38 Special vs 9mm. Which Ammunition Is Better?
The question of 38 vs 9mm is really “is 38 Special so good that I should have a revolver instead of a semi-auto in 9mm.” Is it?
Basically no. But it’s also true that it doesn’t mean that a person armed with a .38 Special, who knows what they’re doing, is necessarily at a serious disadvantage
Of the medium bore calibers, these are the two most common chamberings. There are fans of both, and both have been used (and used a lot) for every possible purpose you can use a handgun for.
Both have been in use in police and military service pistols since the dawn of the 20th century. Both have been used and are useful for defensive purposes, both have been used and are useful for competition as well.
So which is “better”? It kind of depends on how you mean that…
38 Special. The Old Standard.
.38 Special, or more accurately .38 Smith & Wesson Special, was one of the first pistol cartridges to be made with smokeless powder, as it came at the end of the black powder era.
The .38 caliber cartridges, including .38 Special, were the continuation of .36 caliber percussion pistols into the cartridge era. .36 caliber guns were some of the most popular for personal protection and police use, so cartridges like .38 Long Colt, .38 Smith & Wesson and .38 Smith & Wesson Special were essentially continuations on the theme.
.38 Special was the hot load of its day, using a touch more smokeless powder than .38 Long Colt. The original load was a 158-grain roundnose lead bullet at somewhere between 800 and 900 feet per second (depending) and 310 ft-lbs of energy out of a 6-inch barrel.
While easy to shoot, the original police load was long considered little better than adequate, which is why .357 Magnum revolvers were the default police sidearm from the 50s onward.
Service loads would be refined in the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the classic FBI/Metro/Chicago load, a 158-grain lead semiwadcutter hollow point loaded to 20,000 psi with a +P designation which first saw use in the early 1970s.
However, the 158-grain load was known for being less reliable in snubnose revolvers, leading to the development of the “New York load” by Speer in the 1990s. The New York load is a 135-grain JHP with a +P loading at 860 fps from a 2-inch barrel.
Is 38 Special A Good Self Defense Round?
The gist of .38 Special is that it’s a medium bullet at medium velocity. It can be effective for personal defense but ammunition selection (and placement!) is important, especially if your gun has a shorter barrel length.
The upside to .38 Special is that it’s cheaper than .357 Magnum (though not by much) and is a very mild cartridge to shoot from a service pistol. Snubbies get a bit snappy, which is partially why a lot of people believe the round-butt medium frame is the better pick for a fighting pistol.
9mm Is The Default Pistol Cartridge For A Reason
9mm, also called 9mm Luger, 9x19mm or by it’s formal title 9mm Parabellum, is the default pistol cartridge of today and for a bevy of good reasons.
The cartridge was developed by Georg Luger in 1901, as a new chambering for his pistol (the Luger, duh) which was originally developed with a hot .32 caliber cartridge (.30 Luger/7.65mm Luger, itself a derivative of 7.65mm Borchardt) but the German government (at the time the German Empire) wanted a bigger bullet.
So he rejiggered the case for a 9mm (.355-in) bullet, and the original load was a 115-grain full metal jacket projectile, loaded to roughly 1150 fps velocity, 350(ish) ft-lbs of energy and 34,000 to 35,000 psi of chamber pressure.
The cartridge was found to be reliably effective on hostile personnel out to 50 meters and even beyond with good marksmanship, with a relatively flat trajectory (meaning it doesn’t drop until much further downrange) and moderate recoil.
The cartridge was quickly adopted by the German empire and by a succession of governments later on. Almost all of the Western countries had adopted it by the mid-20th century, and all NATO countries had adopted it by the 1980s.
NATO’s loading is slightly hotter, with the typical NATO load being a 124-grain FMJ projectile at the same velocity (1150ish) as the original 115-grain load.
In police service, 9mm found limited adoption until the 1970s mostly due to poor terminal performance with 9mm FMJ ammunition. The first generations of jacketed hollow points made some moderate improvements but still fell short compared to .45 ACP JHP and .357 Magnum/.38 Special police loads.
However, the carrying capacity advantage made too good a case for itself for anyone to ignore. While .40 S&W did get adopted by a large number of agencies and departments, the advent of modern bonded hollow points completely overcame performance deficiencies of cup-and-core bullets.
As a result, the world’s police and military forces have standardized on 9mm and the rest of the shooting world has followed suit…and for good reason. The 9mm Luger cartridge is easy to shoot, allows for more cartridges to be carried in a magazine, and with modern quality ammunition (and good placement) is more than effective enough for personal defense.
So are there any serious reasons to think of getting a revolver that doesn’t chamber 9mm?
But First, About .38 Special Revolvers And Barrel Length…
However, it’s worth thinking about that a short-barrel .38 Special and a .38 Special service revolver are different animals. .38 Special is a low-velocity cartridge to begin with; chopping half the barrel off makes it even less so.
That’s why load selection is critical. If you’re going to be about that snub life (and there is something to it!) you need to carefully research what loads are actually worth carrying and sure it shoots to your sights.
The loss in velocity going from a 4-inch barrel to a 2-inch barrel with the same load is anywhere from 50 fps to 200 fps. Expanding ammunition has an expansion threshold; below a minimum of velocity, the bullet doesn’t deform or expand (or do so as reliably) as it does from a longer barrel. Therefore, the more barrel the better.
Most people who buy .38 Special revolvers these days tend to be buying snubbies; when people buy medium-frame guns with a 4- to 6-inch barrel, they’re usually buying .357 Magnums.
Have a look at the Lucky Gunner Labs test of .38 Special defensive loads. What you’ll see is that a lot of .38 Special loads meet the test protocol (12 inches to 18 inches penetration in gel through several layers of clothing) but are often marginal, just meeting the minimum. 9mm ammo tests reveal modern defensive loads do far better than just meeting the minimum.
That also isn’t new; the 1989 FBI ammo tests that resulted in the agency adopting 10mm Auto as their new service cartridge also found .38 Special (and 9mm) to be less than totally adequate through a 3-inch barrel with the duty loads of the day.
It’s also worth noting that if you look up the top instructors who specialize in snub courses (Greg Ellifritz, Darryl Bolke, Chuck Haggard, Claude Werner) tend to prefer snubbies in .22 Magnum or .327 Federal instead.
.38 Special Handloads vs 9mm Handloads: Perhaps The One Advantage
There is one area in which .38 Special has some advantage over 9mm, and it exists purely on paper. It will do very little or nothing for you in the real world except let you tinker with some stuff that goes “boom!”
That, of course, is handloading your own bullets and it is in this respect that .38 Special is “better” than 9mm. The .38 Special case, you see, is a handloader’s playground; it is forgiving and has vastly more potential than the 9mm case.
The .38 Special case is loaded with little propellant relative to case volume; the case holds 23 grains of water but is only loaded to 17,500 psi of chamber pressure, compared to 26 grains of water and 35,000 psi for .357 Magnum. In other words, it’s loaded light.
9x19mm, however, holds less than 14 grains of water. Overpressure loadings (+P and +P+) of 9mm are rarely more than 100 fps faster than the standard pressure with the same projectile.
However, a .38 Special can be hot-loaded. Back when Elmer Keith and his friends tinkered with .38 Special in the 1920s, they got a 158-grain bullet to well over 1,100 fps, a 300 fps increase over standard-pressure 158-grain loads. It was even sold commercially as the .38/44, for use only in the Smith & Wesson .38/44 Heavy Duty and Outdoorsman revolvers.
So, if you want to hand-roll the hot stuff, and you have a revolver that’s made for it (use a medium frame gun or larger that’s chambered for .357 Magnum like a GP100) the .38 Special is perfect for it.
38 Vs 9mm
The virtues of 9mm are such that there’s no reason to opt for a .38 Special revolver, except for certain circumstances. That’s why hardly anyone makes revolvers and everyone makes semi-autos in 9mm. That’s why all police and militaries have switched to 9mm pistols.
.38 Special doesn’t have any advantages over 9mm in any aspect, except maybe for handloaders.
That doesn’t mean a .38 revolver is worthless if that’s what you have. There’s something to be said for “run what you brung;” if granddad’s police revolver or a snubbie is what you have, you can learn to run it.
A lot of good work got done with Police Positives, Model 10s and J-frames, so you can be capably armed with one but it takes a lot of practice. You only have five or six shots to get the hits, so you really need to learn how to get them.
There is something to be said for covert carry in a legal but non-permissive environment. A snubbie in a pocket holster or an ankle holster or something along those lines can be easily concealed when getting discovered comes with consequences beyond getting asked to leave Starbucks.
Revolvers also, let’s face it, are obsolete and are seen that way by everyone, which can actually be a positive.
Some states, cities or counties (and their jury pools) have different regulatory and social attitudes about guns than others. Even if owning a Glock or whatever may be perfectly legal, local police and prosecuting attorneys may see that black double-stack 9mm as a willingness to shoot people. Grandpappy’s Police Positive? Not so much.
With that said…
The reality here is 9mm is overall the better cartridge. It’s cheaper to buy. Quality 9mm ammunition tends to outperform the best .38 Special loads in police and defensive use.
Anything larger than a Glock 43 has more carrying capacity. If that didn’t matter, John Browning and Dieudonne Saive wouldn’t have bothered inventing the Browning Hi Power. That’s also why every modern service pistol is chambered in 9mm and has a double-stack magazine.
A S&W Shield or P365 or what have you is also easily concealed, and the modern double-stack micros (Shield Plus, P365, Hellcat, Ruger Max 9) are smaller than a J-frame and have twice (or more) the carrying capacity.
While .38 Special (and the guns that fire it) is not bad by any stretch, it’s that the cartridge has basically no advantage over 9mm even if handloaded to near-.357 Magnum velocities which a careful handloader can do.
Revolvers have a few advantages, as mentioned, but they aren’t really enough for most people to get a wheelgun instead of a modern pistol.
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