38 S&W- Still Useful?

S&W .38 Double Action safety Hammerless, 4th Model. Chambered in the venerable .38 S&W cartridge, sometimes called ‘.38 S&W Short.’

This is a bit esoteric, butI thought some of you might be interested. .38 S&W is an obsolete cartridge; very little work is being done on it these days, and information is a little thin on the ground. Hopefully I can make a useful addition to that pool of knowledge.

.38 S&W is the oldest ‘.38’ caliber revolver cartridge that is still in mass production. Modern .38s use .356-.358″ diameter bullets. .38 S&W cartridges use a .360-.362″ diameter bullet. It is not interchangeable with .38 Special and cannot be loaded in revolvers chamber for this or .357 Magnum. The cartridge’s dimensions may be found on Wikipedia; for our purposes suffice it to say it is shorter, slightly larger in diameter and less powerful than .38 Special.

The original load for this cartridge was a 147gr. lead round-nose bullet over a charge of around 10gr. of black powder. This yielded about the power of a light modern .38 Special target load. Modern Remington loads retain the 147gr RNL bullet, but seem significantly weaker than the black powder loads. More on that later…

.38 S&W was a very popular cartridge in the 19th century, and it’s use persisted well into the 20th century. It was widely used and chambered in a number of revolvers by many different manufacturers. The gun shown is a Forehand & Wadsworth British Bulldog chambered in .38 S&W.

We’ll go over the long history of this cartridge another time; the story of ‘the other .38’ is interesting and involved. But on with our blog…

As some of you might be aware I often carry a .38 S&W. To be precise a S&W DA Safety Hammerless (4th model.) I customized this gun originally as a novelty and conversation piece- a sort of ‘Steampunk Snubby.’ I discovered that it has a lot of practical utility; slightly smaller than a J-frame, an excellent DA trigger and, with a custom ergonomic grip, quite easy to shoot accurately. In short this charming little gun seduced me… but ammunition was an issue.

Standard commercial loads (like Remington etc.) are hopelessly anemic. Not surprising as they were designed not to blow up even the cheapest, crappiest guns made in this caliber, and there were quite a few of those…

A .380 ACP FMC round has more than adequate penetration, so to establish a baseline I test fired one at a free-standing 1-3/4″ thick kiln-dried Douglas Fir board. The bullet completely penetrated the first board and embedded it’s full length in the second board. I tested the Remington .38 S&W load and they don’t make it all the way through. Not really acceptable for self-defense, but hey, at least they are expensive and hard-to-find…

*Warning- the load data that follows may not work out in old, inexpensive guns, particularly top-breaks. It should be fine in any quality solid-frame gun, Enfield or Webley top-breaks. Use these loads at your own risk!

It was obvious from the start that I was going to need to ‘roll my own’ if I wanted to shoot these old guns regularly, but .361″ bullets are pretty thin on the ground. Bore diameters can vary, so I slugged the barrel to determine what my gun would be happiest with. The answer was .361 caliber, so it was spot-on.

First thing first- In terms of self-defense loads, hollow-points in this gun are a non-starter. They will almost certainly not expand, and if they do they will probably not penetrate deeply enough. I would need to depend on a solid and hit location.

I started out with Hornady .357 148gr. hollow-base wadcutters seated to roughly 2/3 of their length in the cartridge, and after some research and trials arrived at a load of 2.7gr. of Unique. These worked well in the gun, proved very accurate and, importantly, had the penetration I needed. Once again firing at 1-3/4″ kiln-dried Douglas Fir, they made a cookie-cutter hole in the front of the board and splintered the back before embedding the full length of the bullet in the board behind. Very comparable to .380 ball.

Hornady 148gr. HBWCs loaded into .38 S&W
Impact on a 1-3/4″ thick kiln-dried Douglas Fir Board. You can see where the bullet sank itself into and identical board placed several inches behind the first (on left.)

A little more experimentation revealed that .357 158gr. ‘cowboy’ bullets- which are quite soft- had no trouble bumping up to bore diameter when loaded over 2.5gr. of Unique. They were accurate, offered good penetration and were significantly cheaper than the HBWCs.

Between these two loads I’ve put over 2000 rounds through this little gun, with no signs of loosening or excessive wear. But they don’t call me ‘Tinker’ for nothing…

I had bought some cheap 125gr. .357 bullets and tried them in a number of different .38 Special guns, with different loads and powders. The best they managed was key-holing one shot in five, and it was usually worse than that. Not sure what the problem is; they look fine. They just don’t work. I don’t cast my own bullets, so melting them down was not an option. I decided to try swaging them to .361 SWCs.

Long story short, it worked. I load them over a larger charge of Unique and at seven yards they hit point of aim, punch nice holes and don’t keyhole. I decided to try some Montana Gold 115gr. FMC. They also worked out well. I’m going to have to test the penetration on these, but I am liking the results so far.

SDwaged 125gr. SWCs on the left, 115gr. FMCSWCs on the right.

The swaging set- up was simple enough to make. I bored a hole in a small block of mild steel and reamed it to .361 to make the die. I took a piece of 3/8″ mild-steel rod, turned it down to .359, then hollowed out a cavity in one end with a drill-bit and a Dremel to make the punch. Set the die on the anvil, drop the bullet in, drive the punch down with a 2lb. hammer. Flip it over and drive the bullet out with a brass rod and Presto! A .361-caliber bullet. Pretty much anyone with a Dremel, dial-caliper and drill press could duplicate this.

It occurs to me that these lightweight bullets, loaded over a conservative powder charge, might be just the thing for shooting old top-break guns. The milder recoil from the lighter bullet will help avoid accelerated wear.

It appears that with the right load .38 S&W is still viable (though far from ideal) for self-defense, even in top-break revolvers.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 21 July 2019


1 thought on “38 S&W- Still Useful?

  1. plzenplinker

    I thought I had commented on this, but maybe it was on the LGC facebook page. I have a set of dies and some factory rounds for an H&R that may fall into my lap. I am aware of the inherent weakness of their design, so I will be loading gently. I like the idea of a swaged wadcutter for the possibility of coyote defense on a walk with my dogs, if I wasn’t armed better. Following with interest!


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