a 38 special revolver

.38 vs. .38 Special – What’s the difference?

The .38 caliber has been around for a very long time. And several variants have appeared in the market, though some of them are becoming unpopular.

So when most people mention the .38, they are often referring to a .38 Special. The whole situation can be a little confusing. So what exactly is the difference between a .38 and a .38 Special?

The .38 refers to a caliber that has a .357 inch bullet diameter. These include the .38 S&W, .38 Short Colt, .38 Long Colt, and the .38 Super cartridges. The .38 Special also falls under the .38 caliber since it improved on the .38 Long Colt. It also has a longer case length compared to the other cartridges. The .357 Magnum is also derived from the .38 Special.

Pretty confusing, right? Well, this article clears everything up for you.

.38 vs. 38 Special – At A Glance

Below are some of the most popular .38 cartridges and how they compare to the .38 Special.

Cartridge Bullet Diameter Case Length Type Muzzle Velocity
.38 Short Colt .357 inches 0.762 inches Rimmed 93 gr (6 g) LRN – 791 ft/s 

129 gr (8 g) – LRN777 ft/s 

.38 Long Colt .357 inches 1.030 inches Rimmed 125 gr (8 g) LRN –  772 ft/s

150 gr (10 g) LRN – 777 ft/s

.38 Special .357 inches 1.155 inches Rimmed 9.53 g (147 gr) Cor-Bon FMJ – 900 ft/s

8.1 g (125 gr) Hornady JHP – 900 ft/s

.357 Magnum .357 Inches 1.29 inches Rimmed 125 gr (8 g) JHP Federal – 1,450 ft/s

158 gr (10 g) JHP Federal – 1,240 ft/s

.38 Super .358 inches 0.900 inches Semi-rimmed 130 (8.42 g) Magtech FMJ – 1,215 ft/s

147 (9.53 g) Double Tap FMJ FP – 1,225 ft/s

.38 S&W .361 inches 0.780 inches Rimmed 158 gr (10 g) L SWC – 767 ft/s

195 gr (13 g) L RN – 653 ft/s

Based on the table, the .38 special is relatively similar to other .38 caliber cartridges. The only difference is the case length.

What Is A .38 Special?

The .38 Special is one of the most popular ammunition for revolvers, but it’s also used in carbines and semi-automatic pistols. 

It’s a rimmed centerfire cartridge that was introduced by Smith &Wesson in 1898. It was also the standard round in the US police departments between the 1920s and 1990s. 

And it was also used in the sidearm handguns by the US Military in WW1, WW2, Vietnam War, and the Korean War.

The .38 Special is also referred to as a 9.1*29mmR or 9*29.5mmR in other parts of the world.

The .38 Special came as an improvement to the .38 Long Colt. During the Philippine-American War, the United States Military realized that the Long Colt didn’t have enough stopping power against the Morro Warriors.

Even though it’s referred to as a .38, it’s closer to a .36 since it has a .357 inches bullet diameter. The .38 refers to the diameter of the whole case.

The .357 Magnum came later in 1934. It has an even longer case, higher pressures, and excellent stopping power.

a 38 special revolver and ammunition

How Does A 38 Special Differ From The Other .38s?

As mentioned earlier, the main difference is the case length, and maybe higher pressures than the other .38s. 

Firearms chambered for the .38 Short Colt, .38 Long Colt, and the .357 Magnum can fire the .38 Special. That’s why it’s one of the most versatile cartridges for revolvers.

However, a firearm designated for the .38 Special will not safely fire a .357 Magnum. 

That’s is because the Magnum comes at very high pressures. But you can purchase a .357 Magnum gun and use the .38 Special in it. Besides, the .38 Special ammo is cheaper than the .357 Magnum.

Performance and Accuracy

The .38 Special was originally packaged with black powder. 

This explains the relatively low pressures and slower muzzle velocities. For instance, a 158 gr bullet travels at 940 fps. It doesn’t expand like most smoke-less powder cartridges, but it’s still effective. It’s also very popular for its impressive accuracy and manageable recoil.

Some gun users experienced more expansion and stopping power with the FBI Load, a .38 Special hollow-point packaged at higher pressure and velocities. But if you’re looking for a more effective self-defense cartridge, you’d be better off with a .357 Magnum since it has more stopping power. 

The .357 Magnum is also popular in small and big game hunting, as well as target shooting.

The .38 Special is also common among handloaders. Since it has a larger case, it’s possible to handload it with different types of powders, including smokeless powders. 

It’s possible to handload a .38 Special to have as much power as the .45 ACP.

a 38 special ammunition cartridge and box

Final Thoughts

People mean the .38 Special when talking about the .38. 

As we’ve seen, there are several other .38 Cartridges. They have dominated a whole century in both law enforcement and personal use. 

The accuracy, manageable recoil, and the ability to fire it in a .357 Magnum designated gun are some of the reasons the .38 Special is still popular. 

It’s always a viable round for self-defense, but the .357 Magnum may present a better option due to its stopping power. 

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