The .38 Special

The .38 Special
The .38 Special has been around for over a century, but continual improvements and modifications have kept it a competitive self-defense round.photo by Julie Johnson

You know what you don’t see anymore? Record players. I mean 33-1/3 RPM record players. Or vinyl records, for that matter. Or even cassette tapes. Other things you don’t see or really even hear talked about include the Dewey Decimal System, the late Merle Haggard, 3.2 beer, and banana seats on bicycles.

Or the .38 Special. Not .38 Special, the classic rock band founded by Donnie Van Zant and Don Barnes in 1974, and who opened for just about every other rock band ever created. No, I’m talking about the .38 Special, that quintessential revolver cartridge carried by police officers—and civilians concerned about protecting their families, their homes, and themselves—for decade after decade.

So what happened to the .38 Special? It appears that the cartridge has gone the way of the band, especially in terms of personal and home defense. Or has it? There’s no denying the caliber’s attributes. It’s enjoyable and comparatively inexpensive to shoot. It’s quite varied in terms of load availability. Makes, models, and price points of guns chambered for it run the gamut from domestic to foreign, and from downright cheap to sitting on the back side of spendy. It’s extremely accurate and has manageable recoil. It seems the perfect choice for anyone who’s averse to recoil.

Truth is, the .38 Special has held on loosely, because shooters didn’t let go. There are plenty of .38 Special revolvers out there. You just don’t see them.

From Black Powder to +P

The cartridge, originally loaded with black powder, began life in the Smith & Wesson K-frame Military & Police revolver in 1899. That year, according to S&W historian Roy Jinks, designers modified the .38 Long Colt cartridge that the gun was chambered for: the case was lengthened, the powder charge was increased from 18 grains to 21 ½ grains of black powder, and the bullet weight was upped from 150 to 158 grains. Thus was created the S&W M&P First Model .38 Special.

The .38 Special
Numerous load types, producing varying amounts of recoil, make the .38 Special a versatile round.web photo

Over the following 70 years, .38 Special revolvers would undergo multitudinous transformations, including the introduction of the iconic Smith & Wesson Models 10, 14, and 15. This also led to the development and subsequent birth of two new and more powerful cartridges: the .357 Magnum, which wound up providing the .38 Special cartridge with an entirely new role for shooters; and the .38 Special +P load, a souped-up version of the .38 Special.

.357 Magnum

The .357 Magnum is the cooperative effort of forward-thinkers and cartridge architects Dan Wesson, firearms legend Elmer Keith, and author and ballistician Phil Sharpe. The .357 is an elongated version of the .38 Special, designed to be used in heavier-frame revolvers such as the S&W N frame. It’s much more powerful than the .38: the .357 has a muzzle velocity of 1,240 fps muzzle velocity with a 158-grain bullet, while the .38 travels at fps with the same weight projectile.

Handgunners were impressed with the new .357 Magnum, not only for its power, but also for the fact that revolvers chambered for such could also fire .38 Special and .38 +P cartridges. Shooters who own a .357 have a wide variety of ammunition to choose from—not to mention the ability to practice with more economical .38 Special loads, and use the .38+P or .357 Magnum ammo for self-defense.

The .38 Special
The .38 Special has a reputation for accuracy, and the author verified that with some excellent groups at the realistic self-defense distance of seven paces, including one his wife shot that measured ¾-inch.photo by Julie Johnson

.38 Special +P

During the 1950s and 60s, and in response to law enforcement concerns about the lack of stopping power of the standard .38 Special, ammunition manufacturers began to tinker with increasing the cartridge’s chamber pressure. The Federal Bureau of Investigation began experimenting with a combination of heavier powder charges and modifications to the traditional 158-grain bullet –an unjacketed lead semi-wadcutter hollow point – and eventually came up with the .38 Special +P designation, which proved more efficient at stopping bad guys. Many law enforcement agencies adopted the +P round afterward.

Continued Improvement

At the same time, the performance of standard .38 Special loads has steadily improved. “Companies like Federal Premium haven’t forgotten about the .38 Special,” said Jared Hinton of Federal's parent company. “We haven’t stopped innovating. There’s been an obvious explosion in the marketplace of people who want to carry the .380 Auto and 9mm, but the work we’ve done with these cartridges has carried over to the .38 Special.”

Federal makes five different the .38 Special loads. “There’s no signs of decreasing popularity in the marketplace,” Hinton said.

One more thing about .38 Special ammo: No matter where you go in the nation, any store that sells ammunition – any ammunition – is likely to have at least one box of .38s somewhere.

Ballistic Comparisons

So how does the .38 Special stack up against popular handgun cartridges? Here’s a quick look at some numbers.

.380 AUTO

Bullet weight: 99 grains

Bullet design: Copper jacketed hollow point

Muzzle velocity: 1030 feet per second

Muzzle energy: 233 foot-pounds

Energy at 25 yards: 214 foot-pounds

The .38 Special
Numerous revolvers are chambered for .38 Special/.38 Special +P. Shown is the author’s Model 85 Taurus.photo by Julie Johnson

.38 SPECIAL

Bullet weight: 130 grains

Bullet design: Full metal jacket

Muzzle velocity: 890 feet per second

Muzzle energy: 229 foot-pounds

Energy at 25 yards: 219 foot-pounds

.38 SPECIAL +P

Bullet weight: 129 grains

Bullet design: Copper jacketed hollow point (Hydra-Shok)

Muzzle velocity: 950 feet per second

Muzzle energy: 258 foot-pounds

Energy at 25 yards: 246 foot-pounds

The .38 Special
The .38 Special has a heck of a history, and has been featured in dozens of movies over the decades. Here you see Burt the cop with his .38 Special S&W Model 10 in It's a Wonderful Life (1946).photo from imfdb.org

9mm

Bullet weight: 115 grains

Bullet design: Jacketed hollow point

Muzzle velocity: 1180 feet per second

Muzzle energy: 356 foot-pounds

Energy at 25 yards: 312 foot-pounds

Based on this admittedly brief comparison, the 9mm “wins” ballistically in terms of transferable kinetic energy, or the variable, along with on-target trauma, that translates into so-called stopping power: that is, enough gun to stop and/or eliminate a perceived threat before harm can be done to you. The .38 Special +P load comes in a reasonably close second.

.38 Special Revolvers

It’s almost easier to list which manufacturers don’t offer a revolver chambered for the.38 Special than to list those that do. But an admittedly non-all-inclusive list highlighting a selection of some of today’s more familiar models would include these:

S&W Model 10: The .38 Special revolver. Weighs 34 ounces and comes with a 4-inch barrel; what many consider the "best" length in terms of accuracy and concealment.

S&W Model 642: One of Smith's most popular .38 Special revolvers. Sports a 2-inch barrel and enclosed hammer, but at 14 ounces is light and tougher to handle, especially with +P ammunition.

Ruger SP101: Another short (2-1/4-inch) barreled .38, but with a little more weight (26 ounces).

The .38 Special
Kurt Russell with a S&W Model 10 in Dark Blue (2002).photo from imfdb.org

Ruger LCR 5401: An even shorter barreled offering – 1-7/8-inch – from Ruger weighing a scant 13-1/2 ounces and housing five rounds of +P.

Rossi R85104: A sleek looking six-shooter with a 4-inch barrel tipping the scales at 32 ounces. A sister model, the R35102, holds five rounds and weighs just 24 ounces.

Taurus Model 82B4: Just one of several .38 Special revolvers offered by Taurus, the Model 82B4 seems the most "Model 10-esque." Four-inch barrel, single action/double action, and weighs a shade over two pounds.

Rock Island Armory M200 (4-inch) and M206 (2-inch): Utilitarian good looks and rock-bottom price under $300, but the revolvers are not rated for +P ammunition.

Charter Arms 13811 Undercover: Sixteen ounces and rated +P, this five-shot revolver sports a 2-inch barrel.

Prices for these and other .38 Special revolvers are all over the map, ranging from $250 to $1,000, depending on the variables.

A Woman's Perspective

On a surprisingly sunny day for western Washington in November, my wife Julie and I took three .38 Special revolvers to a range for a trial run. My wife has spent her entire life around firearms, both hunting and recreationally shooting, but her experience with handguns chambered for anything larger than .22 rimfire is somewhat limited. Julie will be carrying concealed soon, and understands the importance of practice, familiarity, and confidence, both in one’s abilities as well as in one’s weaponry. The session provided an opportunity to see how the revolvers would perform, specifically in the hands of a relatively inexperienced handgunner.

The revolvers were a Taurus Model 85 5-shot with a 2-inch barrel; a S&W Model 49 Bodyguard 5-shot, also with a 2-inch barrel; and a S&W Model 10 M&P 6-shooter with a 5-inch barrel. All sport fixed sights. (Interesting side note: The Model 10 was on loan from a friend’s wife, who said the revolver belonged to one Donald McNamara, her great-grandfather, a Multnomah County, Oregon sheriff’s deputy as well as a member of the Columbia River Patrol, during the 1930s. “Two bad guys to its credit,” her husband told me. “Not killed, but definitely down.”) Ammunition was simple and widely available: Federal’s American Eagle 158-grain lead round nose and Winchester’s PDX1 Defender .38+P 130-grain hollow point format. (Note: The latter were fed minimally to the Taurus Model 85 for the purpose of recoil recognition and management, as well as accuracy determination.) Julie and I both shot from what I’ll call a pseudo-combat stance from a distance of seven paces, a range commonly seen in personal defense/home defense scenarios. The targets had 4-inch bull’s-eyes.

The Model 10 was by far the most accurate, with Julie shooting a remarkable ¾-inch single-action group halfway through the morning. Groups staying within the 4-inch ring were typically with the snubnose revolvers, though I had a tendency to wander outside that mark, especially when experimenting with the double-action (DA) mode of operation.

The .38 Special
John Cazale as Stan with a Model 10 in The Deer Hunter (1978).photo from imfdb.org

Recoil with the standard 158-grain ammunition was, as expected, pleasant and quite manageable, even out of the 2-inch barrels. “This will take some getting used to,” Julie said after the first five +P loads through the Taurus. She was, however, able to maintain consistent 5-inch groups, alternating back and forth between the 158- and 130-grainers.

The Bottom Line

There exists no perfect caliber handgun for personal defense, as all shooting situations are in essence indeterminable and imperfect. That said, the .38 Special offers light and manageable recoil, which, when combined with affordable ammunition, usually translates into an increase in at-the-range time. Practice and familiarity breed competency. When loaded with quality ammunition, the .38 Special can be an extremely accurate piece at the ranges typically employed in a personal defense situation. Integrate +P ammunition with well-designed bullets, and all of the positive elements of a personal defense handgun are represented.

Yes, the .38 Special revolver offers “only” five or six rounds versus upwards of 20+1 for several of the 9mm semi-automatics. And yes, a revolver, unlike a flat semi-automatic, will have a bulkier profile when carrying concealed. But consider that multiple law enforcement agencies, including FBI and CIA, report that on average, 2.2 rounds are expended in a typical personal-defense shooting scenario. As for concealment, many of the modern designed-for-concealed-carry .38 Specials measure only slightly more than 1 ¼ inches across the cylinder – or only a tad more than my Thompson 1911 .45ACP measured above the thumb safety.

What does all this mean in terms of the .38 Special as a personal defense choice? Using a firearm to stop and/or eliminate a threat to your person with a firearm certainly depends on the need for adequate firepower, but just as much on shot placement. And the accurate and easy-to-shoot .38 Special—when used by practiced hands and filled with quality defensive-specific ammunition—is certainly capable of stopping a threat.