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The .38 special: one of our favorite rounds

Of course we can't prove it, but my bet is that more people carry .38 Special revolvers--specifically S&W J-frames than all other handguns combined. After all, they have been around since 1950 and define the term "'pocket pistol." Police officers carry them as backup guns and they serve as primary defensive weapons for many safety-conscious folks.

But they are still a continuing source of confusion for less serious users who want to know what kind of amino to carry. They ask, "Can I shoot +Ps in my J-frame?" They also ask, "Is it safe to shoot +Ps in my J-frame?" For guns made before the 1990s there isn't a simple answer and a lot depends on what you mean by "safe." The use of +P ammunition in a revolver not specifically approved for it is not going to result in a catastrophic failure, so it is not really "unsafe," but may be unwise, so the question becomes "Should I" rather than "Can I?"

The difficulty is compounded by manufacturers. For example a caller to CCI/Speer customer service was told emphatically he could not shoot .38 Special Gold Dot +P ammunition in his S&W Model 36. Calls to S&W receive similar responses.

A Mild Boost

Plus-P loadings are a relatively recent development and seem to have a cachet far more impressive than reality would support. Plus-P is, of course, interpreted as more powerful and by strict definitions that is true, but the actual differences are small. +P designation permits an increase of from 17,000 to 18,500 psi, which boosts velocity by about 100 fps.

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What happens to J-frame revolvers is that the stresses of Plus-P ammunition may result in accelerated wear and the gun may get loose or out of time. But this doesn't even apply to all S&W revolvers, for the entire line has gone through design improvements over a period of several years and, since there are now J-frame revolvers chambered for the .357 Magnum, that should be obvious. The thing to look for is a bolster that runs up the left side of the frame to the recoil shield. Guns that have this feature may be used with +P ammunition.

For others, the question might better be how much? For modern, good-quality firearms, opinion is that limited use is little cause for concern. A couple of boxes of amino a year for carry and training should not cause any trouble as long as recreational shooting is done with standard-pressure amino. I told a highly-placed executive at S&W I intended to say this and his reply was, "That is a responsible statement."

Learn To Know

Of course the prudent course is to have a gunsmith show you how to check for end-shake and timing problems that are the likely consequences of too many +Ps or simply take the gun in for a routine check now and then. The problems are easily corrected if you get to them early.

Interestingly, Colt small-frame revolvers have always been approved for +Ps and even before those, the really hot .38-44 amino originally intended for S&W's big N-frame Outdoorsman models, but S&W has always said not to use anything other than standard pressure loads in J-frames. Yet they have known, and sorta winked at the fact, that law-enforcement agencies routinely use +P or even, sometimes, +P+ ammo.

But a strange thing has happened in the ammo market. You can easily find good defensive loadings from every maker with the +P designation, but standard pressure loads with premium bullets are not common. Federal has a 110grain Hydra-shok load in their Personal Defense line and Winchester has a 110grain Silvertip both at standard pressure. Winchester's a 158-grain lead semiwadcutter might be a good choice, too.

We are conditioned to want hollow-point bullets, but expansion is not something we can really depend on especially when using barrels of 2" or less. A big, heavy bullet might not be such a bad idea in those. The 158-grain lead round-nose--the standard .38 Special for almost 100 years--is universally condemned and subject of much scorn, but the fact is it served generations of cops who knew nothing of +P or expanding bullets. All they knew to do was make holes in the bad guys and if you made enough of them in the right place things usually came out OK.

Of course there are lots of other misunderstandings about the .38 Special/.357 Magnum combo. Yes, you can shoot .38s in your magnum. And accuracy will not be harmed by that extra 1/8" that troubles so many. The only precaution needed is to brush out the charge holes (that's what S&W calls chambers) before shooting .357s in a gun previously fired with .38 Specials. The reason is that soot or fouling will be deposited in that extra 1/8" and may make extraction of magnum empties difficult. In a worst case, it might even prevent chambering of a magnum cartridge.

The Best Reason

Accuracy is one of my favorite things and the .38 Special--when properly loaded--is probably the most accurate handgun cartridge on the planet. Properly in this context means a hollow-base wadcutter bullet at a velocity of no more than 800 fps and preferably around 750 fps. With most handgun cartridges accuracy decreases as velocity increases. The .38 Special follows this rule and it extends to the .357 as well. When I talk about accuracy in this context I'm thinking of 10-shot groups under 2" at 50 yards from a good gun in a machine rest shooting some really good ammo, too.


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