The British officer corps was decimated in WW1, and there was a rush to replace the fallen. The Webley .455, while well regarded, took too much training for candidates to become proficient and a lighter, easier to learn alternative was sought. This resulted in the design of a new, smaller-framed revolver chambered in 380/200 Revolver (usually known in America as 38-200.)
This cartridge used the .38 S&W case, but with a long, heavy 200gr. bullet launched at around 625 fps. The long, heavy-for-caliber bullet was somewhat unstable, and in testing on cadavars and animal corpses it tended to tumble post-impact, creating greater wounding effect and allowing the low-velocity bullet to deposit all of it’s energy (173 ft./lbs) in the target. The British army found this acceptable, and the weapons lighter weight and modest recoil made it easier to train with.
Over the years this story got muddied, with some insisting that penetration, rather than a tumbling bullet, was the goal. A friend of mine was curious, and sent me a box of Matt’s Bullets 38/200 ammunition. I ordered a block of Clear Ballistics FBI-spec gel to put this to the test. But there was a problem… my .38 S&W revolvers are too lightly built for this cartridge, and firing these loads from them would be too likely to damage them.
In normal times I’d just call around and find a buddy with a Webley, Enfield or S&W Victory chambered appropriately and have them come by, but these are not normal times so I was stymied. Then it occurred to me to try something. The bullet diameter of 380/200 is only a few thousandths larger than .357. I ran two of the Matt’s bullet loads through a .38 Special resizing die, and the fit perfectly in the cylinder of my .357 Magnum Astra Police revolver. With it’s 3″ barrel the bullet would be a bit slower than from a service-length gun, but not a great deal, and it was better than nothing. I decided to give it a try.
My terminally messy workshop provided a good place for the test. I did not bother with four layers of denim as the bullet is not intended to expand. I fired two shots, yielding an average velocity of 585 fps. and 153 ft./lbs of energy at ten feet from the muzzle, with an extreme spread of 19 fps. The first shot entered the the block and hooked left, exiting the block at about 13″ of penetration. The bullet hit the backstop sideways and skittered off into the nether realms of the shop at very low velocity. The second bullet also hooked left, but was retained in the block at a depth of 13-1/4″. The bullet came to rest backwards. The wound tracks indicated that the bullets did indeed tumble, just as intended.
The wound channels, while not spectacular, were notably larger than bullet diameter and produced more damage than normal solid-non-expanding bullets would have. The low energy rounds did not produce a great deal of damage, but more worrisome is the pronounced curve to the left that each bullet performed, which might conceivably turn a good hit into a bad one.
Still, gel is not flesh and bone and while it gives us a general indicator of the bullet’s performance in tissue it is not a direct analogue. Given a choice between factory .38 S&W ammunition and these rounds I’d pick these in a heartbeat.
I should also note this is a very unscientific test- the bullets are being squeezed by the smaller bore, and service guns have longer barrels and might have a different rifling twist that could affect performance. When things are more settled I hope to replicate this test with a Webley revolver.
So how obsolete is it? If the shooter does their job the ammunition will probably suffice, and for service guns in .38 S&W I think it represents a good choice. Bear in mind that the British did not abandon this load for any perceived lack of effectiveness, but rather because they were concerned that the soft lead bullet would be seen as a violation of the Geneva Convention. That being said modern calibers with modern bullets are a better choice, and much to be preferred if that option is available.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 29 July 2020
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