The 38 Special has been around since 1899. Originally loaded with a 158-grain roundnose bullet at 800 fps, the 38 Special has been regarded as the most powerful cartridge the occasional shooter may use well. In a mid-size revolver, the 38 is docile, accurate, and easily controlled. The problem is, wound ballistics are unimpressive, and the cartridge has limited wound potential in the standard loading. The development of quality expanding bullets or bullets with a flat nose and cutting shoulder have resulted in considerable improvement, to the point the 38 Special makes the grade for personal defense in nearly everyone’s book. We took a hard look at what we were able to obtain in today’s miserable supply situation. What follows is a test of some of the better defense loads available in 38 Special.
We had originally intended to test these loads in both 4-inch-barrel and snubnose 38 Special revolvers. This wasn’t possible. For the first time in many years, we simply did not have enough ammunition to do the test as we wanted to. We were able to do the penetration and expansion testing in water jugs and also to do a 25-yard accuracy test using a 4-inch-barrel Smith & Wesson Model 66 revolver. In some cases accuracy was excellent, and always good. We were able to conduct some testing with a snubnose Smith & Wesson 640 Pro, but not with all of the loads, but enough to get an idea of short-barrel performance. During the recent pandemic and handgun shortage, 4-inch-barrel revolvers have been flying off the shelf. The reason for that, we think, is that a 4-inch-barrel 38 Special revolver is among the best house-defense guns available. It is also a fine recreational shooter and a good small-game revolver for those who master the piece.
When you look over these ballistics, they may not seem impressive compared to the 9mm +P or 357 Magnum. This is true. On the other hand, none of the 38 Special loads were difficult to control; in fact, even those with the most energy and the ones fired from a snubnose revolver were not a chore to control. Terminal ballistics are much superior to the old RNL loading. If accuracy can make up for power, the 38 Special punctuates the argument.
Black Hills HoneyBadger 100-Grain +P D38N4
During the accuracy testing, a rater pointed out that the HoneyBadger cut a ragged hole in the paper, while all of the other loads simply pressed a round hole in the target. The HoneyBadger is a solid-copper bullet with flutes cut into the bullet. There was definitely some hydraulic distribution at work as the first water jug was burst apart, as if it had shot with a high-velocity hollowpoint. At 20 inches, penetration is ideal. This load is very easy to handle. Penetration isn’t compromised by the light bullet. We are comfortable with the terminal ballistics potential and find the HoneyBadger a good choice.
GUN TESTS GRADE: A
Fiocchi +P 110-Grain XTPHP 38XTP25
This is the fastest hollowpoint tested, at almost 1100 fps average. The Hornady XTP bullet is used in this load. The 110-grain hollowpoint penetrates on the long side at 24 inches, with a 0.50-inch recovered diameter. This is a good choice for those facing attackers wearing heavy clothing or who crouch behind cover, or if animal defense is part of your threat profile. While it is a good load, we rated it down a grade based on too much penetration. We feel 18 to 20 inches is more desirable. We were also able to test this loading in a snubnose revolver. Almost 160 fps velocity was lost between the 4-inch S&W and the snubbie. Performance settled into decent category without overpenetration, with a 0.48-inch recovered diameter and 19 inches of penetration in water.
GUN TESTS GRADE: B
GUN TESTS GRADE: A (SNUBNOSE)
Federal Premium Punch 120-Grain +P PD38P1
The Federal Punch is designed for home defense and concealed carry rather than service use. If cops still used revolvers, the Hydra-Shok would be among the best loads. The Punch has slightly less recoil, expands a bit more, and penetrates less. This load isn’t a bonded type and is designed to be offered at a lower price than some of Federal’s premium loads.
GUN TESTS GRADE: A (BEST BUY)
Buffalo Bore 125-Grain Low Flash Standard Pressure SB 20E/20
This load clocked more than the rating, as Buffalo Bore often does. Accuracy is good, and the load is indeed low flash, as advertised, although none of the loads in this test had excess muzzle blast. The 1080 fps 125-grain load exhibited the second greatest expansion of any load tested, and it had the most energy. Based purely on terminal ballistics, this cartridge is a formidable choice.
GUN TESTS GRADE: A (OUR PICK)
Black Hills Factory New 125-Grain JHP +P D38N2
The Black Hills Ammunition load clocked 930 fps. The overall impression of this loading is ease of control. The 125-grain JHP penetrates a long 24 inches, which some find desirable. Expansion is modest but reliable. The XTP bullet exhibited consistent expansion. We rated this load down a grade based on its long 24-inch penetration.
GUN TESTS GRADE: B
Fiocchi +P 125-Grain XTP JHP 38XTPP25
This load also uses the XTP bullet. At a strong 1060 fps from the 4-inch barrel, this load retained 980 fps in a 2-inch-barrel revolver. We liked the balance of expansion and penetration. Compared to the Federal Punch, the difference is slight; either would be a good choice. The Fiocchi load is easily the most accurate load tested. The 4-inch-barrel Model 66 is accurate and proven, but a 1-inch 25-yard group is exceptional.
GUN TESTS GRADE: A
Remington Golden Saber 125-Grain +P GS38SB
When we purchased the Remington load, it showed how far the ammo crisis has gone — it was parceled out in two six-round baggies! So, we fired two five-shot groups after firing two cartridges for ballistic testing. While we feel the results of our tests are valid, we have had to do two rather than three five-shot groups and two bullets into the water rather than three. The Remington load isn’t the fastest load with the most energy, but it has the greatest expansion. Accuracy is good. This load is worth looking for.
GUN TESTS GRADE: A
Federal Premium LE 129-Grain Hydra-Shok JHP P38HS1G
This is a stout load at 950 fps. Accuracy is excellent. The Hydra-Shok exhibits good expansion, and penetration is 20 inches in water, translating to about 16 to 18 inches in gelatin. We use water because it is easy to obtain and offers repeatable and viable results. Anyone from Maine to California may confirm our results and compare to a test load to their own load of choice. Expansion is 0.53 inch. This loading, with its combination of excellent accuracy and a good balance of expansion and penetration, is a good choice.
GUN TESTS GRADE: A
The Bottom Line
We set out to test a number of promising loads, some new, some old standbys, with good results. In this day of get what you can, it is good to have an idea of what works and what doesn’t work.
All loads tested exhibited a clean powder burn and good accuracy, hallmarks of the 38 Special. None exhibited shallow penetration. The expanding-bullet loads all exhibited consistent expansion. We prefer some loads to the others, but shot placement will carry the day. Any of these are acceptable for personal defense, in our estimation.
We think the new Federal Punch ammunition is a good choice, if you can get it. The Black Hills Ammunition HoneyBadger is a good example of cutting-edge all-copper bullet technology, and the Fiocchi load with that bullet makes an excellent showing. Based on terminal ballistics, Buffalo Bore’s low-flash defense load is at the top of the heap.
38 Special Performance Data
|Bullet Weight (Grains)||Manufacturer, Brand, and Product Number||Average Velocity (fps)||Standard Deviation (fps)||Muzzle Energy (Foot-Pounds)||IPSC Power Factor||Average Accuracy (Inches)||Expanded Width (Inches)||Retained Weight (Grains)||Retained Weight (Percentage)||Penetration In Water (Inches)||Gun Tests Grade|
|100||Black Hills HoneyBadger +P D38N4||1099||29||268||110||2||0.36||100||1||20||A|
|110||Fiocchi Ammunition +P XTPHP 38XTP25||1099||28||295||121||1.2||0.5||110||1||24||B|
|120||Federal Premium Punch +P PD38P1||931||29||231||112||2||0.55||120||1||18||A|
|125||Buffalo Bore Standard Pressure SB 20E/20||1080||19||324||135||1.4||0.57||125||1||18||A|
|125||Black Hills Factory New JHP +P D38N2||930||14||240||116||1.3||0.44||125||1||24||B|
|125||Fiocchi Ammunition +P XTP JHP 38XTPP25||1060||26||312||133||1||0.54||124||0.99||20||A|
|125||Remington Golden Saber +P GS38SB||938||14||244||117||2.1||0.61||124||0.99||18||A|
|129||Federal Premium LE Hydra-Shok JHP P38HS1G||950||33||258|
Notes: Average Velocity and Standard Deviation readings were obtained by firing 20 rounds over a Competition Electronics Pro Chrono. Ambient temperature: 90 degrees. Elevation: 815 feet above sea level. The accuracy figures are the average of three.