GunMagopedia: .38 Special

The .38 Special cartridge is often considered a weaker sister compared to other revolver cartridges like the .357 Magnum and semi-auto rounds like the 9mm Luger. If we read a ballistics chart, that appears to be true. Both the .357 Magnum and 9mm Luger, respectively, use roughly the same diameter bullet and are much higher velocity than the .38. As a result, both cartridges yield more energy foot pounds.

But the charts are only part of the story. The .38 Special cartridge has been winning competitions and putting down bad guys for over 120 years and, in some circumstances, is an objectively better option. Follow along as we explore the history and ballistics of the .38 Special.

Smith & Wesson .38 SPL revolver with five rounds of ammo

Revolver Cartridges — From the Start

Revolver cartridges are largely still dominated by the precedents of gun designs dating back to the time of loose powder and ball. Samuel Colt’s original creation, the Paterson revolver, was a medium-framed revolver bored up to .36 caliber. By the late 1840s, Colt was marketing three different framed revolvers: a .31 caliber pocket model, a .36 caliber belt model, and a .44 caliber holster pistol.

These are the original antecedents to the .22s and 32s, the .38/357, and the .44/.45 caliber revolvers we have today. The original .36 in guns like the Colt 1851 Navy and the Remington New Model Navy had the right combination of carry ability and power. Swinging into the cartridge era, big bore .45 caliber revolvers like the Colt Single Action Army might dominate the cinematic universe of the Old West, but smaller caliber pistols like the .38 Colt Lightning were popular and, perhaps, more practical for concealed carry. In 1892, the United States Army decided to drop the .45 Colt in exchange for a newer, lighter, faster shooting Colt double-action revolver in .38 Long Colt.

The Colt 1892 was easier to shoot and had a modern swing-out cylinder. But trouble came knocking for the new pistol when US troops became bogged down in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War (1898-99). The Moro people of Mindanao resisted the US presence stubbornly and went to great lengths to protect themselves as they did fatal damage in close-range ambushes. The fighters would bind themselves with twine and cloth and become intoxicated before engaging. This prevented massive blood loss and increased pain tolerance. It was reported that entire cylinders were fired into attacking Moros without effect. To be fair to the Colt .38, .30 caliber Krag rifles were also found wanting. No matter the issue, the pistol was scapegoated and old Colt .45s were pulled out of mothballs.

In short order, the US Army began searching for a new handgun—in .45. This did not stop Smith & Wesson from seeking to improve the .38 Long Colt cartridge. Indeed, the firm likely began developing their new .38 Smith & Wesson Special before reports of widespread trouble began, as the cartridge debuted in 1898 as the war with Spain was ongoing.

A Smith & Wesson revolver lying next to ammunition.
The Smith & Wesson M&P revolver and .38 Special 158-grain round-nosed lead bullets were archetypical equipment for American soldiers, cops, and private citizens for decades.

Evolution of the .38 Special Load

The .38 Special is, essentially, the old .38 Long Colt with a longer case with more powder and a slightly heavier bullet. The original load packed 20 grains of black powder under a .357-inch diameter158 grain lead bullet and achieved a velocity of over 800 feet per second out of a six-inch barrel. The old .38 LC used a 150-grain bullet at under 700 feet per second. The new round debuted in the Smith & Wesson Military and Police revolver in 1899. Three years later, the .38 Special made the jump to smokeless powder.

Although the Army went back to a .45 caliber handgun in the Colt 1911, all branches of the Armed Forces adopted and issued .38 Special revolvers, from Marine Corps pilots to Army tank crews to US Air Force Security Forces. The .38 Special and revolvers chambered for it had a greater impact on civilian law enforcement and the private market that flowed downstream from police trends. Uniformed police departments in the East often carried small revolvers chambered in .32 Smith & Wesson Long, while Western departments still held onto the old .45. But as more departments became professionalized and enlarged on the federal, state, and local levels, the .38 Special in revolvers such as the Smith & Wesson M&P and the Colt Official Police, became the standard.

The new cartridge was a spectacular success, but it did not come without its problems. At the height of Prohibition and the motor bandit, it was found that the .38 Special had trouble penetrating steel car doors. This led to the development of an even longer and more powerful version of the cartridge, the .357 Magnum. Some officers did complain about the stopping power of the .38 Special. In the era before modern hollow-point ammunition, most departments issued a 158-grain lead round-nosed bullet, which was not ideal to create a stopping wound. Still, the .38 Special remained a serviceable law enforcement cartridge until the late 1980s as departments transitioned from revolvers to higher-capacity autoloading pistols. Although some police departments still authorize the issue of .38 Special revolvers, the round is primarily used today in bullseye shooting, police pistol matches, and for personal protection.

Two boxes of Hornady ammunition.
Two different .38 Special loads from Hornady. One is standard pressure, the other is +P.

What is .38 Special +P and how is it different from the .38 Special?

For the user opting for a .38 Special cartridge for personal protection, there are two main questions that have to be answered. Do you opt for a short-barreled snub-nose revolver or something larger? Do you load with standard .38 Special ammunition or .38 Special +P? Thinking about the former can help you become more informed on the latter. But what is .38 Special +P and how is it different from the .38 Special?

Technically speaking, +P ammunition is loaded to higher pressures than standard loadings. This results in higher velocity and, in theory, better terminal performance. The .38 Special is a low-pressure cartridge loaded to about 17,500 pounds per square inch. 38 Special +P ammunition is generally loaded to 20,000. By comparison, standard pressure 9mm Luger ammunition is loaded to 35,000 psi. In .38 Special, most target and practice ammunition will be a standard pressure load like the old 158-grain lead bullet or a 130-grain full-metal-jacket. However, most available defensive ammunition for the cartridge is .38 Special +P.

.38 Special +P loadings will generate higher velocities and higher muzzle energy than standard pressure loads. These loadings are paired with hollow-point bullets that expand and penetrate well when used with service revolvers. The Federal and Winchester .38 Special 158-grain +P lead hollow-point bullets are excellent loads that were, at one time, a standard FBI and metro PD load. Jacketed hollow points like the Federal Hydroshock, Hornady Critical Defense, and Speer Gold Dot are also effective. There are also a few +P hard-cast options for barrier penetration available from Buffalo Bore and Underwood. Loads like these boast energy levels north of 350 foot-pounds of energy, exceeding standard 9mm Luger ammunition.

However, all +P ammunition tends to lose potency when employed in snub nose revolvers. There is still a power premium over standard pressure .38 Special loads, but velocity and energy is lost. The extra energy is also felt with greater recoil and blast as unburned powder ignites as it leaves the muzzle. The same 158-grain +P load that works so well in four-inch barreled revolvers, fails to expand. Indeed, lighter-grained loads like the Hornady Critical Defense 110 grain +P, Federal Nyclad 125 grain +P, and the Speer Gold Dot 135 grain +P, are among the few that deliver excellent penetration and hollow-point expansion.

An additional issue with .38 Special +P and even higher pressure +P+ loadings is that not all revolvers are rated for it. There has long been a debate about whether +P ammunition is safe in older guns, whereas most new revolvers are rated for +P. Some have opined that older revolvers can handle +P ammunition because original .38 Special loadings had velocities comparable to .38 Special +P. In their defense, standard pressure .38 Special target loads are conservatively loaded and high performance .38 Special ammunition dates well before the SAAMI formalized +P ammunition in the 1970s.

Elmer Keith experimented with higher-pressure loadings in the 1930s in heavier-framed revolvers. The round proved popular enough for Colt to rebrand their Official Police revolver, touting its capability of handling the new load. The original .38 Special black powder load, likewise, was nothing to sneeze at. The ammunition consisted of a 158 grain lead bullet over 20 grains of FFFg black powder. Using a Smith & Wesson M&P with a four-inch barrel, these rounds clocked in over my chronograph at just north of 800 feet per second.

Today’s smokeless 158-grain standard loads are moving considerably slower, but we must bear in mind that black powder is an explosive, and smokeless is a propellant. Their pressure curves differ considerably, even when loaded at the same peak pressures. Needless to say, deciding between +P and standard pressure loads for personal protection can get needlessly complicated. Some manufacturers will claim that +P ammunition will generate more wear over time. That is advice I tend to heed. Most modern revolvers are +P rated and many older guns like the latter generation Colt Detective Special can take a limited amount. But if you do not want to gamble with +P ammunition, there are some good standard loads out there.

An assortment of reloading equipment, projectiles, and brass cases.
The .38 Special wadcutter load is inexpensive to reload, but companies such as Winchester and Federal produced ready-loaded ammunition.

An old-school defensive standard pressure .38 Special round is the humble 148-grain lead wadcutter. The projectile resembles a soda can, is loaded lightly, and cuts clean holes in paper targets. The flat face is better for crushing tissue than a standard round-nosed bullet. Other standard pressure defensive loads include Hornady’s 90-grain and 110-grain Critical Defense. Their lighter bullet weight translates to higher velocity and decent bullet expansion.

Comparative Ballistics in the Here and Now

By the numbers, the .38 Special is sedate compared to modern carry pistol rounds like the 9mm Luger and the .40 S&W. It is marginally better than the .380 ACP and worse by a wide margin compared to its bigger brother, the .357 Magnum. Velocities and foot-pounds of energy can give us a general idea of the power of a projectile, but how that projectile actually interacts with the target is a material concern.

 .380 ACP, 9mm Luger, and .38 Special cartridges
From left to right: .380 ACP, 9mm Luger, and .38 Special. The .38 Special is the largest round, but size does not necessarily equate to power.

In pocket pistols using typical ammunition, the .38 Special cartridge falls between the .380 ACP and the 9mm Luger cartridge. The .380 ACP is, in general, a higher velocity cartridge. Typical 90-95 grain loads are advertised between 920-980 feet per second. Standard-pressure .38 Special loads run in the 700-750 range. The punch line is that both velocities are generous and given to us through a factory test barrel with a length of four inches or so. These numbers can be close using larger framed .380 pistols or 4-inch .38 Special revolvers. In small handguns like the Ruger LCP or a typical 2-inch Smith & Wesson J-Frame, velocities are trimmed. Typical .380 loads run over my chronograph between 870-920 feet per second, while typical 158 grain .38s are still hovering between 680-700 feet per second. The .380 is still faster but it gets those numbers with a lighter bullet with less penetration potential.

The .38 Special +P widens the gap considerably. Loads like the Federal 158 grain +P lead hollow-point come out of a two-inch barrel north of 780 feet per second for a muzzle velocity of 213-foot pounds of energy. 125-grain +P loads are far more common and can achieve velocities of 900 feet per second or more with energies north of 225 foot-pounds. A competent .380 load like the Hornady Critical Defense came out of a 2¾ inch LCP at 929 feet per second. But the 90-grain bullet used resulted in only 172 foot-pounds of energy. While .380 ACP +P loadings are out there, they are a boutique item that trades lighter projectiles for higher velocity.

In general, the .38 Special offers more power in a given platform and greater penetration than the .380 ACP. The gap between the two grows wider with +P and progressively longer barrels. The case for the .38 requires more nuance compared to rounds like the .357 Magnum and the 9mm Luger. In terms of raw energy foot-pounds, no matter how short or long of barrel, the .357 Magnum is more powerful. That was, after all, why the .357 came to be in the first place. A typical .357 125-grain jacketed hollow-point like the Remington HTP, can leave a four-inch revolver at over 1400 feet per second. One of the rounds that comes the closest to this is Buffalo Bore’s .38 Special +P 158-grain Outdoorsman load. This hard cast load generates over 1000 feet per second and over 350 pounds of energy. But it is a much slower round by a wide margin.

On paper, the .38 Special can, at best, rival 9mm Luger in some loadings. However, typical standard pressure 9mm Luger ammunitions are going to be more powerful. Out of my 3.5-inch barreled Walther PDP, standard pressure 115-grain FMJ loads like CCI Blaser and Winchester White Box clock in at about 1100 feet per second for a muzzle energy of 309 foot-pounds of energy. 9mm +P ammunition widens the gap even further.

The case for the .38 certainly cannot be made by the charts and numbers alone. The biggest difference between these rounds is not in energy foot-pounds but in how it is transferred to the target. In handguns of comparable size, hollow-point expansion between the 9mm Luger and the .38 Special is comparable. However, .38 Special hollow points tend to have a wider nose. The 9mm Luger, as an autoloading cartridge, uses a round-nosed projectile for optimal feeding. As a result, the .38 Special dumps much of its energy sooner and penetrates less than the 9mm Luger.

In short, think of the .38 Special cartridge as a 9mm round with less penetration. The benefit is that all energy is transferred to the intended target. The downside is barrier penetration. The 9mm Luger has a good reputation for penetrating barriers with enough energy left to impact the intended target. The .38 Special always had a poor reputation in this regard. For personal protection, the .38 Special is more than adequate but the 9mm Luger gives you more options for more extreme scenarios.

The Bottom Line

The revolver market continues to grow and there are an ever-expanding number of options if you are looking at a wheel gun for personal protection. While it can be tempting to consider a .357 Magnum or one of the newer 9mm Luger revolvers, do not discount the .38 Special.  Despite its lack of power on paper, the .38 has a track record a mile long and a host of advantages. That is the story of the .38 Special, a round that is flawed in theory but perfect in practice.

Terril is an economic historian with a penchant for all things firearm related. Originally a pot hunter hailing from south Louisiana, he currently covers firearms and reloading topics in print and on his All Outdoors YouTube page. When he isn't delving into rimfire ballistics, pocket pistols, and colonial arms, Terril can be found perfecting his fire-starting techniques, photographing wildlife, and getting lost in the archives.

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