Smith & Wesson .38 M&P: An American Classic

The Smith & Wesson Model 10, originally called the .38 M&P.

Back in 1899, Smith & Wesson introduced the .38 Military & Police revolver, commonly called the .38 M&P. The revolver and cartridge were both new innovations of Smith & Wesson and immediately became one of the most-popular revolvers of the 20th century. Over six million have been manufactured, and they are still in production to this day.

The .38 M&P was not only the most popular revolver of the last century, it was also the foundation for what would later become the .357 Magnum revolver in 1935. In 1940 the revolver in its Victory Model configuration saved Smith & Wesson from bankruptcy.

The revolver and its cartridge, the venerable .38 Special, were designed to answer a need by the U.S. military for greater stopping power than the then-used .38 Long Colt. S&W set about designing a cartridge with a bullet that weighed 158 grains and had enough power to be 300 fps faster and deliver 100 foot pounds of energy more than the .38 Long Colt. The resulting cartridge, the .38 Special, is one of the most-popular revolver cartridges of all time.

Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) loads and readies his snub-nosed Model 10 in The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

Initial contracts from the U.S. Army and Navy for 3,000 or so new model .38 Specials were received in 1899 and 1900, and soon the revolver was on its way to iconic status. It was Smith & Wesson’s first revolver with a swing-out cylinder that had a cylinder release latch on the left side of the frame. The spent cartridges could be simultaneously ejected by pushing on the cylinder rod, allowing the shooter to reload quickly. The transition from blackpowder propellant to smokeless powder gave the new cartridge the much-needed stopping power that the military had hoped for. (It was not long, however, before the .38 Special would be considered “light,” and the need for greater “stopping power” continues to this day.)

The revolver was manufactured in barrel length, from 2 to 6.5 inches, with both round and square-butt versions. It had fixed sights and was soon the most desired sidearm of police forces throughout the country. In addition to being purchased by our own Army and Navy, as well as by police departments across the nation, military and police units in no less than 30 other countries bought the revolver.

The .38 M&P underwent numerous mechanical changes over the years in an effort to upgrade the cylinder locking system. There were numerous hammer safety improvements as well.

This is Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Paramount’s “Double Indemnity” (1944), a classic film noir in which the S&W .38 M&P figures prominently.

In 1935, S&W introduced the .357 Magnum revolver, which was basically a .38 Special cartridge hopped up with more powder and fired from a stronger frame than the M&P’s standard K frame. (A revolver marked .357 Magnum will fire a .38 Special cartridge, but not vice-versa.)

By 1940, however, Smith & Wesson’s fortunes began to wane. The company was under serious financial hardship and close to folding. An advance of one million dollars from the British Purchasing Commission for a new sub-machine gun seemed to be the light at the end of the tunnel for Smith & Wesson. The resulting S&W Light Rifle in 9mm was a well-made and beautiful sub-machine gun that resembled the German MP-38. It had a unique ejection port for spent casings that fell straight down from the magazine well. It was a masterpiece of over engineering and pre-war craftsmanship, which doomed it before one shot could be fired. So well tuned was the mechanism that it failed to cycle when used with standard European 9mm ammunition. The British Military condemned the gun and asked for their money back as per the terms of the contract.

This Model 10 is fitted with a hollow billy club, giving a police officer both implements in one. The club is hollow so a shot can be fired through it if the subject doesn't yield to the use of the club at first. It was only a prototype and never actually used or produced, for obvious reasons. Learn more about this strange gun here.photo courtesy NRA Museums

Smith & Wesson didn’t have the money to repay the British, and in an incident similar to one played out at the Robbins & Lawrence factory 90 years prior over the P-1853 Enfield rifle, it appeared that the British would assume control of Smith & Wesson and its assets.

At the last minute, Smith & Wesson offered to supply the British with enough revolvers to offset the one million dollars that was owed. Chambering the .38 M&P in the British .38/200 cartridge saved S&W, because this new revolver was not only popular with the British and Commonwealth forces, but when it was chambered back into .38 Special, it became a sidearm the U.S. military bought and used during World War II as well.

The .38 M&P was drafted for service in World War II and, in its military form, was called the Victory Model. These serial numbers begin with either a V or a SV.photo courtesy NRA Museums

This military version was called the Victory Model, and the serial numbers all began with the letter V. (After a hammer safety upgrade, the serial numbers began with SV.) Over 500,000 were manufactured during the war. The Victory model was made with a parkerized finish and had smooth grips and a lanyard loop, as opposed to the bright blued or nickel finish and checkered grips its civilian predecessor sported.

The production saved the fortunes of Smith & Wesson and contributed to its initial post-war success, as police units in liberated Europe were keen to have a solid and practical revolver tested and proven in battle.

In 1957, Smith & Wesson renamed the revolver the Model 10, a name that it bears to this day. It is still in production as part of Smith & Wesson's Classics lineup and is offered at $739.

This is the venerable Smith & Wesson .38 M&P (Military & Police) revolver, which has been known since 1957 as the Model 10. Over six million have been manufactured, making it one of the most-popular revolvers of all time.photo courtesy NRA Museums

The revolver is still a steadfast sidearm for many police departments, and was used by U.S. military forces as recently as 1991 during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. And, of course, who can forget its iconic presence in over 100 films, from “King Kong” in 1933 to “The Bourne Legacy” in 2012?

The .38 M&P has an important place in the history of 20th century firearms development, which is why it intrigues collectors and shooters to this day.

Go here to see Smith & Wesson's latest model in the modern M&P line of handguns, the Performance Center M&P Shield semiautomatic.

Model 10 A: Smith & Wesson still offers the Model 10 today, at a suggested retail price of $739.