Although there are a good deal of critics that claim the .38 Smith & Wesson Special is antiquated and outdated, there are still plenty of shooters who choose this cartridge for hunting, self-defense, competition, and plain old fun. If you’re looking for the best .38 Special ammo for any of these applications, you’ve come to the right place.
What ammo you choose to feed your handgun is an incredibly important decision. In some cases, you’re trusting that ammo with your life. Whether your weapon of choice is a Ruger LCR, a Smith & Wesson L frame, or something else entirely, we’ve got you covered. Not only are we going to take a closer look at this iconic and enduring cartridge, we’re also going to share some of our favorite .38 Special loads.
Table of Contents
- A Brief History of the .38 Smith & Wesson Special
- The .38 Special’s Enduring Popularity
- Safety By The Numbers
- Best 38 Special Ammo on the Market Reviews
- Best .38 Special Range Ammo
- Best .38 Special Self Defense Ammo
- Best .38 Special Ammo for Hunting
- Wrapping It Up
A Brief History of the .38 Smith & Wesson Special
The .38 Smith & Wesson Special was developed as an improvement to the .38 Long Colt. The .38 Long Colt was used in U.S. Army’s service weapons from 1892 until 1909.
Designed by Smith & Wesson in 1898, the .38 Special uses an elongated .38 Long Colt case. Stretched from 1.031inches to 1.155 inches, the longer case held extra propellant (3 ½ grains more powder than .38 Long Colt) and produced higher velocities and deeper penetration than its predecessor.
Smith & Wesson engineered their new cartridge to partner with the new K-frame, hand ejector revolver they ambitiously named the “Military & Police.” This was the first handgun in the long and prestigious line of Smith & Wesson M&Ps.
When the M&Ps and the new .38 Special cartridges hit the market in 1899, no one yet realized this would be the most popular law enforcement handgun/cartridge combo of the 20th century. Up until the 1980s, the .38 Special Smith was prolifically used by what most of society considered the “good guys”.
The .38 Spl also saw its fair share of military service. During World War II, many members of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aircrews were issued a .38 Special S&W Victory revolver with a 4-inch barrel. In 1956, the U.S. Air Force adopted a military version of the cartridge designed to conform to the modern rules of warfare (i.e. utilizing non-expanding projectiles).
The .38 Special’s Enduring Popularity
While there are plenty of more powerful cartridges available today, the .38 Special continues to appeal to modern shooters. The 9mm Luger and .45 ACP cartridges beat the .38 Spl in velocity, throw weight, and terminal ballistics. However, the lower recoil of the .38 Spl makes them much more enjoyable to shoot. Low recoil also allows for faster, more accurate follow-up shots. And although 9mm and .45 ACP outshine the .38 Spl’s terminal performance, it is enough to wreak havoc on a dangerous threat, especially with careful shot placement and a heavy, expanding bullet.
Although the .38 Spl doesn’t dominate the world of defensive shooting like it did in days past, it is still a viable and popular option, especially for recoil sensitive shooters.
The .38 Spl is a well-balanced, easy-shooting cartridge that is also incredibly accurate. Not only does this make the cartridge well-suited for new shooters just learning the ropes, it’s also perfect for serious match shooters.
Safety By The Numbers
If you own a .38 Special revolver, there are plenty of modern ammo options to choose from. If you have a .357 Magnum revolver, you have even more options. Both of these handguns shoot the same diameter projectiles. Since .357 Magnum has a slightly longer case length than .38 Spl, you can use .38 Spl cartridges in a .357 Mag revolver.
However, the reverse is NOT true. If you have a firearm chambered in .38 Special, you won’t be able to use .357 Magnum cartridges. In fact, because the case length of .357 Mag will be too long for your revolver, the cylinder may not even close and lock. Even if it does, pulling the trigger on a .38 Special revolver with a .357 Magnum in the chamber can have dangerously explosive results.
Best 38 Special Ammo on the Market Reviews
Here are some of our favorite choices for .38 Special ammo. We’ve broken them up into categories to help you find the right loads for your specific shooting needs.
Best .38 Special Range Ammo
Whether you’re punching holes in paper targets or plinking soda cans off fence posts, here are some of the most reliable loads for the job.
Federal American Eagle is a well-respected name in the ammo industry. These American-made, highly affordable loads are a smart option for target shooting. They offer a similar ballistic performance to Federal’s premium defensive loads, only these are available at a more practical price point for high-volume shooting or recreational plinking.
Loaded with quality 130-grain full metal jacket projectiles, these non-expanding loads offer reliable and accurate performance for training and target shooting.
Manufactured in Lonoke, Arkansas, Remington UMC is another affordable ammo option that doesn’t compromise quality. The Union Metallic Company (UMC) was the first American company to manufacture centerfire cartridges. UMC combined with Remington in 1912, and today the UMC designation represents Remington’s second tier line.
Remington UMC provides nice value for the money. These .38 Special loads feature 130-grain FMJ projectiles. Although Remington refers to them as metal case (MC) projectiles, they are essentially the same design as FMJs.
Founded in 1866, Winchester has been shaping the shooting world for more than 150 years. Winchester White Box has earned a reputation as one of the most economical practice options on the market today. They offer consistent, reliable performance and repeatable accuracy at a price point that won’t break the bank.
Made with high-quality components, these .38 Special rounds feature 130-grain FMJ projectiles. If you’re a shooter on a shoestring budget, this may be the perfect option for you.
Sig Sauer engineered this ball ammo to match the ballistics of their V-Crown defensive line. This allows shooters to seamlessly transition from training to real-life shooting. These copper-jacketed FMJs do not expand on impact, but offer the same recoil, point-of-aim, and energy as Sig’s carry ammo.
Sig uses only clean-burning propellants in the Elite Ball ammo, which provides a safer shooting experience, especially for high-volume shooters.
Best .38 Special Self Defense Ammo
Although the .38 Spl falls short of the threat-stopping effectiveness of 9mm and .45 ACP, its terminal ballistics make it a capable option for concealed carry. For personal protection, the .38 Spl performs best when fired from a full-size handgun. When fired from a short-barreled snub nose revolver, .38 Spl sometimes fails to meet FBI penetration specs.
For best results, choose a +P overpressure load with an expanding bullet.
Hornady was born as a simple two-man operation that has grown to be one of the most innovative and well-respected manufacturers in the ammo industry. Their highly effective Critical Defense loads feature Hornady’s own unique FTX bullet design. FTX projectiles feature a flexible tip that is designed to prevent clogging of the hollow point, even after passing through barriers or thick clothing. The FTX Flex tip also aids in terminal expansion.
Hornady loads their Critical Defense rounds in bright, nickel-plated brass cases to increase their visibility in low light environments. This makes for easy loading and chamber checks, even in the darker situations common in self-defense scenarios.
Critical Defense also features premium, low-flash propellants that work well in even short-barreled snubbies without compromising precious natural night vision.
Federal’s HydraShok projectiles are engineered for effective terminal ballistics. This bullet design is a popular choice among self-defense shooters in a variety of calibers. We really love the Hydra-Shok design for .38 Spl, because it offers incredible consistency and accuracy.
Hydra-Shok projectiles have a unique hollow point configuration that features a specially notched copper jacket. The notches promote rapid, yet controlled expansion in soft tissue.
The bullet’s core is made with a center post that maintains integrity upon impact for deeper penetration. Hydra-Shok bullets meet the most stringent FBI protocols for both expansion and penetration.
Federal Personal Defense loads are formulated to deliver reliable performance, even in sub-compact handguns. They produce less felt recoil than most of the competition, which allows for easier control and more accurate follow-up shots.
Like most self-defense rounds, Federal Personal Defense features premium nickel-plated brass cases.
The Winchester Defender line is built around the PDX bullet design. These bonded hollow points offer massive expansion (up to 1 ½ times the original diameter). The jackets feature unique notching that pre-programs the jacket to separate into six segments upon target impact. This design promotes reliable expansion that creates a devastating wound channel through soft tissue.
PDX1 projectiles are also made using a patented bonding process that welds the copper jacket to the softer lead core. The result is improved weight retention and deeper target penetration. These projectiles perform incredibly well on FBI protocol tests, which are designed to replicate the demands of real world defensive shooting scenarios.
Speer’s Gold Dot line was designed specifically for law enforcement. However, these duty loads also work perfectly for civilian self defense.
Featuring Gold Dot hollow points (GDHP), these loads provide consistent performance and reliable barrier penetration. GDHPs are made with a proprietary Uni-Cor bonding process that attaches a tough copper jacket to a soft lead core one molecule at a time. This process markedly reduces the risk of core/jacket separation. With excellent weight retention and respectable velocities, Speer Gold Dot drives deep into soft tissue to create a devastating wound channel.
Best .38 Special Ammo for Hunting
The .38 Spl is a popular sporting cartridge often used for hunting small game and varmints.
If you want a reliable load for varmint hunting, this is it. These Hornady American Gunner hollow point loads are topped with Hornady’s patented XTP (eXtreme Terminal Performance) projectiles. Designed for reliable expansion, XTP bullets feature a drawn gilding metal jacket that is serrated in strategic locations. This structure helps initiate expansion, even at slower velocities.
The jacket surrounds a swaged lead core with uniform density for better balance and ballistics, which makes these loads incredibly accurate.
Although .38 Spl is a decent option for hunting varmints and small game, if you try to take on something larger, you’ll probably be vastly under-prepared. Buffalo Bore developed their Outdoorsman loads for deep penetration. If you need to use your .38 Spl to shoot tough game like bears or gators, these loads will help you get the job done.
This Buffalo Bore ammo is loaded with hefty 158-grain hard, flat nose bullets. WIth +P pressure, these heavyweight projectiles travel at capable velocities for deep penetration, even when shot from a short 2 inch barrel.
The hard cast projectiles are lubed to prevent excessive barrel fouling and preserve accuracy. Buffalo Bore Outdoorsman loads are made with flash retardant powders that will not blind the shooter in low or fading light when wildlife is more active.
Wrapping It Up
These definitely aren’t the only quality ammo options on the market today. They are just a few of our favorites. If your personal choice didn’t make our list of the best .38 Special ammo, please don’t take it personally. However, you should totally tell us all about it in the comments. We’re always looking for new loads to test out at the gun range.