The 38 Special +P vs the 357 Magnum
Dr. John Woods 12.16.18
An inquiry came recently asking about a toe-to-toe comparison between the hyper +P 38 Special and the 357 Magnum. One would initially think there is no reasonable comparison, but the investigation was worth the effort regardless. For cartridge nuts, it is always fun to roll the dice just to see what turns up.
The old warrior 38 Special cartridge has been around forever it seems and has always been considered an apt law enforcement and personal defense round, at least until the more powerful magnums and semi-auto rounds came along. In certain circles, it still carries itself well and remains popular for pocket revolver handguns, concealed carry, and backup for law enforcement as well as personal use.
In 1935 when the 357 Magnum was introduced, one would think the handgun revolver world was turned on its ear. Indeed it was at the time. Reports flourished about the capability of the 357 to bore right through automotive engine blocks, but I have never met anybody who has actually done that. Regardless the 357 Magnum set the stage for magnum-mania which continues today in cartridge development, though it has slowed somewhat.
Side by side there really is no serious way to compare the 38 Special +P with a 357 Magnum. The comparison though is interesting to see the relative power differential between the two. For that comparison it is easiest to use factory ballistics data just as a base level starting place.
There has been some recent criticism of using such factory ammunition data in comparing the power ratings of different cartridges. Others prefer to punch paper to see their power, or perhaps use in the hunting fields. Hunting is one thing, but likely only groups like the FBI punch tons of ballistic gelatin or examine post-shooting evidence to prove cartridge/bullet effectiveness in an actual human gun fight. Of course, the ammo makers shoot gelatin, too for tests on bullet penetration, expansion and such.
Punching paper alone says nothing but the accuracy potential. I know of no other logical way to illustrate cartridge power other than by that data supplied by the people that manufacture the ammunition. They shoot rail car loads of it with scientific analysis of velocity, muzzle energy and other ballistic factors.
Thus, here is a simple chart illustrating the muzzle velocities and muzzle energies of these cartridges compiled from factory data:
Cartridge Ammo Bullet MV (fps) ME (ft. lbs.)
38 Special +P Black Hills 125 JHP 1050 306
Federal 125 JHP 950 250
Remington 158 LHP 890 278
Winchester 158 LSWC HP 890 278
Std 38 Special Assorted 158 LSWC 760 200
357 Magnum Black Hills 158 SWC 1050 475
Federal 158 LSWC 1240 535
Hornady 158 JHP 1250 548
Remington 158 SJHP 1235 535
9mm Assorted 124 SP 1120 345
380 ACP Assorted 90 JHP 1000 200
As you can see from these paper ballistics comparisons, the 357 Magnum with a host of standard loads is considerably more powerful on paper than the 38 Special, even with a selection of +P loads. The 357 Magnum generally eclipses the 38+P loads by nearly double in terms of muzzle energy. This is where the rubber meets the road, or the lead meets the adversary. One might say it is the terminal killing potential.
Note, too that the +P loads in a 38 Special do indeed generate more promising ballistics than the standard 38 Special loads. This was after all the ammunition engineering intent of creating a more powerful load for the 38 Special. Keep in mind though, that a particular firearm chambered for the 38 Special has to be certified to handle +P loads. Don’t take it for granted that these +P loads are to be used consistently in a lightweight handgun so chambered. Then, of course, any 357 Magnum can also handle the 38 Specials even in +P loads.
Note, also the comparison data thrown in for the 9mm Luger and the380 ACP. The 9mm is underpowered next to the 357 Magnum, but has more energy than the +P 38 Specials. I think this is fully understood in the shooting world. It is interesting though that the 380 ACP now being highly touted as a good, albeit low end self-defense round, does not meet the energy of the +P 38 Specials. The 380 ACP does compare equal to the standard 38 Special. That is good to know that the popular 380 ACP is up to par with the venerable 38 Special.
So, while the +P loads for the 38 Special do enhance the effectiveness over the standard loads, this recipe still does not approach the power of the 357 Magnum. I don’t think this revolution is rocket science to anyone that studies cartridges and their power comparisons. I do think it is valuable to know that the 38 Special still has its place in the world, as does the 357 Magnum. Again, the bonus is that the 38 Special can be chambered in any 357 Magnum cylinder.