The Versatile .38 Special (and .357)
© 2014 – Ed Harris
Which Is Best As One Handgun for Non-Hobbyist?
article is a rework of one I wrote in 1993. I provided some updates, but the
essentials haven’t changed very much.)
Casual shooters, who are NOT handgun enthusiasts, frequently ask what ONE handgun they should buy for home defense and sport. They would never use a handgun for big game hunting, but would carry it on fishing, camping or hunting trips, use it for informal target shooting, and depend on it, if ever needed, for home defense. They don't want a "collection," but ONE handgun to serve multiple needs in a family where shooting is not a hobby activity.
The requirements are safety, reliability, durability, accuracy, and modest cost of gun and ammunition. Also important is suitability for use by the "female significant other." These parameters haven't changed since Smith & Wesson first introduced its famed Military and Police Model in 1903. Julian S. Hatcher said, in the Textbook of Pistols and Revolvers (1935): "Were it necessary for the average shooter to own and use but one revolver, it should be a .38 Special." This is still true today. The late Elmer Keith, who favored large guns and powerful loads, said in his book Sixguns (1955), of the .38 Special, when loaded with the semi-wadcutter bullet he made famous, as "the best to be had for hunting small game with the sixgun," high praise indeed from Keith.
Colt Police Positive 4" Barrel - .38 Special
Remington “KLEANBORE” .38 Special Police Service Ammunition Circa 1935
USGI .38 Special Ball Ammo – 1960’s
The .38 Special still makes sense, because, modern ammunition options make it better than ever. Sound, used, .38 Special revolvers are still reasonably priced compared to modern combat auto pistols. Ammunition is still common, is produced in great enough volume that it remains relatively inexpensive and it available everywhere.
The .38 Special is the most accurate revolver cartridge ever developed. Ten-shot groups fired from industrial test barrels or 5-shot ones from quality target revolvers are frequently 1-1/2" or less at 50 yards. The very best service-grade revolvers produce will groups of this order at 25 yards.
Targer of Colt Old Model @ 25 Yards Saeco Double Ended Wadcutter, 3.5 grs. Bullseye
Factory .38 Special loads available today provide greater variety than for any other handgun cartridge. Hand loading provides even more flexibility for those who do. The .38 Special is generally deemed the minimum revolver cartridge suitable for personal protection.
While the .38 Special is no longer the duty gun of choice for police or military use, it enjoys great popularity in states where civilian concealed carry is permitted. While it is true that small, pocket revolvers are now available chambered for the .357 Magnum, using .38 Special ammunition in small concealable revolvers which weigh less than 20 ozs. makes more sense for a variety of reasons.
While a .22 rim-fire is most often chosen as the outdoorsman's kit gun, the owner of “one handgun” can use the .38 Special for this purpose, and find it more effective than a rimfire. When outdoor trips are short, few rounds are needed. In snake country I carry a Speer shotload first-up, with the rest of the rounds in the cylinder being +P semi-wadcutter hollowpoints, such as the Winchester X39SPD, Federal's 38G or the Remington R38S12, aka "The FBI load." Three Bianchi speed strips fit into into an A.G. Russell belt pouch, tabs up, without looking like an ammo pouch, printing any "speed loader bulge" or rattling on your belt, in your coat pocket or day pack. For longer trips or if I plan any serious plinking, I'll pack an extra box or two of wadcutters.
A.G. Russell Belt Pouch
The non-enthusiast seeking "one handgun" should select a steel- frame, “police-service-type,” double-action .38 Special with either a 3" or 4" barrel. A .357 Magnum revolver of these general specifications is also OK, because a .357 can use any .38 Special ammunition. Revolvers designed for magnum ammunition are more durably constructed, and won’t loosen up with frequent use of .38 Special +P loads. In states where concealed carry is legal a used 4” service revolver will usually be as much as $100 cheaper than a 2” snubbie of similar model and condition and a .38 Special as much as $50 cheaper than a similar .357 model.
For field use a gun having adjustable sights is a plus. A 4” barrel is easier to shoot accurate and is still easily concealed in a proper holster. For most purposes you will want an inside-waistband type with reinforced opening which permits one-handed re-holstering such as El Paso Saddlery's C-Force.
“Snubbies” are most popular today as carry guns. But do not buy a snubby unless you are willing to practice with it A LOT. I often carry one myself, but they do lose some ballistic performance and are MUCH more difficult to learn to shoot well. While snubbies have advantages in the close-quarter backup role, they require frequent practice to maintain proficiency. Remember that for our scenario here we are talking about ONE gun for the non-hobby shooter...
Colt "Snubbie" in .38 Special with "Can Keeper" Ammo Storage
Wadcutters are ideal for most general use including field shooting. They are accurate, give a good knockdown blow on small game, and don't destroy much meat.. They are a valid choice for defense carry in "airweight" or alloy-frame guns which cannot handle +P ammunition. Novices should use wadcutters until able to six shots DA at ten yards into a 6 inch group reliably. After developing some skill, experiment with heavier +P loads, in guns suitable for them, to become accustomed to their additional recoil. +P ammo is not for casual shooting, but for serious defense carry against two or four-legged varmints when more power is needed.
The .38 Special +P with proper ammunition is fully adequate for personal defense. The Winchester X38SPD, Federal 38G and Remington R38S12 158-gr. all-lead hollow points provide stopping power equal to .45 ACP hardball. This represents the upper limit of power the average person can handle.
In light alloy frames the most effective non+P load is the Winchester 110-gr. Silvertip HP. It is the only load which I have found which expand reliably from a 2" barrel. Recoil is mild, like shooting a wadcutter, so this load is easily managed by the female significant other who is recoil-shy. In my experience the 125-gr. jacketed HP loads require a 4" barrel for normal performance, but the major-brand name, Federal, Winchester, Remington and Speer factory +P "personal protection loads," such as Hydrashok, Silvertip, Golden Sabre and Gold Dot excel from those.
Ten years ago the market was flooded with police turn-in .38 Specials in good condition which you could get for under $200. These days you must shop around to find a used revolver which isn’t worn out and you can expect to pay $300 or more for a used S&W Model 10 and $450 or more for a used Ruger SP101. If you don’t know revolvers take someone with you to shop who is. You do not want to buy into a "gunsmithing project," because you can easily invest more in fixing up a used revolver than it is worth.
In new guns look at the Ruger GP100 or SP101. In used guns the S&W Model 36 or Model 60 Chief's Special, with 3" heavy barrel, and the older K-frame Models 10 and 13 heavy barrel, or the stainless Model 64 in 3" round butt, or 4" square butt configuration are good choices, if you can find one.
Simplify your ammunition supply. If you have a light alloy frame gun use mid-range target wadcutters for practice. In steel frame guns practice with cast lead flat nose "Cowboy" loads or semi-wadcutter field loads. For actual defense carry use only factory loaded +P lead hollow point or JHP "personal protection loads." You may also want to keep a few Speer shotshells around if you live in snake country. These loads really handle all uses for a .38 revolver. Competent use of .357 ammunition requires a higher level of training and expertise which generally departs from our "non-hobbyist" scenario.
The muzzle of a revolver should always be elevated when ejecting fired cases, so that any unburned powder particles fall out with the empties, rather than under the extractor, or between the crane and frame, which could tie up the gun. Smart revolver shooters always carry a toothbrush in their kit for cleaning residue out from under the extractor. If you haven't shot a revolver before, my advice is to make friends with an old retired cop who carried one for at least 20 years and ask him to show you how to properly clean and maintain it. I would also get a copy of Ed Lovett's book, The Snubby Revolver.
“Snubbie” with Cast Hollow Point Bullets…
If you don't currently own a handgun, but have been thinking about getting one, you can't go wrong with a sturdy 4" .38 Special (or .357).