When we look at different cartridges there is often a focus on the disembodied numbers that describe them. All too often there’s a mental disconnect between the numbers and reality, and in many cases the numbers are skewed to make one cartridge look “better” than another it ostensibly competes against.
The interesting part of this debate is that there isn’t a very clear way to look at these rounds next to each other without talking about their host guns. The .38 Special is, almost universally, a revolver cartridge (though it can be used successfully in some lever action rifles). The 9x19mm, on the other hand, is primarily found in semi-automatics. A clear exception to this are guns like the Ruger LCR in 9mm, which is the same size as Ruger’s .38 Special version of the same gun.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to talk about these calibers in a concealed carry context, as that’s where these two rounds intersect the most and the playing field is far more level. It would be somewhat unfair to look at a specialized GLOCK 19 with an RMR and mag extensions and say that it’s easier to shoot at 50 yards when compared to a hammerless J-Frame. On the other end, we could say that a little SIG P938 isn’t as precise or versatile as a Model 686 Plus from Smith & Wesson’s Performance Center.
It isn’t really possible to avoid the revolver vs. semi-auto thing in this discussion. The .38 Special is probably the most common revolver cartridge in use today, and is certainly the most carried, frequently in pistols that will accommodate .357 Magnum rounds. Carrying a revolver makes a great deal of sense for a large number of people who don’t want to or physically can’t use a semiautomatic.
On the whole, revolvers are substantially more reliable than semi-automatics. Yes, I know that modern autos are great, but the revolver doesn’t need recoil to operate and instead is powered by your finger. There’s no slide to pull back, which helps people with weak hands, and they can’t stovepipe or accidentally drop their magazine when fumbled.
Many people who want a gun with decent stopping power to load and forget about choose a small, reliable .38 Special. Unless something is mechanically wrong with the gun — which can happen with any man-made device — it’s almost guaranteed to fire when you pull the trigger. The simple nature of the revolver means that if a dud primer is struck, you can just pull the trigger again and move to the next round.
A semiauto has its own advantages and they are very widely carried. One of those advantages is greater capacity and spare magazines (i.e. quicker reloads). Revolvers can be loaded with speedloaders, but they aren’t nearly as fast and easy as magazines. A disadvantage to automatics is that they can have more complicated stoppages that require both hands to clear. This can be difficult for some people to master.
According to some surveys I conducted and ran here on TTAG a while ago while researching people with physical disabilities who carry, most people only carry what they can load into their gun. That means for a majority of people out there, they’re only carrying between five and eight rounds in either .38 Special or 9mm. Of course there are exceptions like the SIG P365, which holds a staggering 10+1 rounds in a gun hardly larger than an LCR. 9mm rounds gain points there which can’t be denied.
Looking at the ammo itself presents a challenge as well. The .38 Special in a compact snub-nose carry gun is coming out of a barrel that’s usually less than two inches, where many small 9mm pistols have barrel lengths up to an inch longer for a gun of similar size. In general, a 9mm pistol will be able to fire similar sized bullets slightly faster.
As an example, both standard pressure 9mm rounds and .38 are typically found with 124/125gr bullet weights. In a .38 SPL S&W 64, a typical 125gr bullet will leave the 1 7/8-inch barrel at around 850fps, where a typical 124gr 9mm coming from a GLOCK 43’s 3.4” barrel (or, say a Smith & Wesson M&P Shield) will fly at about 1,000fps. There are many, many variations of this, as both cartridges have a wide projectile weight range and velocities. Bullets for the longer case length .38 are .357” diameter, while those for 9mm are .355”.
These two cartridges are, for the most part, more similar than they are different. Granted, 9mm has a wider range of guns that chamber it to choose from and it’s more popular in general, but it isn’t exactly superior to the .38 Special in compact carry guns. The .38 Special (or .38 Special +P) JHP is no slouch by any standard, and very capable for its intended roles as standard FBI ballistic tests reveal. It would have faded a long time ago if it was no longer effective.
I believe that the 9mm vs. 38 Special argument is settled not by the cartridges, but rather the guns. I think the .38 Special is still very relevant today, despite the fact that the 9mm easily dominates virtually every single field of the market from pocket pistols to duty guns. Snub-nose revolvers are very popular for the fact that they’re so simple and many people go that route regardless of what’s available in semiautomatics.
Unlike the other articles in the State Your Case series, I can’t really pick a “winner” on this one. To have a winner, I would need to make it so that the cartridges have some real and discernible differences in a similar field. 9mm vs. .40 S&W is a real discussion because the two offer very different things in a guns that are externally identical, like the G19/G23.
If we were to look at five-shot compact revolvers only — the only true place that 9mm and .38 intersect — we’d have to look at Ruger’s LCR series or the like and it would be a toss-up in that case. The two are so close that there’s no real advantage unless you own other guns in one cartridge or another, which makes it a battle of logistics, not ballistics.
At the end of the day, both the .38 Special and 9mm have a place in the modern carry scene. I think the .38 is outclassed on a broader scale by the 9mm, but it will never really be replaced in self-defense guns. Pick what’s best for you and get comfortable with it, be it a GLOCK 43 or a Smith & Wesson 642.