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Ammo Brief: .38 Short & Long Colt

Ammo Brief: .38 Short & Long Colt

A quick look at two classic revolver cartridges, .38 Short Colt and .38 Long Colt.

The .38 Long Colt was once the official United States Army revolver cartridge (1892 to 1911). The short version was used mainly in the Colt Army & Navy Model revolver with swing-out cylinder, developed in 1887. The .38 Long Colt was introduced in 1875 as one of several chamberings for Colt New Line, New Police and New House revolvers.

General Comments   

Since it was once a military cartridge, a number of Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers in this chambering are still around. The .38 Long Colt cartridge can be fired in a .38 Special revolver, but not vice versa.

During the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, the U.S. Army found that the .38 Long Colt had insufficient stopping power for combat use. The cartridge was therefore dropped in 1911, in favor of the .45 Automatic. This was the experience that made the military reluctant to adopt the 9mm Luger. However, it was forced to do so in 1985 largely as a NATO-inspired political decision.

Advocates of the smaller caliber admit the superior stopping power of the .45, but they point out that extra weight and reduced magazine capacity are detrimental factors that should also be considered.


The .38 Long Colt is in about the same class as the standard .38 Special loading, but it’s not nearly as accurate or as versatile. Some of the old .38 Long Colt revolvers will accept .38 Special or .357 Magnum ammunition, but never fire these in the old .38s. Firing the .357 Magnum would be particularly dangerous, probably wrecking the gun and possibly injuring the shooter or bystanders.

Remington has recently manufactured .38 Short Colt ammunition. Black Hills Ammunition has recently reintroduced .38 Long Colt ammunition in response to demands from the Cowboy Action Shooting fraternity.

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt of Gun Digest’s Cartridge’s Of The World.

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