Handgun Caliber Showdown Round 3: .38 Special vs. 9mm

Truth be told I tend to shy away from comparing any revolver cartridge to any semi-auto handgun cartridge. It’s an apples-to-oranges type of comparison — there’s no practical reason for it, so ultimately, it’s pointless. And I’m also a wheelgun guy so I’m a little biased toward revolver cartridges.

But having written a few handgun caliber comparison articles in the past, from time to time I would get emails from some of our readers asking me to do such a comparison. I would always tell them to just look somewhere else to satisfy their caliber-wars curiosity because I couldn’t care less about these types of comparisons. I’d rather avoid opening a can of worms — these types of comparisons lead to debates that can get ugly real fast.

Recently, a good friend of mine purchased a Ruger LCRx chambered for the 9mm. After trying it out in the range, he brought it to me and asked me to shoot a few rounds and tell me what I think about it.

a picture of the Ruger LCRx

I shot two cylinders’ worth (10 rounds) of standard pressure 147-grain Armscor brand ammo in it. After putting it through its paces, I told him that for a small-frame polymer revolver, it’s a great option for concealed carry and for the price he paid, it’s not bad — which shouldn’t come as a surprise as it is a Ruger-brand firearm.

Consequently, after shooting his LCRx and giving him my thoughts on his new acquisition, I got all excited and decided to revisit the topic of .38 Special vs. 9mm, a subject of countless debates in many online gun forums.


Why even bother comparing the two?

In a nutshell, both cartridges work similarly: they can both be considered older designs, they were both developed primarily for use in handguns, they use practically the same diameter bullets which punch holes that are pretty much the same size, and they’re both popular and available all over the world despite their age.

a picture of a 9mm and a 38 specialWhere they differ greatly is in the ballistic performance area. A lot of firearms enthusiasts, including some self-confessed “gun experts”, quite often compare them on this area alone without regard for their merits and disadvantages.

It’s a no-brainer that as far as ballistics, the 9mm is superior. For 9mm fans and subcompact semi-auto plastic handgun aficionados, that’s pretty much all there is to this particular caliber comparison. The 9mm is more powerful, and semi-auto handguns have more rounds in the mag compared to revolvers, so it’s better than the .38 Special — no contest, end of the debate.

But if we all look deeper and think outside of the box, besides the numbers on ballistics charts accessible everywhere online, there’s more to this caliber comparison than most people would care to talk on, much less think about.

So in this round of our series of Handgun Caliber Showdowns, we’ll compare the .38 Special and the 9mm to try and determine which one is better, and just what makes it better over its contender.


A bit of history for the uninformed

People often compare these two handgun calibers because of all the similarities mentioned above. But if we’re doing a really objective, unbiased comparison (as biased as I am toward revolver cartridges I’d really want to make this comparison unbiased), we must look into each of these cartridge’s history a little.

The .38 Special was developed in 1898 as an improvement over the .38 Long Colt, a much weaker standard military issue revolver cartridge that proved too weak and inadequate against the Moro Juramentados — the badass, faith-blinded adrenaline-overdosed Muslim warriors American soldiers had trouble taking down during the Philippine-American War.

a picture of Moro Juramentados

Those days, the use of smokeless powder as bullet propellant was only starting to become popular. Black powder was the de facto standard bullet propellant as it had been around for ages and was a lot easier to manufacture compared to its newer contemporary.

The .38 Special was originally designed to use black powder, thus its case was designed to only handle black powder-level pressure which is relatively lower compared to the higher levels of pressure achievable with the use of smokeless powder.

Also, revolvers don’t require chamber pressure to cycle. In a single action revolver, the shooter only needs to cock the hammer to rotate the cylinder. In a double action revolver, pulling the trigger also does the job.

Black Powder vs. Smokeless Powder

We will not go too deep as to why smokeless powder is the better bullet propellant. It’s a very broad topic that deserves its own research and write-up — if you want to know more you can go check out this post on Quora where some of the best answers to this question can be found.

a picture of Extruded PowdersBut the fact of the matter is smokeless powder eventually replaced black powder as bullet propellant for a number of good reasons, among which:

  • It produces less smoke;
  • It burns cleaner (reducing fouling in barrels);
  • It produces more heat due to its chemically bonded composition (which translates to more pressure);
  • It burns faster in higher pressure environments (such as in a firearm’s chamber).

The 9×19 Parabellum, a.k.a. 9mm, was originally designed by Georg Luger in 1901, two years after the .38 Special came out, to be a rimless semi-auto handgun cartridge loaded with more powerful smokeless powder.

a picture of the Luger PistolBecause it was going to be used in not-yet-as-popular semi-auto pistol designs (e.g. the Luger pistol, which required high pressure cartridges to cycle) where cartridges are housed inside the grip area rather than the separate cylinder commonly found in revolvers, the 9mm case length had to be short to conform with the grip’s overall dimensions.

And because of the higher pressures smokeless powder can generate and its effectiveness as a bullet propellant, the 9mm’s case was developed to be stronger with thicker webbing compared to the .38 Special’s.

.38 Special and 9mm Pressure Ratings

a table with info on ballistic calculation derivationFor comparison, standard pressure .38 Special loads have a SAAMI specification of 17,000 psi while higher pressure .38 Special +P loads top out at a SAAMI pressure rating of 18,500 psi, an 8.8% increase in pressure leading to better ballistics.

But standard pressure 9×19 Parabellum have a SAAMI rating of 35,000 psi (more than double the pressure standard .38 Special loads can handle), and higher pressure +P loads can go as high up as 38,500 psi (also more than double the pressure the .38 Special +P can handle).

Granted, these increases in pressures aren’t directly proportional to gains in velocity. Also, ammo manufacturers started loading .38 Special ammo with smokeless powder about a year after it was released so it’s not like we’re saying the .38 Special is weak because of black powder per se.

We are only including these historical tidbits to attempt to explain how the 9mm, despite having a smaller case, can handle higher pressures than the .38 Special. The differences in ballistic performance are a result of each cartridge’s differences in design, all dictated by the type of powder each was originally developed to use and the shooting platform each was designed for.


Ballistics vs. Terminal Performance

a picture of 9mm ballistics gel

These days, there are a lot of modern bullet designs and a lot of different load data that even something as weak as a .380 ACP can be as good of an equalizer as a .357 Magnum when it comes to self-defense even when the former can barely produce a quarter of the latter’s muzzle energy.

This isn’t to say that looking at ballistics charts is pointless — if the only available ammo from my LGS are full metal jackets for both calibers, assuming I could only buy a box of either, I would probably pick the .38 Special because it wouldn’t over-penetrate like the 9mm due to its lower velocity.

By the same token, if all that’s left in my LGS are jacketed hollow points, I would pick the 9mm because it will have a better chance of expansion due to its higher velocity and muzzle energy. But what are the chances that my LGS would have such a limited supply of ammo? Yep, next to none.

The 9mm is ballistically superior to the .38 Special, there’s no doubt about that. Standard pressure .38 Special only produces 264 foot-pounds of force (147-grain bullet at 900 feet per second out of a 4-inch barrel), while standard pressure 9mm can produce 365 foot-pounds of force (124-grain bullet at 1,150 feet per second). This is 38.25% more energy at the muzzle in favor of the 9mm.

But with modern fluted bullet designs (e.g. ARX Interceptor and Lehigh Defense) coupled with modern powder charge load data, the relatively weaker rimmed cartridge can go toe-to-toe with the more powerful rimless cartridge as far as terminal performance, i.e. sufficient penetration and good wounding capability resulting to quicker incapacitation. Watch the video below if you’re in doubt:

As for the other people arguing that the 9mm tends to over-penetrate, controlled penetration bullet designs (e.g. frangible, controlled fracturing, etc.) have been around for a while — they’ve probably been living under a rock for the last decade or so.


Price and Availability

Both the .38 Special and the 9mm enjoy popularity among civilians (which to me is really the only measure of popularity that counts — that is to say, the 9mm’s popularity among LEOs and the military shouldn’t count for anything). Thus, both calibers are widely available in any country where civilians are still allowed to own firearms.

These days though, revolvers aren’t getting the love they deserve anymore. Most people prefer compact, high-capacity, polymer semi-auto pistols like Glocks and SIGs and Smith & Wesson M&Ps, to name a few, and more and more of these are getting manufactured each year thanks to their popularity in the military and law enforcement (it’s common knowledge among enthusiasts that all the firearms the military adopts quickly become popular among civilians).

a picture of a soldier holding a sig p320

In stark contrast, fewer and fewer revolvers in general (and those chambered for the .38 Special in particular) are getting manufactured. In the US, there are only four firearms manufacturing companies actively competing in revolver sales: Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Taurus and Charter Arms (compare that to hundreds of companies that manufacture plastic autoloaders).

Kimber recently jumped into the fray with their CCW-oriented .357 Magnum-chambered K6s, and Colt also recently revived their Cobra line of .38 Special-chambered snub-nose revolvers, but that’s pretty much it. We’re now at the point where the wheelgun market is practically just a niche market — slowly but surely, revolvers are becoming a thing of the past.

And as such, demand for the .38 Special is on a steady decline. Demand dictates supply, so less ammo is getting manufactured. As supply in turn dictates price, .38 Special per-round price can go as high up as double that of the 9mm’s (even higher depending on how much of a particular brand ammo is in stock).

a picture of 38 special bulk ammo

Lucky Gunner has some good bulk ammo deals online — their lowest priced 9mm ammo cost 14.9¢ per round while their cheapest .38 Special ammo cost 25.5¢ per round. It’s also pretty much the same story with BulkAmmo.com and AmmoGrab.com.


Dual-caliber Revolver vs. Convertible Semi-auto

One interesting thing to think about when it comes to comparing handgun calibers is the concept of caliber conversion. For this particular comparison, the possibility of buying a handgun that can be converted to shoot a totally different caliber is another thing that makes choosing the 9mm over the .38 Special more appealing.

A revolver chambered for the .38 Special can safely chamber and shoot only that caliber. Older revolvers and even some newer but cheaply made .38 Special revolvers (like those manufactured by companies like Rock Island Armory) cannot use overpressure .38 Special +P ammo because of their weak metallurgy and brittle cylinder/frame material (e.g. alloy or aluminum).

a picture of a 38 special revolverAny revolver chambered for the .357 Magnum will safely chamber and shoot three different loads: the powerful caliber it’s chambered for, .38 Special +P, and standard pressure .38 Special ammo.

While technically, the .357 Magnum is a .38 Special (just one that’s on steroids) being it’s essentially the same cartridge (only differences are it can push the same .357-inch diameter bullet at much faster velocities and its longer case is rated for twice the SAAMI pressure the .38 Special can handle: 35,000 psi, coincidentally the same SAAMI spec as that of the 9mm’s), as far as revolver prices a .357 Magnum revolver isn’t a .38 Special revolver.

But strictly speaking, all .357 Magnum revolvers are .38 Special revolvers. As a dual-caliber shooting platform, it works well for a lot of people. But me personally, I’d rather buy a cheap revolver to shoot .38 Special rounds in it because I don’t see the point in buying a powerful revolver only to shoot weaker ammo in it.

Some people say it’s great for target shooting, but in my experience, cleaning a .357 Magnum revolver after firing boxes of .38 Specials in it can be a real pain. This is why I bought a Rock Island Armory M206 even when I already have a Taurus M689.

a picture of a Revolver Cylinder Reamer

Do note that switching these calibers can’t be done in reverse. The .357 Magnum cartridge will not headspace in a revolver chambered solely for the .38 Special because of the longer overall length of the .357 Magnum cartridge’s case.

I’ve heard that some people ream the cylinder of stronger .38 Special revolvers (mostly Rugers and older Smiths) while others install a stronger cylinder to accept higher-pressure magnum rounds. But converting a weaker revolver to shoot a more powerful cartridge is generally considered unsafe. If you want to try it, do it at your own risk — we cannot be held liable in the event of a catastrophic failure. You’ve been warned.


Versatility: the real ace in the hole 

In contrast, quality 9mm semi-auto handguns can safely chamber and shoot overpressure 9mm +P and +P+ rounds (you’d still want to consult your manual just to be on the safe side). But wait, there’s more!

a picture of 9x23 Winchester and 38 Super cartridgesIf you have a 1911 chambered for the 9mm, you have the option to buy a drop-in .38 Super barrel and just switch barrels. The .38 Super is an old handgun caliber about as powerful as 9mm +P+ but without the excessive pressure.

Another interesting conversion option for 9mm-chambered 1911s is to ream the chamber to shoot the 9×23 Winchester, which is another powerful .35 caliber semi-auto handgun cartridge that rivals and even exceeds the .357 SIG as far as ballistics but at a smaller footprint, allowing for more rounds in the mag.

A word of caution though: the 9×23 Winchester operates at SAAMI pressure ratings of up to 55,000 psi — if you’re not sure whether your 1911’s chamber can handle such pressures, just buy a drop-in conversion barrel.

Also, if you own (or you’re planning to purchase) a Glock 19, you might want to look into the .960 Rowland conversion. Developed by Johnny Rowland, Gun TV pioneer and creator of the .460 Rowland, it is one promising conversion concept.

a picture of the 960 rowland with a 9mm and 9x23 winchester

The .960 Rowland attempts to mimic true .357 Magnum ballistic performance in a Glock 19 using the custom 6-inch ported barrel that comes with the kit and the new cartridge Johnny designed which uses slightly longer brass (about the same size as that of the 9×23 Winchester, with the loaded cartridge’s overall length being the same as that of the 9mm’s).

But it only came out in late 2014 and the conversion kit is currently only available for Glock 19 pistols. If it becomes popular, I imagine Johnny will come up with conversion kits for other 9mm semi-auto handguns on the market, the same thing he did with his older, more successful .460 Rowland offering.

Available Shooting Platforms

This section shows yet another win for the 9mm. There might be more than a thousand non-semi-auto handguns chambered for the 9mm so I wouldn’t bother listing them all. But I know that the following submachine guns are available in 9mm for military use:

  • Heckler & Koch MP5 (Germany)
  • Uzi Submachine Gun (Israel)
  • Heckler & Koch UMP-9 (Germany)
  • Beretta PM12 (Italy)
  • Ingram MAC-10 (U.S.)
  • CZ Scorpion (Czech Republic)
  • Brugger & Thornet MP9 (Switzerland)
  • FAMAE SAF (Chile)

In addition, with pistol-caliber carbines being all the rage among gun enthusiasts in the past couple of years, there are a lot of carbines chambered for the 9mm. Again I wouldn’t list them all because there’s just too many of them, but if you’re in a hurry, here’s a list of some of the more common 9mm semi-auto carbines:

  • Hi-Point 995TS
  • Kel-Tec Sub 2000
  • CMMG MK9-T
  • Beretta CX4 Storm
  • Heckler & Kock USC

Lastly, 9mm revolvers are also becoming quite common. Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Taurus, and Charter Arms all manufacture such revolvers. Newcomers like Italian company Chiappa and German company Korth (via Nighthawk Custom) also have revolvers chambered for the 9mm.

I hear a lot of people saying the .38 Special is better for novice shooters because it’s a revolver cartridge — well, the highly versatile 9mm can also be a revolver cartridge, so they’re dead wrong.

a picture of the Model 1866 rifle

Unfortunately for the .38 Special, there are only two non-revolver-type firearms I know that can chamber and shoot it. These are the Model 1866 rifle manufactured by Uberti in Italy and imported by Navy Arms, and the full-size Coonan 1911-style .357 Magnum pistol which shouldn’t really count (because it is primarily chambered in .357 Magnum) but it functions flawlessly with .38 Special rounds. Note that the Coonan compact version is .357 Magnum-only.

There are currently no other rifles or carbines chambered for the .38 Special, though if you really want to shoot it in anything other than a revolver or the Coonan handgun, you can purchase a rifle chambered for the .357 Magnum. Most of .357 Magnum rifles should chamber and shoot the .38 Special with no problems but check with the manufacturer first before you even try.


Conclusion

Just as a quick disclaimer of sorts, I’m not a 9mm fan. As I’ve expressed many times in many of the articles I’ve written, my go-to handgun calibers have always been the .357 Magnum and the .45 ACP. However, I respect all calibers’ potential to maim, incapacitate or even kill a bad guy when innocent people’s lives are threatened.

To me, even the lowly .22 LR deserves as much respect as the monstrosity that is the .500 S&W Magnum, if only for the simple fact that I wouldn’t want to be hit by a bullet from either cartridge. From this perspective, I view all handgun calibers the same.

However, there are a lot of things to consider when choosing a firearm for self-defense. What’s often seen as of utmost importance is the caliber a gun is chambered for —  assuming you practice a lot and you can put a bullet at whichever body part you’re aiming at, the cartridge you load in your gun determines whether you’ll incapacitate your bad guy quick enough to survive a life-threatening situation or you’ll die due to a retaliatory strike.

The .38 Special and the 9mm are both fine options for self-defense with all the modern bullet propellants, load data and bullet designs available today. Where the .38 Special is utterly defeated by the 9mm in this handgun caliber comparison is in the price and versatility categories, two things often overlooked by just about everyone.

As far as price-per-round, the 9mm is untouchable. It blows the competition out of the water by costing around half as much but being at least marginally more powerful, if not a lot.

And if you have stockpiles of 9mm ammo, you won’t have to worry about emptying those boxes as there are a lot of different ways you can enjoy shooting those rounds — countless semi-auto handguns, submachine guns, pistol-caliber carbines and even a few revolvers are chambered for it.

I can only hope the .38 Special wouldn’t fall into obscurity in the foreseeable future. The fact that it’s still even relevant a full century and two decades after it came out is a testament to how good it is as a .35-caliber handgun cartridge for self-defense. And I’ve always been one to root for the underdog. Only time will tell.

But for all the reasons stated above, I have to declare the 9mm the winner of this round. And I think it’s a well-deserved win.

A firearms and ballistics enthusiast and an outdoorsman, Mike is one of Gun News Daily's best contributing authors. He's a researcher, data analyst and writer by trade and strongly adheres to conservatism—a stalwart of the right to keep and bear arms.

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