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.