The First S&W .38: The “Baby Russian”

Lot 1249 in the September 2020 RIA Premier auction.

Taking what they had learned in developing their series of large-frame .44 caliber revolvers, Smith & Wesson introduced the “Baby Russian” in 1876 as their first .38 caliber revolver. They actually developed the cartridge first (146 grains at 740 fps), and then designed the revolver around it. The result was a 5-shot, top-break action initially offered with 3.25 inch and 4 inch barrels. It used the same simultaneous extractor as the No.3 revolvers, though this would change after only about a year with the move to a 2nd variation. The first two variations used a single action spur trigger, but this was replaced by a normal trigger and trigger guard on the 3rd variation. In total, about 161,000 were made by the time production ended in 1911.

14 Comments

  1. A further note on the cartridge, which seems to have been converted to smokeless powder around 1902: I have read that .38 Smiths marked “38 S & W” on the barrel are the upgraded models suitable for the smokeless cartridge, up to and through the Victory models of WWII. The British .38/200 was marketed in the USA as “.38 Super Police” and can sometimes be found as new manufacture. The 200-grain round-nose lead bullet had some traction in .38 Special cartridges and revolvers for awhile before hollow-technology eclipsed it. And finally, the British, in respect for the Geneva Convention, replaced the 200-grain lead bullet with a 175-grain jacketed bullet (allegedly much despised) in the 1930s and altered the sights on their revolvers accordingly. (See Bloke on the Range for details.) The 146-grain lead loading is still around for those who want it, with even PPU and Fiocchi producing. Winchester offers it with nickel-plated brass very attractive to reloaders.

    The nickel finish on this gun is remarkably intact — perhaps this was a nightstand rather than pocket gun, or it was a silk-lined pocket?

    • The British started with the .38 S & W case, increased bullet size from 146 grain to 200 grain, which became .38/200 for both the Enfield and Webley Mark IV revolvers. Then changed to a 175 grain jacketed bullet that shot a little higher. .38 S & W has retained the same case in the US, usually loaded with 146 grain lead round nose bullets. This was an immensely popular and available cartridge before the advent of .38 Special.

  2. My 2nd model (81xxx, circa 1900) is a family hand-me-down. The nickel finish is mostly worn off, but the action is as tight as it was when it left the factory (120 years ago)! I’ve fired it with the .38 S&W lead by Fiocchi and it still shoots well!

    • Hi Jim! Was your model “circa 1900” a Black Powder model? And if so, was the 38 S&W Fiocchi ammo that you fired through it “smokeless powder” ammo? I’m going to post a question on here…on whether it’s considered safe to fire 146 grn, S&W smokeless powder ammo through these older model black powder revolvers (if the action is tight and the gun is in excellent condition). Sounds like you have a nice gun there! Thanks…

      • Cal,
        I misspoke. The 146 grain round nose lead loads I bought are made by MAGTECH (Brazil) and they are smokeless. I have not read that they should not be used in a similar gun in good shape which was originally made for black powder. They work fine in my 2nd model “Baby Russian”.

        • Thanks for letting me know you were able to safely fire smokeless powder rounds through your S&W. I’d read the post below by LDC…the one running the auction on the Baby Smith. After reading your reply, I did some research on these older guns. Here’s two videos I found on YouTube: “Iver Johnson Safety Hammerless (Second Model)” and “Iver Johnson Safety Hammerless: Any Gun Can Do?” They seem to say that we shouldn’t fire too many rounds of smokeless powder through these guns made for black powder. But even one round could be risky. I have a Harrington & Richardson, Hammerless, 5 shot, top-break for 38 S&W ammo. 3 and a quarter inch, blue, in excellent condition! It’s believed to be an 1898 production. I’m not a collector, so like you I’m going to try a few smokeless powder rounds through it…and hope I can come out of it with my right hand 🙂 I fired a couple of 38 S&W blanks through it and the action is tight as a drum, like yours, but I still don’t know the “pressure” it can take like LDC mentioned below. If it survives (and my hand) I won’t shoot it at all…but just keep it as a possible defense weapon at home. Hope you find those two videos helpful Jim…but after watching those two videos, you might consider limiting the number of rounds you run through your Baby Smith–at least smokeless rounds. Good luck…

          • what’s the point of firing hot ammo through it? the old mild loads will work just fine within the confines of your house, … , and, if you get a methed up idiot, then a full house .357 isn’t gonna do much better. just respect the old dear.

  3. I’ve read that ‘.38 super police’ was a Colt brand name for .38 S&W with a 200gr bullet. Marketed long before the British went through the tangled web that left them with a 178gr jacketed round.

  4. Colt used the name .38 Colt New Police for the .38 Smith & Wesson. A box of these was the first ammo I used in my Webley Mk. IV.

  5. A Baby Russian, 1st variation hangs on my wall in a shadowbox. It’s nickel plating is about 70%. Functionally it is tight and smooth.
    Revolver came from my grandfather’s collection of mostly Colt revolvers.

  6. BEWARE The best indicator that your .38 Smith is safe with smokeless powder is the .38 S&W mark on the barrel, or a manufacture date of 1911 or later. The current smokeless .38 smokeless cartridges are said to be loaded on the weak side just in case of use in black-powder guns but the pressure curve is different, and those with original black-powder guns are much better off shooting black powder. I have read that when S & W developed the smokeless cartridge they recalled older guns and installed stronger cylinders, marking the barrel for the new smokeless cartridge, and also marked the barrels of newer guns built for smokeless from the ground up. Guns built before 1911 are all suspect, guns built from 1902 – 1911 may be considered upgraded if they have the barrel mark. When in doubt have a gunsmith check the barrel latch, cylinder and breech face.

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