The .38 has been around a long time and was introduced in 1898 by Smith & Wesson as a rimmed centerfire cartridge. A few different versions like the .38 Long Colt and .357 Magnum.
There is no difference between .38 and .38 Special. This generic term refers to a range of cartridges that all have a bullet diameter of .357 inches. This category of rounds includes several variations like the .357 Magnum, .38 Super, .38 Long Colt, .38 S&W, and .38 Special.
We will look at the variations of this round and their actual caliber, the development of those rounds, and where they are used, as well as where the .38 Special has found favor with shooters around the world.
- The History Of The .38 Special
- The .38 Special And Its Cousins
- Can You Shoot .38 Calibers In Any .38 Gun
- Is The .38 Special A Good Self-Defense Weapon
- The Top Five Best Self-Defense Rounds For A .38 Special
The History Of The .38 Special
It was developed as an improved round over the .38 Long Colt, which was ineffective against the shields of Philippine Moro warriors during the Insurrection of 1898.
Another factor in the poor performance of the .38 Long Colt was that these tribesmen were often amped up on a natural form of PCP. The .38 Long Colt was found to lack stopping power as the entire chamber could be emptied and not incapacitate the attacker.
While the US Airforce opted for the .38 Special, the US Army adopted the .45 ACP, which proved in the 1904 Thompson-Lagarde tests to have far more stopping power than the .38 and was the standard military sidearm until 1985 when the 9mm Beretta M92 replaced it.
The .38 Special was adopted by law-enforcement agencies and used in guns like the Smith and Wesson M&P and the S&W Victory used in the Air Force and was in service from 1920 to 1990 when the larger capacity pistols took over.
The .38 Special And Its Cousins
Technically speaking, the .38 is closer to the .36 caliber than it is to the .38 caliber, as most cartridges in the group have an actual caliber of .357 inches. The only exceptions are the .38S&W, which has a caliber of .361 inches, and the .38 Super, which has a caliber of .358 inches.
The term .38 refers to the case diameter, and while some cartridges like the .357 Magnum are longer than a standard .38 Special, the time .38 has stuck through the ages. The .38 Special or the .38 S&W Special as properly termed is not confused with the .38 S&W, which is slightly bigger.
Let’s look at these cartridges in comparison to each other so that you can see the slight differences and some ballistic data on each round. The family of .38s is as follows:
- .38 Long Colt
- .38 Short Colt
- .38 S&W
- .38 Special
- .38 Super
- .357 Magnum
The .38 Family Ballistic Comparison
The ballistics table below shows each round as a standard load with the bullet weight, muzzle velocity and energy, and the maximum chamber pressure for each cartridge. We will also include the .38 +P and +P+ rounds as a comparison – these will be under discussion in the next section.
|Cartridge||Muzzle Velocity (Feet/sec Fps)||Muzzle Energy (Ft-lbs)||Bullet Weight (grains)||Chamber Pressure (*CUP/ PSI)|
|.38 Short Colt||777||181||135||7500*|
|.38 Long Colt||777||201||150||12 000*|
|.38 S&W||767||206||158||14 500|
|.38 Special||940||310||158||17 500|
|.38 Super||1275||468||130||36 500|
|.38 +P||1000||351||158||20 000|
|.38 +P+||1100||395||110||22 500|
This is important to understand so that you can see the differences in the characteristics of this .38 family and why you can fire .38 rounds from certain caliber guns and not others.
Below are the lengths of the various rimmed .38 cartridges from shortest to longest.
- .38 Short Colt – 0.762”
- .38 S&W – 0.780”
- .38 Long Colt – 1.030 “
- .38 Special – 1.155”
- .357 Magnum – 1.29”
- .38 Super* – 0.900”
You can see from this that the .38 Special is the 2nd longest cartridge behind the .357 Magnum.
Can You Shoot .38 Calibers In Any .38 Gun
While all the rounds are essentially the same, vast differences in velocity, muzzle energy, and chamber pressure need to be considered seriously before attempting to use rounds in a gun not chambered explicitly for that round.
This is also why the .357 Magnum cartridge is about 1/8th” longer than a standard .38 round so that it won’t fit into the cylinder of the .38 special and so cannot be fired.
The more solid and rugged frame of the .357 Magnum can comfortably handle the pressures of any of these rounds. Conversely, the thinner frame of the .38 Special would struggle with the +P and +P+ rounds and they are not recommended for revolvers that don’t have reinforced frames and are +P rated.
The .357 Magnum – The .38’s Big Brother
During the 1930s, criminals like bootleggers and gangsters outgunned the police using heavier caliber weapons like the .45 Tommy Gun and the BAR in 30-06. The cops quickly figured out that the .38 Special wasn’t getting through car doors and body armor, so Elmer Keith of Smith and Wesson fame designed the .357 Magnum.
Based on the .38 Special cartridge , Keith lengthened the case to accommodate a greater charge and higher velocity with the same bullet weight to generate more penetration , greater expansion and deliver more stopping power.
To prevent people from shooting the much more powerful .357 round in standard .38 revolvers, the designers made the case longer by 0.135″ so it could only be fired in a .357 Magnum weapon, but the .357 could easily shoot the .38 rounds.
Could You Shoot A .38 Super In A .357 Magnum
The .38 Super, for example, is primarily a pistol cartridge. While some have asked whether it could be fired from a .357 Magnum, yes, you could, but another more relevant question is whether you should.
The consensus is no, as the cartridge designed for pistol use has a different feeding and holding mechanism than revolvers. Plus, from the table above, the chamber pressure in a .38 Super is higher, potentially resulting in injury, damage to the frame and cylinder, or both.
If you want to shoot most .38 rounds from a single revolver, get yourself a .357 Magnum. It will handle the chamber pressures of all the .38 rounds listed without issue, and some .38 rounds like the target wadcutters are accurate and fun to shoot in a bigger revolver. They will give you some great grouping results!
Is The .38 Special A Good Self-Defense Weapon
When looking at a self-defense carry gun, you need to consider a few things before deciding. For example, what size gun will suit you based on your size? If you are 5’1″ and 80 lbs, a .44 Magnum Desert Eagle is probably not ideal.
You need to consider elements like capacity, stopping power, concealability, and weight of the gun when fully loaded so you can comfortably move around without having to feel lop-sided with the gun on one side.
Many law-enforcement officers nowadays would not carry the .38 Special as their primary weapon; even private security would not as it has only 5 or 6 shots. The stopping power on standard loads is not as high as those from the large capacity semi-auto’s they carry.
But, as a backup weapon carried in an ankle holster or inside thigh holster for ladies, the .38 Special shines in this role, especially when loaded with ‘FBI Load’ or similar +P rounds.
Because it is a compact weapon, it can be easily carried concealed, drawn, and fired quickly. Most .38 Special revolvers are double-action, and with a little fine-tuning, you can reduce the double-action trigger pull to make it that much easier to shoot accurately or from the hip as needed.
You can add thicker grips to your .38 if you have more extensive hands to make the gun sit better, but the primary consideration will be the ammo you use for your .38 Special.
What To Look For In .38 Special Carry Ammo
Unlike the 9mm and .40 rounds, the .38 Special standard 158 gr rounds have lower velocity , penetrative and expansive properties. This is why many ammo manufacturers produce higher-powered rounds like the +P and +P+ for self-defense carry.
An effective self-defense round needs to penetrate deep enough into the target and expand to cause instantly debilitating wounds and incapacitate the attacker as quickly as possible.
Penetration And Expansion Explained
When it comes to self-defense rounds, the two most important considerations are how deep the round will penetrate the target and what size wound it would cause due to expansion in the target.
Bullet Penetration – How Much Is Enough
As one of the leading authorities on this subject, the FBI requires at least 12 inches of penetration deep enough to strike vital organs and cause severe harm or death to an attacker.
Based on ballistic gel tests, any bullet that can deliver 12″ -18″ penetration is more than acceptable as a carry round for self-defense. There is, however, another consideration, and that is over-penetration.
The FBI caps depth into the target at 18″ as any more than that could result in the bullet striking an innocent as it travels through the intended target and beyond. You often see this at shooting ranges where shots can damage targets beyond the original mark as they have passed clean through.
This often happens with Full Metal Jacket rounds as they don’t expand much into the target creating narrower wound channels, and thus, they are not ideally suited as self-defense rounds.
This is where expansion comes into play.
Bullet Expansion- The More, The Better!
The advent of hollow pointed rounds that ‘mushroom’ on impact allowed smaller (and larger) caliber rounds to dramatically increase their stopping power and effectiveness as these bullets expand on impact, causing massive wound channels, damage, and extensive bleeding.
While not ideal for going through doors and other solid objects, hollow points offer the defender a much greater chance of stopping an attacker effectively, even with a smaller caliber weapon like a .38 Special.
As a rule, the faster the round travels, the more it will expand as the kinetic energy gathered during flight cause the bullet to mushroom on impact, delivering all the force in a single blow and causing severe damage to the attacker.
This is why bullets fired from 2″ snub nose revolvers often don’t perform as well as those fired from 4″ barrels, as they cannot achieve the same velocities and thus reduce penetration and expansion.
To improve velocity and expansion performance compared to 9mm or .40 ammo, the ammo manufacturers created +P rounds that generate higher velocity to allow higher velocity hollow-point projectiles to expand.
At the same time, the arms manufacturers created thicker and sturdier framed revolvers to cope with the additional pressure and recoil.
The Top Five Best Self-Defense Rounds For A .38 Special
One of the benchmarks for expansion is that the bullet should expand out to around 1,5 times its original diameter to be effective, so with the caliber at .357 inches, your round should expand to 0,53″ or more to be effective.
A note of caution here. You need to ensure that your .38 is rated for +P rounds, as not all revolvers are. The +P rating indicates a more robust frame designed to withstand the higher pressures of +P cartridges, so you have peace of mind that when you shoot, your gun isn’t going to explode in your hands!
#1: Federal HST Micro +P
This round is rated as one of the very best self-defense rounds for .38 Special available, and one of the reasons for this is that it performs equally well from a 2″ or 4″ barrel. With so many .38’s having the 2″ snub nose, the barrel often isn’t long enough for some rounds to achieve velocity and subsequent penetration and expansion.
Federal specially designed this round to be effective with the shorter barreled revolvers. From a 4″ barrel, this round penetrated to 14″ and expanded to an impressive 0.71″ more than the 0.53″ minimum requirements.
If your .38 Special is rated for +P, this is undoubtedly a round to be taken seriously.
#2: Remington Golder Sabre +P
The Golden Sabre is well known and respected in the self-defense circle for being an effective carry round for the semi-auto’s and often appears in the top 3 best self-defense ammo for that market.
In .38, when fired from a 4″ barrel, the Sabres penetrate to the depth of 12,5″ and an average expansion of 0.59″ which is still above the required 0.53″ minimum, but compared to the HST, it certainly is only rounding the turn for home when the HST has already crossed the finish line.
Although this round is effective, it is more so when fired from the 4″ barrel and is not generally recommended for 2″ revolvers.
#3: Winchester Train & Defend
As the only round here that isn’t a +P load, the Winchester T & T&D achieved a higher penetration than the Golden Sabre when fired from a 4″ barrel. Still, shooting these from a 2″ version doesn’t get it fast enough to extract maximum efficiency.
Getting to a depth of 14,1″ in penetration and 0.59″ in expansion outperformed the Golder Sabre in-depth and achieved the same penetration with a standard load, so if you are concerned about your 4″ revolver not being rated +P, then these are indeed an excellent option.
#4: Hornady Critical Defense +P
Here is a round that does work better for the 2″ than the 4″, and as strange as that may seem, it is true.
The reason behind it is because this round is designed for the 2″ and achieves better expansion than in the 4″ barrel as the bullet velocity in the 4″ is a little faster. This caused the bullet to expand too quickly and not penetrate enough.
From a numbers perspective, the CD +P achieved a depth of 13″ but only a 0,46″ expansion from a 4″ barrel.
#5: Speer Gold Dot
As one of the higher velocity rounds available in .38 Special, the Gold Dot achieves a penetration depth of 13.7 “and expansion to 0.57″ above the 0.53” FBI requirements. This is also a +P round, so make sure your gun is rated for this before buying them.
The Winchester gets the gold for the deepest penetration at 14.1″ for the above rounds, and the Hornady wins the expansion gold at 0.71″ but is a very close 2nd at 14″ in penetration.
Can You Use A .38 Special On Large Game
A question often asked is whether you could carry a .38 Special as a backup when hunting and would it be effective on the big game or if a bear surprises you when on the trail.
The short answer is no. Period.
Unless you are a crack shot (and if you were, you’d probably not be carrying a .38 anyway) and can get a head shot in under that kind of pressure, you are much better off having a more significant caliber weapon that will do more damage to a much heavier and larger body moving at speed.
While +P loads may work great on a 240lb human attacker, they probably aren’t going to do much against an 800lb+ grizzly in terms of incapacitation or stopping power, and you may well be better off shooting into the air to try and scare them off with the noise and flash than putting one into their chest.
Remember that even if you do shoot the animal, you are most unlikely to kill it with a .38, and the shock will either make them more aggressive and they would do you harm of a potentially lethal nature, or they would run off wounded and be left to suffer or bleed out.
The wildlife authorities would be justifiably unhappy with you having to go out and find a wounded bear and either dart and treat it or put it down for good.
A .38 Special would not be effective in stopping an attack on yourself or anyone else, so if you are heading to hiking areas where there are known to be bears or wolves or other predators, instead take something that will be effective like a .357 Magnum or even better, something in the .40 – .44 caliber range.
Firing a .38 Special against charging anything weighing 600lbs – 800lbs or more is going to be like trying to stop a freight train with a 30-06 – you’re going to get run over!
As a hunter, you would be carrying enough firepower in your rifle to put your chosen prey down with one shot, and your backup should be equally rated to do the same at close range if need be.
The .38 Special has been around now for more than a century and has a colorful history, having evolved from the .38 Long Colt and Smith and Wesson M10 into the modern +P and FBI loads with a snub nose and heavy barrel guns of today.
It has earned its place in history as one of the most popular and prolific calibers of all time, and with the right load and the proper gun, it is a force to be reckoned with if you are unfortunate enough to be on the wrong end of one.