The .38 Special and .38 Super remain popular after over 90 years, and comparisons between the two are common.
These two calibers, despite having identical names, have vastly different histories, designs, performances, and applications.
Whether you are new to handguns or an experienced shooter, it's important to learn the nuances between these two classic rounds before choosing one over the other. Read on to become a .38 caliber expert!
You may make an informed choice to purchase the correct ammo for your individual shooting needs by studying the capabilities of the.38 Special vs..38 Super.
The following subjects will be covered:
- Origins and a brief history
- Design and dimensions
- Pressure and capacity
- Real-world ballistics
- Recoil impressions
- Best firearms for each
- Ammunition availability
- Self-defense considerations
- Accuracy performance
- Future developments
Whether you are a beginner or an experienced shooter, this thorough side-by-side comparison will help you understand and appreciate both better.38 Special as well as.38 Super.
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Differences Between .38 Special and .38 Super Ammunition
|.38 Long Colt
|Common Bullet Weights
The key differences are that .38 Super operates at higher pressures and velocities resulting in a flatter trajectory, more muzzle energy, and moderate recoil compared to the mild shooting .38 Special revolver cartridge. The .38 Super is suitable for longer-range shooting applications than the .38 Special.
Understanding the Basics of .38 Special and .38 Super
The .38 Special has a long history and relationship with revolvers. First introduced in 1898 by Smith & Wesson, it was developed from the earlier .38 Long Colt cartridge to provide better stopping power and performance.
This new cartridge gained acceptance by law enforcement agencies and recreational shooters very rapidly and eventually became the norm for military sidearms used in both World Wars.
Even when semi-automatic weapons became more common, the.38 Special remained a mainstay in police enforcement.
Well-known revolvers chambered for .38 Special over its lifespan include:
- Smith & Wesson Military & Police revolvers
- Colt Official Police revolver
- Colt Detective Special snub nose
- Ruger SP101
- Smith & Wesson Model 10
Key specs of the .38 Special:
- Parent Case: .38 Long Colt
- Bullet Diameter: 0.357"
- Case Type: Rimmed, straight
- Case Length: 1.155"
- Overall Length: 1.55"
- Maximum Pressure: 17,000 psi
- Common Bullet Weights: 110gr, 125gr, 130gr, 158gr
While no longer as ubiquitous in law enforcement usage, the mild-recoiling and accurate .38 Special remains a staple revolver cartridge suitable for target practice, personal protection, home defense, and concealed carry needs.
The .38 Super has its origins in pistol cartridges designed for the military, specifically the .38 ACP. Seeking improved performance over .38 ACP and .45 ACP for law enforcement needs in the 1920s, the .38 Super was born.
Colt introduced it in 1929 to bring .38 ACP performance up to a new level, giving it a flatter trajectory and higher pressures in their latest 1911 pistol models. This new cartridge gained renown for its versatility, accuracy, ability to penetrate vehicles, and primitive body armor.
After falling out of favor compared to revolvers like the .357 Magnum, the .38 Super made a resurgence in the 1970s and 80s as an excellent round for competitive shooting matches. Its accuracy and low recoil made it a staple in IPSC competitions.
Today, the .38 Super remains highly regarded in semi-automatic handguns for competitive shooting, self-defense, and even hunting needs when loaded appropriately. The 1911 platform especially highlights the capabilities of this classic pistol cartridge.
Key specs of the .38 Super:
- Parent Case: .38 ACP
- Bullet Diameter: 0.356"
- Case Type: Semi-rimmed, straight
- Case Length: 0.900"
- Overall Length: 1.280"
- Maximum Pressure: 36,500 psi
- Common Bullet Weights: 115gr, 124gr, 130gr, 147gr
The History of .38 Special and .38 Super
Here is a quick history lesson on how both of these classic .38 caliber rounds came to be:
The Origins of .38 Special
- 1898 - Designed by Smith & Wesson to improve on the .38 Long Colt cartridge used in early revolvers. Offered higher pressures and velocity.
- The early 1900s - Quickly adopted by police departments and civilian shooters.
- World Wars - Issued as standard military sidearm cartridge in the US and other Allied forces.
- 1930s - Remained popular even as more powerful rounds like the .357 Magnum were introduced.
- Today - Still commonly used in revolvers for target practice, home defense, and concealed carry purposes.
The Development of .38 Super
- 1900s - .38 ACP designed by John Browning in early semi-auto pistols. Lower pressure loading.
- 1920s - With rising crime, law enforcement wanted more powerful rounds to penetrate vehicles, barriers, and body armor.
- 1929 - .38 Super introduced by Colt - essentially a .38 ACP loaded to higher pressures in the 1911 platform.
- The 1970s - Fell out of favor as .357 Magnum revolvers dominated; made a resurgence in competitive shooting.
- Today - Popular competitive shooting round; also effective for personal defense and hunting.
So while the .38 Special originated in the late 1800s for revolvers, the .38 Super came along 30 years later in the semi-auto pistol world. Despite the similar names, they were designed for different purposes.
.38 Special vs .38 Super: Detailed Specs Comparison
Now let's take a close look at how the specifications, dimensions, and pressures actually differ between the .38 Special and .38 Super:
|.38 Long Colt
|Common Bullet Weights
As you can see, while both fire a .38 caliber bullet, the .38 Super case is a bit shorter while operating at significantly higher pressures. The Super also uses lighter bullet weights on average.
These differences in case dimensions, operating pressures, and typical loads impact the performance characteristics of each round.
Ballistics Performance: .38 Special vs .38 Super
The higher pressure .38 Super clearly outpaces the milder .38 Special in terms of velocity and energy:
.38 Special Ballistics
- 110gr bullet at 1,000 fps muzzle velocity from a 4" barrel
- 158gr bullet at 800 fps muzzle velocity from a 4” barrel
- Approximately 200-300 ft-lbs of muzzle energy with standard loads
.38 Super Ballistics
- 115gr bullet at 1,300 fps muzzle velocity from a 5” barrel
- 130gr bullet at 1,150 fps from a 4” barrel
- Up to 500 ft-lbs of muzzle energy with +P loads
The .38 Super generates up to twice the muzzle energy of standard .38 Special loads, allowing for deeper penetration and greater stopping power. The Super's flatter trajectory also makes it easier to shoot accurately, especially at longer distances.
However, with the right +P+ pressures and bullet selection, a .38 Special can reach energy levels closer to that of a .38 Super, although recoil also increases.
Practical Applications: Self-Defense, Target Shooting, and Competition:
For self-defense uses, the .38 Special +P performs well when fired from revolvers with 4-inch or longer barrels. Quality JHP bullets provide 12"-18" penetration with expansion up to .60". Light & compact snub nose .38s are also viable with proper loads.
The .38 Super really excels in a 1911 platform for concealed carry, home defense, and tactical applications demanding deep penetration. With the right hollowpoint, 14"-16" penetration is achievable. Higher velocities also aid expansion.
Either can serve well as defensive rounds, but the .38 Super generally provides superior terminal performance to neutralize threats more decisively, with the tradeoff of increased recoil. The .38 Special shines for shooters needing minimal recoil.
Target Shooting and Competition Usage:
The .38 Special is a joy to shoot casually thanks to mild recoil. It can serve well for bullseye target practice and recreational plinking at shorter distances. Accuracy begins to suffer beyond 50 yards.
Meanwhile, the .38 Super really excels in action shooting competitions like IPSC that demand rapid, accurate fire. The flat trajectory and low recoil aid shooters in making quick follow-up shots on targets near and far.
While suitable for casual target practice, the .38 Super has gained an avid following in the competitive realm, cementing its reputation as an accurate and versatile semi-auto pistol cartridge.
Firearm Compatibility and Design Factors:
Revolvers vs. Semi-Automatic Pistols:
The .38 Special is designed specifically for use in revolvers only. It cannot function properly or safely in semi-automatic pistols. Revolver advantages include simplicity, reliability in double-action firing mode, and the ability to try different handloads. Disadvantages are lower ammo capacity and slower reloads compared to semi-autos.
The.38 Super, on the other hand, is made exclusively for semi-automatic handguns. Rimmed cartridges like .38 Special will not feed properly from a semi-auto magazine. The .38 Super takes advantage of a higher-capacity firearm platform conducive to rapid fire. The 1911 is the classic .38 Super pistol.
Ammunition Compatibility and Chamber Pressure:
The .38 Special uses a rimmed case suited for revolver cylinders. The rimmed case headspaces on the revolver's cylinder for proper ignition and allows for manual ejection via the ejector rod. Chamber pressures reach up to 20,000 psi.
The .38 Super employs a semi-rimmed case that aids in feeding and ejection in a semi-auto pistol. The case headspaces off the mouth, allowing it to safely reach pressures up to 36,500 psi. These differences in design and pressure make the rounds incompatible.
Notable Models and Brands:
Iconic Firearms Chambered in .38 Special:
The Colt Detective Special defined the snub-nose revolver format used for concealed carry and plainclothes law enforcement. Many copies of this iconic .38 Special revolver exist, but the original still holds prestige.
Likewise, the Smith & Wesson Model 10 was hugely influential as a .38 Special service revolver. Its robustness and accuracy set the standard for police sidearms worldwide. The Model 10 in .38 Special inspired many subsequent service revolvers.
Notable .38 Super Pistols:
The initial Colt 1911 pistol in .38 Super set the course for this cartridge. Today Colt remains a leader in quality 1911 handguns chambered for .38 Super, alongside other brands like STI International, Kimber, Wilson Combat, Sig Sauer 1911s, and more.
The SIG Sauer P220 and CZ-USA EVO 3 S1 pistols represent more modern takes on the .38 Super in polymer-framed, semi-auto handgun designs outside the classic 1911.
Historical Significance and Evolution:
Role of .38 Special in Law Enforcement and Military:
Dating back to its origins at the turn of the 19th century, the .38 Special quickly gained favor as a police service cartridge until the rise of high-capacity 9mm semi-autos. The .38 Special was respected for its mild recoil and accuracy in the revolvers of the time period.
Revolvers like the Colt Official Police and S&W Military & Police became icons and were issued to generations of police officers. The .38 Special played a major role in shaping law enforcement tactics and training during this era as well.
.38 Super's Military Origins and Civilian Transition:
The .38 Super has military roots, initially designed to bring additional capabilities compared to other standard issue cartridges of its time period. However, it saw relatively limited military deployment.
In civilian use, competitive shooters and self-defense markets are where the .38 Super found its niche, owing to the accuracy, penetrative abilities, and high capacity of the 1911 platform. The low recoil compared to other 1911 chamberings helps the .38 Super shine as well.
Comparing Terminal Ballistics and Wound Profiles:
.38 Special Terminal Ballistics:
Heavy round nose and wadcutter .38 Special loads are effective but limited in expansion. Properly designed hollowpoints create larger permanent wound channels and better stopping performance.
Premium +P .38 Special loads in 4" barrels can create wound channels over 1 foot wide and penetration exceeding 12 inches when using bullets like the Federal HST and Winchester Silvertip. Performance is reduced in short barrels.
.38 Super Terminal Ballistics:
With a variety of HP, FMJ, and specialty bullet options, the .38 Super can be tuned for the mission at hand. Lightweight HP bullets prioritize expansion, while penetration is maximized with traditional FMJ profiles.
In a self-defense role, 124-147 grain JHPs provide a good balance of penetration in the 12"-16" range paired with expansion exceeding .60 inches in testing. This creates decisive wound channels.
Cartridge Availability and Cost:
.38 Special Availability:
As one of the most popular revolver cartridges, .38 Special ammunition is produced by nearly every major brand. Extensive options exist for target practice and self-defense. .38 Special can be found nearly everywhere ammunition is sold.
Bulk target ammunition tends to be very affordable - often under 30 cents per round. Personal defense and specialty loads cost more but are still reasonably priced compared to other defensive rounds, typically $1 or less per round.
.38 Super Availability:
While major manufacturers produce .38 Super, it has not achieved mainstream popularity. Defensive ammunition choices are limited compared to more common pistol calibers. Expect to pay a premium and search at specialty gun shops.
Match-grade target and training ammunition has expanded along with the cartridge's competitive shooting following. Typical range pricing is 50+ cents per round for practice ammo, while self-defense options cost $1.50 per round or more.
Law Enforcement and Military Usage:
Historical Use of .38 Special in Law Enforcement:
The .38 Special was the predominant police service cartridge from the early 20th century through the 1980s-90s. Its use shaped countless policing techniques and training programs. Revolvers in .38 Special defined the law enforcement sidearm for generations.
Its respectably mild recoil allowed for practical accuracy training. When higher-pressure .38 +P ammunition was introduced, it gave officers more defensive capabilities against early body armor.
Military Applications of .38 Super:
Unlike the .38 Special, the .38 Super did not see widespread adoption as a military sidearm. Some specialized units like embassy guards, military police, or officers may have carried .38 Super pistols, but it never achieved standard issue status during its history.
If adopted more widely, the .38 Super could have provided increased ammunition capacity and penetration compared to other standard military pistol calibers at the time, like the .45 ACP. But the .38 Super instead found popularity in civilian shooting spheres.
Reloadability and Handloading:
Reloading .38 Special:
Reloading .38 Special cartridges allows shooters to customize performance and save money. Adjustable powder charges give load versatility. Cast lead bullets keep costs down for high-volume practice.
Straight case design allows easy sizing and de-priming. A progressive reloading press can quickly produce accurate rounds. Adhering to safe loading data is imperative for reliability and preventing catastrophic failure events.
Handloading for .38 Super:
More expertise is recommended for reloading .38 Super to account for the semi-rimmed case and higher pressures. Sizing and de-priming require a bit more attention. Powder flexibility is somewhat limited.
Handloaders can optimize .38 Super accuracy for competition or power for hunting and defense. Cost savings over factory ammo are still achievable. Again, staying within established load data is critical for safety.
Consideration of Relevant Laws and Regulations:
Legal Considerations for .38 Special:
As a widely available cartridge used in common revolvers and pistols, the .38 Special is generally exempt from any specific ammunition restrictions or bans at the state/local level. Standard guidelines for legal concealed carry of handguns apply when using .38 Special.
Legal Considerations for .38 Super:
Likewise, the .38 Super does not face any outright bans despite its higher pressures and velocities compared to the .38 Special. When carrying a .38 Super handgun for concealed carry, ensure it meets your state or local laws regarding pistol format, magazine capacity, safety features, etc.
Shooter Experience and Preferences:
Perspectives from Shooters Who Have Used Both Calibers:
Many shooters appreciate the low recoil and affordable practice offered by the .38 Special in a revolver, while also recognizing the advantages of the .38 Super in a semi-auto pistol for self-defense and competitive shooting applications. The two calibers can live harmoniously in one's firearms collection.
Factors Influencing Shooter Preferences:
Recoil tolerance and intended firearm uses are key factors determining which caliber shooters prefer. The .38 Special shines for recoil-sensitive shooters. The .38 Super gives competitive and defensive shooters increased capabilities despite increased recoil.
Many enthusiasts appreciate owning quality firearms in both calibers - a .38 Special revolver for recreational shooting paired with a .38 Super semi-auto pistol for tactical applications. Less recoil-sensitive shooters who switch from .38 Special to .38 Super appreciate the ballistic improvements.
Future Trends and Developments:
Innovations in .38 Special Ammunition:
Manufacturers continue improving .38 Special terminal performance through projectile design. Copper bullets and polygonal rifling provide increased accuracy. Lead-free frangible loads cater to indoor ranges. We'll also see more specialty .38 Special loads for short-barreled revolvers.
Advances in .38 Super:
Expect projectile technology to further exploit the .38 Super's potential through innovative bullet shapes, light/heavy loads for specific purposes, and more competition-oriented target ammunition. Pistol development will focus on extracting maximum accuracy given the Super's reputation for precision.
Emphasis on informed decision-making for selecting ammunition. Encouragement for readers to explore and experience both calibers to determine what aligns best with their shooting goals and preferences.
This comprehensive guide compared nearly all aspects of the .38 Special versus the .38 Super - two classic American handgun cartridges. While their names are similar, their history and design differ greatly. One excels in revolvers, the other in semi-autos.
You may select the caliber which is best fits your demands as a shooter by being familiar with its distinctive advantages.
Both still function as valid cartridges and each has advantages. You can best utilize them if you are aware of their subtleties.
I advise you to look for top-notch guns in both.38 Special and.38 Super to keep you on your way to becoming a knowledgeable shooter.
Test them yourself to determine which caliber fits your preferences. An appreciation for these classic rounds will only deepen your passion for marksmanship.
What is the difference between .38 Special and .38 Super?
The .38 Special is a rimmed, straight-walled revolver cartridge that has been around since 1898. It typically fires a .357" diameter bullet. The .38 Super is a semi-rimmed, straight-walled pistol cartridge developed in 1929 for use in the 1911 semi-automatic pistol. It fires a .356” bullet. While their names are similar, they have very different case dimensions, operating pressures, and applications.
Can you shoot a .38 Super in a .38 Special revolver?
No, the .38 Super should never be fired in a revolver chambered only for .38 Special. The .38 Super operates at much higher pressures and can be unsafe to use in a firearm not specifically built for it. The rimmed .38 Special may also not even chamber properly in a .38 Super pistol.
Is .38 Special or .38 Super more powerful?
The .38 Super is a much more powerful round than the .38 Special. Typical .38 Super loads fire a lighter bullet at around 1,300 fps producing over 500 ft-lbs of energy. Standard .38 Special fires a heavier bullet around 750-800 fps with only 200-300 ft-lbs of energy. However, properly loaded .38 Special +P can reach energy levels closer to the .38 Super.
Which is better for self-defense - .38 Special or .38 Super?
Both can serve well for self-defense when using modern expanding hollowpoint loads. The .38 Super will provide greater stopping power with deeper penetration and larger wound cavities. However, .38 Special +P JHP rounds also meet FBI standards and the milder recoil makes repeat shots easier to control. Shooter ability and comfort should factor into the choice.
What firearms are available in the .38 Super vs. .38 Special?
The .38 Special is predominantly a revolver cartridge, used in guns like the S&W Model 10, Colt Detective Special, Ruger LCR, and others. The .38 Super is mainly a semi-automatic pistol cartridge used in the 1911 platform from brands including Colt, Springfield Armory, Kimber, Sig Sauer, and more.
Is ammo for .38 Super or .38 Special more available?
As one of the most popular revolver rounds, .38 Special ammunition is widely available at most retailers. .38 Super is not as common, but produced by major brands. Expect to search gun specialty stores or order .38 Super rounds online, with more limited selections.
Can you use a .38 Special in a .357 Magnum revolver?
Yes, the .38 Special can safely be fired from any revolver chambered for a .357 Magnum. The .357 Magnum round is dimensionally larger than the .38 Special, so the opposite does not apply. Using the .38 Special allows for more affordable practice in a .357 revolver.