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38 Special Vs 357 Magnum: Complete Guide

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Firearms enthusiasts and professionals alike have engaged in a longstanding debate over the merits of various handgun calibers. 

Among the most popular discussions is the comparison between .357 Magnum and .38 Special. These two cartridges are quite similar—in fact, .357 Magnum’s design was based on .38 Special.

However, they do have some key differences as well. In this guide, we’ll explore the similarities and differences between these two classic revolver rounds. We’ll discuss the history, current usage, dimensions, ballistic performance, and more of these two rounds. 

A quick word about safety: .38 Spl is a lower pressure cartridge than .357 Magnum. While .357 Magnum was designed so that it won’t fit .38 Spl firearms, you shouldn’t totally rely on that. Never fire .357 Magnum from anything that isn’t rated for .357 Magnum.

On the other hand, .38 Spl and .38 Spl +P are safe to load and fire in .357 Magnum firearms.

Now let’s dive in. 


We’ll start with some background information. 

.38 Special, introduced in 1898, was designed by Smith & Wesson as an improvement over .38 Long Colt cartridge used by the U.S. military at the time. Smith & Wesson sought to create a more powerful and reliable round for law enforcement and civilian use. 

While the .38 SPL was originally designed using black powder, manufacturers started offering smokeless power loads within a year of the cartridge’s introduction. 

.38 Special featured a larger powder capacity and higher velocity, resulting in improved terminal ballistics. Its popularity soared, and .38 Special became widely adopted by police departments and civilians alike for self-defense and target shooting.

But, in the early 1930s, firearms enthusiast and writer Elmer Keith, along with others in the shooting community, recognized the potential for improving the performance of .38 Special. 

Keith experimented with hotter handloads, pushing the boundaries of .38 Special's capabilities. Keith lengthened the case so it could accommodate more powder, which in turn allowed the new round to achieve greater energy and velocity.

Smith & Wesson, in collaboration with Remington Arms, responded to Keith's findings by developing a new cartridge based on .38 Special. In 1935, Smith & Wesson, Remington, and Keith brought the new round to market as the .357 Magnum.


Both .357 Magnum and .38 Special continue to play significant roles, each finding its niche among both civilians and law enforcement.

.38 Special, with its manageable recoil and versatility, remains a popular choice for self-defense and concealed carry. Its moderate power, combined with a wide range of ammunition options, makes it an effective round for personal protection. 

.38 Spl used to be the most popular LEO cartridge in the USA, but the 9mm now dwarfs the .38 Spl in that reguard. Still, it’s not unheard of for the .38 Spl to find its way into backup roles for some LEO departments. 

As for .357 Magnum, one of its primary uses today is hunting. Its higher muzzle velocity and energy levels make it well-suited for taking down medium-sized game. It’s even a favorite among outdoor enthusiasts for defense against potentially dangerous animals, including bear.

.357 Magnum also shines in the field of long-range accuracy shooting (well, long range for a pistol). Its flatter trajectory and enhanced ballistic capabilities allow for accuracy at extended ranges, pushing the limits of revolver performance.

It’s also important to note that since the development of .38 Special and .357 Magnum, manufacturers have developed .38 Special +P loads, which deliver increased velocity and terminal performance, bridging the gap between the standard .38 Special and .357 Magnum. 

These +P loads provide shooters with a viable option for enhanced self-defense capabilities without the need for a .357 Magnum revolver.

.357 Magnum vs .38 Special Dimensions

Cartridge.38 Special.357 Magnum
Parent Case.38 Long Colt.38 Special
Bullet Diameter.357” (9.1mm).357” (9.1mm)
Case Length1.155” (29.3mm)1.29” (33mm)
Overall Length1.55” (39.4 mm)1.59” (40mm)
Case Capacity23.4 gr H20 (1.52 cm3)25.2 gr H20 (1.7 cm3)
SAAMI Max Pressure17,500 psi 35,000 psi 

By The Numbers: Ballistic Comparison

Before we get into this, let me just say that this compares a very narrow range of ammo. Specifically, Magtech FMJ advertised ballistics, fired from a 4-inch barrel. Use these numbers as an example of the differences, not an all-inclusive guide.

There are dozens upon dozens of loadings for .38 Spl and .357 Magnum. They range from light and fluffy to wrist-splitting. This is simply an example of loads that are middle-ground.

CartridgeMuzzle VelocityMuzzle Energy50 Yards Velocity50 Yards Energy100 Yards Velocity100 Yards Energy
.38 Spl, 125 gr938 fps244 ft-lbs894 fps222 ft-lbs855 fps203 ft-lb
.38 Spl, 158 gr755 fps200 ft-lbs726 fps185 ft-lbs699 fps171 ft-lb
.357 Magnum, 125 gr1405 fps693 ft-lb1255 fps553 ft-lb1136 fps453 ft-lb
.357 Magnum, 158 gr1235 fps535 ft-lb1120 fps440 ft-lb1036 fps377 ft-lb


When it comes to power and performance, .357 Magnum outshines .38 Special. .38 Special typically fires bullets weighing between 110 to 158 grains at moderate velocities, making it suitable for self-defense and target shooting. 

In contrast, .357 Magnum can handle a wider range of bullet weights (usually 125 to 180 grains) and achieves significantly higher muzzle velocities and energies. This extra power makes .357 Magnum ideal for hunting and self-defense against larger game.


Due to their differing power levels, .38 Special generally exhibits less recoil than .357 Magnum. .38 Special's milder recoil makes it more manageable, especially for new or recoil-sensitive shooters. It provides a comfortable shooting experience, making it a popular choice for concealed carry and practice sessions. 

Conversely, .357 Magnum generates more recoil due to its increased velocity and energy. While experienced shooters can handle this recoil, it may take some practice and skill development to shoot .357 Magnum accurately.


One advantage of .38 Special is its widespread availability and affordability. It is produced by numerous manufacturers and is widely stocked by ammunition retailers. This availability and affordability make it a practical choice for individuals who frequently engage in shooting activities or require large quantities of ammunition. 

.357 Magnum, however, although slightly more expensive, is still readily available, albeit with a slightly narrower range of bullet options compared to .38 Special.


If you want to get nerdy with feet per second and foot-pounds of energy and such, you can. But the bottom line is that .38 Spl is a weaker cartridge, requires a firearm that isn’t as strong and is generally cheaper to shoot.

.357 Magnum is exactly what it sounds like, bigger. More energy, more power, more recoil, and generally heavier firearms are built to withstand the increased pressure and power. 


In the end, the choice between .357 Magnum and .38 Special depends on the intended use and personal preferences of the individual. If you prioritize mild recoil, affordability, and versatile applications such as self-defense and target shooting, .38 Special is an excellent option. It offers reliable performance and is widely available at an affordable price point.

However, if you desire more power, increased velocity, and energy for applications such as hunting, defending against larger game, or engaging targets at longer distances, .357 Magnum is the cartridge of choice. Its impressive ballistics and ability to deliver substantial stopping power make it a favorite among experienced shooters and those seeking superior performance.

Ultimately, it's essential to consider factors such as intended use, personal shooting abilities, and the level of recoil you're comfortable with when deciding between .357 Magnum and .38 Special.


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