.38 short cartridges

Discussion in 'Technical Questions & Information' started by w1spurgeon, Jul 20, 2012.

  1. w1spurgeon

    w1spurgeon Member

    Dec 30, 2007
    Chattanooga, TN
    Could someonje explain the differences between the .38S&W cartridge and the .38 Short Colt? I ran into a guy at the range shooting .38 short colt in a vintage Harrington & Richardson that was clearly designed for a .38S&W. Apparently the Colt cartridges fit and shot OK, so the question is, what's the difference?
  2. Alpo

    Alpo Well-Known Member

    Feb 3, 2007
    NW Florida

    Colt made a gun, and chambered it for 38 Colt. Later that round was lengthened, and named 38 Long Colt. Because there was now a "Long Colt", people started calling the first one "38 Short Colt", but that is not really the name. Just "38 Colt".

    This is Long Colt, but the only difference between Long Colt and Colt is length. Notice the diameter of the loaded round is .381"

    Smith and Wesson invented a gun and chambered it for 38 Smith and Wesson.
    Notice the diameter of the loaded round is .386"

    The S&W was a better round. More people made guns chambered in 38 S&W. Pretty much the only guns chambered in 38 Colt were Colts.

    Eventually even Colt quit making guns in 38 Colt, and started making guns in 38 Colt New Police (that's 38 S&W loaded with a flat-pointed bullet). They did that because they did not want to put the competition's name on their guns, so they could stamp them that they were chambered in 38 Colt NP.

    You can shoot 38 Colt in a gun chambered for 38 S&W. Normally all that will happen is the case will swell greatly (since it is very undersize). In some guns the case will split.

    I, myself, advise against the practice, but many people do it, and will undoubtedly continue to do it.
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2012

  3. Jim K

    Jim K New Member

    Dec 6, 2009
    The .38 (Short) Colt was lengthened (by Colt) and made more powerful and became the .38 Long Colt; in 1892 it became the U.S. service cartridge.
    The .38 Long Colt was lengthened (by S&W) and made more powerful and became the .38 Special.
    The .38 Special was lengthened (by S&W) and made more powerful and became the .357 Magnum.
    The .357 Magnum was lengthened (by Ruger) and made more powerful and became the .357 Maximum. All five rounds have the same case diameter. But the last turned out to be too hard on revolvers and few guns were made for it.

    .38 S&W development as a revolver cartridge stopped with the .38 S&W; the .38 Colt Police or Colt New Police was mainly a name change by Colt because they wouldn't put "S&W" on their guns. The British .380 cartridge of WWII is essentially the .38 S&W except for using a 178 grain jacketed bullet. The .38 S&W, though, was lengthened and most of the rim removed (by one John Browning) and became the .38 ACP, which later was loaded hotter and became the .38 Super.

  4. Lanrezac

    Lanrezac Well-Known Member

    Sep 18, 2011
    Milwaukee, WI
    Boy, I learn new stuff all the time here. I had just assumed 38 ACP was based on 38 Long Colt because they both had 130 grain bullets. I need to stop making easy assumptions.
  5. Jim K

    Jim K New Member

    Dec 6, 2009
    Browning actually started his auto pistol development using .32 S&W and .38 S&W. He soon found out that 1) the rim got in the way of feeding from a magazine and 2) black powder didn't have enough power to properly function an auto pistol.

    He dealt with the first problem by reducing the rim to about the minimum that would still support the cartridge (the .32 ACP and .38 ACP/Super are supported on the rim, not the case mouth) and the latter by using the then-new smokeless powder. The idea of supporting an auto pistol round on the case mouth came from one Georg Luger, not from Browning, but as soon as Browning found out about it (c. 1904), he dropped the semi-rim idea like, well, like a hot cartridge case, and his last two cartridge designs, the .380 ACP and the .45 ACP are true rimless, supported on the case mouth.

  6. w1spurgeon

    w1spurgeon Member

    Dec 30, 2007
    Chattanooga, TN
    Damn you guys are good. Thanks for the information and history lesson. One question remains. You discussed cartridge diameter, but not powder charge. In modern smokeless ammo, is there any significant difference in the power of the .38S&W and the .38 Colt?

    Thanks again for the great answers.
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2012
  7. Jim K

    Jim K New Member

    Dec 6, 2009
    .38 Short Colt shows in the Remington line, but it is very hard to find; .38 Long Colt is available in low power "cowboy" loads from some makers, but it has been dropped by both major producers.

    The ballistics for c. 1950 show:

    .38 Long Colt Bullet weight 150 gr. MV 785 fps ME 205 foot pounds
    .38 Short Colt Bullet weight 130 gr MV 770 fps ME 171 foot pounds
    .38 S&W Bullet weight 200 gr. MV 630 fps ME 176 FP
    .38 S&W Bullet weight 145 gr. MV 745 fps ME 179 FP

    .38 S&W current production has a 146 grain bullet at 685 MV, 150 FP
    .38 Short Colt current production has a 125 grain bullet at 730 MV 150 FP

    What all of that shows is that there is no significant difference between .38 Short Colt and .38 S&W in the normal loadings. The Short Colt is loaded with a lighter bullet at a higher velocity, but the energy comes out the same.


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