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Hornady introduced their Critical Defense line a number of years ago. This ammunition was designed with Hornady Flex Tip technology to prevent issues associated with traditional hollowpoints. It has since become an extremely popular personal defense round and can be found in the guns of tens of thousands of everyday carriers. Today we will be taking a look at the 110gr .38 Special +P.

General Background

The revolver is a not in any way an antiquated type of carry gun. I personally carry a Smith & Wesson 642 every day and it is just a part of my life. The .38 SPL is a cartridge I have a great deal of experience with and the Hornady load here is in my upper tier of carry loads.

This ammo is readily available at most retailers and can be had for about $20 for a box of 25 rounds.

Accuracy and Basic Performance

I tested this ammo in my aforementioned Smith & Wesson 642. This is a gun that I have over 10,000 rounds through and I know it and its accuracy potential quite well. Most people who carry this ammo will likely do so in a five-shot pocket revolver just like mine, be it a Smith, a Ruger, a Kimber or a Taurus. I’d say that it’s best in a small gun and offers the most benefits fired from one.

If you have a bigger revolver with a longer barrel, there are more powerful loads designed for them. That’s just my opinion, but I think it holds water.

I fired five-shot groups at a self-defense range of ten yards and again at five feet. The groups at these distances were fully acceptable and came in at two inches and less than an inch, respectively.

In the course of testing I experienced no failures to fire. Recoil isn’t bad at all. There are some .38 loads that are pretty stout, but this isn’t one of them. It’s powerful, but not unpleasant to fire. Rounds were fired over my Oehler 35P chronograph had a ten-round average of 956fps.

Ballistic Performance

I used a 10% FBI gel block from Clear Ballistics for this section of my testing. I fired into it at self-defense range of five yards.

Note two bullets within an inch of each other. The gel was flipped over to show this, so just pretend the bubbles aren’t there.

The bullet penetration was remarkably consistent and routinely delivered 13-14 inches in bare gel. Firing into normal cloth resulted in equally good performance and equal expansion. I got less penetration when shooting through leather, but my expansion was still excellent. All in all, this round delivered the advertised results.

There was no sign of separation of core and jacket, but the red tips did part ways with the rest of the bullet. There’s no way to avoid that and it’s not a point of failure, but rather a part of the design.

Wounding Capacity

The primary wound channels displayed a permanent cavity that measured about six inches in length and about .7 inch wide. The bullets travelled a total distance of 13-14 inches in bare gel with the majority of damage occurring in the first 3-4 inches. Evidence of expansion was present from within the first inch.

This is excellent performance from a short barrel and it was on par with many 9mm rounds that I’ve tested from longer barrels. A person using this load for self-defense can rely upon consistent expansion and good penetration through a variety of fabrics.

Overall Impressions

Hornady has a reputation for producing excellent ammunition and advanced bullet designs. It’s the Critical Defense line that brought calibers like .380 ACP and 9mm into wider public acceptance and regular use, and the .38 has benefitted as well.

Although the .38 Special never really struggled for acceptance in most carry circles, it has certainly been made better with this load and those like it from Hornady. It has the best of many world when it comes to recoil management, accuracy, and terminal performance.

Ratings (out of five stars):

Accuracy: * * * * *
Out of my snubby revolver this is a winner. It produces excellent groups from compact guns designed for concealed carry.

Handling: * * * * *
Recoil was relatively low, but still more than most. Follow-up shots were easy to make and the gun didn’t come off target much at all.

Reliability: * * * * *
I experienced no problems of any kind while shooting this cartridge. A revolver is by nature extremely reliable and this ammo did nothing to change that opinion.

Terminal Performance: * * * * *
As an everyday carry cartridge, this one is a winner. It does what it’s supposed to do and does it consistently.

Overall: * * * * *
As concealed carry becomes more and more commonplace for more people, ammo like the Hornady Critical Defense .38 Special 110gr +P will only increase in popularity. This is an excellent load that I wouldn’t hesitate to carry in my EDC gun.

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  1. Thanks for the review. Reading other sources, 158 grain seems to be the designed bullet weight. Does a lighter bullet increase, or reduce muzzle flip/recoil? Is there an effective difference in penetration 115gr v. 158 gr in a snubbie?

    • Sam:
      All else equal, a lighter projectile will always produce less recoil. The lighter bullet is easier to push up the bore and so the reaction will be less. “Equal and opposite reaction”, Physics always works.
      But the deeper understanding is that since the lighter bullet pushes easier, one can load it with more of a faster burning powder, and thus get higher velocities. But a higher velocity equals more energy, thus also more reaction(recoil).
      In practice, though, we almost always experience less recoil from a lighter weight, higher velocity projectile. This is why the 5.56 can make apx. 1300 lb/ft of muzzle energy(more than a .44 magnum), and yet recoil much less.

    • Sam I Am,

      Josh’s chronograph indicated a muzzle velocity of about 950 fps with these 110 grain bullets. A 158 grain bullet should have a muzzle velocity of about 830 fps out of a snub-nosed revolver.

      Even though that 158 grain bullet is leaving the muzzle about 13% (120 fps) slower, it weighs 43% more and has the same cross section. That means it should penetrate farther.

      If you plan to carry a snub-nosed revolver and can handle the recoil of a 158 grain bullet, then carry cartridges with 158 grain self-defense bullets.

  2. I have used Hornady ammunition for many different handguns and rifles. I find it to be supremely accurate and reliable. My current daily carry is a Smith and Wesson 442 with
    Hornady Critical Defense Lite 90 grain FTX. Muzzle velocity is almost identical to the 115 grain +P. Muzzle-1200fps 50yd-1007fps 100yd-938 It’s not +P, but it works for me.

  3. Eh…having watched The Firearm Blog and Paul Harrell on YouTube I take this with a huge grain of salt. Almost everything in 38 failed the FBI standard. I got the wife a Taurus 85 UL and yeah I got the 90gr.CD Lite(along with other ammo). Perfect? Nope but better than a sharp stick. 38 is fairly weak especially out of a 2″ barrel. But the little Taurus weighs less than a pound and I broke the trigger in so there ya’ go…use what U brung.

  4. I have Hornady rounds for my 442. I also use the red tip round in my 9×18 mak.

    I still use the FBI load in my k frames. 158 +P LSWCHP.

      • I bought a metric shit ton of Remington and Federal FBI loads when it was available years ago. I don’t know if it’s in production now or not. I’ve always got an excess of .38s around the place.

        I don’t use the +P lead loads in my j frame. Bullet creep, locking the cylinder up happened once.

        I’ve also been trying Buffalo Bores all copper 110 grain hollow point +P in my j frame. Seems to work and the 110 doesn’t kick as hard in a j frame. The 158 +P can be rough in a snubbie.

  5. I’ve always liked Hornady, but up here in the Rainy Northwest one concern I have had is that their standard products including Critical Defense are not waterproof. Hornaday Critical Duty, Federal HST, and Gold Dot are waterproof to better meet law enforcement expectations.

    • What do you mean “waterproof”? Do they have sealant on the primer pocket and the mouth of the case? I find no evidence of claims of Federal HST or Speer Gold Dot being waterproof (or having sealant). The Hornady I do see them claim the use of sealant for Critical Duty.

    • “but up here in the Rainy Northwest one concern I have had is that their standard products including Critical Defense are not waterproof.”

      That’s why it’s recommended you rotate out your carry ammo frequently.

      Standard drill for me at the range is to first shoot whatever ammo is in my carry piece first…

      • I do rotate the carry ammo through, absolutely. And if it’s exposed to moisture it goes into the range mags.

        Regarding waterproof claims, Critical Duty mentions it on the website. For HST and Gold Dot they don’t claim it on their websites but I’ve read comments by their engineers that their sealant and other manufacturing processes seal out moisture. I’ve actually soaked both in a glass of water for a week as a test. After wiping off all fired without a hitch. Hornady XTP for 10mm — all failed after a short water soak. Since 10 is often a woods carry pistol I wanted to check it.

        • Never thought about soaking ammo in water. I’d be interested in hearing form those in the humid south whether they’ve had failures with any of the modern ammo. Living in the arid Utah, never had a problem, same in San Diego. I’ve got reloads which are 40+ years old that still function like new.

  6. I use the Liberty Civil Defense lead free for both 38 spcl, 380 and 9mm. The 9mm is a 50 grn +P rated at 2000 fps and 12″ penetration. Extremely accurate and very destructive. Look it up on you tube. Likewise, the 38 spcl is 50 grn rated at 1500 fps with 12 inches of penetration. Not having a watermelon, I tried it out on a pumpkin with both my M&P shield and my Ruger carbine. In just the pumpkin, the entrance hole was about 2″, exit about 5″. Don’t have any ballistic gel. Very impressive and much better than my duty issue Federal HST 147 grn rounds. Haven’t tried it on car doors, windows etc.

  7. Marty…. I have had 22 cal ammo in a Colt single action army clone in a holster and waded a river chest deep in water. When I got out of the water I took the gun and shook the water out and kept hunting. All these rounds fired with no problem. Took gun completely apart and cleaned-oiled up . I have center fire 7 mm reloads from the 1960’s that still are being used with no problem, sealer never used. it is humid in South Texas.

    • Thanks Ed, and yes it is humid in So Texas. That’s good to know, although I doubt I’ll ever be hunting in So Texas. Like I said, I’ve never had a problem with any of my ammo in any caliber, but I’ve always lived in mostly fry climates.

  8. I like Hornady ammo, its always performed well for me. The only problem i had was with my Glock 19 and the crappy 10 round CA magazines. Alittle filing and a standard capacity mag follower and all was fixed, no more slamming rounds into the feedramp!

  9. I have a Taurus 605 357 (polymer). I have real issues with the recoil and muzzle flash with the standard 357 ammo I’ve fired and have opted to Carry 38+P instead. Having said this, I recently acquired Speer Gold Dot 357 short barrel ammo that is said to be much more manageable in guns like mine. Any thoughts on using the Speer or this ammo?

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