The .38 Special has been the most popular revolver caliber almost since Smith & Wesson introduced it in 1902. Starting as a black-powder cartridge, which accounts for the too long case, it was switched to smokeless as new powders came on the market. In the 1930s, bigger, stronger guns lead to higher-pressure loads, and you couldn’t be sure of which pressure-rated load you were buying until 1974, when SAAMI instituted the (+P) higher rating. The current SAAMI maximum pressures for the round are: standard .38 Special, 17,000 psi; .38 (+P), 18,500 psi; and .357 Magnum, 35,000 psi.
(+P) revolvers aren’t necessarily bigger today, just stronger. Even the lightweight pocket guns can be (+P) rated. Using (+P) ammo in a standard gun does not present a safety hazard, it’s just that the backstrap will stretch and the gun will generally loosen if too many (+P) loads are fired. We don’t think you can fire enough actual lifesaving self-defense (+P) loads to hurt a standard revolver; unless you’re unusually lucky and have great genes, you won’t live that long. Just don’t use them for target practice or plinking, but do use them where it counts because they’re definitely more effective. That’s the reason we chose the higher-pressure loads for a recent test of self-defense .38 Special cartridges.
We gathered up ten rounds tipped with jacketed hollow points, which our previous cartridge tests have shown to be more effective than other bullets. We chose 125-grain bullets for uniformity; most of the the manufacturers load this weight. All the ammunition was ordered from Cheap Shot, a mail-order ammunition retailer. We’ve found Cheap Shot’s prices to be heavily discounted and its service to be fast.[PDFCAP(1)].
In descending order, rounds we preferred were Cor-Bon’s 125-grain JHP (+P), the Remington 125-grain Semi-JKTD HP (+P), the 125-grain Golden Saber (+P), also from Remington, Speer’s 125-grain Gold Dot (+P), the Federal 129-grain Hydra-Shok (+P) and 125-grain Classic (+P) rounds, and Winchester’s 125-grain STHP SX (+P). Cartridges we would pass on include CCI’s 125-grain Blazer (+P), the PMC 125-grain 38D (+P), and Glaser 80-grain Blue (+P) cartridge.
Here’s how we arrived at these conclusions.
How We Tested
We tested for accuracy by shooting a five-shot group with a revolver at 25 yards using a Case Guard plastic rest. The gun had an 8.5-inch barrel. While some were better than others, all ten of these loads are more than accurate enough for the purpose at 25 yards. (Remember that different guns will show different results with the same ammunition.) Velocity was checked with an Oehler Model 35 chronograph. Terminal performance was evaluated by shooting at least three shots into a block of ballistic gelatin,
To be effective, a bullet must transfer its kinetic energy to vital organs of the target. It needs to stop, or at least slow down, deep in the target to do this. Thus, we need both expansion and penetration if the bullet is to be effective. As some deer hunters know, a bullet that doesn’t expand just pokes a pencil-sized hole and lets the deer run off; so does a bullet that disintegrates on the surface. We measured the expansion of these revolver bullets and reported their expansion ratio. That’s the increase in frontal area divided by the original frontal area. If a bullet failed to expand, its expansion ratio would be 0 percent. We also measured penetration.
Kind and Knox Ordnance Gelatin was used as our expansion and penetration medium. It is formulated to resemble mammal flesh and blood as closely as possible. Using gelatin, every bullet encounters exactly the same impact medium, a result not possible with actual meat and bone. This allows the relative performance of each bullet to be judged more fairly. We measured and recorded the penetration and expansion of each bullet fired into our 18-inch block of gelatin. Only one bullet completely penetrated our block of gelatin; it totally failed to expand. All the other bullets expanded, at least to some extent, and penetrated at least 13 inches; 12 inches is generally considered the acceptable minimum penetration for defense loads.
In previous testing we tried to duplicate the effect of clothing by placing a patch of cloth in front of our gelatin block. It confounded some bullets; we noted that a few bullets failed to expand, and we found bits of cloth in their hollow points when we recovered them. Further experimenting showed wet cotton cloth plastered on the front of the gelatin usually inhibited expansion, while loose insulating jacket material in front of the gelatin had no effect. To identify worst-case conditions with only one shot, we tried filling the hollow point with bits of cloth before shooting. They fell out, so we glued them in with modeling clay. That worked well, but it turned out that the clay was the effective filler that inhibited expansion with every shot.
Thus, the use of the clay exhibits a worst-case condition. You can be certain that no clothing combination will inhibit expansion as much as our clay plug in the hollow point did. We also found, as to be expected, that the bullets with less expansion penetrated deeper, but it’s not an effect you can count on. The reported penetration is the worst-case condition, as found, with no clay in the hollow point. Chamber pressures aren’t usually a consideration with commercial loads—until now we’ve never encountered a factory load that was dangerously over pressure. It’s generally a handloader’s problem. But here we’re dealing with high-pressure (+P) loads that are going to be fired in a revolver that wasn’t always designed to handle them. This calls for a close look at the pressures these loads produce. To do this, we used a strain gauge sensor with a peak pressure transducer. There’s no practical way to affix a strain gauge to a revolver (or semi-auto either). We solved this problem by using the handgun pressure gun described in the June 1997 issue of the American Gunsmith, a sister Belvoir publication. Rifle shooters would not be satisfied with this procedure; rifle chamber pressure is a function of both the load and the barrel. But handgun shooters don’t have this problem; one barrel is about the same as another. We did find two high pressure loads that should be used with a full measure of caution, if at all.
Here’s how each load fared in these tests, and our recommendations:
Gun Tests’ Can’t-Miss Bullets
Cor-Bon 125-grain JHP (+P). Our recommendation: Buy this excellent load if you can find it.
Cheap Shot couldn’t find it for us initially. We found a box in a gun shop after the testing was done and had to add it in later. But we’re glad we did. This load has almost everything going for it. Velocity and energy are head and shoulders above its nearest competitor. Expansion is good; pressure is mild, hardly above standard .38 Special value. Penetration is nearly the best. But it didn’t do so well on the paper target. It shot the largest group at 6.5 inches and had the largest standard deviation at 82 fps. It may shoot better in your gun, and even if it doesn’t, 6.5 inches at 25 yards is good enough for self-defense shooting. We rate it the Best of Test.
Remington 125-grain Semi-JKTD HP (+P). Our Recommendation: Best Buy.
This load is much more accurate and has the best expansion of the test members. You can’t go wrong with this load, but you can go wrong with the Remington brand. There are at least 10 different Remington .38 Special loads, and we don’t think eight of the others are nearly this good. Caveat emptor. Best of all, this excellent load is the least expensive of the loads we consider satisfactory.
Gun Tests Says: Worth A Look
Our Recommendation: There is little difference between the next five loads listed below; they’re all good but they lack the full measure of energy and expansion of the excellent loads above. Still, we recommend you buy any one of these good loads if you can’t find either of the two excellent loads listed above.
Remington 125-grain Golden Saber (+P).More expensive than the Remington JHP above, probably because it has a brass bullet jacket. It has the deepest penetration of the test, and the best energy-expansion combination of the “good” loads.
Speer 125-grain Gold Dot (+P). The Gold Dot is a bonded bullet. Note how the lead core adheres to the leaves of the mushroomed jacket. It’s made like the most expensive rifle bullets to control expansion, but bonding isn’t necessary in a handgun bullet. They’re not fast enough to disintegrate on impact; we don’t see the lead core popping out of the jacket in the gelatin. But even if the bonding isn’t necessary, it’s an excellent bullet and a good load.
Federal 129-grain Hydra-Shok (+P). Buy this load if you have any reservations about your revolver’s ability to withstand (+P) ammunition’s high pressure. We measured only it at only 16,900 psi. That’s below the rating for a standard .38 Special. While it has the lowest velocity and energy of any of the tested loads, the bullet design compensates for it by expanding at a lower velocity. It uses that bullet with the little lead pin in the center of the hollow point. In general, this load does as well as the other loads in its class and does so at a much lower pressure. Best accuracy of the test, too.
Federal 125-grain Classic (+P). This is also a good Federal load. But be aware that Federal has at least 14 other .38 Special loads. We tested what we thought were the best two; some of the others may not be this good.
Winchester 125-grain STHP SX (+P). Another reasonably good load from the middle of the pack.
Gun Tests’ Don’t-Buy Advice
Our recommendation: We weren’t satisfied with the following loads. We wouldn’t buy them for self-defense purposes.
CCI 125 grain Blazer (+P). We wouldn’t buy this ammunition even though it is the cheapest of the test. It didn’t expand enough (only 12 percent in our plugged hollowpoint test) to suit us. You don’t want to buy it to practice or plink either, in our view. Blazer sells several loads, less expensive than this one, that are better suited for target shooting. Further, the aluminum case and Berdan primer used in this load can’t be reloaded practically.
PMC 125-grain 38D (+P). We don’t think you ought to shoot this ammunition in anything less than a .357 Magnum revolver. The chamber pressure we measured, 20,400 psi, is too high for .38 Specials. Even if the pressure was within limits, it’s not a satisfactory load because the bullet didn’t expand at all in gelatin. The other PMC ammunition in this test was nickel plated to prevent corrosion from leather belt loops; these loads come in a plain brass case.
Glaser 80 grain Blue (+P). Another high-pressure load at 25,200 psi. It shoots a metal bullet jacket full of No. 12 shot for indoor use. Penetration in the gelatin was limited to only 6 inches, but previous testing has shown that this bullet will penetrate several interior walls without mushrooming. We don’t think you ought to use it in any .38 Special.
Gun Tests Recommends
If you’re a long-time GT reader, you’ll note that Federal’s Classic load rated a “buy” recommendation in this test, and it indeed performed quite well. However, last year (June 1998) we weren’t satisfied with the same load in .40 S&W. But three years ago (September 1996) we found it was an excellent .357 Magnum load. We have noted this same fluctuation in quality in Winchester, Remington, Speer, and PMC ammunition.
Thus, this easy-to-remember advice: If you buy your ammunition by brand name or forget exactly which load we recommended, we have two words for you: Buy Cor-Bon. We haven’t seen these wild swings in this brand’s quality over either time or caliber, Cor-Bon is always at or near the top of the listing. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find. If you’re buying some other brand we suggest you take Gun Tests with you to the store and match the specific cartridge designation and box design (see photos) to what you find on the shelf.
For self-defense use with .38 Special revolvers, our first choices would be:
ဵ Cor-Bon 125-grain JHP (+P).
ဵ Remington 125-grain Semi-JKTD HP (+P).
Other rounds worth considering:
ဵ Remington 125-grain Golden Saber (+P).
ဵ Speer 125-grain Gold Dot (+P).
ဵ Federal 129-grain Hydra-Shok (+P).
ဵ Federal 125-grain Classic (+P).
ဵ Winchester 125-grain STHP SX (+P).
Cartridges we advise you don’t buy include:
ဵ CCI’s 125-grain Blazer (+P)
ဵ PMC 125-grain 38D (+P).
ဵ Glaser 80-grain Blue (+P) cartridge.