It’s a question I get a lot, “I have a 1930 vintage Colt Detective Special that I inherited from my grandfather, and I want to know if it’s okay to use +p (plus P) ammo in it. The factory won’t tell me anything.” Hmmm… perhaps there’s a reason for that? The fact is that they probably don’t know for sure and are unwilling to take the legal risk of telling you that it is okay without any qualification. Metallurgy in this country during the early years of the 20th Century was good, but not as good as it is now. Manufacturers often used substandard batches of metal due to limited availability. Hardening techniques in firearms weren’t universally applied even as late as WWII. Consequently, it is impossible to say without qualification that it’s okay to use hot, modern ammo in the aged wheel gun.
The inconsistencies in early snubnose revolvers make sense when you consider their humble beginnings. No one knows the exact details of the invention of the snubnose. Historians believe it was created sometime in the 19th century when a bad guy or lawman sawed off the end of his shotgun. Voila! A powerful, portable gun usable almost anywhere. Snubnoses became a staple easily found (or made) in the local blacksmith shop, and the news traveled fast. Eventually, firearms manufacturers like Smith & Wesson put snubnose handguns on their menu. Today some see the weapon as outdated. However, many still swear by the reliability of a revolver, even if it takes a bit longer to reload than the more popular semi-auto.
Colt Detective Special
The Colt Detective Special is classic for a reason. In 1927, Colt introduced the Detective Special, modeled after the Police Positive Special handgun. The DS has a shorter barrel, designed for concealed carry. The gun was originally chambered in .32 caliber. During the firearm’s run, the majority of the revolvers were chambered in .38 Spl. The double-action DS had a 2” barrel, held six rounds in a swing-out cylinder, and featured a fixed blade front sight, notched rear sights, and a full-length ejector rod.
The gun became the go-to for law enforcement since the “belly guns” were easy to conceal, draw, and get the job done. Today, people say that the DS isn’t accurate. That’s not entirely true. It takes practice to have pinpoint accuracy at a distance, but it does just fine in an up-close and personal situation, much like those faced by the police.
When it comes to loading the Detective Special with +p ammo, one must exercise caution. Although The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) was founded in 1926, it hasn’t rated the DS for higher pressure loads or +p ammo. The absence of rating includes the newer and reproduction models. Any claims that the DS can easily handle +p cartridges is opinion, not fact.
You’ll find shooters who pooh-pooh the idea that using +p ammo in a DS runs the risk of facing a kaBOOM! event. Picture Wile E. Coyote or Elmer Fudd getting their faces blown off when their guns explode. While that might not happen, you should consider the aforementioned metal fatigue or worn parts that may not be able to handle the higher pressure. The pressure could easily crack the barrel or other integral parts. While that may be the case, loading +p into a gun unequipped to handle it can cause misfires, barrel damage, and more. If the firearm is a newer model, you can forget about the warranty or any insurance claims you may have. Misuse of a product makes those things null and void.
Loading a +p round into a DS or other snubby brings with it other problems. First, the noise can be deafening. Shooters stand a chance of temporarily or permanently damaging their hearing. Second, the muzzle flash can blind everyone present, which adds another problem in a self-defense situation. When all is said and done, it’s not worth taking the chance.
Now I get to play devil’s advocate. I have never run into a story in which someone blew up a gun by firing a factory-loaded, regular, +p cartridge in it, regardless of the gun’s age. The proof loads for S&W revolvers are said to be twice the standard pressure. Once, by accident, I fired a .38 Special +p in a Smith & Wesson Airweight Model 637. This gun was made before the +p designation ratings. The round held 11.2 grains of Winchester 231 powder under a 125g bullet. While I felt like I had caught a major league pitcher’s fastball without a glove, the gun held together and was not damaged in any way. (Kids don’t try this at home – as I said, this was an accident, and I would not knowingly pull the trigger on that type of cartridge.) Guns are pretty sturdy most of the time, and, typically, normal +p loads are not much hotter than standard pressure loads.
So, why is there such nervousness about recommending +p rounds in old guns? Besides the metallurgy factors I mentioned earlier, there can be hidden corrosion, defects, and even “metal fatigue” in antique firearms that are not apparent to casual inspection. Consequently, neither I nor anyone else living in this litigious society will give you an unqualified green light to run the hottest modern +p ammo in a revolver that is seventy years old.
What Is +P Ammunition?
Simply put, +p ammunition has 10% more pressure over a standard round. The practice started in 1972 when manufacturers began to lower the pressure of standard pressure rounds. Shooters with the need for more stopping power, such as law enforcement, demanded a higher pressure round. Aside from the increased pressure, +p ammunition uses the same ballistics as standard ammo. However, manufacturers of magnum cartridges, such as a .357 Magnum or .44 Magnum, changed the dimensions of +p cartridges to prevent them from being fired in weapons not suited to high-pressure ammo.
While SAAMI has official standards for +p ammo, it does not have standards of +p+ loads. SAAMI establishes proof pressures, so one can consider +p+ pressures are 30-40% above standard loads. Magnum calibers have as much as twice the pressure of the original cartridge. Law enforcement commonly uses overpressure rounds, typically in expanding ammo like jacketed hollow points (JHP). Overpressure ammo is also a top choice for defense purposes. Shooters uncertain about the pressure of ammunition should check the designation of the round on the box or headstamp.
If you’re concerned about whether to use +p ammunition in your handgun, check the owner’s manual. These days, manuals appear mostly online but still contain all pertinent information about the firearm. Check out reputable online forums for valuable information to back up the manufacturer’s guidelines. Once you have a solid knowledge base of what your handgun can and can’t do, you can choose which ammo works best. In the end, the only worry-free solution to this problem is to retire the seventy-year-old warhorse and buy a modern snubby rated for +p ammo. Consider purchasing a current production S&W LadySmith, late model Colt, Glock, Ruger Blackhawk, or an inexpensive 2” revolver such as a Taurus Model 85. You could also use a gun rated for +p or .357 Magnum. If that is not an option, stick to standard pressure ammunition in your old guns. Your hands and face will thank you.