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I have a .38 Special cartridge in my collection that is very old. Short of disassembling it, how do I tell if it's an early black powder round?
Headstamp reads:

.38 S&W SP'L W.R.A. Co.

Also, the copper colored primer has a W on it. The case is made of brass.
The bullet is lead, roundnosed. A small belt may be seen on the bullet where it meets the case. Presumably, this is an extension of the bullet's diameter, then the rest of the bullet is stepped-down and eventually forms the round nose.
There is a canellure around the case about 3/8 inch (or about .370 inch) down from the case mouth. Overall cartridge length is 1.548 inch.
I know this cartridge was made by Winchester Repeating Arms. I am uncertain if the W on the primer has a special significance. Some manufacturers have, in the past, used stamps on their primers to indicate something of importance. Could this be Winchester's way of indicating a black powder cartridge?
How long were black powder cartridges made for the .38 Special? Anyone know? It would seem that the older propellant would quickly fall to the wayside once shooters experienced the benefits of shooting smokeless powder loads. Thus, I can only guess that black powder .38 Special loads had a limited production.

The very first .38 Special cartridges were loaded with black powder, which is why the .38 Special case is so long. The extra volume was needed to contain all that black powder.
"U.S. Cartridges and Their Handguns" by Charles Suydam shows a very early USCCo .38 Special cartridge. It has a copper primer like mine but Suydam doesn't indicate if it is a black powder round.
The first .38 Special revolver, the Smith & Wesson First Model Hand Ejector, was introduced in early 1899.
Original loads were loaded with 18 grs. of black powder. By June of 1899, the black powder load was increased to 21.5 grs. black powder. The first smokeless powder loads were introduced in September 1899.
Is what I have a very early .38 Special black powder cartridge?
 

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It has been my experiance from collecting ammo that if an old cartrige has a canellure near the base of the bullet, it is a smokeless cartige. If it does not, it is a black powder round. Also if it has an "extractor" grove it will be a web head, and if no grove it will be a baloon head case.
That does't hold true with modern brass, but does for ammo made in the first half of the last century.

Winchester, Remingon, U.S. Cartiridge Co. and others sometimes stamped their primers with a symbol. Usually The first letter of their name.

Winchester = W, Remington = U, U.S. Cartirige Co. was an intertwined letter U and S.
 

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...5 years later.......

As J. Miller indicated, if the case has a cannelure, it is smokeless. Up until 1915, the "W" on the primer does indicate a smokeless primer but after 1915, the primers with a "W" were used in both b.p. and smokeless rounds.

The W.R.A. CO. headstamp was changed to W.R.A. in 1930, so if your cartridge does not have a case cannelure, it was manufactured sometime between 1915 and 1930.

Factory B.P. cartridges were loaded up until the late 1930's when they were discontinued.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to test some UMC and REM-UMC headstamped .38 Special ammunition in a 6" revolver and surprisingly, they turned up 960 f.p.s. In my '94 Marlin Cowboy rifle they went 1,230 f.p.s. and with good accuracy as well. :D

John
 
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Are things so slow we've taken to digging up 5 year old posts?

As a kid, remember an uncle (one of those honorary uncles I belive) that swore that the old black powder rounds were more powerful than the standard smokless rounds (158RNL .38spec. etc.).

As I've had a chance to play with some of the old baloon head cases and black powder, have come to the conclusion the old boy was right.
 

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Almost another 5 years.....
Found this 38 Special b.p. box not too long ago .....


As we can see, someone had tried to fire some of the rounds but the old mercuric primers are dead. I dissected the cartridges, cleaned and annealed the cases, replaced the primers, then reloaded the powder and reseated the bullets (158 gr RN HB) after relubing hem with SPG.

Ribbonstone, your uncle was certainly right as you had also found out.
Velocity of these cartridges in a 6" barrel was an average of 937 f.p.s.
In the rifle the bullets exited at a bit over 1,250 f.p.s. and grouped rather well.

It was kind of neat stepping back in time.........

John
 

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And after all these years this topic still generates interest. I was directed here from the S&W forum discussion on +P ammo.
 
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