Is There a Difference Between a .38 and a .38 Special?


The .38 is a caliber that has been around for more than 100 years. It’s a popular category that has seen many cartridges come and go over the years. I often hear a common question and there seems to be some confusion around the .38 and .38 Special. But are there any differences?

There’s no difference between a .38 and a 38 special. The former refers to a caliber with a .357 inch bullet diameter, while the latter is a cartridge variant under the .38 caliber. Other cartridge variants under the .38 caliber include the .38 Long Colt, 38 Short Colt, .38 S&W, and more.

Most of the .38 cartridge variants under the .38 caliber are no longer in use today. So, when most people mention a .38, they are typically referring to a .38 special cartridge. I’ll look a bit more closely into both of them and help you clear up the confusion.

The Distinction Between a .38 and a .38 Special

So, let’s discuss the differences between the .38 and .38 special. 

What Is a .38?

.38 is a caliber. Think of it as a category for cartridges that can fire .357-.361 inches bullets. There are quite a few cartridges in this category. Some popular ones include .38 S&W, 38 Super, .357 Magnum, .38 Long Colt, .38 Short Colt, and the .38 SpecialSpecial.

In the past, anyone asking for a .38 cartridge had to be a bit more specific on the cartridge they were looking for (typically using the gun type). However, with the advancements seen since the first .38 Smith and Wesson hit the shelves in 1877, anyone referring to a .38 today is most likely talking about the .38 Special.

What Is a .38 Special?

The .38 Special is a rimmed centerfire cartridge launched by Smith & Wesson. It is one of the most common types of ammunition for revolver owners, but you can also find it in semiautomatic pistols and carbines. This round was common within the US police department between 1920 and the 1990s.

It was also the round of choice for sidearm handguns used by the US military in major wars, including the First and Second World Wars, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War.

The .38 special was an improvement on the existing .38 Long Colt at the time. The improvement was necessary because the US military personnel engaged in the Philippine-American War quickly saw how the Long Colt was ineffective against the Morro Warriors.

Referring to this round as a .38 is a bit of a misnomer as its bullet diameter is .357 inches (.90678 cm), which technically makes it closer to a .36. So, the .38 refers to the diameter of the whole case.

Cool Fact: While the .38 special did its job for a while, gun battles between the police and gangsters in the 1930s led to the development of the .357 Magnum. It was designed to pierce body armor and deliver more stopping power.

The main distinguishing factors for the .38 special are the case length and the pressures.

Standard .38 special designs contained black powder. Thus, they had lower pressures and slower muzzle velocities. The design has since been changed to a smokeless propellant, but that hasn’t changed the mechanics significantly. A bullet from this cartridge won’t expand, as is the case with others that are smokeless. Still, it’s very effective. You can also attribute the cartridge’s popularity to the manageable recoil and impressive accuracy.

Many variants of the .38 special exist today as manufacturers target the needs of different gun users. For example, the so-called FBI Load delivers more stopping power and expansion due to the hollow-point packaged at higher pressure and velocities.

Pro Tip: Handloaders also love the .38 special because it has a larger case, and it’s easy to handload it with different powders, including the smokeless ones. Some handloaders have been able to transform .38 special rounds to generate as much power as rounds from higher calibers like the .45 ACP.

Can .38 SW Shoot .38 Special?

A .38 S&W can technically shoot a .38 special, but many factors have to come together for that to happen. First, the .38 S&W features a fatter case and a slightly larger bullet compared to the .38 special. So, the only way for this arrangement to work is to have a sloppy chamber on the S&W or undersized .38 Special cases.

Can You Shoot .38 Short in a .38 Special?

You can shoot .38 short in guns made for .38 special. Generally, firearms chambered for the .38 Short Colt, 38 Long Colt, and the .357 Magnum can all fire the .38 special. It’s why the cartridge is regarded as one of the most versatile cartridges for revolvers.

What Makes a .38 Special Special?

The .38 Special’sSpecial’s reputation comes from its rich history as an integral part of the US law enforcement story. The round was very dominant in law enforcement for more than 70 years until semiautomatic pistols started to appear in the mainstream.

The relatively mild recoil, accuracy, and variety of loadings are features that have continued to make the .38 special very popular to date.

Is the .38 Special More Powerful Than the 9mm?

  • The .38 special and 9mm are cartridges that have a few things in common:
  • They were primarily made for use in handguns.
  • They are some of the oldest cartridge designs still in use today.
  • The bullet diameters are virtually the same.
  • The punch holes are the same size.
  • They are both highly rated around the world, even though the designs are older.

However, both cartridges are very different when you’re considering ballistic performance. Many gun enthusiasts only evaluate both of them in this area, ignoring any other pros and cons, and it’s not hard to see why when you put both of them to the test.

Many ballistics tests have conclusively placed the 9mm as the superior cartridge. Most fans of semi-auto plastic handguns comparing both cartridges often end up with the 9mm for this reason. 

The 9mm is a lot more powerful, and the fact that semi-auto handguns can hold more rounds in the mag than revolvers also makes it a much better deal to go with compared to the .38 special.

The standard .38 special can produce around 264 foot-pounds of force. In a 4-inch (10.16 cm) barrel, that’s a 147-grain bullet at 900 feet (274.32 m) per second. 

On the other hand, you can get a massive 365 foot-pound of force from the standard 9mm. That’s a 124-grain bullet at 1,150 feet (350.52 m) per second in most standard 9mm barrels. So, on paper, you’re getting almost 40% more power when you choose the 9mm over the .38 special.

However, as most gun enthusiasts know, paper specs don’t make supposedly weaker cartridges any less useful. With the rise of modern fluted bullet designs and newer powder charge load data, the .38 special rimmed cartridge can measure up well against the rimless 9mm when it comes to terminal results. It can still deliver enough penetration and good wounding capability leading to fast incapacitation.

Can You Use a .38 Special Bullets in a 357 Magnum?

You can use .38 special bullets in a 357 Magnum gun. This is because the diameter of .38 special and .357 bullets are the same, and the pressure in a .38 special round isn’t as powerful as what you’d get in a .357 magnum round. So, you can safely fire .38 special bullets in a .357 magnum gun.

However, as you’ve probably guessed, the characteristics of both rounds mean you can’t go the other way. Firing a .357 magnum from a gun made for .38 special rounds can ruin the gun. In worst-case scenarios, it can lead to significant injuries for the shooter.

Regular magnum guns were made because the US law enforcement needed a gun that can handle the more powerful magnum bullet, which .38 special revolvers couldn’t handle. In addition, the .357 Magnum was designed to counter the rise in body armor as law enforcement battled gangs in the 1930s.

The power required to pierce through body armor is why .357 Magnum rounds have more pressure and can’t be fired from .38 special revolvers.

Can You Use a .38 Special for Self-Defense?

The .38 Special is a popular option for recreational target shooting, but many people use it for hunting and self-defense. It doesn’t have the same speed and raw power as other options like the .357 Magnum, but it does an excellent job at defense against most threats—especially when paired with the right ammo.

What Bullets Can You Shoot in a .38 Special?

When choosing ammo for the .38 special, you should pay attention to two important factors: penetration and expansion.

Penetration

If you ask a few gun experts what to watch for when weighing any ammo’s penetration, you’ll get varying answers as different people have different opinions about what works and what doesn’t.

However, to cut through the waffle, it’s best to stick to the opinions of law enforcement agents—the FBI especially.

One of their requirements for choosing ammo is that the bullet should deliver 12-18 inches (30.48-45.72 cm) of penetration during gel testing. The reasoning behind this is simple. A bullet can’t stop a threat if it doesn’t penetrate deeply enough to strike vital organs and deliver damage. You need at least 12 inches (30.48 cm) of penetration for that to happen.

However, the 18-inches (45.72-cm) cap on penetration is also important because a bullet that can penetrate too much will create a safety hazard for people around the target. This is why you see accidents where bullets inadvertently hit a target behind after passing clean through the original target. In gun ranges, over-penetration can make bullets travel through walls and other similar barriers.

So, going with .38 Special ammo that meets the minimum 12-inches (30.48-cm) penetration requirement should be high on your list for self-defense.

Expansion 

Also known as shot diameter, expansion is another important metric you should look at when choosing ammo for your .38 Special. It is the measure of a bullet’s diameter after it has hit the intended target.

A self-defense round should be able to deliver a wide wound as well as a deep wound. A wider wound diameter increases the chances of the bullet delivering the right level of damage required to neutralize a threat.

Quite a few factors come together to determine a bullet’s diameter. These include the design and velocity. Generally, bullets traveling faster tend to expand more. 

How much expansion is ideal? Of course, there’s no consensus here, but most shooting enthusiasts agree that self-defense rounds should expand by at least one and half times the original diameter.

Since .38 special bullets have a bullet diameter of .357 inches (.90678 cm), this means your choice of ammo should expand by at least .5355 inches.

So Which Ammo Should You Choose?

Looking at all I’ve discussed above, quite a few ammo types meet the requirements, but there are a few that stand out.

The Federal Personal Defense Micro

The cartridge comes with 130-grain JHP bullets with an average expansion diameter of around .72 inches (1.8288 cm). This makes it the cartridge to with if you want maximum damage on impact. The penetration is around 12.66 inches (32.1564 cm) which isn’t too deep but within the recommended range of 12-18 inches (30.48-45.72 cm).

Speer LE Gold Dot

These come with 135-grain rounds, delivering an average penetration of 13.74 with an average shot diameter of .57 inches (1.4478cm). At 886 fps, it’s one of the fastest cartridges you can get for your .38 special.

These are just a few .38 self-defense rounds you can consider for self-defense purposes. There are a plethora of options in the market. 

Still, as long as you stick to selections that deliver 12-18 inches (30.48-45.72 cm) of penetration and a minimum of .50 inches (1.27 cm) in shot diameter, you can take your .38 special revolver with you anywhere, safe in the knowledge that you deal with almost any threat.

Will a .38 Special Stop a Bear?

In the section above, I mentioned how the right .38 special ammo can deal with almost any threat. But unfortunately, facing a bear is one of those scenarios where you’re bound to have double minds whether you’re well equipped to face the threat or feel severely under gunned.

Most people who have faced bears with guns often recommend either having a loud gun that can scare away the bear even without hitting it or one that can make it easier for you to hit the bear from a safe distance. Still, we’ve seen stories of people who managed to put down bears with handguns.

However, making the kill with the average .38 special is unlikely if you’re facing a full-sized bear unless you aim for the head/eyes—a shot that’s hard to pull off under intense pressure.

What Handgun Cartridges Can Stop a Bear?

The focus on powerful handgun cartridges that can stop a bear is understandable because nobody wants to carry around a long rifle or shotgun every time they are out on a stroll.

Those guns are nice to have at home for when a bear wanders into the backyard. They’ll take down the bear in seconds. But, outdoors, they are impractical to carry around unless you’re constantly moving in your vehicle. This is where powerful cartridges (and handguns that can shoot them come into play).

Which ones are the best?

The .454 Casull

First developed in 1958, the .454 Casull is one of the best cartridges to go with if you want to have a real shot at taking down big game like bears with a handgun. The handguns made for these cartridges are some of the most popular around to date.

The guns can shoot 300-grain Buffalo Bore bullets at around 1650 fps and deliver 1,813 ft.-lbs. of force overall.

Greg Brush is an example of someone who has killed a bear with these while using a Ruger chambered for it. Shooting the .454 Casull isn’t fun, though, as the recoil can immobilize your wrists after around 20 shots in a row. So it’s best to practice with rounds like .45 colt and then save the .454 Casull for occasional tests and real-life scenarios.

.44 Remington Magnum

This is another option that should be high on your list if you’re looking for powerful bear defense rounds in a handgun. These rounds were first developed for revolvers in the 1950s, but they only became very popular thanks to movies like Dirty Harry. It delivers around 1,600 ft.-lbs. of energy, which is powerful enough to stop a bear. It’s four times more powerful than standard 9mm rounds.

Final Thoughts

There’s no difference between .38 and .38 special if you hear it in conversations around you. However, for clarity purposes, the .38 refers to a caliber to which the .38 special cartridge belongs—alongside other rounds. There are also other cartridges for guns chambered for the .38 special.

The success of this caliber and the various cartridges in the group is why they have dominated handgun conversations around the country for decades. If you’re considering a .38 shooter for personal use, be sure to choose cartridges that are ideal for your specific needs.

For more, don’t miss When Is the Best Time to Buy Ammo? | What You Need to Know.

Main photo courtesy of guns.com.

Jim James

Hey, I'm Jim and the author of this website. I have always been interested in survival, fishing, camping, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!

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