There was a rare factory version made in .38 AMU (Army Marksmanship Unit). These guns are purely collectors items unless you want to make your own ammo and drop the value of the gun by actually using it.
The standard Model 52 shoots .38 Special flush mouth wadcutters. It is particularly accurate with the hollow base variety. It is not designed for any other .38 Special bullet that protrudes from the case mouth.
I have not competed with mine for many years, but it makes a dandy gun for small game. The wadcutter kills cleanly without ruining meat.
The 52 is sensitive for load. I recall once when a certain lot of ammo would not cycle. Contacted the maker (CCI) and found due to a fire in a powder plant they changed the load. Velocity was the same, but the new load would no longer cycle a 52. They said it never occurred to them to test a 52. But they sent me replacement ammo from the old lot and told me to shoot the other up in a revolver.
The 52 was designed for Bullseye, so shooters would have a decent auto for the medium bore class. But most Bullseye shooters would simply use their .45 for that class, instead of using another gun. The magazine holds five, but at one time there was a company converting them to six rounds for PPC, and it was one of the few autos seen in PPC shooting.
The real pity is S&W never made the 52 in any other normal caliber. Like 9mm or .38 Super. There have been custom conversions made, though. The .38 Super is the most common of these, but is still seldom seen.
By the way, .38 Master is not correct. The gun is officially known as the "Model 52 Master .38 Mid-Range". The latter denotes it will not chamber normal .38 Special ammo.
The genesis for the Model 52 is the Model 39. The early Model 52's used the same lock work as the Model 39, with the exception of a lock-out screw, preventing double action usage. S&W sells the 952, which is a 9mm version. However, it's only listed now in the archives section. The price topped $1,600 when available.
There are differences between the 52-1 and 52-2 models, in that the ejector was changed to that of the Model 39. There are documented failures of the -1 extractors; and no parts to repair -1 models are available.
Brian is spot on about the ammunition. Winchester, Remington, and Federal factor wad cutter loads work fine. However, Fiocchi brand ammo has feed issues. As a matter of history, when S&W sold its own brand of ammo (Fiocchi made), it would not reliably feed in Model 52's.
My brother had three in his cop shop. I foolishly passed on buying a Model 52-2 for literal wholesale cost.
I own one (52-1), and it's probably the most accurate semi auto I've ever owned. I have a set of RCBS dies set up exclusively to reload WC's. I bought it NIB earlier this year. I bench tested it, and at 25 yards it will shoot 1" groups; far more accurate than I am.
The other competitor at the time was the Colt 1911, chambered in .38 Special. They're rare birds, and I let one slip through my fingers last year after balking at the $1300 price tag.
It's a gorgeous gun, unfortunately from a target shooting era that has passed.
Though the 52-1 had a more expensive -and possibly more subject to breakage-machined extractor as did the 39-1, the -1 S&W's were considerably higher quality than the -2 S&W's that were made after S&W was acquired by the Bangor Punta conglomerate.
I had a 52-1, and several 39-1's-including the rare all steel model. I never had an extractor break, even though I was shooting surplus Canadian machine gun ammunition.
By both anecdotal and a fellow who owned a 52-1, the extractors did have some issues. Not every one, but more than a couple. That was the primary reason for S&W changing the design and going to the 52-2.
It seemed like the 52-2's weren't finished quite as well as the 52-1 models, but the engineering, machining, and assembly were top notch.
As I mentioned, they've always shot far more accurately than I can.
I did mount a red dot scope on mine, using a replacement-grip-type mount, and it really helps with accuracy. It doesn't interfere with extraction, and it doesn't add a lot of weight.
I have a couple of 52-2 S&W's, in the box with the factory bushing wrench and the additional weight what slides on the frame if anyone is interested. I also have a pair of brand new 52-2 slides if you want to build one from a Model 39. Send me a PM if it tickles your fancy.
To add to the above, the HBWC bullet, particularly the Remington, shoots best at 50 yards while cast will not. The groove is something like 0.354 and the gun is designed to shoot factory ammo which was only the hollow base bullet. Thought was because it can crush down more without base distortion. Why else choose a small groove for a 38 bullet? Don't know. Cast bullets come out the barrel with fins on the base. Most any bullet will shoot well at 25 yards but not 50. The bullet length also shows yaw and tipping on the target holes.
The gun is a challenge to shoot; I have shot 50 yard cloverleaf 4xs followed by a 6. So why? That is an enigma. A slower bullet has longer barrel time and is subject to twitching. The center of grip pressure tends to be low due to the arch backstrap and this results in torquing rotation from trigger force. Some say its the hinged trigger but I doubt it. They are a nice gun and fun to shoot but if you want scores, that's another thing. Many Masters, high Masters simply said "Hard gun to shoot well" and offer no more than that.
A 45 is more forgiving.
I sold mine to concentrate on 45 but kept the under rail mounted scope mount.
A year ago, I had the hots for a Model 52 and came close to buying a really nice one but elected to do some research first. I learned that like most things mechanical, they do break and do so more frequently than a 1911, for example, but unlike 1911s, there is a terribly limited amount of parts available for them. Things like the bushing takedown wrench are often missing, are a must-have and bring a somewhat handsome sum. I wound up buying a new stainless steel target-grade 1911 in .38 Super and am having fun with it.
Remington hollow-base wadcutters have always been regarded as the most accurate of the full wadcutter breed. I suspect that may be due to them being .360" in size, making them seal better with a .357" bore than the .358" standard for lead bullets in a .38 Special. Most HBWC are swaged as it requires a complex mold to cast them but a young man in Orangevale, California has such a mold and I bought 500 bullets from him. They look really nice but I haven't tried them yet although I will be doing so soon as I'm down to 200 Remington bullets, they are not expected back in stock anywhere until next summer and my S&W revolvers need constant exercise!