.38 vs 9mm: Which Is The King Of The Moderate Medium Bores?
Since the two cartridges share so many virtues, some wonder which is best between .38 vs 9mm. The short answer is both are very good for the same reasons.
Both cartridges offer sufficient power for self-defense whilst being highly accurate and easy enough for pretty much any shooter to handle. That's been the reason why .38 Special was basically the default revolver round for so long, and why 9mm is the default round for semi-auto pistols today. Heck, both bullets are about the same size; .38 Special uses a bullet .357 inches in diameter, the 9mm round is .355.
The .38 Special Is The Default Revolver Round For Good Reason
Whatever the perceived shortcomings might be when considering 38 vs 9mm, the .38 Special has a number of virtues that are all too often overlooked.
By today's standards, it's rather pedestrian with typical velocities between 700 fps and 1000 fps for most standard-pressure loadings. Bullet weights are typically between 115 grains and 158 grains.
The classic defense loads are a 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint, which was the standard police load for decades, and the "Super Police" load, a 200-grain soft-cast lead roundnose bullet. JHP rounds didn't catch on until later, with a 125-grain JHP for short-barreled guns being popular too.
The 90-grain JHP Super Vel load also found popularity among officers. Super Vel ammunition, like CorBon, are lighter grain-weight hot loads, booking it at faster velocities than factory standard loads and often loaded to +P pressure ratings.
The virtues of the .38 Special are that it's effective in a self-defense capacity in service-size pistols. It doesn't produce excessive recoil, so most shooters can accurately shoot it. That made it very popular with police departments and civilians. You also won't find a manual of arms simpler nor a gun as easy to maintain as CCW revolvers. Simply load, point, shoot and repeat.
However, the .38 Special has a certain problem. You see, revolver rounds typically need a little more barrel length and velocity to get good expansion from JHP rounds. Snubbie revolvers, as a result, have a track record of poor performance in this regard, at least until Speer and other companies started making short-barrel loads that performed a little better.
9mm: The Default Semi-Auto Round
It's big enough to be reliably effective, and modern loadings have made advances light years beyond the 9mm hollow points of the 1970s and 1980s. Recoil is moderate, which likewise makes the 9mm easy for most shooters to handle and therefore be accurate with, which is exactly why the FBI switched to 9mm a few years ago.
The 9mm round has a bit more zip, with velocities ranging between 1,000 fps and 1,300 fps for standard pressure ammunition. Bullet weights are a bit more restricted (we'll get into that later) as 115-, 124- and 147-grain loadings are most common. It sits about halfway between the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum in terms of performance, exceeding even the velocity of many factory .38 Special +P+ loads.
The extra zing makes the 9mm far more suited to use with hollowpoint ammunition, as modern 9mm JHPs expand easily and reliably. Since it's the default NATO handgun round, it's used all over the world. It's small size and lack of a rim allow for a healthy supply in a compact to full size firearm, especially after the double-stack magazine was invented by Dieudonne Saive for the Browning Hi Power and later Wonder Nines.
Couple all that with low cost and you have what a lot of people consider to be as close to a perfect pistol round as you can get. It can be nearly all things to all men.
38 vs 9mm
For concealed carry purposes, there aren't too many reasons to choose 38 vs 9mm. You can get compact 9mm pistols like the M&P Shield that carry more rounds (typical CCW revolvers carry five or six, the Shield carries 7+1 or 8+1, depending on the magazine) are easier to shoot (.38 Special in a snubbie is a little bracing) and are actually a little easier to carry.
9mm is known for more reliable expansion when using jacketed hollow points, though you can get .38 Special loads that will also do so. However, load selection in the latter is crucial.
So, 9mm is cheaper, tends to work better in self-defense applications and you can carry more bullets. Why would anyone bother with .38 Special?
A certain person can actually get more from it. You see, .38 Special has a long case length relative to its power level, due to being developed at the tail end of the black powder era. As a result, it has capabilities the 9mm does not.
A cautious and experienced handloader can get a whole lot more out of .38 Special than anyone can get out of 9mm, as it allows for heavier bullet weights and also powder charges.
Back in the 1920s, a number of guys - among them Elmer Keith - started stuffing more and more powder in .38 Special cases, eventually leading to the development of .38/44, also known as .38 HV, a hot .38 Special for use in S&W N-frame revolvers. This led, a few years later, to the development of the .357 Magnum round.
A typical 158-grain .38 Special load would travel at 750 to 800 fps (depending) in standard pressure loading from a service revolver with something like a 4-inch barrel. The .38/44 158-grain load was a bit more brisk, at about 1,100 fps, which is about 200 fps faster than modern 147-grain 9mm. Today's .357 Magnum loads book it about 1,230 to 1,250 fps in the 158-grain loadings.
So, you can shoot heavier bullets in a .38 Special at higher velocities if you load it correctly and you have the right gun. You need a 4-inch barrel (at minimum; some contend 6 inches or more) to get the best of most revolver rounds and a sturdy frame such as a Ruger GP100 or S&W N-frame.
In other words, 9mm is a better all-rounder and pretty much the best fit for the modern shooter. The .38 Special, however, can be far more versatile if you have a good gun for it and you handload. However, not a whole lot of folks do so anymore.