CAS TOPICS > The Darksider's Den

How did we get these "Calibers"?

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Ever wonder how we got:

* .38 Special, .38 Short Colt, .38 Long Colt .38 S&W?  The designations that is.  Yet, when we make the .38 spl 1/10 of an inch longer it becomes a .357 Magnum (not to mention the other longer .357 cartridges) 
* How did we get  the .44 Russian, .44 Special and .44 Magnum?  Aren't those actually .43 caliber? 
* Why is a .45 Colt (not Long Colt, no such beast) really a .45 caliber? 
* People were definitely confused in the 19th century, some were calling the .44 Henry Flat  Rimfire a .42 caliber. The shiiping records from Colt's as reported by McDowell shows these mistakes.
There is a particular tie in for those of us familiar with the Colt's and Remington Percussion revolvers.  Even more so when considering the Conversion Revolvers and the newly minted cartridge guns that were coming out during this transition in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

What say you all?  Why are these calibers like .38 special and .44 magnum called that today?  What was the path to get there?


Really? No interest?

Just trying to get some discussions going..  Man, this place was/is dead...  I looked at the number of topics I have started and my replies and it looks like I am carrying most of the water here.

Maybe I should get some more aliases and I could carry on conversations with myself.  The voices in my head would like that.


Mr Mako you are a man amongst men. I added some comments a while back questioning 45 long Colt. Personally I never heard of until a few years back. It is and will always be .45 Colt as made since 1872. I'm glad to there are still perfectionist


I'm not a total perfectionist and I usually forgive people when they say .45 Long Colt or things like "clip" for a magazine.  In most cases it doesn't matter and I am not always esoteric.  I do understand how that people in the 19th century might have called the .45 Colt (a Long Colt) because the Army started buying all of their ammunition in the .45 Schofield length to eliminate logistic and supply issues where the .45 Colt ammo would be delivered to locations where they needed the shorter cartridge.

However the Army S&W cartridge was different than the original .45 used in the #3 Schofields.  The new shorter cartridge worked in both the SAAs and the S&W revolvers the Army purchased.

The thing is I don't think anyone outside of people like the ones here generally know that.  They have just been incorrectly saying .45 Long Colt because pundits and others keep saying it.  I was at a show Saturday and even had a guy selling ammunition argue with me when the guy I was with noticed the .45 "Long Colt" sign and mentioned "hey they have Long Colt again".  I laughed and told him what I told you.  The vendor over heard me and "corrected me".  I laughed and pointed to the boxes from several different manufactures and told him, "well tell the ammo companies because they have no idea it is "Long Colt".  He then proceeded to tell me that it was on SOME of the boxes he sold, and I replied, "well obviously not the ones on your table".

There are  "Long" and "Short" cartridges like all of the many permutations of the .38 in both S&W and Colt.  I actually think this was where the misnomer ".45 Long Colt" started .  The Army adopted the .38 Long Colt as their pistol cartridge in 1892.  It was the subject of derision and consternation through the Spanish American War and until it was "retired" in 1909.  So people were used to hearing about the .38 Long Colt, it makes sense they would later call the .45 Colt the .45 Long Colt especially after the .45 ACP came out and it was also a "Colt's Pistol".

But since we deal with a lot of obsolete or obsolescent cartridges it is important we are specific. 

Case in point:
My father was an Air Force Fighter Pilot and was not a hunter or shooter.  He owned one revolver, a Smith and Wesson .38/44 Heavy duty.  That is a large N frame revolver now identified as a model 20 by some S&W enthusiasts.  In fact he was in Korea flying Sabres with the 39th and he decided he didn't like the 1911s  they were issued (once again he was listening to his fellow airmen that said it was "inaccurate and kicked like a mule").  So he wrote my Grandmother and asked her to buy him a .38 revolver, she went to the hardware store and bought him one and a holster and cleaning kit.  Put it in the U.S. Mail and sent it to him at K-13 (Suwon).  Amazing what we could do before 1968 and much worse the Patriot Act.

So moving forward to about 1977.  I was over at my parents house and Dad was in the garage (he had a collection of Volkswagons), he asked me to go to his sock drawer in his bedroom and get the key to his '63 Beetle.  When I opened the drawer I noticed a handful of .38 WCF cartridges.  I took one with me back to the garage and asked him why he had those shells.  He told me my Grandfather (who was an outdoorsman) gave them to him because he needed some ammo for his revolver (I don't know why, he never had any the 18 years I lived with him).

I went back to his room and retrieved his pistol taking it back to the garage and asked him to try and load it.  Trying to put a 40 caliber cartridge in a .38 special is a bit tough.  So we had two individuals who thought they knew what they needed.  My dad who knew he had a .38 and Grandfather who was the best rifleman I have ever known except for one MSgt at Quantico.  He shot  a .30-30, a Rem Model 24 in .22 short, and an old Belgian double in 12 gauge like every sporting goods and dry goods store in the U.S. had sold.  He had the family Model '73 in .44 WCF but rarely shot it.  He had two pistols, a SAA made in 1896 (.45 Colt) left to him by a man he help nurse while he had cancer, and a Colt's 1860 given to my Great Grandfather by the man who carried it in the War between the States made in 1861.  I only ever saw him shoot each of those  on one occasion each.  He didn't know anything about a .38 special, he had a box full of old cartridges, those .38 WCF (.38-40) being some of them.  My Grandfather was a rifleman (didn't know 'nuthin about no handguns) and the adage "beware the man with only one gun" applied to him, he knew his rifles and carried them almost daily when out on the job.

I have been told dad was an aggressive and excellent pilot by the men he flew with, he flew Sabres in Korea and Phantoms in Vietnam and retired with Sr. Command Pilot Wings.  He had 1 and 1/2 kills to his credit in Korea, and was the lead gun with a wingman,  but once he was on the ground he actually considered his job done.  A tiger in the sky and a pussy cat on the ground.

Yep, correct identification is important.  I still laugh thinking what would have happened if Dad had ever heard someone breaking  into the house one night.  He would be like Barney Fife trying to load his one bullet.  After that I bought him a speed loader and a box of 158gr Jacketed Hollow Points.  I still have the full box of ammo ,the speed loader (still loaded), the revolver, the original S&W "Gold and Blue" box it came in, the holster and the Hoppes cleaning kit.  Everything is immaculate.  So I always try to be precise when describing ammunition.  I have more stories about others not realizing the differences as well.

Oh, and you may have noticed I move between Pistol and Revolver (when describing revolvers) as fits my fancy, so I'm not a perfectionist.


Dave T:
Some of the odd caliber descriptions come from early self contained rounds loaded with outside lubed projectiles. Most famous of those would be the 44 American by S&W and the 44 Russian. The American round was closer to 44 caliber with it's outside lubed bullet measuring about .438" according to one reference I found. That number rounds up easily to "44" and that designation rolls off the tongue much easier than "four thirty-eight". When Russia decided to by a bunch of S&W #3 top breaks they specified the bullet and its lubricant be inside the case to avoid contamination in the field. Smith & Wesson stayed with the same basic case diameter but shrunk the bullet down to a "43 caliber" to fit inside the "44" case, but the easy to remember "44" designation stayed. The rest is history: 44 Russian became the 44 Special, which became the 44 Magnum.

And to add a little spice to the 45 Colt vs 45 Long Colt debate, some of the earliest writings I've found refer to the new military "strap pistol" as being chambered for the "45 Colt's" cartridge.  (smiley face goes here)



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