The Smith & Wesson Victory .38 – A Cop Gun Goes to War (#1 – Allied Small Arms WWII)

Author’s note—This is the first of a series of articles on Allied small arms of World War 2. In each installment, we will endeavor to put a human face on the firearms that Allied combatants used to defeat the Axis powers. General George Patton once opined, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.” In this series, we will explore both the guns and the men behind them.

Gregory Hallenbeck was born in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in December of 1912. As a young man, he was a competitive wrestler. In 1934 he graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering and married soon thereafter. In the spring of 1935, he applied for Marine flight training only to be informed that married men were ineligible.

Around this time Hallenbeck obtained a copy of his birth certificate and learned unexpectedly that his biological father was one Charles Boyington, a local dentist. Boyington and his mother had divorced when Greg was an infant, and his stepfather raised him. Reapplying under the name Gregory Boyington and falsely claiming to be single, he was accepted to flight school.

Boyington served with the Pacific Fleet as a Marine Corps aviator until August of 1941 when he accepted a position with the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company. The CAMC was actually a front that Claire Chennault used to recruit military pilots to fly combat missions as civilian contractors against the Japanese in China. The world ultimately came to know Chennault’s group as the Flying Tigers. Greg Boyington was now officially a mercenary.

Boyington fought hard and partied hard. These explosive proclivities frequently put him at cross-purposes with Chennault. In August of 1942, he left the Flying Tigers with a purported six kills under his belt and returned to the Marine Corps.

Greg “Pappy” Boyington was a hard-fighting, hard-drinking Leatherneck fighter pilot who fought the Japanese during World War 2. Throughout his combat career in the South Pacific, he carried a Smith and Wesson Victory Model .38 revolver.

By now Boyington was aged 30 years and was nearly a decade older than most of the combat pilots with whom he served. The squadron he commanded was VMF214, the Black Sheep. His men called him “Pappy.” Their combat exploits have been immortalized in both film and print.

Official Portrait of US Marine Corps (USMC) Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, Commander, Marine Fighter Squadron 214 (VMF-214) “Black Sheep” taken at Marine Corps Headquarters, Washington D.C., October 4, 1945. LTC Boyington was awarded the Medal of Honor and is an Ace Pilot credited with 28 kills.

Boyington was eventually shot down and spent twenty months as a POW. He shared a hut with Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner depicted in the movie Unbroken. When Boyington returned home after the war he had 28 kills to his credit and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Pappy Boyington’s primary weapon system was an F4U Corsair fighter plane. His sidearm was a Victory .38.

Boyington’s primary combat tool was an F4U Corsair fighter plane with its six .50-caliber machine guns. His personal weapon was a Smith and Wesson Victory .38 revolver. A hard-drinking man, Boyington was known to get drunk and then shoot the lights out of the officers’ club with his Victory .38. The compact wheelgun that Boyington carried was the most popular centerfire revolver of the 20th century.

Origins

The S&W Victory .38 was a militarized version of the 19th-century S&W Model 10 .38 revolver. Military adaptations included a rugged Parkerized finish and a lanyard loop.

The Victory .38 was a wartime version of the original Smith and Wesson Model 10 first introduced in 1899. The gun was variously known as the S&W Military and Police or the S&W Hand Ejector. Total production exceeded six million copies. While civilian variants typically sported a deep blue finish and a variety of barrel lengths, the Victory model was bred purely for combat.

The Victory model typically sported a V-prefix in front of the serial number and was produced between 1942 and 1944. The US supplied more than half a million of the guns to the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa under the Lend-Lease program. These export pistols were chambered for the British .38/200 cartridge.

The .38 Special round fired by the S&W Victory Model is soft shooting and comfortable, even through a small-framed revolver.

The Victory .38 was the standard issue defensive sidearm for US Navy and Marine Corps aviators. US versions were chambered in .38 Special. Wartime Victory models featured a lanyard ring on the butt and a rugged sandblasted and Parkerized finish.

A proper personal defense handgun for a military aviator must be capable of being operated one-handed. Should an aviator lose the use of a limb in a crash his sidearm must not be deadlined. While the 1911A1 was an undeniably superb combat pistol, Condition 1 carry was never authorized among common soldiers and Marines. As such, the 1911A1 required both hands to put the weapon into action.

American combat aircrews in Korea, Vietnam, and Operation Desert Storm used the Victory .38. The double action Beretta M9 ultimately displaced the weapon in US military service. These guns are still found around the world even today.

Practical Tactical

The Smith and Wesson Victory .38 is a delightfully compact and comfortable handgun. The cylinder release is located on the left side of the frame and presses forward for activation. The ejector rod is partially shrouded underneath the barrel.

The cylinder release catch is located on the left aspect of the frame. There are no manual safeties.

Open the cylinder to the left and drop in six rounds. Snap the cylinder back in place, and the gun is ready to fire. The double action trigger is legendarily smooth. The single action pull is sufficiently short and crisp as to surprise you. To unload the gun activate the cylinder release, pivot the cylinder clear, and press the ejector rod. The star-shaped ejector ejects all six rimmed cases simultaneously.

The fixed sight channel is more than adequate at typical combat ranges, and the .38 Special chambering fits the compact frame perfectly. The gun hits adequately hard downrange without producing undue recoil. Double action shots are smooth and predictable, while manually cocking the gun for single action fire renders exceptional precision.

The .38 Special round (right) is shown here alongside the 9mm Parabellum.

In its military guise, the gun is reloaded manually one round at a time. However, the ejection system is essentially instantaneous. Filling the cylinder with loose rounds is not a major chore, though it would no doubt become much more daunting were someone shooting back at me.

Ruminations

I came on active duty as an Army Aviator in 1989 just as the Victory .38 was being phased out of the military inventory. The gun took up very little space and was remarkably lightweight. The perhaps suboptimal ballistics of .38 Special FMJ ammunition notwithstanding, the Victory .38 was a superb aviator’s survival gun. The same attributes that made it effective for Greg Boyington in 1943 likewise ensured that the pistol would render fine service on the vests of Army helicopter pilots in Vietnam and beyond.

Greg Boyington apparently did not shoot the lights out of any more bars after the war. However, his hard-drinking lifestyle did eventually catch up to him, and Boyington died in 1988 at age 75. In his later years he would frequently make public appearances alongside Masajiro Kawato, the Japanese fighter pilot purported to have shot him down. These two men were said to have developed a close friendship after the war.

I met both Boyington and Kawato in the back corner of an airplane hanger back in 1978. Nobody else was around, and they were both tolerant of a skinny 12-year-old boy fascinated with all things aviation. I recall that Kawato was exceptionally gracious and Boyington was nursing an adult beverage.

Boyington’s Victory .38 is in a private collection today. I was fortunate enough to see the gun on display at a recent gun show in Chantilly, Virginia. The fact that I don’t have a photograph of the weapon stands in mute testimony to my lamentable lack of foresight.

The S&W Model 10 revolver was the most popular centerfire revolver of the 20th century and saw worldwide distribution. Here a French Milice collaborator policeman wields a Spanish copy of the gun.

When the nation went to war Smith and Wesson adapted their flagship police revolver for military use and churned them out by the hundreds of thousands. The Victory .38 has become a fixture around the world anyplace men tend to shoot each other. Lee Harvey Oswald was packing a Victory .38 when he was arrested for the murder of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

Sweet shooting and effective, even by Information Age standards, the Victory .38 is a superb addition to any proper military firearm collection. A quick check of GunsAmerica shows fully half a dozen examples currently for sale at reasonable prices. For an entry-level GI-issue handgun that won’t break the bank, the Victory .38 can’t be beaten.

The M1917 .45ACP revolver is a much larger, heavier gun than is the Victory .38.

Technical Specifications

Smith and Wesson Victory Model (as tested)

Caliber                                     .38 Special

Barrel Length                           4 inches

Weight                                     34 ounces unloaded

Sights                                      Blade Front and Notched Rear

Action                                     Double Action/Single Action

Finish                                      Parkerized

The S&W Victory .38 rendered fine accuracy at 12 meters.

Performance Specifications

S&W Victory .38

Load                              Group Size (inches)        Velocity (feet per second)

Armscor 158-gr FMJ                1.8                                 843

Group size is best four of five rounds fired from a simple rest at 12 meters. Velocity is the average of three rounds fired across a Caldwell Ballistic Chronograph oriented ten feet from the muzzle.

***Shop GunsAmerica for your next Smith & Wesson Revolver***

About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 14 comments… add one }
  • KMacK August 16, 2019, 3:19 pm

    The Smith and Wesson model 10 revolver could be the VW of revolvers, given how many were made and how many are still in service. Yes, this is the Military version of the “Military and Police” model 10, but outside of cosmetics it’s still the same pistol as my Model 10 (which is older than I am) and still drives tacks like a carpenter. No matter how it’s tricked out, the model 10 is ubiquitous as a revolver for everyone. Yeah, the .38 S&W special is not a giant killer, but it is controllable and dependable. Like I sais before, this may well be the Volkswagen Beetle of revolvers, everyman’s pistol.

  • Tim August 28, 2018, 1:46 pm

    During Dessert Storm USAF air crews were mostly armed with the S&W model 15 38Spl. Many aircrews felt under armed with a revolver and our local gun stores were swamped with deploying crews looking for any semi auto in 9mm. I saw two different crew members carrying Ruger 9mm’s while on deployment.

  • IDAN GREENBERG August 27, 2018, 10:01 pm

    Additionally, it should be remembered that Lee Harvey Oswald murdered Dallas Police officer J.D. Tippet with his .38 Special revolver, in addition to murdering President Kennedy with his type 38 6.5 x 52mm Carcano rifle. I had not known that Oswald’s revolver was a “Victory Model”, but these were being sold very cheaply at the time, as war surplus. So a crazy low life like Oswald could afford one. I have seen a photo of Oswald posing with it and his Terni Arsenal Carcano rifle. Good guys and bad guys….

  • IDAN GREENBERG August 27, 2018, 9:50 pm

    Just thought it would be helpful to mention that the American name for the British .38/200 is the .38 SMITH & WESSON. The American 20th Century smokeless powder factory loading was a 146 or 200 grain round nosed lead bullet, that was purposely loaded lighter in pressure by American ammunition firms, because of all the mediocre quality 19th and 20th Century revolvers made for it, including ones made in Spain, that were copies of Smith & Wessons. There are foreign copies of the Smith & Wesson Victory/ Military & Police/ Model 1905, later “Model 10”, revolvers that were made with potentially dangerous inferior metallurgy, including CAST IRON!!! So be sure of what you have, before shooting it, especially with .38 Special ammo. I am not sure if .38 S&W is currently made, but it can be found at many gun shows. I had a World War II Victory Model in my collection in it’s original finish, which was in a gray color. I think that the finish was not actually sandblasted, but used some finer media, like glass beads, as actual sandblasting leads to a much rougher finish, as sand is not of a uniform size or shape. I have seen S&W Victory models for both the Brits and for American Military issue, in both black and the pictured gray. The British Commonwealth also painted them with their black anti rust paint finish.
    The Smith & Wesson Terrier was the most recent handgun I recall being chambered for .38 Smith & Wesson. It was a snub nosed revolver and was available from S&W at least into the 1970s. Smith and Wesson Victory models in both short and longer barrel lengths were available for General Officer issue and there are photos of General Patton, Eisenhower and other generals armed with those, or the competing Colt Commando, which was merely the Parkerized WWII produced version of their Colt Official Police revolver, which was earlier called the “Army Special. This was also available in different barrel lengths. One suggestion from this former ammo seller, is that the Smith & Wesson Victory Model revolvers are the “K” frame size. In .38 S&W Special, they will chamber the higher pressure, “+P” loadings, but a steady diet of these loadings, will damage the action eventually, “loosening up” the action in various ways, including “endshake” and “lateral play” in the cylinder, causing the ejector rod to unscrew, jamming the revolver shut and other subtle damage. This is why Smith & Wesson recommended the larger “N” frame revolvers like the Model 20, so called “Heavy Duty”, which used the .44 Caliber Frame. The old name for the .38 Smith & Wesson Special +P cartridge was the .38-44 and came out in the 1930s.
    Another great article and photos from Dr. Dabbs that I have enjoyed!

  • richard August 27, 2018, 6:09 pm

    I have a 1942 u.s. navy victory model. Can anybody tell me where I can get an original set of grips with a lanyard ring? Any help or information would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

  • Brock August 27, 2018, 2:10 pm

    There are many pictures of South Vietnamese pilots carrying them also.

  • Les Frazier August 27, 2018, 1:14 pm

    S&W .38 Victory model

    I have one, I think. SN is 63510 [the 3 may be a 5]. Above the SN is the number 2 and a “W” laying on its side. LgF

  • Mike August 27, 2018, 12:11 pm

    Thanks for the article. As a S&W accumulator, I’d like to make a couple of corrections.

    The “Victory” model is not a “Pre-model 10”. It is actually a variation of the Model of 1905 Military and Police. The pre-10 is a “short action” version of the M&P, with a hammer block safety, made from 1948 until the model designation was used in 1957. The later Victory models had the hammer block safety, and were designated with a “SV” serial number prefix. They still were of the “long action” configuration.

    The finish was similar to parkerizing, but used a different formula and was called “Black Magic”. The finish tends to turn gray with age.

    The vast majority of the U.S. Victory models had 4-inch barrels, with a few made with 2-inch barrels. The British Victory model had a standard 5-inch barrel.

    • James A. "Jim" Farmer April 13, 2019, 5:55 pm

      I own the late John Henwood’s 1997 book: “America’s Right Arm: The Smith and Wesson Military and Police Revolver.” There is one chapter devoted to the Smith “Victory” Model.” I recall it’s titled, “The M&P Goes To War.” This is a rare book. I understand only 500 copies were printed. No, I have never owned a Smith and Wesson Model 10 or the Victory Model, both chambered in .38 Special. I purchased my first .38 Special back in February 1980 at the then Payless Town And Country Shopping Center of Klamath Falls, Oregon : a 4″ blued Smith and Wesson Model 15 .38 Special Combat Masterpiece. The only alteration to date was to have revolver stripped, cleaned, and properly lubed by a gunsmith, and the addition of Pachmayr (hard rubber) Combat Grips. These along with those produced by Uncle Mike’s are superior to the skimpy factory Magna grips. I actually have a modern .38 Special that is superior to the World War II vintage Smith and Wesson Victory Model in a number of respects. Examples include:

      1. Stronger metallurgy. The post 1957 Smith and Wesson K-Frame .38 Special revolvers, including both the
      Model 10 M&P and Model 15 Combat Masterpiece, are both rated for +P .38 Special ammo. Same too for
      the Model 14 K-38 Masterpiece. The S&W Victory Model isn’t rated for +P ammo.
      2. The improved 1948 action. This reduces hammer throw by 1/3 and has faster lock time.
      3. Both the 4th screw and 5th screw were deleted in 1955 and 1961, respectively. This reduces the number of
      parts. This may even slightly strengthen the frame of the revolver.
      5. The target sights (adjustable) and barrel rib enhances practical shooting accuracy. This isn’t to say a Victory
      Model or S&W Model 10 isn’t accurate. They certainly are for practical shooting. But the S&W Model 15
      may slightly improve accuracy.
      6. In 1957 Smith and Wesson commenced assigning model numbers to their handguns.
      7. As I mentioned earlier replacing the skimpy S&W factory Magna grips with a pair of Pachmayr or Uncle
      Mike’s hard rubber combat grips.
      8. When the S&W Victory Model appeared we didn’t have modern .38 Special ammo like we do today.
      Examples would be the +P loadings of the Winchester Silvertip Hollowpoint (125 grains), Federal’s “Hydra-
      Shok” (129 grains), Remington’s Golden Saber (125 grains), and Hornaday’s Critical Defense (135 grains).

      James A. “Jim” Farmer
      Merrill, Oregon (Klamath County)

  • Joseph Michael Welch August 27, 2018, 11:54 am

    Are you sure it was the Smith he carried? Personally I don’t recall the military ever giving anyone a choice in firearm. You got what they gave you. Many pilots carried the Colt Commando. Are you sure it was the Smith he carried? Each airplane crewman carried a pistol. There were millions of these made. I think someone has a large batch of surplus Victory 38’s that are going to be put on GA soon. Trying to drive up the price a bit? It happened 11 years ago whan the Mass National Guard released their Commando’s for public sale.

  • Larry Germain August 27, 2018, 9:56 am

    Greg Pappy Boyington was awarded the medal of Honor. There is no such award as the Congressional Medal of Honor. There is a Society, The Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Please get it right, if you don’t know this little fact I suspect that you may not have done any research on this subject and there may be other errors in this article. http://www.cmohs.org/

    • srsquidizen August 27, 2018, 4:36 pm

      You are correct of course. I’m afraid it is now common jargon to attach the word “Congressional” to the medal itself.

      It’s probably one of those lost causes like the “pistol” vs. “revolver” controversy.

      Energy would be better expended trying to teach the uninformed masses that civilian carbines are not “assault rifles.”

  • Ugly Driver August 27, 2018, 6:53 am

    Another good story from a Sugar Bear!

    Thanks!

  • Dr. Strangelove August 27, 2018, 5:32 am

    It looks very similar to the Colt Police Positive.

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