The Wonderful .38 Special

By Chuck Hawks

.38 Spec.
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The .38 Special is the most popular of all revolver cartridges. It was introduced in 1902 by Smith & Wesson, and has since become a worldwide cartridge. Ammunition is available everywhere handguns are legal. Like almost all pistol cartridges called ".38" the .38 Special actually takes .357" diameter bullets.

In medium size revolvers with 4" or longer barrels, recoil is seldom a problem. And the fact that .38 Special revolvers can be built on small, medium, or large frames means that there is a .38 to fit every hand. For most people, the .38 Special revolver is one of the most pleasant centerfire handguns to shoot.

The .38 Special was an improvement on the previous .38 Long Colt in both striking power and accuracy. Although it was introduced after the introduction of smokeless powder, the Special was originally loaded with black powder, which accounts for its large case capacity.

Over the years the .38 Special has been loaded to several different power levels. Because the .38 Spec. was found to be a very accurate cartridge, perhaps the most accurate of all medium bore pistol cartridges, it was adapted for use in formal target shooting competition. .38 Spec. target loads typically give a 148 grain lead wad-cutter bullet a muzzle velocity of about 700-750 fps. The pressure of most target loads is quite low, probably around 10,000-11,000 cup.

The current SAAMI mean maximum pressure limit for the standard .38 Spec. is 17,000 psi. At this pressure, the .38 Spec. will drive a 158 grain lead bullet at a velocity of about 900 fps. The SAAMI pressure limit for today's .38 Spec. +P loads is 20,000 psi. +P loads can give the 158 grain lead bullet about 1000 fps.

From the 1930's into the 1970's, higher pressure loads intended for large frame revolvers were loaded by the major ammunition companies, and these were marked "HV" (High Velocity) or "HS" (High Speed). Such loads drove a 158 grain lead bullet at about 1100 fps. I do not know the pressure limit of these HV loads, but I would not be surprised to find out it was around 22,000 cup.

All of this makes it difficult to compare the performance of the .38 Special to other popular cartridges. In one shot stopping power, it is about the equal of the .380 ACP when fired from a snub-nose revolver with a 2" barrel. The better JHP loads in both calibers score in the 65-70% range.

From a 4" revolver with +P ammunition, the .38 Special scores a respectable 83% one shot stops with the Cor-Bon 115 grain JHP load, which is the top load in the caliber according to Marshall and Sanow. This makes it comparable to the 9x19 with a 124 grain JHP bullet or the .357 Mag. Medium Velocity 125 grain JHP load.

There are no stopping power results for handloads equivalent to the old High Velocity .38 Special loads (using modern JHP bullets), let alone reloads intended for use only in .38/.357 revolvers taken to the same 35,000 psi limit used for the 9x19 or .40 S&W. Marshall and Sanow sensibly only tabulate factory loads, for which there are known ballistic data available. But common sense tells us that the stopping power percentage for the former would be higher than for current +P factory loads using the same bullets. The latter, due to the greater powder capacity of the .38 Special case and its ability to handle heavier bullets, would very probably be higher than for any load possible in the 9x19.

From the foregoing, one could conclude that the .38 Special is (1) about equal to the .380 Auto in stopping power, (2) about average among .35/9mm cartridges, or (3) among the very best pistol cartridges in stopping power. All three of these statements may well be true, depending on what .38 Special cartridge is fired in what .38 Special revolver. One conclusion is inescapable: the .38 Special is a very flexible and versatile cartridge!

There are a wide variety of bullet weights available in .38 Special factory loads, and also available to reloaders. These range from 90 grains to 200 grains. But the 125 grain JHP and 158 grain lead HP remain the most popular, and for most purposes are the most effective, bullets in the caliber.

Typical factory loads, measured in a 4" vented barrel, give the standard pressure 158 grain lead bullet a muzzle velocity of 755 fps and 200 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy. One shot stop percentages with these loads run 52-53% regardless of bullet shape. Despite theories to the contrary, the semi-wadcutter (SWC or "Keith style") lead bullet has proven no more effective than the traditional round-nose lead (RNL) bullet.

The typical +P factory load gives the 158 grain lead SWC-HP bullet a MV of 890 fps and a ME of 278 ft. lbs. This is a good self-defense load with a one shot stop record of up to 78% (Winchester's version).

The typical +P factory load with a 125 grain JHP bullet has a MV of 945 fps and a ME of 248 ft. lbs. This load is also a good stopper, at 73% one shot stops (Federal's version). It also makes a good field load, as the mid-range trajectory is 1.3" over 50 yards, and 5.4" over 100 yards.

As a long time .38 Special shooter, perhaps my personal preferences may interest some readers. My favorite .38 Special revolver is a Colt Diamondback with a 6" barrel. For practice and plinking I use the Winchester/U.S.A. "White Box" or Remington/UMC factory ammunition with 125-130 grain jacketed bullets. Remington figures claim a muzzle velocity of 950 fps for the UMC load, but in my gun it chronographs considerably slower.

For general field use I handload the 140 grain Speer JHP bullet in front of 4.8 grains of W-231 powder for a muzzle velocity of approximately 870 fps using CCI 500 primers. This bullet is very accurate in my Colt, considerably better than the 125 grain JHP bullets I have tried. At 25 yards this handload has about the same point of impact as the "White Box" or UMC factory loads I use for practice ammunition.

For home defense (in my case "mobile home" defense, since I live in what is now called manufactured housing) I rely on Glaser Blue Safety Slugs in a 4" Diamondback revolver. Over-penetration is a serious concern in a mobile home park, and I figure I have no right to expose my neighbors to needless danger regardless of the threat to myself. In any case, the Glaser Safety Slugs have an excellent record in typical home defense shootings.

My concealed carry Colt Cobra 2" is loaded with standard pressure Federal 125 grain Nyclad hollow point cartridges. This is sometimes called the "Chief's Special" load, as it was developed for 2" revolvers, and gives reliable expansion at lower velocities.

To sum up the .38 Special, it is a very accurate, multi-role, medium power revolver cartridge. It remains one of the most popular of all handgun cartridges, and rightly so. It has the accuracy to be successful on the target range, a trajectory flat enough for field use, and sufficient power for personal defense. When you couple all of that with moderate recoil and a wide range of guns to choose from, it is easy to understand why the .38 Special has successfully stood the test of time.

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Copyright 2001, 2008 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.