Self-Defense .38 Spl. +P Loads: Our Pick Is Winchesters SXT

Our tests of commercially available .38+P revolver cartridges from Federal, Winchester, and Remington show good to acceptable accuracy results and very manageable recoil.


The .38 Special is one of the oldest (1902) and most popular revolver cartridges still in production. The .357 Magnum cartridge (1935) is also very popular, but its higher cost and significant recoil makes it less popular than the .38 Special. .38 Special can be shot out of .357 Magnum revolvers, but not vice versa.

A good halfway measure for the .38 Special shooter who wants more oomph in his defensive ammo is the choice of shooting higher-pressure +P ammo, as long as you realize it may not be safe to shoot .38 Special +P loads out of all .38 Special revolvers. Consult with your gun’s manufacturer to make sure. So whether you have a .38 Special revolver for which you would like a more effective defensive load, or you have a .357 Magnum revolver in which you want a lowering-recoiling load, the .38 Special +P could be just the right solution.

To test which +P .38 Special load we would prefer, we took a stock Smith & Wesson Model 686-2 with a 4-inch barrel that, at the time of testing, had already fired approximately 1000 rounds. Into the gun we fed one round at a time, always into the same chamber of the cylinder, defense-appropriate .38 Special +P hollowpoint loads: Winchester’s 125-grain and 130-grain JHP and SXT hollowpoints (Load Nos. USA38JHP and S38SP, respectively); Federal’s Premium Personal Defense 129-grain Hydra-Shoks (Load No. P38HS1), and Remington’s 125-grain brass-jacketed hollowpoint (Load No. GS38SB).

Pricewise, a Houston gun store sold the Federal P38HS1 129-grain Hydra-Shoks for $13.97 per box of 20, or 70 cents a round. The Winchester USA38JHP 125-grain hollowpoints sold for $8 per box of 50, or 16 cents a round. The Winchester S38SP SXT 130-grain jacketed HPs were $15.97 per 20-round box, or 80 cents a round. Remington’s 125-grain hollowpoints were $14.97/25, or 60 cents each.

Midway sells the Federal Hydra-Shoks for $12.99/20, or 65 cents each. Winchester 125-grain JHPs are $12.99/50, or 26 cents each, and the Winchester 130-grain SXTs run $11.99/20, or 60 cents each. The Remington Golden Sabers are $14.89/25, or 60 cents each.

Our testing procedure had several stages in it. If a round was found wanting at any stage, it was removed from the rest of the test, and the survivors continued. The stages are described briefly below; a more detailed testing procedure can be viewed and downloaded free of charge at Or log on to, click on Tools & Techniques, click on the Ammunition header, and the test protocol will be the first entry.

• Reliability. Every round fired passed the reliability portion of the test. The gun worked perfectly. Our test gun has never malfunctioned.

• Velocity. Velocities were recorded by firing 20-shot strings over a Oehler Model 35P with proof channel chronograph. Every load met our standard for consistency, except the Remington Golden Saber with a Standard Deviation of 25 (our standard is 20). The results appear [PDFCAP(1)].

• Accuracy. The Winchester SXT was the most accurate in the test. The Winchester JHP and Remington Golden Saber met the accuracy standard of 2.0 inches at 25 yards, but the Federal Hydra-Shok just fell short. The results appear in the nearby table.

• Recoil Level. Information for all four loads is provided in the accompanying table. The felt recoil for all of the loads was nearly identical. All of the loads were very controllable. In a standard-weight gun like the model 686 we used, these loads exhibit a good combination of muzzle energy and low recoil.

According to Modern Reloading by Richard Lee, the .38 Special 125-grain jacketed bullet can be loaded to produce muzzle velocities from 840 to 1169 fps (130-grain from 900 to 1077 fps) and the .357 magnum 125-grain jacketed bullet can be loaded to produce muzzle velocities from 1060 to 1822 fps (130 grain 1267 fps to 1759 fps). So you can see these +P loadings are about 100 fps faster than the standard .38 Special loads, but about 500 fps slower than mid-velocity .357 magnum loadings.

• Penetration, Expansion, and Weight Retention. All four loads were fired into water. The Federal Hydra-Shok totally penetrated three jugs (but did not penetrate the fourth) and was thus eliminated from consideration as a carry load, at the final test, for dangerous over-penetration, especially on a frontal shot, given the human body’s narrower chest-to-back diameter. The recovered bullet measured 0.63 inch. The bullet weight was 125.8 grains, 2 grains less than the unfired bullet.

The Remington 125-grain jacketed hollowpoint penetrated 15 inches of water; it came to rest in jug #3 but had hit the back of the jug hard enough to mark it. Thus its penetration, though it may delight those adhering to the deeper-is-better school of stopping power theory, was still too deep for our tastes. The recovered bullet had expanded to 0.65 inch, the most in the test, and weighed 123.9 grains. The unfired bullet weighed 124.2 grains.

We fired the Winchester 130-grain SXT into water. We really wanted to know what to expect from the most accurate load in the test. The Silvertip penetrated 15 inches of water, which is better than the Federal 129-grain jacketed hollowpoint, though still a bit on the deep side. The recovered bullet measured 0.61 inch, smallest in the test, and weighed 128.8 grains (same as the unfired bullet).

The Winchester 125-grain JHP penetrated 12 inches of water and retained an estimated 100 percent of its weight at 124.5 grains. The bullet measured 0.64 inch. This round achieved optimum penetration.

Gun Tests Recommends
• Winchester SXT 130-grain jacketed hollowpoint (Load No. S38SP), approximately $11.99 per 20-round box. Our Pick. This was the most accurate ammunition (0.9 inch at 25 yards) with good penetration (15 inches), although a little more than ideal. It worked with perfect reliability in our test gun. Its standard deviation of 8 fps was the best in the test. It generated manageable recoil, as did everything else in the caliber. Its expansion was slightly less than the others, but not enough to be significant, and weight retention was excellent.

• Winchester 125-grain hollowpoint (Load No. USA38JHP), $8.99 per box of 50. Best Buy. This ammo was accurate (1.4 inches at 25 yards) and had ideal penetration of 12 inches, with expansion as good or better than most of the other loads. It was also the lowest cost by far. It was perfectly reliable in our test gun. Its standard deviation of 16 fps was within our test range.

• Federal 129-grain Hydra-Shok Hollowpoints (Load No. P38HS1), $12.99 per box of 25; Don’t Buy. This round overpenetrated (18 inches), and lost the most bullet mass (2 grains) of any of the rounds in the test. It also had one of the highest cost-per-round figures.

• Remington 125-grain Golden Saber Hollowpoints (Load No. GS38SB), $14.89 per box of 25; Don’t Buy. This round penetrated more than we liked and had the worst standard deviation, exceeding our maximum of 20 fps.

• Federal Cartridge, (800) 322-2342,
• Winchester/Olin, (618) 258-3566,
• Remington, (800) 243-9700,

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