.38 S&W Special in Black Powder loading?


Does anyone know if early loadings of .38 Special used black powder, or was it smokeless from the beginning?


DennisK–Yes, the .38 S&W Special was loaded by at least U.M.C. in Black Powder from 1895, maybe a couple of years before that, to 1910.


I thought the first S&W M&P came out in .38 Spl as a new chambering in 1899. Odd (to me) that BP was ever used for the .38, as by that time smokeless propellant use was very well established, and the 1899 M&P should have been plenty strong enough for smokeless loads. I did a little additional research and found that UMC .38 Spl boxes marked as being loaded with black powder have been reported. But I can’t imagine those BP loads were very popular for very long if smokeless loads were available.


Ron - While UMC started making a cartridge called the .38 Smith & Wesson Long in 1895, according to their records, they did not make the .38 Special until May 1899, at which time they sent samples to Smith & Wesson. Further, they describe the cases as having “extreme solid head.” The last entry with any comments on changes etc. is dated July 1908. IN Sept. 1899, they started producing the S&W Special Smokeless. There were various changes made at different times, with the last entry being July 1909.

Of course, the last entries in either the BP version or the Smokeless version don’t necessarily mean discontinuance of the loads, but rather the final entry made before Remington and UMC became one company, which is where all my notes end.

Regarding the .38 Smith and Wesson Long, it is not the same as .38 Special, I would think, since it is handled separately but simultaneously in their records, although not collecting this revolver stuff, I don’t know the difference. They started the black powder loads in Mar 1895 and there are entries until October 1903. In that case, it is early enough that I assume the blackpowder version of the round didn’t survive much past that. Entries for the .38 S&W Long Smokeless begin in Jan 1902, and end with only a second entry in July 1909, late enough that production may have gone on longer.

At any rate, it appears to me to be in error to say that UMC made the .38 Special from 1895. That is not what their records indicate. If catalogs show it made that early, well, I have no explanation for that. I don’t have any early UMC catalogs.


John–As usual, you are correct. The 1st U.M.C. catalog to list the .38 S&W Special was 1900. I found my mistake. When I was making the entry in the U.M.C. CD I used “Cut & Paste” to copy the line for the .38 S&W and added “Special” so I did not need to re-type all the “X’s” for the years of production.
I then forgot to delete all the inappropriate “X’s” for the .38 S&W Special. Thanks for pointing out my mistake. It has been corrected.

The .38 S&W Special, 158gr. Lead, Black Powder was last listed in the 18 Jan, 1939 Remington-UMC catalog and was listed as “Being Discontinued”. It is not listed in the 1940 catalog.


The size of the case gives it away really as an originally BP loading.


Thank you Ron and John for the historical information.

About 10 years ago I was fortunate enough to find a box of early U.M.C. .38 S&W Special Black Powder cartridges. The box indicated that they contained 21.5 grs. of black powder.

A dissected cartridge indicated that the cases were of the Solid Head Button Pocket type (solid balloon head).

Factory ballistics were reported to be 960 f.p.s. with a 158 gr. bullet in a 6" barrel which, interestingly, is the equivalent of current +P ammunition.



So, is there historical information available to determine whether the first .38 Special ammunition placed on the market was BP or smokeless, regardless of whether the cartridge was originally intended to be a BP loading? That is how I should have phrased my original question.

While the .38 Special case unquestionably does have a greater capacity for holding more BP, I think that its extended length may also have been intended to visually differentiate it from the many shorter .38 cartridges (.38 S&W, .38 LC) then available, as well as preventing its use in earlier revolvers, which is why the .357 Magnum is longer than the .38 Special.

I am amazed to learn that .38 Special BP loadings may have been cataloged through the 1930’s. I wonder who the customers for a BP .38 Special round would have been? Of course, there were cowboys (the real ones), but no cowboy action shooters.


If UMC was the first company to make the .38 Special, which is likely, the black powder load was the original load, although it predates the smokeless powder load only by four months. The coming of the smokeless powder load did not, however, as I pointed out, cause the demise of the black powder load. They were both loaded for a number of years by UMC.


Part of the rationale for the continued loading of black powder in revolver cartridges after the advent of smokeless was the fact that the velocity to pressure ratio of black was often better than the early smokeless propellants. In at least the .45 Colt there were BP loadings that offered velocities that smokeless couldn’t then match at reasonable pressure levels. This may well have been true of .38 Special and .44 Special too. Jack


I’m given to believe, although I can offer no evidence to support it, that the original smokeless loading for the .38 Spec was bullseye 3.6 grains ( am I allowed to say that on here?) And the success of the loading did much to seal the success of both the powder and the cartridge.

You might have thought that the cartridge manufactures would have opted for a bulk powder but apparantly they didn’t.

Today the standard load ( although by far not the only one) is still bulleye for .38 Special. It has never been substancially bettered.


Re the velocity - pressure ratio. I can buy the V-P argument for continuing BP loadings intended for use in older revolvers designed and manufactured when BP was the only game in town. However, I doubt that was the case for the .38 Special. I’m not aware of any of the old breaktops or the BP-era single action Colts ever having been chambered in .38 Special, and I am reasonably sure that a smokeless load for the original 1899 S&W M&P revolver could have been developed, even at that time, which would safely equal or better the ballistics of any BP load, without the smoke and mess resulting from the use of BP ammunition.

My theory is that the reason BP .38 Special loads ever existed and even survived for a while is simply because there were die-hard BP loyalists who may have doubted smokeless powder was really here to stay. The same situation is true for any advancement of technology. There are always the early adopters, followed a few years later by the mainstream, followed by the late adopters. For example there are still a fair number of photographers today who cling to film cameras, as they truly believe (or imagine) that film has real benefits over digital imaging. I even know people who still use VCRs and don’t own a DVD player - and you can still buy blank VHS tapes.


One reason for using “old technology” film cameras rather than “modern” digital cameras is speed. Common digital cameras have a delay before recording the image. This makes taking “Action shots” or quick snaps difficult. This is the reason why journalists retain their old film cameras.



The US Cartridge Comapny made both the 38 S&W Special and 38 Colt Special, both in black powder, lesmok powder, and smokeless. The only diference I see between the colt and S&W is that the Colt loadings use a flat nose bullet but then so does the US 38 S&W Police load. Other headstamps used was USC CO 38 Spl Speed later on and US 38 S&W Police early on.

I visited the listing I made of USC production and found the following:
38 S&W Special; Headstamps: US 38 S&W Special, USC CO 38 S&W Sp’L.
Black powder 1904 to 1935
Lesmok powder 1914 to 1919
Smokeless powder 1904 to 1938

38 Colt Special: USC CO 38 Colt SP’L
Black powder 1911 to 1938
Lesmok powder 1914 to 1919
Smokeless powder 1911 to 1938