What’s Wrong With A .38 Special?

Let me stress heavily I’m no self-defense expert, I’m no guru on home defense handguns and my total law enforcement career consists of being deputized in 1982 for all of 8 hours. Never, not once, have I had to resort to any firearm in a crisis situation. That said, to some family friends and even distant relatives I’m the only “gun-guy” they know. So it’s not easy to fend them off when in this current political climate I’m asked what sort of guns they should buy for home defense. That puts me on the hot seat because I don’t think novices to firearms should buy any gun unless they include some sort of training as part of the picture — and I stress that to them.

Even so I know some of the males think, “Yeah, yeah, just give me some info, I’ll figure out the rest for myself.” The Daniel Boone Syndrome is not dead. And, I know they will never go to the effort to get training or perhaps not even visit a range to gain experience further than taking their new gun to see if it actually goes off.

My stock answer to someone wanting to buy their first home-defense handgun is, “What’s wrong with a .38 Special?” Some people, mostly those with just a grain of knowledge, have acted downright offended and say. “Why, that’s not state of the art!” Here’s where it gets hard because they have to be told, “You’re not state of the art either.”

Both state-of-the-art: Duke’s 1940s vintage S&W and and the Springfield Armory XD.

Reliable And Predictable

In my honest opinion, double-action .38 Special revolvers may not be “state-of-the-art” but they are stable in the art. To me, it’s a no brainer. Double-action .38 Special revolvers are easy handguns to train with. Opening one for loading consists of no more than pressing a latch or button and swinging the cylinder out. There’s no trick to getting chambers charged since cartridges can only fit in one direction. I’ve actually seen novices try to load semi-auto magazines with the rounds backwards. Then the cylinder is pushed closed till it clicks in place. That’s all there is to it.

A double-action revolver requires merely pressing the trigger to fire. There’s no safety to remember, and no moving slide to bite fingers. Most double actions can also be fired single action, which is an aid when gaining familiarization with the handgun, or weak hands, even if not optimum for a potentially deadly situation.

Then there’s the ammo factor. Some semi-autos can be amazingly finicky about ammo. I own one .40 S&W that will not feed certain types of factory ammo, yet runs 100 percent with others. That fact may not have even revealed itself to me if not for having access to many different types of factory ammo due to my occupation.

Conversely, a .38 Special double-action revolver always works if it’s in good repair. They’re about as foolproof as a handgun can get. Good quality factory ammo ranges from very light full wadcutter loads meant for target shooting, to +P types meant for personal defense. The .38 Special might have a bad rap among those who see nothing less than big bores as effective, but effective only counts if hits are made. Almost anyone can learn to handle a .38 Special with proficiency. That’s not true of big-bore handgun calibers.

The Handguns

What about the exact .38 Special handgun? I almost always say, “Get a Smith & Wesson Model 10 with 4″ barrel.” Those are built on Smith & Wesson’s medium (K) frame and are heavy enough so recoil is mild. A 4″ barrel doesn’t deliver intimidating muzzle blast like a snubnose. The lighter .38 Special double actions, such as Smith & Wesson’s variations of Chief’s Special on their light (J) frame, are better suited to experienced shooters. This is even truer of the new breed of extra-light polymer double actions being put out now by Smith & Wesson, Ruger and Taurus.

Inquisitors have sometimes thought they would trip me up by asking, “You recommend a .38 Special for us but what do you have for yourself?” It’s true a Kimber .40 S&W resides in my sock drawer, but even closer is a 12-gauge shotgun. That said, a S&W Model 442 goes with me nearly everywhere when traveling in-state, and I have at least two other .38 Specials (one a Model 10) placed strategically in our home. There’s nothing wrong with a good .38 Special revolver.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino

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16 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With A .38 Special?

  1. Buzz

    My favorite carry gun is a special edition S&W Model 36-10. It’s a 5 shot snubby. I have .45 ACP, and 9mm guns too but in my case weight is the major factor as I have a chronic low back problem. Thanks for your analysis. I have several friends who suffer from the “state of the art” affliction you mention. I’m going to make sure that they read this article.

  2. wayne

    I agree wholeheartedly. My concealed carry piece is a Smith 38 Airweight. I have a 380 but this more reliable, powerful, and accurate. Makes a good trail gun also weighing maybe a pound loaded and carrying in my pocket. The gun has a single-action pull of 2.5 lbs and I can hit small game at 20 yards with it. Along with my Glock 35 they are the dynamic duo.

  3. Larry H

    I agree, although there are many fine 4-inch barrel .38 Specials out there in the lightly-used arena. In addition, an S&W Model 19 (first known as the Combat Magnum), while a .357, is a very nice gun that digests .38 Specials and is hard to beat for handsome looks as well.

  4. James A. "Jim" Farmer

    I laud the .38 Special so highly I even posted three online
    comments at “Smith & Wesson Model 10-American Rifleman.” It’s
    under “I have this old gun.” Also, I own John Henwoods 1997
    book: “America’s right arm: The Smith and Wesson Military and
    Police Revolver.” (Out of print and only 500 copies produced).
    For inspirational reading with a powerful moral message I
    likewise endorse Jack Burton’s fine commentary titled, “Smith
    & Wesson Military and Police Revolver: A gun’s autobiography.”

    The venerable, versatile, and historical .38 Special still
    offers much to the average shooter, citizen, voter, moral person,
    outdoorsman, homeowner, etc. Loaded with modern ammo a .38
    Special remains a formidable, lethal, and accurate caliber!
    Modern .38 Special ammo is defined as almost anything which is
    far superior to the old obsolete 158 grain round nose police
    service load. This includes:

    The 148 grain lead target wadcutter: It’s ideal for informal
    target shooting, plinking, etc. Also highly effective for hunting
    small game: rabbit and squirrel, or likewise for dispatching
    vermin such as raccoon, skunk, and possum. Even for butchering

    For self defense/house protection (homeland security) Federal’s
    Hydra-Shok, Winchester’s Silvertip Hollowpoint, and Remington’s
    Golden Saber in their +P loadings of 129 and 125 grains
    respectivley, have highly effective stopping power. Again, these
    are all far superior to the obsolete 158 grain round nose lead
    police service load previously mentioned.

    Finally, for rattlesnakes CCI’s .38 Special shot load containing
    No. 9 shot (the classic snake load) can shred a rattler’s head
    up close.

    Thus the only two ways a .38 Special revolver like a Smith and
    Wesson (K-Frame) Model 10 Military and Police, Model 15 Combat
    Masterpiece, etc. can be improved is replacing the skimpy S&W
    factory Magna grips with a pair of Pachmayr or Uncle Mikes hard
    rubber combat grips, and loading revolver with modern .38 Special
    ammo. And remember .357 Magnum revolvers will chamber and fire
    .38 Special ammo. Long live the useful, practical, and venerable
    .38 caliber revolver.

  5. Rory

    Yup. I am forced to carry a .380 LCP most of the time because I’m wearing jeans and a T-shirt — or a business suit — and, sorry, there is no way to carry a 23-oz steel snubby while wearing a suit. During the colder weather it’s my Model 60 w/ 38 Spls or 357’s.

  6. randy

    I happen to be quit proud of my new model 36 nickel plated chief special.I’m thankful that S&W offered it in their classic collection.I have other guns to carry and usually have to depend on my LCP because of my travels through unfriendly states and if they confiscate something it may as well be that.

  7. William L

    I own a few firearms myself, I’m prior military, and enjoy recreational shooting. In both of my nightstands (his ‘n hers) are identical Ruger GP100’s loaded with Hornady .38+P, along with a Maglight. If I’m down and out, I know the lady can get to hers and take care of business on either side of the bed.

    To me, any reliable .357 loaded with .38 or .38 +P is just a fantastically reliable, trustworthy friend to have at your disposal when the chips are down.

  8. Jay L

    I am a long time gun collector, re-loader, and all around firearm enthusiast. I have relied on the 38 special as a carry weapon for over 30 years now. A S&W 640 lies in the nightstand every day if needed for quick action. My daily carry 38 is a S&W 642 loaded with plus P hollow points. I cut my teeth on the 38 in my college days when crime was at an all time high. Just can’t go wrong with a 38 revolver for dependability.

  9. Don S

    I’m a novice gun owner. Got the training, got the CCW permit. So refreshing to find an article with nothing but positive responses for the .38 Special. Confirms my decision to buy one. Thanks to all of you.

  10. Tom

    Plus 1 on the 38 Special for a good viable Personal Defense Handgun. After years of having to “dress around” one semi auto or another – about a yeah ago I became a revolver guy. After trying a few I’ve come to prefer the S&W 638 38 Special Airweight for my EDC front pocket and when I carry a backup its my S&W 642 in a Galco Ankle Glove. Now I can wear anything I want easy carry…

  11. brian

    Couldn’t agree more. Took my wife to the range today. This was her first time firing a handgun. Brought my HK p30. Absolutely reliable pistol but it was short cycling for her presumably from limp wristing. I gave her my l frame smith 686 loaded with 38 special. She shot much better and really liked the revolver. It really demonstrated for me how good that revolver is and how it’s so easy to get lost in gun hype. Will probably get her a k frame smith.

  12. dennis flowers

    in 1972 i was a police officer and always carried my 38 sw as a back up and on sept 1 1972 i had a home invasion of three armed persons and backed me up in to our family room.my 38 special was on a shelfed and i went for it and fired all five rounds in about 1-1/2 secounds and killing two of them and the other one down the street. my point is that my 38 did not let me down on rapid fire and i still own it and it is the only gun to have as a carry on. thank you dennis flowers

  13. Andy D

    I like the .38 special , carried a Ruger GP-100 when I was a deputy , so I most ly have experience with wheel guns , though I do have and shoot autos also . Enjoy reloading too , which helps if you shoot a lot , my favorite .38 Special load is the 158grain lswc over 3.2 grains of Bullseye powder , great target round that I wouldn’t have second thoughts about using as a home defense load . Well my main ccw is a Charter Arms Undercover DAO , that’s the one with no hammer spur , I carry it in the appendix carry position , more comfortable for a big guy like me , oh and my carry load is Standard pressure Federal Hydra-Shok 110grain bullet , they are light recoiling and that helps with shot placement . I sometimes carry a CA Mag Pug .357 but only load it with the Hydra-Shok mentioned above , and if you are recoil sensitive the Mag Pug is ported which even cuts down on the ,38 recoil , but all I can say is shoot what you shoot best with , and practice as much as your wallet allows . Be prepared and ready . Keep your powder dry .

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