How Obsolete Are They? More Results

Continuing the series of ballistics tests on old cartridges, this time testing .32 S&W Long, .38 Short Colt and more tests with .38 S&W. Some data from the previous post will be duplicated for comparison.

I’d like to note- the longest barrel used in these tests is 4″, and several are significantly shorter. Ammunition companies tend to fire their tests through special barrels, which are far longer than the sorts of guns these cartridges were generally used in. I’ve deliberately selected the kind of guns people actually carried to give a better picture of the ‘real world’ performance of these cartridges.

Of course before we get to it we need the standard disclaimer- use of the reloading data presented in this article is attempted at the user’s own risk; the author assumes no responsibility for the use or misuse of this data.

Today‘s test guns- S&W, Colt and , uh… Belgian.

.32 S&W Long/ .32 Colt New Police

The first newcomer to the test is .32 S&W Long. Introduced in 1896 for the new S&W Hand Ejector revolver, cartridges were originally loaded with black powder with a round-nose lead bullet. By the time the Model 1903 was produced the transition to smokeless powder was made. Colt adopted the cartridge, but used a flat-nose bullet and called it ‘Colt New Police.’

While it has fallen out of favor in the US, .32 S&W Long remains popular internationally, particularly for target shooting. Not surprising, as the cartridge has always had a reputation for exceptional accuracy.

Modern commercial loads are low-velocity and low-powered. While light hollow-point bullets are offered they do not expand at these low speeds.

S&W Model 1903 Hand Ejector (top) and a Colt Detective Special (bottom)

The test guns for this cartridge are a S&W Model 1903 Hand Ejector with a 4″ barrel, and a Colt Detective Special with a 2″ barrel.

98gr. LRN, Remington commercial ammunition

S&W- 4″ barrel- 694 fps. 105 ft/lbs SD: 18

Colt- 2″ barrel- 643 fps. 90 ft./lbs SD: 32

Definitely what I call a ‘lawsuit load,’ well under SAAMI pressure limits for this cartridge. Pretty much designed to punch holes in paper and not break really bad guns.

96 gr. LRNFP, 4.3gr. Unique, CCI500 primer

S&W- 4″ barrel- 1089 fps. 253 ft/lbs SD: 31

Colt 2″ barrel- 984 fps. 206 ft/lbs SD: 53

This load was taken from Sharpe’s 1937 ‘The Complete Book of Reloading,’ and does not exceed SAAMI pressure limits for this cartridge. Quite a difference from factory loads! Still, I would restrict the use of this load to good quality firearms in good condition… and fire them sparingly.

96gr. LRNFP, 4.0gr. Power Pistol, CCI500 Primer

S&W- 4″ barrel- 1148 fps. 281 ft/lbs SD: 41

Colt 2″ barrel- 1090 fps. 253 ft/lbs SD: 45

While I don’t have access to scientific pressure-measuring equipment, I think this is almost certainly a +P load, and would only use it sparingly in the strongest revolvers.

As you can see from the results above, particularly the Unique load from Sharpe’s book, there is a lot of un-tapped potential in this cartridge. At these velocities I think it very likely that a well-designed hollow-point would both expand and penetrate adequately, even from a 2″ barrel. When we get to the gel tests we shall see…

.38 Short Colt/ .380 Revolver

This cartridge was introduced at the dawn of the 1870s for .36 caliber Cap-and-ball revolvers that had been converted to fire metallic cartridges. It used a heel-base .375 bullet in a cartridge very similar to .38 S&W. It found some popularity in Europe for use in compact ‘bulldog’-style revolvers, and in that role remained in use into the early 20th Century. I understand that this ammunition is still in production from various makers, but no longer uses a heel-base bullet. Instead they use a hollow-base .358 bullet in the hopes that it will expand enough to engage the rifling. By all accounts this is not entirely effective.

At 11.3 oz., this tiny gun is quite a handful in .38 caliber. Recoiil tends to lick the muzzle up about .45 degrees, causing my finger to slip right off the trigger. I have to significantly shit my grip to recover between shots.

My test gun for this cartridge is a tiny, anonymous Belgian Bulldog with a folding trigger, most likely made in the 1880s or 1890s. The barrel is 2-1/8″ long. Despite having a hammer-spur the gun seems to be double-action only, though whether this is be defect or design I couldn’t say. One of these days I’ll have it entirely apart and see what’s what.

125gr. dry-lubed heel-base LRN, 10gr. Triple-7 (black powder substitute,) CCI500 primer

544 fps. 82 ft/lbs SD: 19

Not at all an impressive cartridge, but rather fun to shoot. Not going to push this one; this load is quite sufficient for recreational shooting, Cowboy Action shooting etc.

.38 S&W

We’ve already gone over the history of the .38 S&W, so we’ll not repeat that here. I will note that although they share a cartridge-case, I consider this to be, for practical purposes, a different cartridge than the British .38-200. Revolvers using the British cartridge will fire ordinary .38 S&W, but that is a one-way street. Firing .38-200 ammo through an American top-break revolver is liable to quickly put it out of order if it doesn’t break it outright. Webley and Enfield service revolvers are a great deal more robust than even the best of the American-made offerings, and should be treated with separately when it comes to reloading for them.

A pair of S&Ws for this test- a 4th Model .38 Safety Hammerless on the left, and a .38 Double-Action (2nd Model) on the right.

I’ve also changed out one of the test guns this time; in the last round the Harrington & Richardson turned out to be a ‘slow’ gun, consistently turning in lower velocities than the S&W, despite have a barrel twice as long. I’ve replaced the H&R with a S&W .38 Double Action (2nd model) made around 1884. This has produced the expected result, as you will see below.

We’ll start with re-listing the Winchester factory ammo for comparison.

Winchester 145gr. (modern) factory ammunition

S&W- 1-5/8″ barrel- 535 fps. 92 ft./lbs SD: 39

H&R- 3-1/4″ barrel- 478 fps. 74 ft./lbs SD: 42

Deeply unimpressive, and one of the reasons for this became plain when I pulled several of the bullets to try a different load under them. They are not .361″. They are not .357″. They average .352″! This was consistent across all fifteen bullets that I pulled, and may go a ways towards explaining the results of this first load-

Winchester 145gr RNL, 2.8gr. Unique, CCI500 primer

S&W 3-1/4″ barrel- 540 fps. 94 ft/lbs SD: 28

This performance is similar to the results for firing the factory ammo through the 1-5/8″ gun last time, and the bullets keyholed at 7 yards. I didn’t even bother to test them out of the shorter gun. Next…!

160gr. .361 LSWC, 2.7gr. Unique, CCI500 primer

S&W 3-1/4″ barrel- 754 fps. 202 ft./lbs SD: 24

S&W 1-5/8″ Barrel- 722 fps. 185 ft/lbs SD: 31

This load, while still considered safe for top-break revolvers, doubles the power of the factory load, and is my new defensive load for this caliber. I will restrict this to my S&Ws, though. They are of high enough quality to handle this load, but even they won’t be getting it as a steady diet; there’s simply no need to risk beating up an antique gun when practice and recreational shooting can be accomplished with milder loads.

That is very much a thing to bear in mind; a couple of these loads are pushing the boundaries, notably the two .32 S&W long handloads. It’s nice to know what the cartridge and gun can do, but unless you are employing the weapon for self-defense there is absolutely no reason to load to that level of power. If you are shooting for pleasure or even hunting small game, a factory-level load will do just fine… and be a heck of a lot less hard on your gun.

Next time we’ll be heading further down the black powder path, attempting to replicate the original loads for .32 S&W and .38 S&W. Gel tests will happen further down the road; setting up to do them is a not inconsequential expense, for me at least.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 19 January 2020


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