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Cartridge for old S&W pistol

pphillipspphillips Member Posts: 187 ✭✭✭
edited January 2014 in Ask the Experts
I have an old S&W pistol that has the following barrel marking.
.38S&W special
U.S. Service CTG'S

What is the correct cartridge for this gun?



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    jonkjonk Member Posts: 10,121
    edited November -1
    Well saying "old S&W" is pretty vague. That could be anywhere from the 30s up through today. However, the .38 Smith and Wesson Special is the standard .38 special. Available most anywhere.
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    beantownshootahbeantownshootah Member Posts: 12,776 ✭✭✭
    edited November -1
    ".38 S&W special" is what Smith and Wesson calls what everyone else calls ".38 special". This is basically just business gamesmanship; the companies that invent the cartridges like to name them after themselves.

    Assuming the gun is otherwise in good mechanical condition, you can go ahead and fire readily available .38 specials through it.

    Note that ".38S&W" is a DIFFERENT cartridge than ".38 S&W SPECIAL", and under normal circumstances you can't fire either cartridge in a gun for the other.

    Other cartridges that Smith labels this way:

    .44 S&W special
    .357, .460, and .500 SMITH AND WESSON magnums
    .32 S&W, and .32 S&W long
    .40 S&W auto

    This phenomenon isn't just limited to Smith and Wesson; a bunch of the other ammo/gun makers do the exact same thing eg:

    .45 auto = .45 automatic COLT pistol ("ACP")
    .380/9mm short = .380 automatic COLT pistol
    .44 magnum = .44 Remington magnum
    357 auto = .357 SIG auto
    etc. . .
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    cussedemguncussedemgun Member Posts: 985 ✭✭✭✭
    edited November -1

    With only the barrel roll stamp to go by, your gun was mfgd. between 1899 & 1909.

    The barrel marking '38 S&W special' began with the cartridge introduction by Smith & Wesson along with the '38 military & police 1st mod (Model of 1899 Army-Navy revolver) The 38 special was designed with the same case size as the then 38 US service ctg. (38 long Colt) altho the "special" is a higher pressure cartridge than the old service loading. NOTE, not all guns that carry the '38 service ctg.' or '38 Colt' barrel markings were intended for the higher pressure "special" cartridge even tho they may chamber.

    Now that the disclaimer is stated, your gun is 100 years old & should be checked by a qualified gunsmith before firing. IF it is in good (read tight & still in time) condition, it should fire any commercial 38 special STANDARD velocity loads safely.

    NOTE, it is advised to avoid the use of +P loadings. I personally would stick to the easy shooting 'cowboy' loads to be on the cautious side :)

    Hope this helps, Jim
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    Hawk CarseHawk Carse Member Posts: 4,373 ✭✭✭
    edited November -1
    You have a .38 Hand Ejector, Military & Police model. Maybe a model of 1902 first change made in 1903-1904. The serial number and a picture would confirm or correct that.

    As said .38 S&W Special is these days just .38 Special.
    The correct ammunition is .38 Special 158 grain lead roundnose.
    148 grain wadcutters are fine. Cheap 130 grain jacketed or plated won't hurt it but will not shoot as close to the sights as the 158.

    DO NOT shoot .38 Special +P in this old gun, the cylinder is not heat treated. Do not wag it around with all six chambers loaded, its rebounding hammer is not as safe as the later hammer block design.

    The US Service cartridge was pretty much a .38 Long Colt. Those will work fine if you turn some up. They are made now mostly for Cowboy shooting in percussion conversions.
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    TxsTxs Member Posts: 18,801
    edited November -1
    quote:Originally posted by Hawk Carse
    The US Service cartridge was pretty much a .38 Long Colt.More than just pretty much.

    The 'US Service Cartridge' that barrel marking refers to IS the .38 Long Colt, which was the US military handgun cartridge from 1892-1909. It's case length is longer than the .38 S&W but shorter than the .38 Special.

    For trivia's sake, this was the round which proved to be such a dismal failure against the Moros in the Phillipine war and eventually brought about the .45 ACP.
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    beantownshootahbeantownshootah Member Posts: 12,776 ✭✭✭
    edited November -1
    quote:Originally posted by Txs
    For trivia's sake, this was the round which proved to be such a dismal failure against the Moros in the Phillipine war and eventually brought about the .45 ACP.

    Yup. For more context, if you look at the ballistics of a .38 long colt, it puts out a 150 grain bullet at a relatively slow 650-700 fps.

    As modern comparison, the .38 special wadcutter is largely considered a low-power low-recoil round, specifically used for target shooting, for training new shooters, and for weak-gripped shooters who can't handle recoil of more conventional defensive cartridges. If you look at its ballistics, the .38 wadcutter puts out a nearly identical weight 148 grain bullet at roughly the same 700fps, effectively identical ballistics to the .38 long colt.

    As further comparison, a conventional modern .38 special +P defensive round will put out a heavier 158 grain bullet at a considerably faster 900fps, and some of the super-premium makers advertise over 1000 fps for 158 grain .38+P rounds.

    Go to a 147 grain 9mm luger (which uses effectively the same diameter bullet as a .38 special) and the slowest of these start at 950fps, with the fastest/hottest ones exceeding 1100 fps. That's roughly 50% more velocity than the .38 long colt and double the kinetic energy.

    Bottom line is, .38 long colt is roughly equivalent ballistically to the absolute weakest of the .38 special loads, explaining the poor field performance of that round. The 45 ACP puts out a larger caliber bullet of 50% greater weight (230 grains) at higher velocity (>800fps), explaining the significantly better performance.

    On overpressure (ie .38+P) rounds, as mentioned above, you're probably best off avoiding use of those rounds in a 100+ year old gun. While I don't think a few of them will "grenade" the gun, the old guns aren't as tough as modern ones, and increased pressure rounds will increase wear and tear on the gun and its lockwork, contributing to frame/cylinder distortion and gun timing issues. Short of a true life or death emergency its just not worth it.
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    charliemeyer007charliemeyer007 Member Posts: 6,579 ✭✭✭
    edited November -1
    I agree 38 Special loading is enough.
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    kannoneerkannoneer Member Posts: 3,373 ✭✭✭✭
    edited November -1
    As marked, the gun chambers both the .38 Special and the government service round at that time, the .38 Long Colt. It also chambers the .38 Short Colt.
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