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What Makes The .38 Special A Great Self-Defense Round?

By 03/27/2019April 11th, 202238 SPL, Reviews
38 Special Ammo

The .38 Special is one of the best revolver cartridges ever made. Because it was introduced in the late 19th century as a black powder cartridge and has not changed dimensionally in that time, today’s .38 Special is a mild recoiling, low-pressure round that enjoys a very healthy following. The cartridge itself has come in a number of iterations over the years and is the parent case for the more powerful .357 Magnum. The .38 Special can be safely fired in guns chambered in .357 Magnum as a result, which gives shooters a wide power spectrum to take advantage of.

Today’s self-defense .38 Special is most commonly used in short-barreled ‘snub nose’ revolvers such as the Ruger LCR and Smith & Wesson J-Frame. These revolvers are purpose-made for concealed carry and have features that make them ideal for self-defense. Steinel Ammunition’s Snub Nose Pro load was created for these small guns and is designed to perform within the velocity limits imposed by short barrels, unlike many other types of ammo on the market which are designed around longer barrels.


The .38 Special in a snub nose revolver is one of the most popular carry guns for women. Women represent a rapidly growing demographic in terms of concealed carry and the small revolver is an ideal choice for a number of reasons.

Small semiautomatic pistols have always been a challenge. For many years a small gun was a compromise, as bullet technology had yet to catch up and the best options were disappointing at best. To go small meant you had to resort to weak ammunition, often with non-expanding full metal jacket bullets. The rounded profile of many of these bullets would ensure reliable feeding in the small guns at the expense of wounding potential.

The most popular small cartridge was the .380 ACP, a tiny automatic pistol round of roughly the same bore size as the .38 Special. The .380 ACP’s bullets were far lighter than most found in the .38 Special and came in at about 90-100 grains. Compare this to the 125gr starting weight of the .38 Special, which itself can handle bullets up to 200 grains.

It is because of the popularity of the .380 among women shooters that bullet technology stepped up to their modern standards. More performance needed to be squeezed out of a smaller package and expanding bullet technology reached new heights. This technology was, of course, applied to other cartridges, including .38 Special.

The main drawback with modern automatics is that they are still somewhat difficult to use and sometimes require a great deal of hand strength to operate. Because they are small, the slides of these pistols feature strong and compact springs which are needed to allow the gun to function correctly. The small size and stiff springs make them a challenge to use and a potential liability in a moment of need.

The small revolver is the answer for many women. Since there is no slide to pull back, loading and unloading is easy and effortless. The small revolver is also substantially more reliable than comparably sized automatics as it does not rely on the power of the cartridge to cycle the gun between shots. The revolver works simply by pulling the trigger. In the event of a bad primer, the trigger can be pulled again to move to the next cartridge. With an automatic, you would need both hands to clear the faulty cartridge from the action and chamber a new round.

Modern .38 Special self-defense ammunition like the Snub Nose Pro is ideally suited for the woman who carries. Not only is it made with the most advanced materials, it has recoil only marginally greater than a small automatic. The solid bullet combined with well-researched propellants makes for a cartridge that doesn’t sacrifice power for reliability.

Steinel 38 Special Ammo Packaging Looking to the Future

Despite its age, the .38 Special continues to enjoy a large following. It has worn many hats over the years and has seen use in virtually every corner of the world for every conceivable end a cartridge has. Today it has a home in the pockets and purses of the average concealed carrier, and it is likely that this role will sustain it for another hundred years.

The future of the .38 Special is dependent on adaptation. Unlike many rounds that exist only because of a passing fad, the .38 Special is an adaptable creature. It has been used for war, police work, as signaling ammunition for downed pilots, won records in target shooting, and has had the backs of good, honest folks in hard times. In every instance, the .38 has been adapted because it is one of the most inherently dependable rounds ever made.

As material science and manufacturing technology improve, the .38 will continue to see new advancements. While other rounds come and go, the .38 has seemingly never lost relevance. It adapts to new things readily because of how well understood it is. Today we are in yet another heyday of the .38 Special. When the going gets tough, it is often the round people fall back on despite not being the fastest, most powerful, or most accurate.



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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Steve Beacon says:

    Is 30 year old 38 special snub nose amo safe and reliable?

    • Andy Steinel says:

      Hard to say, but if the case walls look in-tact the worst case scenario is a dirty, underpowered load and possibly a squib. I personally would not use it for any type of defensive purposes.

      • Hammer says:

        I would say that if you have a misfire on 38 special that there is a good soldier right behind him…

        Think about it.

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