Gun Digest Classic: Is This the Greatest .38 Ever?

The Smith & Wesson .38/44 Outdoorsman had plenty to offer shooters, including a polite recoil.
The Smith & Wesson .38/44 Outdoorsman had plenty to offer shooters, including a polite recoil. Photo: Steven Z

Don’t get me wrong. I love Colt revolvers. A 1923 Police Positive is doing duty at this moment in my bedside nightstand. I sometimes carry a Detective Special. I think the Python is the most stylish revolver ever made.So please don’t throw things at me when I say that in my opinion, the finest revolver of all time, all things considered, is the Smith & Wesson Hand Ejector. And of all the Hand Ejectors, the finest are the N-frames. And of the N-frames, the finest was the .38 Outdoorsman.

It was the most well-mannered .38 ever made.

A Bitter Year

It was 1930, one of the bitterest of the Great Depression and the dawning of the Age of the Gangster. John Dillinger was honing his skills at a prison in Michigan City, Ind., while the likes of Ma Barker, Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and Baby Face Nelson were tearing up the Midwest.

These public enemies, as they came to be known, weren’t fooling around.

Dillinger would later use a Colt Monitor, the civilian version of the Browning BAR, when he wasn’t carrying a 1928 Thompson he swiped from an Indiana police station.

Machine Gun Kelly earned his nickname the hard way. And unlike the bandits of the Old West, this new breed of criminals was likely to speed away from the scene of their crimes in a Ford V-8, a Studebaker sedan or an Essex Terraplane.

Against this rising tide of lawlessness stood America’s Thin Blue Line of local police and sheriffs, most of whom could rarely muster anything more powerful in the way of armament than a Colt Official Police or a Smith & Wesson Military & Police in .38 Special. And that just wasn’t cutting it.

Colt had responded to the call for greater police firepower in 1929 with its .38 Super Government Model semiauto, which sent a 130-grain metal-jacketed bullet rocketing out its 5-inch barrel at 1,300 feet per second — fast enough to penetrate most bulletproof vests and car bodies. The FBI promptly glommed onto the .38 Super, although some agents complained that its accuracy left something to be desired.

sw-logoA Better Idea

Smith & Wesson approached the problem from a different direction. It already had the perfect platform for a new police gun: the large Hand Ejector frame introduced in 1908 as the New Century or Triple-Lock .44 Special.

Having lost its third, and superfluous, cylinder lock in 1915, this enormous double-action frame (later designated the N-frame) served well in World War I as the basis of S&W’s .45 ACP Model 1917 revolver. (Almost a century later, the large Hand Ejector N-frame would remain in production — a record exceeded only by S&W’s own K-frame and Colt’s Model P Single Action Army.)

In 1930, as reported by Elmer Keith in Sixguns, S&W’s Major Doug Wesson introduced an all-new, 5-inch-barreled, fixed-sighted .38 Special built on the massive N-frame. The gun was formally named the .38/44 Heavy Duty, and was also known colloquially as the .38/44 Super Police for its intended application.

Even today the “.38/44” designation causes some confusion. It simply means a .38 built on the large .44 Hand Ejector frame. Muddying the waters a bit is the fact that there had been another, entirely different S&W “.38-44” several years before: a top-break target revolver chambered for a unique .38-caliber cartridge, in which the bullet was completely enclosed within the case, which itself stretched nearly to the end of the cylinder. This revolver was built on the large S&W No. 3 .44 Russian frame (hence the “-44”). The No. 3 .38-44 was a different animal from the .38-44 Heavy Duty double-action.

S&W’s new Heavy Duty could handle much hotter .38 Special loads than were generally available. That’s why, in 1931 Remington-UMC, Winchester and Western stepped up to the plate and rolled out a new breed of high-velocity, high-pressure .38 Special.

Whereas the traditional .38 Special load generated about 16,000 copper units of pressure, or CUP, to produce velocities of about 800 fps with a 158-grain lead bullet, the new load developed 20,000 CUP to produce a velocity of about 1,100 fps with a 158-grain metal-tipped bullet. (This was the first appearance of what we would today call the .38 Special +P.) The new load reportedly developed 425 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle, which was — and remains — impressive.

Here, at last, was a gun that would punch through just about anything that stood between Dillinger and a police officer.

A Positive Reception

The new .38/44 was an immediate hit. In the November 1931 American Rifleman, Phil Sharpe praised it to the skies: “The thickness of metal in this gun gives the writer confidence to fire standard factory proof cartridges from the hand, something no other gun has ever inspired.” (A proof cartridge usually generates twice the pressure of a standard load and is used by gunmakers to test the strength of, or “proof,” their finished products.)

Comments like Sharpe’s were bound to get the attention of Keith, who was no slouch at blowing up revolvers with hot handloads. Using a .38/44 Heavy Duty, Keith found he could simply not induce the big gun to come unglued, even with his home-brewed .38 Special loads that generated a ferocious 42,000 CUP.

I won’t give Keith’s recipe for this load here, and actually I don’t even like to think about it. Suffice to say, it takes the .38 Special about as far as it can possibly go — maybe farther.

While still a .38 Speicaly, the Outdoorsman had more punch, given it could handle hotter loads.
While still a .38 Speicaly, the Outdoorsman had more punch, given it could handle hotter loads.

As reported by C.E. Harris in the December 1980 American Rifleman, Sharpe’s glowing report on the .38/44 Heavy Duty had contained just a hint of disappointment: “There are no target sights for this model, [which] would be highly desirable.”

The Outdoorsman Arrives

S&W had already reached the same conclusion, and in 1931 the company introduced the .38/44 Outdoorsman, a sophisticated version of the Heavy Duty with target sights and a 6 1/2-inch barrel. The name of the new gun suggested it was marketed toward the woods bum who wanted something with a lot more “oomph” than a standard .38 Special.

Weighing in at a hefty 41 3/4 ounces unloaded, the Outdoorsman was, in the opinion of W. D. Frazer, “a target revolver in every sense of the word.” Frazer reported in a 1932 issue of American Rifleman that he had made 17 hits out of 20 shots with the Outdoorsman at 200 yards on a standard police silhouette target.

The Outdoorsman was so good, in fact, that it inspired the revolver that would make it obsolete: S&W’s .357 Magnum of 1935. The .357 Magnum was the Outdoorsman on steroids, and the FBI wasted no time in adopting it in 3 1/2-inch barrel form as its official sidearm.

You might have expected the Outdoorsman to wither away and die immediately, but it refused. Although made obsolete by the .357 Magnum, the huge .38 sold modestly until 1966, when it was discontinued.

The Outdoorsman was never a best-seller. Only 4,761 “long-action” Outdoorsmans were sold before World War II, and another 8,365 from 1946 to 1966. Postwar models featured a new-style hammer block, a micrometer sight and a new barrel rib. A short-throw hammer was introduced in 1950, at which time the Outdoorsman’s name was officially changed to the .38/44 Outdoorsman of 1950. Postwar guns can be identified by the “S” preceding the serial number.

When S&W adopted its new model numbering system in 1957, the Outdoorsman became the Model 23.

A Delight to Shoot

Shooting an Outdoorsman of any vintage is a pleasure. With 148-grain target loads, the big gun’s recoil is barely noticeable. It hangs on target with admirable inertia. Its trigger pull in single action is crisp, and in double-action, it’s wonderfully controllable. Owing to the revolver’s tight fit and long barrel, muzzle blast is negligible, even with +P loads. And in my opinion, S&W’s Hand Ejector lockwork is simply superior to that of anything else.

Some shooters will criticize the Outdoorsman, saying it is pointless. The .38 Special, they will say, is an old woman — as if only the most powerful handgun cartridges have any reason for existing.

I don’t agree. In fact, I believe the preoccupation with bigger handgun cartridges has grown comically absurd.

Hand cannons have their place, but so do target revolvers. I enjoy shooting a .38 Special with enough mass to dampen tremors. I might not be able to brag about how macho I am after shooting an Outdoorsman, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

I’ve been fortunate to have shot just about every basic model of American .38 Special revolver ever made. For my money, the Outdoorsman is the best — and certainly the classiest — of them all.


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  1. I sent my 1950s-vintage Outdoorsman to Hamilton Bowen. He converted it to .45 Colt, inlaid a thin gold band around the rear of the cylinder and cut a lanyard loop into the rear of the butt. Paul Persinger supplied mongramed ivory grips. The gun shoots like a dream!


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