September 15, 2021
By Michelle Hamilton, Field Editor
Designed in 1898, the .38 Smith & Wesson Special cartridge went on to become hugely popular. It was a staple with US LE agencies for some 70+ years, saw service with the US military in World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam. Plus, it was widely embraced by sportsmen, recreational shooters, and those interested in personal protection. Today the .38 Special remains popular, especially for personal protection. Recently David Fortier prodded me to share my thoughts on what .38 Special loads I would recommend for personal protection. What follows is based upon my personal experience testing the .38 Special fired from 2 to 6-inch barrels in 10% Ordnance Gel. This is the ammunition I received the most consistent performance from and what I carry.
Snub Nose .38 Special Revolvers
- Smith and Wesson Model 642
- Model 60 3-inch LadySmith
Recommended Loads for Personal Protection:
- Remington Golden Saber, 125-grain BJHP +P
- Federal HST Micro,130-grain JHP +P
Those are likely the only .38 Special hollow points that I would trust to give optimal performance in terms of penetration, consistent expansion, controlled expansion and consistent performance through FBI light barriers (such as heavy clothing). Remington's Golden Saber 125-grain load chronographs at an average of 890 fps. This is respectable and enough to promote consistent, controlled expansion of the projectile, along with respectable penetration in 10% calibrated gel covered with 4 layers of heavy ounce denim.
Here are the results of my testing the Remington Golden Saber 125-grain BJHP +P load in properly calibrated 10% Ordnance Gel. This load averaged 14.25 inches of penetration with minimal to no deviation in wound path. It exhibited uniform expansion, with an average recovered diameter of .609-inch. Retained weight of the recovered projectiles averaged 124.6-grains. This equates to 99.68% weight retention. Chronographed velocity from 10 feet showed an average velocity of 890 feet per second. This is an 8.71% decrease in muzzle velocity from the short barrels as opposed to advertised.
Minimal jacket separation was experienced with this non-bonded example of Remington's famed Golden Saber line. While they do produce a bonded variant, I believe that the initial lack of velocity from the .38 Special, compounded with the short barrel of a J-frame Smith & Wesson revolver, would lend itself to adverse and poor terminal performance and a high probability of minimal to no expansion.
Federal’s HST Micro 130-grain +P JHP also performed very well when I tested it in properly calibrated 10% Ordnance gel. It averaged 13 inches of penetration, with a slight downward deviation on the wound path. It provided consistent and uniform expansion, coming in at an average of .68 inch. Retained weight was 124.5 grains, meaning the projectile did shed 4.61% of its original projectile weight. This was noticed in small flakes of soft lead through the wound path, mostly within the first 4 to 5 inches, along with a uniform dispersal of denim. The HST has an advertised velocity of 890 feet per second, much like the Remington Golden Saber. Average chronograph velocities from 10 feet were slightly disappointing considering this cartridge is designed for snub nosed handguns, and the Micro line is designed for sub-compact firearms. Average velocity came in at 831 fps, which is a 6.63% decrease in velocity from advertised.
Federals HST offering was noticeably milder in the recoil, blast and flash signature. It was much easier to acquire fast and effective follow-up shots from the Airweight J-frame. Terminal performance was also good overall. I really do like the HST Micro overall, but the one noted downside is the ability to quickly and effectively use speed strips or speed loaders. The HST Micro 38, with its "wadcutter profile" makes quick reloads more cumbersome than offerings such as the Golden Saber or Speer's Short Barrel Gold Dot. This is likely one of the biggest drawback of this nearly flawless .38 Special offering. My opinion (and "solution") on the HST. Carry the HST in the gun and a speed strip/speed loader of Golden Saber, Gold Dot or your favorite traditional profile .38 Special load.
The drawbacks to using the mid-range weight class +P offerings are blast and recoil. The Remington 125-grain Golden Saber is an extraordinarily uncomfortable cartridge to shoot from Smith and Wesson's Airweight snubby offerings, with noticeable blast and muzzle flash. Recoil is abrupt, "snappy" and eventually painful after around 20 rounds or so. The web of the hand takes an absolute beating with this combination (and I shoot .44 Magnum and .45 Colt +P). This is largely due to size, weight and the lack of real estate of the grip.
Another note-worthy mention (while on the subject of wadcutters) is the 148-grain Mid-Range Wadcutter. This mild recoiling, highly accurate load is ultimately a cylinder of lead. While the projectile will not expand and will have little to no deformation, it offers minimal recoil, blast and flash. This allows for fast and accurate follow-up shots, making for a more effective defensive offering. The sharp shoulder of the projectile creates an impressive wound cavity, with penetration into the 15-17 inch mark (in calibrated gel). This makes it likely one of my favorite carry loads for a J-frame. Unfortunately, due to the cartridge profile, reloads are slower and more cumbersome, much like the Federal HST Micro. You can read Leroy Thompson’s article on Five-Shot Snub Nose Revolvers HERE.
Duty Size .38 Special Revolvers
With barrel lengths exceeding the 3-inch mark and venturing into the "duty size" revolver, ammunition selection becomes a bit more forgiving. Numerous premium offerings from reputable companies exist that perform well overall. Some of my personal favorites are considered "dated" in the modern world. Many will flock to the Winchester SXT offering, Silvertip, Federal Hydra-Shok, Speer Gold Dot, Cor-Bon or more exotic ammunition choices.
My personal favorites are the Winchester 110-grain +P+ SJHP. This is known as the "Treasury Load" to many. Another favorite is the 158-grain lead SWCHP (Semi Wadcutter Hollow Point) +P, more commonly known as the "FBI Load". This load will penetrate to 13 inches in gel meeting the FBI specifications and expand out to .52-inch. If using the "FBI Load" (158-grain LSWCHP +P), make sure to look into offerings from select brands. Some companies use a harder cast lead, making deformation and expansion difficult, especially through heavy clothing. I personally like Remington HTP/Express, Buffalo Bore ("standard pressure") soft lead and Winchester's Super X offerings. Those give the best terminal performance from 4-6 inch barrels, while offerings from Federal use a harder cast lead and often times have difficulty expanding. This is just my experience testing a limited number of the many available .38 Special offerings. I hope it helps you while shedding a bit of light on ammunition choices for the 38 Special. If you would like to read more on this subject you can read Patrick Sweeney’s thoughts on the best .38 Special loads for snub nosed revolvers HERE.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.
About the Author:
Michelle Hamilton has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice/Homeland Security, is a serious student of military history, small arms design and manufacturing and is a competitive shooter.