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38 Smith & Wesson


Designed in 1877 and introduced in 1880, the 38 S&W is one of the more oddball cartridge developments from an era with many variations on what was then a new theme — design a cartridge for use in a new gun design. Body diameter is only 0.008-inch larger than the 38 Short Colt and the same rim size and the case is only slightly longer.

This was Smith & Wesson’s first step toward competing with the Colt cartridge revolvers in 35-caliber. It was originally loaded with a heal-based bullet of about 145-grains launched at less than 700 fps; as such, it was just about as anemic as the 38 Short Colt. As happened with the Colt version, that bullet was soon replaced with an inside-lubricated bullet of inside-case diameter. Eventually, a smokeless load launching a 200-grain bullet at about 600 fps became the standard 38 S&W loading.



As anemic as it was, the 38 S&W was widely popular for chambering in smaller revolvers. Many Police and Military forces worldwide used it. Because of this, it survived for more than a century. After introduction of the 38 Special, few full-sized revolvers were chambered for the 38 S&W. U. S. factory ammunition production is now sporadic and limited, at best.

Never was there more confusion in cartridge naming and fitment than with the 38 S&W verses the 38 S&W Special! I would venture a good percentage of all 38 S&W ammunition sold in the past half century or longer went to waste because it would not work in the 38 S&W Special revolver the person bought it for! I have been given three boxes of 38 S&W ammo over the years for exactly that reason.

As with any revolver round, best practice is to apply a roll-crimp after seating the bullet. A roll-crimp eases loading of rounds into the cylinder and can help limit bullet pull under recoil if only modestly. I cannot too-strongly recommend getting a second seating-and-crimping die so you can have one adjusted to seat the bullet and the second adjusted to only crimp the case mouth. Generally, attempting to do both operations in one step is a recipe for damaged and destroyed cases.

The text associated with the cartridge description reflects opinions and conclusions of the author, M.L. (Mic) McPherson. Lee Precision and its employees do not necessarily either agree or disagree with any of his comments. We present these with due deference to his recognized expertise in the firearms field. His acumen extends to handloading and all aspects of ballistics - internal, external, and terminal.
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