Something New I Learned About the Old .38 Special

The cops on Adam-12 carried the .38 SpecialAh, the handy .38 Special revolver. If, like me, you grew up watching TV shows from the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, one common thing you would have seen in most police shows was the famous .38 Special revolver. Maybe you’re aware of it, or maybe not, but the .38 Special was pretty much the standard issue sidearm for every police department in the United States from the 1920’s through the early 1990’s.

Developed by Smith & Wesson in 1898, the .38 Special caliber was developed as an improvement over the previously widely used .38 Long Colt. It seems the military found out during the Philippine-American war that the old .38 Long Colt didn’t have the penetrating power to get through the simple wooden shields enemy combatants were using as protection. The new round, however, seemed more adequate at the task.

Based on it’s early success and coupled with it’s notable accuracy and manageable recoil, the .38 Special became a standard in police departments throughout the U.S. and other law enforcement officials throughout the world. In fact, even today – after over 100 years – it is the most popular revolver cartridge in use. But, here’s a little something you may NOT know about the .38 special:

I took a basic handgun class with my wife a few weeks ago. Although I’m comfortable with handguns, I’ve never had formal training and my wife has never had any training, so we thought it was good investment. It was a good, basic class taught by a very knowledgeable instructor at the Heritage Guild in Easton, PA. After the class, the instructor took some time to talk to us and to recommend some options for our first handgun. We got to talking about revolvers and, in particular, the .38 Special. That’s when he dropped it on me: the .38 Special isn’t actually a .38 at all!

.38 Special RevolverYou may be asking, “What the heck does the .38 even mean?” If that’s your question, check out our handy article on bullet calibers for the answer. For the rest of you, what I learned about the .38 Special is that it is actually a .357 round. That’s right, the actual diameter of the slug (this determines the caliber) is 0.357 inches. So, why is it called a .38? Well, that’s due to where it came from. You see, the .38 Special was developed from the .38 Short Colt which was designed for use in converted .36-caliber cap-and-ball Navy revolvers. These .36 caliber revolvers actually fired a slug that had a 0.357-inch (rounded to .36 at the time) diameter. But, these revolvers had cylindrical firing chambers of approximately 0.374-inch (rounded to .38) diameter. To make up for the difference, the original slug had a bit of a lip (or heal) at the bottom making it slightly wider to match the diameter of the bullet casing.

As the round was perfected and revolvers were developed to specifically fire the new .38  Special round, the name .38 stuck while the actual size of the slug never changed from the 0.357-inch. So, if you’re wondering, yes, a .38 Special round will fit in a .357 magnum revolver and vice-versa. However, DO NOT ever fire a .357 magnum round in a revolver designed for .38 Special only. Those were not designed for the pressure of the .357 magnum round and using them in a .38 Special revolver could be very dangerous.

So, there you have it. A little story about the .38 Special – as I learned it. Is this news to you? Tells us in the comments below.

16 thoughts on “Something New I Learned About the Old .38 Special

  1. Am wondering; My wife and I are both CCL’s, she qualified with and still has a S & W airweight .38spec, five rounds with a laser; and has expressed, perhaps wanting a semi-auto! I don’t specifically know about a .380 vs .38, think the .380 is a much smaller delivery slug, I shoot a 40 cal. so, am not familiar with the .380! Isn’ t it indeed a much smaller round, am more confused by the distinction of .38; .380! Sounds as if they should be the same diameter, but think that is fallacy! Could you detail this conundrum for me?

    • A Gun Guy on said:

      Will, good question. The .380 ACP and the .38 special are both very close in diameter. They are just a couple thousandths of an inch different. The .380 is actually 0.355″ and the .38 special is 0.357″ in diameter. The weight difference is a little bit more drastic. Most .380 rounds are in the 90-95 grain range while .38 special rounds can range from 110 to 200 grains. Obviously, that is a large difference. But, let’s look at velocity and energy before you make a decision. For .380 semi-autos, The muzzle velocity is almost always close to or more than 1,000 fps whereas the .38 special ranges from high 600 to high 900 fps. Overall, in energy (a.k.a. stopping power) they both end up around 200 ft-lb. So, while the .380 ACP may be a bit smaller, it packs a mighty punch making it equal to or greater than the .38 special depending on the specific round.

      So, while the .38 special is a perfectly fine firearm for self protection. For a CCW, it’s not the easiest to conceal or carry. The new Curve from Taurus for example, is contoured to fit along a person’s body and allows a capacity of 6+1 making it easier to hide and providing more rounds for protection. I don’t get paid to endorse any product and I’m not a self-defense expert. But, based on the numbers and the statistics, there is no mathematical reason to consider the .38 special any better or worse for self defense than a .380 ACP semi-auto pistol. Hope that helps.

  2. Ronald on said:

    The average price for a .38 is anywhere from 299.00 to around 500.00 depends if Blue or stainless steel. And the manufacture . For instance a ROSSI REVOLVER IS MAYBE tops 400. And a Ruger will run you probably over 500. Hope this helps.

  3. Eric Lowe on said:

    Close, but no cigar. The .38 special evolved from the Civil War era .36 cap and ball pistol, but those muzzle loaders DID NOT fire a .36 caliber projectile. Any black powder loading manual will state that the .36 revolvers require a .375 diameter ball or conical bullet. I have a Colt 1851 Navy in .36 caliber and the loads that I cast measure about .375-.377 as best as I can tell with my micrometer. Keep in mind that a rifled barrel has two internal dimensions. The true bore diameter is measured land to land. The other measurement is groove to groove and is equal to the bullet diameter. Think about it and it makes perfect sense. The bullet must bottom in the grooves to seal the gases and to allow the grooves to impart the spin. The bullet, therefore, MUST have a diameter WIDER than that of the bore. When cartridges were developed to be fired from converted cap and ball revolvers, the conical bullets were seated in the cases via the heel that was mentioned in the article above, however, the heel was of a SMALLER diameter than the bullet. Not a larger diameter. The bullet and case were of the SAME diameter. With the .38 special, when heel bullets were replaced by the modern version, the bullet diameter was reduced to .357 so the base of the bullet could fit in the case, but the case retained it’s outside diameter of .38 inches.

    • Jeffrey on said:

      I always thought it was a slang term that caught on. Lead was (and I guess is still) sold by the pound and it took 38 of that size round to equal a pound. So if you were ordering that size shot you would ask for 38’s.

    • Robert Dillon on said:

      Cap and ball revolvers are not muzzleloaders

  4. I just want to know what the average price is for buying a 38 special at any gun store is.

    • JH on said:

      They always say that there are no stupid questions… well, there’s an exception to every rule… and yours is that exception.

      That’s like asking what the going rate for a 4 door car is or what does a 3 bedroom house cost.

      • USPIS guy on said:

        He asked for an average. Don’t be a jerk.

        To the original poster, just check prices around your local gun shops. They can vary depending on the brand and if they’re on sale. There’s a lot of the same sized bullets but with higher velocity powders or casing metals etc. You can also get various styles of shot like hollow point etc which all cost differently.

        Best is to shop around and then make an educated purchase.

        Hope that helps. The previous poster should learn a bit about manners and treating others with respect.

    • Luke on said:

      I got mine for 300 but usually they’re about 350-450 range, depending on if you want your balls when you leave a pawn shop lol

  5. lefty on said:

    just stumbled on the website, good info. am curious about the .357mag vs .38 special comment about higher pressures will be not a good scene with the .357 in the .38s. does that apply to the .38+P as well?

  6. Kevin R on said:

    Thanks for the information I new all but the history of the .38 I have both .38 and .357 when I recently puchesed my .38 I tryed to put a .357 round in it just to see and was glad when it hung up on the ejector. Very good not much of a chance for an accident there. I also fire .38s through my .357 when out plinking its a much cheaper round then the .357.thanks. Kev

  7. Joshua on said:

    I did not know that so I learned something new which is why I came to this site. Also .38 special ifs by far my favorite pistol

    • Bill on said:

      My favorite too. Love my 642 snubby. I replaced the stock rubber grips with traditional wood S&W J frame grips as I prefer old school looks; sexy! :)
      158 grain HP year round and 90 grain fragmenting old style cop ammo in the summer out of my 1.8 inch barrel. With my 4 inch I use 110 grain +P’s and feel well protected.
      Great article inspire of the creative license about the military history. According to U.S. Army history the failure of the .38 S&W resulted in the re-issue of the .45 L.C. and SAA Colt; not the “.38 special”. Still a good article overall! Make mine a .38 Special!

    • Luke on said:

      I got one for my mom after I shot it several times, I debated getting rid of it haha and I’m not THAT guy, but it’s a revolver, not a pistol :p

  8. Joe on said:

    The 357 won’t fit into a .38sp – the case was purposely made too long for safety. A .38sp will fit into a 357 magnum revolver, however.

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