38 Special Ballistics

38 special ballistics

An in-depth look at 38 special ballistics including a ballistic chart with velocity, energy and bullet drop data.

Whether you’re shooting a large-frame wheelgun, snubbie or even a lever action rifle, there’s a 38 special load for you. Versatile and effective for self-defense, millions of Americans (and even some law enforcement) rely upon 38 special for protection today. So, let’s look at what the cartridge is capable of is in this analysis of 38 special ballistics.

Quick 38 SPL Facts

  • One of the lowest pressure handgun rounds still commonly used for self-defense, with a mediumweight bullet and slow muzzle velocity. Shooters often prefer overpressure rounds for self-defense.
  • Less powerful and more affordable than the 357 Magnum, and furthermore compatible with the larger cartridge’s firearms. (But not the other way around.)
  • Favored for personal protection owing to its accuracy and reasonable recoil. 38 SPL is also popular for casual target shooting and hunting small game.
  • American troops faced off against fearsome fighters during the Philippine-American War. The Moro warriors in particular, who had a centuries-long tradition of resisting foreign rule and took powerful drugs before battle, proved especially resistant to the effect of the 38 Long Colt. Smith & Wesson thus introduced a new round in 1898 to replace it: the 38 Special, with a 100-150 fps faster muzzle velocity that would enable it to overpower both the Moro warriors’ shields and hearty constitutions.
  • Not to be confused with the great Southern rock band, 38 Special ammo is one of the most popular revolver cartridges in the world.

38 Special Ballistic Table

Ammo NameBarrel LengthMuzzle25 yds.50 yds.75 yds.100 yds.Muzzle25 yds.50 yds.75 yds.100 yds.Muzzle25 yds.50 yds.75 yds.100 yds.(G1)(G7)Sect. Density
Fiocchi - 148 Gr. LWC5730648576175138109-2.1-8.880.0530.166
Federal American Eagle - 130 Gr. FMJ4890870852834817229219209201193-0-2-7-15.10.1740.146
Tula - 130 Gr. FMJ48902290.146
Remington UMC - 130 Gr. FMJ4800787775185179173--0.3-1.70.146
Fiocchi - 130 Gr. FMJ7.71950899856260233211-1.23-5.030.1530.146
Federal American Eagle - 158 Gr. LRN4770758745733722208201195189183-0-2.9-9.8-20.70.2060.177
Remington Performance - 148 Gr. TMWC47101100.166
Federal HST Micro - 130 Gr. HST4890866844823803229217206196186-0-2-7.1-15.30.1430.146
Federal - 158 Gr. +P LSWCHP4900883866851836284273263254245-0-1.9-6.7-
Winchester Super X - 148 Gr. WC4710671166148
Winchester USA - 130 Gr. FMJ48007821851770.146
Blazer - +P 125 Gr. JHP4945915888863840248232219207196-0-2.6-7.9-16.20.1320.14
Blazer - 158 Gr. LRN4755742729716704200193186180174-0-3.9-12-24.30.1810.177
Magtech - 158 Gr. LRN4755739723708693200191183176168-0-4-12.1-24.60.1470.177
Black Hills Cowboy - 158 Gr. CNL48002250.177
Sellier & Bellot - 158 Gr. FMJ7.5889831773-670278242210-158-0-2.4--18.80.0480.177
Remington HTP - 125 Gr. SJHP4945921898248235224--0.3-1.30.14
Black Hills - 125 Gr. +P JHP410503060.14
Speer Lawman - 158 Gr. +P TMJ4900880861844826284272260250240-0-1.9-6.8-14.70.1760.177
PMC - 132 Gr. FMJ491789787986084423223622621720901.40-4.8-13.30.1870.148
Hornady XTP - 158 Gr. JHP4800787775762751225217211204198-0-3.5-10.6-21.50.2060.177
Federal Hydra Shok Low Recoil - 110 Gr. JHP4980943911882855235217203190179-0-1.5-5.7-12.60.1230.123
Hornady Critical Lite - 90 Gr. FTX4120011031032976931288243213190173-0-1.8-5.6-11.70.0950.101
Federal Hi-Shok - 125 Gr. +P HP4950250

38 Special’s Role in History

38 special ammo loaded in a revolver to test ballistic capabilities at a shooting range

As the 38 Special was initially a black powder cartridge, its pressure remains comparatively low at 17,000 psi. Its common 158 grain bullet achieves a velocity of only 755 feet per second out of a 4-inch barrel, delivering 200 ft lbs of energy at the muzzle. This puts a standard 38 Special cartridge just on the threshold of what is commonly considered adequate for neutralizing a human-sized threat. In comparison, the typical 45 ACP cartridge has a 230 grain bullet and 830 fps muzzle velocity. This produces around 75 percent more muzzle energy.

The 38 Special’s relative weakness is not made better by the fact that it is commonly implemented in snub-nose revolvers. These short-barreled firearms are often too small to utilize the full potency of gunpowder during ignition. Ammo manufacturers must take this into account when designing jacketed hollow point bullets for the 38 Special. In this case, the bullets require less energy to produce a mushrooming terminal effect.

Effective for Self-Defense?

Shooters may also choose wadcutters for self-defense, which do not require terminal expansion to create wider wound channels. They may also select overpressure rounds. These can give the same 158 grain bullet an approximately 33 percent faster muzzle velocity and 75 percent greater muzzle energy.

The consensus is that if you’re going to carry a 38 Special, it’s best to go with +P loads and a handgun that can manage their increased pressure. (Smith & Wesson’s Model 642, a hammerless revolver, is just one such weapon.) A 38 Special +P’s energy falls between what the 380 ACP and the 9mm provide. It may even approximate a 9mm’s terminal performance when fired from a rifle. You can learn a lot more about using 38 special in a concealed carry gun by looking at our best 38 special ammo for self-defense project. In it, we tested several loads with ballistic gelatin.

Other Attributes

Testing 38 special ammunition velocity at a shooting range

  • Popular among handloaders for its versatile and readily available shell casings, as well as its compatibility with 357 Magnum revolvers.
  • Seldom used in long guns, although we very much enjoy our Henry Big Boy Classic chambered for 357 Magnum/38 Special. Its certainly overkill for rabbit, but we’re suckers for an octagonal barrel.
  • Very powerful 38 Special +P+ loads are also available. These loads deliver muzzle velocity that nearly breaks the sound barrier out of a 4” barrel.
  • “Just hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.” That’s a great song lyric and great relationship advice that you just don’t get from bands named after other calibers.

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