.38 Special Ballistics – Snubnose

Get Shorty

While I was caught short on 9mm ammo to test, I had plenty of .38 laying around so I decided to test that.

I discovered some pretty troubling things.

To be clear: most manufacturers publish their ballistics numbers based upon testing that uses a 4″ vented test barrel.  Testing that same ammo in a snubnose .38 will result in lower velocities; that’s to be expected.  How much lower?  Sometimes a little, and sometimes a lot!

Hollow-point bullets are designed to expand properly within a certain envelope of velocities.  If the bullet is moving slower than the minimum of the envelope, the bullet won’t expand (resulting in deeper penetration and less “stopping power”).  If the bullet is moving faster than the maximum of the envelope, the bullet may fragment instead of expanding (creating a shallower wound channel and less penetration).

If you are going to entrust your life to a gun/ammo combination, you had better make sure you know exactly what you are using and have a good grasp of what it will (and will not) do.

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The .38 Special is a popular round with a long history.  It debuted as a black-powder round, which explains its too-large case volume when compared to more modern cartridges.  The standard-pressure .38 Special is loaded to 17,000psi, and the hotter +P .38 Special is loaded to 18,500psi.  That’s pretty pedestrian.  The 9mm for instance is loaded to 35,000psi, with the 9mm+P upping the ante to 38,500psi.  That’s why the shorter 9mm can push a bullet of the same weight much faster than a .38 will.

Testing was done with a S&W model 649 .357Mag with a standard 2.125″ barrel.  We use a Shooting Chrony F-1 to take readings.  For the record, I store ammunition indoors, in O-ring sealed containers with desiccant in them.  So once it is in my possession it stays at a pretty consistent temperature (except for the occasional statewide power outage).  I cannot speak to what conditions the ammunition is subjected to before I buy it.

I started with some target ammo:

Blazer TMJ CF

This surprised me.  I expected some loss of speed, but the dramatically lower velocity vs. factory #s was huge!

American Eagle (Federal) RNL

Again with the huge drop in velocity.  But, this ammo was very consistent in its velocities.

Now onto some defensive ammo:

PMC .38+P 110gr JHP

This was older ammo (10 years or more), with the old red & white packaging.  The average velocity isn’t bad, but there were some pretty low measurements in there so I shot an extra cylinder of it to see if it would happen again, and it did.

Federal .38+P Nyclad HP

This is not the standard-pressure load with the extra soft lead bullet.  This is the +P with a harder alloy.  And have to say that I am underwhelmed.  That is a pathetic level of energy.

Federal Personal Defense 110gr HydraShok

While not as awful as the +P performance (!), this isn’t very impressive.  If you are using an old gun, or are limited to non +P ammo, this might be an option.  But notice that the velocities are all over the place; for a premium product from a top manufacturer, this is troubling.  This ammo is between 1 and 3 years old.

Remington Express 110gr SJHP

While more consistent than the Federal ammo, the velocity & energy are feeble.

Winchester USA (White Box) .38+P 125gr JHP

Damn.  Another slowpoke.

Cor-Bon .38+P 110gr JHP

This is an older version of the 110gr round from Cor-Bon, with the velocity & energy printed on the box.  And what a nice change of pace.  Plenty of speed and plenty of energy.  The new version of this round isn’t as fast, according to factory specs.

Remington Express .38+P 95gr SJHP

This discontinued round was another pleasant surprise.  Plenty fast, and with a good punch.  To those who say that this is too light of a bullet for a .38, I observe that it is like a .380 slug with an extra 200fps velocity.  Would you feel well-armed with a .380 that delivered this level of speed & energy?

Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel .38+P 135gr JHP

This was the shocker for me.  The only ammunition specifically designed for and marketed to short-barrel .38s, with factory specs that used a vented 2″ test barrel (instead of the usual 4″), and it delivers a pathetic performance, well below factory specs.  The ammo I tested is between 1 and 2 years old, so age can’t be a factor.  This used to be my carry ammo.  But not anymore.

I tested 3 other types of ammunition, but they would not register on the chronograph:

  • Winchester 110gr Silvertip STHP (std pressure)
  • Winchester SXT .38+P 130gr JHP (they call it PDX now)
  • Buffalo Bore .38 std pressure 150gr hard-cast WC

I am not sure why the SXT wouldn’t register.  The Silvertip and the Buffalo Bore both use shiny, light-colored bullets, which the chronograph instructions say can cause problems.  While I can color the Silvertips and the SXTs with a Sharpie to darken them up, the Buffalo Bore slug is almost totally inside the casing so there’s nothing to color.

I will be testing more ammunition soon, and using a .38 Chief’s Special with a 1.875″ barrel to backstop the measurements I am getting.

Bottom line: factory numbers do not directly translate to the real world, especially when it comes to short-barreled guns.  Get a chronograph and test your carry ammo.  Your life may depend on it.

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4 Responses to “.38 Special Ballistics – Snubnose”

  1. Big Al says:

    Are those figures in feet per second or meters per second?

  2. Crapgame says:

    Big Al — Feet per second, we’re Yankees here. :)

  3. Gunnutmegger says:

    No kidding! Even the ammo designed for snub nose revolvers was a slow poke.

    I’ll stick with Cor-Bon.