Selecting a handgun/cartridge combination for self-defense can be an overwhelming decision. Should you select the optimum handgun and settle for it’s chambering, or would it be better to start with a proven, fight-stopping cartridge and wrap a handgun around it? A generation ago, choices were far more limited than now. Not only was the list of suitable handguns far more limited than the present, but cartridges like the .357 Sig, .40 S&W, 10mm, and .45 GAP didn’t even exist.
Today, many popular handgun platforms are available in a variety of chamberings, sizes and trigger actions. Let’s assume you have picked a handgun that best suits your needs. You now have to come to terms with the right chambering. The new high-performance cartridges certainly have appeal, as do the well-established classics.
For most defensive-minded shooters, performance is the key. The right handgun will give you a better likelihood of getting your shots on target, but when you get right down to it, the bullet of your chosen cartridge does the heavy lifting. Though upstart rounds like the .357 Sig and .40 S&W outperform the classics in almost every way on paper, are they really better?
Rounds that might be well suited for a full-size pistol can be very uncomfortable to shoot in a lightweight subcompact. Performance comes at a price, which usually means more recoil and muzzle flip. Before you holster up with the ballistic equivalent of a top fuel dragster, consider your skill level, frequency of practice, and the possibility that you may have to accurately fire multiple shot bursts and control your pistol with one hand.
Throughout my law enforcement career, I have carried handguns chambered for .38 Special, .357 Mag, 9mm, .40 S&W, .357 Sig and .45 ACP. More often than not, I was told what I could and could not carry. Since retirement, the decision as to what type of handgun and cartridge is chambered for became mine alone.
For personal defense, I have opted to go with a trio of greybeard cartridges that have been around since Teddy Roosevelt was running the show. Although the ballistic tables illustrate that their raw horsepower does not equal that of some of the newer offerings, other criteria weigh heavily into my decision. High on my list is reliability in the types of handguns I prefer to carry. The fact that they all have proven track records isn’t entirely lost on me either.
Introduced in 1902 as a mate for the S&W Military & Police revolver, the .38 Special was considered a powerful cartridge in its day. It delivered significant boosts in performance over other mid-bores such as the .38 S&W and .38 LC, which were widely used at that time.
When revolvers were the law enforcement sidearm of choice, the .38 Special was king. True, many outfits went with the .357 Mag but by and large, the .38 Special dominated the scene for over 80 years. It is unlikely any other metallic cartridge will surpass this record.
Nowadays, the .38 Special has a different role. Most states have now passed laws enabling armed citizens to carry a concealed handgun. Like police officers in the not so distant past, holders of CCW (Concealed Carry Weapon) permits have discovered that a small snub revolver that is with you all the time makes tremendous sense. When trouble arrives, a snub in the pocket beats a big gun left in the glove box.
From a small frame, short-barrel snub, the .38 Special is capable of a decent performance, provided you select the right load. Decent—not spectacular—but the .38 Special remains superior to cartridges like the .22 LR, .25 ACP, .32 ACP, as well as the .380 ACP. The short barrels of snub revolvers do play havoc with muzzle velocity and that, of course, has a direct impact on bullet expansion. Loads that perform like gangbusters in a 4-inch, .38 Special revolver often fail to expand in a snub.
The best defensive loads in .38 Special are loaded to “+P” or higher than standard pressure. Some favorite loads include Remington Golden Saber 125-grain JHP, Speer Gold Dot 135-grain JHP, and Winchester SXT 130-grain JHP. Although not a spectacular performer in gelatin, 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter hollow points for Federal, Remington and Winchester have posted good results in actual shootings. Another positive quality of the 158-grain LSWC-HP is that it generally shoots near point of aim in most fixed-sight revolvers.
Left to my own designs, I have come to favor CorBon’s 110-grain DPX load for the snub. This all-copper hollow point expands well, even when fired through a heavy clothing barrier.
Couldn’t we just ante up and go with a .357 Mag in that small-frame revolver? There are several different models of .357 snubs available, but they really don’t hold much appeal for me. Firing full house .357 Mags in the new, lightweight snubs is downright unpleasant. I’m not especially sensitive to recoil but these little guys represent a real challenge to shoot accurately at any kind of speed. For me, a well-engineered .38 Special +P load in a snub makes for the perfect hideout.