 Special revolver if the cartridge will chamber. All Colt revolvers chambered for .38 S&W would feature a cylinder that is too short to accept a .38 Special cartridge of normal length which would actually protrude from the front of the cylinder if the cartridge could be fully chambered. Besides which the Colt chamber would have a step in it corresponding to the length of the .38 S&W cartridge. This would further limit the ability to chamber .38 Special ammunition. The only two Colt exceptions that come to mind that would have cylinders long enough to accept .38 Special ammunition are the few Official Police revolvers produced in .38 S&W for British contracts or the very few Colt Single Action Army revolvers made up in .38 S&W. Something less than 20 of them were ever produced. One is not likely to encounter one.

    The Detective Special was actually an outgrowth of the Police Positive Special being nothing more than the Police Positive Special with a 2-inch barrel. In later years the Detective Special became the more popular variant.

    In the 1930s Colt advertising claimed that their Police Positive Special and Detective Special revolvers could be used with the then current .38-44 loading of the .38 Special. This was a really powerful .38 Special load deriving its name from the heavy .44 special N-Frame Smith & Wesson revolvers which were adapted to shoot the .38 Special. These big Smith & Wesson revolvers were built to handle this high-pressure .38-44 loading. It was the "+P" loading for the .38 Special of the day, said to be even more potent than modern .38 Special +P. The .357 Magnum was developed in 1935 to take the concept of heavy .38 Special loadings even further.

    Colt was probably a bit optimistic to advertise such a practice. While the Police Positive Special could technically survive being fired with +P ammunition, the light-framed revolver couldn't be expected to hold up to much exposure to +P. It'd take a beating and loosen up. It's also been said that forcing cones were subject to cracking or blowing out. Colt made their small-framed .38 Special revolvers out of really fine grades of steel for the day and the revolver are still fine with standard velocity loads.

    Here's a Colt Police Positive Special chambered for .38 Special. When comparing it to the Police Positive seen below one will note the longer cylinder and correspondingly longer frame. The photos aren't to scale as they were snapped at different distances from the subjects. The revolvers are about the same size except for the frames and cylinders and the stocks will interchange.




    Here's a worn but still very fine shooting Colt Police Positive. Note the shorter length of the cylinder. This particular revolver is chambered for .32 Colt New Police which is the same thing as .32 S&W Long. The Police Positive was also produced in .38 S&W.
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    The first picture is almost an exact image of the one I have, down to the grips. However, there's no marking for .38 special on the barrel. On the right side of the gun there's markings that say .38/.380, which I've never seen before on a .38 special. I am too technologically deficient to get a proper picture of the thing, sorry, I tried....The gun has been refinished unfortunately. I can see some markings on the barrel, but they appear to be the patent numbers/years. They're very faint now.

    I did confirm again the cylinder chambers a .38 special perfectly. The cylinder revolves, and the bullets aren't protruding out the front at all.

    Were there any instances of people putting different cylinders in a gun chambered for .38 S&W? I would think the frame would have been too short to accept that type of modification, but I'm not sure.

    Incidentally, there's an old S&W that has the exact same problem: marked for .38 S&W, but chambers a .38 special just perfectly. The last patent date on it shows 1914. Unlike most smith revovlers, it doesn't have a model number on the frame under the cylinder. It pretty much sets up identical to what we know as the Model 10....

    It sounds as though a normal-pressure .38 special ought to work in these guys.

    Thanks for the information! Keep it coming. I love these old revolvers, and that last post was pretty informative!

    Quote Originally Posted by bmcgilvray View Post
    sgb's right, it should be a Police Positive Special. And he's correct to caution about use of heavy loadings in it.

    It has to be a .38 Special revolver if the cartridge will chamber. All Colt revolvers chambered for .38 S&W would feature a cylinder that is too short to accept a .38 Special cartridge of normal length which would actually protrude from the front of the cylinder if the cartridge could be fully chambered. Besides which the Colt chamber would have a step in it corresponding to the length of the .38 S&W cartridge. This would further limit the ability to chamber .38 Special ammunition. The only two Colt exceptions that come to mind that would have cylinders long enough to accept .38 Special ammunition are the few Official Police revolvers produced in .38 S&W for British contracts or the very few Colt Single Action Army revolvers made up in .38 S&W. Something less than 20 of them were ever produced. One is not likely to encounter one.

    The Detective Special was actually an outgrowth of the Police Positive Special being nothing more than the Police Positive Special with a 2-inch barrel. In later years the Detective Special became the more popular variant.

    In the 1930s Colt advertising claimed that their Police Positive Special and Detective Special revolvers could be used with the then current .38-44 loading of the .38 Special. This was a really powerful .38 Special load deriving its name from the heavy .44 special N-Frame Smith & Wesson revolvers which were adapted to shoot the .38 Special. These big Smith & Wesson revolvers were built to handle this high-pressure .38-44 loading. It was the "+P" loading for the .38 Special of the day, said to be even more potent than modern .38 Special +P. The .357 Magnum was developed in 1935 to take the concept of heavy .38 Special loadings even further.

    Colt was probably a bit optimistic to advertise such a practice. While the Police Positive Special could technically survive being fired with +P ammunition, the light-framed revolver couldn't be expected to hold up to much exposure to +P. It'd take a beating and loosen up. It's also been said that forcing cones were subject to cracking or blowing out. Colt made their small-framed .38 Special revolvers out of really fine grades of steel for the day and the revolver are still fine with standard velocity loads.

    Here's a Colt Police Positive Special chambered for .38 Special. When comparing it to the Police Positive seen below one will note the longer cylinder and correspondingly longer frame. The photos aren't to scale as they were snapped at different distances from the subjects. The revolvers are about the same size except for the frames and cylinders and the stocks will interchange.




    Here's a worn but still very fine shooting Colt Police Positive. Note the shorter length of the cylinder. This particular revolver is chambered for .32 Colt New Police which is the same thing as .32 S&W Long. The Police Positive was also produced in .38 S&W.

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    "... .38/.380 ..."

    Without seeing the revolver or at least a photo or two detailing both sides of the revolver it is hard to say but it's beginning to sound like it spent some time in the British Commonwealth somewhere. In the 1920s the British adopted the .38 S&W in a special loading of their own design which used a 200 grain lead bullet. They termed the resulting cartridge the .38/200, later modified to use a jacketed 178 grain load. The .38/200 name stuck though. Many of these British contract revolvers, both Colt and Smith & Wesson, received additional proof marks after Great Britain took delivery of them. I'm guessing that's where the .38/.380 stamping on the right side of the barrel originated as they are sometimes seen with that marking.

    You may have a later Police Positive Special that was originally chambered for the .38/200 and that was rechambered for .38 Special. It could be a Hong Kong police gun as a number of them were imported 15 or more years ago. These may have also been produced by Colt after the word "special" was dropped from the model name. That occurred after World War II. The shorter frame/cylinder combination was discontinued and the longer version that had previously been the Police Positive Special was then called the Police Positive and could be had chambered in any of the shorter cartridges as well as .38 Special. That model would have had a cylinder long enough to be converted from .38 S&W to .38 Special. Those Police Positive revolvers were used by the Hong Kong police for many years and Colt supplied a number of them over time.

    I forgot all about the post-war Colt Police Positives supplied in .38 S&W. Though this Police Positive of the era did feature a cylinder long enough to utilize the .38 Special these contract models were chambered for .38 S&W which was still very popular in the British Commonwealth and former British colonies. As late as the 1970s Ruger made limited runs of their Service Six model chambered for .38 S&W, supposedly for some Indian contract. Now that would be an odd duck to own. I've seen a couple of these Rugers show up on GunBroker, contract overruns perhaps, but always with very high beginning bid prices attached to them. Entertained buying one for the novelty of owning a modern Ruger double-action revolver in .38S&W but the $750 starting price dissuaded that notion.

    Anyway, back to the Colt. It may be possible to see the vestige of the original step in the chambers of the cylinder of the revolver along with the step created when the chamber was opened up to accept the .38 Special. You can check the chambers in a strong light to verify this. Make sure the chambers are clean and dried of solvent for best viewing.

    Another thing to note is the front sight on the revolver. The pre-WWII Colts will have half-moon front sights as shown on the ones I put up in the photos above. The post-war models possess a ramp front sight variant. Also the crane lock is different and simplified on the post-WWII Colt revolvers. Note the screw that overlays what appears to be a button on the right side of the sad looking little .32 Police Positive in the photo above? That "button" is actually a thick pin which retains the crane to the frame. The post-war Colt will feature the deletion of this separate pin and a single screw in the right side of the frame, located in the same spot, retains the crane.

    Below, a Colt Official Police. Though a larger Colt model, this 1953 example bears the same front sight configuration as a post-war Police Positive would possess.


    Colt did a parts clean-up in the early post-war years so some Police Positive models with half-moon sights and pin-locked cranes were likely produced. If yours has a ramp front sight and screw-locked crane you can bet it's post-war. Half-moon and pin-locked crane is very likely pre-war. It's easy to determine the year the revolver was produced by seeing the first three digits of it's serial number. You might post it with appropriate X's to substitute for the number of remaining digits in the serial number.

    "Incidentally, there's an old S&W that has the exact same problem: marked for .38 S&W, but chambers a .38 special just perfectly. The last patent date on it shows 1914."

    Sounds exactly like a World War II "Victory" model made under British contract and chambered for .38 S&W. This is the K-Fame Military & Police predecessor to the Smith & Wesson Model 10. A few blued ones with normal commercial serial numbers were produced in .38 S&W before the war. These will be rollmarked for .38 S&W and will feature normal commercial serial numbers of the period, generally falling in the 680,000 to 740,000 range. The pre-war .38 S&W M&P isn't very common so it's doubtful you have found a commercial model.

    Most will bear a serial number with a "V" prefix, will still bear the usual roll mark listing all the significant patents on top of the barrel, and have a rougher "wartime" Parkerized type finish. In fact if one of these is found to be all blue and shiny then it has been refinished. Gobs were made and gobs have been re-imported over the years. In November of 1963 Oswald killed Dallas patrolman J.D. Tippett with a British contract Victory model that had been rechambered to .38 Special and cut down to a 2-inch barrel length just after he assassinated Kennedy from the window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository. It was once common to rechamber these revolvers to .38 Special to obtain a more powerful revolver and to make the surplus revolvers more marketable so countless rechambered examples are floating about. These were rechambered and in some cases barrels modified, in wholesale lots by distributors beginning in the 1950s to make them more salable. Some were rechambered and refinished by Parker Hale and other British arms houses. Some of the British ones may be found with nice blue finishes, attractive checkered walnut grips, and special custom ramp front sights which makes these revolvers look quite modern.

    Most are considered mongrels by collectors and their value is diminished due to the rechambering and other modifications done to them. They are valued only for their suitability for shooting use. If your Colt has been modified from its original .38 S&W chambering to .38 Special then it should be viewed in the same way, value wise. None would ever be worth more than a couple hundred dollars if in the best of condition and under $150 would be even better.

    Shooting a .38 Special modified .38 S&W revolver.

    This is only personal opinion but I would have no trepidation about shooting any conversion of either a Colt or Smith & Wesson revolver if the rechamber work was decent and a simple measurement with a dial caliper could determine that.

    Many, especially since the rise of firearms forums where folks seem to have a tendency to blow things out of proportion and cry "the sky is falling" like Chicken Little, caution against firing these conversions at all. They claim everything from gross inaccuracy, to split cases, to burst cylinders. I disagree. The basic design of these Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers was sound and they were fabricated out of quality steels. The standard velocity .38 Special operates at a few thousand PSI more than the .38 S&W but its not enough to worry over, especially since the same revolver design came factory chambered in .38 Special and the K-Frame was even later built in .357 Magnum.

    As far as accuracy, I haven't verified this by slugging the barrel of a Smith & Wesson K-Frame .38 S&W but have a hunch that during the war, batches of barrels were made up with some screwed into .38 Special Victory models and so marked and others being fitted to .38 S&W Victory models and so marked. I'm guessing the bore diameter of the two different variations is the same and that S&W didn't bother to change for the British contract guns. The bore diameter isn't that far apart anyway, .357" for .38 Special as opposed to .360" for the .38 S&W. Wish someone who had a British contract gun would take a measurement of the bore and weigh in on this.

    The .38 S&W chamber is very slightly larger in diameter than the .38 chamber. So very slightly that some factory .38 S&W ammunition will fit in .38 Special revolver chambers and may be fired with perfect satisfaction. I've even tested boxes of factory loaded .38 S&W ammunition by trying it all in a .38 Special to find that some rounds will fit by dropping in, some rounds will fit with a dab of pressing pressure, and some rounds won't fit at all, and all rounds coming out of the same box!

    A Story To Illustrate Shooting Conversion Revolvers

    I had a good friend in law enforcement who was the chief deputy for the Sheriff's Office in the county where I resided. We would go shoot on occasion, especially around annual qualification time. I remember the first time I had Sam out to the club range with me. This would have been sometime in the late 1970s. He trotted out his service side arm and several boxes of agency-provided Winchester Western 110 grain +P ammunition. This was the issue ammunition for this agency and they provided all the officers cared to shoot. It was reputed to be "hot," something I later chronographed to discover that it was only "sorta hot."

    Anyway his 4-inch service revolver looked a mess. It had begun life as a World War II Smith & Wesson Victory model but its career had distinctly gone down hill appearance-wise since then. Someone had chrome (not nickel) plated it right over its rough wartime finish. This crummy chrome job was beginning to flake off around the edges. Sam had slapped a set of the then popular Pachmayr Presentation rubber grips on it which, while effective for some, have always been an offense to the eye in my view.

    Sam loved his revolver immensely though. It meant a lot to him as it had been presented to him as a gift from a mentor lawman who befriended him when he was young and starting out. He'd been carrying that revolver for 15 years or so by the time we went shooting for the first time. It had seen shots fired in anger and the two had developed a history together.

    Anyway, we went to shooting and Sam was good with his Smith & Wesson .38 Special. He could really stitch up a target with accurately placed bullet holes at different distances and from different shooting attitudes, both single-action and double-action. He wasn't a reloader and cared nothing for the empty brass he was ejecting so I began to glean the bright nickel cases from the ground.

    Upon picking the first few I noticed a slight "step" or what even could be considered a minuscule "bottleneck" on each one. Puzzled at this I asked to examine his revolver. Opening up the cylinder revealed all. The original .38 S&W chamber step could still be seen with the .38 Special step visible further into the chambers. A glance at the barrel found the tell-tale roll marking ".38 S&W CTG". Further examination found various British proof marks and acceptance stamps. It was a converted .38 S&W Victory model.

    I made mention of this and ventured that he might want to take care not to feed it so many of the hot loads but he dismissed my suggestion, saying he'd been shooting those loads for years already. The revolver seemed tight and there was no appreciable end-shake so it appeared none the worse for wear.

    The revolver served on and I saw it fired on quite a few more occasions, always with this same ammunition. It never appeared to be loosening up. Since that time I've seen and fired a few more of these conversions (with standard velocity equivalent handloads) and all gave perfect function and satisfying accuracy. No split .38 Special cases have ever been observed. They always fire-form to the screwy chamber and provide the appropriate seal. If I had your Colt Boracho, I'd be happy to shoot the hooey out of it. I would stay away from +P factory loads or heavy handloads though.

    A postscript about Sam's revolver. A couple years later he had occasion to pursue by helicopter an attempted kidnapping suspect who had run from a big city down into our county, ending up in a remote unpopulated region. The suspect was driving a Lincoln Mark IV owned by the kidnapped woman who, along with her child also occupied the car. The chase finally ran out of road and a lucky shot from another deputy with a .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson Model 19 caused a leak in the transmission pan which ultimately disabled the car. Before the car expired the bad guy had managed to drive it through a barbed-wire fence and into some really rough, cedar-break country full of rocks and gullies. Sam was still hovering over the car as it wallowed through this wilderness, seemingly unstoppable. Finally, he had the pilot fly down low enough that he felt safe to attempt to shoot down onto the car's hood in a further attempt to disable it. The car finally died and the bad guy gave it up, the victims were rescued safely.

    Sam was disgusted though as he said that his "hot' 110 grain JHP loads only made deep puckers in the Lincoln's hood, none penetrating to the engine compartment. He soon came up with a Smith & Wesson Model 66 .357 Magnum and retired the old M&P revolver.
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    That was a great write-up, bmcgilvray. Thank you so much for the information. I had the same thought that these two might have been some sort of Lend-Lease pistols sent to Europe and converted either when they went over or when they returned. Sentimental value on these guns are high, since my Dad liked to collect oddball things like that. I'd already made up my mind they weren't worth anything other than that, but I'm happy because they appear to be guns that I can shoot. In fact, I think my little boy will soon be old enough to shoot a light .38 round. These guns would be great "starter" pistols, so to speak. The triggers on both of them are top-notch. The double actions on both are very smooth and light, and going single action, the trigger pull is simply to die for. The first large caliber handgun I ever shot was an old Smith and Wesson .38 special, at around 7 years old. It also had a wonderful trigger. It started me on the pistol-shooting obsession that I retain to this day, and I've found myself returning to the wheelguns of old more and more lately.

    The Smith does in fact have a V prefix, and has definitely been re-blued. It lacks a lanyard ring, which for some reason I thought all the Victory models had. But I understand this gun has probably been altered several times over the course of its history.

    I'll make sure that I shoot relatively light .38's through both.

    Thanks again for the information. I'll keep watching this thread to see if we have anybody else weighing in on the history of these guys.

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    Great history, Bryan, but you made one serious mistake: Oswald didn't kill Kennedy.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JohnLeVick View Post
    Great history, Bryan, but you made one serious mistake: Oswald didn't kill Kennedy.

    Yeah? Well, there is that.

    Totally off of the subject but proof positive of shenanigans on the grassy knoll.

    Look carefully at the bushes to see if you don't see a shady looking character behind them.



    In this second frame the shady looking character is gone!



    Now you tell me something fishy's not going on there.

    Same place November 22, 1963
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