Why the .380 Mk I?


#1

As the .380 Mk I was adopted by the British Commonwealth not too long after WWI, I have to wonder that, if the British wanted a .38 military revolver round, why they didn’t just use the superior .38 S&W Special (possibly with a 200 grain bullet) as it was well established at that time. I assume it had something to do with retaining the existing Webley top break revolver design and its shorter cylinder length, and not increased ballistic performance, but I don’t know for sure.


#2

As I understand it, the theory behind the adoption of the .38, with its 200 grain blunt-nosed lead bullet fired at only 600 fps, was to ensure that it dumped all of its energy into the target instead of wasting it on the background scenery. A higher velocity was not wanted, as that would only lead to over-penetration.

To be clear, I am not defending that theory, merely explaining my understanding of it.

The 200 grain lead bullet was not designed to flatten or expand on impact (prohibited under the Hague Convention) but despite this the British became nervous that an enemy might regard any unjacketed bullet as illegal. They accordingly switched to the jacketed and tapered 174 grain bullet, which was presumably even less effective.

The .38 revolver and its ammunition did not represent the high point of British weapons. On the other hand, perhaps they were being secretly clever. Having observed that military handguns are far more dangerous to their own side than to the enemy, partly a result of the frequency of NDs and partly due to their lack of military effectiveness, they might have decided that making the handgun as ineffective as possible would actually be beneficial in minimising friendly casualties.

Although I realise that this theory would be considered heresy in the USA. :-)


#3

Is it not the swiss, who had an equally anemic cartridge for the 7,5 mm revolver, that pointed out to the reader of the manual, that the revolver was for putting down horses, not combat.
It may be wrong, but I like the joke… ;-)
Soren

(Who actually shoot a S&W Victory model in competition…)


#4

DennisK,

I guess they preferred the 38S&W over the 38 Special because their military revolver was a top break model with self extraction on opening…the shorter the case the better…

…quite often for the european armies, then and now, the pistol is mostly a rank gadget…while the basic gun of the infantry is the rifle…so the british decided to reduce the size and weight of their revolvers adopting a new .38" cal. model…

…about the heavy bullet launched at low velocity…the british had little or no faith in the pistol bullet energy dump at the time…so, in order to achieve the desired effectiveness from the reduced caliber bullet (…when compared with the previous .455"), their choice was a quite heavy bullet (…with a quite large lateral surface) launched at low velocity (…so quite weak from the muzzle energy point of view) that yaws during the soft tissues penetration.

All the best
Andrea


#5

[quote=“MK108”]…about the heavy bullet launched at low velocity…the british had little or no faith in the pistol bullet energy dump at the time…so, in order to achieve the desired effectiveness from the reduced caliber bullet (…when compared with the previous .455"), their choice was a quite heavy bullet (…with a quite large lateral surface) launched at low velocity (…so quite weak from the muzzle energy point of view) that yaws during the soft tissues penetration.
[/quote]

Why would it yaw? It was a parallel-sided bullet with a more or less hemispherical nose - the sort of shape which yaws only very slowly when penetrating.


#6

Pamphlet No. 11 Pistol (.38 inch) of 28th June 1941 says on page 15:

“TWO quick shots should always be fired to make certain of killing”


#7

I would favour the theory of the short cylinder being the main reason and also the fact that the .380 cartridge was already a very well established calibre for Webley revolvers, in a slightly different OL varient that pre dated the Colt and S&W versions admittedly.

The .38 Special was not well known. British revolver design was entirely break top and geared almost entirely around Webleys and Webley clones. The Enfield revolver was a Webley clone made at the government Enfield factory Effectively a scaled down .455 with a few modifications, mostly for economy rather than improvement. But it was a Webley in every other sense

I am not entirely sure that they would have seen it as adopting the .38 S&W, although thats in effect what they did. I think the boys at Webley would be turning in their graves at the suggestion. They would say that S&W copied their calibre. Actually S&W copied Colt who copied Webley but does it really matter?

I believe they just saw it as updating to the latest IL version of something that they already had in the .380 Webley cartridge (as it was known, not its official name) and thats why they stayed with the handle .380.

Most of the books and articles I have read over here balk at actually saying that the .380 is a .38 S&W, they say it is interchangeable with or compatible with. It seems to me that only in the US do they automatically make the link

no doubt somebody with a better library will come on and prove me wrong, (I am used to that) but I would stick my neck out and say that S&W, guns and calibres, were not well known over here until lease lend

Look up the ballistics of the .455, they were not that great. The .380 didn’t have to do much to beat it. Neither would have been up to the job, pathetic in fact, very few military handguns were. Only the US with their .45LC and .45ACP were on the money.

If I thought we could keep it on track I would happily start a thread on handgun efficacy in both military/ police and the movies. The preconcieved notions and the errors. How many soldiers and cops have we consigned to an early grave for believing that if you shoot somebody with a pistol they will fall over and not shoot back? Like in the movies?

I knew someone, a man called John Coleman who was in the Long Range Desert Group in WW2. Sadly he has not been with us for many years. He described the Enfield revolver as totally useless even against the wild dogs that hung around the camp saying if you shot one it would bite you for sure.


#8

It simply seems strange that a major military power of the time, after having gone through the Great War, would have selected and adopted a 19th century revolver design and a 19th century cartridge, both being obsolete, or at least obsolescent, instead of seeking out something better. It’s not like much better handguns and cartridges did not exist in the early 1920s.


#9

I completely agree with you. To get near to understanding the reason you have to examine the role played by the pistol. It wasn’t routinely issued to troops, Mostly it was a badge of office for officers to be worn in a holster. Even then experienced officers would discard it in combat because it singled them out to snipers.

Various troops were given pistols, troops like truck drivers, tank crews, air crews and military police on guard duty but there was little expectation they would have to use them.

Why did James Bond have a Walther PPK? Only because somebody found a few crates of them somewhere in Germany at the end of the war and claimed them as booty. The British had no pistol sense.


#10

The British adoption of the Webley was a classic example of always being equipped to fight the previous war. We stuck with revolvers after 1919 because we had no faith in the efficacy of automatics in conditions such as those found on the Western Front. Equally, we were happy to adopt a relatively ineffectual load as most pistol use in the First War had been at very close range, or in confined spaces, during trench raids. Pistols were more handy than rifles and were used to ‘keep heads down’ whilst grenades were thrown.

In the UK a popular form of target shooting with pistols was ‘whilst advancing’ which used an extended hold, but basically from the hip. For this to be effective there had to be a light load and little recoil otherwise keeping on the target was difficult. This same technique was taught and used by Colonial Police around the world and probably affected military thinking as well.

The idea of ‘inherited wisdom’ and prejudice into military ideas and protocols is an interesting one.

Peter


#11

When we were still allowed to own and shoot revolvers I had a couple of .455" MkVI which I used as my competition guns. My local club banned the use of this pistol and cartridge on ten-pin bowling pins. These pins made good knock-down targets but a good hit with the 225 grain bullet trundling through them would invariably destroy the pin. The back of the pin blew out and it wouldn’t stand up anymore!

However, whilst 9mm and .45" ACP bullets did penetrate cleanly and knock the pins off the table they usually survived good enough “to fight another day”.

Happy days.

gravelbelly


#12

Just for your amusement - almost a decade ago I published a novel, The Foresight War, in which I explored what might have happened if a present day British historian (a specialist on WW2) had woken up in 1934 with enough technical gadgets to convince people he came from the future. Just to spice things up a bit, there was a German equivalent.

Anyway, among the outcomes of his arrival was the early adoption of the Solothurn SI-100 SMG in 9x25 Mauser calibre, to provide a longer effective range than the usual 9x19 ammo. A pistol was adopted in the same calibre: the M1911A1 was chosen, as the best gun around which could handle the long cartridge. About as far from the .380 Webley as you could get…


#13

I borrowed an European pistol in .32 acp in my youth.
After shooting a few rounds at close range I hung a target at 50 yards on two horizontal steel wires.
I then fired a few rounds and walked to that target.

One fmj bullet had hit the wire and wrapped around it with out damage to the wire.
A Walther p-38 would go through a telephone pole at closer range.

Glenn


#14

[quote=“VinceGreen”]
Most of the books and articles I have read over here balk at actually saying that the .380 is a .38 S&W, they say it is interchangeable with or compatible with. It seems to me that only in the US do they automatically make the link.[/quote]

Perhaps one reason might be that the Western Cartridge Company loaded a 38 S&W with a 200 grain bullet. Looks just like a MK I & bet you couldn’t tell them apart in the dark.
I don’t know how popular this loading was, but I have six Western variations with the 200 grain bullet.