Ammunition

A History of the .38 Special

After ruling the Philippines for almost half a millennium, Spain ceded control to the United States.

The result?

By 1899, the U.S. military was facing an armed rebellion in the Philippines that lead to the development of the .38 Special cartridge (and .45 ACP).

Thanks to this, we now have one of the most popular and versatile rounds ever made.

But how did all this happen? First, here’s an infographic that summarizes the .38 Special timeline. To skip to the rest of the article and keep reading, click here.

history of the .38 special

.38 Special Cartridge Origins

Manufactured by Colt, the .38 Long Colt and the related pistol line were insanely popular.

In fact, it was so popular that rival manufacturers like Winchester offered their own weapons chambered in the .38 Long Colt.

However, there was one problem with the .38 Long Colt: It lacked velocity.

During the Philippine War, American soldiers would fire several .38 Long Colt bullets to take down ONE Moro Jihadi (the enemy). Seriously…the round was that weak.

If they had any hope to compete on the world stage, the U.S. military would have to do something drastic. They would have to create a new bullet.

A round that would fire faster, hit harder and penetrate further.

Stainless .38 Special Revolver

A Lethal Design

In 1898, the U.S. military developed and introduced the .38 Special cartridge, which was designed to overcome the underwhelming limitations of the .38 Long Colt.

The resulting design was a miraculous round for the time — capable of fitting not only the old .38 Long (and .38 Short) Colt weapons, but the new .38 Special cartridge could even fire from the Navy’s old cap-and-ball revolvers and the soon-to-come .357 Magnum.

This ability to fit and fire in so many different weapons led the .38 Special to become massively popular amongst service members and the decision to create the versatile .38 Special cartridge revolutionized the military.

By 1907 however, multiple innovations made by John Browning and Colt would make the .38 Special cartridge’s time short-lived in widespread military service.

Soon, the U.S. military would employ the very same program that brought the .38 Special into existence to replace the round with the .45 ACP.

The love affair with the .38 Special, however, would continue back in America for the thousands upon thousands of servicemen who fired it, setting the base for a long-lasting love affair with the .38 Special cartridge.

.38 Special Casings
.38 Special exhibits excellent accuracy and power in a light-recoiling platform.

Law Enforcement’s Best Friend

By the 1920’s, a nation full of police officers was looking to replace their outdated, single-action revolvers with something new and more effective.

Prohibition had helped fuel an organized crime wave and many policemen found themselves routinely outgunned with their standard-issue, single-action revolvers.

Like the soldiers in the Philippines 30 years before them, police forces were looking for a more powerful round, and found a solution with the .38 Special cartridge.

Eventually, the round would become so popular amongst U.S. police forces that it would be used for almost a century in departments across the country, and the success did not go unnoticed.

Taking advantage of the ingenious design of the .38 Special cartridge, the FBI introduced the “FBI Load” in 1972, known to most of us as the “+P” bullet.

Loaded with more powder, more penetration and more stopping power, this variation of the .38 Special round became the standard load for federal, state and local law enforcement entities for decades, until more popular semi-automatic pistols began to replace the older-style revolvers.

Many, however, objected to the .38 Special cartridge. The reason? Some believed that since the .357 Magnum — a more powerful cartridge — existed, why not use that?

There were a host of benefits to using a smaller cartridge, but first people had to understand it.

Blued .38 Special Revolver
A .38 Special revolver is an incredibly handy and maneuverable defensive firearm.

.38 Special and .357 Magnum Differences

To start, the .357 Magnum is a larger, more powerful round, but that’s about where the advantages end, and where your difficulties are going to begin.

If quickly grabbing an easy-to-wield pistol is your main concern, .357 Magnum is not at all what you are looking for.

The Magnum round is very large, the pistols that fire them are big and heavy, and if you need the gun in a hurry, the difference in size is going to leave you struggling to handle the weapon when you need it the most.

With the .38 Special and the newer loads however, you can get the best of both worlds.

They can provide comparable stopping power and penetration to a .357 Magnum round, and the pistols that fire .38 Special are smaller and much easier to access.

These advantages over the large, heavy and often unwieldy .357 Magnum pistols have led to one burning question that must be answered.

The Most Popular Round in the World?

This cartridge is a uniquely American creation that has stood the test of time to remain one of the most popular loads ever created for a pistol.

While that’s already saying a lot, the fact that it saw wide use by the police, military and even the FBI is a testament to how practical, capable and popular the .38 Special cartridge was — and still is today.

It should be looked at as a champion example of design and engineering.

The .38 Special is a utilitarian, all-in-one option round for target shooters, hand loaders and home defense alike.

Have you ever fired a .38 Special cartridge? If so, what are your thoughts on it? Let us know in the comments below!

About the Author:

Richard Douglas

Richard Douglas is a firearms expert and educator. His work has appeared on large publications like The National Interest, Daily Caller, American Shooting Journal, and more. In his free time, he reviews optics on his Scopes Field blog.
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 (33)

  1. Regarding the Moros – I had read an article back in the 70’s that not only did they use stimulants, but that they tied up their testicles to induce such a level of pain that it overloaded the body’s natural pain receptors so they didn’t react to wounding but continued to advance. The only stopping option was additional well placed shots in pelvis, legs, etc, that dropped them to the ground from which they could not rise to continue the attack.

  2. Recoil control is easier with the 38 spcl. Using my favorite Ruger Speed Six with 38’s at six paces, I can place 6 shots on a paper plate in .74 seconds total using an electronic timer to measure time taken between the first through sixth shots. Lack of serious recoil makes the 38 even more pleasurable to shoot and the revolvers are also more accurate at longer distances than the 9mm pistols.

  3. I have a Ruger LCR, a compact revolver that shoots 38and 357. It hurts to shoot 20 rounds of 357, but for self-defense purposes I would use it in a heartbeat over the 38.

  4. I always buy a .357 but shoot .38 special or +P for regular practice. Better to have the magnum capability than not at all. Even belly guns come in magnum now – but I would still shoot hollow point +P in it, even for self protection. The magnum I save for hunting something bigger than a human; and really the +P is as far as I am willing to use in self defense. I’ve seen the wounds that the magnum causes, and I’m afraid I’d hesitate that split second to fire on an assailant; and that is time I just don’t want to chance. Better to run a little weaker cartridge and be assured I’d have the guts to pull the trigger, and also maintain control.

  5. After owning a single action Ruger Blackhawk .357 for a few years I bought a S&W model 19 in 1980. After a box or two of .357 rounds through it I got used to the recoil. Then one day a friend suggested that I try shooting .38 rounds in it to save money on ammo costs. I was pleasantly surprised that along with the lighter recoil my point of aim didn’t change much at all. Recently bought a 5 shot Ruger SP101 in .357. It is right at home with the .38+P. While I use a semi-auto as my EDC like rest of the world, the .38 is far from dead. It is a great around the house defense gun that my wife enjoys.

  6. I have 2 .357s. A Smith & Wesson 686 and a Ruger LCR. I love the 686 and I was most accurate with it over any handgun I owned until I bought my M&P 2.0 in .40 with a 5″ barrel. The 686 is still my go to for home defense (I always keep a long gun nearby too). The LCR is quite punishing in .357 so when I go to the range i shoot .38s then a cylinder or .357s. I alwas keep it loaded with .357 for defense. The round is superior for defense and the adrenaline surge during a self defence incident will keep the recoil manageable.

  7. My father was a competition/trick shooter. He had an 1876 Colt SAA that was originally chambered for .44-40. Since he did all his own reloading, and with a family to feed, it made more sense for him to use .38 spl.. that made him convert the Colt frame with barrel and cylinder. I still have that weapon with both configurations. Although now I load the .44-40 in a JRP for both the Colt and my Henry.

  8. I have a S&W model 12, and is a good little gun, but I prefer my Taurus 605 poly-protector in
    .357 magnum. It is smaller and way easier to carry.

  9. 38s and 357s both come in the same sizes to say the 38 Is smaller is silly. While 357 does have more recoil the size of the firearm and round are exactly the same.

  10. My daily carry is a S&W 642 Airweight with all lead FBI loads. Fact is, it’s easy to carry and it goes bang. For a defensive concealed carry gun, it’s going to make the bad person stop doing bad things. There’s limitations to the .38 just like any other round. I find it manageable and easy to reload.

  11. I own a Colt Classic Cobra chambered in .38 Special as one of my CCW’s. Not only is it reliable and accurate, I’m confident it will put down the assailant. The revolver is also beautiful and I look forward to handing it down to my son.

  12. I made a 200 yard shot with a pink lady snub nose 38 special it’s on my YouTube channel if anyone what’s to check it out. The 38 special is just that SPECIAL

  13. Interesting article. I would take exception to the statement that .357 revolvers are bigger and heavier than those chambered in .38 Spl. For the most part they are the same. Most models are capable of firing either round. Even small frame 2” revolvers have been chambered in .357 for some time now. No argument about the recoil though, the magnum loads are a handful and for the most part not reaching their potential in barrels less than six inches. With currently available cartridges the .38 Spl is a much more effective self defense round than the old 158 gr RNL. For practice and teaching new shooters I’ve used 130 gr FMJ loads. They are clean and easy to handle. With the variety of loads and guns chambered for it the .38/.357 is a must have.

  14. As a police officer for 28 years with the Nassau County Police Department, New York, we used the .38 special the entire time I was there (1966-1994). The round was updated several times from standard round nose to flat point lead to hollow point. But always the .38 special.

    I carried a Smith & Wesson Combat Masterpiece that cost me $65.00 in 1966. My Smith & Wesson Chief Special cost me $52,00.

    As I was retiring, the department was moving to a semi-auto Sig Sauer in ,40 caliber. I retired before they were issued to the entire department. Never did get to fire one.

  15. Cap and ball revolvers are very capable in firing center fire rounds, the cylinder is bore through for the round, or buy a new cylinder for any make and dia. 36,(38 Spc)44,(45 spc.)45(45LC), seriously some Italian makers I’ve never heard of! The new cylinders come with , for lack of a better term, backing plate that holds individual firing pins for each chamber, think that you’re replacing the nipples with stubby firing pins, hard to reload fast, but so are single actions. Pricey is an understatement 400-600 USD each cylinder. Pressure is super low on all 38/44 Spc and 45 LC. Not the new high pressure ++p stuff, old fashion original 250grains @ 675 FPS for 45 Lc.

  16. I’m always amused when people claim the Philippine Insurrection prompted the development of the .38 Special cartridge, due to the short comings of the .38 Long Colt. That’s not strictly true.

    The .38 S&W Special cartridge was released in 1898, prior to the 1898 Treaty of Paris in which the Spanish government ceded control of the Philippines to the United States. So the cartridge was not developed as a result of experiences in the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902) at all.

    In reality, the weakness of the .38 Long Colt was established before the Philippine war. The .38 Long Colt debuted in 1872 and became the Army’s cartridge in 1892. Smith & Wesson was convinced that a better, more powerful cartridge would gain approval from the Army. During this time, tensions with Spain were rising in early 1898 with the sinking of the USS Maine in February. The Spanish-American War began in April, staring in the Caribbean and expanding to the Philippines.

    The .38 S&W Special cartridge was still too new and few guns were available for it when the war came, so it was never adopted as a service revolver. The US Army substituted .45 Colt SAA’s in the Philippines and later a the double-action .45 Colt New Service revolver was adopted in 1909.

    Because Colt’s .38 Long Colt revolvers had chambers that were bored straight through, the .38 Special could be chambered if the cylinder was long enough (some were). The results, however, could end badly as the Colt operated with a lower-pressure, black-powder cartridge and the .38 Special moved quickly to smokeless powder around 1900.

  17. I’ve had a S&W Chief Special (model 36) since age 16 (long time ago). Although it was manufactured before the +P ammo design consideration, it can handle it; but, it is not recommended, especially for prolonged use. I did use it to qualify for my CWP, shooting FBI loads: .38 Special 158 gr +P semi-wadcutters. After 50 rounds, my thumb knuckle was cut to the bone by the knurled hammer raking it due to the recoil of each round (which also gave my wrist a workout). Since I have a lot of the +P ammo, I bought the Taurus model 617, .357 revolver to shoot those higher power rounds.

  18. i have been researching all things handgun for a long time, and the authors assumption of the cap and balls being converted to 38 spl is wrong. all of them were either out of service by the time of the philipine problem, or they were converted to lower power black powder loads. the 38 special loads were also not in any way shape of form used in 38 colt chambered guns unless converted by a gunsmith with a desire for a lawsuit. the 45 colts were the stopgap untill the 45 acp was developed,and the colt new service in 45 colt was also another issue stopgap. not to be picky but the timeline and information is available to those actually taking the time to look. by the way the colt and remingtom black powder revolvers were never converted to anything but black powder loads back in the day. those that were using smokless were deleiberatly loaded down for safety sake

  19. I’ve recently learned that the Moros were wearing ‘armor’ using woven tubes of Jute fiber filled with rock salt, when wrapped around the torso and the upper limbs multiple time this tubing would stop low power rounds and acted as a compression dressing to aid in hemorrhage control.

  20. FYI – Modern Cap & Ball revolvers can be converted just kike was done in the 1870’s. Buy a conversion cylinder from Midway, etc. Conversion can be only for STEEL frames, and should only be used with “COWBOY” loads. Just make sure you get a cylinder that fits the model/manufacturer that you want to convert. Get either the .38 spl. or .45 “long Colt” cylinder for ~$275.

  21. I have a Ruger GP100 .357 6″barrel. I wear in a chest rig while hunting. It’s my back up gun against a hog charge.
    I load it with 200 gr CorBon’s. Tis a hand cannon for sure. I target practice with .38 special +P. A lot quieter, less recoil, and way cheaper to shoot. Actually found some frangible ammo for shooting steel. Makes the gun more versatile and fun. Yes, it’s a stout and impressive revolver but my choice for home defense is my old 9mm Glock 17. My carry gun is a .380 Ruger LCP. Very discreet but not that accurate at a distance. Different guns for different occasions.

  22. I’m not sure how the .38 Special could be fired in the old cap and ball revolvers. I don’t have anything chambered in .38 Long Colt handy, but I’m not convinced that it would fit either. And if it did, I’d be very concerned because of the higher pressures in the Special.

  23. One fact that is left out of a lot of historical accounts is that the Moro jihadis were all hopped up on stimulants which was one reason the .38 caliber round was ineffective. Once the Army started re-arming the troops with mothballed .45 Cold single actions the stopping power problems were somewhat alleviated. This led to the development of the .45 ACP / M1911 combo and the rest, as is said, is history.

    A modern corollary to this exists in our recent wars in the Middle East. Modern jihadis are also all hopped up on stimulants which makes them harder to stop. Of course, JDAMs are very effective. The troops in the Philippines could have used a few of those…

  24. I own a S&W Model 10 .38 Special revolver, and have fired it many times. I have to take issue, though with the contention that an old Navy cap & ball revolver could fire it. I suppose a few were converted to fire the .38 special, but it would have required extensive modifications to the cap & ball revolver, and there would be questions as to whether the black powder revolver could withstand the extra pressure from smokeless powder. The .38 Special, even the +P version produces rather little recoil, making it easy for anyone to shoot, but does not come close to the power of the .357 magnum, or the .44 special. The .38 special replaced the olb black powder .38 long but was itself replaced in just a few years by the .45 ACP for military use. When I served in the Army in the 1950s, the MPs still carried .45 ACP M1911 pistols.

  25. .38 was a great blend of power versus gun weight. Was not until the development of modern steel was the famous .357 possible. Most folks can’t handle a full .357 load, so the current .38 +P loads are about the most that can be handled by your average shooter.

    I like a 3″ J Frame in .357, but normally load a “.357 lite/.38 +P+” hand load (in .357 brass) to keep from getting too much recoil to handle. With practice, and some training, most folks can learn to handle a .357, but if a 9mm appears to work, why re invent the .38???

  26. I owned a S&W Model 60, Model 13-3 and Model 65. While two were technically .357s, they all enjoyed a diet of .38 Specials most of the time. The .38 Special is inexpensive to reload and can be quite accurate. Each will hit standing clay pigeons at 25 yards. The recoil of a Special or even the +P isn’t bad, even in the lightweight Model 60. The only one I have left now is the Model 60, my father has the Model 13-3 and my kid sister uses the Model 65 as her EDC. Excellent guns and an excellent cartridge.

  27. 38 Special is cheaper and has much less recoil through my S&W 586. That being said, for handgun hunting or self defense situation I would still go with 357 magnum.

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