The venerable .38 Special cartridge has been around for decades and for most of that time, it has dominated as THE pistol round, but is it still a top-shelf defensive caliber?
For decades, the .38 special was the standard for police and private citizen defensive use.
From the beat cop with the revolver to the “hard-boiled” private investigator, they all carried a trusty 38.
In more modern times, even Danny Glover as Detective Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon (the other Christmas movie) dispatched many a bad guy with his Smith and Wesson Model 19.
Personally, I’ve carried a 9mm most of my life, however, the recent purchase of a remote off-grid cabin had me looking again at the .38.
Mainly for the option to carry .357. By the time we had our first season at the cabin, I again found a .38 available to me.
This process lead to some interesting research into what the .38 had to offer to me defensively. As I grew comfortable with the revolver (Ruger SP101) I began carrying it at the cabin as well elsewhere.
So, the history is there. But does it hold up to modern standards for defensive rounds? Let’s look at the capabilities of the modern .38 Special.
Can a .38 Special stop an attacker?
The .38 Special has seen the industry evolve from early soft-nose bullets to modern high-performance defensive rounds.
While reading manufacturer data can get you some details on the terminal ballistics of a cartridge, it is the independent evaluation of the FBI that holds the standard for defensive round testing.
Admittedly, their standards for performance may not apply one hundred percent to the average CCW holder. It is, however, the best we have.
In short, the FBI recommends a bullet that penetrates between 12” and 18” under a variety of conditions. These include heavy clothing, wallboard, steel, plywood, and automobile glass.
Modern bullet designs have largely normalized the difference between cartridges.
It pays to research your caliber to find the right round for your pistol.
Luckily, the internet is chock full of information to help you out, such as LuckyGunner’s .38 Special and .357 Magnum Self-Defense Ammo Ballistics Test
While the FBI standard is no guarantee for the mythical “One Stop Shot” it indicates potential for under penetration (may not reach the critical organs), over penetration (endangers bystanders and does not expend all its energy in the target), and failure to expand (create less damage than intended).
This testing, as well as informal testing from around the internet, has shown that modern cartridges are up to the task, as set forth by the FBI.
The evidence also leads to using a longer barrel, as snub-nosed revolvers may not have the length to allow the round to achieve its full potential.
In short, yes, a modern .38 Special round has the power and efficacy to stop an attacker. However, the responsibility still lies with the gun owner to do their job with placement and proper follow-up actions.
Why do people use the .38 Special?
For decades, .38 Special was the most popular round with police and private citizens alike.
That popularity led to numerous variations of firearms, accessories (e.g., aftermarket grips), and reloading gear (stripper clips, moon clips, etc.).
As a long-time competitive shooter, I’ve seen and shot my fair share of .38 revolvers.
Mostly due to, at the time, the availability of inexpensive ammo and tolerance for ammo variability.
The .38 Special is easy to shoot in volume and dependable in a revolver, even with the most inexpensive ammo.
Finally, as stated above, modern bullet designs are built around terminal ballistics.
Choosing any of the top-shelf brands will give you the penetration you need without the worry of under or over-penetration, and reliable expansion.
As long as you put the bullets where they’re supposed to be, the .38 Special cartridge will stop the threat. Therefore, the .38 remains a solid choice for defensive use.
What are recommended .38 Special defensive brands?
Modern powders and bullet designs are a far cry from your father’s lead round-nose bullets.
Likewise, the testing performed by the FBI and now by private entities and posted online, in detail, supports an educated decision on what bullets are right for you.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the top performers.
Speer Gold Dot +P 125-grain JHP
Speer Gold Dot is one of the premier bullet designs in the defensive industry.
This +P 125-grain round has a jacket bonded to the core in a process that ensures against jacket separation.
The result is a bullet that retains more of its mass when creating a devastating wound channel.
Hornaday Critical Defense 110-grain FTX
The Hornaday FTX round includes a plastic core that aids reliable expansion when shooting through denim or other heavy clothing.
In a 4” barrel, the 110-grain projectile achieves an impressive velocity of 1010 feet per second.
Federal Premium HST 130-grain JHP
Federals HST bullet is gaining recognition across all the calibers that it’s deployed in. The .38 special is no different.
The gaping hollow point and non-traditional bonding between the jacket and core create a round with devastating terminal ballistics.
This unique design ensures excellent performance out of both a snub nose and traditional revolver barrel lengths.
What kicks harder, 9mm or .38 Special?
9mm and .38 may have a very similar bullet diameter at .355 inches vs .357 inches respectively, but their lengths and performance are dramatically different.
The .38 is 1.55 inches as compared to the 9mm’s 1.16 inches. The velocity of a .38 ranges from 680 to just over 1000 fps, while a 9mm can top 1400 fps.
The extra punch of a 9mm that achieves the velocity difference can be felt in perceived recoil.
The result is that 9mm has about 40% more raw recoil, however, considering differing bullet weights and the recoil absorption of a semi-automatic pistol can reduce this difference to 10%-20% more recoil in a 9mm.
For most shooters, the difference will be negligible as shooters can easily learn to manage recoil as a part of grip, body mechanics, shooting stance, and shot follow-up.
Are there advantages to a .38 Special?
While some may consider the trusty ‘ole .38 Special antiquated technology, there are many advantages to this round.
We’ve already discussed the cost and the reliability of most revolvers. These two factors alone are convincing.
Next, when you consider the reduction in recoil, you have a significant advantage over most other rounds.
Next, consider the flexibility of the .38 Special. Deciding to shoot a .38 opens up the option to purchase a .357 revolver.
The two bullets are similar enough in diameter that you can shoot a .38 out of a .357.
Due to length and pressure differences, you can’t shoot a .357 out of a pistol rated for a .38.
When purchasing, a .357 is a great option.
The increased bulk required to tame the pressures of the magnum cartridge provides a bit more mass to tame the recoil of a .38.
All things being equal, a .357 shooting pistol .38 is more comfortable than shooting a straight .38.
In fact, it is this flexibility that led me to the purchase of a Ruger SP 101 chambered in .357.
For defensive and competitive use, I have the option of carrying it loaded with .38 special.
For competition, it’s loaded with inexpensive .38 ammo and while carrying it I use a premium defensive cartridge.
While out in the woods, however, it’s loaded with .357 ammo in case I run into one of the many bears in our area.
Not that I expect a “one-shot stop” with a .357 against a bear, but it’s still better than my normal 9mm or pocket .380.
This crossover extends to lever-action rifles as well. A .357 rifle can shoot .38 just like a revolver.
While you will have to choose the right rifle to ensure error-free feeding, purchasing two firearms can get you the flexibility of four!
Wrapping up self-defense and the .38 Special
The .38 Special has been around the block longer than most other cartridges.
During that time, it has seen the rise and fall of other less worthy calibers and too many pistols to name.
The .38 has a lasting quality born out of price, utility, and accuracy.
Established as one of the most popular law enforcement calibers, and a very popular competitive shooting caliber, the .38 maintains this popularity today.
While firearms technology has moved forward, it hasn’t left the .38 behind.
There haven’t been too many advances in revolver technology in the past few decades, however, self-defense bullet designs have marched forward.
The advances in these designs have allowed the .38 to maintain pace with other defensive rounds, such as the 9mm, 10mm, .45 ACP, and the .40 S&W.
With history and a bit of modern technology on its side, the .38 deserves a place in your armory, and with a little consideration may even have a place on your hip as a defensive round.