For many years in the 19th Century the short .32 S&W cartridge was widely considered to be the minimum viable self-defense cartridge, was chambered in countless small top-break revolvers, and not a few inexpensive solid-frame guns. Firing an 88gr RNL bullet at around 650 fps it was far from a powerhouse, and by the latter decades of that century it was increasingly understood to be under-powered.
When S&W introduced their new solid-frame Hand Ejector in 1896 it came with a new cartridge- .32 S&W Long. This was still a black-powder cartridge, but offered heavier bullets and a bit more velocity. Bullets weighed 88-100 grains and velocities ran between 750-800 fps. This was a significant improvement, and the new cartridge quickly developed a reputation for excellent accuracy. New York City’s police and several other departments adopted this round; it was felt that the .32 now had adequate power and it’s mild recoil and accuracy would promote better marksmanship for armed officers.
Colt, not about to write ‘S&W’ on their guns, dubbed the cartridge .32 Colt New Police , but really it was just .32 S&W Long with a folat-nosed bullet. In the early years of the 20th C. this round was replaced in general issue by .38 Special, but remained popular in small-frame revolvers made for concealed carry well into the second half of the 20th C.
These days this cartridge is used primarily for target shooting, and remains popular in eastern Europe and places like India where caliber choices for civilians are strictly limited. In America it has been supplanted by cartridges like .32 H&R magnum and .327 Federal Magnum, though even these cartridges enjoy only limited popularity. Those who shoot this cartridge mainly shoot it in older and antique guns, and commercial ammunition choices are limited. There are high-powered loads available from Buffalo Bore, and several companies offer hollow-points. Unfortunately these hollow-point rounds do not have enough velocity to expand from typical revolvers.
So, low-powered and largely obsolete- but does it have to be? Can we, with modern understanding and hand-loaded ammunition, return this venerable cartridge to relevance? I undertook a series of tests to find out.
The Test Standards
To test these cartridges I borrowed from the FBI’s standard tests for law-enforcement duty loads. The test media was 4x4x16″ FBI-spec Clear Ballistics gel covered by four layers of denim to simulate performance when penetrating clothing. The FBI considers a round to have adequate penetration for duty if it passes through the denim and penetrates 12-19″ of gel. Clear ballistics gel is highly elastic, and often bullets ‘bounce’ back in the gel, so penetration is measured from the deepest part of the wound track, not the resting place of the bullet.
The backstop was 10″ of tightly packed cardboard, followed by pine 4x4s and 2 layers of 3/4″ marine plywood. My hope was that rounds that over-penetrated the gel-block would be captured in the cardboard without suffering further damage.
All loads were fired at approximately 10′ from the gel, and were fired over a chronograph to test their velocity from the 2″ barrel.
Lets make one thing clear- civilian self defense shootings are fundamentally different than law-enforcement shootings. Law enforcement shootings need to take into account longer distances, moving targets etc. Because of the dynamic nature of these events a bullet may need to pass through an extremity before hitting the vitals, or cross the body from odd angles, and needs enough penetration to insure the bullet will reach vital structures after doing so. While this level of performance may be viewed as the Gold Standard for civilian self-defense, in practice duty-style dynamic shootings are the exception rather than the rule.
Most civilian shootings occur at very close range, typically against a person presenting a full-frontal aspect. This being the case one might reasonably consider 9-10″ of penetration to be adequate for those instances. This is very much a personal choice, and I would not consider it crazy to accept a trade-off between expansion and penetration for civilian self-defense… within limits, at least, especially if the particular gun offered a peculiar advantage in concealability or usability for the individual.
To limit variables as much as possible, all rounds were loaded with Unique powder over a Federal Magnum Small Pistol Primer, as standard small pistol primers have become unobtainium locally. Bullets were basically what I had on-hand or could easily obtain. The 2″-barreled Detective Special was used because the primary use for these guns, aside from target shooting, is likely to be civilian self-defense.
So, let’s see what’s what.
90gr Hollow-base Wadcutter Target Load
These loads used a 90gr HBWC or reversed HBWC loaded to .92″ (the length of the case) with a heavy crimp to facilitate loading. The charge was 2.5gr.
Reversed Hollow-base Wadcutter- 814 fps., 132 ft./lbs of energy. 9-1/2″ of penetration, no expansion
Hollow-base Wadcutter- 843 fps., 142 ft./lbs of energy. 9-3/8″ of penetration, no expansion
There’s a reason these are referred to as ‘target loads.’ They are well-suited to that purpose, and would likely serve decently as a small-game cartridge. let’s up the anti a bit…
90gr. Reverse Hollow-base Wadcutter, high power
In this load the bullets were loaded over 3.5gr of Unique- a full grain more than target loads above. Again, they were loaded to an overall length of .92″ with a heavy crimp.
Shot #1, 1011 fps., 204ft./lbs of energy, 11″ of penetration. bullet was slightly distorted but showed no expansion.
Shot #2, 1014 fps., 205 ft./lbs of energy, 10-1/8″ of penetration. Bullet showed significant asymmetric expansion, with one side folded against the other as if the bullet were yawing significantly. maximum expansion was .498″
90gr. reverse Hollow-base Wadcutter, OAL 1.30″, Max pressure
This load approaches SAAMI maximum pressure, and should be fired only from high-quality firearms in good condition. In this load the bullet is not fully seated in the casing, protruding like a conventional bullet. The charge is 4.3gr. of Unique.
1084 fps., 235 ft./lbs of energy, 8-5/8″ of penetration. Max. Expansion .604″. minimum .576″
This’d be a great load for knocking a rabbit or raccoon on it’s ass, but it’s questionable for self-defense.
90gr. Reverse Hollow-base Wadcutter, fully seated +P
DO NOT DUPLICATE THIS LOAD FOR REVOLVERS CHAMBERED IN .32 S&W LONG!
Use this load ONLY in .32 H&R Magnum or .327 Federal magnum handguns.
OK, I screwed up with this load; it is far too powerful for older handguns and will damage many of them. Basically I took a Maximum load for a semi-wadcutter and used it with a fully seated wadcutter, somehow not taking into account the increase of pressure that would occur from the deeply-seated bullet. The Colt is pretty stout for this caliber and seems to have taken no harm from the two shots I fired, but using this load is a Very Bad Idea in a gun chambered for .32 Colt new Police/ .32 S&W Long.
Shot #1 1250fps., 321 ft./lbs of energy, 10-1/4″ of penetration. Bullet over-expanded (the edges actually rolled back) to a maximum of .560″, and a minimum of .474″
Shot #2 ERROR-2, no velocity reading. 8-3/4″ of penetration. Bullet over-expanded slightly to an average diameter of .570″
This bullet was loaded over 3.5gr., and has mild recoil and good accuracy, but produces very small permanent wound channels and high penetration
924 fps., 142 ft./lbs of energy. 16+” of penetration. No expansion. Bullet passed entirely through the block and was recovered 2″ deep in the layered cardboard backstop. Zipped through the block on a fairly straight path.
Penetration is more than adequate for self-defense, but multiple hits in a good location might be required for this to be effective owing to the very small wound channel.
96gr. LFP, maximum pressure
This load is SAAMI maximum pressure, and should be approached with caution, starting 10% below the listed load and working up. The charge is 4.3gr of Unique.
991 fps., 209 ft./lbs of energy. 16+ inches of penetrations, bullet was distorted but showed no expansion. The bullet passed entirely through the block and was recovered approximately 3″ deep in the cardboard backstop.
86gr, XTP Hollow-point, high-pressure
I don’t know if this load exceeds SAAMI max pressure for this cartridge, but I would restrict it’s use to only high-quality guns in good condition. The charge was 4.0gr of Unique.
1037 fps., 203 ft./lbs., 12-1/4″ of penetration, average expansion .371. You can see some early disruption on entry, implying that expansion started immediately. The bullet skipped off the surface of the board the block was sitting on and wound up deflecting deep into the block.
I would consider this the best defensive load of the bunch, and am inclined to do further testing. Performance isn’t spectacular by any means, but XTPs tend to give their best results at higher velocities. I think this bullet would shine in a .327 federal magnum loaded to around 1300 fps.
It would be interesting to try to develop a load based on a more modern hollow-point design like a Speer Gold Dot.
So, How Obsolete is it?
.32 S&W Long is definitely obsolete, but that doesn’t mean that it’s useless. It’s an excellent target and small-game round, and with good shot placement several of these loads would work quite adequately for civilian self defense in most situations.
I shoot this little Detective Special very well, and can keep rapid-fire shots in the basket out to 25 yards. I would not feel undergunned with the Colt, especially with the 85gr. XTP load, but I have more modern firearms in this size range that chamber calibers that perform significantly better, both in this type of test and historically in real-life shootings.
My wife Linda has an old wrist injury and is recoil-sensitive as a result, and she likes wheel-guns. My Colt or a S&W Terrier in .32 would work well for her, but her Sig-Sauer P238 holds more shots, is arguably more effective and she loves it. It’s just a better tool in general, and better for her specifically.
If a .32 S&W Long is what you’ve got, it’ll probably do as long as you do your part, but there’s always a ‘but.’ This cartridge isn’t obsolete because it’s incapable; it’s obsolete because there are better options if you can procure them, and procuring them isn’t difficult or particularly expensive.
None of this will stop me from enjoying my .32s, using them for small game or target shooting. It’s a sweet shooting cartridge, and there are some sweet guns chambered for it… and at the end of the day it’s not so obsolete that it can’t protect your life and loved ones.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 16 August, 2020
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