.38 Special: What I’ve Learned After 20,000 Rounds

HB4116

I make a habit of counting the number of reloads I make by keeping a tally of primer and bullet boxes. I’m not a hoarder and I don’t keep them, but I am detailed in my process. I reached an interesting number the other day. I realized that I had hit a very special count for a very special cartridge: 20,000 rounds of .38 Special.

I’ve done the majority of shooting in .38 Special in my Smith & Wesson 642. The gun has appeared on TTAG before and has remained unchanged as far as accessories. Unlike many other guns I’ve owned and carried, this little snubby really can’t be modified much beyond factory configuration. As a result, I’ve been able to spend far more time practicing with it rather than fussing with it.

But this piece isn’t about the gun, but rather the cartridge. I never really set my sights, in a manner of speaking, on the .38 cartridge like I did other rounds. There have been guns I’ve bought for the caliber, but the .38 wasn’t one of those. I wanted a good carry gun that was light and reliable, so I decided that the .38 would fit and I just went with it. Reloading for it came next and it has since become my favorite pistol cartridge.

The stuff you learn shooting 20,000 reloads (on top of thousands of rounds of factory ammo) can be pretty interesting and I feel that I’ve got a very good picture of what the .38 Special. looks like today.

The reason I love the .38 SPL so much is because it’s so elastic in function. Most people have one general power level for their semi-autos due to the fact that the guns won’t function with ammo that’s not energetic enough to cycle the slide. A revolver shooting .38 SPL only requires the power of your finger to make it fire and can thus be loaded with ammo that is extremely mild or hotter than hot.

1.)   The majority of my shooting with .38 has taken place with soft lead bullets. In my time with the cartridge, I have come to appreciate the mid to low end of the power spectrum and thus have made extensive use of Trail Boss powder and bullets such as Hornady’s .358” 158gr SWC. I load these bullets to the edge of the shoulder and use anywhere from 3-4 grains of TB. This produces about 550-650fps from a 1 7/8” barrel and feels like shooting a very powerful .22LR.

2.)   Over 20,000 rounds, I’ve found that there’s rarely a wrong way to do .38 SPL. I have used everything from simple lead to the most advanced machined copper bullets and found them all to be extraordinarily easy to load and shoot. When I say that there’s rarely a wrong way to do it, I really mean it. If you can follow simple instructions, you can safely load this cartridge.

3.)   When I teach other people the basics of reloading, I teach them on the .38 SPL. The cases are large enough that they can be easily manipulated by inexperienced hands and yet small enough to not require much force in the sizing stage.

4.)   The powder charges used for .38 are forgiving. Because we have no action to cycle, the novice reloader can afford to be off a bit if they have an entry-level scale or powder dispenser. Most modern revolvers chambered for .38 SPL are rated to +P, so there is room for error, but care must still be taken.

5.)   Anything goes with bullets. I routinely use only two powders: Trail Boss and Titegroup. These two can cover the entire performance spectrum up to .38+P. I really enjoy Trail Boss and use it extensively for plain lead and plated bullets. I have tested lots and lots of different bullet and found them all to be great. The beauty of shooting a .38 is that you can easily practice at the ranges you’d fight at using basically any cheap bullet at minimal expense.

6.)   Case life is excellent, especially for mild loads. I have tested both brass and nickel-plated cases using mild loadings and have not yet worn out a case. I have one that has been loaded about sixty times and it is still in use today. Using higher pressure loads will wear brass out faster and it will become brittle with time.

7.)   Bullet seating depth is very forgiving. Since we are working with a gun that doesn’t have a magazine, we can afford to mess with this dimension at will. I’ve loaded some wadcutters to the point of being flush with the case mouth and big lead bullets almost to the front of the cylinder.

8.)   Brass collection is easy since it doesn’t eject. The best part about this is that not only do you never really lose your fired cases, but you they are always in great condition. I don’t bother polishing my .38 brass because I just don’t let it fall in the mud or dirt.

9.)   Beginners to shooting can use a full size revolver or their carry gun with light to mild loads to become confident and familiar with marksmanship and trigger control. I love a nice, full-size .357 Magnum on the range because it is so easy to train new shooters on. There is almost no recoil and the student can increase power level when they feel ready using the same gun.

10.)Lastly, the .38 SPL has a very large following and materials can be had readily. It is easy to load in progressive presses and has commercially available options from virtually all modern manufacturers. Reloading supplies and load recipes are available everywhere.

If you haven’t taken a look at what the .38 Special offers, you’re selling yourself short. The cartridge offers a great deal of zest and has thousands of possible load combinations.

In my time spent with the .38, I have come to greatly appreciate it for what it is and does. Despite being well over one hundred years old, it still has perfect relevance for today’s shooters, both novice and advanced.

 

This post was originally published in 2018.

comments

  1. avatar Anner says:

    Hehe, back before Nick skimmed down. Now there’s an old memory.

  2. avatar cisco kid says:

    I would say I completely disagree with you on ever even contemplating using a revolver for self defense unless you are a person that has never owned a gun and not likely ever to practice with it. The average street punk today has more firepower than the Russian Army did in WWII and trying to re-load a revolver in a fire fight is the best way to commit suicide that I could ever think of.

    Yes I do have a few of the older high quality classic revolvers not the current made Cast Iron garbage that is being vomited out today. And yes I appreciate them for a hunting gun because of their fine accuracy and find trigger pulls (older classic guns). But I would only be caught dead with one in my hands if I had to use one for self defense (pun intended).

  3. avatar bob says:

    Send the cylinder out to get cut for moon clips and adapted to 9mm, so you can shoot both 38/357/9mm and use all on moon clips.

    1. avatar Setarip says:

      That’s not quite how that works. The 9×19 case is tapered and therefore wider at the base than the .38 special is. The only way to shoot both 9mm and .38 special is to have two separate cylinders timed to the revolver.

    2. avatar Florida man says:

      Yeah no. That revolver is aluminum and cannot handle the pressure of 9MM. You need a .357 Magnum revolver if you want to try a 9MM cylinder.

      1. avatar Setarip says:

        Totally agree. Although the .357 cylinders are the same length so they can be timed to a 642. You’d just be risking ALOT firing it in a .38 framed revolver.

  4. avatar Ralph says:

    I carry my M642 extensively, but I only shoot it occasionally because it is a snappy little b!tch with standard loads. +P? Forget about it.

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      Yeah, my wife’s last gun, with +P it actually HURTS! Last time we took it to the range, I was trying to cycle the old +P ammo to load standard Lehigh ammo, I fired one shot, put the gun down and cursed while shaking my hand. My son asked if I wanted him to help, then fired one shot and handed it back. My other son fired one shot and handed it back. Which left me with the last two. Damn. My hand ached for a week. Wife handled it with no problem, those 5 Super Vel had been in the gun probably over 5 years by then, she bought it to CARRY, not to shoot, if she needed to fire it to save her life it would be fine.

      1. avatar Ralph says:

        You gotta try the S&W M342 Airlight TI. That little 9 oz. rattlesnake of a revolver made me bleed. No sh!t.

        1. avatar Me says:

          My Ruger LCR .357 Magnum is pleasant to shoot even with full pressure loads. The design of this modern revolver makes the SW guns seem archaic. Have a Tritium sight and laser on it to boot. Great gun.

        2. avatar TH Iowa says:

          I also find the LCR .357 enjoyable to shoot with all .38s and most .357’s. Really interested in getting the. 357 LCR in 3 inch variant

    2. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      I came to express the same sentiment.

      I am loath to shoot several cylinders of standard pressure/velocity .38 Special 125 grain bullets out of a Smith and Wesson Model 642 revolver (or similar). I cannot begin to fathom shooting 20,000 rounds out of that revolver!

      Don’t get me wrong: I think the Smith and Wesson Model 642 Airweight revolver is an outstanding self-defense (concealed carry) revolver and you won’t feel/care about how snappy/unpleasant the recoil may be in a real self-defense event. In terms of thousands of rounds of range practice, though, that is a definite no-go in my book.

      1. avatar Tim Hurley says:

        Congratulations on spelling ‘loath’ right. I once had to quote the South Carolina Supreme Court when they had spelled it “loathe.”

        Regards,
        The Internet Pedant
        “Nitpicking is its own reward.”

        1. avatar S. Plankenberg says:

          I believe the correct spelling is “ loathe “

    3. avatar kevin says:

      I agree, an airweight has snappy recoil. But you guys need to practice more. If you’re recoil averse (and don’t have a disability of some kind), its because you haven’t shot it enough. If all you practice with is the easy comfortable stuff, it’s not really practice.

      1. avatar Ralph says:

        Oh, I practice with it. I just don’t like practicing with it. And it isn’t my first rodeo with a J-frame. I’ve been shooting them for 50 years. At one time or another, I also owned and shot a M38 Bodyguard (nka the 638), a M37 Chief’s Special (now the 637), a M60 (which is a tad heavier but no more user-friendly), and a couple of others.

        They are all snappy little b!tches.

        1. avatar My $0.02 says:

          Try Pachmayr Compac grips.

        2. avatar Grumpy 49 says:

          Agree – Problem with the “J” frame S&W is the grips. Only the Model 60 sometimes have factory installed grips that are not worthless. Prefer to use the CT model 305 laser grips in lieu of S&W grips. Bonus is the CT #305 grips are both large enough to be actually useful, and can use the laser, or turn it off if you don’t need the laser.

        3. avatar My $0.02 says:

          @ Grumpy- I tried LOTS of grips on S&W revolvers. I find the Pachmayr Compac grips on my 640 reduce the slap of full-boat .357 to less than that on my 3″ M65 (w/ wood Altamont grips) or my 4″ 686 (Pachmayr Gripper Professional grips.)
          The covered blackstrap and extended length Compac design I reckon are major factors in reducing perceived recoil. Current J frame factory grips have similar features and are made of a stiffer compound. These grips seem quite comfortable and afford a “pinkie” finger rest for improved control albeit with a certain loss of concealability.

        4. avatar Grumpy 49 says:

          My “J” frame S&Ws are all older models, and came with the small grips that are still on some models. Just shows the importance of trying/checking the “feel” of a gun and if possible, test firing it, before you buy it. On my “J” frame S&W without the CT #305 Laser Grips, I swapped out to a Hoque set. I have tried several different grips before finding the one that worked for me. Anyone that uses a “J” frame S&W should seriously think about swapping grips, and finding which set works for them.

        5. avatar My $0.02 says:

          My sq. butt 686 shipped w/ Hogue monogrips, discarded immediately due to pronounced finger grooves. Replaced w/ Altamont laminated wood, and later w/ open- back Pachmayrs- the less-pronounced finger grooves fit me better.

          My M60 came w/ factory “banana” grips- open back, long enough for pinkie rest but too small in girth behind the trigger guard. A Tyler T grip would have helped here, but is incompatible w/ factory grips. Installed some wood “boot” grips, modified them with grooves at the bottom of each side panel, similar to those on Pach. Compac for my little finger to wrap around under the butt. Never got around to trying the T grips. This gun now wears factory synthetic grips which are decent but could use more girth behind the trigger guard. (This is prevalent among most aftermarket designs- they are smallest in the longest, strongest finger area, and largest at the bottom pinkie area.)

          My brother put CT laser grips on his wife’s M36. These have a good profile- longer at the top where the middle finger rides, and shorter where the pinkie rests.

  5. avatar The Rookie says:

    I’ve saved all my .38 brass over the last couple of years for whenever I find time to get into reloading.

    Would .44 Special be somewhat similar to .38, in terms of ease of reloading, case life, etc.?

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      My guess would be “almost identical”, straight wall, not high pressure, definitely.

      1. avatar 41mag says:

        Same with 41 Special too.

        YouTube has plenty of reloading channels or the Reloaders Network webpage has more info as well.

      2. avatar Mark N. says:

        Same with .45 Colt.

    2. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

      Rookie, back in the day when I was reloading I went through a 3″ round butt L. Horton special model 24, a 4″ 24 and a 4″ 624. Reloading .44 Spl. was a breeze. Very versatile cartridge. Especially if you reload. BTW, I wish I had any one of those three revolvers today.

      1. avatar Wedge259 says:

        I recently picked up a 396 Nightguard and am a convert to the 44 Special! I only wish the brass was more available locally.

      2. avatar The Rookie says:

        Many thanks!

  6. avatar LarryinTX says:

    I stopped handloading around 1985, so I’m not certain how much technology has changed in that area, but in general it sounds like our experiences are similar. I started with a Lee Loader for my shiny new Python .357, because all the ammo I could find (in 1968) was lead semiwadcutters, loaded so hot they sloughed off the lead in the bore, so after a box you couldn’t see any rifling, it looked like a smoothebore, and lord was it hard to clean!! But I think I was still loading the cases from that first box when I quit loading 18 years later! Biggest problem I had was the lubricating cases for sizing and then cleaning them afterwards, I guess grit was somehow scratching the cases after getting stuck in the lube. Eventually somebody introduced me to tungsten carbide resizing dies, after which case life became near indefinite. Unlike the author, I did *not* keep records, I can’t even imagine how many rounds I loaded, almost 100% .357 magnum, since that was all I shot. Maybe once a year I would reset everything to load up a few hundred .38 Spl for the wife’s Detective Special, then right back to .357. If she had shot more, I would have probably bought another set of dies, to prevent the need for changing adjustments between the two.

  7. avatar jwm says:

    I have 4 handguns that will shoot .38. It is a very versatile and useful round. And for 99% of the actual real world needs of a citizen for self defense it will work just fine.

    1. avatar Geoff "Guns. LOTS of guns..." PR says:

      .38 will take care of nearly any critter that needs dispatching – feral cats, raccoon, armadillo, even… wait for it…

      Ornery Possums… 😉

      1. avatar jwm says:

        Even docile possums. 😉

    2. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      [.38 Special] is a very versatile and useful round.

      Agreed.

      Many people tend to poo-poo .38 Special (standard pressure) for self-defense as being somehow “underpowered”. Word to the wise: all handgun cartridges (with the likely exception of .44 Magnum and maybe even .357 Magnum) are “underpowered” for self-defense.

      In terms of the best “stopping power” for .38 Special, I personally like 150 grain full wadcutters or 158 grain hollowpoint semi-wadcutters. Both are excellent fight stoppers. The key to those rounds, in spite of their “paltry” muzzle velocity of something like 825 feet per second out of a snubbie, is their diameter and mass: they will make significant diameter holes and penetrate respectably in attackers.

  8. avatar Mike says:

    For those folks shooting a lot of lead bullets, invest in a Lewis lead remover. Last I looked still available at Brownells. .38 special has got to be one of the best calibers there is .

    1. avatar Specialist38 says:

      Agreed. There are other makes now.

      I have a Lewis and a Hoppes (I think).

      Just look for a lead remover tool with bronze screens.

      Nice to have.

    2. avatar Someone says:

      I shoot almost exclusively cast lead from my handguns. 9 mm, .40 sw, 45 acp, .44 mag. I don’t own anything in .38 special yet, but I have plans to buy a .357 magnum revolver in near future, so I already reloaded couple thousands of rounds in .38 and .357.

      There really is a recently developed technology that prevents leading, while eliminating messy lubricants. Powder coating. Some use powders dispersed in liquids, some use electrostatic guns to spray dry powder on their bullets. I go with the cheap and easy “shake and bake” technique that requires only plastic Glad container with a lid, handful of black 6mm BBs and old toaster owen.

      Even at hot .44 mag velocities my Super Redhawk has shiny bore with zero leading. Different colors can be used to identify different loads and since bottom of each bullet is also powder coated, there is less lead dispersed in the air at the shooting range.

  9. avatar Tex300BLK says:

    You are spot on about Trail Boss, that stuff is magical with cast reloads. I bought a Ruger Alaskan in 454 Casull last year ahead of a hunt up in Wyoming. I haven’t shot too many full house Casull loads, but I get a huge grin when shooting my reduced loads of 7.5grs of Trail Boss under a Cast Performance 360gr WLFN. Recoil in that gun is less than most 45 ACP 1911’s I have shot, and its still got around 500-600ft lbs of energy which is more than enough for feral hogs around the ranch back home.

    Cool article, thanks for sharing!

  10. avatar TruthTellers says:

    I’m a big fan of .32 revolvers, I do think they are a superior choice for carrying and shooting than .38 is, but that doesn’t mean I think .38 or .357 sucks, I just don’t think they’re the best choices for a small frame revolver. Something like the Ruger GP100 or S&W 686… yup, they’re the best caliber for those size revolvers.

    .38 brass isn’t as common as 9, .40, or .45 brass at the range, but of all the revolver brass you can find it’s the most plentiful. I’ve probably picked up 300 cases of .38 the past few months and will continue to grab them as I see them, but what’s nice is I can shoot more and put that money towards brass for .32 or .45 Colt, stuff that I never see at the range.

    One cool load I’m working on is two pellets of 000 Buck. Super cheap and easy to make and would likely be a very effective defense ammo against wildlife that might be a threat to me as the two balls will spread an inch or two from each other at close range.

    1. avatar Geoff "Guns. LOTS of guns..." PR says:

      “One cool load I’m working on is two pellets of 000 Buck.”

      Using what for wadding?

      1. avatar TruthTellers says:

        Nothing, they don’t need any. It’s just two lubed balls on top of each other with the top ball roll crimped just past the hemisphere.

        1. avatar Geoff "Guns. LOTS of guns..." PR says:

          H’mmm… 🙂

        2. avatar Tired of the bs says:

          There are many fun uses for buckshot. I have a few 30-30 cases modified to shoot singles with a very light load. It’s like a pellet gun with a little noise and smoke if using black powder.

    2. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      TruthTellers,

      One cool load I’m working on is two pellets of 000 Buck.

      Hmm. Interesting. What sort of wildlife are you thinking would be a good application for this self-defense load?

      1. avatar Grumpy 49 says:

        Speer .38 shot cup, 5 grains of UNIQUE, and (3) #1 Buckshot pellets dates back to the 70’s as a “Junk Yard Dog” load. Ideal load in a 2″ “J” Frame .38. At belly button range, very nasty load. Just don’t shoot a rabbit with this load if you want to be able to eat any of it.

        Don’t know where #1 Buckshot can be found, but the Speer shot cups and UNIQUE powder currently easy enough to find.

    3. avatar Peter Gunn says:

      You’re describing Remington Multiball ammunition (R357MB)- I used to carry that stuff decades ago. I guess it’s out of production now- I haven’t seen it (or heard of it) in years. Very little recoil, and grouped acceptably out to 15 yards or so.

      During my first half century on this planet, my caliber of choice for defense was 45 ACP- but for everything else it was always 38 SPL. The big medicine was delivered by a 1911, but S&W K frames (favorites were Models 12 & 64) took care of everything else. Two years into my second century a Colt MK IV Series 80 LTWT Commander 45 ACP still delivers the big medicine, but I have become enthralled with a new wheel gun- a Charter Arms Professional 32 H&R Magnum.

      I will always love the 38 SPL (never cared much for 357 Mag), but that 3″ seven shot Charter with both 32 S&W Long and 32 H&R Mag is truly the bee’s knees. Maybe it’s just my age, but I may never shoot a 38 again after discovering the 32. Go figure.

      1. avatar LazrBeam says:

        Jack it up a notch and go with .327 Federal Magnum. You can always back off to the .32 S&W Long or .32 H&R Mag if you choose to. The .327 Fed Mag is IT!

        1. avatar Peter Gunn says:

          I completely understand the respect for the performance of the 327 Fed, but not being a big fan of the 357 Mag (or 38 SPL plus P for that matter) I haven’t been drawn to the 327. I never enjoyed touching off a 357 Mag in a K frame, and I cannot imagine the discomfort of firing it in anything smaller or lighter. Heck, 38’s in a J frame aren’t fun- there’s no way a 327 Mag isn’t worse. In fact, in the past I specifically sought out revolvers chambered in 38 SPL only, knowing I would never be putting a 357 Mag in it (I carried a 4″ GP100 chambered in 38 SPL as a duty sidearm in the early 90’s). Maybe it’s just me, but having that tiny bit of extra length and weight in the cylinder that I was never going to use just kinda bothered me.

          For me, the 32 H&R Mag is my 357 Mag, and the 32 S&W Long is my 38 SPL. I have 100% confidence in my ability to shoot quickly, accurately, and comfortably with the 32, and I also have confidence that, if needed, my 32 H&R loads from Buffalo Bore and DoubleTap are quite capable of doing the job they are asked to do. Yes, I had no issues with the 38 SPL, but the 32 is just more FUN- especially when I get seven shots of it in a revolver the size of J frame! If you have the means, I highly recommend you trying one out.

  11. avatar Jim from LI says:

    It’s hard to find those swaged SWCs and hollow point bullets anyone; it seems everyone is only interested in hard cast for velocity and penetration. The swaged bullets are soft enough that they expand even at mild velocities where a JHP or hard cast can’t.

    1. avatar Geoff "Guns. LOTS of guns..." PR says:

      The molds are out there, cast your own…

      1. avatar Jim from LI says:

        Then they’re not swaged, they’re cast.

    2. avatar TruthTellers says:

      Huh? Speer makes them.

    3. avatar Specialist38 says:

      Midway or Natchez has several brands.

      I buy 158 SWCHP all the time….my main bullet.

      Only need cast when driving up to 1200 fps or so.

      And if you’re doing that with a snub….let me know… I wanna watch you shoot em.

      1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

        Specialist38,

        And if you’re doing that [shooting 158 grain bullets at 1200 fps muzzle velocity] with a snub….let me know… I wanna watch you shoot em.

        I almost spit out my drink when I read your comment. If I get to see him shoot those loads, it would be worth the price of a new keyboard!

        1. avatar Specialist38 says:

          LOL. I’d pay at least a dollar to see it. 10 for a full cylinder.

          I fired 3 Remington 125 SJHP 357s from a 340 and thought i had nerve damage in my hand.

          It was “touch-us” for 2 weeks.

  12. avatar Dennis says:

    Dont take this the wrong way; I’m guessing the average age of .38 spl fans is about my age (70). Seems like everyone is all orgasmic about bigger, faster, more of, etc. The .38 with careful selection of components can be the cat’s as* for almost any shooter. Disclaimer, I own or owned all the “super” calibers out there except the casull, they’re all fun and quite useful in some scenarios, but dont discount the old timer. Good shootin!

    1. avatar Wedge259 says:

      I started reloading 38 special as my first cartridge 8 years ago when I was 22, soooo….I have an old man’s soul?

      1. avatar Specialist38 says:

        Just above average intelligence. Kudos

    2. avatar Stephen says:

      I too must be older than my years (35), as I love reloading .38SPL and have a S&W 442, S&W 36, and my most recent acquisition is a S&W 19-5 that is an absolute joy to shoot. I did start out fawning over all of the tactical gear, but once I had that covered my tastes matured I think to love the wood and steel guns. Anyway, you are probably right that the revolver guys trend towards the older end of the spectrum, but I think some of the younger guys are starting to catch on to the magic of wheel guns.

    3. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      Dennis,

      I am way shy of 70 years old and I love me some .38 Special.

      The only reason that my standard (“everyday carry”) self-defense handgun is not a .38 Special revolver is because I can conceal a semi-auto better (it isn’t as fat as the cylinder on a revolver) and my semi-auto has 15 rounds of hard-hitting 180 grain bullets.

      Caveat: I have decided that I want to be prepared for threat scenarios that include stopping a terrorist or spree-killer (the odds of which I fully recognize is statistically zero). That being the case, I truly NEED as much ammunition as possible and the ability to defeat soft barriers such as auto windshields, sheet metal, drywall, doors, etc. Hence I carry a semi-auto pistol chambered in .40 S&W.

    4. avatar Ralph says:

      Dennis, I don’t reload and I’m only 72, but shooting the .38Spl in my 6″ S&W 586 is a sublime experience. Accurate, powder-puff recoil, and serious power all in one.

  13. avatar Wedge259 says:

    38 special was also my first cartridge to reload, and one of my greatest loves for reloading to this day. Like the author said, I consider it a “garbage disposal” round as you can load it with almost anything with good results. Very forgiving with a straight wall case, and tons of bullet variety. I load it almost exclusively though with either a powder coated or plated 125 grn bullet. Currently using Titegroup, but started out with, and loaded many thousands of rounds, with Bullseye. I carried a lightly customized 4 inch heavy barrel model 10 for years, with a black cerakote job. Shot many thousands of my bullseye powder reloads with it. Enough that the range Officer at my range recognized them because the muzzle blast made a distinctive “cat whisker” pattern at 8 and 10, and 2 and 4 o clock. Just got back into reloading 38 special again after a long hiatus with no revolver, and was instantly reminded of what a joy it is to reload. I did 400 rounds in one afternoon on my Hornady progressive.

  14. avatar nanotech says:

    Thanks for the excellent article, Josh! I’ve been looking for a reason to get into reloading, and am particularly intrigued by the extremely long case life of .38 Special. Reducing consumables (and therefore cost) that much more is definitely appealing to me. I’m also impressed by the apparent durability of your Airweight J-frame. I have the shrouded hammer version, the 638, and have been wary of training much with it because of its aluminum frame. Instead, I’ve favored things like the K and L frame Smiths (5 screw pre-model 10 and 686 in my case) and Ruger revolvers for higher round count activities. Your experience is definitely motivation for me to give my J-frame more range time!

  15. avatar TP says:

    Good article, thanks.

  16. avatar Duane says:

    What I learned after 50 years of shooting and reloading 38spl cases some where around 100 thousands rounds.

    That for just a nice shooting load one can’t beat 148gr wad-cutter for pure fun.

  17. avatar Specialist38 says:

    Of course I agree.😬

    38 special is a great cartridge. A chameleon depending on your loads and the barrel length or action its fired from.

    Easy to reload and it started my reloading experience.

    Not as easy to find brass these days as it is not the most popular round anymore. But not too tough.

    With all the loads available, you can surely find one within recoil tolerance. Then duplicate with reloads for practice.

    My personal loads for practice replicate my carry. A 158 SWCHP at 850-875 fps from a snub. Recoil is subjective and I feel no difference between that and an 750-775 fps load.

    I had ammo for some friends as low as 600 fps. And I still think a 158 at 600 beats hell out of a 22 magnum of any stripe. YMMV.

  18. avatar Specialist38 says:

    And….those Hornady 158 HPs are easy to reload but I have never had one open up in a varmint of any sort. The Speers do occasionally and the Magnus a little more.

    I did find a 145 grain Lead HP with a rounded ogive (like the last NyClad) on Gunbroker that opens really well if you get above 800 fps.

  19. avatar Grumpy 49 says:

    Like both the .38 and the .44 spl. The .38 ammo is more common to find than the .44 ammo, so that is a big reason to reload the .44. Main issue is that the .44 spl. is limited to either the various Charter Arms models, or as a training/target load in a .44 magnum size handguns.

    Main fame for the .38 is now the “J” frame size revolvers, as a “CCW” gun. The Charter Arms .44 models are potential CCWs, but are too light to properly handle the .44 spl. defensive ammo. (Same issue found with a 12 oz. .38 “J” frame.) Think that if a .44 spl. revolver, with a 3″ barrel, and 4 – 6 oz. more weight than the similar size CA .44 Bulldog, were available, a lot more people would also like the .44 spl. The .44 spl. would also bridge the gap that the .38 versus .357 have in defensive loads.

  20. avatar Kendahl says:

    I once rented a Ruger LCR in .38 Special. Great gun with the best factory double action trigger I’ve ever shot. The range (understandably) insisted you shoot their ammunition and the mildest they had was 158 grain LRN standard pressure. Recoil was so nasty that I quit after five shots and saved the rest of the box for my 6″ Model 19 .357. I still think highly of the LCR but would shoot only 148 grain wadcutters in .38 Special or .32 H&R Magnums in the .327 Magnum model.

    The Model 19 is fine with .38s but mildly uncomfortable with .357s. I keep thinking about trading it for a Model 27 or, maybe, one of the new Pythons for extra weight.

    The other .38 Special is a 4″ Colt Diamondback. That one I’ll keep. It’s the only gun that has appreciated in value (as long as you ignore inflation).

    I used to reload .38s and .357s with 158 grain LSWC bullets over 4.3 and 6.5 grains of Unique. Unique was a sooty powder so I’ve switched to W231. I’ve also switched from lead to Berry’s Preferred copper plated bullets. No more lead in the barrel or on my hands.

  21. avatar Slow Joe Crow says:

    .38 Special is a lot more comfortable in a service size revolver like my Model 10. I’ve been loading 158gr FMJ with Titegroup and the only problem I’ve had is getting the seating depth right after the die locknut slipped.

  22. avatar Mark says:

    Bought my small handed wife a 642. She ran two cylinders of 100 grain wad cutters and gave it back to me. Lucky me. I use CCI Snake shot for two and Buffalo Bore short Barrel 130 gr. For 3 that actually doesn’t kick too badly. The trigger has smoothed out over time. I keep it under my seat in case I get an unwanted intruder and I can’t get to my IWB semi auto.

  23. avatar Bemused Berserker says:

    I agree with your .38 Special assessment points for the very same reasons. I first started reloading 40+ years ago at a Lee Loader in .38 Special for a brand new Smith & Wesson Model 66 I had just purchased. Even though the gun was chambered for .357 Magnum, I plinked and practiced with a lot of .38’s over the years. Lord only knows how many cartridge cases I hammered with a plastic mallet into that Lee, it had to be thousands. I’ve long since changed to a press, but that Lee Loader in it’s cardboard box is still in a storage box for obsolescent reloading gear.
    I miss those days. When you could leave city limits and just about every dirt mound in sight, was a plinking range. Now, you have to go to a range or have a membership and pay to fill the backstop with lead. My grandkids think I’m pulling their leg, when I tell them about the freedoms that NIMBYs took away.

  24. avatar Bob says:

    I started loading .38’s with a Lyman “nut cracker” and a home made measure for Bullseye over 65 years ago. I probably shoot more 38’s than everything else put together but a Dillon 750 makes loading a lot faster.

    1. avatar Specialist38 says:

      The Lyman is handy for sizing or priming while you’re watching a movie.

      I dont miss lubing cases……carbide is king!

  25. avatar Marcus (Aurelius) Payne says:

    So you only hang onto the primer boxes loosely?

  26. avatar Dave G. says:

    Me too! Love my 642 for concealed carry, but have an SP101 (also a snubby) in .38 special (only) for use on the range. The SP101 is far more comfortable to shoot but not so much fun to carry.

    IMHO .38 special is just fine for self defense, but just not enough to crack engine blocks. (Or so I have heard.)

    While I do have a GP100 in .357 magnum, I don’t like shooting .38 special ammo out of it, because cleaning powder residue out of the longer chambers is a real bitch. I have often thought about reloading .357 brass to .38 special velocities to get around that, but have just never decided to actually do it.

    And, oh yeah. It has been many years since I used a Lee Loader and a wooden mallet to reload 8mm Mauser. The mention of a Lee Loader somewhere above took me back to the good-old days. Thanks very much to LarryinTX for that!

    1. avatar Grumpy 49 says:

      Nice thing about reloading is that loads can be “tailored” for the gun that you are shooting. The use of .38 +P+ level (25,000 – 27,500 psi) type reloads, in .357 brass. is so simple. Most “starting” .357 reloading powder levels will fall in this .38 +P+ type reload, and the powder being used can be selected (faster or slower) based on barrel length. As example, 5.8 – 6.0 grains UNIQUE with a 125 grain HP in a snub nose .357 revolver. Bonus is that don’t need magnum Primers for these reloads.

  27. avatar Ben says:

    Thank you for the article. I’m still new to reloading, having done 2500 38 spl with bullseye. I recently bought trail boss and it runs fine out of my 14-3. I just got some clays which I heard was very clean burning compare to bullseye.

  28. avatar adverse6 says:

    Modern .38 spl std HP load is more than enough, don’t over think it. A 4 inch barrel would be my choice as well.

  29. avatar Spartacus says:

    Great article & thread!!!
    In a nutshell & I mean very short version. I don’t see much conversation on these specifics but I think It’s all about the size of the explosion in the chamber. The 9mm produces about 35,000 psi,
    The 357 magnum about 45,000 psi and the std 38 special about 17,000 psi. That’s a pretty clear explanation and comparison of the NEEDS of the strength of the chamber for each caliber.

    1. avatar Peter Gunn says:

      Traditionally, the max SAAMI pressures were:

      38 S&W – 14,500
      32 S&W Long – 15,000
      38 Special – 17,000
      38 Special +P – 18,500
      32 H&R Mag – 21,000
      357 Magnum – 35,000
      41 Rem Mag – 35,000
      44 Rem Mag – 36,000

      Then the 327 Fed appeared with:

      327 Federal Mag – 45,000

      Some people then claimed SAAMI raised the 357 Mag to 45,000.

      I dunno. I, like Spartacus, find the SAAMI recommendations an interesting spec for comparative purposes.

  30. avatar BusyBeef says:

    So . . . . . want me to write up an article about 3d printed .38 special bullets that I’ve been working?

    Proof of concept with .38 first, then on to 9mm where we have to actually cycle a slide – but I think I’ve got that problem solved.

  31. avatar Gideon Rockwell says:

    For those who have issues using auto pistils, due ti arthritis or other medical issues with the hands an LCR or 642 is a great choice. My Dad has advanced arthritis and could not longer easily work his auto loaders. I bought him as a gift a 642 with the black rubber grips, a few speedloaders w/big knob tops, and Hornady 125 grain FTX loads. He loves this gun and keeps it in reach 24/7. And this is a guy who normally trusted nothing but a 45 acp.

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