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Me and .38 Specials

By Kenneth C

Years ago back when unicorns roamed the Earth I worked for something called GSA Federal Protective Service (FPS) and I carried a .38 Special revolver daily at work. Essentially we were security police mostly assigned to (incredibly boring) fixed post guard duty inside a major Federal facility. In the early years the issued gun was usually a Colt Police Positive. In those far awaydays every day we would strap on our gun belt, then go up to the Police office in the building, sign in, and from a safe drawer pick a gun and sign it out. Then load it and put it in your holster for the day. We had no speed loaders in those days so each bullet went in one at a time. Some of us still had loops and some of us had quasi-dump pouches designed so you would put the bullets in at the top, then to access them you’d unload them by unfastening a snap on the bottom. Sometimes the snaps were faulty and bullets would fall on the floor as the officer walked about.  Belt loops had become passe years before because they exposed the cartridges to the elements nut they were still being issued until stocks were expended.

This was so long ago most of the issued ammunition was US military full metal jacket (FMJ) .38 Special rounds with head stamps from the 1950s.  When the ammunition was too old for the military it was surplused and turned over to the GSA who, not having any other use for it, issued it to us. LoL, later I learned some cartridges were older than I had thought.  GSA’s FPS in what was then Region 3 did not normally rotate ammunition very often.  Once a year we would go to a small indoor pistol range in Building 202 of the Washington Navy Yard and fire with .38 wadcutters (a light weight flat nosed bullet loaded to a reduced velocity specifically designed for target practice and making neat round holes into paper) at a bullseye target. Back then you could fire Single or Double Action as you wished. There was minimal effort to score the targets. Afterwards the guns of the range were cleaned with either military LSA or a can of WD-40. With hindsight this may have accounted for the occasional misfires we sometimes experienced at the FPS range.

Here are two of the FMJ rounds we were issued for use with our service .38s. The rounds look identical, but no, they aren’t. Notice the different headstamps.

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The one marked Remington UMC is a 158 grain steel jacketed lead bullet with a copper wash coating. It was developed in 1943 so that US Navy and Marine Corp pilots shot down with their issued .38s (US Army AF pilots in WW2 usually carried .45s, but the Navy always has to be different) could not be charged with a war crime for using bullets with exposed lead.

The other round does not react to the magnet and from that, and Mr. Venturo’s detective work at American Handgunner I can deduce the cartridge marked R A 56 is a (first year of issue) 1956 manufactured US Air Force 130 grain M41 Ball cartridge. Sometime between 1947 and 1956 the new independent USAF had decided air crews should carry .38 Specials instead of the larger and heavier .45 pistol. Since their supply line was different than that of the Navy and their Marines or the Army, they decided to get their own ammunition. They went with the copper jacketed 130 grain lead bullet. Except for the head stamps externally the two cartridges appear identical, but their construction, weight and materials differ greatly,

Watch what happens when I touch a magnet to one of my old GSA issued Rem UMC FMJ .38 Special cartridges.

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So there I was in the 1970s guarding one of the more sensitive places around with a gun loaded with left over WW2 ammunition. I left that job a decade later with about a dozen of each round still in my kit and still have these two left. The others all fired just fine in my personal and various govt owned .38s, so I would conjecture if ammunition is properly stored (and not soaked in WD=40) the older ammunition will often work just fine.

[I note also not too long ago someone gave me a small (original) box of 20 US Army issue steel jacketed .45 ammo head stamped 1917 and just for giggles I tried a magazine full in one of my Army .45s. They worked as well as if they had been brand new. They fed flawlessly and all of them fired and made holes in the paper. Yes, I still have a few left.]

Ah yes, changes were coming. I was one of our first FPS people to attend the then new Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC, a consolidated complex run jointly by the US Treasury and Justice Departmenta) and down there was my first ‘official’ encounter with .38 Special jacketed hollow point (JHP) ammunition. I knew about JHPs of course and I kept a mix of Super Vel (an early commercial JHP) and Remington JHPs in my own 1911. But to be caught loading JHP ammo (back then wrongly called dum-dum bullets by the ACLU) into an issued .38 was grounds for instant firing. So having the experience of shooting JHP ammunition in an issued .38 was all new to the whole class.

FLETC was also my first official encounter with dump pouches, the new speed loaders and holsters that fit the gun snugly. Back home the issued holsters were designed for Colt Official Police revolvers, but as stated, many of the weapons were the smaller Police Positive Specials and to say they fit loosely in the holster was an understatement. Those of us who worked in patrol cars often had to check the car seat when exiting to be sure the little pistol hadn’t slipped out of the holster. But at FLETC they had S&W Model 15s and 19s in holsters that fit (Bill Jordan type holsters). FLETC also introduced me to the PPC (Practical Pistol Course) and for the first time our targets were being scored.

Many of us were in need of remedial shooting after classes to bring our scores up. We had superb instructors though and by the end of the third week everyone who got a lower than passing score initially was now making a passing qualification score. An incentive was our being told that our agency had decided that shooting a qualifying pistol score on the PPC would become a job requirement in the near future and may be soon offering cash bonuses for those qualifying expert. Some other interesting things were happening at FLETC in the firearms arena.

The school had been doing some experimenting on law enforcement ammunition and came up with a much hotter .38 special cartridge than anything previously commercially available. They then had issued a contract to Winchester (and later Federal Cartridge Co.) to manufacture JHP cartridges to their unique specifications. To distinguish these rounds from normal ammunition they had a unique head stamp. WCC and the last two digits of the year. On other trips to FLETC as contracts changed i also saw WRA and the year, and for a few years FCC and the year. Of course in a few years word of the new ammo leaked out to the shooting community and by then the commercial community had begun marking their own hotter cartridges marked +P. In the final days of the .38 Special at FLETC and elsewhere the ammunition I was issued was marked FCC +P+ to indicate it was even hotter than the commercial +P stuff and not for use in light framed pistols.

The way it shook out was the Treasury Dept. (who ran FLETC along with the US DOJ) initially decided to go with a light weight 110 grain JHP. The theory was that smaller bullet would allow more gunpowder to be packed into the casing. That part was true. They were able to cram enough gun powder in there to generate mid range .357 magnum performance and chamber pressure. The government then issued a contract to Winchester and exclusively for the FLETC the first US Treasury rounds were produced by Winchester with the understanding they would never be offered for civilian use. I believe that contract ran a year or two. The Treasury and DOJ began to issue that load to some of their agents. Two things then happened.

In street use it was learned the bullet jackets were not thick enough, nor was the bullet heavy enough. So often when a person was shot with the new round the penetration into the torso was not as complete as desired and the rounds tended to fragment rather than penetrate. A second event was Winchester did their own testing and learned the new round was a law suit waiting to happen if fired in a gun of questionable strength. When the contract ran out in 1979 or 80, Winchester then declined to make any more of the Treasury load.

So FLETC’s staff went back to the drawing board and came up with a JHP bullet weighing 125 grains with a copper jacket just a little bit thicker. Then they contracted with a newly emerging cartridge company that needed all the contracts it could get, Federal Cartridge Corporation (FCC). The powder was changed to one generating a little less pressure (but way more than a standard .38 would (as we will see in part 2), but the new Treasury round still gave .357 magnum performance without yet carrying the stigma of saying the Federal Agents were armed with magnums. Everything was done on the down low and it was years before the outside world knew the US Treasury .38 Special round was essentially a .357 magnum bullet hiding inside a .38 Special case.

Federal Cartridge Corporation used the same military headstamp codec as had Winchester. FC followed by the last two digits of the year of manufacture. By about 1984 the US Treasury and the DOJ, in the name of uniformity had browbeat just about every Federal agency to standardize on .38 Special weapons and their new bullet. By about 1986 most of the shooting industry had figured out something was happening in the .38 Special world and many bullet manufacturers had begun making .38 Special bullets with a +P headstamp to indicate to the purchaser this bullet is loaded a little hotter than the standard velocity .38 is. They still make +P ammunition. By about 1990 of course the 9mm guns began to have their own surge in popularity and FLETC began to lose interest in their .38 Special US Treasury load. In 1990 Federal Cartridge Corporation changed their headstamp for the Treasury load to FCC +P+.

Here is a commercial Winchester +P 125 grain JHP cartridge headstamp. Ammunition with such headstamps is still being made and sold to consumers today as a good choice for a self defense round in a stout .38 Special firearm.

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Here are some leftover US Treasury 125 grain cartridges of varying years of manufacture. We have here FC 1980, FC 1987, FC 1989 and (in 1990 and for a few more years) FC .38 Special +P+.

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Back at home at the Navy Yard range change was happening slowly. Pulleys were being installed and a modification of the PPC was being designed. For the first time in decades remote FPS locations were being required to send their stashes of military FMJ to the pistol range and the old ammo was being replaced by newly purchased commercial 158 grain lead ball ammunition. In this fashion GSA stores of FMJ .38 Special military surplus ammunition soon vanished as it was expended at the pistol range.

One month when someone was out sick I was assigned fill their duty and to clean weapons at work. LoL, all I had known about were the 190 or so .38s in the big office safe. I hadn’t been ‘read in’ yet as to the existence of the other 20 double doored weapon safes in some facilities. Oh my. Thompsons and Grease Guns and Garands too. As always Army green cans of military ammunition with headstamps from the 1950s and early 60s. But that is a digression from the .38s. For the first time I saw boxes of ‘new’ (made in WW2) Colt Commandos in both 2 and 4 inch versions. Factory boxes never opened except for a bi-annual serial number check and a quick spray down and wipe with (you guessed it) WD 40 and a towel.

I was told that up until about 1975 aa couple of Tommy guns (we had both 1928s with drums and M-1s with stick mags sitting in the safes) were stored loaded and ready to go in our Captain’s office and at two outer buildings in racks, but policies changed and the Tommy guns were unloaded and moved to the big safes in the main building.

We also had about 300 boxes of Colt Detective Specials, and Colt Cobras and even a few Colt Agents new in their box. I was told initially when President Nixon had issued an E.O. forming the FPS back in 1971 the first plan was to issue all FPS personnel two weapons, a 2 inch 38 and a 4 inch .38. So GSA acquired them for us. Then a new Regional Administrator decided to not issue them, so they were simply stored away in case someday yet another Regional Administrator changed policy. In other Regions they were both issued as planned,

A source of aggravation was the discovery of dozens of boxes of Colt Official Police (some with lanyard loops) and some Officers Model Target pistols. I say aggravation because between them and the Colt Commandos the whole force at the agency I was assigned to could have had weapons that actually fit our over-sized swivel holsters. I asked about this and I was told someone high up the chain in Washington had decided to acquire the Police Positive Specials by buyiing them from the Army which had phased them out simply because they were lighter in weight and he felt the lighter weight would be appreciated by someone who had to wear it while standing a 12 or 16 hour post.

Another pleasant surprise was finding in one safe a half dozen boxed 4″ barreled Colt New Services in .357 Magnum with a parkerized finish, Battle of Britain revolvers that somehow never left the US.

Back then I was employed at Region III, District 7. That was a code designed to hide us from the Soviets or something. What it meant was I was more or less permanently assigned to an ‘alphabet agency’ somewhere out in the sticks of Virginia. We had the Headquarters complex and also about 20 or so buildings scattered around in places like Reston, Tyson’s Corner, Vienna, etc. When I 66 was being built, until such time as GSA turned it over to the State we patrolled that too. It was officially not open but teenagers could often be caught (and summonsed) either racing on it or using it as a long, long isolated lover’s lane. But that’s another blog. My point is the outer buildings also had guns that needed inspection and cleaning. That is where I first found guns that Colt made that officially didn’t exist.

Normally the Colt Police Positive Special was the version of Colt’s D frame that was designed for the .38 Special cartridge. It was developed from an earlier Colt product called the Police Positive. That gun was not designed to handle the .38 Special. Instead it fired a shorter cartridge called the .38 S&W. The quick way to tell one empty pistol from the other was supposedly to read the barrel markings. The one we used supposedly always said, Police Positive Special. So imagine my surprise the day I held a 4 inch barreled D frame in my hand and realized it’s barrel read Colt Police Positive, .38 Special. A somewhat similar emotion arose when I held what looked like a Detective Special with a short barrel, but the barrel was marked, ‘Bankers Special .38 Special’, a caliber never offered in a Banker’s Special (made through the 1930s).

I also encountered a boxed Detective Special with a shrouded hammer and bakelite Colt grips and it took a lot of research and library time for me to learn this was a 1st model Detective Special (DS) dating to the WWI era. I found two with 3″ barrels that were plainly marked Detective Special and had US stamped on their backstrap.

As a matter of fact just about 80% of our Police Positive Special revolvers had US stamped on their back straps. Later I learned these were mostly Vietnam era revolvers intended for use by Huey pilots, but somehow a few thousand had found their way into GSA inventories. Some of the other pistols had more interesting markings either on the back strap or on the pistol butt. ‘Property of TVA, Property of AEC, Property of USMC, USN, etc. Many of the larger pistols had ‘United States Property’ on them. Not all of them though. I encountered one Series III Official Police. Also two Colt Metropolitan revolvers without property markings.

As a Colt fancier the opportunity to rifle through the FPS Zone 7 stash of that year was an experience I found fascinating (once past the drudgery of confirming the serial numbers on inventory were accurate and having to spray and wipe all of them).

Somewhere around 1978 one of the FPS officers working at the Pentagon (known to us as NCR, Zone 5 back then) had occasion to pull his issued revolver and fire two shots of the issued ammunition at someone he was in an armed altercation with. Pop, pop and two bullets rolled out of the barrel and dropped to the ground. While his opponent stared open mouthed at the two bullets rolling around on the ground by his feet, the quick thinking FPS officer rushed over and smacked the opponent on the head with the pistol and subdued him. Needless to say the officer was not a happy camper. Between the bullets on the ground and where the officer had been standing were two clumps of WD-40 soaked gun powder.

End Part I

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