Tuesday, April 15, 2003

In Defense of the 38 Special

The 38 S&W Special is just so out of date: it's all crewcuts and tailfins without any of the nostalgic glamour. It doesn't even get old school points like the 45 Colt or 44-40.

Read much of the literature on "stopping power" and you soon wonder if any one was ever hurt in a gunfight when the police carried the 38. After all, it is underpowered and slow and not a big bore. No one in their right mind would carry a 38 for self-defense.

Most of the Special's image problem comes from three sources: 1) Our fetish with the newer and faster, 2) misapplication of the police experience to civilian defense purposes, and, 3) a narrow focus cartridge performance when analyzing defense needs.

To take the first point, new cartridges are usually better than old ones for some purposes, and, in some cases, they may be much better overall. But we tend to stop thinking in terms of good and better and switch to new/good, old/inadequate. Since the 357 Magnum is faster, the 38 gets relegated to the obsolete bin.

Yet the performance of the 38 towers over that of the .375 caliber Colt 1851 Navy percussion revolver. The Special can easily push a 158 grain slug at 850 fps without exceeding standard pressures. The Navy send a 76 grain ball out at around the same velocity. The Colt was a favorite Civil War pistol and saw action on the frontier in all sorts of roles. More telling is that the Navy was the favorite revolver of Bill Hickock who carried it as a scout and lawman. Hickock kept his Navies even after Colt brought out the 1873 Peacemaker with metallic cartridges in 44-40. Since Hickock saw enough CQC for three exciting lifetimes, his decision to stay with the Navy counts for a lot. If its performance was adequate for Abilene in the riotous years, the 38 Special should do for our use today.

Smith and Wesson developed the 357 Magnum because the 38 Special had several weaknesses for law enforcement use. But those weaknesses are rarely relevant to home defense and civilian concealed carry. For example, when criminals began to use cars instead of horses, the police sometimes needed to shoot through steel car bodies and tough window glass. The 38 Special lacks the velocity to do this. BUT, as a civilian, I do not need to shoot through car doors. In fact, in almost any conceivable situation where I do so, I am guilty of a crime: a fleeing felon is no longer a threat to me.

Looking only at ballistic tables, the 357 can out-do the 38 Special in every way. But not everything that is important in a self-defense confrontation is captured in a ballistic table. In a snubby a 357 has vicious recoil and tremendous muzzle blast. A fast follow-up shot is easier with the Special.

Snubbies are one place where the 38 shines. Small and light, they are easy to carry, which means that they get carried when a larger handgun gets left behind. This is not just a question for CCW. With the rise in home invasion attacks, having a gun on you when you answer the door makes a lot of sense. At the same time, in many localities, greeting the kid selling Girl Scout cookies with a full-sized Glock on you hip is no way to win friends. A snubby in your back pocket becomes the perfect compromise. In addition, concealed and internal hammer models like the S&W model 649 provide the unique option of firing from inside a robe or coat pocket. No auto can duplicate this and in extremis this option can save your life. Finally, the compactness of a J-frame and similar models are better suited to the tight confines of a car interior than are full-sized handguns.

The other place the 38 Special shines is price. Quality revolvers like Smiths, Rugers, and Colts wear out slowly. There are plenty of police guns on the used market that have decades of useful life remaining and sell for less than $300. This makes it possible to meet the first rule of a gunfight ("have a gun"). Their low cost also makes possible the "stash" method of preparedness preferred by some people for homes and high risk businesses. Instead of carrying a single handgun on their person, loaded revolvers are placed throughout the building so that one is always at hand. That way, no one who lives or works there can ever be caught unarmed.