I have always liked the .38 Special cartridge.
Call it nostalgia, or a throwback to a bygone age, when handguns still used black powder, and relatively large cartridge cases were necessary to deliver respectable bullet performance.
Everyone knows that today’s .38 Special cartridges no longer use black powder, of course. They are loaded with a small dose of modern, more powerful smokeless powder, and are usually topped up with filler to keep the powder against the primer at the bottom of the cartridge casing. In spite of that, some of the old magic remains.
The .38 Special comes from an era when the revolver was king, a time when semi-automatic pistols were generally considered “newfangled” devices, and gentle folk frowned upon magazine-loaders as “instruments of war”. The police and the FBI were all issued revolvers, and the .32 Long Colt and the .38 Special were considered “civilized” law enforcement calibers.
It was a Smith and Wesson Model 36 (with a 3-inch barrel) that gave me my first real taste of the .38 Special cartridge. In that barrel length, however, a revolver is considered to be an “undercover” or back-up piece. For my second .38 Special, I wanted something with a longer barrel, preferably on a gun with some history behind it.
I got my wish when I came across a used, but well-kept Smith and Wesson Model 10-7. This specimen still had 95% of its original blueing, but with enough nicks and scratches to show that it had actually seen service in the field.
The wooden grips, while they bore the original S&W medallion, were nicked and scratched. This Model 10 had a 4-inch, old-style “pencil” barrel instead of the more recent bull barrel, and factory-standard fixed sights. More interestingly, this particular revolver also bore the letters “RHKP” clearly engraved in gold on the back strap, which meant that it had been issued by the Royal Hong Kong Police to one of its members. Now what could be more exotic than that?
An inspection of the gun’s barrel revealed deep, clear rifling grooves, indicating that the revolver probably hadn’t been fired much. I suppose it is a truism that most police sidearms get carried a lot, but are not often fired.
There was also less play in the cylinder than on my old Model 36, which delighted me immensely. I could find no tool marks on any of the external screws, indicating that the internal lock work had, most likely, never been tampered with.
The only other fault I could find were signs of holster wear on the leading edge of the barrel. The rest of the revolver’s finish was a lovely deep blue, which only got deeper and shinier the more you rubbed it. In one moment, I suddenly realized why there was so much to be said for vintage Smith and Wesson revolvers.
They were pretty close to being works of art!
Not a Safe Queen
Granted that this S&W Model 10 was something of a collector’s item, I still wasn’t inclined to let it sit in my gun safe to gather dust. I like to take every gun I own to the range from time to time, and this piece wasn’t about to get an exemption.
The first thing I discovered was that shooting 50 rounds of factory-strength .38 Special ammunition—using those original, S&W wooden grips—is a punishing experience. (My old Model 36 was fitted with rubber Pachmayr grips, which made it very comfortable to shoot.)
The upper part of the Model 10’s steel back strap recoiled into the web of my hand fiercely with every shot, while the back of the trigger guard sometimes rapped my middle finger. I remember thinking to myself, “No wonder police revolvers don’t get fired much. They’re too nasty to practice with!”
By the time my first range session with the Model 10 was over, my strong hand was blistered and sore, but I had gotten my fill of .38 Special nostalgia.
Replacement revolver grips were not an easy thing to find in the locale I was in, so getting a set of Hogues or Pachmayrs was out of the question. In fact, it was actually cheaper to get a local woodworking artisan to carve a new set of grips for me, patterned after those on the S&W magnums. With a more generous circumference, an extended base, and a lowered finger position , those grips definitely made shooting the Model 10 more enjoyable.
My personal example of the Smith and Wesson Model 10 is practically a tack-driver at 7 meters. Its accuracy is phenomenal and, to my surprise, the fixed sights actually park bullets at the point of aim (!) At 10 meters I could make all 6 bulletholes touch each other, hitting right on top of the revolver’s front sight.
(This was a far cry from my old, fixed-sighted Model 36, which shot about 4 inches to the left and 5 inches high at 25 meters. Without any means to adjust the sights, I simply learned to estimate the gun’s point of impact, and live with that gun’s idiosyncrasy. When the time came to sell it, I was actually happy to see it go.)
I can only surmise that the standards applied by Smith and Wesson to law enforcement firearms in those days, was more stringent than the attention it paid to civilian handguns.
Whereas its previous owner probably carried the revolver on a daily basis, I always find myself thinking that the gun is just too pretty to carry.
I started carrying guns in The Age of Polymer, and my favorite carry pieces all have polymer frames and incredibly durable finishes. No wood to nick, no blueing to scratch or to wear away.
Besides which, I have always relied on “wonder nines” for personal protection. The more cartridges in the magazine, the better for me, and the more spare magazines available, the merrier. All of which makes it difficult for me to get my head around the idea of carrying a revolver as my primary sidearm.
I also find that I can change a magazine faster than I can manipulate a revolver speed loader, which clinches any argument in favor of carrying a semi-auto pistol instead of a wheel gun .
So I guess that, in the end, my Model 10 is going to enjoy a comfortable retirement—nestling cozily with my other revolvers, except for occasional trips to the range—whenever I need a dose of .38 Special magic.
The Mystique of Old S&W Revolver Triggers
When you’ve been hanging around handgun shooters for as long as I have (and you’ve been paying attention), you learn certain things, like why vintage Smith and Wesson revolvers are so sought-after.
Quite apart from their accuracy, revolver shooters attribute certain magical qualities to the triggers on old S&W revolvers. That quality has variously been described using terms like ‘incredible smoothness’, ‘perfect responsiveness’, and ‘unrivaled crispness’.
Maybe the truth of the matter lies in the simple fact that most old S&W’s have already had hundreds—maybe even thousands—of rounds put through them. This sort of usage naturally takes the rough edges off any mechanical device, and gives it a smoothness and a feeling of refinement that can hardly be found in factory-fresh examples.
This is the sort of thing that naturally piques my curiousity, and I was determined to find out what the fuss was about, using the new acquisition as a guide.
When I pull the trigger on my Model 10 in double-action mode, I feel no change in pressure from start to finish. The trigger doesn’t get heavier as you pull it back further, so there is no indication that you are, in actuality, fighting against spring pressure. The mechanism does not catch or scrape at any point; the movement is one fluid stroke, from the time that you begin to squeeze, until the point that the hammer drops.
When you ease pressure on the trigger and allow it to return to its starting position, you can actually feel it reset, and you know that it’s time to start squeezing again, for your next shot. This sort of feedback from the gun makes it easy to fire six rounds in rapid succession, without ever having to take your finger off the trigger.
When I deliberately thumb the hammer back for a single-action shot and squeeze the trigger, on the other hand, the trigger drops the hammer without any perceptible movement, and there is no sign of over-travel afterwards. The shot breaks like a thin glass rod snapping in two, crisply and so cleanly that, if you try it without a cartridge, your sights never move off-target.
The Model 10’s smoothness in double-action mode makes it very difficult to gauge the weight of its pull—it could very well be 10 pounds, but the movement is so fluid that you barely know you’re putting in that much effort.
Firing single-action, the trigger breaks at 3.5 pounds, which makes for very precise targeting.
The curious thing is that I also own a couple of other S&W revolvers of recent manufacture, both of them purchased brand-new. Neither of them provides this sort of trigger performance. Will they mellow down to where the Model 10 is right now, after 5,000 rounds? Could my original assumption that smoothness is caused by “breaking-in” be correct? Or is the talent that produced the trigger on the Model 10 a thing of the past?
I know I’ll have the answer in a few years.