Everything You Should Know About .38 Special
Mar 17, 2017
What There Is To Know About The .38 Special
While not as popular today as it once was, one of the most common calibers is the .38 Special. Granted, it's only available in revolvers as it generally cannot be used in any semi-auto on the market.
Some people also note that the round isn't a screamer, as the gold standard for revolvers is really the .357 Magnum. That said, it's actually a great round for a lot of reasons.
Origins And Evolution Of The .38 Special
The .38 Special was first released in the late 1890s, basically at the dawn of smokeless powder. During the latter half of the 19th century, .38 caliber bullets were fairly common as they were essentially the cartridge equivalent of cap-and-ball revolvers in .36 caliber, a popular chambering of the day. Many were converted to accept cartridges, which the .38 Short Colt was invented for. Later, a longer and slightly more powerful round - the .38 Long Colt - was released for use in pistols chambered for .38 caliber cartridges.
Smith and Wesson devised a slightly more powerful .38 caliber cartridge, the .38 S&W Special, as the .38 Long Colt was known to be lacking for stopping power. Initially, it was made with black powder but was quickly changed to smokeless.
The then-new .38 S&W Special packed more punch than the Short Colt and also in lighter loadings than Long Colt. It was immediately a hit with many police departments, as .38 Special revolvers were standard police issue in many departments for many years. A good number of civilians caught on as well.
Since those days, more powerful loadings have been developed as the base round is not exactly a screamer. (Most standard pressure loadings achieve less than 900 feet per second.) However, the +P loadings and +P+ loads have a decent track record as defensive rounds, such as the 158-grain +P semiwadcutter hollowpoint load (aka the "Chicago" or "FBI load") and the 135-grain +P hollowpoint loading, aka the "New York load," as it was developed by Speer at the behest of the NYPD for use in snub-nose revolvers.
However, the round was left behind ballistically in the 1930s, as the advent of the .357 Magnum meant there was a new sheriff in town...and he carried the more powerful round.
What's So Great About .38 Special Revolvers?
What's the deal with the .38 Special revolvers? They aren't as powerful as .357 Magnum and they only carry 5 or 6 shots. You're way better off, some might surmise, with either a .357 or a semi-auto 9mm.
This round isn't uber-powerful, but with the right load is definitely capable as a defensive round or short-range handgun hunting round. The .38 Special, when first released, was well-regarded for the easy recoil and good accuracy, which it still is to date. In other words, it's an easy round to shoot well. That made it a very good round for the average person more than a century ago and still does today.
Even .38 Special Plus P ammo is easy to shoot in a 4-inch revolver, which is why it was so popular for police departments. Contrary to popular belief, not all police are necessarily well-versed in firearms when they join the force. They have to be trained to shoot competently, and a 10mm, .45 or a .357 Magnum won't be the easiest gun for the newbie. However, an S&W Model 10 in .38 Spl...they can become proficient in much shorter order. As a result, it's also a good round for the novice civilian hand gunner, for those same reasons.
Additionally, learning a double-action trigger will improve one's shooting, as the long, hard double-action pull is one of the best ways to learn trigger control.
Why You Might Consider A .38 Special Gun
Ultimately, any caliber is only as good as the person at shoots it, whether it's a 10mm hand cannon or a .38 Special gun. Knockdown power is a myth and a well-placed shot of moderate caliber is far better than a poorly placed shot with a powerful one. That said, there are some good reasons why one might consider a .38 Spl gun as a carry gun or at least having one in their personal arsenal.
Revolvers of decent construction can be far more reliable than semi-autos, as there are fewer things to go wrong. (Though they definitely can!) Additionally, if you're a complete novice, you can learn how to shoot rather easily with a double-action revolver. Alternately, if you want a gun in the home that someone who doesn't shoot much can use if the need arises, a .38 is also a good choice.
Also, the snub .38 is one of the best deep concealment guns available. They're suitable for carry in an IWB holster or in a pocket or ankle holster. Despite pocket autos carrying more rounds, a lot of people still swear by the snub .38. There's also a good number of budget models out there as well, which some people keep as a "truck gun." That all said, it's the most popular revolver round on the market for good reasons.
About The Author
Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.