The S&W Heavy Duty Revolver And Its .38-44 Cartridge
August 30, 2018
I am far from a collector; all of my handguns are used rather than stored or displayed. But I suppose there is something of a collector in me because vintage Smith & Wesson revolvers call to me, and one such example is the Smith & Wesson Heavy Duty.
During the period after the Great War, there was much handgun experimentation as shooters looked for longer range and increased accuracy. Outdoorsmen were looking for a powerful cartridge that was accurate and economical to use.
The police were also in search of a different type of handgun because a new breed of mechanized bandit was making it difficult for them. The common .38 Special with a 158-grain roundnose bullet at 800 fps was not capable of penetrating the steel doors of vehicles. When safety glass became common, the problem was even more severe, and larger calibers were scarcely more effective in penetration.
The two big handgun companies, Smith & Wesson and Colt, took the same path in improving handgun performance. Each took a handgun cartridge and increased the powder charge without changing outside dimensions. Colt improved the .38 ACP into the .38 Super and chambered it in the 1911. Smith & Wesson created the .38-44 loading.
The .38-44 is a cartridge designation but also is a term for the revolver intended to use the new loading, which could reach 1,125 fps with a 158-grain bullet—but at the cost of serious wear and tear on standard revolvers. Therefore, Smith & Wesson created the Heavy Duty using a special, thick .38 Special cylinder and the heavy under-lugged barrel from its .44 frame revolver.
The result was among the most rugged and best balanced revolvers ever manufactured. In many ways, the .38-44 was more useful than the later .357 Magnum cartridge and certainly easier to control. But the .38-44 loading and the Heavy Duty revolver did eventually lead to the introduction of the .357 Magnum cartridge and handgun.
The Heavy Duty was introduced in 1930. The sights were fixed, and the barrel was five inches long, although four- and six-inch barrels were offered later, with the four-inch the most common. An adjustable-sight Outdoorsman version with a 6.5-inch barrel was introduced a year later.
Production continued until 1941 and resumed after World War II. The post-war revolvers had a new short action that was developed by custom gunsmiths during the 1930s to give Smith & Wesson revolvers a smoother action and faster lock time. The factory wisely adopted this action improvement.
The Heavy Duty became the Model 20 in 1957, and production ceased in 1966. The popularity of the heavy-barrel Smith & Wesson Military & Police .38 and the Combat Magnum .357 Magnum revolver no doubt made the Heavy Duty less attractive. However, during its heyday the Heavy Duty sold for about half the price of the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum and was used by many police agencies.
My tight but well-used Heavy Duty was built in 1949. It is accurate, and the action is very smooth. It will handle the heaviest .38 Special loads and remains controllable, even mild, to fire. The original .38-44 load used a flatpoint bullet, although I have seen the common 158-grain roundnose lead bullet loaded as well. Many of the original loads also used a Large Pistol primer rather than the Small Pistol primer of the .38 Special.
I once clocked the Remington load at 1,125 fps. My original handload—a 150-grain gas-checked semi-wadcutter—would do 1,050. That's quite an improvement over the popular 158-grain FBI .38 Special load of the day, which clocked 890 fps out of a six-inch barrel.
Buffalo Bore's current .38-44 offering—a 158-grain Keith bullet—produced 1,145 fps from the four-inch barrel of my Heavy Duty. I have also experimented with a load using 196-grain cast bullets that duplicates the old Super Police 200-grain loading. At 800 fps this load has quite a thump and plenty of penetration.
If you love old revolvers, the Heavy Duty is an important piece of history. It is also a working revolver that will serve a real purpose in today's world.