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The .38 Special is a Cartridge of Extreme Opinions

May 17, 2008
By Kenneth Cobb
The .38 Special has to be the nation’s favorite handgun cartridge. This statement is based on the millions of revolvers, plus a few autoloading pistols and short-barreled carbines chambered for this cartridge for more than 100 years.

This cartridge was introduced in 1902 by Smith and Wesson as an improvement to the .38 Long Colt. The first firearm chambered for this cartridge was the Smith and Wesson Model Military and Police Revolver. The first ammunition loadings were with black powder. Because of this heritage, the .38 Special is one of the most common low-pressure cartridges in use today.

Despite its name, the caliber of this round is actually .357 inches. This came about because the original cartridge was designed in the Navy Revolvers with a diameter of about .375 inch. This was the same diameter as the cartridge case.

Since its introduction, the .38 Special has gained respect for its exceptional accuracy. Many competitive target pistol shooters consider the .38 Special to be one of the best. Police instructors throughout the nation like the .38 Special because of its accuracy and light recoil, which makes it easy to train recruits. Today, factory ammunition comes in a wide range of bullet weights and velocities. The factory loaded 148-grain wadcutter hollow based bullet is considered to be the most accurate factory loadings in this caliber. While this particular bullet is not suitable for high velocity loads, it appears to be the favorite of most competitive target shooters.

You would think that a handgun cartridge that had all these good qualities going for it would be considered by firearm enthusiasts as the perfect pistol round. Yet today, for as many shooters who like it, there are just about as many who detest it. For several years, big game hunters and gun writer Elmer Keith constantly made this statement, “As a police cartridge, the .38 Special stinks.”

There was a lot of gun violence going on in the nation in the 1960s. Many law enforcement officers found out the hard way that standard loads in the .38 Special were not good stoppers. Many police officers were quick to say that the 158-grain lead-round nosed bullet loading was simply a pipsqueak load and the 200-grain blunt nosed lead super police bullet was also vastly overrated. The chief complaint was too much penetration, too little shocking and stopping power. This caused many law enforcement agencies to start carrying heavier .357 Magnum revolvers.

I have fired and handloaded hundreds of .38 Special rounds over the years. From my own experience, I will say that small 2-inch barreled revolvers are good for movies and television shows, but little else. In addition to their velocity loss, because of the short barrel, they are extremely inaccurate. Powder is still burning in the barrels of revolvers to a considerable degree. Longer revolver barrels have the advantage of higher velocities and ease of shooting. Ned Buntline and Wyatt Earp were not so stupid, after all.

For small game hunting, the .38 Special is good at close ranges using high velocity loads. Factory-loaded +P ammunition should only be fired in heavy-framed revolvers. These high-pressure loads can damage light-framed or short-barreled revolvers. I don’t recommend hunting deer-sized animals with any firearm chambered for the .38 Special. In this state, it is unlawful to take a deer, bear or wild boar with a handgun chambered for a cartridge this small.

For reloaders, the .38 Special is a very easy cartridge to handload. This straight-walled case and rimmed design make it a breeze to reload, even on high-volume loading machines. The wide range of suitable powders and bullets available should satisfy the most meticulous of any reloader.

The handloads list below are for heavy-framed revolvers with at least a 6-inch barrel like the Colt Officers Match, The Smith and Wesson Model 23 38/44 Outdoorsman, and any revolver chambered for the .357 Magnum having a 4-inch barrel.

n n n

1. Case — Any Make

Primer — CCI-500 (Small Pistol)

Bullet — Sierra 125-grain Jacketed Soft-Point

Powder & Weight — Alliant Unique/6.5 Grains

2. Case — Any Make

Primer — CCI-500 (Small Pistol)

Bullet — Speer 140-grain Jacketed Hollow-Point

Powder & Weight — Alliant Blue Dot/6.5 Grains

3. Case — Any Make

Primer — CCI-500 (Small Pistol Magnum)

Bullet — Speer 158-grain Jacketed Soft Point

Powder & Weight — Hodgdon 110/10.0 Grains

n Hodgdon 110 is a slow-burning pistol powder. A hot magnum primer should be used for best results.

Note: All loads listed above are good for home defense.



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