The .38 Special cartridge, recognized by a host of names, including .38 S&W Special, .38 Special, and 38 Spl, is a rimmed, centerfire cartridge renowned for its historical and ongoing significance in law enforcement and civilian self-defense applications.
Invention and Evolution
Smith & Wesson, a prominent American firearms manufacturer, introduced the .38 Special cartridge in 1898. It was an improvement on the earlier .38 Long Colt, offering superior ballistics and performance. The creation of the .38 Special was a direct response to the perceived inadequacies of the .38 Long Colt during the Philippine–American War (1899–1902), where it was said to have lacked stopping power against determined opponents.
The cartridge was designed with a longer case and a higher chamber pressure, enabling it to fire a heavier bullet at higher velocities, thereby addressing the limitations of its predecessor. It quickly gained popularity and acceptance among law enforcement agencies, becoming a standard issue for many years.
Firearms Employing the .38 Special
Various firearms have used the .38 Special cartridge over the years, with many still in use today. The Smith & Wesson Model 10, originally known as the .38 Hand Ejector Model of 1899, was the first revolver built specifically for this round. The Model 10 has seen extensive use in police departments and militaries around the world.
Smith & Wesson’s Model 36, or the "Chief's Special," is another iconic revolver chambered in .38 Special. Introduced in 1950, it became a favored backup and concealed carry weapon among law enforcement officers and civilians due to its compact size and reliable performance.
Other notable firearms that use the cartridge include the Colt Detective Special, the Ruger GP100, and the Taurus Model 85. Additionally, several lever-action and semi-automatic rifles have been produced or modified to fire the .38 Special. Indeed the round can be fired in the majority of firearms capable of firing .357 Magnum.
Performance and Modern Successors
The .38 Special is recognized for its manageable recoil, accuracy, and versatility. It can fire a range of bullet types, including wadcutter, semi-wadcutter, and hollow point, each with different ballistics and uses, from target shooting to self-defense. When associated with the revolvers that commonly fire it, it's part of an ultimately reliable and accurate platform, which has contributed to it having been a preferred platform in the law enforcement profession for many years.
In terms of performance, the cartridge typically fires a bullet weighing between 110 and 158 grains at velocities ranging from 680 to 980 feet per second. However, the actual performance can vary depending on the specific load and firearm used.
Though the .38 Special was largely supplanted by the .357 Magnum as a law enforcement round in the mid-20th century, the .357's higher recoil and muzzle blast made the .38 Special a continuing favorite for many shooters. This is partly because .357 Magnum revolvers can also chamber and fire .38 Special rounds, providing versatility.
In the latter part of the 20th century, with the advent of semi-automatic pistols, the 9mm Parabellum began to supersede both cartridges in law enforcement use. However, the .38 Special remains popular for target shooting, personal defense, and as a backup weapon.
The .38 Special cartridge, thanks to its inherent versatility, reliability, and manageable recoil, continues to maintain its place in the world of firearms. Its top continued use is for civilians and remains one of the most common calibers for revolvers used for every day carry, home defense, and firearms practice. Its rich history, coupled with its continued utility, ensures that it will remain a key player in the landscape of ammunition for years to come. From the battlefield to the shooting range, and from law enforcement to civilian use, the legacy of the .38 Special cartridge is not only enduring, but thriving.
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