The "Humble" .38 Special
Though still popular with many that carry for self-defense, this round is usually relegated to back up guns and seldom seen at firing ranges in revolvers having longer barrels. It has not always been so. When I started police work in the early '70's, revolvers were in the vast majority at police firing ranges in barrel lengths ranging from 4 to 6". Today, if you see a fellow shooting .38's in a 4" gun, the gun is very likely to be chambered for .357 magnum.
With the great move to the semiautomatic in the 1980's and primarily 9mm at that time, fewer and fewer revolvers, regardless of caliber, have been seen in duty holsters. In the vast majority of the police community, the revolver is a "has been". Likewise, in the world of the private citizen who's seriously into self-defense handgun issues, we seldom see the .38 Special "seriously" considered as a primary weapon. Today, it's eclipsed by 9mm, .40 S&W, .357 SIG, and of course, .45 ACP amongst "serious" people.
Were it not for the snubs, I think the .38 Special might very well disappear, and I think that's sad. As mentioned earlier, when seen at ranges now days in service size revolvers, it's almost certainly being fired from a .357 magnum.
This is the .38 "service revolver" used for this report. It's stock except for the grips. These days, there don't seem to be nearly so many 4" thirty-eight's seen on firing ranges.
I took a 4" S&W Model 10-10 to the range to see just what it could do and pass along my observations. The "10" at the end of the model designations speaks to the long life and changes to this timeless K-frame "Military & Police" revolver that has served in police holsters probably longer than any other revolver, at least in one version or another. This revolver has the familiar "heavy barrel" and has a round butt rather than the more common square one. It's nothing special (no pun intended), but the crane to frame fit is hairline, tight, and just about perfect. Timing is fine with a smooth double-action and hair-trigger single-action. The fixed sights were well regulated, but such is normally the case when speaking of a firearm that has been around and used for so many decades. In short, the bugs have been worked out decades ago. Just a 6-shot S&W double-action revolver, I felt it was fairly representative of the "old breed" of police service revolvers and would give true velocities w/o concern for discrepancies from being fired in the slightly longer chambers of a gun meant to fire .357 magnums.
Firing for groups was done at 7, 15, and 25 yards. I did not focus primarily on groups as anyone familiar with handguns already understands that the .38 Special is capable of exceptional accuracy when fired in quality revolvers and with specific loads favored by individual revolvers. I have not looked for nor test rounds for accuracy in this particular thirty-eight as most shoot tighter than what I can to begin with. Because of the 4" gun's not-so-great popularity, a high quality .38 Special 4" can be had at very reasonable prices and provide accuracy not commensurate with the price. I strongly suspect that it would take a very high-dollar fitted 1911 to match the mechanical accuracy of this $325 revolver. Most handguns today are capable of grouping tighter than most of their shooters, but if looking just at inherent accuracy of the gun and the round, I'll bet this revolver would surprise more than a few.
The Model 10 used today was stock and has had no internal work. The round butt service stocks were replaced with Eagle Secret Service checkered rosewood grips. Esthetically, I think the original grips look better, but I simply cannot hold them as well when firing double-action and didn't have a Tyler grip adapter to use in conjunction with them so I went with the Eagle grips.
There were some surprises today with some of the ammunition and these will be discussed later. Average velocities listed were based on 10-shot strings about 10' from the chronograph screens. It is not intended to be a "round up" of all available .38 Special ammunition, but I managed to find rounds suitable for the range like FMJ and wadcutters to one standard pressure hollow point, +P hollow points, and a couple of +P+ loads.
Ammunition: Average Velocity (ft/sec): ES (ft/sec): SD(ft/sec):
Federal American Eagle
130-grain FMJ: 835 38 14
130-grain FMJFP: 774 56 18
Sellier & Bellot 148-grain
Wadcutter 607 59 19
Federal 125-grain Nyclad HP: 938 43 13
Guardian Gold JHP +P: 960 55 16
Remington 158-gr. LSWCHP +P: 888 33 11
Corbon 115-gr. JHP +P+: 1412 118 31
Federal 147-gr. Hydrashok +P+: 917 47 16
It should be noted that neither the Corbon +P+ 115-grain load nor the Federal Nyclad 125-gr. hollow point are currently available, but the stuff can still be found as can the Nyclad. (I personally don't use the Corbon in my J-frames for fear that it's just a bit too much for very much shooting at all. While I have chronographed it and shot it for expansion tests, I'm hesitant to shoot much of it.)
The high velocity of the Corbon load matches what I get with their +P 115-gr. 9mm from a Browning Hi Power. The difference is that the .38 load is a +P+ all out load while the 9mm version is rated +P. I do not recall ever shooting Corbon ammunition in a service size handgun and getting less than what was advertised. Corbon rates the discontinued 115-gr. +P+ at 1250 ft/sec. I got quite a bit more than that, but got 1188 ft/sec when fired from a J-frame snub; the stuff is hot! The high extreme spread in the Corbon load was due to one shot in the ten-shot string. The rest were within 35 to 40 ft/sec of each other. With this load, the 4" .38 can duplicate 9mm +P velocity in that bullet weight.
Let's compare some 9mm velocities, also based on 10-shot strings of fire, with some .38 Special loads in roughly the same range of bullet weights. For the .38, we'll use the 4" revolver mentioned above. The 9mm velocities will be from a Browning Hi Power unless otherwise noted. It has a 4 21/32" barrel, but remember that you have to subtract off the case length as the chamber's included in most measurements referring to barrel length. With this in mind, the Hi Power's barrel length that actually contributes to speed is a bit less than 4". Nonetheless, we're comparing a service size 9mm with a service size .38 Special.
9mm Velocities (ft/sec): .38 Special Velocities (ft/sec):
Corbon 115-gr. JHP +P: 1411 Corbon 115-gr. JHP +P+: 1412
Corbon 125-gr. JHP +P: 1312 Magtech 125-gr. JHP +P: 960
Speer 124-gr. Gold Dot: 1109
Speer 124-gr. Gold Dot
Golden Saber +P: 1161 Federal 147-gr.
Hydrashok +P+: 917
Golden Saber: 1033
You get the idea. In most cases, the .38 Special is not equivalent to the majority of 9mm loads in similar bullet weights, whether standard or +P pressure. The Corbon 115-gr. load is an exception. That does NOT mean that the .38 is "bad" or "not as good" as 9mm. When the human being enters the equation, there are other factors to consider besides highest velocity. However, if you personally, prefer the highest possible velocities in your .38, you might give Corbon's ammunition a try.
Accuracy: As was mentioned earlier, I didn't shoot group after group today for a couple of reasons. One was that I was hungry, but the main one is that it's been well established by decades of Camp Perry match shooting that the .38 Special is capable of very fine accuracy, more than most of us are capable of. Today's groups were fired off-hand and double-action at 7 and 15 yards. The 25-yard groups were fired seated with my wrists supported and fired single-action.
These groups were fired double-action and off-hand at 15 yards. The individual cartridges are laying on top of their respective groups. "C" = Corbon; "M" = Magtech, and "R" = Remington. The sight picture was with a dead-on hold and the white spot was the aiming point. The lighter and much faster Corbon 115-gr. JHP +P hit a couple of inches lower than the Remington 158-gr. LSWCHP +P and about an inch or so lower than the more sedate Magtech 125-gr. Guardian Gold JHP +P. Six round of each load were fired.
At 25-yds, these groups were fired from a seated position with my wrists braced. The point of aim was the "X". The slow 148-grain wadcutter hit a bit higher than either the Winchester (center) or the Federal 130-gr. FMJ at the bottom.
Two 6-shot groups were fired at 7 yards. The ammunition used was the Corbon 115-gr. +P+ as it had more felt recoil and was "sharper" than any other load used in this report. I did this to represent a "worst case" scenario with regard to felt recoil vs. control. As soon as I could get a "flash sight picture," I fired double-action as would be the case in a defensive scenario. Frankly, I couldn't tell any difference if any in firing this .38 max-effort load and 110-gr. .357 magnums in a K-frame 4".
Observations: The .38 Special is not my first choice for a full size defensive handgun, but neither is it my last. I'd gladly take the gun used today over any automatic that wasn't reliable and I'd use it instead of a more potent handgun that I couldn't control. While some opine that the .38 doesn't make "sense" in other than a lightweight J-frame, I beg to respectfully disagree. With decent ammunition, the weapon is quite easy to shoot and easy on the hand for less practiced shooters as well as folks who may have physical handicaps that affect their upper body strength. Some folks just do not trust automatics. While some are in fact practiced shooters, more than a few probably are not. I submit that these people might very well be better served with a .38 that they can hit more accurately with than a .357 magnum or larger that they cannot. My opinion is still that placement is the primary determinant in "stopping power." I found the recoil "sharp" with the Corbon +P+ 115-grain load. Folks less into shooting might very well be "afraid" of the "kick" with it and that does not lend itself to either safe, effective shooting, or "stopping power." If their hits are not where they need to be, the extra potency in that load will probably not make up the difference.
From the 4" .38 revolver, these expanded bullets are left to right: Remington 158-gr. LSWCHP +P, Federal 125-gr. Nyclad hollow point, Corbon 115-gr. JHP +P+, and Magtech 125-gr. JHP +P. I was surprised that the Nyclad didn't expand more; it usually does. I was also surprised that the Remington expanded as much as it did. Usually expansion from that round is not quite so violent.
It's my view that the .38 4" (and longer) revolvers could be being put to better use than many are these days. Usually available at pretty good prices used, S&W police trade-in's can be had and faithfully serve shooters for decades in practicing basic marksmanship, particularly if those shooters reload. Not as cheap as 9mm or 9x18 Makarov ammunition, .38 ammo can still be had at reasonable rates, especially the "remanufactured" stuff. This cartridge is quite capable for pest control, small game hunting, or for finishing off larger game in the hunting field. With its better loads, it is an adequate self-defense round I believe.
Major strong points in my view of this gun/cartridge combination center on its simplicity and lack of recoil. No, it's not going to hit like a hot 9mm, .357, or .45, but neither is it borderline. It's adequate and an "adequate" handgun that the owner can actually make work under extreme stress and that delivers at least a respectable blow might be something to be valued.
I think they're fun to shoot and use them to economically keep my hand in on double-action shooting.
Nothing fancy here, but this make and model revolver has been used for decades by US police forces. Like other 36 caliber handguns, it's dependent upon effective loads and proper shot placement for maximum stopping power. This is not so difficult with the mild mannered .38 Special in a K-frame. The simple design is a big plus for some newer shooters or even older ones not trusting the semiautomatic.
My Model 10 will be used at the range and maybe in the hunting field. I doubt that it will see serious service as a self-defense weapon. That said, I'd not be concerned with "having" to use it. Unless facing several armed opponents, the gun's 6-shot capacity should be adequate considering how easy it is to shoot accurately.
Were I going to use this revolver for defensive purposes as a private citizen, I'd likely load it with Remington 158-gr. LSWCHP +P. Serious researchers advise that it expands well in 3" and longer barrels when fired through 4 layers of denim into gelatin "Anecdotal" conversations I've had with folks using it "for real" from snubs have been encouraging. When fired from an airweight J-frame, this load has some kick to it, but when fired from an all-steel K-frame, it's very easy to control.
Unless there were no other way for a person to handle recoil, I will stray from what's being spread as a recommendation for .38 defense ammunition, particularly in snubs. I do not recommend the factory loaded target wadcutter. Even from a 4" this load is barely breaking 600 ft/sec. Fired from a snub it chronongraphed a blazing 541 ft/sec. Folks, this isn't enough velocity, flat-nosed or not.
The American Heritage Dictionary gives one definition of humble as being "Of low rank or station; unpretentious." The .38 Special in not near the top of anyone's cartridges to be praised anymore. Not nearly so popular as it once was, it's not in the limelight like the latest high performance loads for hotter calibers, but like many humble, unpretentious people we may have known, it just continues to serve and serve well for those willing to master it. Compared to the magnums and some hotter cartridges, this round is very easy to become competent with.
Sure, many can handle more powerful loads; can your wife? Are any of them as easy to handle one-handed as is this caliber/gun combination?
The "little .38" might just be worth another look.