Compared: The 9mm Luger and .38 Special

By Chuck Hawks

The .38 Special is a classic revolver cartridge developed in the U.S. in 1902 by Smith & Wesson. It was developed as a ballistic improvement over the .38 Long Colt, and proved to be one of the most accurate and successful handgun cartridges ever designed. The .38 Special also became a very popular and successful police service cartridge.

That same year, in Germany, Georg Luger was introducing a 9mm cartridge that would come to bear his name, the 9mm Luger. Both his pistol, the P-08, and his cartridge were adopted by the German military in 1908. Germany used the 9mm Luger cartridge (also known as the 9mm Parabellum and 9x19) with great success in two world wars. After the Second World War the 9x19 was adopted as the official NATO pistol and sub-machine gun cartridge, and in 1985 the U.S. finally relented and adopted the 9mm Luger as the U.S. service round, replacing the venerable .45 ACP. The 9x19 is also a popular police service cartridge around the world.

These two circa 1902 cartridges remain among the most popular handgun cartridges in the world, widely used wherever they are legally available. Any cartridge that has enjoyed so much success for so long must have a lot going for it, and this is true of both the .38 Special and 9mm Luger.

A great many revolvers on large, medium and small frames have been offered in .38 Special, along with derringers, single shot pistols, rifles, and even some semi-automatic pistols. And guns chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge can also use .38 Special ammunition. Likewise, a great many semi-automatic pistols have been offered in 9x19 on large, medium, and small frames, along with a few sub-machine guns, revolvers and derringers.

The .38 Special uses a traditional rimmed, straight case designed for healthy charges of bulky black powder. It was quickly converted to the new and much more efficient smokeless powder, as it became available. Much of that case capacity is wasted with target and standard velocity loads, but it does provide the flexibility for more powerful "+P" and "High Speed" or "High Velocity" loads. The .38 Special case is 1.155" long with a base diameter of .379" and accepts .357" diameter bullets. The SAAMI maximum average pressure (MAP) for the .38 Special has been reduced to only 17,000 psi. The MAP for .38 Special +P loads is a modest 20,000 psi. This is below the pressure of the High Speed factory loads offered from the 1930's well into the 1970's for strong .38 Special revolvers. (Those loads offered a 158 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity [MV] of 1090 fps with muzzle energy [ME] of 425 ft. lbs.)

There are so many different commercial .38 Special loads that it would require too much space to examine them here. I counted 74 loads from 9 different ammunition manufacturers using bullets weighing from 101 to 158 grains in the 2003 edition of the Shooter's Bible, and there are other loads and manufacturers that were not listed. For the purposes of this article I am going to select one common and widely available load which is easy to compare to a similar 9x19 load. This is the Remington Premier +P load using a 125 grain Golden Saber JHP bullet at a muzzle velocity of 975 fps and muzzle energy of 264 ft. lbs. At 50 yards the figures are 929 fps and 238 ft. lbs. The mid-range trajectory of that load is 1.0" over 50 yards. These are Remington figures, measured in a 4" vented (revolver) barrel.

The 9x19 uses a much more compact rimless case with a slight straight taper to improve feed reliability in self-loading pistols. Indeed, the 9x19 is one of the most reliable semi-automatic pistol cartridges ever designed. This case is .754" long with a base diameter of .3926" and accepts .355" diameter bullets. The SAAMI MAP for the 9x19 is 35,000 psi.

As with the .38 Special, the popularity of the 9x19 insures that a great variety of factory loads are available. I counted 76 loads from 10 different ammunition companies using bullets weighing from 95 to 147 grains in the 2003 edition of the Shooter's Bible, and again I know of others that were not listed. For comparison purposes I chose the Remington Premier load using a 124 grain Golden Saber JHP bullet at a MV of 1125 fps and ME of 349 ft. lbs. At 50 yards the numbers are 1031 fps and 293 ft. lbs. The mid-range trajectory of that load is also 1.0" over 50 yards. Again, these are Remington figures measured in a 4" (closed breech--not vented) barrel.

Trajectory is not usually of primary importance with handgun calibers, and in any case there is no practical difference between the selected .38 Special and 9x19 loads over 50 yards. For use by small game and varmint hunters and general recreational shooters in the field, it must be remembered that not all game is shot right off the muzzle, so the relatively flat trajectory (for standard handgun calibers) of the .38 Special and 9x19 is appreciated.

Let me point out that more loads are available for these two calibers than for any other handgun cartridges. Since for personal protection both use bullets of roughly the same weight and diameter, no practical difference in performance will found based on bullet frontal area or sectional density. Bullet design (which is the same in our comparison loads), velocity, and kinetic energy will decide the issue of stopping power.

Today the clear advantage in both velocity and energy belongs to the 9x19. The advantage in MV is 150 fps, which translates to an advantage in ME of 85 ft. lbs. This is because of the 9x19's higher MAP. If the cases of both calibers could simply be loaded to 100% density with an appropriate powder, the larger case capacity of the .38 Special would make it the more powerful caliber, but this is not possible within SAAMI pressure guidelines.

As an aside, that is how the .357 Magnum was originally developed. It started as high velocity loads for the .38 Special that drove a 158 grain cast lead bullet at a MV of approximately 1100 fps. Such loads are no longer available. Today's "+P" loads are a pale imitation of the commercial High Speed loads of the past.

This difference in energy translates to perhaps a 10% advantage in one shot stopping power for the 9x19, based on the results published by Evan Marshall and Edwin Sanow in their book Handgun Stopping Power. The Remington Golden Saber bullets used in our comparison loads had not been introduced at the time of that book's publication. Of the loads for which Marshall and Sanow had data, the top .38 Special load was the Cor-Bon +P 115 grain JHP with a one shot stop rate of 83%. The Cor-Bon 115 JHP +P load for the 9x19 became the top "stopper" in that caliber with a one shot stop rate of 91%.

For hunters and recreational shooters the .38 Special has at least three advantages over the 9x19. First is the superbly accurate target type revolvers with 6" and longer barrels available in the caliber. Second is the greater velocity range of factory and reloaded ammunition (approximately 600 to 1100 fps). And third is the possibility of +P loads using bullets of superior sectional density (SD) in the 158-200 grain range for increased penetration. The 147 grain .355" (9mm) bullet has a SD of .167, compared to SD's of .177 for the 158 grain and .202 for the 180 grain .357" bullets. This makes the .38 Special superior to the 9x19 for protection against potentially dangerous predators like wolves, black bears and cougars.

Handloaders will be well served by either cartridge, as there are plenty of bullets and brass for both calibers. Bullet weights range from about 90 to 147 grains in 9x19 and 95 to 200 grains in .38 Special. As always, the revolver caliber has the advantage for reloading, as its action does not indiscriminately toss fired brass on the ground. Also revolvers, unlike semi-automatic pistols, are not sensitive to the pressure or recoil impulse of their cartridges. This allows .38 loads to have a much greater velocity range than 9x19 loads without sacrificing reliability.

While high performance 9x19 factory loads are loaded to full pressure, .38 Special factory loads are very conservative and the judicious reloader can produce much more effective ammunition without exceeding the +P pressure limit. A 125 grain JHP bullet can be driven to a MV of about 1100 fps with ME of 336 ft. lbs. from a 6" revolver barrel. For the handloader, the .38 Special revolver has more potential than the 9x19 semi-automatic pistol.

The final factor to consider when choosing any handgun cartridge is recoil. And recoil is certainly an important factor when considering handguns for personal protection or home defense, and to a lessor extent for recreational shooters and hunters in the field.

Fortunately, both the .38 Special +P and 9x19 loads in our comparison have fairly moderate recoil and muzzle blast in medium frame guns of average weight. However, either can become a handful in very lightweight, small frame guns. They have noticeably more kick and blast than .38 Special target loads, but also noticeably less of both than handgun calibers like the .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and .357 Magnum.

The "Handgun Recoil Table" shows that in guns of typical weight the 125 grain .38 Special +P load develops 2.9 ft. lbs. of recoil energy and a recoil velocity of 9.2 fps, and the 9x19 develops 6.0 ft. lbs. of recoil energy and a recoil velocity of 16.0 fps. This difference is primarily because the average medium frame auto pistol is lighter than the average medium frame revolver. In a gun of equal weight (2.25 pounds in this case) the 9x19's recoil would be about 4 ft. lbs., still greater, but much closer to that of the .38 Special +P.

To recap what we have learned, both cartridges are very popular and offer a large assortment of factory loaded ammunition. There is no shortage of guns in either caliber, although the revolver shooter will likely choose the .38 Special and the semi-automatic pistol fan will likely choose the 9x19.

In terms of velocity and kinetic energy the 9x19 is superior to the .38 Special +P with typical factory loads. The .38 Special +P can be brought up to 9x19 energy levels, but this requires full power handloads.

The 9x19 is likewise superior to the .38 Special +P in terms of stopping power, at least when factory loaded ammunition is used against human assailants. As protection against dangerous animals for campers, fishermen and hikers, full power .38 Special +P loads using the heavier bullets available in the caliber (158 to 200 grains) offer superior penetration and presumably killing power.

In trajectory there is little to choose between the two cartridges. They are about equal over normal handgun ranges. Neither shoots as flat as a magnum, but both out range most other standard pistol cartridges.

For use in the field as a plinking, target, or hunting pistol, the .38 Special has the advantage. This is partly due to its greater range of bullet weights and velocities, and partly due to the fine target revolvers available in the caliber, which are more suitable for field use than most autoloading pistols.

Both cartridges are suitable for reloading, but the .38 Special has the edge in load flexibility. And, for the reloader, revolvers are inherently more convenient and forgiving than semi-automatic pistols.

With factory loads in pistols of average weight the .38 Special +P kicks less than the 9x19. If full power handloads are compared in pistols of equal weight there is little difference in recoil.

One should conclude from this comparison that the .38 Special and 9x19 are both excellent handgun cartridges that have survived the test of time. For home defense, personal defense, or general recreational use they are pretty hard to beat. The choice between the two is much more likely to come down to a preference for either the revolver or the autoloading pistol than any advantage possessed by either cartridge.

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Copyright 2003, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.