38 S&W vs. 38 Special

Discussion in 'Technical Questions & Information' started by hunterfisher, May 27, 2011.

  1. hunterfisher

    hunterfisher New Member

    Mar 3, 2010
    Being a diehard rifleman, I need a little help with this; A friend posted on another forum that he was left a, .38 S&W revolver and was having a hardtime finding ammo for it. ? is, whats the difference between a plain, .38, and a .38 Special? Are they interchangable? I'm ashamed of myself for not knowing. Or maybe I did know and forgot. LOL. I am getting up there ya know.:)
    Last edited: May 27, 2011
  2. Alpo

    Alpo Well-Known Member

    Feb 3, 2007
    NW Florida
    Back in the olden days, Smith and Wesson made a 38, called 38 S&W, and Colt made a different 38 called 38 Colt. The Colt was smaller in diameter. Later the Colt round was lengthened, so they could put more powder in it, to make it more powerful. This new round is the 38 Long Colt. When the Army dropped the Colt 45 Single Action Army, they switched to the Colt double action revolver in 38 Long Colt.

    Along came the Spanish American war, and the Moros in the Philippines, who were hopped up on hashish. The Army found that, when they shot them with the 38 Long Colt, it did not stop them and they ran up and carved the soldiers up into little bitty pieces.

    The Army re-issued the Single Action Army, because the big 45 stopped the stoned Moros. They went looking for a new gun, which would be chambered in a 45 caliber round. This became the1911 45 automatic.

    Smith and Wesson had a brilliant idea. They took the 38 Long Colt and made it longer, so they could put in more powder and make it more powerful. They named their new cartridge the 38 Smith and Wesson Special, and tried to sell it to the Army, but the Army was insisting on a 45, so Smith sold it to police departments all over the country.

    Since the original 38 Colt was smaller in diameter than 38 Smith and Wesson (.357" vs. .362"), the 38 Long Colt and the 38 S&W Special are also smaller in diameter.

    Because the 38 S&W Special was such a much better round than the 38 S&W, it pretty much replaced it. Very few (if any) guns are still made in 38 S&W. There are only a couple of companies that still load the ammo, and they only load it one way (as opposed to the 38 S&W Special, that is loaded by every ammo maker in the world and in just about every load imaginable).

    So much for history. Now to finally answer your question.

    What's the difference? 38 S&W is shorter and fatter than 38 S&W Special (just about everyone just calls it 38 Special). They are NOT interchangeable. A 38 S&W will not fit in the hole of a 38 Special, and a 38 Special is too long for the cylinder of a 38 S&W.

  3. hunterfisher

    hunterfisher New Member

    Mar 3, 2010
    Thanks, Alpo, I'll pass along your post.;)
  4. deadin

    deadin Well-Known Member

    May 16, 2006
    The most common exception to this are the WW2 era Victory and British Contract 38/200 S&W's. A .38 S&W Special will drop into these cylinders and will fire. The main problem being that they will also bulge and/or split the cases, along with diminished accuracy.
  5. Jim K

    Jim K New Member

    Dec 6, 2009
    The reason .38 S&W is scarce is simple economics. Ammo factories are not set up to produce every kind of ammunition at all times. They produce a stockpile of some calibers, then change a line over to make another caliber, and so on. If they are swamped, as they are now, they will produce the most popular kinds and calibers on an almost continuous basis, but that means that production of the the less popular kinds will be stopped until they can make them. And .38 S&W is one of the less popular calibers, so it gets shunted aside for more popular calibers. I doubt they will drop it altogether (it is too common for that) but it might be a while before there is any significant production of those less popular cartridges.

  6. Rocketman1

    Rocketman1 Well-Known Member

    Jan 1, 2010
    Columbus, Ohio
  7. Jim K

    Jim K New Member

    Dec 6, 2009
    If a .38 Special will drop into the chambers of a Victory Model made for the .38/200 (.38 S&W) it is because the importer had the chambers reamed, quite common at the time those guns were sold on the surplus market. Much of that work was done in England by Cogswell & Harrison, which Interarms owned at the time (1950's). Barrels were cut off, ramp front sights added, Parkerized guns were polished and blued, etc. The conversion to .38 Special was common since it was a lot easier to get than .38 S&W, plus many police departments and security services required officers to use .38 Special.

    Case splitting has been reported, but all I have ever seen is slight bulging of the brass, and I consider the conversion safe. Inaccuracy has also been reported, but I found the converted guns to have normal accuracy.

    FWIW, modern .38 S&W is loaded with lead bullets measuring .356", actually SMALLER than the standard .38 Special bullet of .357". The British WWII .38 Mk 2 bullet measures .357". An S&W .38/200 Victory Model and a British No.2 revolver both slug to .357", not the .360" supposedly required for .38 S&W.

    Last edited: May 30, 2011
  8. rhmc24

    rhmc24 Active Member

    Dec 1, 2010
    Ardmore, OK
    Jim K is right about the need to ream the .38 S&W to take the .38 Special. In the 1950-60s my Dad had a kind of trading post gun shop. A gunsmith he was not, but there were quite a few English surplus .38 S&W around that he 'converted' to .38 Special by running a 3/8" drill thru each cylinder hole with an electric drill. To most people then, all that mattered was that it would shoot.
  9. mr.t7024

    mr.t7024 Member

    I have a bunch of 38 S&W blanks,they fit in my 38 special revolver, fire and they eject nicely! I will be using them up this 4th of July. I would not do it with a live round!:D
  10. ignats

    ignats Member

    Dec 18, 2011
    I made some 38 S&W cartridges for my Victory Model revolvers using trimmed down 38 Special brass. It works fine, however, I haven't actually done accuracy testing and I haven't had any problems with case spitting. I use 158 grain bullets; those are the heaviest I have. I forget the powder and weight however it's easy to find in Speer's # 12 reloading manual. Speer's does warn that that the bullet diameter is a nominal .360 and the cases are also a bit larger in diameter (.3855" or 9.79mm) they warn of possible cracking as well. They show the 38 Special case diameter at .3790" or 9.63mm. They state the SAAMI pressure limit is 13,000 cup. A 38 Special is 17,000 psi (that's how they stated it in the book - why they used cup for one cartridge and psi for the is a bit strange) based on that, I would be a little concerned with reaming out the 38 S&W chambers to accommodate the longer 38 Special. I think the ammo referred to by a previous poster would be a better way to go. Besides, why screw up a nice Victory Model? They are becoming fairly collectible when found in original condition.
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2011
  11. Lanrezac

    Lanrezac Well-Known Member

    Sep 18, 2011
    Milwaukee, WI
    As I understand it, the 38 Special mid-range wadcutter load was designed to duplicate 38 S&W ballistics, because the 38 S&W had been a popular target cartridge. I have no idea whether it is close to 38 S&W pressure, however.
  12. ignats

    ignats Member

    Dec 18, 2011
    It would be fairly low pressure from the loading I've seen for target use. The hollow base wadcutter would also expand outward to make up for the size deficiency.
  13. Jim K

    Jim K New Member

    Dec 6, 2009
    While the .38 Special target load is close to the .38 S&W in performance, in fact .38 S&W had never been a popular target round. In the pre-1900 days, the popular target round was the .44 Russian, with the old S&W .38-44 (not the later high power cartridge) also in the running but not as common. One reason for the lack of interest in the .38 S&W as a target load was simply that there were few real target revolvers chambered for it, and there was never (AFAIK) a wad cutter load made for it.

    The wadcutter bullet was developed for paper target shooting because its sharp edges cut a clean hole that was easy to score. The hole looked like those made by a wad cutter, a tool used to cut shotgun wads out of thick paper for reloading shot shells, hence the nickname.

  14. CB350

    CB350 New Member

    Jan 1, 2009
    I’m no expert on the S&W .38 round, but I used to own a couple of Iver Johnson .38 S&W pistols. I still have a box of Remington .38 S&W 146 Gr LRN ammo so last Friday I tried them out in my .357 Magnum guns. My Ruger SP 101 shot 5 rounds fine. They left a smoky residue in the cylinder chambers and barrel. Same thing with my Taurus model 66, I went through a full cylinder of 7 rounds. Both guns cycled fine. The S&W rounds left even more residue in the barrel of the Taurus than in the Ruger. My Marlin 1894C would not feed the short rounds, which is no surprise. All of the rounds slipped into the cylinders easy, except for one round in the Ruger, which had light resistance. The rounds were low recoil even in the Ruger 101. I looked at the cases and did not see anything unusual.

    I was shooting outside into a home made bullet trap of old slick paper magazines and lumber. The rounds stopped after going through 6 or 7 magazines. I did have to clean both guns as the chambers in the cylinders were very dirty.

    I don’t know if this tracks with anyone else’s experience shooting .38 S&W rounds in a .38 Special or .357 gun, so let me know what your experience has been.
  15. Lanrezac

    Lanrezac Well-Known Member

    Sep 18, 2011
    Milwaukee, WI
    38 S&W cartridges should not fit in a 38 Special / 357 Magnum chamber. The diameter of the round should be too great. Off the top of my head, 38 S&W bullets are .359 inch, while 38/357 rounds are (of course) .357. I have not tried it in a long time, but when I did, this was true. I cannot believe Ruger is making chambers that loose - they would be getting split brass all over the place. Could the rounds you used have been 38 Short Colt? That would look like 38S&W (except for the headstamp) but it would chamber in a 38 Special gun.
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