Everything You Didn’t Know About the .38 Special

I’ve been firing the .38 Special quite a lot lately, largely due to an excellent Colt Python and a vintage Model 66. Sure, they are .357 Magnums, but I enjoy firing .38 Specials much more. I no longer own any revolver classed as a big bore. All my revolvers are either .38 Special, .357 Magnum, or .22 rimfires.

I am very happy with my modest battery. The most useful, and the most used revolvers, are .38 Specials. A snub nose .38 is always on my person — even if I am carrying another handgun. In many ways, the .38 Special is a better choice for many chores than the .357 Magnum. Accurate, well balanced, and easily controlled in a revolver of appropriate weight, the .38 Special is a fine all around revolver cartridge.

Early Smith & Wesson top break revolver (top) and a S&W Airweight revolver
Early Smith & Wesson top break revolvers, top, chambered in .38 S&W, were reliable and served a purpose. The modern .38 Special is much more useful.

Beginnings

The .38 Special was introduced in 1899. Properly named the .38 Smith & Wesson Special, this cartridge is based on the .38 Long Colt. Yes, Smith & Wesson improved the Colt cartridge and there is good reason for doing so.

In the 1880s, pocket revolvers were chambered for various short .38 cartridges. Each maker usually had their own non-interchangeable cartridge. If you purchased a Remington, you used Remington ammunition. Colt had its cartridges and so did Smith & Wesson.

The .38 Smith & Wesson is a short, chubby cartridge. Nominal ballistics are 146 grains at 650 fps. I recently clocked Magtech loads in a three-inch barrel .38 S&W at 560 fps. Many years ago, I observed a victim of a bar shooting plucking one of these bullets out of his belly before an ambulance arrived!

The .38 Short Colt used a 125-grain bullet at a nominal 730 fps, usually closer to 700 fps. The .38 Short Colt is shorter than the .38 S&W. .38 Colt cartridges usually load and fire in the S&W, but the S&W cartridge will not chamber in a .38 Colt, .38 Long Colt, or .38 Special.

Colt developed the .38 Long Colt for use in the Lightning double-action revolver. It was also used in the swing-out cylinder double-action Colt Model of 1892 adopted by the U.S. Army. This cartridge uses a 152-grain bullet at 750 fps. The U.S. Army went from a cartridge developed to drop an Indian War Pony at 100 yards to a rather anemic .38.

.38 Special revolver with the cylinder open showing six spent cartridges
The .38 Special is a mild shooting and accurate cartridge.

The debacles of the .38 Long Colt, and its poor performance in the Philippines and elsewhere, are a thrice told tale. The cartridge is practically worthless for personal defense. The Army eventually ordered double-action .45 caliber revolvers as a stop gap, after reissuing the Colt SAA .45 Colt revolver. It then conducted the scientific Thompson LaGarde test, and adopted a .45 Automatic pistol.

The Army also purchased a new .38 revolver as a stop gap. Colt’s Model 1892 was none too robust. The Smith & Wesson Military & Police revolver is the most successful revolver of all time. A new cartridge was developed. Since the Army wished to use existing stocks of .38 Long Colt ammunition, Smith & Wesson’s new cartridge featured the same case head and cartridge rim.

The .38 Smith & Wesson Special featured a 158-grain bullet at 870 fps. Velocity is closer to 800 fps in a four-inch barrel revolver. The .38 Special is slightly longer than the .38 Long Colt and will not chamber in .38 Long Colt revolvers.

lightweight .38 S&W revolver with open Federal ammunition box and a paper silhouette target
Even a relatively light .38 revolver may be comfortable to fire and use.

The new revolver and cartridge became very popular. Thus the .38 S&W Special became the first universal revolver cartridge. Everyone who made service revolvers used this cartridge. The revolver was issued to many troops including aviators for the following 80 years. Military police used the revolver in improved versions.

The military loading of a 130-grain FMJ bullet is more anemic than the lead bullet load. The Smith & Wesson Military & Police is a medium-sized revolver and handles well. Recoil is about all occasional shooters can handle. As the great Elmer Keith pointed out, the .38 was very popular based on its light weight and low recoil, unless you actually had to shoot someone with it.

Shortly after the introduction of the Military & Police .38 Special, target sighted versions were developed with ramp front sights, undercut front sights, and a rear sight that was adjustable for windage and elevation. Very interesting shooting contests were undertaken. Americans had the leisure time to engage in marksmanship training, so personal defense was not the only reason for purchasing a firearm.

.38 caliber revolver with the cylinder open and a partially used box of winchester Super Match + ammunition
There is a wide range of bullet weights and loads available in our most popular revolver caliber.

A shooting society, firing revolvers at 100 yards, made good use of the .38 Special. Handloading thrived. Development in bullet design greatly improved the .38 Special. The Thompson LaGarde contest proved that flat point bullets produced much more damage than round nose bullets.

Elmer Keith eventually developed sharp-shouldered semi-wadcutter bullets that had much more wound potential and accuracy potential than other types. By designing the bullet nose to ride outside the cartridge — more so than a RNL bullet — more powder could be used with less pressure. These bullets and the 148-grain target wadcutter maximized the .38 Special.

Colt chambered the SAA and New Service revolvers in .38 Special. These heavy-frame revolvers allowed the development of heavy .38 Special loads. Some broke 1,150 fps with a 158-grain bullet. Keith wrecked a few .38s in experiments, and I am certain it wasn’t a rare occurrence among experimenters. The .38 Special offered high velocity and accuracy not attainable with the big bore revolvers of the day.

The .38-44

Smith & Wesson recognized the need for a more powerful cartridge than the .38 Smith & Wesson Special. Most agencies preferred to issue the low recoil .38. However, mechanized robbers demanded a handgun with greater penetration.

Smith & Wesson Model 13, right profile
The Smith & Wesson Model 13 is basically a heavy barrel Military & Police in .357 Magnum. What a pleasant handgun to fire in .38 Special!

Smith & Wesson developed the .38-44 or Heavy Duty, a .38 Special revolver on the N-Frame or .44 frame. .45 Colt and .44 Special loads using lead bullets (as factory loaded) were not capable of sheet metal penetration as needed to combat the modern bank robber. (Colt’s .38 Super was developed as well, but we were a nation of revolver men….)

The .38/.44 load is a good, hot .38 loaded in a standard .38 Special case but using a large pistol primer the .38/44 loading breaks 1,100–1,150 fps. Keith developed a heavier load at 1,200 fps and handloaders crafted hollow point loads. A 150-, 158-, or 173-grain lead hollow point at 1,100 fps is an ideal law enforcement and personal defense load. The Heavy Duty revolver is superbly accurate and set many long range records.

The Magnum

Looking for even more power the N-Frame revolver was chambered for a special lengthened .38 Special. The .357 Magnum will not chamber in .38 Special revolvers, but you may use the .38 Special in any magnum revolver. The magnum is a great cartridge, a hard hitter, and a capable game taker.

a line of .357 Magnum cartridge offerings
All useful projectiles for the .357 Magnum may be used in .38 Special loads as well. They are a useful combination.

When chambered in medium-frame revolvers, the .357 is hard on small parts. Gas cutting may occur depending on the load. The magnum is a powerful cartridge with many uses. That said, a regimen of 20 .38s in practice, for every magnum fired, is a good one.

Police Service

In 80 years of police work, results with the .38 Special 158-grain RNL were terrible, completely unimpressive. There were so many good loads available from 1930 on, that it boggles the mind that the old RNL bullet was widely issued. In British controlled Hong Kong, if anything other than a RNL or FMJ jacket bullet was issued to police the communist would riot. In America, the Democrats made a more effective cartridge politically incorrect in many jurisdictions.

The .38 Special was generally regarded as capable of stopping a bad guy with a single shot to the toros, about half of the time. This figure was widely quoted. However, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Most stopping power studies are not worth a moment’s reading. They range from flights of the imagination to terribly bad procedure.

Two vintage Colt revolvers
These vintage Colt revolvers have been fired for 50–100 rounds of .38 Special for each .357 Magnum.

I won’t call them science. As Colonel Cooper pointed out, statistics are used by rascals to impress fools. A reputable study by the Police Marksman Association (PMA) was valuable in that it rated hit probability in different types of weapons and shots fired for hits. As for the .38 RNL loading, the PMA rated the cartridge as effective one time in four with a chest hit. This 9mm FMJ loading was much the same.

For many years, a standard handload was a cast hollow point with gas check, loaded to 1,000 fps in the .38 Special… although it may be seated a bit farther out and loaded to 1,200 fps in magnums. This is an excellent all-around loading. The bullets were cast at 150–160 grains — depending on the mold and alloy.

The heavy 173-grain bullet is an exceptional choice in the magnum. When the ammunition companies developed a load for the FBI, the .38 Special FBI load was a 158-grain, lead, semi-wadcutter hollow point at 850–880 fps in a four-inch barrel, similar to the standard hollow point load.

Taurus lightweight .38 S&W with VZ grips
A three-inch barrel, lightweight .38 from Taurus features an excellent set of VZ grips.

According to the PMA study, this load was proven effective with a single, center-chest hit in 3 of 4 incidents investigated — a huge improvement. This type of performance was predicted by the Thompson LaGarde test.

In shooting cadavers and live animals, the FMJ or RNL bullet was a poor performer except in the largest calibers. A flat nose bullet was much more successful in causing damage and even secondary bone fragments. Colonel Thompson specifically recommended cup point (‘manstopper’ bullets as they were called in the day).

This +P loading remains the single best choice for personal defense in .38 Special. The loads are often difficult to find but are loaded by Federal, Winchester, and Remington, with similar performance. Buffalo Bore offers a SWC/HP in cast form with a gas check bullet. This is a considerable improvement over swaged, lead loads.

3 Buffalo Bore .38 Super bullets and one upset round
Most companies load the .38 Super no hotter than a warm 9mm. Buffalo Bore loads offer real performance.

Buffalo Bore’s standard-pressure loading clocks just under 900 fps. The +P version is over 1,000 fps in typical defense revolvers. I carry these Buffalo Bore loads in my magnum carry guns, unless larger animals are a threat in the area I am exploring.

+P Loads

+P loads are not quite as hot as .38-44 loads, but useful. By lowering bullet weight and increasing pressure, a +P load increases velocity and helps instigate bullet expansion. As an example, many +P loads raise velocity of 110–125 loads to well over 1,000 fps — even in a snub nose revolver. Many years ago, factory hollow point loads did not expand, or they expanded too quickly.

Today, a +P loading using the Remington ‘tulip-shaped’ hollow point or Hornady XTP is a viable choice. These loads will expand reliability and are often very accurate. Hornady’s 110-grain Critical Defense is among the reliably expanding .38 Special loads.

Two upset bullets - The Federal Punch .38 Special. left and Remington 125-grain .357 Magnum, right.
The Federal Punch .38 Special on the left is a credible defense load compared to the Remington 125-grain .357 Magnum, right.

+P+ Loads

This is basically an overloaded round, produced by ammunition companies for use by agencies using the .357 Magnum and desiring a more tolerable loading for training and service use. I have clocked the Winchester +P+ 110-grain JHP — sometimes called the Treasury load as it was used by Federal Agents — at 1,175 FPS in a 2.5-inch barrel. It is plenty hot, and makers had the agency sign a ‘hold harmless’ agreement for liability.

The loading was hard on lockwork and aluminum frames. when you used this load in .38 Special revolvers. I am not certain anyone manufactures the +P+ today. Please note that standard pressure .38 Special is running at 17,000 PSI, +P at 20,000 PSI, and the largely unrated +P+ at an average of 23,000 pounds per square inch. Nothing to play with in a vintage Military & Police revolver or a modern economy .38!

Interesting .38 Special loads

4-inch Barrel Velocity (FPS)

Federal 148-grain Wadcutter Match 729
Fiocchi 110-grain +P 1,099
Fiocchi 125-grain +P 1,060
Federal Punch 120-grain +P 931
Buffalo Bore 125-grain JHP Standard Pressure 1,080
Buffalo Bore 110-grain Barnes Standard Pressure 960
Buffalo Bore 158-grain LSWCHP 880
Federal 129-grain Hydra-Shok +P 950

Of what use is the .38 Special?

Among the most useful of revolvers is a four-inch barrel .357 Magnum with adjustable sights. Using .38 Special ammunition, this is a fine training revolver. Using light loads, the revolver is fine for target use and combat training. With standard pressure loads the .38 Special is a fine small game load. I have taken quite a few rabbits and squirrels with the .38.

Hardcast .38 Special loads with a Taurus Tracker revolver
.38 Special hardcast loads and the Taurus Tracker are an outstanding outdoors combination.

For personal defense, a +P loading is useful. In steel-framed guns, it is controllable. In aluminum-frame handguns, standard pressure loads are surprisingly capable. Take a hard look at low flash, low recoil loads. There is no better ‘compromise’ caliber — for the recoil shy or those with a physical impediment — than the .38 Special.

The .38 Special is a powderpuff with standard loads, useful for many pleasant pursuits. For the many shooters who prefer a revolver for personal defense and outdoors use, the .38 Special offers excellent performance. Study the choices in handguns and loads, and you may find the .38 suits you to a T.

Caliber Warning

A huge number of double-action revolvers of varying quality were manufactured in Europe. Many, such as the Brothers Hermanos, were copies of the S&W Military & Police. Some were chambered in .38 Colt as marked on the barrel. The chambering was so sloppy that they will accept the .38 Special. Some will accept the .357 Magnum — Yikes!

.38 Special, left, compared to the .357 Magnum cartridge, right.
The .38 Special, left, compared to the .357 Magnum, right. The .38 is more useful for many chores.

I imagine a combination of soft steel and a magnum cartridge butted into a chamber that would not allow the crimp to open on firing. This would be something akin to a pineapple hand grenade in effect.

Not as dangerous, but something to look out for is butchered Victory Model .38s. Millions were sent to the Brits on lend lease during World War II and then re-sold as surplus. These were chambered in .38 Smith & Wesson. To make them more salable, a chamber reamer was applied to ream out the chamber to accept .38 Special cartridges. In a word, don’t and don’t fire them!

The result was a sloppy fit that results in a standard pressure, .38 Special 158-grain RNL load swelling at the case head. I would imagine a .38 +P would burst with predictable results to the hand and eyes. These revolvers, marked .38 S&W on the barrel, will accept the .38 S&W cartridge and fire normally even after reaming out to .38 S&W Special.

Two old snub nose .38 SPecial revolvers
The old .38 Special revolvers still serve and serve well indeed.

Some of the revolvers were cut to a three-inch barrel and a tiny front sight added. Sight regulation was all over the place. That said, other than these debacles, most .38 Special revolvers are fine companions.

What’s your opinion of the .38 Special? Is it worthy for self-defense or only as training loads for the .357 Magnum? Share your answers in the Comment section.

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