Today when you say speak of a 'thirty-eight,' most people think first of the near universal .38 Special round, used since 1898. Well lets set that aside and speak of the 'special's granddaddy-- the .38 S&W. This 140-year old mild-recoiling round was a favorite of yesteryear and is still a viable shooter today.
The History of the round
Back in the 1870s Smith and Wesson was introducing a new revolver, what later became known as their First Model series and they needed a new, reliable round for it. They produced the 38S&W just for this reason. They mounted a 140-grain .361-inch bullet on a 0.78-inch long brass case with a .433-inch rim diameter over a charge of black powder to produce a 1.20-inch long cartridge. It was very successful and soon almost cornered the handgun market, being one of the most powerful and hard-hitting rounds of the day. After about 1900 it was updated with smokeless powder and bullets up to 200-grains (the British Army .38/200 load), but overall is still the same round.
(38S&W left, and 38 Special right. Note the size difference both in length and width)
A key point to remember about this tubby little round over a .38SPL is that is it slightly wider (a 38S&W bullet is 0.3610 inches in diameter compared to 0.357 inch bullets on a 38SPL) and much shorter (by about a third of an inch). This means they are by no means interchangeable. Never shoot 38SPL from a gun chambered for 38S&W, and by the same notion never shoot 38S&W from a gun chambered for 38SPL.
With a 158-grain bullet over a modern load of smokeless powder, the 38S&W spits out at a
super slow 767-feet per second. This will deliver about 206 ft. lbs of energy on target. For comparison, the 38SPL in the same size bullet with a +P load clocks 1000fps+ and produces 351 ft. lbs of energy. While its no-doubt a pipsqueak round when compared to a .40S&W, .45ACP, .38SPL, or even a 9mm, it's still brings much more energy to the table than any 22, .25ACP, or .32ACP round. Some .380 Autos have some more impressive defense loadings, the .38S&W still shows up with a large, fat bullet that is 50% larger on average with less recoil.
Number one, this round is a low-recoiling piece that out of a heavy revolver feels akin almost to shooting a 22WMR. When my wife shot my 1940s vintage .38/200 Webley revolver for the first time, she looked at me after the first round and grinned, saying, "Talk about sweet!" As a bonus, it is accurate to almost match levels when fired from a full-length barrel. This makes the caliber a good choice for those first time shooters, those who cannot handle high-powered rounds and those with hand injuries but still want to pursue shooting.
Guns that fired the 38S&W
(H&R made 38S&W top-break revolvers in the 925, 926 series for decades after the chambering was abandoned by Smith and Colt. While never a 'high-dollar' gun, they work and some are very recently made. Note the .38 S&W Corto box...ammo made overseas in the caliber often carries different monikers.)
Sadly, no gun maker has made a revolver chambered for this round since the Beatles broke up. This is a shame as one could probably come out and, if marketed right, would be moderately successful in the CCW/home defense market for those who wanted more than a 22LR but less recoil than a 9mm. This, however, does not mean that hundreds of thousands of guns that shoot this round are not still in circulation. Remember, it was one of the most popular calibers in the US and abroad for almost a century.
Smith and Wesson, of course, made tens of thousands of revolvers that chambered this round. Starting with the 1877 Baby Russian Models and moving into the Hand Ejectors of the turn of the century, they kept the old slow 38 around even after they introduced the .38SPL in 1898. In fact, Smith kept offering guns as late as the 1960s such as the J-frame Model 32 Flat Latch, still chambered for .38S&W. These guns are classic shooters for the collector or the range and if you can find one for a good price, buy it!
Since S&W made guns in this caliber so did Iver Johnson, H&R (who made guns in this caliber up to 1999), and Colt so be on the lookout for these as well. While generally the IJ's and HRs dont bring a lot, some of the Colt guns are super nice. A few years ago I picked up a nice Colt Dick Special at a gunshow for $175 because it was in this (to some) unpopular caliber. Best $175 I ever spent.
The round was primarily a military service round from its inception until about 1945. The British loved the round and used it in both the Webley MkIV and Enfield No 2 Mk I model revolvers as late as the 1970s. As such these old breaktop warhorses have been sold as surplus for as little as $150.
(Smith Victory Models have been neat, collectable, shooters for generations)
During WWII, Smith and Wesson made 570,000 so-called "Victory Model" revolvers for Lend-Lease aid to Britain and her Allies. These Victory revolvers are solid early Model 10 type K-frames and they have been steadily imported back from overseas since the 1960s and go for about $250 today in shooting condition.
Anytime you pick up a 38S&W caliber revolver, remember that guns made before 1900 were chambered for blackpowder rounds, not high-pressure smokeless rounds so they are more for collecting than shooting. Guns made since then should be inspected first to make sure they are still safe to shoot.
Even while the guns are no longer being made, the fact that so many are still around and being shot is keeping the rounds in production. Domestically about the only maker is Remington/UMC who includes the round, in a 146-grain lead bullet, in their catalog today for about $25.
Overseas (remember stocks of Webley and Enfield revolvers are in almost every country that the British ever passed through) production is heavy. Fiocchi makes what they call a 38 S&W Short that nicely enough is a full metal case 158-grain round. Serbian maker Privi Partizan in recently introduced a 145-grain load that seems to be going for under $20 per 50 round box. Magtech is making nice new ammunition in a mild load (686 ft. lbs on a 146-grain lead round nose) that is affordably priced at about $23 a box.
If looking to press an old 38S&W caliber revolver into service for home defense, beware that there is no such thing as a modern combat load for these guns. Since the round is subsonic, it doesn't expand JHP rounds very much. These guns in this caliber were used for both military and police service for most of the 20th century, which vouches that while it is obsolete compared to a .45ACP Speer Gold Dot, it can still be called off the bench to chase zombies down the hallway.
The 150th anniversary of the round is coming up in just a few years and it seems to still be going strong. Overall, odds are your great grandchildren will still be able to find shootable 38S&W revolvers out there once we are all long gone from this place.