Everything You Didn’t Know About the .38 Special

S&W 940 Pro revolver with a box of Hornady Critical Defense ammunition

I’ve been firing the .38 Special quite a lot lately, largely due to an excellent Colt Python and a vintage Model 66. Sure, they are .357 Magnums, but I enjoy firing .38 Specials much more. I no longer own any revolver classed as a big bore. All my revolvers are either .38 Special, .357 Magnum, or .22 rimfires.

I am very happy with my modest battery. The most useful, and the most used revolvers, are .38 Specials. A snub nose .38 is always on my person — even if I am carrying another handgun. In many ways, the .38 Special is a better choice for many chores than the .357 Magnum. Accurate, well balanced, and easily controlled in a revolver of appropriate weight, the .38 Special is a fine all around revolver cartridge.

Early Smith & Wesson top break revolver (top) and a S&W Airweight revolver
Early Smith & Wesson top break revolvers, top, chambered in .38 S&W, were reliable and served a purpose. The modern .38 Special is much more useful.


The .38 Special was introduced in 1899. Properly named the .38 Smith & Wesson Special, this cartridge is based on the .38 Long Colt. Yes, Smith & Wesson improved the Colt cartridge and there is good reason for doing so.

In the 1880s, pocket revolvers were chambered for various short .38 cartridges. Each maker usually had their own non-interchangeable cartridge. If you purchased a Remington, you used Remington ammunition. Colt had its cartridges and so did Smith & Wesson.

The .38 Smith & Wesson is a short, chubby cartridge. Nominal ballistics are 146 grains at 650 fps. I recently clocked Magtech loads in a three-inch barrel .38 S&W at 560 fps. Many years ago, I observed a victim of a bar shooting plucking one of these bullets out of his belly before an ambulance arrived!

The .38 Short Colt used a 125-grain bullet at a nominal 730 fps, usually closer to 700 fps. The .38 Short Colt is shorter than the .38 S&W. .38 Colt cartridges usually load and fire in the S&W, but the S&W cartridge will not chamber in a .38 Colt, .38 Long Colt, or .38 Special.

Colt developed the .38 Long Colt for use in the Lightning double-action revolver. It was also used in the swing-out cylinder double-action Colt Model of 1892 adopted by the U.S. Army. This cartridge uses a 152-grain bullet at 750 fps. The U.S. Army went from a cartridge developed to drop an Indian War Pony at 100 yards to a rather anemic .38.

.38 Special revolver with the cylinder open showing six spent cartridges
The .38 Special is a mild shooting and accurate cartridge.

The debacles of the .38 Long Colt, and its poor performance in the Philippines and elsewhere, are a thrice told tale. The cartridge is practically worthless for personal defense. The Army eventually ordered double-action .45 caliber revolvers as a stop gap, after reissuing the Colt SAA .45 Colt revolver. It then conducted the scientific Thompson LaGarde test, and adopted a .45 Automatic pistol.

The Army also purchased a new .38 revolver as a stop gap. Colt’s Model 1892 was none too robust. The Smith & Wesson Military & Police revolver is the most successful revolver of all time. A new cartridge was developed. Since the Army wished to use existing stocks of .38 Long Colt ammunition, Smith & Wesson’s new cartridge featured the same case head and cartridge rim.

The .38 Smith & Wesson Special featured a 158-grain bullet at 870 fps. Velocity is closer to 800 fps in a four-inch barrel revolver. The .38 Special is slightly longer than the .38 Long Colt and will not chamber in .38 Long Colt revolvers.

lightweight .38 S&W revolver with open Federal ammunition box and a paper silhouette target
Even a relatively light .38 revolver may be comfortable to fire and use.

The new revolver and cartridge became very popular. Thus the .38 S&W Special became the first universal revolver cartridge. Everyone who made service revolvers used this cartridge. The revolver was issued to many troops including aviators for the following 80 years. Military police used the revolver in improved versions.

The military loading of a 130-grain FMJ bullet is more anemic than the lead bullet load. The Smith & Wesson Military & Police is a medium-sized revolver and handles well. Recoil is about all occasional shooters can handle. As the great Elmer Keith pointed out, the .38 was very popular based on its light weight and low recoil, unless you actually had to shoot someone with it.

Shortly after the introduction of the Military & Police .38 Special, target sighted versions were developed with ramp front sights, undercut front sights, and a rear sight that was adjustable for windage and elevation. Very interesting shooting contests were undertaken. Americans had the leisure time to engage in marksmanship training, so personal defense was not the only reason for purchasing a firearm.

.38 caliber revolver with the cylinder open and a partially used box of winchester Super Match + ammunition
There is a wide range of bullet weights and loads available in our most popular revolver caliber.

A shooting society, firing revolvers at 100 yards, made good use of the .38 Special. Handloading thrived. Development in bullet design greatly improved the .38 Special. The Thompson LaGarde contest proved that flat point bullets produced much more damage than round nose bullets.

Elmer Keith eventually developed sharp-shouldered semi-wadcutter bullets that had much more wound potential and accuracy potential than other types. By designing the bullet nose to ride outside the cartridge — more so than a RNL bullet — more powder could be used with less pressure. These bullets and the 148-grain target wadcutter maximized the .38 Special.

Colt chambered the SAA and New Service revolvers in .38 Special. These heavy-frame revolvers allowed the development of heavy .38 Special loads. Some broke 1,150 fps with a 158-grain bullet. Keith wrecked a few .38s in experiments, and I am certain it wasn’t a rare occurrence among experimenters. The .38 Special offered high velocity and accuracy not attainable with the big bore revolvers of the day.

The .38-44

Smith & Wesson recognized the need for a more powerful cartridge than the .38 Smith & Wesson Special. Most agencies preferred to issue the low recoil .38. However, mechanized robbers demanded a handgun with greater penetration.

Smith & Wesson Model 13, right profile
The Smith & Wesson Model 13 is basically a heavy barrel Military & Police in .357 Magnum. What a pleasant handgun to fire in .38 Special!

Smith & Wesson developed the .38-44 or Heavy Duty, a .38 Special revolver on the N-Frame or .44 frame. .45 Colt and .44 Special loads using lead bullets (as factory loaded) were not capable of sheet metal penetration as needed to combat the modern bank robber. (Colt’s .38 Super was developed as well, but we were a nation of revolver men….)

The .38/.44 load is a good, hot .38 loaded in a standard .38 Special case but using a large pistol primer the .38/44 loading breaks 1,100–1,150 fps. Keith developed a heavier load at 1,200 fps and handloaders crafted hollow point loads. A 150-, 158-, or 173-grain lead hollow point at 1,100 fps is an ideal law enforcement and personal defense load. The Heavy Duty revolver is superbly accurate and set many long range records.

The Magnum

Looking for even more power the N-Frame revolver was chambered for a special lengthened .38 Special. The .357 Magnum will not chamber in .38 Special revolvers, but you may use the .38 Special in any magnum revolver. The magnum is a great cartridge, a hard hitter, and a capable game taker.

a line of .357 Magnum cartridge offerings
All useful projectiles for the .357 Magnum may be used in .38 Special loads as well. They are a useful combination.

When chambered in medium-frame revolvers, the .357 is hard on small parts. Gas cutting may occur depending on the load. The magnum is a powerful cartridge with many uses. That said, a regimen of 20 .38s in practice, for every magnum fired, is a good one.

Police Service

In 80 years of police work, results with the .38 Special 158-grain RNL were terrible, completely unimpressive. There were so many good loads available from 1930 on, that it boggles the mind that the old RNL bullet was widely issued. In British controlled Hong Kong, if anything other than a RNL or FMJ jacket bullet was issued to police the communist would riot. In America, the Democrats made a more effective cartridge politically incorrect in many jurisdictions.

The .38 Special was generally regarded as capable of stopping a bad guy with a single shot to the toros, about half of the time. This figure was widely quoted. However, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Most stopping power studies are not worth a moment’s reading. They range from flights of the imagination to terribly bad procedure.

Two vintage Colt revolvers
These vintage Colt revolvers have been fired for 50–100 rounds of .38 Special for each .357 Magnum.

I won’t call them science. As Colonel Cooper pointed out, statistics are used by rascals to impress fools. A reputable study by the Police Marksman Association (PMA) was valuable in that it rated hit probability in different types of weapons and shots fired for hits. As for the .38 RNL loading, the PMA rated the cartridge as effective one time in four with a chest hit. This 9mm FMJ loading was much the same.

For many years, a standard handload was a cast hollow point with gas check, loaded to 1,000 fps in the .38 Special… although it may be seated a bit farther out and loaded to 1,200 fps in magnums. This is an excellent all-around loading. The bullets were cast at 150–160 grains — depending on the mold and alloy.

The heavy 173-grain bullet is an exceptional choice in the magnum. When the ammunition companies developed a load for the FBI, the .38 Special FBI load was a 158-grain, lead, semi-wadcutter hollow point at 850–880 fps in a four-inch barrel, similar to the standard hollow point load.

Taurus lightweight .38 S&W with VZ grips
A three-inch barrel, lightweight .38 from Taurus features an excellent set of VZ grips.

According to the PMA study, this load was proven effective with a single, center-chest hit in 3 of 4 incidents investigated — a huge improvement. This type of performance was predicted by the Thompson LaGarde test.

In shooting cadavers and live animals, the FMJ or RNL bullet was a poor performer except in the largest calibers. A flat nose bullet was much more successful in causing damage and even secondary bone fragments. Colonel Thompson specifically recommended cup point (‘manstopper’ bullets as they were called in the day).

This +P loading remains the single best choice for personal defense in .38 Special. The loads are often difficult to find but are loaded by Federal, Winchester, and Remington, with similar performance. Buffalo Bore offers a SWC/HP in cast form with a gas check bullet. This is a considerable improvement over swaged, lead loads.

3 Buffalo Bore .38 Super bullets and one upset round
Most companies load the .38 Super no hotter than a warm 9mm. Buffalo Bore loads offer real performance.

Buffalo Bore’s standard-pressure loading clocks just under 900 fps. The +P version is over 1,000 fps in typical defense revolvers. I carry these Buffalo Bore loads in my magnum carry guns, unless larger animals are a threat in the area I am exploring.

+P Loads

+P loads are not quite as hot as .38-44 loads, but useful. By lowering bullet weight and increasing pressure, a +P load increases velocity and helps instigate bullet expansion. As an example, many +P loads raise velocity of 110–125 loads to well over 1,000 fps — even in a snub nose revolver. Many years ago, factory hollow point loads did not expand, or they expanded too quickly.

Today, a +P loading using the Remington ‘tulip-shaped’ hollow point or Hornady XTP is a viable choice. These loads will expand reliability and are often very accurate. Hornady’s 110-grain Critical Defense is among the reliably expanding .38 Special loads.

Two upset bullets - The Federal Punch .38 Special. left and Remington 125-grain .357 Magnum, right.
The Federal Punch .38 Special on the left is a credible defense load compared to the Remington 125-grain .357 Magnum, right.

+P+ Loads

This is basically an overloaded round, produced by ammunition companies for use by agencies using the .357 Magnum and desiring a more tolerable loading for training and service use. I have clocked the Winchester +P+ 110-grain JHP — sometimes called the Treasury load as it was used by Federal Agents — at 1,175 FPS in a 2.5-inch barrel. It is plenty hot, and makers had the agency sign a ‘hold harmless’ agreement for liability.

The loading was hard on lockwork and aluminum frames. when you used this load in .38 Special revolvers. I am not certain anyone manufactures the +P+ today. Please note that standard pressure .38 Special is running at 17,000 PSI, +P at 20,000 PSI, and the largely unrated +P+ at an average of 23,000 pounds per square inch. Nothing to play with in a vintage Military & Police revolver or a modern economy .38!

Interesting .38 Special loads

4-inch Barrel Velocity (FPS)

Federal 148-grain Wadcutter Match729
Fiocchi 110-grain +P1,099
Fiocchi 125-grain +P1,060
Federal Punch 120-grain +P931
Buffalo Bore 125-grain JHP Standard Pressure1,080
Buffalo Bore 110-grain Barnes Standard Pressure960
Buffalo Bore 158-grain LSWCHP880
Federal 129-grain Hydra-Shok +P950

Of what use is the .38 Special?

Among the most useful of revolvers is a four-inch barrel .357 Magnum with adjustable sights. Using .38 Special ammunition, this is a fine training revolver. Using light loads, the revolver is fine for target use and combat training. With standard pressure loads the .38 Special is a fine small game load. I have taken quite a few rabbits and squirrels with the .38.

Hardcast .38 Special loads with a Taurus Tracker revolver
.38 Special hardcast loads and the Taurus Tracker are an outstanding outdoors combination.

For personal defense, a +P loading is useful. In steel-framed guns, it is controllable. In aluminum-frame handguns, standard pressure loads are surprisingly capable. Take a hard look at low flash, low recoil loads. There is no better ‘compromise’ caliber — for the recoil shy or those with a physical impediment — than the .38 Special.

The .38 Special is a powderpuff with standard loads, useful for many pleasant pursuits. For the many shooters who prefer a revolver for personal defense and outdoors use, the .38 Special offers excellent performance. Study the choices in handguns and loads, and you may find the .38 suits you to a T.

Caliber Warning

A huge number of double-action revolvers of varying quality were manufactured in Europe. Many, such as the Brothers Hermanos, were copies of the S&W Military & Police. Some were chambered in .38 Colt as marked on the barrel. The chambering was so sloppy that they will accept the .38 Special. Some will accept the .357 Magnum — Yikes!

.38 Special, left, compared to the .357 Magnum cartridge, right.
The .38 Special, left, compared to the .357 Magnum, right. The .38 is more useful for many chores.

I imagine a combination of soft steel and a magnum cartridge butted into a chamber that would not allow the crimp to open on firing. This would be something akin to a pineapple hand grenade in effect.

Not as dangerous, but something to look out for is butchered Victory Model .38s. Millions were sent to the Brits on lend lease during World War II and then re-sold as surplus. These were chambered in .38 Smith & Wesson. To make them more salable, a chamber reamer was applied to ream out the chamber to accept .38 Special cartridges. In a word, don’t and don’t fire them!

The result was a sloppy fit that results in a standard pressure, .38 Special 158-grain RNL load swelling at the case head. I would imagine a .38 +P would burst with predictable results to the hand and eyes. These revolvers, marked .38 S&W on the barrel, will accept the .38 S&W cartridge and fire normally even after reaming out to .38 S&W Special.

Two old snub nose .38 SPecial revolvers
The old .38 Special revolvers still serve and serve well indeed.

Some of the revolvers were cut to a three-inch barrel and a tiny front sight added. Sight regulation was all over the place. That said, other than these debacles, most .38 Special revolvers are fine companions.

What’s your opinion of the .38 Special? Is it worthy for self-defense or only as training loads for the .357 Magnum? Share your answers in the Comment section.

  • S&W 940 Pro revolver with a box of Hornady Critical Defense ammunition
  • Two old snub nose .38 SPecial revolvers
  • three upset Hornady .38 Special bullets
  • .38 Special, left, compared to the .357 Magnum cartridge, right.
  • Hardcast .38 Special loads with a Taurus Tracker revolver
  • Taurus lightweight .38 S&W with VZ grips
  • a line of .357 Magnum cartridge offerings
  • Two vintage Colt revolvers
  • Early Smith & Wesson top break revolver (top) and a S&W Airweight revolver
  • Smith & Wesson Model 13, right profile
  • half-used box of Federal .39 Special ammunition next to a revolver
  • .38 caliber revolver with the cylinder open and a partially used box of winchester Super Match + ammunition
  • lightweight .38 S&W revolver with open Federal ammunition box and a paper silhouette target
  • .38 Special revolver with the cylinder open showing six spent cartridges

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
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 (32)

  1. The story on revolvers is great. Not going to get deep into anything, but to answer the question at end of story? Yes,a.38 special+p is more then adequate for self defense. My Taurus 856ul rated +p 38 special is all I need. 2 shots, center mass!

  2. Blessed to have 10 acres in the Texas hill country, when I am working around the place, I carry a Charter Arms .38 . First two chambers loaded with CCI shot shells followed by three Federal hydroshocks. Shot shells obviously for snakes. Hydroshocks for anything bigger and toothier. ( read rabid coyote). Probably just piss off a hog though.

  3. Fifty years ago, I fired Spear Lawman 110gr Jacketed Soft Nose 38spl into dry phonebooks. Penetration was excellent, about 4 inches, and got a good mushroom. Compared to S&W .357 125gr Hollow Point, the result was about equal. I recommend 110gr+P soft point or hollow point in the 38spl to assure that magic 1000+ FPS. FYI the 145gr 38SPL wadcutters did not hardly penetrate or mushroom at all.

  4. Because of disability I find it hard to carry a larger gun outside the home, so in the past I relied on a Ruger LCP. It fit my budget and my size requirements, but I always had my doubts about the .380.
    Recently I came across and purchased a Heritage Arms Roscoe revolver chambered for .38 +P. It’s based on Smith and Wesson’s J frame so it fits my size requirements. It also fits my budget better than other small frame revolvers coming in at under $400. But best of all, I have more confidence in .38+P than I do in .380. And I grew up shooting revolvers so I am more comfortable with it.

  5. Years ago when I first started as a state LEO, were issued the S&W 686. 4″bbl and Hogue grips. Issued 158gr SWCHP 38 Spl +P and two speedloaders. A whopping 18 rounds and had to reload twice to utilize them all. But it was accurate, a powderpuff to shoot. By the time we transitioned to the then brand new M&P40 (released in 2005) I was a master sergeant, RSO, instructor, and 2nd armorer for my field unit. I quite like the .40 S&W and it’s my prefered cartridge and I still carry one sometimes. I’ve generally been carrying the M&P Shield Plus since it was introduced in 2021. I’m not a fan of 9mm but Smith doesn’t make the Shield Plus in .40 so… it’s what I have, loaded with 124gr Federal Hydroshoks. However, I also have in my rotation an Armscor/RIA M206 2″, 6 shot chambered for .38 Spl with combat grips. Loaded with 125gr Federal Nyclad. The ones from old blue/orange/white box. The extremely soft lead HP penetrates and manages to expand. Hopefully it will never be needed but I don’t really feel undergunned with it.

  6. Shooting for some 50 years of my life and being a veteran of the Airborne Infantry and USMC, I have had the opportunity to fire many firearms. I have run the gamut over the years of carrying 45 ACP, 9 mm, 45 Colt, 38 Spl, and 357 Mag. I grew up with revolvers and used the GI issue 45 and M-9 (Berretta 9mm) in military service. Now in my 60’s I have gained a renewed appreciation for the 38 Special, especially in my S&W Model 10’s. Depending on the task, I usually carry a 38 Spl or 357 Mag. My favorites are Smith and Wesson models 10, 19, 15, 60, 642, 66, and 586. I recently discovered Buffalo Bore’s standard pressure, low flash 158 gr LSWCHP, so now I can add my model’s 12 and 37 aluminum framed airweights to the list without worrying about damaging them. I always carry to reloads of ammunition and often have a second weapon close by. I’m not looking for trouble (my arms choices would be different), and I don’t feel undergunned with my choices. Strike Hold!

  7. I’ll keep my Ruger SP101 with a medium .357 load.

    After years of practice, I can consistently place at 2/12 to 3 inches at twenty-five feet…well beyond most self-defense situations.

  8. We used to have someone else load a 357 with variations of 38 special, 357 magnum or empty chamber so you wouldn’t know what was next. In squeezing off rounds, Bang – BOOM – click and the pistol moves on an empty chamber, the flinch is glaring. Good way to train out flinch

  9. Carried a Colt Diamondback 38 special when i worked for brinks Armored Car in the 70’s. Smoothest, best pointing revolver I have ever shot. It’s too bad Colt brought back the Python but ignored the Diamondback.
    I also carried a S&W 4″ heavy bbl model 10 S&W 38 special in a custom low slung ( cowboy style ) belt rig where the reach for the revolver was perfect every time. A great working rig. The belt rig was made by a fellow worker at Brinks.

  10. Always enjoy reading your informative articles on various handguns and ammo. I always learn something of value to tuck into my memory banks for reloading my ammo. Keep up the great articles and I’ll keep reading them.

  11. Howdy, my everyday carry is a S&W 642 Airweight with 110 Critical Defense and a speed loader. Out main house gun is a Charter Arms Bulldog in .44 S&W 200 grain HP. I am NRA certified to instruct the 3 gun and teach students with older Model 10, 4 inch with 148 gr. wadcutters. Most stick with wheel guns but some go “trendy.” Anyway, I taught twin Ladies Maude and Ethel (86 years young) and neither had shot before but both took right to it. Maude enjoyed the X ring but Ethel giggled with “crotch shots.” Maude confided that Ethel was “somewhat of a bitch!”
    A very informed article and a pleasure to read and the old 1911 usually goes with in winter or in sketchy neighborhoods. Keep that cylinder turning!

  12. I’m an old 82nd ABN veteran, raised as an Army Brat & have several decades of law enforcement under my belt. I’m retired now but I’m still a 9mm & .40 daily carrier. But, I cut my teeth on the .38/357 back in my good ol’ rookie cop days shortly after I ETS’d from the Army in 1975. I packed that department issued, rattle trap revolver for over a decade before the department “allowed” us to carry semi autos. My first semi auto was a newer (previously issued used) S&W (can’t remember the model) pistol with several magazines. I preferred the semi autos over the revolvers but, not by much. As time went on my “new” department (Law Enforcement) job required us to carry a .40 or .45 semi-auto so, I did carry a full sized .45 semi auto department issued rattle trap (can’t remember the Model) & over time I made yet, another switch to an S&W shield M2.0 chambered in the .40 cartridge. I usually carry that particular pistol daily… retired now & still shooting regularly at the many “bubba” ranges we have in the forests out here in our great Pacific Northwest. The Shield is my every day carry in the fall & winter months around here backed up by my little pocket carry Ruger LCP .380. Though I love to shoot the revolvers I’m also loving the capacity of the semi autos. Sooo, what I carry daily has a lot to do with the weather, the season, the location I’m heading to & my comfort level with my choice(s) regarding what to carry & what’s expected at the end of the trail. I’m good to go with most any of the pistols I carry on any given day. Rifles? Now that’s a whole different story. I’m a bolt action rifle shooter (scoped). My two favorite cartridges are the 25-06 & the .243, both very well scoped & my particular home defense weapon is my 870 12 gauge. For target shooting I use predominately my reloads. For EDC I carry factory ammo. Life’s too short if you happen to become a target. 40 plus years of remote wildland law enforcement changed my whole attitude re: EDC’s, long guns, shotguns, etc. The fact that I’m still here is a testament to how things shook out for me.

    Life’s too short to cut corners on personal safety… especially when I’m including the family. I have to mention that my favorite home defense firearm is my 870 of course. Just the sound of a round being racked into the chamber is usually enough to end the potential struggle with any intruder(s).

    Stay safe & keep on plinkin’!


  13. Another great article! I too have gravitated towards .38 special revolvers as a good carry option in my older years. My “City” carry guns are normally either an air weight S&W 442 loaded with the 110 gr Hornady Critical defense you mention, or a new all steel Colt Cobra loaded with the Buffalo Bore standard pressure 158 gr. For a house gun or field carry, I like my Ruger GP100 4” loaded with the +P 158 gr Buffalo Bore round.

    I don’t know if great minds think alike or we just follow the same authors/publications – and you are one of them!

  14. If the plan is to get a .38 Special, and run +P, or +P+ loads, and worry about the negative side effects on your gun, why not just get basically the same gun in a .357 Magnum? Have much more versatility, and more peace of mind, for roughly the same cost.

  15. One issue about the 38 cartridge that needs to be addressed is the so called 158 gr “Police Round”. This round nose bullet would NOT perform reliably in any type of self-defense application. Until recently, the only reliable snub nose 38 round that had any real effect in a self-defense application, was the 148 gr “wadcutter”, handloaded “up” from the target levels typically seen. So, using the modern bullets that are now available, any of the issues with the 38 cartridges of old have been mostly solved. Using a 3″ model 60, I can use 110 gr CRITIAL DEFENSE 38s in lieu of 125 gr – 367 mag rounds, and not feel “under gunned”. (Sorry – My SECURITY 6 is now a Safe Queen, as I no longer hunt. Sucks getting old!) Even better, I can easily control my model 60 with the 110 gr 38s.

  16. I don’t see the need for a .38 Special handgun, when .357 Magnum revolvers are just as small and are more versatile. I do like to shoot .38 Specials in my S&W 340PD mini revolver, however. by the way, you’re a great writer, Bob. It’s a pleasure to read your articles!

  17. Love shooting .38 Special in my Ruger GP-100 4″ barrel Match Champion. That combination is right down the centerline of sweet. I need to look into .38 Special low recoil low flash round. I cannot imagine how loud a .357 mag would be fired inside the home without ear muffs. so perhaps the .38 Special low/low round would be better for inside the home self defense.

  18. Father was issued a model 10 by the state and purchased a model 36 when he made Sargent. Loaded 38 ammo for him, back in the 70’s, using 158 gr hard cast semi wadcutters. Never had any issues with those reloads. Soon after, loaded (3) #1 BUCKSHOT balls in a SPEER shot cup for use in the model 36, because of feral dogs running loose in the area. Again, very effective. After ~50 years, my opinion of the 38/357 family of cartridges is that the current 38 rounds work for almost any situation. For most applications that folks would think of using a 357-mag round, a modern 38/44 or 357 “Lite” round would be equally effective. As to the typical 357 mag factory round, they are better suited for the current crop of 357 carbines and rifles.

  19. My first handgun was a 4″ Ruger Security Six in 357 Mag that I spent a lot of time shooting 38’s through. Then a Ruger SP101 in 38 Special. Both were great guns. I just recently picked up a 6″ GP-100. I like the 38 for a training round and, in a pinch, a decent self-defense round. But I’ll stick with the 357 as a self-defense round.

  20. I have a S&W Mod 19 which in 50 years has only had one box of .357 through it. I also have a S&W Model 60 in .38 which I favor.

    I know the Mod 60 says .38, but I have wanted to use .38 Spl. I have just never found if it is safe.

    Right now, with all the California laws, I don’t know if I can afford anything more (not to mention there’s no mor room in the safe.

  21. What’s in a name? I’ve seen older Colt 38 Specials that will accept .357 rounds because they didn’t cut a step in the chambers to prevent it. Why should they? At the time the 357 Magnum did not yet exist, so I doubt anyone thought about it. I own a British Purchasing Commission Colt Official Police that is marked 38/200 on the barrel but is actually a 38 Special. This is not a rechambered 38 S&W. Both the barrel and the chambers have been checked with gauges to confirm everything is original and within spec. A 38 S&W round will not fit in the cylinder. Perhaps the cylinder was swapped at a later date or maybe the Brits assumed the 38/200 (38 S&W) and 38 Colt were interchangeable, but the bore is .357″, not 360″. When it comes to older guns marked 38 S&W, 38 Short Colt, 38 Long Colt, 38 Special, and 357 Magnum, follow the advice of Ronald Reagan. Trust, but verify.

  22. RJ
    Ruger made a bobbed hammer for the NYCPD, rare to see one.

    Try the Ruger LCR you will love it.


  23. Great article, as usual! Thanks for singing the praises of the 3” barrel snubbie. Much better balance by adding forward weight and better ballistic performance.
    Firing a .38+P in a .357 gun is a great combo. A favorite is the Ruger 3” barrel SP 101 in .357.
    My only objection is that Ruger does not offer a “bobbed” hammer. A hammer spur is a needless appendage for a close quarters defensive pistol, subject to snagging on clothing. To paraphrase Col. Cooper: a “solution to a nonexistent problem” as there is no need to pull back the hammer for single action shooting. C’mon Ruger, catch up to the 21st century!

  24. I love my 38’s they can do anything the wonder nines do with less. Ballistically similar given a choice between a nine and a 38 revolver I would take the 38 less to go wrong.

  25. I have run the gamut over the last 50 yearsbwith 38/357. I like the caliber ! S&W, Colt, snake guns, lever actions, been there done that. Now I have 2 left – Ruger LCR for EDC and Taurus 692, 7-1/2″ ported 357 with interchangeable cylinder for 9mm. Love this gun. Have you ever tested it Bob? I couldn’t find anything on it in your library (didn’t look real hard tho 😉).


  26. Over the years, I have owned several .38’s. I had a Colt snake gun in either .38 or .357 (That was in ’78, I believe) that I didn’t care for. I bought it because I got a great deal on it, but everything was bass-ackwards from a Smith, so I sold it to a nurse I worked with and got what I paid for it.

    In the early 80s, I owned several Smith J frames, but they all kicked too much for my wife, so I got a Model 19, and then a Model 686, I believe it was. My wife did not like to shoot either of them, so they each got sold and I got something for me. I don’t remember if it was one of my 1911s or a long gun. Anyway, I no longer have anything in the .38 range in my handgun collection, only .44 magnum, and .45 ACP. I have a .22 conversion kit for one of the 1911s and don’t see the need to make room in the ammo cabinet for another caliber.

  27. For some reason I have accumulated (6) .357 and .38 Special revolvers and plan to acquire a 6″ Colt Python soon– very possibly from CTD. I mostly shoot .38 Special out of all of them and appreciate that it is such an easy cartridge to reload. I’ve got a variety of recipes and when I want to feel productive or get out of doing something else I hit the reloading bench.

  28. Thanks for your article. I still consider the .357 mag a “big bore” cartridge, Certainly not compared to the 454 Casull or the .500’s but I use it loaded with 180 gr +Ps and they will take care of anything shorty of a grizzly and some even use it as an Alaskan self defense caliber. In a Ruger security six 2 3/4″ that ammo will kick, but it’s small enough and at 32oz awfully convenient to carry and comforting! I have a light weight S&W 386+ that i love. You hardly know it’s there but those buffalo bore 38 special +p’s are very potent and the little gun will kick as much as my ruger security six with heavy 357 magnums.

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