How Obsolete Are They? Cartridges of the Past

Two .38 S&W revolvers. On top is a .38 Single Action (2nd model.) Bottom is a .38 safety hammerless (4th model.) Both have barrels shortened to 1-5/8″ and custom grips.

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I have a ‘thing’ for antique revolvers, and unsurprisingly, antique revolvers often fire antique cartridges. Most of these cartridges started as black powder and are now loaded with smokeless powders. The question that intrigues me is this: are these cartridges still genuinely useful for self-defense in accordance with our modern understanding of terminal ballistics?

For some cartridges the answer, which we already know, is a resounding ‘no,’ because they were viewed as inadequate when they were at their height of use. Things like .22 Short, .32 Colt etc. were acknowledged to be less than marginal in their period of use.

Others like .45 Colt, .44-40, .38-40 etc. are known to be effective and some are still in use today; .45 Colt can even be had in state-of-the-art modern defensive ammunition. We don’t need to wonder about these cartridges either.

By the turn of the 20th Century .32 S&W (the short one) was considered the lower threshold for a self-defense cartridge, and had largely passed from the scene in that role by the end of WW2. .32 S&W Long and .38 S&W persisted in the role into the 1970s before largely fading from the scene. .32-20, once a popular cartridge for Police, was designed to be fired in both rifles and revolvers, and there are still rifles available in this caliber. With rifle-only loads it is still used for hunting small to medium game. These loads are far too high-pressure to fire in an old revolver of course, but many loads from older manuals and reloading data are in the same power range as .32 H&R magnum out of a 4″ revolver, and that cartridge is viewed by many as viable for modern self-defense. What might this venerable cartridge achieve with a modern hollow-point?

Colt Police Positive Special in .32-20 (.32 Winchester Centerfire)

What I propose to do is test some of these obsolete cartridges by accepted modern standards and see how they fare. I want to test them both with loads approximating their original configuration and using modern bullets and smokeless powder. I’ve done some limited testing already with .38 S&W, but nothing with the scientific rigor of an FBI standard test. I want to change that; get the gel, do the tests and see what can be achieved.

This does not mean I will be hot-loading these cartridges. I’m going to be firing the loads out of my own, mostly antique, revolvers and I am not keen on breaking them. I may push them a very small amount beyond loads that I would consider appropriate for extensive target shooting, but since these are my babies I am not going to put them unduly at risk. Whenever possible I will use loads I have already developed and fired extensively.

So, what cartridges do I intend to test? To start with no rimfires. They are problematic to reload, and the workarounds are not genuine approximations of their performance. No loads that are still in widespread use and are mass produced in modern variants. No loads developed to use a heel-base bullet, largely because their foibles and deficiencies are already pretty well understood.

So what does that leave us with? .32 S&W, the first centerfire cartridge broadly used in American pocket revolvers, .38 S&W which followed close on it’s heels, .32 S&W Long, .32-20 Winchester and .450 Adams. The first four of these will be tested with black powder that approximates the original cartridge, modern factory ammunition and whatever loads I can devise. .450 Adams is a bit of a special case (so to speak.) While it was held to be underpowered for military use it was quite popular in compact ‘bulldog’ revolvers until around WW1. I’ll try to approximate the original black powder loading and try my hand at modern loads, but the only factory ammunition currently available has a reputation for blowing up guns, so I’ll pass.

Webley Model 1883 Royal Irish Constabulary revolver in .450 Adams. C’mon, tell me those fat little bullets aren’t adorable….

.38 S&W testing will be limited to loads typically used in small defensive revolvers; testing will not include military cartridges which use the same case, like .38-200 or later variants used in Enfield or Webley military revolvers. These loads are too robust for use in the sort of top-break pocket revolvers where it was most commonly employed in the U.S.

Other cartridges will not be tested because they too closely approximate modern cartridges. .38 ACP for example spans the gap between 9×18 Makarov and 9mm Parabellum; it would not be difficult to develop an effective modern self-defense load for this cartridge. Likewise 9mm Largo, .30 Mauser and .30 Luger are pretty well understood, and .25 ACP is still in production and is available in modern loadings.

Ivor Johnson Model 1 Double-Action Safety revolver in .32 S&W. Still useful after 120 years?

The test will be performed on Clear Ballistics gel with four layers of 16oz. cotton denim in an approximation of the FBI’s standardized testing. Clear ballistics clear gel is slightly denser than traditional ballistics gel, but is less temperature sensitive, easier to handle and more reusable than the old formulas. Desired performance is 12-18″ of penetration. Expansion is a plus, but realistically is only likely with the .32-20; in the lower-powered cartridges expansion is either unavailable due to low velocity or will limit penetration too much if it occurs. I will test the old standard of a 148gr. hollow-base wadcutter loaded backwards in .38 S&W; I am pretty sure it will under-penetrate, but what the hell, it’ll be fun.

All rounds will be fired from guns of a size to be suitable for civilian self-defense, meaning a barrel-length of 4″ or less.

This is not going to happen quickly; there needs to be some capital investment in equipment. I’ll need a chronograph, and the Clear Ballistics products do not come cheap. It’s all coming out of my pocket, and I’m a self-employed, partially disabled veteran. In a good month we scrape the lower-edge of middle-class, so squeezing things into the budget can be… challenging.

If anyone cares to donate factory ammunition in any of these calibers it would be appreciated- the more so if it is less than fifty years old.

This is going to be fun!

Michael Tinker Pearce, 1 November 2019

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