The 38 Special vs the 380 ACP

   08.13.18

The 38 Special vs the 380 ACP

It was bound to come up at some point, sooner or later. But I’m surprised with all the hoopla over the hoard of new 380 semi-auto pistols flooding the market it has not surfaced before. With several new tempting 380 self-defense loads being introduced, the comparison just had to happen. It came up again while working a gun show last weekend.

Side by side on the table were several 38 Special revolvers by Smith & Wesson and Taurus with the same brands of pistols chambered for the “9mm Short” a.k.a. 380 ACP. A potential buyer was there shopping with his wife for a personal defense firearm. I could tell she was not a shooter or even accustomed to guns, but the question came up. Which handgun was better suited for her, the 38 Special revolver or the 380 ACP pistol? That brought up two issues.

Since she was not an experienced shooter, I explained the mechanical differences and nuances of the two firearm types. As you know, the differences are pretty profound. I had her handle both and pointed out the safety features of each, how to load, and further the complexity of the pistol design over the SA/DA six shot revolver. I detailed the advantages and disadvantages of each. Then he asked about the rounds they used. Here is the real crux of the issue.

With modern up-to-date defense ammunition these two rounds are very comparable, but with ballistics analysis one has to give a slight advantage to the venerable old 38 Special. A standard load for the 38 Special is a 158 grain bullet putting out a muzzle velocity of around 700-890 fps. That creates an energy of 200-278 foot pounds depending on the exact load.

The 380 ACP’s standard load uses an 85-95 grain bullet. These produce an MV of around 1000 fps with 189 ft. lbs. of energy at the muzzle. On paper this is just below the 38 Special. In a self-defense situation, I prefer more lead than less on target. In the final analysis it all depends on how many bullets are accurately delivered to the intended target and where.

The real difference might come down to how many rounds are available to deliver. A 38 Special revolver is only going to contain 5 or 6 rounds, while a single-stack magazine in a 380 ACP pistol could hold 7 or more rounds depending on the model. Those are what the buyer’s choices boil down to in the real world. That along with the confidence in using a revolver or a pistol.

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