38 Special vs 9mm for Self-Defense

.38 Special vs. 9mm For Self-Defense

Feb 27, 2020 8:30:00 AM

There is some discussion over which is better for self-defense, .38 Special vs 9mm. Part of it has to do with the purported merits of both calibers as well as those of a revolver vs a semi-automatic...though there are some 9mm revolvers available and more are being made every year.

Different gun experts and enthusiasts have varied opinions. So, which is better for self-defense? The short answer is...kind of complicated. Really, the answer is whichever you shoot best, but the devil is in the details, really.

.38 Special vs 9mm Pistols

A lot of the discussion of .38 Special vs 9mm comes down to the guns.

As mentioned, there are some 9mm revolvers in production though they are not incredibly common. There are no auto-loaders in .38 Special, though Smith and Wesson made one a very long time ago that didn't sell very well, but so much for that.

Most revolvers in .38 Special have 5 or 6 cylinders. Semi-auto pistols in 9mm can carry up to – depending on the model and the magazine – 18+1. Modern shooters tend to prefer semi-autos, though there are some holdouts that stick to revolvers.


Does this make the 9mm more superior to the .38 Special? No, it just means that a 9mm pistol usually has more bullets on board.

As to accuracy, shootability and ease of operation – meaning how easy the guns are to learn and then operate competently – revolvers are simpler, but by no means easier to become very proficient with. Double-action triggers require a good amount of range time to gain serious proficiency. While a service-size revolver chambered in .38 Special is very easy to shoot, a micro revolver – like a J-frame – is snappy, the tiny grips can give some people fits, and the short barrel radius make them difficult to get very accurate with.

That isn't to say subcompact and micro 9mm pistols are easy to shoot either, as they have some definite snap to them, but not to an uncontrollable degree.

With that said, a gun in either chambering is hardly a beast to shoot. As to the guns, a full-size pistol in either chambering is very controllable, and very fast and accurate in practiced hands though a 9mm pistol will obviously hold more rounds. In the smallest of handguns...a 9mm is going to be easier to shoot well for most people due to handgun design.

Other Advantages Of .38 Special vs 9mm Handguns

Picture of revolver with bullets

There are, of course, some other advantages to .38 Special vs 9mm handguns, since the former are exclusively revolvers.

Revolvers tend to be – though aren't necessarily always! - more reliable as they are mechanically simple and do not require the cycling of the slide in order to function. There are fewer controls to learn, and therefore they can be a little faster to get into a fight.

Revolvers are also deadly tools in close quarters, as there's no slide to push back. This means you can, if needs be, put the muzzle up against your attacker and still fire the weapon. A number of people keep them as an ankle or pocket gun, as a backup to a larger pistol, for exactly this reason.

.38 Special Vs 9mm Ballistics

Picture of a J Frame revolver

.38 Special vs 9mm ballistics...actually starts to get a little complicated.

The .38 Special cartridge was invented during the era of black powder and is therefore loaded...a little weak. The classic .38 Special loading is a 158-grain bullet, which from a 4-inch barrel will typically achieve muzzle velocity of about 800 to 900 feet per second and about 225 to 275 foot-pounds of energy.

The classic 9mm load is a 115-grain bullet achieving about 1130 feet per second and around 330 ft-lbs of energy with a roughly equivalent barrel length.

However, all of those figures decline when fired from a shorter barrel, and especially from the 1.8-inch barrel of a snubnosed revolver. The shorter the barrel, the slower the bullet will be traveling when it leaves the muzzle.

This matters when it comes to ammunition performance. Expanding ammunition depends on velocity; below a certain threshold of velocity and they don't expand inside a fleshy or soft target. This is why, for many years, it was often held that .38 Special was adequate for personal defense when deployed in a service revolver (with a 4-inch or longer barrel) but not when fired from a snubnose micro revolver.

However, short-barrel loads have been developed specifically for use in such guns, so ammunition choice here is critical. While some experts favor the slower, heavier bullets to faster, lighter bullets, but decades of testing and field reports have found that quality .38 Special ammunition is effective...though not always as reliably as 9mm.

Granted, if you start reading up on ballistics and terminal performance, what you have to bear in mind is that magic bullets don't win fights – what does that is accuracy. You can get all the custom, high-end ammunition you want, but it doesn't matter if your bullets don't go where you need them to.

Parting Shot

Picture of a person firing a revolver

When it comes to self-defense, both the 9mm gun and .38 Special gun may come handy. The choice and performance depends on the situation and the need. As discussed, you can see that having more rounds may be a great advantage, especially when you get accosted by more than one intruder. On the other hand, in a close combat situation, a .38 Special revolver is more effective. Moreover, if you are an experienced shooter, then .38 Special is the way to go. It is reliable and easy to handle, with no cases of jam or failure to fire as a result of a missing magazine.