Which .38 Special ammo will save your life? Patrick Sweeney gives you the inside edge.

What you need to know about.38 Special ammo:

  • Developed in 1898.
  • Primary law enforcement service cartridge from 1920s to 1990s.
  • Regained popularity due to small concealable revolvers.
  • Snubbies knock off around 100 fps of muzzle velocity.
  • +P ammunition does not function well out of snubbies.
  • Hotter loads are generally easier to shoot out of larger revolvers.
  • Poly-case ammunition and copper solids offer excellent penetration.

The .38 was invented in the late 19th century, given up for dead in the latter half of the 20th, and resurrected by the time the 21st rolled around. It is now a viable choice for those who feel a compact carry gun is more important than shooting through cars.

If it wasn’t for the yaw, there’d be not much of a wound track at all. The old lead .38, the great perforator.
If it wasn’t for the yaw, there’d be not much of a wound track at all. The old lead .38, the great perforator.

The original load, a lead round-nose 158-grain bullet, was marginal as a stopper. It was earth-shattering in 1898, when invented, but even before WWII we knew better.

It just took a long time to develop something better and get it out where it could be tested.

Two inches, single action, 25 yards, with Critical Defense 110-grain FTX bullets. Any complaints? I thought not.
Two inches, single action, 25 yards, with Critical Defense 110-grain FTX bullets. Any complaints? I thought not.

One aspect of a .38 Special revolver that people might have forgotten is accuracy. Revolvers can be amazingly accurate, and a quality DA revolver delivers all of that.

You do, however have a few choices to make, choices that will determine your path in life.

First, snubbie or medium-sized revolver?

Snubbieland

Short-barreled revolvers are harder to shoot, kick more and deliver less performance than those that are bigger. The smallest have diminished capacity, five shots vs. six. So, you have to determine how much recoil, blast and difficulty in shooting you are willing to put up with to get the performance you desire. Snubbies are easier to carry, but they extract a cost in velocity. As a starting point, knock 100 fps off of the book value of a load if you are using a snubbie. More if it is lightweight bullet.

A snub-nosed revolver is a joy to carry. It can, however, be a beast to shoot well. The smaller and lighter it is, the harder it is to shoot well, and the less fun it will be to shoot. Keep that in mind when picking a defensive handgun.
A snub-nosed revolver is a joy to carry. It can, however, be a beast to shoot well. The smaller and lighter it is, the harder it is to shoot well, and the less fun it will be to shoot. Keep that in mind when picking a defensive handgun.

Medium-sized revolvers, the six-shot wheelguns and those with 3- or 4-inch barrels, are a lot easier to shoot and deliver the ballistics you want.

Ammo Choices

Choices for .38 Special ammo breaks down in a three-axis decision making tree. Light weight bullets or heavy? Jacketed bullets or lead? Standard pressure or +P?

The Hornady Critical Defense line is meant to offer good performance without beating up the shooter. Don’t fault it for that.
The Hornady Critical Defense line is meant to offer good performance without beating up the shooter. Don’t fault it for that.

In lightweight bullets, you have high speed and normal. A high speed would be something like the Super Vel Super Snubbie load, which features a 90-grain bullet at over 1,200 real fps out of a snubbie, and recoil to go with it.

A lightweight .38 Special ammo choice that won’t punish you would be the Hornady Critical Defense, or Critical Defense Lite. These are 110-grain bullets and they do not get to 1,000 fps out of a 2-inch barrel. They are easy to shoot, but they will not deliver performance like the stouter loads. You get what you pay for, and you pay for what you get.

This is what extreme velocity does for you, expansion from a 90-grain bullet that practically turns it inside-out.
This is what extreme velocity does for you, expansion from a 90-grain bullet that practically turns it inside-out.

There are some loads that feature weights less than full but not all the way to light. Generally around 125 to 130 grains, they are compromise loads. They offer more mass for more penetration, but you have to either give up velocity or accept a bit more recoil.

The heavyweights top out at the normal for .38 Special weight, 158 grains. You can have jacketed hollow points, all-lead or lead hollow points.

The combination of a bit more weight and a bit more velocity nets you a lot more performance, but also a noticeable amount of extra recoil.
The combination of a bit more weight and a bit more velocity nets you a lot more performance, but also a noticeable amount of extra recoil.

Pressure is all. The standard pressure limits for the .38 Special are just fine for the snubbies and make for a soft life for the medium-sized revolvers. If you want more you can have it, but you will pay for it, in particular, a +P load in a five-shot snubbie becomes work, or even painful, to shoot. Unless you absolutely need that level of performance (and I can’t imagine how to require it, and not move up in gun size), then live with it.

But, if you want the benefits of extra pressure you need extra barrel length. This makes for EDC problems. A 6-inch .38 revolver might be entirely suitable for a home defense gun. But for Every Day Carry it would be bulky. You need the barrel length to get all the velocity the extra pressure promises.

Polycase ARX

Polycase thought outside the box and this is the result. A sintered, epoxied, fluted bullet that does not need expansion to deliver.
Polycase thought outside the box and this is the result. A sintered, epoxied, fluted bullet that does not need expansion to deliver.

This is a new approach, and we see it working in the .38 Special. It offers barrier perforation, but doesn’t have to expand to stop in the FBI distance. It is super-soft to shoot, but the extra velocity can cause it to hit low, below your usual point of aim, due to barrel lift timing differences.

Old-school

Wadcutters are an anomaly. They offer a full-diameter cutting shoulder, and yet they penetrate as well as anything else out there. A super-soft load to shoot, if you were arming someone who was really recoil sensitive, using wadcutters might be a viable approach. Just be sure they understand they must make use of the tack-driving accuracy that wadcutters offer.

FBI classic

The FBI load is full weight, +P and all-lead. But for expansion like this, you are good. Just don’t expect barrier-blind performance, because lead can’t do that.
The FBI load is full weight, +P and all-lead. But for expansion like this, you are good. Just don’t expect barrier-blind performance, because lead can’t do that.

The FBI load in .38 Special, 158-grain, lead semi-wadcutter, at +P pressures, worked then and works now. It just doesn’t perform well in barrier testing. If you do not anticipate barriers, then you will be happy.

Federal HST .38 Special

Federal took a different approach. They took the old reversed hollow-base wadcutter, put a jacket on it, tuned the jacket for consistent expansion, and then loaded it to normal .38 Special performance, not wadcutter performance. As a result, it delivers every bit of the power a .38 can muster and expands well while doing so.

Honey Badger

The performance of the Honey Badger, a solid copper, fluted bullet at less than robust recoil, seems to have been made for the .38 Special. Even if it does not work out in pistols, I suspect that the Honey Badger load for a backup or snubbie may just be the perfect load of the future.

How to pick?

The FBI load is full weight, +P and all-lead. But for expansion like this, you are good. Just don’t expect barrier-blind performance, because lead can’t do that. Bottom: Above: Even back in the old days, we knew how good the FBI load was. Image courtesy the late Dr. Martin Fackler.
The FBI load is full weight, +P and all-lead. But for expansion like this, you are good. Just don’t expect barrier-blind performance, because lead can’t do that. Bottom: Above: Even back in the old days, we knew how good the FBI load was. Image courtesy the late Dr. Martin Fackler.

What is your carry need? How compact/concealed must you be? Is this a main gun or a backup? How resistant to recoil are you? Be honest with yourself on this one, because no one else is going to take the recoil hit for you.

Then, pack the largest .38 revolver you can comfortably carry and conceal, and use the stoutest load in it that you can comfortably shoot. I know, it sounds like the most basic common-sense advice you’ve ever heard. It surprised even me.

Ammo performance chart:

.38 Special & .38 Special +P
Brand, bulletvelocitypenetration*expansion
Black Hills Honey Badger 100 gr98214.6”.355”
Black Hills Sierra +P 110 gr9459.75”.583”
Black Hills Sierra 125 gr +P87313.6”.529”
Remington golden Saber 125 +P767
Black Hills 148 gr WC68915.5”.428”
Federal HST 130 gr83414”.486”
Hornady FTX Lite 90 gr11298.5”.467”
Hornady FTX 110 gr83313”.440”
Hornady FTX+P 110 gr103112”.501”
Hornady 125 gr XTP +P80716”.437”
Polycase ARX 77 gr105914.5”.358”
Speer GDHP 135 gr84013’.565”
Super Vel 90 gr127811.5”.574”
Winchester Defend 130 gr +P93911.5”.617”
Winchester FBI 158 gr L-SWC+P79913”.521”
Hornady XTP 158 gr75815”.472”
Corbon FMJ 147 gr77327”.357”
CCI Blaser LRN 158 gr81525”.358”
Black Hills CNL 158 gr725
Winchester FMJ RN 130 gr76528”.358”
Remington HBWC 148 gr65530”.358”
Oregon Trails 148 DEWC 2.7 gr Bullseye65736”.358”

*Bare gelatin for expansion and penetration, unless otherwise indicated.

Editor’s Notes: This article is an excerpt from Choosing Handgun Ammo: The Facts That Matter Most for Self-Defense by Patrick Sweeney.


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1 COMMENT

  1. In the summer, I used to carry a S&W “Chief’s Special. M36. I now have a M637 Airweight. A long time ago, a cop friend told me to carry it with Speer Gold Dot HP 135 gr ammo. It has recoil, but more than manageable, as my winter carry gun is a 1911 in 45 acp, and I regularly shoot everything from .357 to 41 Mag, 44 Mag, & 45 Colt. From the looks of your chart, my cop friend was in the ballpark.