It’s 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 OK to use +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 OK without any qualification. Metallurgy in this country during the early years of the Twentieth Century was good, but not as good as it is now, and there is little doubt that substandard batches of metal were used at times. Hardening techniques in firearms weren’t universally applied even as late as WWII. Consequently, it is impossible to say without qualification that it’s totally OK to use hot modern ammo in the elderly wheel gun.
To speak for a moment in the contrary direction, I have yet to run into a story in which someone blew up a gun by firing factory loaded regular +p in it, regardless of the gun’s age. The proof loads for S&W revolvers are said to be twice the normal charge. Once, by accident, I fired a .38 Special double charge in a Smith & Wesson Airweight Model 637. This gun was made prior to the +p ratings. This would have been 11.2 grains of Winchester 231 powder under a 125g bullet. While I felt like I had caught a major league pitcher’s fast ball without a glove, the gun held together and was not damaged in any way. (Kid’s don’t try this at home – as I said, this was an accident and I would not knowingly pull the trigger on a cartridge like that.) Guns are pretty sturdy most of the time, and normal +p is not that much hotter than standard pressure loads.
So, why is there such nervousness about recommending +p in old guns? Besides the metallurgy factors I mentioned earlier, there can be hidden corrosion, defects and even “metal fatigue” in very old guns that is not apparent to casual inspection. Consequently, neither I nor anyone else living in this litigious society will be willing to give you an unqualified green light to run the hottest modern ammo in a revolver that is seventy years old.
The only really worry-free solution to this problem is to retire the seventy-year-old warhorse to the safe and buy a modern snubby that is rated for +p so you don’t have to be guessing. If that is not an option, stick to standard pressure ammunition in your very old guns. Your hands and face will thank you for it.
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