The .38 Special is one of the oldest handgun cartridges still in common use, and perhaps the only one that originated as a blackpowder loading to remain in use as an everyday self defense cartridge. The .38 Special was originally developed as an improvement on the .38 Long Colt, at the time a standard handgun cartridge in use by US military forces.
The anemic performance of the .38 Long Colt was well known, with numerous instances of people having been shot multiple times with it and continuing to fight as though they hadn’t been wounded at all. The original loadings of the .38 Long Colt featured a 150-grain bullet traveling at around 700 feet per second, giving muzzle energy only about 25-30% greater than a .22 Long Rifle.
The .38 Special built on the .38 Long Colt by increasing the case length and increasing the amount of powder used. While originally loaded with blackpowder, smokeless powder loads were developed within a year of the cartridge’s introduction. Some of the most popular loads in the early 20th century featured a 158-grain bullet traveling at 850 feet per second, for about 250 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.
While that was a significant improvement on the .38 Long Colt’s performance, it still fell far below the energy levels of other contemporary handgun cartridges such as 9mm Luger and .45 ACP. That was why the .357 Magnum was developed, to provide revolver shooters with a more powerful cartridge than the .38 Special.
Improvements in powder technology and metallurgy have led to more powerful loadings of .38 Special today, as well as stronger revolvers capable of firing those loads. Modern .38 Special +P ammunition can feature 125-grain bullets traveling at over 1,200 feet per second, 158-grain bullets at 1,000 feet per second, or 170-grain bullets at 950 feet per second. Those loads rival 9mm +P and .40 S&W loads.
Given the popularity of .38 Special revolvers over the past 120+ years, .38 Special ammunition is found just about anywhere guns and ammo are sold. Steel-cased ammunition can be found for as little as 15 cents a round, while brass-cased ammunition can be found for as little as 20 cents a round.
Although there are certainly more powerful cartridges available today, the .38 Special is no slouch. And with modern bullet design, it can be a highly effective personal defense cartridge. If you’re looking for a cartridge that can serve you well in a survival situation, you could certainly pick worse than the .38 Special.