What is the difference between a .38 and a .38 Special?

by Maxwell Keith

According to historians, guns have been around since the 10th century. The first people to introduce them were the Chinese, who created a proto-gun they called the “fire lance.”

However, the first gun that can be compared to the modern versions was presented in the 13th century. Those were the metal barrel guns that fired a single projectile or bullet.

The .38 has been around for a long time and is among the most popular calibers. The question is whether you know the difference between a .38 and a .38 Special.

And while we are on the topic of guns and ammunition, we recommend you check out  Natchez Shooters Supplies after you get acquainted with the .38.

What is a .38 and a .38 special?

When talking about firearms, there are three main terms you have to know about: caliber, cartridges, and bump stocks.

  • Caliber – the size of the bore (the hollow part inside a gun barrel)
  • Cartridges – An ammunition unit composed of a cartridge case, primer, powder, and bullet. Also called a “round” or “load.” Sometimes incorrectly called a “bullet.”
  • Bump stocks – a device that can be attached to a semi-automatic firearm in place of a conventional gunstock, enabling it to fire bullets more rapidly.

A .38 is considered a caliber, while a .38 special is a cartridge.

Regarding its use, the .38 special was introduced as a substitute for the .38 Long Colt in 1898. It is primarily used in revolvers and has been known as a service cartridge in the US.

What is the difference?

The .38 caliber was first designed by Smith & Wesson in 1877 but wasn’t marketed until 1880. After that, several variants emerged in the market, some more popular than others.

Nowadays, when people mention a .38, they actually mean a .38 Special.

While we have explained the primary difference, we would like to highlight some more details that we still need to mention.

As previously mentioned, a .38 is a caliber with a .357-inch bullet diameter.

These comprise the .38 S&W (the original), .38 Long and Short Colt, and the .38 Super cartridges.

The .38 Special is also included under the .38 caliber since it is enhanced on the .38 Long Colt. It also has a more extended case length compared to the different cartridges.

What Is A .38 Special?

The .38 Special is the favorite type of ammunition for revolvers. However, it’s also used in semi-automatic pistols and carbines.

It’s a rimmed cartridge introduced by Smith &Wesson in 1898 during the Philippine–American War. It was also used mainly by the US police departments from the 1920s through the 1990s.

The .38 Special was one of the military’s most prominently used sidearms in World Wars 1 and 2, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

While in the US, it is known as a .38 Special worldwide, it is known as 9.1*29mmR or 9*29.5mmR.

The history of the Special is fascinating. During the Philippine-American War, the military realized the Long Colt was not powerful enough against the Morro Warriors. So they improved it, and the .38 Special came to be.

The Special is closer to a .36 since the bullet diameter is .357. However, it is still referred to as the .38. The .38 refers to the width of the entire case.

In 1934 we were introduced to the .357 Magnum. This bullet has a more significant case than the Special, with higher pressure and much better-stopping power.

How is a 38 Special different than other .38s?

While the .38s as a whole class are amazing, the Special has higher pressures and a longer case, making it more desirable.

The reason behind the .38 Specials versatility among the cartridges for revolvers is that it can be fired from chambers of the .38 Short and Long Colt and the .357 Magnum.

Remember that a revolver that can fire the .38 Special will not be a good combination with the .357 Magnum as it is unsafe. This is due to the high pressure that the Magnum comes at.

On a more positive note, you can use the .38 Special if you purchase a Magnum gun. The ammunition is also less expensive than the Magnum, which makes it a win-win situation.

Accuracy and Performance

The .38 Special was initially packaged with black powder. If you don’t know what black powder is, we are here to explain it.

Commonly known as gunpowder, it is a type of explosive with the role of ejecting the bullet from the chamber. It is called black powder because it would leave smoke after the gun or a revolver was fired, unlike the powders used today, which are smokeless.

Because of the black powder, the 38. Special had a slower muzzle velocity (<1000 fps) and low pressure. However, it was still incredibly popular due to its accuracy and effortless recoil.

If you want to try and assemble your own ammunition, the .38 Special will be the right choice for you. It has a larger case and can be paired with different powders. This also includes the smokeless ones.

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