Cartridge of the Week, the Smith and Wesson .38 Special, .38 SPL, .38 SPC

.38 Special

It does not have to be flashy just dependable. It’s always there and it always works. It is like a good friend in a pinch you can count on it to be there for you. I am a traditionalist. I prefer something proven over the test of time – not the media or Internet hype. I am not a person who follows fads. That is why the next cartridge is so “Special” to me. That good friend throughout the years is the Smith and Wesson .38 Special.

We love to tout the two classic cartridges used today in such quantity as the great old cartridges, the 9mm Parabellum and the .45 ACP. However, the .38 Special was designed during the same year as the 9mm, 1902. Both of these predated the .45ACP, which had to wait almost 10 years.

Upon its design, the cartridge found its place in military as well as civilian law enforcement revolvers. Its career at large in the military was short lived. While it continued in some weapons in the military, the .45 ACP in the Colt 1911 pistol overran it.

Civilian law enforcement is where the .38 Special really shined and secured its place in history. From inception in 1902 – through the mid 80s – this cartridge ruled supreme. At the time it was an upgrade from the standard police rounds in .32 calibers or underpowered .38s. In civilian law enforcement, then and today, a desired caliber is able to not create a domino effect when fired in a populated area. You want to incapacitate the target without the bullet continuing onward hitting unknown or unwanted targets. In military applications, this is less of a concern.

The .38 Special first saw true service in the likes of the Smith & Wesson M&P (Military and Police) and later the S&W Model 10. Colt’s offerings were the Army Special and later the Official Police, Police Special, Police Positive and the .38 New Police. It made a return to the battlefield in the Smith and Wesson Victory model for use by downed pilots.

Nevertheless, to me the most iconic weapon that fired this cartridge was the Smith and Wesson Model 10. This was the gun that had formally been the .38 Hand Ejector, M&P and the Victory. This was the Glock of its day and over six million of this variant were produced. From 1899 to the late 1980s this was the gun that most police officers carried on duty or trained with at the academy. In 1985 I put over 1500 .38 Special rounds through this gun during my first police academy.

Prior to the age of firepower in civilian law enforcement, this cartridge and its big brother the .357 Magnum were more than capable of getting the job done and they did soundly. With the glamour of the 9mm in the late 1980s, the .38 Special was relegated to the back row.

Do not send our old horse to the soap factory yet. With the rise in interest in concealed carry, it has found a new home in a solid platform. One of the great homes for the .38 Special was the little two-inch guns such as the Smith and Wesson J frames and the iconic Colt Detective Special, designed for the expressed purpose of concealed carry. In such guns as the modern Smith and Wesson 642 Airweight this is a great pocket pistol that is easy to use and is much better then a .380 caliber. When unable to carry a larger framed concealed carry choice this is the gun and caliber that goes in my front pocket.

In this video game age, everyone wants glamour and pizzazz. Yes, there are better guns, calibers and more glamorous friends out there. Nevertheless, I will always go with the loyal, proven commodity. Is the .38 Special a good round? I’ll bet my life on it.

Do you own a .38  Special Revolver? What kind? Let  us know in the comments section below!

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (30)

  1. Lake County Examiner, Lakeview, Oregon: Wednesday, March 24th, 2021/Letters To The Editor

    Letters to the editor: Best general-purpose handgun

    For a general-purpose handgun consider Ruger’s SP-101 .357 Magnum revolver: “stainless steel”, 5 shot swing out cylinder (double-action), with 4.2” barrel and target sights for the citizen
    owning only one handgun. Versatile for “self-defense/house protection/concealed carry”, as a kit and trail gun for the outdoorsman/ sportsman, and for urban metro vs. wilderness rural use.
    At 30 oz. unloaded lightweight (for the hiker, backpacker, trapper), yet heavy enough to handle the .357 Magnum. Loaded with .38 Special 148 grain lead target wad-cutter ammo (next to a .22 or .32) practical for hunting small game: rabbit, squirrel, and grouse (for the campfire skillet), for dispatching vermin such as raccoon, skunk, possum, etc. Even for butchering livestock such as cattle with a head shot. Loaded with CCI’s classic .38 Special shot or snake load of No. 9 shot highly effective in killing rattlesnakes. Readily and instantly accessible in reach via a nightstand, dresser or bureau drawer, or next to a sleeping bag inside a tent is very comforting armed security to have, especially at night!

    This handgun would also be great for a long-haul trucker, or hay hauler, to carry. Even for the motorist traveling on a road trip. Yes, bear in mind being broken down, stranded, and having to spend the night alone in your vehicle. This .38/.357 revolver combination along with an Atomic Beam Flashlight, survival knife, fresh drinking water, food, toilet paper, shovel, matches, wool blanket, etc. could certainly take back the night.

    Even for a woman it’s smaller frame and size would still fit her smaller hands. And firing.38 Special ammo in this .*357 Magnum could still be handled by a female. Double action revolvers can be improved with aftermarket combat rubber grips.

    I recommend reading, “Meet Ruger’s SP-101 Revolver: The Ideal Gun For Self Defense”, by Kyle Mizokan via the April 2019 issue of The National Interest.

    -James A. Farmer
    Merrill, Oregon (Klamath County)
    Long Live The State of Jefferson!

    *.357 Magnum revolvers will chamber and fire .38 Special ammo, but not the reverse. Also….”SP-101 Like Physics, Only Practical” by Law Officer for January 3, 2009 is well worth reading.

  2. I’m somewhat confused by the .38 nomenclature. I know the .38 S&W is a different cartridge from the .38 special., so what do I make of a box of cartridges labeled .38S&W Special?

    1. I realize this is an old thread & you probably have the answer, but I’m going to respond so any seeing this will know. The .38 S&W Special IS the 38 Special. It was developed by/for S&W & bears the S&W name. It is not the same as the .38S&W, which is shorter, fatter, weaker & predates the 38 Special.

  3. I do and have staked my life on a Colt Agent for 24 years now. I also remember when the Air Force issued Military Police Smith &Wessons to pilots, and I used to have a nicholed one myself for quite a few years, wish I still had that one.

  4. note: to clarify, i’m retired now, but “non l.e.o.”, the job titles were usually “industrial security guard (armed)” and “licensed armed courier” and i held an f.f.l. as a gunsmith for 20 years, specialising in military arms, until “bubba” clinton decided to run the small guys out of business. i still keep my hand in gun tinkering as a hobby, but not for trade or profit.

  5. his looks to be sliding into the old arguement over “which caliber it best”. y’all want to remember that while civilians can argue this endlessly, those who get paid to carry a gun, l.e.o. and non l.e.o., like my self, are governed by employer’s rules as to what we carry on the job, when and how. so it’s work with what you’ve got and make it work for you. put in the range time off duty to learn the tools. for the non pros, carry what you like and train with it, but let the other guy, or girl, make their own choices according to their needs and preferences.

  6. JiminGa,
    That is why my wife carries a S&W Airweight 642 .38 Special in her purse everyday. No slide racking or magazines. Point click and ship. Thanks All for Great comments. Next week the 10mm Auto.

  7. My wife shoots a Ruger SP101 .38Sp/.357 because she has difficulty racking the slide on a pistol. At the range she shoots regular .38Sp but uses .38Sp +P+ for self defense (.357 is just too much bang for her). She prefers the full size frame Ruger over the “minis” because it helps minimize recoil. Oh, and she has four speed loaders at the ready. She also has a Bersa .380 ACP that she hates to shoot…..too light, too much recoil. There remains a place for the venerable .38 wheel gun for those less than capable or comfortable with a pistol. We’re both in our late 60’s and she isn’t as strong as when raising three kids, so fitting a gun to her individual needs is more important than using the most popular gun. BTW, I carry a 10 year old Glock 17 which she loves to shoot, but can’t chamber the first round without my help.

  8. One comment no one had brought up is the reloading, and capacity factor. Although I personally prefer the 45 to a 38 look at some of the advantages of the 1911. Speed loaders for a 38 can be awkward, compared to a 7 round magazine that holds one more round then a 38. The loading can be awkward as well being a South Paw a side loading revolver would not be practical for me at all. I can put a round in the chamber of a 1911 technically giving me 8 instead of 6. If you think about though it all comes down to what’s your situation. I personally would rather have 1000 rounds of 22 Lr than 100 rounds of 45 or even 200 rounds of 38. More rounds is always better that’s why I personally like a 9 mm it has decent stopping power, cheap, and well known, so you won’t have a hard time finding a handgun for it since it’s practically the caliber of choice in Europe, and used by our military. However this is just my opinion.

  9. @ alexander eaton,
    all good advice alex, worth reading and thinking about. your “guests” didn’t get into greybar hotel because they were nice people.

  10. I agree with Slugnutty “bob” is misinformed and giving advise on that which his knowledge lacks. When the feds were looking to replace the 9mm they wanting something in a semi-auto that produced results as close to a .357mag as possible, (the .357mag is the stick used to measure the effectiveness of the different calibers tested as it was seen by the experts as the perfect man stopping round) the .357mag was is and allways will be a true manstopper it just happens that two cartridges tested very close in ballistic gelatin the 10mm and the .40. The 10mm fell by the wayside in popularity and the .40 gained the top spot as the replacement for the 9mm for federal carry. S&W got in the game late and created the .40 in just 30 days and didnt even have a gun ready for production when the feds began their testing.So knowing that the .40 is actually a afterbirth spawned trying to create something close to perfect in semi-auto form and knowing that “perfect” spawned from the .38 special (.357). So I for one like the article and as for bob i suggest you read the following article and educate yourself-
    The only thing the article lacked was failure to mention the popularity of the police service six and the speed six and the security six all very popular made by Ruger none the less good article. I wonder if “OL BOB” thinks the browning .50 is also obsolite…Bob you cannot improve perfect just as you cannot fix stupid the best gun to carry is the reliable one you can hit with…enough said

  11. As a nurse in a maximum security prison, I’ve seen a number of gun shot wounds. Shot placement is the key if you intend to use legal lethal force. Seen many survivors of .38, 9mm, and .40 cal. Haven’t seen a survivor of a .45 yet or a 12ga. Practice with your chosen weapon and know what to do if it doesn’t go bang. Take cover if you can, summon help if you can, don’t take your eyes off the threat and be the first person to summon law enforcement to the scene. Call an ambulance for the person you have shot. Keep your mouth shut at the scene and don’t talk to anyone in jail. Summon a lawyer and go through the process. Do not make statements to anyone without your lawyer present. Jails are full of people who want out. Don’t help them.

  12. I for one feel the .38 is a long way from being over. It’s longevity doesn’t mean it’s ready for the annals of history, it just means they got it right early on. I learned to reload using the .38 which I feel is one of the best choices to start learning the basics of reloading. Now I reload everything from the 110 gr JHP for my wife’s Taurus Mod 85 up to the 158 gr JSP including shot shell for use on rats and rattlesnakes. Though I own a .40 SW a .357 Mag and a .45 ACP I find myself reloading, firing, and training more new firers with old and proven .38 special.

  13. the 38 is a great caliber, not overwhelmingly powerful so you can get a quick re sight on the target. and will get the job done for sure. i have a 38 and 357 love em both. i also had a 45 and tossed it, got a nice 40. i can carry 17 rounds with my 40 or 9 with a 45… id rather have a few extra rounds vs a big bullet that is not even that great. .45s are a hype gun unless is a collectors piece or for some type of competion. ill alway have a spot in my heart and 6 o clock for my 38 or 357 depending on what im doing as a back up for the 40. ill never get rid of them its a great round for practice, home defense, truck gun, tackle gun, back up firearm ect… in my opinion the 38 is the most universal round… glad to read a nice article about a classic round.

  14. My first pistol i purchased was a 38+p stub nose.Ive been shooting since i could stand so right away i noticed a problem with factory ammunition.Since then i switched my primary to a S&W mod 65-I.From my experience with modern reloading components a “dirty 8” special +p load with a 158gn SWCHP has repeatedly proven its self on paper and in the field to me. I have no quarrel with 9mm or 45acp die-hards. There is a happy little place between those flying trash cans and pea shooters; thats where the 38 special has comfortably sat.

  15. The belief by some that .38 woes of thirty years ago are still pertainant are a joke. Have you looked at a gold dot .38? have you seen the damage it does? Then look to the platform that shoots it. k.i.s.s. is still the first advice anyone should get when choosing a concealed carry weapon. a revolver ALWAYS goes bang. no stove pipes or failure to feeds. my .357 nightstand gun is loaded with .38 because i like my neihbors. My .40, my .9 and my AR-15 will all over penetrate when shooting from within my walls, great for me, not so good for anyone walking by outside. So before you go getting critical and smug with a guy that likes the “out dated” .38, perhaps you should go do some real cartridge testing (not a magazine article) and decide where overkill and liability meet as a fireams owner

  16. I too carried .38 /.357 revolvers for a significant chunk of my law enforcement career, mainly S&W’s, mostly K frames. Set an academy record back in the day with a Model 19 that stood for more than a few years. The .38 Special, even in round nose lead variants (what an early sergeant of mine euphemistically called “sewage ammo”) was proven to be capable of ending a fight with good shot placement over 80 years of service.

    With modern bullet technology and a proper +P load running at 900 FPS or more, the old .38 is still a good compromise. The Speer 135 grain “short barrel” +P Gold Dot load is what I’ve been running in my revolvers and it’s a keeper. Shoots like a dream out of 4 and 6 inch barrels, proven Gold Dot bullet performance, but still very controllable in a snub.

    To the comment above about FBI issue…. new agents in the FBI academy are issued either Glock 22 or Glock 23…. .40 S&W caliber. The only .45’s issued by the Bureau are Springfield 1911’s to HRT and other special teams. They offer 9mm only to those agents who have difficulty with recoil on the .40. Given the Bureau’s bad luck with 9mm (see Miami 1986) they prefer institutionally, at least the agents I’ve spoken with, to not go to 9 if possible.

    For what it’s worth, my last six years on the job I carried a Sig P226 .40 with 165 grain Winchester Ranger T. I’d be carrying it or Federal HST in the same weight confidently today, if I were still on the job as those rounds give up nothing in projected stopping power, which is largely a myth anyway, to even the most potent 9mm +P+ round. The recoil of .40, given that every load is essentially at maximum, can be a little stout, but it’s easily managed with good technique and practice jsut as a +P or +P+ 9mm is.

  17. The .38 Special is a good practice and backup round for my .357.
    I usually have more .38 Special rounds on hand than .357 rounds.

  18. Those that bash the 38 special as weak and not effective I really would doubt volunteer to be shot by one. I for years listened to the hype until I owned my first one a model 10. I then drifted away from the 38 only to own one now for a CC gun. As I said carrying the 38 snub in my pocket allows me to carry places I normally would not carry as it is easier to carry then my 1911’s Lets face it like all good dependable cartridges the newest wonder cartridges have not killed it. That in its self says something.

  19. Wow gun geezer… you’re showing your age. It’s too bad that your so died in the wool on your choice of Short & Weak cartridge.
    A person considering purchase of a .40 S&W weapon should at least upgrade to a 45 ACP

    In terms of stopping power to neutralize a threat, be it person or animal, the .40 S&W is in-controllable to all — that’s why the F.B.I. switched back to the .45ACP caliber or the 9mm after bad experiences with the .40S&W.

    In any event, please talk to a knowledgable “gun person” before buying a .40 Short & Weak – er S&W I mean!

    Something like a .38 Special would be JUST FINE for anyone WITH OUT an ego problem.

  20. I stand corrected as it is widely reported falsely the 38 special. still them early bullets were lead round nose and not good bullets compared to what we have now.

  21. @ bob r.,
    the army’s problem during the “moro war” was with the “.38 long colt” cartridge, which was underpowered, the .38 was created to upgrade the .38 long colt, with fair success in the civil and police markets over many years, with the .357 magnum developed from the .38 special. while, as in my earlier post, above, i prefer the .45 i’ve also carried a model 10 s&w or a colt “detective special” as an armed worker on occassions when the big colt was not suitable.

  22. I have two 1911’s in 45 ACP One of the best fighting guns ever invented and the 45 ACP has the same power as the 45 Colt in a standard loading a proven man stopper in both platforms. But in most cases when I carry it is a Taurus 85 in my front pocket. Easy to carry concealed snd lightweight yet I am confident enough with it to depend my life on it. Those that like the 9mm and 40 fine but that does not mean they are the only good option. The 38 got a bad rap when trying to kill hopped up folks in the Philippines. Folks in later years found out more powerful guns had the same issue trying to stop folks high on PCP. The early bullets were lead round nose bullets which are poor performers compared to the better bullets we have today. Even back then if they would have used a FP bullet the 38 would have had a better stopping reputation. With today’s bullets and +P loads for them that want to use them the 38 Special is still special.

  23. while i prefer the m1911a1 .45 i’ve owned fired and carried a number of revolvers from s&w, colt and webley. i still keep an s&w model 10 .38 special handy for times when the m1911a1 can’t be used. like my .45 its a reliable sidearm, and with modern ammunition, effective. “old” does not necessarily mean “useless”.

  24. Kicknbak,
    Well said sir. At times I carried .38 Special +P in my duty revolver, a S&W 686 .357 magnum, because the recoil was so manageable and thus VERY accurate. Thanks for the feedback.

  25. I am afraid this article will influence uninformed first time handgun buyers to select the .38 Special caliber that is seriously outdated and obsolete. Yes, the .38 still has its devotees but there are far better calibers out there (9mm, .357 Magnum, .40S&W, .45ACP). My personal favorite is the .40 S&W (I own 8 of them). In terms of stopping power to neutralize a threat, be it person or animal, the .38 Spl is inadequate — that’s why the US Army switched to the .45ACP caliber after bad experiences with the .38 Special.
    A person considering purchase of a .38 Spl. weapon should at least upgrade to a .357 Magnum which will shoot the inexpensive .38’s as well as the much more powerful .357 cartridge (but not vice-versa; a .38 weapon will not shoot .357 ammo). In any event, please talk to a knowledgable “gun person” before buying a .38 Special handgun!

  26. During my years in the military I was subject to carry a sidearm on duty much of the time. Most times it was the 1911 45 cal. issue of course, and a person had no choice or preference as to his style, hand fit, or sight picture. On one SAC assignment however we were given our choice, and what a difference it made as far as comfort, self assurance, qualification, etc. I soon learned to love the 38 Special and we were as one when it came to using it. There are few I have fired since that I’ve felt so much at ease with, just in the feel and angle of the grip alone. I would say just this one point alone more than makes up the difference in size to the .45 1911 to the .38 Special. Accuracy vs. punch. It was the first sidearm I purchased for my own collection, and will always be a favorite to shoot. Roger

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