Something New I Learned About the Old .38 Special

The cops on Adam-12 carried the .38 SpecialAh, the handy .38 Special revolver. If, like me, you grew up watching TV shows from the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, one common thing you would have seen in most police shows was the famous .38 Special revolver. Maybe you’re aware of it, or maybe not, but the .38 Special was pretty much the standard issue sidearm for every police department in the United States from the 1920’s through the early 1990’s.

Developed by Smith & Wesson in 1898, the .38 Special caliber was developed as an improvement over the previously widely used .38 Long Colt. It seems the military found out during the Philippine-American war that the old .38 Long Colt didn’t have the penetrating power to get through the simple wooden shields enemy combatants were using as protection. The new round, however, seemed more adequate at the task.

Based on it’s early success and coupled with it’s notable accuracy and manageable recoil, the .38 Special became a standard in police departments throughout the U.S. and other law enforcement officials throughout the world. In fact, even today – after over 100 years – it is the most popular revolver cartridge in use. But, here’s a little something you may NOT know about the .38 special:

I took a basic handgun class with my wife a few weeks ago. Although I’m comfortable with handguns, I’ve never had formal training and my wife has never had any training, so we thought it was good investment. It was a good, basic class taught by a very knowledgeable instructor at the Heritage Guild in Easton, PA. After the class, the instructor took some time to talk to us and to recommend some options for our first handgun. We got to talking about revolvers and, in particular, the .38 Special. That’s when he dropped it on me: the .38 Special isn’t actually a .38 at all!

.38 Special RevolverYou may be asking, “What the heck does the .38 even mean?” If that’s your question, check out our handy article on bullet calibers for the answer. For the rest of you, what I learned about the .38 Special is that it is actually a .357 round. That’s right, the actual diameter of the slug (this determines the caliber) is 0.357 inches. So, why is it called a .38? Well, that’s due to where it came from. You see, the .38 Special was developed from the .38 Short Colt which was designed for use in converted .36-caliber cap-and-ball Navy revolvers. These .36 caliber revolvers actually fired a slug that had a 0.357-inch (rounded to .36 at the time) diameter. But, these revolvers had cylindrical firing chambers of approximately 0.374-inch (rounded to .38) diameter. To make up for the difference, the original slug had a bit of a lip (or heal) at the bottom making it slightly wider to match the diameter of the bullet casing.

As the round was perfected and revolvers were developed to specifically fire the new .38  Special round, the name .38 stuck while the actual size of the slug never changed from the 0.357-inch. So, if you’re wondering, yes, a .38 Special round will fit in a .357 magnum revolver and vice-versa. However, DO NOT ever fire a .357 magnum round in a revolver designed for .38 Special only. Those were not designed for the pressure of the .357 magnum round and using them in a .38 Special revolver could be very dangerous.

So, there you have it. A little story about the .38 Special – as I learned it. Is this news to you? Tells us in the comments below.

8 thoughts on “Something New I Learned About the Old .38 Special

  1. Ronald on said:

    The average price for a .38 is anywhere from 299.00 to around 500.00 depends if Blue or stainless steel. And the manufacture . For instance a ROSSI REVOLVER IS MAYBE tops 400. And a Ruger will run you probably over 500. Hope this helps.

  2. Eric Lowe on said:

    Close, but no cigar. The .38 special evolved from the Civil War era .36 cap and ball pistol, but those muzzle loaders DID NOT fire a .36 caliber projectile. Any black powder loading manual will state that the .36 revolvers require a .375 diameter ball or conical bullet. I have a Colt 1851 Navy in .36 caliber and the loads that I cast measure about .375-.377 as best as I can tell with my micrometer. Keep in mind that a rifled barrel has two internal dimensions. The true bore diameter is measured land to land. The other measurement is groove to groove and is equal to the bullet diameter. Think about it and it makes perfect sense. The bullet must bottom in the grooves to seal the gases and to allow the grooves to impart the spin. The bullet, therefore, MUST have a diameter WIDER than that of the bore. When cartridges were developed to be fired from converted cap and ball revolvers, the conical bullets were seated in the cases via the heel that was mentioned in the article above, however, the heel was of a SMALLER diameter than the bullet. Not a larger diameter. The bullet and case were of the SAME diameter. With the .38 special, when heel bullets were replaced by the modern version, the bullet diameter was reduced to .357 so the base of the bullet could fit in the case, but the case retained it’s outside diameter of .38 inches.

  3. I just want to know what the average price is for buying a 38 special at any gun store is.

    • JH on said:

      They always say that there are no stupid questions… well, there’s an exception to every rule… and yours is that exception.

      That’s like asking what the going rate for a 4 door car is or what does a 3 bedroom house cost.

  4. lefty on said:

    just stumbled on the website, good info. am curious about the .357mag vs .38 special comment about higher pressures will be not a good scene with the .357 in the .38s. does that apply to the .38+P as well?

  5. Kevin R on said:

    Thanks for the information I new all but the history of the .38 I have both .38 and .357 when I recently puchesed my .38 I tryed to put a .357 round in it just to see and was glad when it hung up on the ejector. Very good not much of a chance for an accident there. I also fire .38s through my .357 when out plinking its a much cheaper round then the .357.thanks. Kev

  6. Joshua on said:

    I did not know that so I learned something new which is why I came to this site. Also .38 special ifs by far my favorite pistol

  7. Joe on said:

    The 357 won’t fit into a .38sp – the case was purposely made too long for safety. A .38sp will fit into a 357 magnum revolver, however.

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