Monday, September 21, 2009

Why the .38 is Still Great! Advocating the .38 Special, Part 1

This is a two-part series by David Armstrong looking at the .38 Special round and the snub-nose revolver, indicating that they are still perfectly acceptable for self-defense, quite capable of doing what they have done for a century...effectively provide a package that will protect the carrier in hostile situations. The myth is that the revolver is no longer a good choice for self defense, but we make the case that the .38 snub is an excellent CCW choice for many.

It has become fashionable in recent years to bash the .38 as a feeble and ineffective cartridge, particularly in light of all the new advances being made with bullet design in the 9mm, 40 S&W, and .45 ACP calibers. Well, guess what? That advanced bullet design has been going on with the .38 Special also, and far from being washed up, the .38 might just be the ideal round for the typical defensive shooter, especially in a 2" snub gun. Few other cartridges have the versatility the .38 does, and few guns offer the historical defensive fighting effectiveness of the 2" snubbie.

Let's look at the round itself for a moment. In the original 158-grain lead roundnose configuration, the .38 was somewhat well-known for anemic performance. However, when we took that same bullet weight, changed the design to a semi-wadcutter profile, and beefed it up a little, the first early "wonder cartridge" was found. Referred to as the Chicago load or the FBI load, the 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint .38 Special +P quickly became the standard for American police. Using Marshall and Sanow's findings (I realize the controversy but they do provide some basis for comparison) we find this load with a 78% rating from a 4" barrel. Not too shabby when one considers that the same source gives the infamous .45 ACP Black Talon an 81%! Recent modern loads utilizing the newer designer bullets have yielded even higher numbers for the .38. But, let's be honest about it, friends---anything the 4" .38 can do, the .357 Magnum can do better in the same package. Where the .38 has an advantage is in its comfort factor for the shooter. A good load out of a 4" .38 gives the shooter a nice little push to the hand, rather than the abrupt crash that comes from the .357 mag. This ease of shooting takes us to where the .38 is the King of the Hill---the "pocket gun"!

The 2" .38 Spl., as characterized by the quintessential S&W "J" frame, is without a doubt the most common firearm utilized for concealed carry. Some carry it as a secondary gun, others use it as their primary piece, but it seems like almost everybody that carries has a J-frame. The simplicity of the revolver, coupled with increased reliability in some CCW situations, give the nod to the .38 snub. In airweight form it provides 5 or 6 rounds of a recognized fight-stopping cartridge in a package that weighs less than 1 pound. It can be fired from inside the pocket if need be without jamming, something rather doubtful with any of the autoloaders. It also strikes many, if not most, as being more ergonomic for concealed carry than comparable semi-autos, riding easily in a pocket or in an ankle holster as well as traditional belt carry. However, one might ask just how much effectiveness do we give up in exchange for this light, comfortable package? Will the 2" snub be enough to save us in a fight? Well, ask yourself this--"If I had a 1911 model in .45 ACP, loaded with military hardball, would it be enough?" If you answer yes, then it might surprise you to know that further comparison using Marshall and Sanow shows that almost all of the +P modern "designer bullet" .38 loads in a 2" snub equal or exceed the results achieved by .45 ACP hardball!

Is the .38 the best of the fighting cartridges? I don't think so. But fortunately we usually don't need the best in any situation. Being good enough works fine, and the .38 Special is good enough. In a 4" K or L-frame type revolver, it provides a comfortable round that almost all shooters can shoot well. From a 2" gun, it loses some comfort and becomes a bit of an exacting taskmaster, but still controllable by most shooters. It is an inexpensive round, allowing one to practice a lot. It can be found in a weight, style, and charge to suit just about everyone. The .38 has come a long way, and is still perhaps the ultimate in "average"...and that is all that most people will ever need.

22 comments:

  1. That's why I prefer my S/W 940 2" 9mm snub. :)

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  2. The 9 is fine, and IMO anyone armed with a 9mm snub is quite capable of handling most any self-defense issue they are likely to face.

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  3. "...the ultimate in "average""
    Great quote. It is indeed. BTW, RBCD ammo makes a NASTY .38 moving at 1700fps. Here is a link: http://www.rbcd.net/Personal%20Defense-%20Ammo.htm

    Great BUG for the coat pocket. Firing from inside the pocket indeed makes it a quick "draw" as well!

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  4. Would you prefer the Colt Revolver over the S&W Airweight? I have been looking into a secondary and like the reliability of the revolver. Any help would be appreciated.

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  5. I've carried at varioius times the Colt Detective Special, the Colt Cobra, the S&W 60, and assorted Airweight models. For carry around purposes I've found I prefer the Airweight, specifically the 642. For me the size and weight package is ideal for slipping into a pocket. The Colt, of course, will give an additional round in a slightly larger package.

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  6. What is your favorite self defense load for .38 Special? I've heard good things about Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel 38 Special + P 135 Grain, but I don't know what is best.

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  7. Josiah, I don't think there is a "best" out there. Different loads do different things, and what is best for one situation may not be best for another situation. Having said that, I still like the old 158 grain LSWCHP +P, although it does kick a bit. My daughter didn't like the kick, so I gave her some 125 Nyclads when she started, and she is now carrying the Gold Dot 135s. I think any decent hollow point is a good choice if you do your part.

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  8. I carry the 135gr +p Gold Dots in my snubnose. It hits where I point it at in my Taurus 85ul.I actually cannot tell the difference between standard pressure loads and the +p Gold Dot where recoil is concerned.

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  9. Another load that performs well in my snubbie is the Fiocchi 125gr jhp. No+P, just a standard pressure jhp.

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  10. Thanks for the information. I'm not familiar with that particular load, but I've used a lot of Fiocchi ammo over the years with good results.

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  11. I carry a Model 638 BodyGuard Airweight loaded with Hornaday Critical Defense Rounds.I carry it in a DeSantis Thumbbreak OWB holster along with a speedstrip in a dump pouch on the same side as the holster.I use a Hogue Monogrip for extra control and comfert and this makes a great CCW combination.

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  12. I've carried a S&W .357 snub for a while, the titanium model, I believe. Well, after about two boxes of ammo I got rid of it. The blast and kick were far worse than my .44 mag, with a 5.5 inch barrel. I still have an all steel .357 S&W, (2inch, hammerless) and was at the range a few days ago. The .357 rounds pained my older aging fingers, but the .38's were okay. I'm currently looking for a .357 with a 3 inch barrel that will hold 6 rounds. I'm thinking .38's plus P's. for self defense ammo.

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  13. Yes, the very lightweight models are a bit much with .357 Magnum ammo. The steel versions are better, but as you noticed when we age sometimes a gun that was great in our youth becomes a bit problematic as our physical abilities change. The 3" tube is a great setup, two of my personal revolver favorites are a Mdl 65 with a 3" barrel and a Mdl 36 with a 3" barrel. I keep a box of .357s around but what is put in the gun these days is a 38 +P for personal defense.

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  14. Ruger 2" LCR .38 is an excellent CCW weapon. There are times I have to check if it's there it's so light & comfortable. Also it is about bullet placement. 38 is an excellent defense round. I don't have to worry about going through walls ect.ect.. Striking innocent victims. Now days us law abiding gun owners do not need more bad reviews. self preservation & protecting family while using good judgment is all I need.
    I have several calibers, but I find myself reaching for my .38 more than ever.

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    1. I own the same Ruger .38 as you do with a pair of larger Hogue grips. It has that larger gun feel and it points well for close range shooting. I have had the opinion since 1969 that the 5 shot snub is the perfect self defense handgun if one were to be limited to owning only one gun. For years that meant the S&W model 36. I now own a S&W model 637-2 along with my Ruger LCR, however, my favorite due to trigger pull weight in my older weaker hands is the LCR. I still use the model 637-2 as backup to the LCR.

      We have three 5 shot snubs in the house, counting my daughter's SP101 in .357 magnum.

      Right now they are all loaded with Buffalo Bore 150 grain wad cutters.

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  15. I own a Ruger GP100 with a 5" barrel (yes, 5") and it weighs about 42oz. It shoots comfortably with any .357 round. I could not imagine shooting Winchester 145 grain silvertips through a 2" 13 oz. snub nose revolver. The recoil, muzzle blast and difficulty in second shot acquisition make it (for me) not an option. There is a very good reason why the 642 is S&W's best selling revolver. And yes, .38 special is enough.

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  16. I'm quite fond of my KLCR 357; originally bought as a backup and only in 357 should I be out of 38 +p. However, I discovered that, for me, 357 kick from this gun wasn't that bad. It puts the kick in the middle of the palm, where my security six puts the kick straight back in the web of my hand. I pretty much always have my lcr on hand. I like having both but sometimes can only fit the snub. Those hogue tamer grips and proper grip make a huge difference

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  17. I sure hope me shooting .38+P is enough to end an un-wanted situation. I shot my friends Ruger 2 1/2 bbl .357;I shot it 1 time and said "this ain't for me".The blast and re-coil was far to much for me to quickly get a second shot off if needed.But thats me. If you use a .357 for your carry piece, thats your choice.
    I am happy,confident,and feel well enough armed with my 2" .38 loadaded with +P's.

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  18. I would think that if the job doesn't get done with a .38 +P there isn't much more chance of it getting done with a .357 Mag out of a snubbie.

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  19. I love my snubby. Never leave home without it. Don't see why everyone talks about a stout recoil, I've shot .22 that has more jump than my .38 shooting 110grn +p hp rounds.

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  20. My wife's choice for home defense is a S&W model 10 S&W, with a 5-inch bbl. It's stoke with 6 rounds of Black Hills +P. She's accurate with it at the range. Not a bad choice for a petite woman.

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