Sunday, September 21, 2008

H+R top break .38 S+W

(click photos to enlarge)
(Note: This is a repost.... life's a bit too busy right now to research a quality post. So.... I reached back a bit and pulled this dusty old post out of the archives. I still own this pistol, and shoot it occasionally.)

A recent acquisition for the collection, and presented as received, is this little bit of history. A Harrington and Richardson top break revolver in .38 S+W.

H+R built these little jewels from the turn of the century till just before WWII. Coming in .32 Smith+Wesson, .32 Long, and .38 Smith+Wesson, they were never over powered by any means.

The top break revolver did not have a cylinder that swung out, but a frame that pivoted open revealing the rear of the cylinder. The early models did not have an automatic extractor, instead using a manual rod like a typical modern revolver with a swing out cylinder. Later models, like this, used an automatic extractor that ejected the shells rather smartly if the pistol was operated with authority.

One issue that plagued the concept was occasional jamming. If the star extractor managed to get above a case that did not get thrown clear, the case would fall back into the chamber and the extractor would seat above the case. This effectively jammed up the gun till it could be cleared manually, which took some small effort. It was something that happened rarely, and usually only when the shooter failed to let the extractor eject the cases as it was built to.

This particular pistol is in excellent mechanical condition, despite having literally been stored in a sock drawer the last decade. The grips are original and intact, something mildly unusual as the plastic often got damaged over the years. It has known some rust, but not too badly. All in all it’s a decent example that will clean up nicely and is fully functional.

This later model is chambered in .38 S+W, an anemic cartridge by today’s standards.

I have pictured it next to a .38 special, a round considered minimal for defensive use today. It’s practically dwarfed alongside the ,357 magnum, although the family resemblance of all three is unmistakable. They are in fact a continuation on a theme, in each instance the case being extended to increase capacity, velocity, and stopping power.

Pictured alongside its contemporaries, the .32 S+W and the .32 long, the .38 S+W does show why it might have been preferred in its day. While the .32 long tossed a 100-grain lead slug along at 650 fps, the .38 S+W hit the same velocity with a 158-grain bullet.

Today a 158 grain .38 special moseys along at 850 fps and is considered just barely adequate.

This pistol will be stripped down, detail cleaned, and then spend some time at the range.

While not a whiz bang polymer high capacity high intensity wonder gun, it is a solid piece of history with generations of enjoyment and service left in it. Ammunition is available, and even when not it’s especially easy to make from its offspring, the.38 special.

The American public purchased these pistols in the hundreds of thousands, with over a million being produced. While some makes were of questionable quality, the H+R built top break pistols were nearly on a par with Smith and Wesson.

Favored by shop keepers and home owners desiring some simple protection generations ago, this type of pistol is frequently found today in decent usable condition, and can be had for reasonable prices. There is a collectors market, but its usually a low dollar one. A pistol of this make and condition can often be found for under $150 with a bit of searching.

Another neat firearm for the collection!


Somerled said...

carteach0, nice period piece. The H&R was far superior to most other top breaks.

The .38 S&W, which was introduced around 1877, is not the parent of the .38 Special. The .38 S&W bullet is larger in diameter, and the case rim is not the same dimension. It is also interchangeable with the .38 Colt New Police, which was loaded with a flat-nosed bullet.

The British took the .38 S&W and loaded it with a 200-grain bullet to replace the .455 Webley. Then S&W produced .38-200 Victory models for the British before and during WWII.

The .38 Special is a stretched version of the .38 Long Colt, which was the service cartridge of the U.S. Army between 1892 and 1911.

Carteach0 said...


I agree the .38 special is a direct descendant of the .38 Long Colt, which is clearly a stretched out .38 short Colt. The question remains in my mind, was the .38 short Colt designed as a shorter pocket pistol version of the .38 Smith and Wesson, which preceded it by some years and was quite popular?

Colt did not like chambering pistols in a round designed and marketed by their competitor, like most gun makers of their day.

Then again, the .38 Smith and Wesson looks suspiciously like a carry on of the .38 Long Centerfire, which probably is descended from the .38 Ballard extra long.

I suspect it's no accident that all of these cartridges have rim diameters within a few thousandths of each other, and head diameters fairly close as well.

Old NFO said...

Excellent review Carteach0- Another one I have only seen pictures of.

Somerled said...

It is confusing, carteach. The marketing wars were pretty heated.

Colt developed short and long .38 rimfire cartridges for .36 cal. percussion revolver conversions around 1871. The short was .768" in length, and the long version was .873". They were loaded with heel-base, outside-lubed bullets around 140 grains and .375" to fit the single-diameter cylinders of the conversions. Around 1874, Colt received a government contract to convert 1851 and 1861 Navy revolvers to .38 centerfire using cartridges not yet in production by UMC. When the CF versions were released, they shared the same dimensions as the Colt rimfire cartridges. Colt then used the CF .38 Colt in the New Line and Lightning revolvers. Colt last used the heel-based bullet in the Navy 1889 contract revolver, its first swing-out cylinder DA revolver.

The Army desired an inside-lubed bullet, which it got in 1892. Colt stretched the .38 Long case, now loaded with .357" bullets to 1.03. Some collectors call the old .873", outside-lubed version the "Navy" and the longer, inside-lubed version the "Army". Colt never stretched the .38 Short.

When the ammo companies switched to inside-lubed, .357" dia. bullets for the .38 Colt, they used hollow-base ones that would hopefully swage to the wider chambers of older revolvers.

S&W adopted the inside-lubed .38 S&W in 1877 for its top-break pocket revolvers. Colt later copied it except for using a flat-nose bullet and named it the .38 Colt New Police. Neither cartridge should chamber in a .38 Special, which has a smaller base and neck diameter.

S&W, long jealous of Colt's military contracts, took Colt's Army cartridge and stretched it to make the .38 S&W Special in 1899. This would allow the military to use up stockpiles of .38 Long Colt.

Colt took about 10 years to come out with the .38 Colt Special, the S&W cartridge with a flat-nose bullet.

Somerled said...

Tam has a new post in her Arms Room on the first S&W chambered in .39 S&W. According to one sketchy book I have, the .38 Single Action First Model began shipping in the spring of 1876.

My Supica and Jinks books are no where to be found.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused by the pic.
L to R, .38 S&W, .38 spl, & ???
The text reads as if that should be a .357 mag, but it clearly isn't.
What am I missing?

Carteach0 said...

The nickel plated cartridge is a .357 magnum.

NVSmith said...

Wasn't there also a hammerless version with a grip safety or was that an Iver-Johnson?