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The .38 Special

By Chuck Hawks

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

The .38 Special is the most popular of all centerfire 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.

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.

The .38 Spec. is another of those cartridges with which I have had a lot of experience. 110 and 125 grain JHP bullets as factory loaded are the usual choice for personal defense. Medium pressure reloads using 125 grain bullets are a reasonable choice for plinking and small game hunting. The 140 grain Speer JHP bullet has generally provided better accuracy than the lighter bullets in my revolvers, and is my choice for all-around use. For target shooting, it is hard to beat a 148 grain wadcutter propelled by a light charge of Bullseye or W231 powder.

For general field use I handload the 140 grain Speer JHP bullet in front of 4.8 grains of W231 powder for a muzzle velocity of approximately 870 fps using CCI 500 primers. This bullet is very accurate in my Colts. At 25 yards this handload has about the same point of impact as the Winchester/USA "White Box" or UMC factory loads I also use for practice ammunition.

A good full power load for .38 Special +P revolvers uses the 140 grain Speer bullet in front of 7.0 grains of HS6 powder for a MV of 960 fps from a 6" revolver barrel. This load, taken from the Speer Reloading Manual Number 13, uses Speer cases and CCI 500 primers.

Note: A full length article about the .38 Special can be found on the Handgun Cartridges page.

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Copyright 2004, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.