Smith & Wesson Model 52: An Unusual Pick for a Character’s Pistol

  • Type: Semi-automatic pistol
  • Caliber: .38
  • Ammunition capacity: 5 in a detachable magazine (not clip)
  • Year introduced: 1961
  • Effective range: 25 yards (greater for more experienced shooters)

Harold Courtright picked up a copy of The Writer’s Guide to Weapons and recently wrote to me about the Smith & Wesson Model 52 he selected for a character. This semi-automatic pistol sports a couple features that make it stand out from run-of-the-mill choices that typically pop up in fiction. I figured I’d highlight them here.

A Semi-Auto Pistol that Fires Revolver Ammunition?

The Model 52 fires .38 caliber ammunition that’s normally reserved for revolvers. The 52 isn’t the only semi-auto pistol to use .38 loads, but it’s not exactly common. The reason why is reflected in that low ammunition capacity of only 5 rounds. The rimmed design of .38 cartridges don’t lend themselves well to being stored inside a detachable magazine.

The tradeoff, however, is that the .38 is pretty easy to shoot. That’s important for characters because…

The 52 is Designed for Accuracy

When the 52 debuted in 1961, it was intended for competition target shooting. That meant designing the pistol for accuracy, from the sights to the grip. The easy-to-shoot .38 was a natural choice.

But there’s something special about that .38 ammunition.

“Wadcutter” Ammunition

The .38 cartridges the 52 uses don’t look like normal ammunition:

Smith Wesson 52 wadcutter

The wadcutter cartridge the 52 uses is on the right. (By user:Malis (Own work (My own photo)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The 52 uses what’s known as “wadcutter” ammunition. This means the bullet has a flat nose that’s flush with the brass of the cartridge, as pictured above. This flat design keeps the bullet’s trajectory stable, which increases accuracy. The tradeoff is that the bullet won’t penetrate a target deeply, sort of like hollow points.

Although wadcutter ammunition is designed for target shooting, it still is a solid choice for a character’s nefarious purposes. The type of ammunition doesn’t matter if the character can’t hit anything. And being accurate is what wadcutters are all about.

It Has a Safety Switch

Unlike Glocks, the 52 actually does use a safety that can be flipped on or off. That’s a little detail that some writers get wrong about the pistols in their stories.

How to Select a Pistol for Your Characters

If you’re interested, I detail step-by-step instructions for assigning characters firearms (and knives) in The Writer’s Guide to Weapons. Not only that, but I’ve cataloged scores of firearms from 1873 through today in a bonus download that comes with the book. Check ’em out!

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