With the unexpected success of their Wild West revolver replicas in the late 1950s and early 60s, Crosman began looking for other ways to expand their range of replicas. A potential source of sales quickly appeared from an unlikely source: The US Air Force. In the early 60s, the Cold War was gaining impetus and the Strategic Air Force Police found themselves responsible for guarding large numbers of air bases and missile, radar and defence installations across the USA and overseas, many in very remote locations. Most of these sites lacked firing ranges and in order to maintain weapon proficiency the Air Force was considering the use of airguns for safe and economical pistol training. The Crosman Model 160 was one of the pistols tested, and Crosman became involved in the repair and service of these guns for the Air Force. It wasn’t long before their Air Force contacts asked whether it might be possible for Crosman to develop replica air pistols for training purposes which more closely resembled the Smith & Wesson revolvers then used by Air Force police and security units?
US Air Force Air Police training with S&W 38 revolvers, Taipei, Taiwan, 1960s
Image from: http://taipeiairstation.blogspot.it/
In 1962 Crosman demonstrated a prototype of their S&W 38 replica. The Air Force was happy, orders were placed and the new replicas went in to production. However, Crosman realised that Police departments across the US also used Smith & Wesson revolvers, and these might too be interested in a safe and economical training tool. A new company, the Crosman Professional Products Division, was formed to sell airguns as training tools to US military and law enforcement agencies. In addition, an innovative interactive training system, the Crosman Moving Picture Combat Target System was developed to support and encourage the use of the new replica 38 revolvers as police training aids. Sales to Government and law enforcement agencies were good, and in 1964 these revolvers were also released to the general public as the Crosman 38 range of revolver replicas, modestly claimed by Crosman to be “the greatest advancement ever made in gas powered guns“. Like the Wild West replicas which had come before, they proved to be popular with air pistol shooters and collectors and large numbers were sold before production ended in 1985.
In 1983, as the 38 series was being phased out, Crosman introduced the 357, another CO2 powered revolver replica. The 357 is a powerful and accurate low-cost replica which, like the 38 series, employs a revolving rotary pellet carrier in the front part of the cylinder. However, the 357 is of mostly plastic construction and is of top-break design, where the front part of the pistol hinges forward to give access to the pellet holder. Although it inherits many of the positive features of the 38 series, most people feel that the 357 is not of the same quality of fit, finish and durability as the earlier revolver replicas.
The Crosman 38 range
The Crosman 38s are replicas of Smith & Wesson Masterpiece revolvers. The 38C is a replica of the K-38 Combat Masterpiece (later known as the Model 15) and the 38T is a replica of the Target Masterpiece (later known as the Model 14). The Masterpiece revolvers are essentially S&W Model 10 (Military & Police) revolvers with the addition of adjustable sights. Over 6 million Model 10 revolvers were produced over a long production run, and in the mid-1960s this was the most common revolver used by police and government agencies in the US. The Crosman replicas are a good visual representation of the S&W revolvers, are close to the weight and balance of the originals and their single and double action trigger closely replicates the feel and operation of the cartridge versions.
Smith & Wesson Target Masterpiece Revolver
All the Crosman 38 revolvers share similar design and functionality. The main body is constructed from die-cast zinc alloy. The right side is the main casting with a removable cover plate on the left. The rear part of the cylinder does not revolve and is an integral part of these castings. The barrel shroud is a separate casting. CO2 is retained inside the grip and accessed by removing the left hand grip. The grip is held in place by clipping it to the CO2 cartridge and the grip cannot be secured unless a CO2 cartridge is present. CO2 is tightened and pierced by turning a slotted screw in the base of the grip. A small diameter pipe carries CO2 to the main firing valve which is concealed within the rear (non-moving) part of the cylinder. Up to six pellets are loaded in the revolving rotary pellet carrier. The pellet loading system is improved from the Wild West replicas: a spring-loaded follower on the left upper side of the rear part of the cylinder is pulled back to reveal a loading trough. A pellet is placed in the trough and the follower is released, pushing the pellet forward into the pellet carrier.
All Crosman 38 replicas can be fired in double or single action. The single action trigger pull is very good: short, light and almost entirely without creep. Even the double action pull is good – long and fairly heavy but consistent and with a clear break. All versions have a fully adjustable “micro-click” rear sight which is adjusted by turning small slotted screws. All Crosman 38s have a unique serial number stamped on the left side on the fixed part of the cylinder.
Some versions of the Crosman 38s provided to the US Air Force and Police training units were provided with fixed CO2 cartridges and bulk fill adapters in the base of the grip, in place of the CO2 tightening screw. However, this version was not sold to the general public and these are relatively uncommon.
Most versions were finished in black with brown, wood effect grips. However, smaller numbers were produced in a very attractive chrome finish with black plastic grips.
The barrel shroud on all versions is removed by unscrewing the slotted screw below the barrel. The inner barrel on all versions can then be removed by loosening the set screw on top of the main casting. The only difference between the 38C and 38T is the inner barrel shroud and barrel, so any 38C can be converted to a 38T (and vice versa) by changing the barrel and shroud.
First variant in .22″ (1964 – 1976)
Initially, two versions were offered to the public: The 38T (Target) with a 6″ rifled barrel and the 38C (Combat) with a 3¾” rifled barrel. Both were .22″ calibre and featured all-metal construction including the rotary pellet carrier and the rear sight. On the earliest models the valve assembly is made from brass (you can see the valve assembly through the pellet loading trough), though this was quickly changed to alloy. These early versions are basically identical to the accurate and powerful Police and Air Force training weapons and feature very high quality fit and finish.
Production of first version of the .22″ 38C continued until 1973 and the first version of the .22″ 38T continued until 1976.
Second variant in .22″ (1964 – 1976)
Second variant .22″ 38T
In parallel with the first variant, a second variant of the .22″ version was also produced. This version is very similar to the first other than for the introduction of cost-saving measures including making the rear sight mounting plate shorter and constructing the revolving part of the cylinder and the rear sight from plastic. Some people feel that these second variants do not provide the high quality of fit and finish seen on the originals, through from my own experience I haven’t noticed much difference.
The second variant of the 38C was produced from 1964 – 1976. The second variant of the 38T was introduced in 1973 and continued in production until 1976.
.177″ versions (1976 – 1985)
In 1976 the growing popularity and lower cost of .177” pellets prompted Crosman to drop the .22″ versions of both pistols and replace these with very similar replicas in .177″ calibre. These were functionally and mechanically identical to the second variant of the .22″ version, including plastic construction for the rear sight and the rotary pellet carrier. Some people feel that the .177″ versions do not provide the power or accuracy of the .22″ versions and that fit and finish are inferior. However, I have owned both .22″ and .177″ versions, and I didn’t find a marked difference in fit, finish, heft, feel or accuracy. The .177″ 38C continued in production until 1983 and the .177″ 38T until 1985, which marked the end of all production of the Crosman 38 series.
The Crosman Moving Picture Combat Target System
I can’t talk about the Crosman 38 revolvers without mentioning the Crosman Moving Picture Combat Target System (MPCTS), a wonderfully inventive system for training Police officers before the advent of video and computers. The system comprised a projector and a series of 8mm, Technicolor “Magi-Cartridges” which provided short movies titled “To shoot or not to shoot” which included scenes where there was either a clear danger, or where the threat was more doubtful. The movies were projected on a paper screen and an officer armed with a Crosman 38 would watch, drawing and firing at the screen when appropriate. The projector was linked to a simple audio controlled sensor which operated the stop control and froze the film on the sound of a shot. An instructor would then examine the paper screen, note where the shot had hit and critique the officer’s technique and performance.
Period Crosman advertising for the Moving Picture Combat Target System
Apologies for the poor picture quality – this is a picture of Crosman publicity info for the MPCTS. It’s very difficult to find any images of the MPCTS. If anyone has better pictures of the system in action, I’d love to include them.
It all sounds endearingly antiquated now, but MPCTS system was a cutting-edge training tool back in the mid 1960s, allowing law enforcement personnel to rehearse their actions in response to stressful and threatening situations and pre-dating the current use of interactive training tools. Crosman referred to the use of the MPCTS with their 38 air pistols as the “38 Simulator System” and it was used by a large number of Police Departments across America.
Function and shooting
All versions of the Crosman 38 revolvers shoot well, but many people claim that the first (all metal) .22″ variants seem to have the edge in power and accuracy. No surprise given that these were developed as military and police training tools though of course the performance of any older air pistol will depend as much on its current condition as on original manufacturing tolerances.
CO2 is loaded by removing the left hand grip, loosening the CO2 screw in the base of the grip and inserting the CO2 cartridge. Tightening and piercing is done by use of the slotted CO2 screw – Crosman recommend the use of a coin, but a large blade screwdriver gives more leverage.
Pellet loading trough and serial number on a .177″ 38C
Pellets are loaded one at a time by pulling back the follower and placing a pellet in the trough on the left upper side of the cylinder casting, with the nose of the pellet facing forward. The follower is then released and the pellet is pushed into one of the six chambers in the moving part of the cylinder. Repeat five more times, and you’re ready to go. The loading process is a little cumbersome, but easier than loading pellets into the Wild West replicas. No manual safety is fitted to any of the 38 range, so with pellets and CO2 in place, you’re ready to shoot.
The double action trigger pull is long and fairly heavy (around 8lbs for the earliest .22″ versions, around 10lbs for later versions) but uniform, smooth and with a clear and consistent break. Manually cocking the hammer gives a short and relatively light (around 5lbs on all versions) single action pull. The single action trigger is precise and clean with almost no creep.
All versions fire with a bang that’s notably louder than most current replicas (though not quite as deafening as some of the early Wild West revolvers). Power is more than adequate: Around 300 – 320fps for the .22″ 38C and around 10 – 15fps higher for the .22” 38T. The .177″ 38C gives around 340 – 360fps and the .177″ 38T gives around 400fps. Accuracy is very good, with 38C versions grouping at around 1″ at six yards and the 38T capable of ½” groupings at the same range. CO2 consumption is around 40 – 50 shots for .22″ versions and 50 – 70 shots for .177″ versions. All performance figures are based on a 38 in good condition – worn seals and rifling will of course notably reduce power, accuracy and CO2 consumption.
The sights on all Crosman 38s are simple but effective. There are no white dots, just a notch and post arrangement that closely replicates the setup on the S&W Model 14 and 15. The rear sight is fully adjustable and with most examples it’s possible to get the point of aim and the point of impact to coincide precisely. The 38T version is one of the most accurate replicas ever made, and a good one can rival or even surpass the superb Umarex 586/686.
I have owned a .22″ 38T and a .177″ 38C and both leaked CO2 from the same place when I bought them. A short piece of copper pipe takes CO2 from the main CO2 seal to the firing valve. At either end of this pipe are threaded gland seals. Both my 38s leaked from the seal at the valve assembly end. However, unscrewing the gland seal and reassembling it with a little silicone sealant cured the leak in both cases. This copper pipe and the two gland seals seem to be the weak point of the 38 design, and I have heard of many others which develop leaks from this area.
CO2 gland seals (arrowed)
Fortunately, working on any Crosman 38 is fairly simple. Five slotted screws hold the cover plate on the left side to the main casting. After the left grip is removed, these are unscrewed from the left side and the left cover can be lifted off, leaving the internal mechanism in-situ (the large slotted screw on the right, in the centre of the cylinder casting is used to hold the firing valve in place and does not need to be removed to separate the two halves). Note that there are some loose parts inside, so if you tilt the main casting too far, these will fall out.
On the Crosman Wild West replicas there is a noticeable difference between the quality and accuracy of the early all-metal guns and the later versions made partly of plastic. However, this is less marked on the 38s. I have owned an early all-metal 38T and a later 38C with plastic sights and cylinder and the difference between the two was minimal in terms of feel, build quality and accuracy. Indeed, there may be good reason to look for a newer version – these are generally cheaper and may have up to 20 years less wear and tear than the oldest models. Other than leaky seals and pipework and a need to lubricate the trigger and indexing mechanisms (which apply to any older replica), not a lot goes wrong with the 38s. Probably the biggest issue is erosion of the lands on the rifled barrels. Some of these pistols are now fifty years old and may have shot thousands or even tens of thousands of pellets, causing wear to barrels. This will cause a loss of accuracy, though happily getting a barrel replaced isn’t a complex or expensive job and replacement barrels (at least in .177″, though .22″ versions seem harder to find) are available. Many replacement parts are available from specialist retailers and seal kits are easy to find.
One thing that is worth checking on any Crosman 38 is the gap between the rear end of the inner barrel and the face of the revolving rotary pellet carrier. If there is a large gap, gas will leak from this area, decreasing power. The inner barrel is retained by a set-screw in the top of the main body casting. It’s worth checking that the inner barrel is seated as close as possible to the pellet carrier without fouling it.
Overall, a Crosman 38 is a good introduction for anyone thinking of dipping a toe into the vintage air pistol scene. There are lots around, they’re not too expensive, they’re robust and reliable, easy to work on and replacement parts can be obtained fairly easily.
Many people believe that the Crosman 38 series are some of the finest replica air pistols ever made. Like the Crosman Wild West revolver replicas, the earliest versions of the Crosman 38 revolvers are regarded as the best quality, though these are all fine replicas. However, unlike the Wild West replicas, all 38s are also accurate and satisfying shooters, aided by clear and adjustable sights and a long sight radius on the 38T. They also have convincing weight, good balance and all have very nice double and single action triggers. Most of all, they’re well engineered and reliable replicas which handle and shoot like cartridge firing revolvers. Unsurprising given that this was what they were specifically designed to do. Whichever version you choose, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.
From Shane to Doctor Strangelove: If the Crosman Wild West replicas represent the cowboy-mad optimism of the 50s, the 38s are a link to the cold war worries of the 60s. They represent a small slice of military and law enforcement training history from a time when people were starting to think about how to make this safer while also more realistic and useful. Very large numbers of the Crosman 38 series were made during their twenty year production run and it’s fairly easy to find examples for sale. Prices are generally reasonable, though the earliest all-metal .22″ versions are starting to become popular with collectors and prices of these are edging up. The rarer chrome finish versions with black grips tend to be considerably more expensive, though they do look very striking. All versions are well made and finished, though many are now 40 – 50 years old so you should budget for additional work to bring an elderly example back to prime condition. However, it’s worth spending time and money to get a Crosman 38 back to optimum shooting condition. That’s what they were made for and what they still excel at.
Very occasionally, examples of the Crosman MPCTS also come up for sale. Like most 60s era electronics, it can be difficult to get these working reliably but it’s worth trying – this is Call of Duty circa 1965! Be aware that if you do manage to get one of these operating with some paper screens, you will suddenly become the most popular person in your neighbourhood. Expect lots of visitors asking to have a go. Me included!
Disassembling a 38T
Download a manual for any Crosman pistol
Collection of Crosman air pistols, including some very nice 38s