Ah, the handy .38 Special revolver. If, like me, you grew up watching TV shows from the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, one common thing you would have seen in most police shows was the famous .38 Special revolver. Maybe you’re aware of it, or maybe not, but the .38 Special was pretty much the standard issue sidearm for every police department in the United States from the 1920’s through the early 1990’s.
Developed by Smith & Wesson in 1898, the .38 Special caliber was developed as an improvement over the previously widely used .38 Long Colt. It seems the military found out during the Philippine-American war that the old .38 Long Colt didn’t have the penetrating power to get through the simple wooden shields enemy combatants were using as protection. The new round, however, seemed more adequate at the task.
Based on it’s early success and coupled with it’s notable accuracy and manageable recoil, the .38 Special became a standard in police departments throughout the U.S. and other law enforcement officials throughout the world. In fact, even today – after over 100 years – it is the most popular revolver cartridge in use. But, here’s a little something you may NOT know about the .38 special:
I took a basic handgun class with my wife a few weeks ago. Although I’m comfortable with handguns, I’ve never had formal training and my wife has never had any training, so we thought it was good investment. It was a good, basic class taught by a very knowledgeable instructor at the Heritage Guild in Easton, PA. After the class, the instructor took some time to talk to us and to recommend some options for our first handgun. We got to talking about revolvers and, in particular, the .38 Special. That’s when he dropped it on me: the .38 Special isn’t actually a .38 at all!
You may be asking, “What the heck does the .38 even mean?” If that’s your question, check out our handy article on bullet calibers for the answer. For the rest of you, what I learned about the .38 Special is that it is actually a .357 round. That’s right, the actual diameter of the slug (this determines the caliber) is 0.357 inches. So, why is it called a .38? Well, that’s due to where it came from. You see, the .38 Special was developed from the .38 Short Colt which was designed for use in converted .36-caliber cap-and-ball Navy revolvers. These .36 caliber revolvers actually fired a slug that had a 0.357-inch (rounded to .36 at the time) diameter. But, these revolvers had cylindrical firing chambers of approximately 0.374-inch (rounded to .38) diameter. To make up for the difference, the original slug had a bit of a lip (or heal) at the bottom making it slightly wider to match the diameter of the bullet casing.
As the round was perfected and revolvers were developed to specifically fire the new .38 Special round, the name .38 stuck while the actual size of the slug never changed from the 0.357-inch. So, if you’re wondering, yes, a .38 Special round will fit in a .357 magnum revolver and vice-versa. However, DO NOT ever fire a .357 magnum round in a revolver designed for .38 Special only. Those were not designed for the pressure of the .357 magnum round and using them in a .38 Special revolver could be very dangerous.
So, there you have it. A little story about the .38 Special – as I learned it. Is this news to you? Tells us in the comments below.