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Best .38 Special Ammo: Home Defense, CCW, & Plinking

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More than 120 years after its initial introduction, .38 Special remains a wildly popular revolver cartridge. 

Sure, it’s not as popular as it once was, but neither are revolvers in general. Still, revolver lovers worldwide keep returning to this round for personal defense, target shooting, and even some small-game hunting. 

Whether you’re new to the round and are trying to discover your options or were bitten by the .38 Special bug a long time ago and want a refresher, we’ve put together this guide to help you find the best .38 Special ammo. 

But first, for those still on the fence, let’s go over why you might want to opt for .38 Special in the first place.


First things first: the “.38” in “.38 Special” isn’t accurate, at least not for how we typically think of cartridge notations. The bullet actually has a .357-inch diameter. “.38” actually refers to the diameter of a loaded case. 

For a long time, from the ‘20s to the late ‘80s, .38 Special was the standard service round for most US police departments and was also a popular choice for the US military during that time. 

As you can probably guess from that information, .38 Special is a great defensive round. It’s especially popular for little guns, with most .38s having barrels around 2 to 4 inches long. It’s not the most powerful round, but it’s got enough oomph to be sufficient for defense without a ton of recoil, at least by revolver standards. 

If you want some extra power, opt for a +P round. Even with that extra energy, I don’t find the recoil to be too bad.  

You also occasionally see .38 Special used for small game hunting, especially wadcutter rounds, but for the most part, people prefer other .357 caliber rounds, like .357 Magnum or something that starts with a 4.

On the subject of other .357 rounds, another neat aspect of .38 Special revolvers is that they can chamber more than just .38 Special. In addition to .38 Special, you can also chamber .38 Short Colt and .38 Long Colt, since these rounds are almost identical to .38 Special except in terms of the length of the cartridge.

.357 Magnum is another round that’s identical except in terms of cartridge length, but while .38 Special rounds can be used in a .357 Magnum gun, that doesn’t work the other way. You generally won’t be able to even fit .357 Magnum in your .38 Special because the cartridge is too long, but even if you can make it fit, never use .357 Magnum rounds in your .38 Special gun. 

However, if you already have a .357 Magnum revolver, feel free to pop the ammo below into it.


Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel 135 Grain +P Ammo

Speer Gold Dot is a very popular line for law enforcement organizations because of its excellent quality. They don’t penetrate as much as some rounds nor expand as much as others. Rather, they balance the two and do so without an unmanageable kick, even with the +P factor. 

It also seems to perform especially well out of a longer barrel (well, by .38 standards, so four or five inches). It is a great option for those who carry a .357 Magnum long gun that can feed .38 Special ammo.

Hornady Critical Defense 110 Grain FTX 

Hornady’s FTX bullets are interesting because they have a soft insert in the point that helps prevent the hollow point from getting clogged up from contact with clothing or whatever else before entering your target. It also helps regulate expansion for better performance.

The recoil is also quite light. And while the Speer Gold Dot seems to perform best in longer barrels, Hornady Critical Defense does especially well out of shorter barrels, so you may want to opt for this one if you carry a snubnose. 

If you don’t mind some extra kick and want some more power, you can opt for the +P version instead of the standard. 

In fact, since it seems to expand more consistently, I’d opt for the +P over the P for carrying in the winter if you live somewhere especially cold to get through those extra layers of cold-weather clothing effectively. The standard version is perfectly fine for summer gear, and even winter in areas where people aren’t wearing a bunch of layers, like my own native Georgia. 

Federal Personal Defense HST Micro 38 Special +P 130 Grain

If you’re looking for serious expansion, you’ll get it from this round thanks to its unique shape. It’s a hollow point, but the tip is actually totally flat, with the hollow recessed back into the case rather than just a small hollow at the tip. Depending on who’s running the test, expansion diameters tend to measure in at about .71 or .72 inches.

The other thing this recessed style does is control the burn rate of the powder. This is because the back of the bullet is right on top of it, cutting out the extra space that’s common in a lot of .38 Special ammo (a remnant from the round’s origins as a black powder cartridge).

It also has a lower velocity than a lot of other rounds, but that gives it plenty of time for expansion without much risk of overpenetration. Plus, it also brings the recoil down, especially for a +P round. 

The round does still exceed FBI standards for penetration (at least 12 inches) but just by a touch, so if you’re looking for a round with deeper penetration, you’re better of with one of the other ammunitions we discuss here. 

Federal designed this round specifically for snub noses, but in my experience, it works well with both snub noses and longer barrels. If you’re concerned about getting enough penetration, opting for a longer barrel will help. 

Remington Golden Saber +P 125 Grain

Remington Gold Saber +P is another good option for those looking for good expansion. It’s not at the same level as the Federal Personal Defense that we just discussed, closer to about .60 inches, it’s certainly not too shabby.

The penetration is also very consistent and a hair better than Federal Personal Defense too, around 12.5 inches.

Nickel plating on the cases makes them corrosion resistant, so you don’t have to worry about how well your rounds will cycle, even after they’ve been stored fora  while. 

And to give you some assurance of the round’s quality, the Golden Saber platform is a popular choice among law enforcement professionals. 

Federal American Eagle .38 Special 130gr. FMJ

Federal’s American Eagle line is well known for being affordable without being terrible. Sure, it wouldn’t be our first choice for defense or competition, but it’s perfectly fine for getting used to a new revolver or killing time at the range. 

You shouldn’t have problems with performance, it’s just not as accurate as some other options. But, as an FMJ, you’ll definitely want to reserve it for the range anyway. 

And the recoil isn’t too bad either, which is great for new shooters or for those who want to train things other than recoil control at the range without worrying about getting beaten up by much spicier .357 rounds. This makes it a great option for practicing with that .357 carry/hunting revolver.

Sellier & Bellot .38 Special 148 Grain WC

If you want a step up from the American Eagle, Sellier & Bellot is a great choice, and it’s my favorite .38 Special round for competition.

As a wadcutter round, it’s specifically designed for target shooting, and it does that job very well. The flat front allows the entire length of the round to make contact with your revolver barrel’s rifling, improving the round’s accuracy. It also leaves neater holes that are easier to score.

The low recoil makes it easier for fast, accurate follow-up shots, but it also makes this round great for beginners who are still getting used to revolver recoil.


.38 Special may be well over a hundred years old, but it’s still a worthy round to carry to this day. It’s a great range or training round, and it still holds its own as a defensive round too. 

Especially once you consider all the advances in modern defensive ammo that absolutely have not passed this aging warhorse by. Newer +P and +P+ ammo is very spicy, and a great option for anyone looking to keep themselves safe.

And if you’re just looking to plink at the range, shoot in something like an IDPA six-gun match, or blast cans off a berm somewhere, then there’s options out there for that too. 

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