38 Special vs. 9mm: A Comprehensive Comparison

38 special vs 9mm

In the debate between .38 Special and 9mm, both calibers have their own unique characteristics and applications.

The .38 Special, primarily used in revolvers, is known for its heavier bullet and potential for increased damage, making it suitable for certain applications such as deer hunting if you are so adventurous.

On the other hand, the 9mm, typically found in semi-automatic weapons, boasts higher capacity and is generally considered ballistically superior for defensive uses.

When it comes to load capacity, handguns hampered in .38 Special “usually” hold 5 to 6 rounds, while 9mm handguns can carry upwards of 20 rounds or more.

This difference in capacity stems from the fact that .38 Special rounds are made almost exclusively for revolvers, whereas 9mm Luger is designed for semi-automatic weapons.

Both calibers have their advantages and disadvantages, making the choice heavily dependent on the user’s specific needs and preferences.

History and Development

.38 Special

The .38 Special cartridge was introduced in 1898 as an improvement over the older .38 Long Colt, which was used by the United States Army during the late 19th century.

It quickly gained popularity due to its efficiency and ease of use in both military and civilian contexts.

The .38 Special remained the standard service cartridge for the majority of United States police departments from the 1920s to the 1990s.

It has also been a common sidearm cartridge used by United States military personnel in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

In other parts of the world, it is known by its metric designation.


The 9mm Luger, or 9x19mm Parabellum, is a popular handgun cartridge designed by Georg Luger and introduced in 1902 as an improvement over the existing 7.65x21mm Parabellum.

The 9mm was initially intended for use in the Luger semi-automatic pistol, but it quickly gained widespread adoption due to its reliable performance and ease of manufacturing.

Since then, the 9mm has become the most widely used pistol cartridge in the world, favored by military, law enforcement, and civilian users alike for its ballistics, capacity, and affordability.

The 9mm Luger has seen a variety of improvements and variations throughout its history, including the development of specialized cartridges for specific purposes.

Modern 9mm ammunition comes in a wide range of bullet weights and types, making it a versatile and adaptable choice for many different shooting situations.

Ballistics Comparison


When comparing the .38 Special and 9mm, the latter generally exhibits a higher velocity.

A .38 Special typically fires bullets with velocities between 679 and 980 feet per second, with variation depending on the barrel length and type of gun.

On the other hand, 9mm bullets tend to have faster velocities with the average varying depending on the specific load and barrel length.

According to a velocity testing article on AmmoLand, the Federal 147gr Hydra-Shok JHP had an average velocity of 982 feet per second (fps) out of a 4-inch barrel.

Another source, Ballistics 101, lists the muzzle velocity for various 9mm loads, ranging from 995 fps to 1340 fps.


The energy of a bullet is an important factor to consider when evaluating its effectiveness.

The energy of a bullet is directly related to its mass and velocity.

The .38 Special can have bullets that are 11 grains heavier than 9mm rounds, implying that it could potentially have a greater impact on a target.

However, this potential advantage in mass should be weighed against the 9mm’s higher velocity.


Penetration depth is another key factor in determining the effectiveness of a handgun caliber.

A heavier bullet generally penetrates better but at a slower speed.

In this regard, the .38 Special’s heavyweight load tops out at 158 grains, while the 9mm maxes out at 147 grains.

Although the .38 Special moves slower, its heavier loads might offer better penetration compared to the 9mm.

When considering ballistics comparisons between the .38 Special and 9mm, it is essential to analyze factors such as velocity, energy, and penetration.

Both calibers have their advantages and disadvantages, and the specific application of the handgun should play a crucial role in determining which caliber is best suited for your needs.

Is a .38 Special as Powerful as a 9mm?

box of 38 special ammunition

When comparing the power of the .38 Special and 9mm, it is important to consider factors such as velocity, internal pressure, and bullet weight.

The .38 Special generally has a lower velocity than the 9mm, with bullets traveling between 679-980 feet per second.

In terms of internal pressure, the 9mm has an advantage over the .38 Special.

The 9mm Luger typically has internal pressures of around 35,000 pounds per square inch (psi), while the .38 Special operates at 17,000 psi.

The higher internal pressure of the 9mm contributes to its increased power.

Bullet weight also plays a role in the power comparison.

The .38 Special can have bullets that are 11 grains heavier than those of the 9mm, which can potentially make it more potent at causing damage when it hits a target.

However, this also depends on the specific ammunition used in each caliber.

Both calibers have proven effective for personal defense and offer their own advantages.

The .38 Special may not always have the same level of power as the 9mm, but it still remains a viable option for concealed carry and self-defense.

Firearm Options

38 special vs 9mm

.38 Special Revolvers

.38 Special revolvers are known for their reliability and ease of use, which makes them an attractive option for personal defense or target shooting.

Many prefer revolvers for their simplicity, as they lack the moving parts found in semi-automatic pistols, resulting in fewer chances for malfunctions.

There is a wide variety of .38 Special revolvers available, including snub-nosed, concealable options and full-sized models with longer barrels for increased accuracy.

Some popular .38 Special revolvers include the Smith & Wesson Model 10, Ruger SP101, and Colt Detective Special.

9mm Semi-Automatics

9mm semi-automatic pistols are ubiquitous in the world of handguns and are often the preferred choice for those seeking a balance between power and ease of use.

These firearms tend to have higher ammunition capacities compared to revolvers, as well as faster reload times thanks to detachable magazines.

Many 9mm semi-automatics are available in either compact or full-sized models, making them versatile options for both concealed carry and range use.

Some well-known 9mm pistols include the Glock 19, SIG Sauer P320, and many others.

In terms of firearm options, the choice between a .38 Special revolver and a 9mm semi-automatic pistol will largely depend on personal preferences, intended use, and comfort with each platform.

Both types of firearms have their own unique benefits and drawbacks, and it’s essential to consider these factors when deciding which caliber and firearm type is the best fit for you.

Recoil and Shootability

When comparing the recoil of the .38 Special and 9mm cartridges, it is essential to understand the differences that contribute to the shooting experience.

The .38 Special generates lower recoil as compared to the 9mm Luger, making it more comfortable for shooters with less experience or those who are sensitive to recoil.

On average, a 9mm pistol has about 40 percent more recoil than a .38 of comparable weight.

However, most 9mm pistols tend to be slightly heavier than .38 Specials, which reduces the functional difference to closer to 20 percent more recoil for a 9mm.

For instance, the Glock 17, a popular 9mm model, has 20 percent more recoil than the most common .38 Special.

The higher internal pressure produced by 9mm rounds contributes to the increased recoil.

The 9mm has internal pressures of approximately 35,000 pounds-per-square-inch (psi), while the .38 Special’s pressure is around 17,000 psi.

Beyond recoil, shootability is another important factor to consider.

The lower recoil and easy-to-handle nature of the .38 Special make it an attractive option for first-time shooters, as well as those who want a comfortable and accessible firearm for personal defense.

On the other hand, the 9mm offers greater magazine capacity and better terminal performance, which can also be significant factors in choosing a personal defense weapon.

Ammunition Selection

When choosing a handgun caliber, it’s essential to consider the availability, cost, and performance of ammunition.

In this section, we will discuss the ammunition options for both .38 Special and 9mm calibers.

.38 Special

The .38 Special round is a versatile cartridge, offering a variety of bullet weights ranging from 110 to 158 grains.

This range allows shooters to select ammunition that best suits their needs, whether it’s for target shooting or self-defense.

However, the .38 Special is generally more expensive than the 9mm round, with prices starting at around $0.25 per round (don’t hold us to this as prices fluctuate like crazy).

Additionally, the .38 Special has a lower velocity, with bullets traveling between 679 and 980 feet per second.

While .38 Special ammunition is not as readily available as 9mm, it is still a popular choice among revolver shooters.

The larger case capacity can offer greater propellant options, leading to potential increases in performance for specific applications, such as hunting.


loose 9mm ammunition

9mm ammunition is more widely available than .38 Special, with a greater variety of bullet weights and designs.

Common 9mm bullet weights include 115, 124, and 147 grains. This diversity enables shooters to select the appropriate round for their intended purpose.

9mm ammunition is generally more affordable than .38 Special, with prices starting at around $0.20 per round (don’t hold us to this as prices fluctuate like crazy).

The cartridge’s smaller size and higher internal pressure (35,000 psi) contribute to higher velocities, resulting in a potentially more powerful round compared to the .38 Special.

Additionally, the 9mm’s higher capacity can hold up to 18 rounds, compared to only 5 to 6 rounds for the .38 Special.

Practical Applications


When considering self-defense applications, both .38 Special and 9mm offer their own advantages.

The 9mm is generally more powerful, with higher internal pressures that make it more effective at stopping threats.

Additionally, 9mm pistols tend to have higher capacity magazines, allowing for more rounds to be fired before needing to reload.

On the other hand, the .38 Special can be loaded with heavier bullets that have the potential to cause more damage to a target.

Revolvers chambered in .38 Special also tend to be simpler to operate, making them a suitable option for those who are less familiar with semi-automatic handguns.

Target Shooting

For target shooting, both calibers can be effective.

The 9mm and .38 Special have similar bullet diameters and trajectories, making them comparable in terms of accuracy.

9mm ammo tends to be more affordable and available, which can be a determining factor for those who shoot frequently.

Additionally, recoil management plays a role in target shooting, and the .38 Special often provides a more manageable recoil, especially when fired from revolvers chambered in .357 Magnum.

This allows for better control and follow-up shots, which can be essential in target shooting situations.

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement agencies have primarily shifted towards using 9mm handguns, thanks to the higher capacity magazines, more powerful rounds, and quicker reload times offered by semi-automatic pistols.

The higher internal pressure of the 9mm grants it greater stopping power compared to the .38 Special, which is crucial in law enforcement scenarios.

However, some officers might still prefer the .38 Special, particularly for backup or off-duty carry.

The simplicity of a revolver and its ability to handle heavier bullets are factors that some may find appealing.

While it may not be the primary choice for most agencies anymore, the .38 Special still has a place in the law enforcement community.


What are the main differences between .38 Special and 9mm calibers?

The main differences between these two calibers are that the .38 Special is made almost exclusively for revolvers, while the 9mm Luger is made for semi-automatic weapons. This has an impact on load capacity, with .38 Special rounds usually limited to 6 rounds in a single load, while handguns chambered for 9mm Luger can carry upwards of 20 or more. The velocity of bullets fired from a 9mm firearm can be slightly faster due to longer barrel lengths in similar-sized firearms, compared to the .38 Special.

Is the .38 Special more powerful than the 9mm?

The .38 Special bullet can be 11 grains heavier than the 9mm, potentially making it more potent at causing damage to a target. However, this heavily depends on the load used. With proper loading, the .38 Special could be more effective for specific applications like deer hunting.

How does ammunition cost compare between .38 Special and 9mm?

On average, .38 Special ammunition tends to be more expensive than 9mm ammo. The cost per round for .38 Special can be around 25 cents, while 9mm ammunition can cost as low as 20 cents per round. This price difference can have a significant impact on the overall cost of shooting over time.

What are the typical capacities for .38 Special and 9mm firearms?

A .38 Special revolver can typically hold 5 to 6 rounds, while a 9mm Luger semi-automatic weapon can hold up to 18 rounds or more, depending on the specific model.


In the debate between .38 Special and 9mm, both calibers have their own strengths and weaknesses.

The .38 Special, with its heavier bullet, is capable of causing more damage to a target and may be a better option for applications such as deer hunting when loaded properly.

On the other hand, the 9mm Luger operates at higher internal pressures, which results in more power compared to the .38 Special.

The 9mm Luger has internal pressures of 35,000 psi, significantly higher than the 17,000 psi found in .38 Special cartridges.

Additionally, 9mm ammunition is available in more variations and is generally cheaper than .38 Special.

Another consideration for choosing between .38 Special and 9mm revolves around magazine capacity.

A .38 Special typically holds 5 to 6 rounds, while a 9mm Luger can hold up to 18 rounds.

The increased capacity offered by the 9mm may be a significant factor for those who prioritize having more rounds available for self-defense or sport shooting.

Ultimately, the better ammunition between .38 Special and 9mm depends on the individual’s needs and preferences.

Each shooter should consider their specific goals, whether that be hunting, self-defense, or simply target practice, and choose the caliber that best suits those needs.

Both .38 Special and 9mm have proven their effectiveness over the years, so it ultimately comes down to personal choice.

Cody Martin

With over 18 years of federal law enforcement, training, and physical security experience, Cody focuses his time nowadays on both consulting and training. He regularly advises individuals, groups, multinational corporations, schools, houses of worship, and NGOs on security threats while conducting customized training as needed.

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