It does not have to be flashy just dependable. It’s always there and it always works. It is like a good friend in a pinch you can count on it to be there for you. I am a traditionalist. I prefer something proven over the test of time – not the media or Internet hype. I am not a person who follows fads. That is why the next cartridge is so “Special” to me. That good friend throughout the years is the Smith and Wesson .38 Special.
We love to tout the two classic cartridges used today in such quantity as the great old cartridges, the 9mm Parabellum and the .45 ACP. However, the .38 Special was designed during the same year as the 9mm, 1902. Both of these predated the .45ACP, which had to wait almost 10 years.
Upon its design, the cartridge found its place in military as well as civilian law enforcement revolvers. Its career at large in the military was short lived. While it continued in some weapons in the military, the .45 ACP in the Colt 1911 pistol overran it.
Civilian law enforcement is where the .38 Special really shined and secured its place in history. From inception in 1902 – through the mid 80s – this cartridge ruled supreme. At the time it was an upgrade from the standard police rounds in .32 calibers or underpowered .38s. In civilian law enforcement, then and today, a desired caliber is able to not create a domino effect when fired in a populated area. You want to incapacitate the target without the bullet continuing onward hitting unknown or unwanted targets. In military applications, this is less of a concern.
The .38 Special first saw true service in the likes of the Smith & Wesson M&P (Military and Police) and later the S&W Model 10. Colt’s offerings were the Army Special and later the Official Police, Police Special, Police Positive and the .38 New Police. It made a return to the battlefield in the Smith and Wesson Victory model for use by downed pilots.
Nevertheless, to me the most iconic weapon that fired this cartridge was the Smith and Wesson Model 10. This was the gun that had formally been the .38 Hand Ejector, M&P and the Victory. This was the Glock of its day and over six million of this variant were produced. From 1899 to the late 1980s this was the gun that most police officers carried on duty or trained with at the academy. In 1985 I put over 1500 .38 Special rounds through this gun during my first police academy.
Prior to the age of firepower in civilian law enforcement, this cartridge and its big brother the .357 Magnum were more than capable of getting the job done and they did soundly. With the glamour of the 9mm in the late 1980s, the .38 Special was relegated to the back row.
Do not send our old horse to the soap factory yet. With the rise in interest in concealed carry, it has found a new home in a solid platform. One of the great homes for the .38 Special was the little two-inch guns such as the Smith and Wesson J frames and the iconic Colt Detective Special, designed for the expressed purpose of concealed carry. In such guns as the modern Smith and Wesson 642 Airweight this is a great pocket pistol that is easy to use and is much better then a .380 caliber. When unable to carry a larger framed concealed carry choice this is the gun and caliber that goes in my front pocket.
In this video game age, everyone wants glamour and pizzazz. Yes, there are better guns, calibers and more glamorous friends out there. Nevertheless, I will always go with the loyal proven commodity. Is the .38 Special a good round? I’ll bet my life on it.