.38 Special
.38 Special round
Type Revolver
Place of origin22x20px United States of America
Production history
DesignerSmith & Wesson
Parent case.38 Long Colt
Case typeRimmed, straight
Bullet diameter.357 in (Bad rounding hereScript error mm)
Neck diameter.379 in (Bad rounding hereScript error mm)
Base diameter.379 in (Bad rounding hereScript error mm)
Rim diameter.44 in (Bad rounding hereScript error mm)
Rim thickness.058 in (Bad rounding hereScript error mm)
Case length1.155 in (Bad rounding hereScript error mm)
Overall length1.55 in (Bad rounding hereScript error mm)
Primer typeSmall pistol
Ballistic performance
Bullet weight/type Velocity Energy
110 gr (Script error g) JHP 980 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 235 ft·lbf (Bad rounding hereScript error J)
130 gr (Script error g) FMJ 810 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 189 ft·lbf (Bad rounding hereScript error J)
148 gr (Script error g) LWC 690 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 156 ft·lbf (Bad rounding hereScript error J)
158 gr (Script error g) LRN 770 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 208 ft·lbf (Bad rounding hereScript error J)
200 gr (Script error g) LRN 679 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 204 ft·lbf (Bad rounding hereScript error J)
Test barrel length: 4 in (vented)
Source(s): [1][2][3][4][5]

The .38 Smith & Wesson Special (commonly .38 Special, .38 Spl, or .38 Spc, pronounced "thirty-eight special") is a rimmed, centerfire cartridge designed by Smith & Wesson. It is most commonly used in revolvers, although some semi-automatic pistols and carbines also use this round. The .38 Special was the standard service cartridge of most police departments in the United States from the 1920s to the early 1990s, and was also a common sidearm cartridge used by soldiers in World War I. In other parts of the world, it is known by its metric designation of 9×29.5mmR[6] or 9.1x29mmR.[7]

Noted for its fine accuracy and manageable recoil, it remains the most popular revolver cartridge in the world more than a century after its introduction.[8] It is used for target shooting, formal target competition, personal defense, and for hunting small game.


Despite its name, the caliber of the .38 Special cartridge is actually .357–.358 inches (9.0678 mm), with the ".38" referring to the approximate diameter of the loaded brass case. This came about because the original .38-caliber cartridge, the .38 Short Colt, was designed for use in converted .36-caliber cap-and-ball (muzzleloading) Navy revolvers, which had cylindrical firing chambers of approximately 0.374-inch (Bad rounding hereScript error mm) diameter, requiring heeled bullets, the exposed portion of which was the same diameter as the cartridge case (see the section on the .38 Long Colt).

Except for case length, the .38 Special is identical to that of the .38 Short Colt, .38 Long Colt, and the .357 Magnum. This allows the .38 Special round to be safely fired in revolvers chambered for the .357 Magnum, and the .38 Long Colt to be fired in revolvers chambered for .38 Special, and the .38 Short Colt to fire in revolvers chambered for .38 Long Colt, increasing the versatility of this cartridge. However, the longer and more powerful .357 Magnum cartridge will usually not chamber and fire in weapons rated specifically for .38 Special (e.g. all versions of the Smith & Wesson Model 10), which are not designed for the greatly increased pressure of the magnum rounds. Both .38 Special and .357 Magnum will chamber in Colt New Army revolvers in .38 Long Colt, due to the straight walled chambers, but should not be done under any circumstances, due to dangerous pressure levels, up to three times what the New Army is designed for.


File:First model M&P revolver designed for the .38 Special cartridge.jpg

The .38 Special was introduced in 1898 as an improvement over the .38 Long Colt which, as a military service cartridge, was found to have inadequate stopping power against the frenzied charges of Moro warriors during the Philippine-American War.[9]

Upon its introduction, the .38 Special was originally loaded with black powder, but the cartridge's popularity caused manufacturers to offer smokeless powder loadings within a year of its introduction.[10]

During the late 1920s, and in response to demands for a more effective law enforcement version of the cartridge, a new standard-velocity loading for the .38 Special was developed by Western Cartridge Company. This .38 Special variant incorporated a 200-grain (13g) round-nosed lead 'Lubaloy' bullet, the .38 Super Police.[11] Remington-Peters also introduced a similar loading. Testing revealed that the longer, heavier 200-grain .38-calibre bullet fired at low velocity tended to 'keyhole' or tumble upon impact, providing more shock effect against unprotected personnel.[12] At the same time, authorities in Great Britain, who had decided to adopt the .38 caliber revolver as a replacement for their existing .455 service cartridge, also tested the same 200-grain bullet in the smaller .38 S&W cartridge. This cartridge was called the .38 S&W Super Police or the .38/200. Britain would later adopt the .38/200 as its standard military handgun cartridge.

File:Colt Detective Special.jpg

In 1930, Smith & Wesson introduced a large frame .38 Special revolver with a 5-inch (125mm) barrel and fixed sights intended for police use, the Smith & Wesson .38/44 Heavy Duty.[13][14] The following year, a new high-power loading called the .38 Special Hi-Speed with a 158-grain metal-tip bullet was developed for these revolvers in response to requests from law enforcement agencies for a handgun bullet that could penetrate auto bodies and body armor.[15] That same year, Colt Firearms announced that their Colt Official Police would also handle 'high-speed' .38 Special loadings.[16] The .38/44 high-speed cartridge came in three bullet weights: 158, 150, and 110-grain, with either coated lead or steel jacket, metal-piercing bullets.[17] The media attention gathered by the .38/44 and its ammunition eventually led Smith & Wesson to develop a completely new cartridge with a longer case length in 1934—the .357 Magnum.


.38 Smith and Wesson Model 10 produced in 1899.

During World War II, some U.S. aircrew (primarily Navy and Marine Corps) were issued .38 Special S&W Victory revolvers as sidearms in the event of a forced landing. In May 1943, a new .38 Special cartridge with a 158-grain, full steel jacketed, copper flash-coated bullet meeting the requirements of the rules of land warfare was developed at Springfield Armory and adopted for the Smith & Wesson revolvers.[18] The new military .38 Special loading propelled its 158-grain bullet at a standard 850 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) from a 4-inch (Bad rounding hereScript error mm) revolver barrel.[18] During the war, many U.S. naval and marine aircrew were also issued red-tipped .38 Special tracer rounds using either a 120-grain or 158-grain bullet for emergency signaling purposes.[18]

In 1956, the U.S. Air Force adopted the Cartridge, Caliber .38, Ball M41, a military variant of the .38 Special cartridge designed to conform to the rules of land warfare. The original .38 M41 ball cartridge used a 130-grain full metal jacketed bullet, and was loaded to an average pressure of only 13,000 psi, giving a muzzle velocity of approximately 725 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) from a 4-inch (Bad rounding hereScript error mm) barrel.[19][20] This ammunition was intended to prolong the life of S&W M12 and Colt Aircrewman revolvers equipped with aluminum cylinders and frames, which were prone to stress fractures when fired with standard .38 ammunition. By 1961, a slightly revised M41 .38 cartridge specification known as the Cartridge, Caliber .38 Ball, Special, M41 had been adopted for U.S. armed forces using .38 Special caliber handguns.[20] The new M41 Special cartridge used a 130-grain FMJ bullet loaded to a maximum allowable pressure of 16,000 psi for a velocity of approximately 950 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) in a solid 6-inch (Bad rounding hereScript error mm) test barrel, and about 750 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) from a 4-inch (Bad rounding hereScript error mm) revolver barrel.[21][22] The M41 ball cartridge was first used in .38 revolvers carried by USAF aircrew and Strategic Air Command security police, and by 1961 was in use by the U.S. Army for security police, dog handlers, and other personnel equipped with .38 Special caliber revolvers.[22] A variant of the standard M41 cartridge with a semi-pointed, unjacketed lead bullet was later adopted for CONUS (Continental United States) police and security personnel.[20]

S&amp;WModel15-4 01

.38 Smith and Wesson Model 15-4

At the same time, .38 tracer cartridges were reintroduced by the US Navy, Marines, and Air Force to provide a means of emergency signaling by downed aircrew. Tracer cartridges in .38 Special caliber of different colors were issued, generally as part of a standard aircrew survival vest kit.

A request for more powerful .38 Special ammunition for use by Air Police and security personnel resulted in the Caliber .38 Special, Ball, PGU-12/B High Velocity cartridge.[21] Issued only by the U.S. Air Force, the PGU-12/B had a greatly increased maximum allowable pressure rating of 20,000 psi, sufficient to propel a 130-grain FMJ bullet at 1,125 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) from a solid 6-inch (Bad rounding hereScript error mm) test barrel, and about 950–980 ft/s from a 4-inch (Bad rounding hereScript error mm) revolver barrel.[21] The PGU-12/B High Velocity cartridge differs from M41 Special ammunition in two important respects—the PGU-12/B is a much higher-pressure cartridge, with a bullet deeply set and crimped into the cartridge case.

In response to continued complaints over ineffectiveness of the standard .38 Special 158-grain cartridge in stopping assailants in numerous armed confrontations during the 1950s and 1960s, ammunition manufacturers began to experiment with higher-pressure (18,500 CUP) loadings of the .38 Special cartridge, known as .38 Special +P. In 1972, the Federal Bureau of Investigation introduced a new .38 +P loading that became known as the "FBI Load".[23] The FBI Load combined a more powerful powder charge with an 158-grain unjacketed soft lead[24] semi-wadcutter hollow-point bullet designed to readily expand at typical .38 Special velocities obtained in revolvers commonly used by law enforcement.[23] The FBI Load proved very satisfactory in effectively stopping adversaries in numerous documented shootings using 2- to 4-inch barreled revolvers.[23][25] The FBI Load was later adopted by the Chicago Police Department and numerous other law enforcement agencies.[23]

File:38 Special - SP - SB - 1.jpg

Demand for a .38 cartridge with even greater performance for law enforcement led to the introduction of the +P+ .38 Special cartridge, first introduced by Federal and Winchester. Originally labeled "For Law Enforcement Only",[26] +P+ ammunition is intended for heavier-duty .38 Special and .357 Magnum revolvers, as the increased pressure levels can result in accelerated wear and significant damage to firearms rated for lower-pressure .38 Special loadings (as with other .38 Special loadings, the .38 Special +P+ can also be fired safely in .357 revolvers).[27]


File:Bullet coming from S&W.jpg

Due to its black powder heritage, the .38 Special is a low pressure cartridge, one of the lowest in common use today at 17,000 PSI. By modern standards, the .38 Special fires a medium-sized bullet at rather low speeds. The closest comparisons are the .380 ACP, which fires much lighter bullets slightly faster than most .38 Special loads; the 9×19mm Parabellum, which fires a somewhat lighter bullet significantly faster; and the .38 Colt Super, which fires a comparable bullet significantly faster. All three of these are usually found in semi-automatic pistols.

The higher-pressure .38 +P loads at 20,000 PSI offer about 20% more muzzle energy than standard-pressure loads and places between the .380 ACP and the 9 mm Parabellum; similar to that of the 9×18mm Makarov. A few specialty manufacturers' +P loads for this cartridge can attain even higher energies that, especially when fired from longer barrels, produce energies in the range of the 9mm Parabellum. It should be noted these loads are generally not recommend for older revolvers or ones not specifically "+P" rated.

It is important to recognize that SAAMI changed the specifications for the .38 Special in 1972. Prior to that time the standard .38 Special was very close to today's "+P" cartridges.[28]

.38 Comparisons
Cartridge Bullet weight Muzzle velocity Muzzle energy Max pressure
.38 Short Colt 135 gr (Bad rounding hereScript error g) 777 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 181 ft•lbf (245 J) 7,500 CUP
.38 Long Colt 150 gr (Bad rounding hereScript error g) 777 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 201 ft•lbf (273 J) 12,000 CUP
.38 S&W 158 gr (Bad rounding hereScript error g) 767 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 206 ft•lbf (279 J) 14,500 PSI
.38 S&W Special 158 gr (Bad rounding hereScript error g) 940 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 310 ft•lbf (420 J) 17,000 PSI
.38 Special +P 158 gr (Bad rounding hereScript error g) 1,000 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 351 ft•lbf (476 J) 20,000 PSI
.38 Special +P+ 110 gr (Bad rounding hereScript error g) 1,100 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 295 ft•lbf (400 J) >20,000 PSI
.380 ACP 100 gr (Bad rounding hereScript error g) 895 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 178 ft•lbf (241 J) 21,500 PSI
9x19mm Parabellum 115 gr (Bad rounding hereScript error g) 1,300 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 420 ft•lbf (570 J) 39,200 PSI
9x19mm Parabellum 124 gr (Bad rounding hereScript error g) 1,180 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 383 ft•lbf (520 J) 39,200 PSI
9x18mm Makarov 95 gr (Bad rounding hereScript error g) 1,050 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 231 ft•lbf (313 J) 23,206 PSI
.38 Super 130 grains (Bad rounding hereScript error g) 1,275 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 468 ft•lbf (634 J) 36,500 PSI
.357 Magnum 158 grains (Bad rounding hereScript error g) 1,349 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 639 ft•lbf (866 J) 35,000 PSI
.357 SIG 125 grains (Bad rounding hereScript error g) 1,350 ft/s (Bad rounding hereScript error m/s) 506 ft•lbf (686 J) 40,000 PSI

All of the above specifications for .38 loadings, and the .357 Magnum, are applicable when fired from a 6-inch (Bad rounding hereScript error mm) barreled revolver. The velocity is reduced when using the more standard 4-inch (Bad rounding hereScript error mm) barreled guns.[29] Power (muzzle energy) will, of course, decrease accordingly.

Although few, if any US police departments now issue or authorize use of the .38 Special revolver as a standard duty weapon, the caliber remains popular with some police officers for use in short-barreled revolvers carried when off-duty or for undercover police investigations. It is also widely used in revolvers purchased for civilian home defense or for concealed carry by individuals with a CCW permit.

Terminal performance and expansionEdit

File:.38 Special.JPG
File:.38 Special mushrooming side view.jpg

There are many companies that manufacture .38 Special ammunition. It can range from light target loads to more powerful defensive ammunition. Because of the relatively low pressure that the .38 Special cartridge and even its more powerful +P version can be loaded to, most .38 Special bullets do not expand reliably, even when using hollow-point designs, especially if fired from a short-barreled or 'snub-nose' revolver. In 2004, Speer Bullets introduced the Gold Dot jacketed hollow-point .38 Special cartridge in an attempt to solve this very problem. Another solution is to use an unjacketed soft lead hollow-point bullet as found in the FBI Load.[23] The latter's 158-grain soft lead hollow point is loaded to +P pressures and velocity, which ensures more reliable expansion in unprotected flesh, even when fired in a 2-inch short-barreled revolver.[23]


The .38 Special is particularly popular among handloaders. The cartridge's straight walls, headspacing on the rim, ready availability of previously-fired cases, and ability to be fired in .357 Magnum firearms, all contribute to this popularity. Additionally, the .38 Special's heritage as a black powder cartridge gives it a case size capable of accommodating many types of powders, from slower-burning (e. g. Hodgdon H-110 or Hercules 2400) to fast-burning (e. g. Alliant Bullseye, the traditional smokeless powder for this cartridge). This flexibility in powders translates directly to versatility in muzzle energy that a handloader can achieve. Thus, with proper care, a suitably-strong revolver, and adherence to safe handloading practices, the .38 Special can accommodate ammunition ranging from light-recoiling target loads to +P+ self-defense rounds.[30]

See alsoEdit


  1. Script error
  2. Script error
  3. Script error
  4. Script error [dead link]
  5. Script error
  6. Script error
  7. Script error
  8. Script error
  9. Barnes, Frank C. Ken Warner, editor. Cartridges of the World, 6th Edition. Northbrook, Illinois: DBI Books, 1989. ISBN 978-0-87349-033-7. The failure of the .38 Long Colt as a service cartridge caused the U.S. Army to insist on a .45 chambering for the its 1907 pistol trials.
  10. Script error
  11. Sharpe, Phil, The New Smith & Wesson Heavy Duty .38, The American Rifleman, November 1931
  12. Sharpe, Phil, The New Smith & Wesson Heavy Duty .38, The American Rifleman, November 1931: "..the destruction of this load was terrific...Every shot showed evidence of key-holing after the first half of the penetration had been accomplished."
  13. Shideler, Dan, Is This the Greatest .38 Ever, Gun Digest, 4 August 2008
  14. Sharpe, Phil, The New Smith & Wesson Heavy Duty .38, The American Rifleman, November 1931: Chambered in .38 Special, the .38/44 was built on the old S&W .44-calibre Hand Ejector frame.
  15. Shideler, Dan, Is This the Greatest .38 Ever, Gun Digest, 4 August 2008: The new .38/44 load developed a maximum allowable pressure of 20,000 psi, producing a velocity of about 1,100 ft/s from a five-inch barrel with a 158-grain metal-tipped bullet.
  16. Ayoob, Massad. "The Colt Official Police: 61 years of production, 99 years of service", Guns magazine. BNET Web site – Find articles. Accessed 2 April 2011: Because of their heavy frames, these revolvers could withstand the higher-pressures generated by the new loadings.
  17. The metal-penetrating bullets were often described as Highway Patrol loads.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Brown Jr., Edwards, DCM Shopper's Guide, The American Rifleman, (April 1946), p. 18
  19. Scarlata, Paul, Smith & Wesson's Model 12 Airweight, Shooting Times . Retrieved 3 April 2011. Archived December 31, 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 TM 43-0001-27, Army Ammunition Data Sheets - Small Caliber Ammunition, FSC 1305, Washington, D.C.: Dept. of the Army, 29 April 1994
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Military .38 Special Ammunition, The American Rifleman (March 1982), p. 68
  22. 22.0 22.1 TM 9-1305-200. Small Arms Ammunition, Washington, D.C.: Departments of the Army and the Air Force (June 1961)
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 23.4 23.5 Ayoob, Massad, "Why are We Still Using the .38 - It's Still A Good Cartridge", American Handgunner, San Diego: Publishers Development Corp., Vol. 6, No. 30, September/October 1981, p. 64
  24. Typically, the FBI Load utilized a very soft lead alloy of 5.5–6 as measured on the Brinell hardness scale to ensure reliable expansion.
  25. Ayoob, Massad, The Gun Digest Book of Combat Handgunnery, Iola, Wisconsin: Gun Digest Books, ISBN 0896895254, ISBN 9780896895256 (2011), p. 98
  27. What is +P and +P+ ammunition?
  28. Script error
  29. Ballistics By The Inch .38 special results.
  30. The .38-44 HV - The Original Magnum

External linksEdit

Script error Script error Script error

Script error

Ad blocker interference detected!

Wikia is a free-to-use site that makes money from advertising. We have a modified experience for viewers using ad blockers

Wikia is not accessible if you’ve made further modifications. Remove the custom ad blocker rule(s) and the page will load as expected.