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Should We Bring Back the .38 Special?

by Patrick Sweeney   |  April 16th, 2013 49
38-Special_001

Is the ubiquitous .38 Special revolver passé in today’s semi-auto world? Not by a long shot, says Sweeney.

When the .38 Special was offered to the shooting public back in 1898, smokeless powder was less than a generation old. And for a long time it was a caliber rather well thought of. Then, sometime in the 1960s, when so many other things changed, the .38 Special cartridge became something to look down upon, mock and even disrespect. Why? I guess in time all things traditional and functional become old hat and have to be tossed aside—later reevaluated and then reconsidered. But the .38 Special?

38-Special_002

Hornady FTX (l.) delivers mild recoil, expansion and penetration. In +P form (r.) the FTX delivers more expansion and penetration—but at the cost of more recoil.

My thoughts on this came from testing the Hornady Critical Defense ammo in a .38 snubbie. It was an all-stainless S&W Model 60, a police trade-in backup gun. The recorded velocities were quite a bit under the ones listed on the box, which came as no surprise. But their tested terminal performance was interesting.

The 110-grain standard-pressure loads ran just under 1,000 fps, and the +P loads ran just over that mark. Before you snort in derision, that’s from a barrel just shy of two inches long. The standard-pressure FTX expanded and penetrated, although not to FBI satisfaction. The +P load expanded more and penetrated more. If you can handle the extra hassle of the muzzle blast, the performance bonus is worth it.

Let’s compare those to other compact carry guns—some .380s and some really short-barreled 9mms. First off, no .380 load in existence uses a bullet of 110 grains. The heaviest is 100, and you won’t find those 100-grainers leaving the muzzle over 800 fps. To break 800 fps and approach 850 in a compact .380, you have to settle for 95 grains of bullet weight.

A 9mm will match the 100-grain weight, even best it, with 115-grain bullets. However, a quick flip through my chrono logbook shows me that 115 is not a laser beam bullet out of a compact 9mm that you’d expect. Out of a three-inch barreled 9mm, 115s typically go the same speed that 110s do out of a snubbie revolver: just over 1,000 fps.

On a recent test with a three-inch 9mm, I tested seven different 115-grain bullet loads, only one of which exceeded 1,100 fps. One 115-grain load—a 115-grain +P+—topped 1,200 fps but that was absolutely no fun to shoot.

An ultra-compact 9mm pistol with skimpy grips is not easy to shoot. Yes, a flat and small 9mm hides well and carries easier than a two-inch revolver, but the revolver gives you more to hold on to.

Curious about this, I tried some other loads as well in the Model 60. The next step up in weight was Black Hills Blue, reloads using 125-grain JHPs. This is practice ammo, but some might use the load as carry ammo. The velocity was modest and recoil was likewise.

For someone who is recoil sensitive, this would still be fun to shoot. However, the velocity loss means marginal expansion at best, and while the nose shows some signs of starting to open, it isn’t the classic mushroom shape. But no expansion means extra penetration. The Black Hills load exceeds the FBI minimum and risks exiting a block of gelatin.

The next step up in weight was Speer Gold Dots, 135 grains and +P pressure. Noticeably more robust in recoil but still far short of obnoxious, they expanded and penetrated. While the .38 Special Gold Dots would fail the FBI barrier tests—and I do not know of any .38 Special load that passes those—it exceeds the FBI minimum 12 inches in bare gel.

Entering the top end of bullet weight, we enter the no-expansion realm out of a snubnose .38. I shot Cor-Bon 147-grain full metal jacket, Blazer 158-grain lead round nose and Hornady 158-grain XTP. None expanded, nor would I expect them to.

Actually, none has ever expanded, and it was notable to recover neither the Blazer nor the Cor-Bons. Even at the modest velocities they muster, they will consistently exit the back of a gelatin block, even an 18-inch rifle block. I have used the Cor-Bon in competition, where its modest recoil and excellent accuracy serve me well.

Now, the lack of expansion and the modest velocity of the heavyweights may be of concern to some. Just remember we can’t get something for nothing. Yes, we could ask for more, but at what cost? By the time you accelerate a 158-grain bullet to expansion velocities, we’ve used up all the easy-to-carry goodwill that a compact handgun provides. It is no fun to shoot, regardless of caliber.

And if you think center-punching a miscreant through the sternum with a 158-grain lead round nose is an inconsequential wound, you’ve been watching too many vampire movies.

So far I’ve been considering the performance of the .38 Special in ultra-compact carry guns. The lightest, such as the Smith & Wesson Model 442, weighs 15 ounces. A Ruger LCR weighs 13 ounces while the Model 60 is a relative heavyweight at 19 ounces.

What if we move up? There are a lot of .38 Special revolvers that are now considered “too big” to carry, despite having been carried in decades past. A .38 with a barrel of four inches or longer can serve well as a house gun. Smith & Wesson made a bazillion .38 Special Model 10s, most with tapered five-inch barrels. The K-frame grip is one many shooters find comfortable, and every grip maker who makes grips for revolvers makes them for the K frame. Rugers are legion, and the medium-size wheelguns are in the mid-30s when you tote up the ounces. Soft recoil is the main menu item here.

Four-, five- and six-inch barrels are going to boost velocities an appreciable amount. These longer barrels, driving their bullets faster, will generate more expansion and do so with less muzzle blast and recoil. That’s a combination difficult to dislike for a house gun.

Further, the grips of the medium-frame guns are easy to hold and shoot. As a house gun or a nightstand gun, a “too big to carry” .38 can be a useful tool and a comforting one, too.

38-Special_003

Click to enlarge.

I can see some doubters in the crowd. While the performance of the .38 measures up to our 9mm expectations, the hue and cry goes up: “It doesn’t hold enough ammo.” I guess that depends on how much missing you plan to do.

If you walk into a gun shop and its sells ammo, it will have .38 Special ammo of some kind on the shelf. And as a final bonus, when it comes to reloading, the .38 Special is king. There are more available components, more powders that work, than any other caliber. When it comes to the categories of no-drama and easy-to-reload, there is no caliber that even pretends to contend with the .38 Special.

With all that going for it, will someone please explain to me why we fell out of love with this cartridge?

  • http://www.facebook.com/billy.thompson.9216 Billy Thompson

    Mr. Sweeny, thank you for doing some considerate research in this area. I carry an SP101 5 shot .357 with 125gr JHPs. Now, I like the velocity of this round, but as you mentioned in your article, expansion is the issue coming out of a 2″ snubbie. I also carry a 1911-A1, and some times a Taurus PT111 Pro. It’s my snubbie I come back to for pocket carry, and when I need ultra deep concealment it’s a 1911. The issues you’ve discussed are relevant not just because of my love for revolvers, but because I worry about the defensive performance of my ammo. .38special is much easier to handle recoil, but you hear those stories about how ineffective the round was in combat so it makes you question whether it would save your life if you had to use a firearm to defend yourself.

    Again, thanks for helping me out!

    • Randol Thrasher

      “but you hear those stories about how ineffective the round was in combat so it makes you question whether it would save your life if you had to use a firearm to defend yourself.”Actualy,
      That was the .38 Colt, a much weaker round:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.38_Long_Colt

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothy.wahl.7 Timothy Wahl

    bring it back? never realized it went anywhere…one of the most versatile cartridges ever made….strong enough to use as home defense as well as deep concealment…a true jewel to reload and plink with…it’ll be around longer than we will…that’s for sure!!!!

  • 277Volt

    The .38 Special is still very, very special!

  • http://twitter.com/ColeJones3 Cole Jones

    .38 Spec is not gone but the .357 is a better police round because of the power. .38 is better for trainman .357 pistol’s and learning to use a revolver. Great Article though

    • rebart

      Good luck shooting the .357 in a small pocket gun.

    • Chris

      Cole, the .38 is not a training round. True the .357 has much more stopping power but the .38 is also adequate for carry. Up until 1992 the Ohio State Patrol Troopers carried .357′s down loaded w/ .38 caliber rounds, until they introduced the semi autos in the .40 cal. The .38 was used by most law enforcement until semi autos came into play. A lot of law enforcement still carry the .38 loaded w/ +p as a back up in an ankle holster.

  • T.D. Honeycutt

    I was with you there until I read this statement: “If you walk into a
    gun shop and its sells ammo, it will have .38 Special ammo of some kind
    on the shelf.”

    A couple weeks ago, I drove around trying to find
    such ammo like Federal Personal Defense at 110 grain, which is my choice
    for a 1 7/8 inch Smith & Wesson snub nose. No dice. Well, you’ve
    give some good options for when we get on the other side of the Great
    Ammo Buy Out.

    • ditchdigger

      Think about 200 gr. wadcutters loaded backwards. I haven’t fooled with 2” .38s in 40 yrs, have little interists in shooting anything that is not fur or feather, but if I did, it would be a .38 or .357, 200grain wadcutter loaded backwards. That level of violence, the one that wins, looses part of their soul.

  • Paul Echols

    I’m with several of the others. I never thought it went away. Did S&W stop making the model 60″s and all her children. I do admit when the Colt Diamondbacks and Cobras etc. ceased there was a loss. But there are still and always been good .38 Specials on the shelves.

  • http://twitter.com/ComeAndTakeIt16 Tracy Thorleifson

    I never fell out of love with the .38 Special. For summer carry in Houston, my go-to gun is a S&W M&P 360PD equipped with XS night sights and Crimson Trace LG-405 laser grips. This gun is crazy light, disappears in your front pants pocket in a pocket holster, and the cushy LG-405 grips really tame the rather snappy recoil. With the laser, it’s also surprisingly accurate. With a couple of HKS speedloaders riding in the opposite pocket, I hardly feel under-gunned.

    I initially carried Hornady Critical Defense .357 rounds in this gun. However, the .357 recoil in such a light gun is punishing, the muzzle blast nothing short of spectacular, and the cases hard to extract with the J-Frame’s stubby ejector rod. The Hornady Critical Defense .38 Special +P rounds cure those problems, and you’re really not giving up that much in velocity. Winner, winner, chicken dinner! :-)

  • Bill

    I certainly cannot disagree. I learned how to reload on the 38 special and it is forgiving. Back then I carried a very special model 36. However being relieved of that after a burglary I saw no reason to replace it. A few years ago after doing a good bit of research I decided on the Glock 27. I was able to get a police trade in and save money in addition to getting night sights. With a good bit of practice it became tamed and I was comfortable not only using it in conceal carry, but also for quick access home defense. This allows me to keep others safely locked away including two 38 specials. Today it seems as though the average American is larger, more perps are on adrenalin pumping drugs, and very often are not alone. There is certainly nothing wrong with the legend, but in today’s variety and more threats, there is nothing wrong with tailoring firearm and ammunition to ability and availability.

  • Greg Hodur

    I love the .38. My problem is i got caught up in the hype that you need to carry more rounds. But what good is more rounds if you arent as accurate with a pistol as you are with a revolver. I love carrying my LCR .357 loaded with hornady .38 critical defense!

  • rebart

    My favorite revolver is my S&W 642 loaded with Critical Defense, at this time. I truly wish my Colt Detective Special wasn’t so heavy as I prefer the six shots. I wish Colt would make a modern Det. Spec. that was lighter and had six shots. I’d buy one in a heartbeat. I have a fairly old Dick Special that I keep in a bedroom drawer across the bed from the drawer on my side where my HK .45 is. The DS just isn’t the pocket gun the 642 is, but it could be. What happened to Colt? Are they brain dead up there in the land of the frozen left-wingers?

  • rebart

    If you tested it with Critical Defense, why isn’t Critical Defense in the chart? I’d love to know more about Critical Defense.

    • RedFalconBill

      rebart,
      Hornady FTX is Critical Defense.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jon-Dalton/1469874365 Jon Dalton

    for some of us , .38sp never went away. here in South Africa .38 is a cost effect round and in our hot weather , a small 5 shot revolver is a good deterrent for criminals. better than a .22 , smaller than a .45 , its MY favorite, either from a compact 2 inch barreled S&W or a longer barreled ruger.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chipper.donnelly Chipper Donnelly

    We own 2. S&W model 10, and a Ruger LCR. Love em both!

  • BJC

    I never lost faith in the 38 SP. My carry gun is a Colt Detective Special in 38 SP I keep it loaded with +P 158gr jacketed hollow points. I added a Hogue grip and the recoil is very manageable. I also carry two inline 5 round speed loaders for a total of 15 rounds for protection. Nice article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/william.azzara William Azzara

    Use my old duty S&W Model 66 4″ 357 with Critical Defense and two speed loaders in my nightstand. Still use my S&W model 60 with Pachmayr’s Compac Grips loaded with Critical Defense and carry 2 speed loaders. My 9mm is loaded with Critical Duty 16 rounds and spare mag in my vehicle . Retired LEO and old Boy Scout :)

    • ditchdigger

      There are .357s out there that are almost as small as a .38. Rural folks may have to deal with 4 legged critters that don’t understand or give a sh-t about verbal warnings.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hstan.boring H Stan Boring

    I was raised and trained on the 1911…Mmmmm good! Later in life working security I carried a Colt Trooper in .357…Also good. Undercoveer or in civvies I carried a S&W model 38 Bodyguard (the old model) in .38 Special. Now that I’m an old dude of 75 the bodyguard is still my choice, along with a Star BM Spanish Navy in 9mm for occasions where more rounds might be in order. With an extra mag, I have almost three times the capacity of the Bodyguard. I also have a 3 inch S&W midel 36 square but that I like a lot for the greater sight radius. The house gun is a S&W 457 9mm with 15 round mag. Nobody has ever seriously bothered me. One guy brought a knife to a gun fight, but that’s about it.

  • Jaguar lover

    Dirty Harry said 38s clean only wind steers. Police & Law Enforcement in all around the world had trouble with 38s against criminals who had semi Auto of kinds because all revolvers were to slow to fire.

  • micko77

    I didn’t get the memo, and neither did my Dillon, or the 5-6k pieces of brass in the basement! I’ve reloaded well over 500k .38 Special rounds over the years, the vast majority of which I cast the 150-gr. bullets for. Very forgiving, versatile, and brass lasts well after the nickel wears off if one taper-crimps and uses modest loads. My 686 handles them as if they were .22′s; my old Mod. 15 loves them, and the Mod. 38 Bodyguard has had several thousand through as well. For carry, such as it is in IL, I’m keeping to the Hornady Critical Defense +P’s in all of them for uniformity/interchangeability, and HKS speedloaders x 2 each gun.. and I in no way feel “undergunned”. Yes, there is a 9mm and a .40 in the house as well, but EVERYONE in the house can run a wheelgun!

    • micko77

      My only regret now is having sold/traded off various Mod. 19/66′s! Loved the 4″; can’t find one under $400 now.

  • anampses

    Nope, the round in my opinion never went away. I have a snubnose Chiappa Rhino in my rotation that I always carry with .38 Special. Muzzle flip with the Rhino, especially with .38 Special, handles more like a .22LR revolver. Control and follow up shots are superb.

  • Grelberforever

    Hey, whadda you mean my 2″barreled K-10 isn’t a carry gun? My “other” .38 Spl is a K-15 for the Night Stand. Both are loaded with and have been for some time Hornady +P 110 gr FTX.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mario.mayorga3 Mario Mayorga

    With me it never went away. I have been shooting 38 spl for over 30 years. I have several but my favorites are model 60 snub,model 10 6 inch. I make my own loads and can hit what I aim at with my own cast bullets. The key for defense is shot placement. So lots of practice is essential. With 2500 reloads on hand and 4000 empties ready to reload. I’ll be dead and buried before I run out. Oh yeah I forgot. My colt Army special dated 1902 is my carry piece with the original holster. It’s a old timer magnet at the range.

  • Ken

    Never went to a meeting with bad guys without a S&W snubbie and a couple of rubber strip clip in the other pocket.
    My last fight in 20** …took two guys with Beretta 92′s with my snubbie…they never saw it coming.
    Good for up to two serious bad guys.

  • steve0321

    I wasn’t aware the .38 SP ever disappeared! I have a Taurus Ultra-Lite Protector Model 851 that I love. It’s lightweight and easy to shoot. The 38 & 357 rounds are the easiest rounds to reload, and can be done pretty cheaply. Shooting +P rounds is not comfortable, but also not necessary. I think my 110 gr Federal Hydra-shock JHP’s will do just fine. Concealed carry is not that bad, a bit thicker that a semi auto but shorter and much lighter.

  • Vaughan

    The .38 special never went away at all! The marketing staff at gun manufacturers are tasked with coming up with “new and exciting” products to attract buyers. Gun magazines pick up on this (placements for ads means $$) so it is important to have the “best”, the “latest” and “most desirable”. The new pocket .380s and 9mms get all the buzz so they are on the minds of buyers. The .38 has always been there, it is effective and valuable. It will come back in style again. Lately I have been amazed at the high prices of new revolvers, in style or not.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kyle.kutach Kyle Kutach

    The problem with the old ‘tried-n-true’ .38 Special as carried for decades by many LEOs was the standard issue loading – a 158 grain lead round nose bullet generating something like 750 – 800 fps MV from a 4″ barrel. Considering the marginal bullet placement achieved in many police shootings, it was hardly a manstopper, especially if you add heavy clothing and/or barricades to the equation. It simply didn’t perform unless you achieved several good hits in vital places. This is why when Lee Jurras and SuperVel came out with their zippy 110 grain JHP that clocked around 1200 fps, those of us that were carrying S&W M-10s and M-15s stuffed them in the chambers right away. Loaded correctly, the .38 Special is a viable self-defense round but just like any other, bullet placement is the key.

  • Cameron Triplett Sr

    Everybody always wants the newest, fanciest version of what’s popular today. Me? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I have a .38 snubbie I’ve carried for over 25 yrs. Never had to use it yet, but if I ever do, I know it will do the job.

  • smokin hashish

    i like the 38, & own a couple, but it doesnt matter how many caliber wars threads i read or what one is getting bashed, for me it is and wwwill be the do it all 10mm auto, its the perfect caliber, not just because of the power, there are far more powerful calibers, its the most versitile, and contfary to popular belief, the glock 29 doesnt kick that bad, less than 357 mag actually. But has more power. Most folks i know are 45 guys, but 45 just never impressed me, actually dissapointed me, got tired of seeing the 9mm with good plus p ammo out perform it, 38 special in ruger sp 101 though.. sweet gun. Peace.

  • shawn boone

    i would like too see .38 secial come back because i have .38special revoler more .38special hollow points in non+p

    • Bugsy-B

      Shawn, I’m totally with you on that. I’ve come back to now having 5 .38 Special revolvers again. My last 3 gun purchases were ’60s and ’70s vintage Smith and Wesson revolvers in .38 Special. They’re great to shoot, and are still quite viable as a defensive weapon in the 21st century. Long live the .38 Special!

  • oldbill

    You can see if it is loaded. If you are in a crisis, point and pull the trigger. If the target is twenty-five yards away or running away, it isn’t “self-defense” any more. If the target is armed, and you’ve missed five times, you’ve given it the old college try. Spend more time at the range. I have a five gallon pail of 38 special brass that has been fired several times. With wheel weight bullets, W231, and CCI primers bought before the Brady Bill went into effect, I still make 158 grain (LRN, LSWC, LTC, and LDEWC (146 gr)) for about 4 cents a shot. It’s cheaper to shoot than 22 LRs.

  • petru sova

    I wish I would never have sold my 1970′s nickel plated S&W Body Guard which could be fired right from inside my pocket. I wish I could find an unfired one. Of course I would never consider buying ay of the unreliable MIM cast junk Smith is vomiting out today.

  • Doug Davis

    Had five .357s and then one day this M-10 started calling to me. I finally took it home, and it was probably the best purchase I ever made. Can’t believe how accurate it is, and just plain fun to shoot. A rancher I know carries a .38 for putting down steers and anything else that needs to be shot. When folks (including me) ask him why he didn’t carry something bigger, he says, “If you put the bullet where it’s supposed to go you don’t need anything bigger.”

  • petru sova

    In the 1980′s Pistolero magazine went to Mexico to get around U.S. animal cruelty acts. They shot barn yard pigs with the .38 special, 357 mag 9mm and .45acp. They found no difference whatsoever in the killing power of all of the above cartridges. Put the bullet in the vital zone and they all killed just as well.

  • SLS Member

    Handloading a 125 grain Hornady XTP JHP to .38 SPL +P seems to be a good round for me. Shooting them from a .357 Mag with a 5-1/2″ barrel at a paper target, it has acceptable recoil characteristics and therefore re-acquiring the target is acceptably quick. It leaves me with confidence that it will be a useful self defense load. A theory I hope to never prove in actuality, however.

  • Ivan Tretiak

    Just bought a 5 shot Taurus 38. special ,, Love it !

  • MrApple

    If anyone is interested here is a list of .38 Special loads (in no particular order) that all seem to have favorable performance if the articles and videos on YouTube are to be believed. Feel free to give your personal opinion on the list.

    Federal .38 Special 125gr Nyclad HP

    Winchester Silvertip .38 Special 110gr JHP

    Federal Low Recoil Personal Defense Hydra-Shok .38 Special 110gr JHP

    Hornady .38 Special 158gr XTP

    Speer Gold Dot .38 Special +P 125gr GDHP

    Hornady .38 Special 110gr FTX Critical Defense

    Hornady .38 Special +P 110gr FTX Critical Defense

    Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel .38 Special +P 135gr

    Buffalo Bore Standard Pressure Short Barrel Low Flash Heavy .38 Special 158gr SWC

    Buffalo Bore Standard Pressure Short Barrel Low Flash Heavy .38 Special 150gr. HCWC

    Winchester PDX1 .38 Special +P 130gr Bonded JHP

    Winchester Ranger .38 Special +P 130gr Bonded JHP

    Remington Golden Saber .38 Special +P 125gr JHP

  • RRR

    I have been shooting a 38 for over 55 years I have shot a lot of cailabrs but the most fun i feel is with the 38 Good shooting to you all AND MY GOD BLESS YOU ALL

  • godfrey matsepe

    Hi
    I have a mock trial going on at the moment so can you please help me in finding out how far a person who is being shot supposed to be if the gun powder depossits are found on him? by the way the gun used to shoot the deceassed is a .38 revolver.

  • BIGDAVE54

    You are mistaken about your numbers for .380 ammo. I carry the Remington Golden Sabre round in my 15 shot Bersa Thunder Plus backup gun. It is 102 grains and Chronos. at an avg. of 906 fps close to muzzle.

  • ditchdigger

    In the 60s, my brother in law and best freind from 8th grade, who was a Ca, narcotics officer , started loading 200 grain wadcutters backwards, stiff load of bullseye for back up or hide out guns, mostly Smith Chief Specials. Dought if anything will beat it from a bellygun today.

  • Thomas F. McDonald

    a smith m-10 is my go to everything gun. Hand loaded thousands of rounds, carried it as a duty gun on the job for 15 years. then went to 9mm, then to 45acp. I retired and returned to my .38..

  • Cold Steel

    When I was a NYC Cop the choice of ammo was political. No hollow points or Autos because it gave the police an unfair advantage. But that all changed and went to 9mm or as we used to call it a 15 round .22 and you really needed all those rounds to stop someone. The real problem was not the round but the type of round. The US Army used round nose 38 with no stopping power and NYC used 158 swc with OK success out of full revolver but not out of a snubby. But as a civilian your choice of ammo is far greater and better than the Military and Police. Ammo for the 38 sp is way better than it used to be. Ammo is being made especially for snubbies that out performs 9mm. 38 sp is the favorite among women due to ease. 357′s advertise they take 38′s I wonder why? The 38 sp snubbie is light weight, low recoil, low maintenance, reliable, no safety just point and shoot unlike autos. Just load the right ammo especially if it’s a snubbie. Ammo out of a 2″ barrel shoots different than a 4″.

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