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Making .380 revolver ammo for an ancient Bulldog pistol

So I have this old, old pistol. A Webley Bulldog clone made by Manufacture Française d’Armes et de Cycles in St. Etienne (aka Manufrance), with black powder Saint Etienne proof marks dating sometime between 1874 and 1902.

This is I guess a good time to point out this particular pistol has no caliber markings at all on it. Not even a 38 mark. I had to cerrosafe the chamber and mike the bore, then spend some time looking at known case dimensions for the time period before identifying the caliber. This is not uncommon with the European bulldog/Velo Dog class of pistols. Littlegun.be is full of pictures of the type with no caliber markings and often no markings at all beyond a proof mark giving a hint of the possible country of origin.

The caliber miked out to just under 36, while the case dimensions were very similar to that of the .38 Short Colt except the rim thickness is only 0.02″, so I realized it was a .380 Rook, aka 380 Ely, or .380 Webley or a variation of. The problem of course is actual new .380 Rook ammunition, even in Europe, has not been available anywhere for a very long time, and inside the US probably not for about a century. That meant I needed to make some ammunition from scratch, unless I wished the pistol to be a non-functional paperweight even if it is in very good shape.

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The .380 cartridge family has had many variations. .380 Rook, .380 short, .380 long, .38 Short Colt. From the .38 Short Colt, Colt developed the .38 Long Colt which was almost identical to the English .380 Long. The .38 Long Colt went on to become the US Army service and served through the Spanish American War and the early days of the Philippine Insurrection. Being a total failure as a military service caliber it led to the old .45s being pulled out of mothballs and re-issued and later themselves replaced with the 1911 pistol. Meanwhile S&W lengthened their .38 S&W and created the .38 S&W Special, aka .38 Special.

So I got the pistol (without any ammo and in a then unknown caliber) along with a half dozen others (also without any ammo) for $4 – $5 apiece back in 1983. None of the acquisitions had caliber markings and most lacked even an immediately recognizable maker’s mark. For some reason not having any ammunition for an old gun in good working condition has bothered me.

Identifying the pistols and obtaining ammunition has been fun. On the rear face of this revolvers cylinder is a picture of the Manufrance stamp which identifies the maker or and retailer of this particular pistol.

IMGP0006Last week, after 30 years of brooding about it, I finally decided the time had come to make some .380 Rook type ammunition cases so this paperweight could be restored to full function. I decided that .38 Special cases would with a little modification serve me best.

A minor problem is that .38 Special is actually .355 – 357 bullet dimension while the .380 Rook class of cartridge is a true .38 caliber.

Modifications needed:
a) the .38 special case is too long. Depending on whether we speak of .380 short, .380 long or .38 Short Colt, three different lengths of cartridge case would be proper. 0.7″, 0.9″ or 01.0″ After taking measurements I decided 0.7″ would be the best starting cartridge for my pistol. A pipe tubing cutter of the type used by plumbers for cutting copper house pipe did an excellent and quick job of shortening the .38 Special cases to the proper length..

b) The rim of the .380 Rook case is, like that of many black powder cartridges, much thinner than today’s cartridges. The typical rim thickness of the .38 Special is 0.055″ The .380 Rook cartridge rim had a thickness of only 0.02″ Two problems would manifest if the rims were not trimmed in thickness.

This Manufrance revolver has recesses for the cartridge rims in the cylinder (see photo (note the M&F maker’s stamp)) face. The cartridges are intended to sit flush with the face of the cylinder and not protrude at all. Between the face of the breech and the face of the cylinder is only 0.015″ headspace. The first problem with using unaltered .38 S&W or unaltered .38 Special cases is that the cartridge would bind up on cylinder rotation and the gun would be inoperable.

A second problem (frequently also observed in first generation Colt pistols, when fired with modern ammunition) is because the modern case has a thicker rim, the primer sits too high and the firing pin strike then can pierce the primer. A rim thinned from the case mouth to the rear of the cartridge is the solution. See the photo at the front of this article for a clearer visualization.

In this video I use my Sieg mini-lathe to thin down a .38 Special case.

Note the comparison photo of the finished products with the trimmed down rim on the left and the original, unaltered .38 Special on the right.

Having made cases for the revolver the next step was to work up some black powder loads and try them out. Three projectile weights were used.

A 77 grain .375 ball. A 125 grain .355 jacketed hollowpoint seated backwards. A .158 grain, lead semi wadcutter of .355 diameter. All were loaded over mildly compressed loads of FFF black powder. The powder charges weighed between 10 to 11 grains.

In the next video I prime, load and experimentally try (aka shoot) the .380 Rook revolver on a 1″ thick wooden board.

Here is the pistol with some of the completed rounds of the type I made and fired that day. Both .38 Short Colt and .38 Special cases were used for this experiment which is why some are shorter than others.

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Needless to say it was all initially somewhat anti-climatic and disappointing. The Rook class of cartridges were initially developed for sniping at crows or similar birds and rabbits or squirrels in the vegetable patch. ‘Cartridges of the World’ shows their usage in single shot rifles, single shot pistols and small revolvers (i.e., Bulldog revolvers, etc.).

During tests on cadavers in the civil war and again in the pre World War I era on cattle the US Army determined a projectile has to be travelling at least 650 feet per second (fps) to either penetrate an inch of soft pine wood, or to be a reliable producer of typically lethal wounds on human torsos. For the purposes of their test the US Army defined lethal as likely to cause death within a day if not immediately treated by a surgeon.

Since the 125 grain bullets I used in my own experiments (the original .380 Rook bullet weighed 124 grains, close enough for my purposes) would only on average penetrate a half inch of wood, it is obvious both that, the bullet velocity with a 10 grain FFF powder charge behind it is less than 650 fps, and also, probably it is not capable of reliably stopping a determined attacker by causing an immediately lethal wound.

By today’s standards the .380 Rook class of pistols have about the same defensive capability as a .25acp pistol. In short this caliber belongs at the bottom of your choices when choosing something to defend yourself with.

See: Cartridges of the World – 8th Edition, Chapter 8, British Sporting Cartridges, page 327.   You will find the exact same cartridge again in Chapter 4 of the same book, Handgun Cartridges of the World, on page 258. Later as mentioned the .38 Short Colt (ibid, page 253) and the .38 Special grew from those. A big difference between the .38 Special and it’s predecessors is the earlier cartridges used heeled bullets of an actual 0.38 inch diameter (.377 in reality most often), while the newer, longer .38 Special used both a thicker rim like the Colts, and also a non-heeled bullet of 0.355 diameter. This allowed the bullet to be slipped inside the case then crimped in place, but also required a slightly reduced barrel diameter for best accuracy.

About 200 or so shops turned these things out all across Europe in flagrant ignoring of the English patent system. About 20 or more different calibers exist, from 20 to 45 and which one you have often requires much study. Identifying which shop made which one is almost an art form. The one pictured, I was lucky. The previously shown M&F stamp is known and documented as a maker/vendors mark. ManuFrance of St. Etienne also made or marketed the Robust shotguns.

I also have some Belgian versions of Bulldogs which also have no marks indicating the caliber. Again, only casting the chamber provided the clues. With these things, sometimes if you remove the grips, in addition to assembly stamps, you may, or may not, find the initials of the gun smith that put them together stamped there (an example is shown below).

LGrip

Having discovered the cylinders on my Bulldogs are bored through, I realized since factory ammo doesn’t exist for them anymore anyway, I am not really limited to original Rook case dimensions when trying to work up a usable load for them. This means it is possible to increase terminal performance without using smokeless gunpowder which would probably generate excessive chamber pressure.  A good rule of thumb to follow is never, ever use smokeless powder in a weapon designed for black powder.

I therefore did some playing around. I made one load using a case only 1/2 inch long and loaded them with 4 grains lightly compressed of fff under a 77 grain bullet. I found the performance was about what you would expect and substantially identical to what Goex reports for a .32 Short Colt.  I then trimmed some cases to 0.85″ and loaded 15 gr. of fff under a reversed 158 grain load. Oh my! This gives a very noticeable increase in noise, recoil and penetration. Can we say repeatedly blasts through 2″ inches of wood?

My little 140 year old Bulldog clone  revolver just turned serious. This load seems to be a clone of the original BP load for the .38 Special as shown in the pistol cartridge PDF at http://www.goexpowder.com/load-chart.html

The pistol with an ultra short round equating in power to a .32 Short Colt and a longer round equating in performance to a black powder load for the .38 Special.

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The reversed 158 grain bullets sit about .125″ short of the chamber mouth so they interfere with nothing.

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Of course the little Bulldog is a little smaller than most 5 shot .38s made today. I will just have to learn to live with that handicap.

A .44 Bulldog clone (folding trigger variant) above a modern 1980s vintage) Charter Arms ‘Undercover’ .38 Special revolver above the .380 Bulldog clone in question.

Trio
—–Suggested Reading—–
I strongly suggest that anyone thinking of converting a modern cartridge to an obsolete black powder cartridge, or manufacturing a black powder cartridge case from brass rods, etc., first do some basic reading and acquire some usable knowledge over and above watching a You Tube video which may omit showing an important step.

The process of converting or manufacturing from scratch is often more complex than simply reloading. Also because black powder is an explosive it requires some changes in procedure from reloading a modern smokeless gun powder. You should at a bare minimum have some experience with muzzle loading as well as a basic grasp of reloading concepts.

One entry level book I suggest every black powder cartridge shooter keeps in their library is “Loading The Black Powder Rifle Cartridge.” A link to it on Amazon follows so you can get a copy if you don’t have one.

A second ‘should have’ book in which much of the cartridge conversion research has already been done for you is George Nonte’s “The Home Guide to Cartridge Conversions.” It too is readily available on Amazon.com by simply clicking on the image shown below.

Anyone who shoots guns, and certainly everyone who reloads ammunition can benefit from the formula, tables and experience set forth in General Jhlian Hatcher’s “Hatcher’s Notebook.” This is possibly one of the most utilized reference books shooters and gunsmiths own. Available from Amazon.com via the below link.

—–Suggested tools—–
These are bare minimums, but operations such as crimping bullets into a cartridge case, properly seating primers, thinning case rims or building gauges are impossible without them regardless if you are trying to fabricate 32 Colt brass or 44 Henry Flat cartridges.

A Loading Press. There are many makes and models. In America most use the same size dies. 7/8 inch with 14 Turns Per Inch (TPI) threads. This means that usually your dies from a Lyman press will work just fine in your RCBS press or a Lee P\press, etc.

Here is a link to a simple Lee Turret press being sold at Amazon.com. Dies and other accessories sold separately.

Mills and Lathes
It is beyond my capability here to teach you how to run a lathe or a mill. However many community colleges in America still offer courses in machine shop operations and they are worth taking if your high school did not offer similar classes. Gone are the days where the only option available was a 7 foot tall, 3 ton Bridgeport requiring a 440 Volt DC line. Today much smaller units designed for home shop use exist (called mini lathes and mini mills), and they only require 110 volts house current. They are available in many models at a variety of retailers. You will also have to buy cutters, chucks and other accessories of the proper size of course. Although there are youtube videos on the subject I again strongly urge someone thinking here of purchasing their first lathe or mill to take one of the courses mentioned first. That will give you an idea what you are doing, formally teach you best safety practices, and also the knowledge and hands on training you gain will probably save you much money when it becomes time to buy cutters, chucks, and bits.

There is no good way of thinning case rims properly without a lathe. Here is a fairly standard mini-lathe being offered for sale at Amazon.

A mini-mill is used much less often in cartridge fabrication, but when you hit a stone wall that only having your own mill can get you past, it is very nice to have one. Here is one for sale at Amazon.

Digital Calioers – Kind of a must have item. The one pictured below can give read outs in inch scale as well as metric. They are indispensable for precision manufacturing.

click to see digital calipers

6 Comments

    • You are welcome. Use the same technique for making .442 Webley/Ely ammo from 44 Special or .44 Magnum brass. I use a plumbers copper tubing cutter as the fastest way of shortening the brass then the lathe for the rim thinning. Except for the rim thickness the .380 Webley is the same as the .38 Short Colt. .38 Special and .357 Magnum both share base dimensions so either one of those can be used for forming .380 revolver/Rook/Wrbley/Ely.
      There is an old book worth hunting for on Amazon if you do a lot of conversions. By George C. Nonte Jr., “The Home Guide To Cartridge Conversions.”

  1. Hey! As someone who finds guns interesting, I found this article very helpful. I find people who restore and modify guns to be close to obsolete. I’m glad that there are still people who are willing to create ammo from scratch. Keep up the good work! Thanks for the article 🙂

    • I thank you. Obtaining and repairing old antique broken guns and other machinery has been a hobby for decades. In point of fact I have a supposedly long inoperative broken Bulldog coming in the mail this week. I may do a blog about it, if I find it reparable.

      Manufacturing obsolete ammunition from scratch is also something that adds to the hobby. Many old almost forgotten wall hangers or relics from grand parents would be perfectly functional if only a source for the ammunition existed.

  2. Hello really enjoyed the article I am also a gun owner and I found you article very interesting my uncle had a bulldog but he never shot it I have to agree caution is in order when shooting modern cartridges out of old guns.Do you know what collectors say its worth.

    • There are some prices quoted in Layman’s book, “The British Bulldog.”

      That said there are of course many variables. Who is/was the manufacturer, condition (both mechanical and exterior), finish, caliber, engraved or not, etc. That being said, although I have seen Belgian Bulldogs go for over $600 on Gunbroker.com in the past month, just yesterday I bought one with a broken trigger spring there for only $162.

      Most of the non-American made Bulldogs in caliber 44 were made before 1892 or so. After that the manufacturers mostly focused on the easier to shoot and hide .380 and .32 caliber variants. Since early black powder ammunition contained fulminate of mercury primers which left nitric acids and mercury in the gun barrel and mechanism prompt cleaning was a must to prevent corrosion. Consequentially some of the older ones which weren’t promptly cleaned are somewhat rare in very good condition. Therefore collectors tend to pay more for 44 caliber versions made in Europe. A premium is paid for actual Webley versions of course, even though ll of the European makers subcontracted the making of parts to 3rd party vendors. Alternatively, US makers of bulldogs kept the 44 caliber in their inventory well into the early 20th century and the era of smokeless powder and non corrosive primers. So American made 32 and 38 Bulldogs sometimes bring less than a European bulldog.

      Over a million bulldog revolvers were made world wide in the period 1870 to 1914. They came in a very broad assortment of calibers and sizes. Specimens exist in 5mm Velo Dog and also in 577 Snider and almost everything in between. They were made in every European country, the US, Afghanistan, England and parts of Asia. Bulldog revolvers were sold at an average cost of $3 – $4 at a time when guns from Smith & Wesson or Colt were selling for $12 – $16, and they were double action at a time when the larger US companies were still stuck on single action designs. Consequently they were very popular with all walks of life and even today they are found in almost every place on earth. As my videos show, given the proper ammo they still usually shoot as well today as they did 145 years ago.

      Unusual calibers usually command a higher price due to most makers only offering 2 or 3 calibers causing a scarcity of the rarer calibers. Further there is the question of provenance and hstorical significance. General Custer is said to have carried some into his final battle. They are perhaps still out there somewhere. Layman’s book shows one which may have been carried by Billy the Kid. Many famous persons owned bulldog revolvers. A gun which can be proven to have been owned by someone famous is obviously worth more than one that wasn’t. General Custer’s(Tom) brother owned one which weny at auction a decade ago for thousands of dollars. As Layman recounts in his book in the 1960s to 80s they usually sold very cheaply. I myself bought a shoe box full of them for $35 in the early 1980s. But times change and as I indicate above those days are gone and lacking more information (caliber, mechanical condition, finish, country of origin, time frame of manufacure, etc.) I see no way of affixing even an approximate value to your grandfather’s specimen.

      Most ammunition makers had stopped making black powder ammunition for original bulldogs by the 1930s. There are some modern smokeless cartridges with nominally the same dimensions, but they must not be fired in revolvers not designed for smokeless powder as the gun may burst due to the higher chamber presssures. Only use black powder in a black powder weapon.

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