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Carry Caliber Comparison: .38 Special Vs. 9mm Luger

.38 Special and 9mm Luger are two of the most popular handgun cartridges used today. They have been around for many years and have both been widely used by law enforcement and civilians alike. They’ve both proven to be reliable and effective in a variety of shooting situations. 

In this article, we will compare these two cartridges in terms of their history, performance, and suitability for different uses. Now let’s dive right in.

.38 Special & 9mm Luger: Where They Came From

Let’s start with a little bit of history. 

While you might think of .38 Special as more of a classic round, it and 9mm Luger were actually developed within just a few years of one another.

.38 Special was developed in 1898, based on .38 Long Colt but intended to be more powerful, since .38 Long Colt had proved insufficient against the Moro Juramentados in the Philippine-American War. 

Smokeless powder had just started to become popular at this point in time, so .38 Special was originally developed with black powder, but smokeless loads were available within a year of the cartridge’s release. Since smokeless was the future of all cartridges, the loading quickly became more popular, and black powder was abandoned.

Even in its smokeless form, .38 Spl is fairly low-pressure at a SAAMI max of 17,500 PSI chamber pressure. 9×19 Luger has a SAMMI max of 35,000 PSI.

Besides the pressure difference, the other major difference between these two cartridges is that .38 Spl is rimmed, and 9mm Luger is not.

Speaking of 9×19 Luger, just three years after the introduction of .38 Spl, Austrian firearm designer Georg Luger introduced his 9x19mm Parabellum (also known as 9mm Luger) round, which was itself modified from the 7.65x21mm cartridge that Luger had developed the year prior. 

For now, however, the slightly older .38 Special was the top dog. Sure, 9mm was adopted by the German military, but it took several milestones across several decades for 9mm to reach its current popularity.

First, there was the introduction of the Browning Hi-Power in 1935, then NATO’s adoption of 9mm Luger as their official sidearm caliber in 1955. Throughout the second half of the Twentieth century, the US Military, the FBI, and several of the United States’ largest police forces, including Los Angeles and New York City, adopted 9mm.

The introduction of reliable and effective “Wonder Nine” pistols, particularly in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, went a long way in popularizing this round among not just law enforcement agencies but also civilians. 

.38 Special & 9mm Today

These days, 9mm is the United States’ single most popular round among both civilians and law enforcement agencies. The FBI briefly tried moving away from 9mm in favor of 10mm, but ultimately pivoted back. 9mm Luger has achieved popularity not just for pistols, but also pistol caliber carbines and even revolvers. 

It’s beloved for self-defense since it’s powerful enough to be effective but still has more manageable recoil than similar rounds like 10mm and .45 ACP. It’s also a popular choice for target shooting, both competitive and recreational. 

.38 Special, for its part, has managed to hold on as the most popular revolver round and is still used by law enforcement agencies that use revolvers. It’s favored for its low recoil, especially since revolvers tend to kick more than semi-auto pistols. Unfortunately, revolvers aren’t nearly as popular as they used to be, so despite being the most popular revolver round, .38 Special still only takes up a tiny portion of the overall market. 

To their credit, there has been an uptick in revolver popularity in the last few years because of these guns’ reliability and concealability. While .38 certainly won’t become serious competition for 9mm, maybe it will have something of a resurgence. 

By The Numbers: Ballistic Comparison

38 Spl Vs. 9mm Specs

Cartridge.38 Special9mm Luger
Parent Case.38 Long Colt7.65×21mm Parabellum
Bullet Diameter.357” (9.1mm).355” (9.01 mm)
Case Length1.155 in (29.3mm)754” (19.15mm)
Overall Length1.550 in (39.4 mm)1.169” (29.69mm)
Rim Diameter.44 in (11 mm).392” (9.96mm)
Case Capacity23.4 gr H20 (1.52 cm3)13.3 gr H20 (.862 cm3)
SAAMI Max Pressure17,500 psi35,000 psi

.38 Spl Vs. 9mm Ballistics

CartridgeMuzzle50 Yards100 Yards
VelocityEnergyVelocityEnergyTrajectoryVelocityEnergyTrajectory
.38 Spl, 130 gr890 fps229 ft-lbs852 fps209 ft-lbs-2”817 fps193 ft-lb-15.1”
.38 Spl, 158 gr770 fps208 ft-lbs745 fps195 ft-lbs-2.9”722 fps183 ft-lb-20.7”
9mm Luger, 115 gr1180 fps356 ft-lb1048 fps280 ft-lb-0.9”961 fps236 ft-lb-8.7”
9mm Luger, 124 gr1150 fps364 ft-lb1049 fps303 ft-lb-0.9”977 fps263 ft-lb-8.8”
9mm Luger, 147 gr1000 fps326 ft-lbs953 fps297 ft-lbs-1.4”914 fps273 ft-lbs-11.5”

Real-World Uses

All these numbers are all well and good, but what do they mean about the real-world applications of these two rounds? Let’s find out. 

Target Shooting

9mm has, without question, the superior ballistics, giving it an edge on target shooting. The higher velocity and generally lighter bullet helps 9mm hold onto a flatter trajectory, making it easier to shoot accurately.

On the other hand, .38 Special has lower recoil, and bullet drop can be accounted for. This means new shooters who aren’t used to recoil may be more successful with .38 Special. Besides, at the short ranges most of us are shooting handguns at, bullet drop is still relatively minimal with either of these rounds.

A huge disadvantage of .38 Spl is the fact that it is a rimmed cartridge. This basically means you’re entirely limited to revolvers to fire it. While there are dozens of models built for .38 Spl, it does limit you to a small niche in the competition shooting world.

Self-Defense

9mm is certainly the more popular round for self-defense for a few different reasons.

For one, there’s the ballistics. 9mm has greater power and velocity and a flatter trajectory. Semi-autos are also available in significantly higher capacities. It’s easy to find compact 9mm pistols with a 15 or more round capacity. Even micro-compacts like the SIG P365 have at least 10 rounds of 9mm in the smallest magazine size.

SIG P365 XL

Don’t discount .38, though. It’s certainly powerful enough to stop an attacker and can be easier to shoot than 9mm – assuming the firearm of choice is roughly the same size and weight. Of course, you should be training with your round no matter which one you choose.

Available Guns and Ammo

Generally speaking, popularity breeds availability, and that’s certainly the case with 9mm. There are virtually unlimited options in terms of both guns and ammunition. If a store sells ammo, they’ll almost always carry 9mm. There are tons of 9mm pistols, but also pistol caliber carbines and even revolvers, so it’s also great for those who want to streamline their ammunition stock.

As far as revolvers go, .38 Special is incredibly popular, but revolvers aren’t as popular as they once were. Still, there’s no shortage of .38 revolvers, and ammo is also easy to find. You just won’t have the selection you get with 9mm. 

In terms of cost, you do come out ahead with 9mm as well, with it typically running at about half the cost per round of .38 Special. 

Handloading

If there’s one area where .38 Special outshines 9mm, it’s handloading. 

The case on a round of 9mm is pretty full. You don’t get a lot of extra room to pack with more propellant, so overpressurized (+P) rounds don’t really have that much extra pressure. Generally, they cap out at an extra 100 fps in velocity. 

.38 Special, on the other hand, is loaded with relatively little powder relative to the overall case volume. This gives handloaders a whole lot of room to play with. In fact, this is more or less how Elmer Keith created .357 Magnum from .38 Special in the first place, back in 1934, achieving an extra 300 fps with a 158-grain bullet. 

You can certainly do the same, just make sure you’re doing so with a gun that can safely handle the pressure. Remember, .38 Special can be safely fired from a .357 Magnum revolver, but that only works in one direction because .38 Special revolvers aren’t made to handle the higher pressure of .357. 

If you’re hotloading .38 Special, opt to shoot your handloads from a medium or large frame .357 Magnum revolver for the same reason.

medium frame revolvers
Small selection of revolvers in different calibers, models, and sizes. From 10mm Auto to .38 Spl +P

And please remember to be very careful. Follow published load data to stay within safe pressures. 

LOOSE ROUNDS

Overall, both the 9mm Luger and .38 Special are versatile cartridges that can be used for a variety of shooting situations. While I think 9mm has the edge due to its superior ballistic performance and my own preference for semi-automatics, if you prefer the revolver route or want a handgun round with a lighter recoil, .38 Special is a great choice.

Regardless of which round you opt for, both have proven to be reliable and effective over many years of use, and they will likely continue to be popular choices for both civilian gun owners and law enforcement officers alike for many years to come.

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7 Comments

  • Makares says:

    Where do you get your ballistic info and ammo choice from? for 38 special, 125 gr is much more popular than 130gr and both can easily be loaded to 1000-1100 fps. Not saying there may be advantages to a 9mm luger but more realistic data would be much better.

  • Thomas Cox says:

    Does it matter in terms of defensive use that revolvers can chamber and shoot bullets that are better stoppers than will feed reliably in a semi-auto?

    Also, I would like to see .38 +P rounds from revolvers compared to 9mm from semi-autos, since I have a .357 revolver that could handle +P rounds without complaint.

    I would also like to see felt recoil compared, as I have neuropathy and arthritis in my hands. Would I be able to cycle a failure to feed or fire my semi-auto, under the stress of combat? If a revolver fails to fire, the natural fix would be to pull the trigger again, which is a lot less complex than a slap-and-slide.

    My knowledge is all theoretical, except for target shooting, so opinions informed by real-world experience are very important to me.

    Thanks,
    Tom C.
    Charlotte, TN

    • David Lane says:

      Hey Tom,

      Your first question might be based on some outdated information. While early on some semi-autos had issues with some defensive bullets, most do not these days. I am not aware of any bullet design that won’t feed in a semi-auto but is more effective than the current generation of defensive bullets.

      Comparing +P ammo is complex and messy. Strictly speaking “+P” doesn’t have a clear definition in most cases. Buffalo Bore 38 SPL +P is a 158gr hardcast lead bullet moving at about 1,150FPS from a 4″ barrel. Federal 38 SPL +P 120gr is only 1,000 FPS from a 4″ barrel. They both carry the name “+P” but one is 38gr heavier and moving 150FPS faster. That translates to the Buffalo Bore having about 75% or 200 ft.lbf more energy.

      Felt recoil is going to depend on the exact loading of the caliber and the weight of the gun. Using the above Buffalo Bore example of 38 SPL +P, it has about 5ft.lbf of felt recoil using a 4″ S&W 686. Federal HST 9mm 124gr has about 7ft.lbf felt recoil with a Glock 19.

      For your condition, a revolver might be a better option since you won’t have to even consider racking the slide. Otherwise, I would say barrow a friend’s at the range and give it a test before commiting to it as your defense weapon.

      I hope that helped!

  • glenn sammon says:

    if you are going to do one of these articles than you have to include the hotter loaded 38 special rounds like those from Underwood, Corbon and Buffalo Bore to have a fair Comparision.

  • glenn sammon says:

    hey David thanks for the info but a S&W M 629 is a 44 magnum. was the gun a 686?.that would weigh like 37 ounces , or 38. I know my S7W M19 weighs about 35, 36 ounces.

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  • Where do you get your ballistic info and ammo choice from? for 38 special, 125 gr is much more popular than 130gr and both can easily be loaded to 1000-1100 fps. Not saying there may be advantages to a 9mm luger but more realistic data would be much better.

  • Does it matter in terms of defensive use that revolvers can chamber and shoot bullets that are better stoppers than will feed reliably in a semi-auto?

    Also, I would like to see .38 +P rounds from revolvers compared to 9mm from semi-autos, since I have a .357 revolver that could handle +P rounds without complaint.

    I would also like to see felt recoil compared, as I have neuropathy and arthritis in my hands. Would I be able to cycle a failure to feed or fire my semi-auto, under the stress of combat? If a revolver fails to fire, the natural fix would be to pull the trigger again, which is a lot less complex than a slap-and-slide.

    My knowledge is all theoretical, except for target shooting, so opinions informed by real-world experience are very important to me.

    Thanks,
    Tom C.
    Charlotte, TN

    • Hey Tom,

      Your first question might be based on some outdated information. While early on some semi-autos had issues with some defensive bullets, most do not these days. I am not aware of any bullet design that won't feed in a semi-auto but is more effective than the current generation of defensive bullets.

      Comparing +P ammo is complex and messy. Strictly speaking "+P" doesn't have a clear definition in most cases. Buffalo Bore 38 SPL +P is a 158gr hardcast lead bullet moving at about 1,150FPS from a 4" barrel. Federal 38 SPL +P 120gr is only 1,000 FPS from a 4" barrel. They both carry the name "+P" but one is 38gr heavier and moving 150FPS faster. That translates to the Buffalo Bore having about 75% or 200 ft.lbf more energy.

      Felt recoil is going to depend on the exact loading of the caliber and the weight of the gun. Using the above Buffalo Bore example of 38 SPL +P, it has about 5ft.lbf of felt recoil using a 4" S&W 686. Federal HST 9mm 124gr has about 7ft.lbf felt recoil with a Glock 19.

      For your condition, a revolver might be a better option since you won't have to even consider racking the slide. Otherwise, I would say barrow a friend's at the range and give it a test before commiting to it as your defense weapon.

      I hope that helped!

  • if you are going to do one of these articles than you have to include the hotter loaded 38 special rounds like those from Underwood, Corbon and Buffalo Bore to have a fair Comparision.

  • hey David thanks for the info but a S&W M 629 is a 44 magnum. was the gun a 686?.that would weigh like 37 ounces , or 38. I know my S7W M19 weighs about 35, 36 ounces.

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