.38 Special Cartridge History & Review

By David Tong
David gives us a interesting look at the history and applications of the iconic .38 special cartridge.

.38 Special Ammunition
.38 Special Ammunition
AmmoLand Gun News
AmmoLand Gun News

USA –  -(Ammoland.com)- The “thirty-eight-special,” was a simple lengthening of the .38 Long Colt round that had proved so inadequate against the Moro warriors of the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.

Developed in 1898, it was first chambered in the original “Military and Police” K-frame revolvers of S&W, the most produced revolver line in history. The earliest cartridges were charged with black powder, but the recent developments of smokeless propellant were the preferred choice to power their bullets just a year later.

.38 Special Ammunition

The “.38,” was in itself a misnomer, in that it fires .357” bullets. Leave it to Colt’s nomenclature methodology to measure the case diameter rather than the British method of bore diameter. By the time the round was introduced, it was done as a matter of marketing convenience and continuity.

The original loading was a 158-grain soft-lead, round-nosed bullet travelling at about 800 ft/sec. Truth be told, this was little better than the 725 ft/sec of the .38 Long Colt, but there you are.

However, the greater case volume and mostly the K-frame revolver’s design and size made it an immediate favorite of both law enforcement and military in the U.S.

The round dominated LE for nearly 70 years, until the advent of more efficient yet equally reliable semiautomatic pistols in the mid-1980s.

Colt continued to produce their “D-frame” revolvers such as the Police Positive and “I-frame” Officer’s Model for the now ubiquitous cartridge into the 1950s, but it had largely been supplanted by the S&W offering.

.38 Special Ammunition Load Types

.38 Special Ammunition Ammo Types
.38 Special Ammunition Ammo Types

The .38 Special is well known for its accuracy, relatively mild recoil, and the variety of loadings available for it. From a 146gr squared-cylindrical “wadcutter” bullet at 600fps, the original 158gr “Police” round nosed lead, later offered in a “high-speed version” by the 1930s clocking roughly 850ft/sec, it has become and will probably remain the single best selling and widely used revolver round in the world.

Elmer Keith
Elmer Keith

Starting in the 1930s, some handloading folks decided they needed to soup up the .38’s speed yet further. These higher-pressure loadings were then used in the Smith & Wesson “N-frame” revolvers, and named the “.38/44 Outdoorsman.” This is the forerunner of today’s +P and +P+ loadings, but the cartridge then was more for sporting purposes, small game hunting and the like, versus the social work use the current high pressure rounds are used for today.

These developments headed by Daniel B. Wesson, with some assistance from Elmer Keith, the late and great gunwriter, eventually produced the equally famous .357 S&W Magnum cartridge, which is another story.

Today, shooters who buy .38s are typically going to be buying a 2” to 4” barreled revolver for home or personal protection use. While the round is not the “one plus ultra” for such use, neither is it exactly a slouch. All the big American ammunition manufacturers, CCI/Speer, Federal, Remington, and Winchester, along with later companies such as Cor-Bon, Glaser, and SIG-Sauer have created computer-designed bullets that greatly increase the .38s ability to stop a threat through controlled expansion and adequate penetration.

The best .38 Special ammunition typically are any of the premium jacketed hollow points from 110gr to 158gr, though many shootists still carry the old “FBI” round, namely the 158gr soft-lead semi-wadcutter hollow point in +P trim, available from Federal and Winchester, the two main suppliers of ammo to LE agencies.

.38 Special (+P) Ammunition
.38 Special (+P) Ammunition

One of the beauties of a .38 revolver is the ammunition suite. One has the option to reliably fire greatly varying bullet weights and pressure loadings in the same revolver, from the target wadcutter to the so-called “Treasury Load,” which was a Winchester 110gr +P+ jacketed hollow point round. At close range, a fixed sight revolver such as the S&W Model 10 or Model 36 3” would work fine, but as distances grow, an adjustable sight will aid the serious marksman to target the point of impact accordingly.

.38 Special Revolvers

While the revolver itself is a reliable platform, it is also typically rather bulky for its power, has a limited ammo capacity, its bore axis is higher than most semi-automatics which causes more felt recoil comparing like pressure/speed loadings, and they are more expensive to build for their manufacturers. They can be much slower to reload too, without much practice or without “speedloaders” that carry a full ammo load released simultaneously by pressing them into the empty cylinder.

HKS .38 Special Speedloader
HKS .38 Special Speedloader

However, the revolver can be easily hidden in either an ankle holster or pocket holster, and can even be fired at very close range though said pocket, a stunt that would likely choke an autoloader for it would have insufficient space to cycle properly.
They are also appealing to people who do not wish to learn the manual-of-arms of the autoloader, and valued for their obvious simplicity and at-a-glance confirmation of being in a loaded or unloaded state.

Some of the currently popular choices in .38 Special include the Ruger LCR, Smith & Wesson’s Model 36 Chief’s Special and Model 442 Airweight, and Taurus’ Model 85 Revolver. All four would suffice as a good back-up arm or even a primary carry arm so long as the shooter is willing to put in the practice with it.

Classic Wheelguns: S&W Airweight (left) and Ruger LCR (right)
Classic Wheelguns: S&W Airweight (left) and Ruger LCR (right)

The .38 Special is the revolver equivalent of the 9X19 semiauto pistol round, which is, after all, only three years newer a development. Capable yet not-overpowered, accurate and easy-to-control except in aluminum framed 2” snubnose versions, it remains a solid choice for discrete carry and pleasure shooting days at the local target range.

After all, it’s only been that way for one hundred seventeen years!

  • 18 thoughts on “.38 Special Cartridge History & Review

    1. How, exactly, is a semiauto pistol ‘more efficient’ than a revolver? And if you want a prime example of a handgun ‘rather bulky for its power’ take a look at the Beretta 92 in 9mm.

    2. First handloading I ever did was for a little four inch nickle plated S&W 19-3. Outstanding revolver. Reloaded .38 Specials for it… 158 gr. LSWC over 5.0 gr. of Unique… nice service type load. Later got a six inch S&W 28-2. I loaded some real stout loads for that revolver. Exceedingly effective on anything that needed to be shot. Loaded light the .38 Special is outstanding for target work. Loaded heavy, it is superb for self-defense and medium game. One of my church members is a big hog hunter. He carries a plain Jane S&W Victory model .38 Special loaded with common 158 gr. lead bullets. He gets close hunting with dogs. Got lots of nerve. Loaded somewhere in between, it’s fine for small game.

    3. I grew up learning to shoot with a revolver but transitioned to a semiauto as soon as I could get my paws on one.
      Then, the Military issued me on and later as a Deputy Sheriff, I asked to carry my Colt M1911A1, Series 70, in lieu of an issued revolver (S&S M66) as I was far more accurate and followup shots quicker.
      Does this mean I don’t like a quality revolver? Not by a long shot and I own, well, let’s say I have one or two, and enjoy shooting them. Light loads are easy to assemble and shoot without fear of any jamming and powDer requirements save money, too, so what’s not to like.
      And I stash a number of firearms around my place so I’m rarely much more than arms length from some kind of protection. And for that purpose, the revolvers rule as I needn’t worry myself about spring set in a loaded magazine stored long term, not that it is a big issue anyway.
      In closing, yeah I carry CCW every day, every where, with a semiauto of some variety but a wheel gun joins the club as a backup or bedside companion and NEVER feel like I’m undergunned or on the short end of a pointed stick should something go bump in the night.
      And I case anyone should balk about all those nasty guns being unattended around my home, don’t sweat it. I don’t have kids around anymore and when guests come by, they don’t know they exist anyway. Just sayin’.
      Merry Christmas to All, stay safe out there, go shooting and God Bless!

    4. The notion that a revolver “never jams” is a common one that just isn’t so. I’ve been shooting revolver since 1964, and I can tell you they are like any mechanical device and most certainly can malfunction … they can “jam”. They may be less prone to breakage and “malfs” but all you need to do to see for yourself is to visit revolver sections of several of today’s gun forums.
      From 2010: https://www.usconcealedcarry.com/revolvers-dont-jam-and-other-firearms-myths/ There are many other such articles.

    5. Even though I love my Glocks, I grew up shooting revolvers, and a 340PD is my back-up. Reliability is unmatched, and the 38/357/45acp combo makes ammo an easy thing to find.

    6. I don’t even own any self loading handguns, for the simple reason that I’m left handed. Yes, most have ambidextrous controls now (sort of), but there’s one more issue I seldom see mentioned in articles like this one. They eject to the right. This isn’t an issue at arm’s length, but in a retention position, a case can bounce back and jam the gun, or hit me in the eye. That is not a good thing in a CQB self defense situation. I don’t have six grand to drop at Cabot Gun, so a 12ga double and a .38 revolver reside at my bedside.

    7. I carry a Charter Arms 38 special as a back up gun with 158 gr sjhp and 2 speed loader For my H&K VP9 2 gun are better then one

    8. Good article…

      I carried a 5-shot Charter Arms “Bulldog” (2″ snubbie) .38 Special for well over two decades, mostly due to its sheer dependability. For self-defense I used 158grain semi-jacketed hollow points, but trained with simple FMJ ball rounds. Eventually, I opted for the advantages of a semi-auto pistol… and gave the Bulldog to my younger daughter for her 30th birthday (she’s as happy with it as I was).

      1. Uh, yes, they do. No mechanical device is immune to failure. I had a K frame .38 that locked up when the ejector rod unscrewed itself. I got in the habit of giving the ejector rod a quick twist before closing the cylinder, just to make sure it hadn’t come loose. I’ve since learned this is a common problem on older Smiths, the usual fix being a drop of Loctite. Defective ammo can cause problems, but this is rare. I’ve seen a couple of magnum revolvers jammed when a bullet in an improperly crimped handload walked out under recoil. You’re less likely to have a problem with a revolver than an auto, but nothing is perfect.

    9. DESTACO ESTE MAGNIFICO DESARROLLO SOBRE EL CALIBRE .38 SPL QUE LLEGA A MI JUSTO CUANDO
      EN UN COMENTARIO,YO MISMO SOLICITÉ,SI PARA DICHO CALIBRE AL QUE QUIERO MUCHO,NO HABÍA BALÍSTICA MÁS AVANZADA QUE NO FUERA +P,POR ENTENDER QUE LOS INGENIEROS QUE HAN PENSADO
      PRIMITIVAMENTE EL CALIBRE,HAN TRABAJADO SOBRE UNAS PRESIONES DETERMINADAS,QUE NO SE
      PUEDEN AUMENTAR DE CUALQUIER MODO,SIN CONSECUENCIAS PARA EL ARMA QUE DISPARA LA MUNI
      CIÓN Y PARA EL TIRADOR EVENTUALMENTE. MUCHAS GRACIAS AMIGOS¡¡¡¡¡¡¡

      1. Damn I thought you had left for good! Some SJW may come to your defense but your antagonizing democratic language can go to hell. Some may say I should convert your democratic language to the language of the Republic. Piss on being PC and you should be ostracized by every American that peruses Ammoland..
        Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas on Immigrants and being an AMERICAN in 1907.

        “In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American … There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag … We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language … and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”

        Theodore Roosevelt 1907

    10. Sure, let’s write an article about something, but get its name wrong in the article’s title.
      That’ll make it seem legit. Way to go.

    11. The .38 special is my favorite for self defense and concealed carry. Smith Airweight is light, reliable and reasonably accurate for it’s intended purpose. My absolute favorite at the range for bullseye accuracy is my Colt Official Police circa 1957. What a jewel for smoothness and superb accuracy. Long live the .38 special!

    12. I really like the 38 special and reload it with 125 grain hollow point bullets that have good expansion and mild recoil.
      The 5 shot S&W 642 with a Crimson Trace laser is my favorite carry gun.
      It will always fire and is lightweight.

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