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Modern Shooter: An In Depth Look At 38 Special



.380 ACP

Modern Shooter: .38 Special

First introduced way back in the early 1900s, the world-famous .38 Special is but one of the tools that helped propel America to where we are today. The Special was once the primary a law enforcement round used by police. It still has a place today in certain hunting applications, with both revolvers and rifles, and is still used in self-defense over 110 years later.

Something that is little known about the .38 SPC (or SPL), is that it doesn't actually fire a “38” caliber bullet as you'd think about modern bullet measurements. Rather, the .38 is a “35” caliber bullet, which is why you can fire it through a .357 Magnum revolver. I want to point out here, however, that while you can shoot a thirty-eight through a gun chambered in the Magnum cartridge, you should never reverse that.

While they share many similarities, the Magnum's cartridge is loaded to much higher pressures and cannot be fired in a gun only chambered in .38. Furthermore, the Magnum is a bit longer so they might not even fit in your gun. Either way, don't try it.

Even though the .38 Special is as popular as ever, it lacks terminal ballistics associated with many of the other modern self-defense cartridges on the market. In a world where you and I defend ourselves with a gun, .38 Special is one of the least powerful you would want to use (to include .32 Mag, .380 ACP, and .327).

I can almost hear you thinking, but it has such a huge case! How could such a big round be so “eh” in its performance?

Well, things aren't always what they would seem. Sure, the case is big. Much bigger than many of the semi-auto self-defense pistols on the market. But, just because it has a big case, doesn't mean it's filled all the way to the top with gun powder.

Because the .38s are only rated for 17,000 PSI (which is really low), it can only hold so much powder, safely.

Furthermore, there are essentially two trains of thought for self-defense guns. They are as follows:

  1. Big, slow bullets create a bigger wound channel, and, are thus better for self-defense even though they move much slower.
  2. Small, faster moving bullets do more damage because they travel further into the body.

There are positives to both. The .38 Special packs a slow moving, medium sized bullet. Generally speaking, they can be found from 110 grains up to 158 grains. They move at lackluster speeds, with most, if not all of them (including the +P rounds) staying below the 1,000 FPS mark.

Many of the more popular thirty-eight loads move much slower than that in the 750 FPS range.

.380 ACP

.22lr, .380 ACP, 9mm Luger, .38 SPC, .45 ACP — Left to right.

Again, in terms of self-defense, this is the lowest you'd want to go. If you don't believe it, keep in mind a Defensive Gun Use story just covered by Eve Flanigan where a mother successfully halted a robber in her house to save her kids. She used a .38 Special revolver, and seemingly placed 5 shots on her attacker.

He walked back to his car and drove off before needing medical attention, and lived to tell the tale.

On the other hand, she did stop the attack with the gun. Had she not had it with her, the outcome would have been remarkably different. I own and carry a .38 revolver so I believe they are sufficient. What about you? Is the .38 SPC good enough for you? Let us know in the comments below. Then, make sure you like Gun Carrier's Facebook Page

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  6. Dr. Bill

    March 31, 2017 at 11:56 AM

    An awful lot depends on the ammo used. My wife uses a Taurus 85 stainless loaded with Glaser Safety Slugs (+P loaded 80gr@1250fps -278ftlbs energy). These have already proven themselves by taking out three inches of bone in a burglar’s leg with one round. He got 7 years in prison and he will always walk with a huge limp.
    The Glaser uses a frangible jacket filled with #12-shot under a plastic tip. Uneven pressures on the nose, as when hitting a bone, cause the round to disintegrate, spending all its energy in 3 to 4 inches, plus they won’t ricochet in your house. Very expensive, but I know they work as intended. Other rounds may have more overall energy, but are not capable of expending it all in one massive bang inside the body.
    My personal bedside gun is a Charter Bulldog in .44 spl. Using Glasers, it delivers 507ftlbs in the target. Now that will give an intruder a VERY bad day.

  7. Richard Walker

    December 12, 2016 at 11:23 AM

    The 38spl. has been around for ever, It’s still used in police dept. around the world. I’m 72 years old and have a dozen 38’s . I’ve seen what they do in raw roast. I wouldn’t want to get shot with one. The human body does not like hot lead. Not even .22’s.

  8. Sean C

    December 12, 2016 at 7:34 AM

    Normal carry is a .40, .357sig or .45acp usually a SIG 226/229/250 or a Walther p99. I do still keep a Colt D Special for sentimental reasons and a model 10 & 64 for the same. 642 is a backup for 30+ years along with a snub model 19 w/.357 158gr jhp. If I’m out hunting I still carry a .44mag as a backup in bear country. To those that love the 10mm more to you, I have 2 metal frame S&W’s in 10 but the Glock to me is painful to shoot in 10 in a decent defense load. I can do it but with other weapons easier to put more in the bad person Ill use them primary.

  9. Mikial

    December 11, 2016 at 7:32 PM

    Neither of us carry a .38Spl, but we do keep one stashed away in the house as a ‘quick grab’ gun in case we need it. If they were that useless, they wouldn’t still be as popular as they are.

  10. Bob

    December 11, 2016 at 3:49 PM

    The .38 Special is NOT a .35 caliber, it is .36 caliber. The actual diameter is 0.357″, the same as the .357 Magnum. The main reason the magnum case is longer is so it could not be chambered in guns that were not made to withstand the pressures of the magnum round. The same is true with the .44 Special and .44 Magnum, both using a 0.429 projectile.

  11. Tim

    December 11, 2016 at 11:32 AM

    I’ve owned a 38 special for over thirty eight years and am quiet please with it. The double tap isn’t good enough with this weapon but hey, if you can hit it twice, 4 more should be easy.

  12. Diane

    December 11, 2016 at 10:18 AM

    As a trainer once told us, people are bullet sponges. There is a man who walks around with five .22s in his head, none the worse for the wear! I have seen a reenactment of a situation where two cops answered a domestic situation. One of them was killed. The perp was hyped up on something and he got shot several times by the other cop. One shot was in the chest directly into the heart. The guy said, “You got me a good one that time.” After a terrifying battle with the perp, it took two shots to the head to kill him. So, stuff can happen that seems to defy everything about getting shot.

    One guy I knew who had been in Nam was wounded in spite of having unloaded all of his .357s into him. It took one of his buddies to take the enemy out by shooting his arm off with his .45. So, our guy took his .357, put it on the ground, and shot it up with the .45.

    It is my understanding that professional snipers use .22s. Although now, they might use .223s. I am not sure on that. And there have been people killed with a 25 auto. People have been killed with just about every caliber you can think of. Also people have survived about every caliber you can think of. I guess it all depends on circumstances and placement of the round.

  13. wdcraftr

    December 11, 2016 at 9:30 AM

    I carry a S&W 340PD in my pocket all the time. I load Buffalo Bore 150 gr. full wad cutters, and BB 158 gr. .38+P HP rounds.. The +P HP rounds come out of that short barrel at over 1000 fps, and 351 ft. lbs. energy.. The +P recoils really hard, so fast follow ups are not there, but I don’t feel under powered.. The first 3 rounds are the standard pressure full wad cutters which don’t recoil near as bad, and the last two are +P HP.. If I should need more, I carry a quick strip with more +P rounds.. Hopefully I never need to find out how effective it is, or how accurate I am under stress.. If I feel I need more before going out, then I carry a larger .357 also..

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