David Tong writes [via 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.
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.
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.
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 (above), 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.
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.
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.
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 (above), 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.
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!
Elmer Keith with poor finger discipline? Hard to believe.
The whole “finger off trigger until ready to shoot” thing is a relatively new development from the past few decades.
his thumbs over the hammers, its all good..
That was prior to the ability of a human finger to spontaneously spasm and pull the bang switch. Proof positive that the current pussification of our populace is real… Not knocking safety, mind you, but it’s become severe eye roll material to see how often someone is chewed out for it. I’d not mess with Elmer Keith on anything firearm related, if fact he is one of the reasons this now old man got into guns at the time I did. Dang me if it wouldn’t be interesting to go back in time and ask him how often he had unintentional discharges. I’m betting on none.
One day in Coeur d’Alene Idaho, Grandpa and Elmer were chewing the fat in the living room when all of a sudden Grandma started shooting at a rat right through the screen door in the kitchen with a .22 rifle. Elmer was out of his seat in about 1/2 a second and his finger was indeed on the trigger of a 4-inch .44 revolver.
As a kid I knew for a fact he was even cooler than Steve McQueen when he pulled that gun out who-knows-where right in Grandma’s living room.
I didn’t even know that Elmer was a famous man – us kids just called him Uncle Keith.
What makes you think he’s not ready to shoot? Coulda been Rosie O’Donnel’s grandmother, Phlatulance, in heat & rolling around on the second floor.
Don’t be so quick to judge, maybe he’s spotted a couple of fly’s on the the ceiling, and he ready to blast them!
chick’s dig it.
The first piece of advice from my Field Training Officer when I was a rookie cop in 1969 was to empty my Colt OP revolver and belt loops of the issued 158 gr ball ammo and replace it with 110 gr Super Vel JHP’s. It wasn’t authorized but we all did it.
Yep, in 1969 I hired on with BNDD (predecessor to DEA). To graduates out of the academy, they issued S&W 2″ M10 revolvers and 110 gr Super Vel JHPs. Through the bureau directly from S&W, I bought an M60, installed some Jay Scott black pearl grips, loaded it with the Super Vels, and had myself a fine little undercover piece. I will say that the Super Vels were a hand full when shooting them in that little J frame wearing those slick Jay Scott grips. I still have the M60, but the grips went away some place along the line. In later years, I ran across an old box of the 110 gr Super Vel JHP and keep them up front on the gun closet shelf, you know, just for old times sake.
.38 Special is special as you can in SHTF situations, load it with black powder…
Quality rounds (like the Gold Dot +P) will expand to about .55″ and penetrate ballistic gel to a depth of 12″+ when fired out of a snubnose pocket revolver. That is a pretty decent combination of size/concealability/reliability/acceptable power.
It is a CCW defensive carry sweetspot. I like the fact that .38+P punches harder than a pocket .380 (which I also carry sometimes).
Of course pocket 9mm’s will pretty much do the same thing, and give you more rounds, and faster reloads. On the other hand, the revolver won’t be pushed out of battery, and can be fired from inside a pocket.
Also, about the “Moro Warriors” – We had no damn business invading the Philippines anyway. We should have listened to the founding fathers, minded our own business, and not gotten into that war (and most wars since).
If you load your .380 ACP with Polycase Ruger ARX ammo you have about the same punch as a .38 Spl JHP. I carry and/or use all of this stuff & do my own tests. The ARX ammo is stunning in all calibers. Go to ‘Real Guns’ website & look up the review of the new Ruger LCP II for a stunning video of .380 ACP shot into water jugs. I found that the .380 ARX did about the same amount of damage as a quality 9mm JHP; in fact outperformed some supposed to be good 9mm JHP’s I tested. ARX is available in .38 Spl also along with a bunch of others now. Check it out.
Technically we didn’t invade the PI, they were surrendered as part of the Spanish American war, the moro uprising was more a police function
Still, we “invaded” in the sense that our military occupied another people’s country.
Also, I’d argue that the whole Spanish-American war wasn’t justified. In many ways the Spanish American war got our “imperialist ball rolling”, and helped lead to WW1,WW2,Korea,Vietnam,Iraq1,Iraq2,Afghanistan, etc.
The legality of dealing with the the Spanish (who were occupying/ruling about 1% of the land mass of the country at the time) to “give up” or “surrender” to the American forces the remaining 99% of the country has always been suspect. But popular sentiment at that time was only white people negotiated with white people on equal footing. Hence the Treaty of Paris.
So “technically” it was an illegal sale, followed by an invasion.
We did fight in the PI during the Spanish-American war; we made a deal with the Filipinos that implied that if the helped beat the Spanish, we would give them independence (ie give them their country back). We ultimately won, but we reneged, at least in many Filipinos’ eyes, and thus began the Philippine-American war, which is where we fought the Moros.
Note, however, that it seems like it was always the plan to eventually give the Philippines its independence; it was just taking too long (it was going to take decades, not days) for the Filipino revolutionaries. The Filipinos lost that fight, so we said we’d give them their independence on a timetable suitable to our requirements, decades later, just a few years prior to the date set to give them independence, Japan invaded, and set that back a couple more years, but they did get their independence. And for decades after the US and the Philippines had a very close and friendly relationship because the US never treated the PI like a subject colony like Spain and Japan did, and the US came to the Philippines’ aid as much as it could in times of crisis. Even today MacArthur is a hero there because instead of saying “well F that place; we’ll find a better way to hit Japan” he said “I shall return” and did.
“On the other hand, the revolver won’t be pushed out of battery, and can be fired from inside a pocket [and a purse!].”
This, along with the fact that you can simply pull the trigger again if a cartridge fails to go “Bang!”, is why revolvers are still incredibly relevant.
That’s my point! With most auto loaders, you must work the slide again.
Yes, there were failures to stop using the .38 against moro warriors. Just as there were failures to stop with .30-40 Krag, .45 colt and 12 bore with buck.
Moros didn’t just politely lay down and die after being shot. Inconsiderate of them.
Own a bunch of .357 Mag Rugers from the LCR to the GP100. Wanted all to be .357 so that any .357 or .38 Spl cartridge would go in any gun for ultimate versatility. Each one is kept loaded with ammo for that guns most used purpose, but quickly swapped out for a change in purpose. The .38 Spl/.357 Mag range of cartridges is probably the most versatile there is. And you should see what a .357 fired from a Ruger 77/357 bolt action rifle will do, plus it feeds the .38’s as well. This makes for a great set of weapons from compact handgun to rifle all sharing the same ammo.
Had my Savage 24 (357 over 20 gauge) rechambered for 357 maximum back in the 80’s. Allows me to handle any mix of 38 and 357 I might want including a 180gr round nose from a 35 Remington onto the magnum or maximum. Load my own ammo, break it down and keep in a backpack with some ammo and a telescoping fishing pole for those unexpected moments. Good for small game to whitetail out to 100 yards with a removable scope.
Neat setup, I like it.
I wish now that I would have gone with the Ruger 77/357 bolt action rifle, instead of the Henry .357 lever action rifle. I went with the Henry because the lever action is cooler (I’ll admit it), but also because it seemed heirloom quality and has a 10 round capacity vs. the Ruger’s 5 rounds. .38 special just does not cycle through the Henry. In fact, it jams it up like a sumbitch. It’s so bad, that I’d say Henry is risking a class action lawsuit by advertising their rifle is suitable for both .357 and .38 special.
Moreover, true flat point .38 special is harder to find than “regular” .38 special, which has a round nose to it. Nothing like a point, as with.223, of course, but a rounding nonetheless. Even if .38 special did cycle through the Henry, I’d still be concerned about chain fire in that tubular magazine, with a round behind setting off the round in front of it. 357 magnum is flat point, or so every version of it I’ve ever seen is, so no worries there.
I don’t know about .38 special cycling in the Ruger, but the Ruger at least has a 5 round rotary magazine, so the rounds are held separately and parallel to each other with no contact whatsoever.
My exact same experience with a lovely Marlin 1894C actually made by Marlin & not a ‘Remlin’–I hunted everywhere to find this gun, 72 stores in all. It was a bitter disappointment. To shoot .38’s it had to be an exact type it liked or fed single shot. Now here is where the real kick in the ass was: an unbelievable 3 foot shift to the left POI vs .357 ! Does not make a damn bit of sense. So I picked up the Ruger 77/357 & it does feed/cycle any damn thing you put in it. NO jams, malfunctions or risk of chain fire. Is also insanely accurate; will pick golf balls off of tees at 50 yards with at least 5 different types/brands of .357 ammo with NO change in POI. .38’s do drop more of course & require a higher hold. Also CCI 38/357 shot shells would not chamber in the Marlin & they do in the Ruger. Got an extra mag to carry for quick reload; their rotary mags are the greatest. I kept the Marlin for a long while after the Ruger just because it was so nice looking, but I wised up & sold it. The Ruger is roughly a 1,000 times better gun.
And my experience with my ’94 C and Taurus ’92 are exactly the opposite of yours.
Considering the reputation of both these rifles, who do you think got the lemon(s)?
From what information I gathered, it was 50/50 toss up.
Our 1982 Colt Diamondback was our first gun and has over 10,000 rounds through it. We love .38 Special. Now if I can get my hands on a decent Python at a reasonable price that would be just great!
Another nicety is that lever guns are also readily available in .38/.357 as well.
And I want one!
I want a .357 levergun as well. I’ve got several .357 and .38 revolvers, but still lack a carbine.
See my reply & that of Jonathan – Houston for our sour experiences with two very well regarded brands of lever guns in .357. IF you can find a Ruger 77/357 it WILL out shoot the lever guns along with a lot less trouble (actually no trouble at all). I think the website ‘outdoors.com’ or some similar name to that has a superb review on the 77/357. Even the hard core AR guys I shoot with go nuts over this gun; I was surprised.
Believe it or not, I have a Rossi M92 in .357, and it cycled all manner of .38 & .357 right out of the box. ~2moa accurate iron sights out to 100 yards, too. Sweet little gun for $500. I know it’s a dice roll, but there are good ones out there.
Seems you are right about the dice roll; if my .357 lever gun would have worked I would have kept it; I really loved the gun but did not run correctly. However, getting the Ruger 77/357 got me over it with no regrets & I made a nice profit on the lever gun. That helped too.
You should look at a ballistic energy calculator. Per the 2nd paragraph, a 158 grain bullet increases 22% in energy from 725 to 800fps, going from 185 ft/lbs to 225 ft/lbs of muzzle energy. That kind of difference is not “little better”. And in the real world, I certainly don’t think too may people could “laugh off” being hit by with a projectile carrying 225 ft/lbs of energy.
“And in the real world, I certainly don’t think too many people could ‘laugh off’ being hit with a projectile carrying 225 ft/lbs. energy.”
Your comment, especially your choice of words “laugh off”, made me laugh!
All fun aside, you are absolutely correct: no one is going to laugh off a 158 grain expanding slug hitting them at 800 fps.
This post was a refreshing change from all of the political stuff. I’m planning a trip to the range next week, mostly to test out the .22 conversion kit on my G19. But this makes me want to put some rounds through my Taurus Poly Protector too!
I sometimes carry a Taurus 85 Ultralite as a backup gun but generally my backup for my sidearm is a knife.
Nice little gun for what is but it will beat the hell out of your hand if you shoot it all day. Personally I find it to be quite accurate but I just can’t really get into wheel guns and would certainly not carry one as my primary.
A pocket carried .38 is better than a larger pistol at home in the safe.
Actually, most days they are exactly the same.
I inherited an old Colt Police Positive in .38 Special and I shoot it occasionally.
However, I don’t exactly see the point in buying a .38 only revolver anymore. Why not just get a .357 that can also shoot any .38 Special load you want?
That’s why I got a bunch of .357 Rugers from the LCR to the GP100 & a Ruger 77/357 bolt action rifle to go with them. Had a real nice .357 lever gun too, but was too damn ammo picky & sold it. The Ruger simply does care what it is fed,eats them all.
I agree with going .357-only, but the rationale I’ve heard for a .38 Special chambered pistol is either better accuracy with .38’s (less jump before the bullet hits the cylinder throat) and overall weight of the gun. If you have a pistol that only handles non +P .38’s, you can make it a few ounces lighter.
Yeah, the only reason I went with the .38 LCR is that it was available and a lot cheaper. It’s also about 4 oz lighter which is nice for carry but not so great for long range sessions. Still, love the gun!
The larger Hogue grip from the LCRx will screw right on, it would make extended range sessions more comfortable.
As the guys have mentioned, a true .38 special revolver is going to be lighter and less expensive than its .357 magnum big brother. There’s also the issue of firearm cleaning, though.
The .38 special cartridge is .1″ shorter than the .357 magnum cartridge. Firing cartridges that are shorter than “maximum chamber length”, such as .38 special in a .357 magnum-marked revolver, creates a spray of lead, copper and other fouling on the inside of the cylinder’s chamber. This can cause a buildup inside the chambers of the cylinder just in front of where the shorter cartridges were fired. If that happens and you attempt to load and fire full-length cartridges in that gun, in this case .357 magnum, you may notice that the spent cases stick. The mouth of the brass case gets stuck on that buildup.
To prevent this, you’ll just need to be a little more regular and rigorous in cleaning the chambers in the cylinder after shooting the shorter ammunition. It’s probably not a big enough deal to influence a purchase decision, but it is a something to be aware of.
I suppose the same would be true firing .44 specials in .44 magnum-chambered guns, or .32 H&R Magnum or .32 S&W Long fired in .327 federal Magnum guns.
I admit that I am not that regular about cleaning, but I have not had an issue with the Ruger SP101’s or GP100 with cases sticking when shooting .357’s after a bunch of .38’s
It’s more of a theoretical concern, a sort of inside baseball kind of thing, and not anything to influence a decision. The physics of it is real, but the practical implications could be limited, and could be more or less pronounced based on the ammunition used.
A little bit dirtier ammo + an ever so slightly wise spec casing or cylinder, and voila! Now it’s an issue. The potential always there, though, however slender. I see it crop up occasionally with my Rossi .357, but not regularly.
A friend of mine just bought an S&W 64 (which is only rated .38 +P) because he wanted a three inch K-frame, which has become quite hard to find. Similarly, one can still find pretty solid deals of old police trade ins of guns which are .38 only.
Because you want one.
I love .38 Special/.357 Magnum. Everything from easy-to-shoot target loads to high-power self-defense rounds available. Definitely my most fired cartridge.
“The round dominated LE for nearly 70 years, until the advent of more efficient yet equally reliable semiautomatic pistols in the mid-1980s.”
While the round and the cheap revolvers that chambered it did ‘dominate’ LE (just like Glocks, whatever is cheap), there were plenty of coppers who swapped to semi-autos after WWI. Prior to WWII, my cop relatives had ditched wheelguns and pumps for 1911s/HiPowers and A5/Remington11s. They were plenty reliable back then, they just weren’t as cheap as a wheelgun.
I really like the .38 SPL cartridge. I even like the band, too. A trusty revolver loaded with .38 hollow points is my desk drawer gun as I type this right now.
I have owned a fair amount of firearms over the years. I tend to “keep” guns more than you average person, but have still sold or traded some. I bought a 1977 model 67 in 1993 from the Navy Arms factory store in Martinsburg, WV. It was an ex New Jersey police gun and had been shot a lot and carried more. But it was in good machanical shape(must have had a good armorer). I probably shot 10, 000 rounds through it. This last spring I sent in off to S&W for thier Performance package. If I only had one gun, this would be it. There is something magical about a K frame .38 four inch. I have shot rocks at 200-300 yards(not too hard if you practice). I set it up for Underwood’s 125 gr Gold Dot load at 1200 fps. Perfect.
“I have shot rocks at 200-300 yards(not too hard if you practice).”
It’s actually quite easy. The trick is choosing a really big rock.
You win the Intertubez today!
“The .38 Special is the revolver equivalent of the 9X19 semiauto pistol round”
Eh, no. At least, not as used in snub-nosed revolvers. The .38 Special is more the equivalent of a .380. Although if you stretch the .38’s barrel out to 4″, then it’s more comparable with a 9mm from a pocket pistol. A 9mm like a Glock 19 is always more powerful than a .38 Special.
If we’re talking about today’s small guns, a .357 Magnum in a 2″ snub-nosed revolver is about the equivalent of a 9mm in a compact like a G19, or a 9mm +P in a subcompact pocket nine. They both propel a comparable-sized bullet at a comparable velocity, although the .357 accompanies it with a hellacious amount more muzzle blast, noise, and recoil.
The Glock you are using in your example has a 4″ barrel … apples and oranges and all …
Exactly. The semi-auto fanboys always want to compare much larger guns to snubbies. My Ruger LCR weighs 14 oz and fits in my front pocket. Get a compatible semi-auto and then we can talk. Besides, look at the Buffalo Bore loading for 9mm and .38 special. They’re pretty much identical but the .38 is heavier with superior bullet design to boot. Some .38 is downloaded so it won’t blow historical guns.
I carry Remington 125 gr +P JHPs in my .357 LCR & put Magtech 158 gr JHPs in my wife’s .357 SP101; both of these have proven very devastating in water jug tests. My wife does not like much recoil & the Magtechs are surprisingly easy on recoil but the way it blows the jugs is impressive & the recovered slugs show perfect expansion; so do the Remingtons.
Gun people amuse me with this “fanboy” label. If you don’t like what I like then you’re a “fanboy”.
IMHO, the ability to articulate and basic reason for a preference is acceptable and respectable. The only people who should get this label are people who are blindly loyal to a brand/caliber/action and can’t explain why.
I took it as the ubiquitous nature of the guns and availability and variety of the ammo, not that the rounds were anywhere equal in power.
Ballistically, there’s not much difference between the two. Not just the barrel length disparity mentioned in the adjacent post. When considering modern ammunition, you won’t find a lot more of anything with either, except that the .38 Special is capable of firing better bullets, especially if one favors heavier ones.
Even more so with the semi-wadcutter, the classic, if not to say legacy, bullet solution to the modest velocities of the carry-able handgun. Based on my friends’ hunting experiences, I am inclined towards the 158 Keith.
With the Buffalo Bore +P load, the performance is nothing short of amazing: I got 1000fps with the 158 out of my 4″ Colt E-frame and about 900fps out of my 2″ Detective Special.
I don’t pretend to know the final solution, but a heavy semi-wadcutter going a grand sounds better to me than a 125 JHP going 1100.
Glad to see you up and about.
Hoping all is well.
Yeah, plus terminal ballistics aren’t the same as muzzle energy. If you think a 158 grain hollow point from a .38 special is going to hit the same as an 85 grainer from a .380, you need to do a little more research.
I don’t think the author meant that they were ballistic equivalents, but that both rounds fill the same role in their respective categories: incredibly common, readily available, easy shooting rounds that have been around for more than a century, with tens of millions of relatively inexpensive guns chambered to use them. You won’t find a more ubiquitous pistol round than the 9mm Luger, just like you won’t find a more ubiquitous revolver round than .38 special.
So it’s basically the revolver equivalent of a 9mm Luger, but under powered. Got it.
Nope. Look up Buffalo Bore. They’re comparable or superior to the 9mm loadings. Some companies download them so they don’t blow the historical revolvers. Also, revolvers can have much better bullet design since they’re can’t have feeding problems.
Great article. I love me some revolver goodness. My EDC is a GP100. I shoot it in IDPA using 158 grain LRN bullets loaded at 825 FPS.
Another aspect to consider about .38 special is that if you want to get into reloading it’s a very easy cartridge to learn on. Nice straightwall case that is easy to handle, tons of powder and bullet choices. Good starting point for those new to the reloading game.
Not to mention, unless you’re loading them extremely hot or otherwise abusing your brass, a good-quality .38 Special case can be reloaded a LOT of times. And revolvers don’t throw the brass all over the range, either. 🙂
Or all over the crime scene. Just sayin’.
Something to consider?
Couple that with good frangible projectiles and you’ll leave a minimal (or no) footprint.
That’s how I got my start. Reloading .38 special, then I added .44 Magnum
Super fun to shoot cowboy loads in revolvers and lever guns and cheap to reload. Haven’t had any trouble with brass wearing out.
Good article. I love S&W revolvers.
I learned something new, that Colt gave us “.38” b/c of the case diameter ! Thank you. TTAG is always good for more info.
Cowboy action shooters (SASS) primarily use 38 special, loaded down to as low as safely possible , using the lightest 38 special cast bullets possible. They are shooting steel plates and this reduces lead splatter and all you want to do is hit the the targe, not poke a hole in it. This also reduces recoil and helps get back on target quickly. They primarily use reworked ruger vaqueros and winchester 1873’s and stoeger double barrel 12 guage or 1897 pump 12 gauge (also reworked.) You know you are seeing something special when you see someeone working the leveraction fast enough to have all 10 pieces of brass still in the air with no misses. You need to log onto youtube to see some acion and get some instruction and ideas. Sign up for SASS and attend the meets in your area. It is a real hoot and you meet some of the nicest people.
use it at the range so I don’t burn up my .357 mag ammo
I think .38 Special is equally as ubiquitous as .44 Special. They both have big brothers and yet still have a functional place in any collection.
Actually, the .38 is much more common today than the .44 Special. The .44 Special used to be a very common round, but not as common as the .38.
Then the .44 Mag came out, completely overshadowed the .44 Special, and now it is difficult to find a new production wheelgun in .44 Special. About the only common one is the Charter Arms offering. The CCW market re-started the .38 snubby product lines, and the .38 has had a bit of a re-discovery.
I personally think there’s a good market out there for a five shot .44 Special with a 2.5 or 3″ barrel for a CCW piece.
Ruger just brought out their superb GP100 in .44 Spl, 5 round, 3″ barrell
The 38 special is special because its my wife’s favorite round. She shoots a S&W 4” model 10. And she is a damn sure spot on with it. She carries it open and backs it up with a concealed Colt Mustang 380. She has several other pistols but that’s her preferred daily carry. She carries the Smith in a full length tan leather holster with a matching belt with tan belt speed loader holster for two speed loaders . The Colt is concealed with 2 spare mags.
You don’t mess with a red head grandma!
God I love that round. I can’t help in.
Reminds me of first learning to shoot with my grandfather. Nothing but wheel guns and two guys shooting reloads in the desert.
I miss that man.
What Shoot the Bull said^…the wife wants a 38snubby and I will comply. ANYONE shoot the Buffalo Bore 158 flat nose +P from a snubby? The one that is supposedly safe despite having 500fp. And BB advertising it’s “safe” out of a lightweight alloy /steel revolver?!?
I shot Buffalo Bore’s FBI load from a S&W Model 60, it had some horsepower and a little snap. Not uncontrollable but more than I care for. I decided to go with their .38 wad cutter instead.
I just got an e-mail from Ruger. They are bringing out a GP 100 .44 Special 3 inch and a Redhawk 8 shot .357, with a 2.75 inch barrel. The Redhawk comes with 3 full moon clips and cylinder relievement. The .44 comes with fiber optic sights.
Finally – someone noticed that the .44 Special has merit in today’s CCW environment.
The 38 special is a great cartridge.
Loaded weak even in most +p loadings. Buffalo Bore is the only exception I’ve seen.
If your only carrying 38s in a 357 most loads lose around 50 fps. Has something to with gas jetting with the shorter special case in a magnum chamber .
I currently carry 38 +p 125 Golden sabre. Seems to penetrate and expand in denim tests even though it is sub 900 fps in a snub.
A carbine makes the 125 gr +p sing. Steps it up to around 1200 fps. Remember 125 SJHP+p is a little faster. Seems like it wold be great for defense.
Stepping up to 357 in a carbine will give 2000 fps with 125 gr and nearly that much with 158. My favorite is the 145 Silvertip at 1900. Most accurate from winchester and marlin carbines.
Great article RF. Refreshing, as some others have posted. Thanks.
plus, chicks dig it.
“The .38 Special is the revolver equivalent of the 9X19 semiauto pistol round …”
That right there sums up the timeless utility of the .38 Special round.
One niggle. It’s “ne plus ultra.”
As much as I love .38 Special and revolvers, I have to ask:
Is a revolver in .327 Federal Magnum a better choice for self-defense since it has similar or better “stopping power” and 6 rounds in j-frame sized cylinders? (J-frame revolvers in .38 Special only have 5 chambers in their cylinders.)
And for those of us who want ammunition commonality across platforms and carry 9mm semi-auto pistols, is a revolver chambered in 9x19mm a smart/excellent substitute for .38 Special?
Maybe & Maybe. If you have a .38 Spl revolver, I do not see any need to replace it with the .327 Federal; if you do not have any gun & want a revolver for carry, the .327 is a consideration. The Ruger LCR in .327 Fed is a great choice, but so is the LCR in .357 Mag or .38 Spl or 9mm. The shootability of the LCR is much better than the older style revolvers. If you own only 9mm semi autos & want to add a revolver, then that makes sense also. As with all of this, everything is a compromise, there is no ‘golden bullet’. Each person will have their own likes, dislikes & personal prejudices/opinions. I personally let people shoot my wide array of firearms if they are new & need to get a ‘feel’ for the differences in different types of guns & calibers, without charge. It is often too hard for someone to ‘test drive’ a gun to make an informed decision, and the bone headed sales people that stereo type people just suck. I enjoy educating people on what is THEIR best choice.
IMO, revolvers chambered in semi-auto cartridges are a solution in search of a problem to solve.
I understand why some people want to shoot 9×19 or .45 ACP in a revolver. In a competition situation, OK, whatever.
In a defensive situation, I’d stick with the classic rimmed cartridges in a revolver. Moon clips, etc. are one more thing to go wrong, another expense if you lose them, etc. The advantage to the classic rimmed cartridges is that you can use a speed loader if you wish, or you can load manually, round by round. It just works.
Shoot a Smith & Wesson Model 10 with a 4-to-6 inch barrel just once and you’ll know that the .38 Spl is the king of modern revolver rounds, and that the Model 10 is the king of .38 Spl revolvers.
I love my M642 (pictured above) for its concealability and utility, but the M10 is sublime.
I can go for a year at a time without shooting a handgun. Pick up my Mod 10 and it’s like I’ve been making regular rang trips.
The k frame .38 revolver is the perfect gun for folks that just want to have a gun in case and have no need or want to become POTG.
I’ve said again and again that I recommend used (eg, police turn-ins) S&W .38 revolvers for older people who want a gun in their home for home protection, but don’t have the money, time or physical ability to go to the range to become ninja operators with a semi-auto.
One of the reasons why I make this recommendation is that the revolver requires little grip strength – there’s no slide to rack. I’ve seen and taught “little old ladies” to center-punch a B27 target with a .38 special, and they do it with ease. There’s no “tap, rack bang” drill, there’s no limp-wristing danger, there’s no stovepipes or double-feeds. A revolver in good condition and repair “just works.”
Another reason is how well the new .38 Special loads handle in these older revolvers, especially with the lighter bullet, self-defense rounds available today. The old standard was the 158 gr +P round. Today, there’s all manner of self-defense rounds with bullets in the 110 to 129gr range that give good penetration with lower recoil. People with little training time can usually center-punch an intruder without much ado. At bedroom distances, the .38 Special will work fine.
I have a colt OP with 5 3/4″ barrel and it’s a joy to shoot. I wouldn’t carry it but it’s more than enough to protect with.
I just ran 50 rounds of 158 swc lead through it and it’s pretty accurate. Best 250 dollars I ever spent.
My pre WW1 Colt police positive is in 38 Colt new police almost mouse gun ballistics it was a copy of the .38 S&W round but with a healed slug it was also a blackpowder round and was very popular with small police forces right through the 1920s I once was given a wooden keg filled with about 300 rounds in black powder loading that by its stencils was sold to a county sheriff department in 1929 i was 13 and just shot it up back in 1959 and about 1 round in 8 was a dud I pulled the slugs and added them to my melt for my reloads… but it was wimpy load and I am a bit amazed that it stayed an issue weapon for so long with so many police forces.
For centerfire target work, the .38 Special is the single best choice of cartridge. There are several very accurate centerfire handgun rounds – the .44 Magnum is no slouch in this department, neither is the .44 Special. But the .38 Special is the best for target work. Why?
Because you can load it light, with full wadcutter bullets, and get stunning results. You can shoot a lot for a little bit of money, it’s really easy to reload, and with the low pressure levels of the .38, you can re-use your brass practically forever. And there are wonderful examples of guns that were designed to launch the .38 Special with excellent, match-winning results.
TTAG had a piece in 2013 (if memory serves) about the S&W K38 Masterpiece. They were one of the best target revolvers ever made, smooth as silk, reliable, a highly finished (not as highly as a Python, but right up there) K-frame in .38 Special. NB that to achieve the best results in target shooting from a revolver, you shouldn’t use a .357 cylinder to launch .38’s. It’ll work, but it won’t work as well as a .38 cylinder. The Masterpieces were true .38’s, sometimes with heavier barrels, with adjustable sights, nice triggers, etc.
If you tut-tut over revolvers, then look at the S&W Model 52. A semi-auto with a five round magazine, optimized for accuracy for bullseye shooting. It has a trigger that is one of the best ever put on any target handgun. The Model 52 ruled the roost in bullseye shooting for decades and it was developed with the AMU as the primary client. If you’re wondering “why only five rounds?!” then check out the rules for bullseye shooting. You shoot five rounds, and then have to load a new magazine. My S&W Model 41 has 10 round magazines; I cannot remember the last time I ever loaded a mag with 10 rounds in that pistol.
The Model 52 was tested before leaving the factory to be able to shoot five rounds into less than 2″ at 50 yards from a machine rest. If it wasn’t doing this, then it was sent back to the gunsmiths in S&W’s shop until it did. The best European 9mm target pistols can achieve these types of groups – eg, the Sig P210’s, the Hammerli’s, etc. But the 9×19 Luger isn’t loaded with wadcutter pills – ever. The Model 52 can literally feed one empty case into the chamber after another without a hiccup or jam – so you can feed full wadcutters into the 52, seated flush with the case mouth. As a result, it’s very easy to see your groups with sharp, distinct edges on the bullet holes.
The standard “target” load for the .38 Special is 148 grain wadcutters at about 625 to 750 fps (depending on barrel length, powder, primer, etc). This results in a very mild recoil and report (the pressure levels on the .38 Special are quite low – even lower than the .45 ACP) and the wadcutter makes as clean a hole in the target as you can ever hope to achieve.
Both the K38 and Model 52 are excellent center-fire target handguns, and both will continue to appreciate in price as a growing number of shooters discover that the plastic handguns will never, ever be capable of the sort of accuracy and refinement of the hand-finished guns of old. Every time I’m on a range and I pull out my actual target pistols (as opposed to today’s wanna-be ‘target’ pistols), I see youngsters wonder “What’s that old man got that I haven’t got? The salesman told me that this was ‘perfection’, but that geezer is throwing down killer groups with a gun I’ve never even heard of…”
Sadly, this situation is going to get worse, not better, as the market seems to converge on peddling more and more plastic 9’s, each claiming to out-glock Glock.
“The standard ‘target’ load for the .38 Special is 148 grain wadcutters at about 625 to 750 fps …”
And does your revolver come with one of those two-inch flip up rear sights with markings for every 5 yards out to 50 yards so that you can shoot those “rainbow” loads accurately? Or do you just use “Kentucky windage” past 5 yards?
Let’s assume a 148gr wadcutter, with a Bc of 0.055, a muzzle velocity of 625 fps, zero’ed at 15 yards. Plop all those factors into jbmballistics.com and we ask for a trajectory table every five yards.
The net:net is: You have 7.3″ of drop at 50 yards, and only 0.8″ of drop at 25 yards. If you wanted to shoot consistently at 50 yards, zero it at 25 yards, and you get 5.6″ of drop at 50 yards. Eh, you’d be close to a 6-o-clock hold on a 7 3/16ths to 8″ black bull for a 50 yard target. So… net:net, you’d not have to adjust your sight all that much. Just choose where you zero.
After 65 yards or so, then you start engaging targets with indirect fire. But out to 50, I think you’re good. At least, it has worked for me in the past.
A really sweet, and overlooked, revolver is Ruger’s LCRX with adjustable sights and 3″ inch barrel. I bought one for my initial CCW gun, but it’s a little too big for pocket carry. It is now my wife’s “carry” gun(if I can get her to carry it). It would work really well for a hiking or woods gun. It is just a nice revolver.
Do not own one, but they feel great in the hand (do have the LCR .357). Ruger is working on bringing this gun out in an 8 shot .22 LR, which should sell like hotcakes. A nearly weightless 8 pop trail gun, sweet.