Friday, April 28, 2017

.38 Special: Love/Hate Relationship

As is usual, I go to the range and come back with a story. The other day I went to shoot .357 and .38 Special revolvers. I like to do this about once a month in my training program. I shoot exceptionally well with a wheel gun. But I don’t really like them for EDC (everyday carry). It’s nothing but personal preference.
We flew to visit my in-laws several years ago. I didn’t want to take a gun because I knew my Father in-law would let me borrow something to carry. He has been around guns, shooting, and hunting his entire 70 plus years. He told me I was too modern for him. He knew I was an instructor but what he didn’t know was when I was in the military they were in the process of leaving .38 Special revolvers and moving to the Beretta M9. I taught the use of, and qualification course for, the revolver, M9, M16A2, and M60E3.
First introduced way back in the early 1900s, the world-famous .38 Special is but one of the tools that helped propel America to where we are today. The Special was once the primary law enforcement round used by police. It still has a place today in certain hunting applications, with both revolvers and rifles, and is still used in self-defense over 110 years later.
Something that is little known about the .38 SPC (or SPL), is that it doesn’t actually fire a “38” caliber bullet as you’d think about modern bullet measurements. Rather, the .38 is a “35” caliber bullet, which is why you can fire it through a .357 Magnum revolver. I want to point out here, however, that while you can shoot a thirty-eight through a gun chambered in the .357 Magnum cartridge, you should never shoot a .357 Magnum through a .38 Special chambered gun.
While they share many similarities, the Magnum’s cartridge is loaded to much higher pressures and cannot be fired in a gun only chambered in .38. The Magnum is a bit longer so they might not even fit in your gun. Either way, don’t try it.
Even though the .38 Special is as popular as ever, it lacks terminal ballistics associated with many of the other modern self-defense cartridges on the market. In a world where you and I defend ourselves with a gun, .38 Special is one of the least powerful you would want to use (to include .32 Mag, .380 ACP, and .327).
I can almost hear you thinking, but it has such a huge case! How could such a big round be so “eh” in its performance?
Well, things aren’t always what they would seem. Sure, the case is big. Much bigger than many of the semi-auto self-defense pistols on the market. But, just because it has a big case, doesn’t mean it’s filled all the way to the top with gun powder.
Because the .38s are only rated for 17,000 PSI (which is really low), it can only hold so much powder, safely.
There are essentially two trains of thought for self-defense guns. They are as follows:
1. Big, slow bullets create a bigger wound channel, and, are thus better for self-defense even though they move much slower.
2. Small, faster moving bullets do more damage because they travel further into the body.
There are positives to both. The .38 Special packs a slow moving, medium sized bullet. Generally speaking, they can be found from 110 grains up to 158 grains. They move at lackluster speeds, with most, if not all of them (including the +P rounds) staying below the 1,000 FPS mark.
Many of the more popular thirty-eight loads move much slower than that in the 750 FPS range. Again, in terms of self-defense, this is the lowest you’d want to go. If you don’t believe it, keep in mind a Defensive Gun Use story where a mother stopped a would be attacker in her house to save her kids. She used a .38 Special revolver, and seemingly placed 5 shots on her attacker.
He walked back to his car and drove off before needing medical attention, and lived to tell the tale.
On the other hand, she did stop the attack with the gun. Had she not had it with her, the outcome would have been remarkably different.
I was in a gun store the other day and when some other customers found out I was an instructor they asked the eternal question: “What gun should I buy for home defense?”
I hate this question! First of all it’s loaded one (excuse the pun). It’s a loaded question because a gun for home defense will be different for me than it would be for you. I’m pretty confident in my shooting. Not to boast but I feel I would not miss if ever confronted in my home with a threat. I guess it’s possible, but not probable. But then again I’ve been shooting guns for almost 40 years. I have been a military and civilian instructor, have competed, and have carried a gun for almost 25 years. I’ve had many years of training and when I point a gun at something, I usually hit what I’m aiming at. So for me, an AR with a light and laser sight is a perfect home defense weapon. But if you have little to no experience with a gun, I’d suggest quite a different weapon. This couple did say that the guy had carried a Glock 19 for a year. I asked about their experience, it was as small as their training. I first suggested a home defense course. Then I suggested whichever gun they chose for home defense, to practice at a range at least monthly, or more if they could. Then I suggested a short barreled (at least 16 inches to be legal) shotgun loaded with bird shot. When they asked about the ammo load, I said, “Trust me, that is the load for you.” I’ve personally tested shotgun loads on real world house building materials. Anyway, then they asked about a carry weapon for her. I asked similar questions and then suggested a .38 special or .357 magnum revolver like the Airweight Smith and Wesson, or a quality auto loader in .380 or 9mm.

In my honest opinion, double-action .38 Special revolvers may not be “state-of-the-art” but they are stable in the art. To me, it’s a no brainer. Double-action .38 Special revolvers are easy handguns to train with. Opening one for loading consists of no more than pressing a latch or button and swinging the cylinder out. There’s no trick to getting chambers charged since cartridges can only fit in one direction. I’ve actually seen novices try to load semi-auto magazines with the rounds backwards. Then the cylinder is pushed closed till it clicks in place. That’s all there is to it.
A double-action revolver requires merely pressing the trigger to fire. There’s no safety to remember, and no moving slide to bite hands. Most double actions can also be fired single action, which is an aid when gaining familiarization with the handgun, or weak hands, even if not optimum for a potentially deadly situation.
Then there’s the ammo factor. Some semi-autos can be amazingly finicky about ammo.
Conversely, a .38 Special double-action revolver always works if it’s in good repair. They’re about as foolproof as a handgun can get. Good quality factory ammo ranges from very light full wadcutter loads meant for target shooting, to +P types meant for personal defense. The .38 Special might have a bad rap among those who see nothing less than big bores as effective, but effective only counts if hits are made. Almost anyone can learn to handle a .38 Special with proficiency. That’s not true of big-bore handgun calibers.
So there you have it. My little promotion of the .38 Special/.357 Magnum. Enjoy it because you probably will never see me talking about again. I know I didn’t dis the caliber or type of gun. I would never do that. But it’s just never been my favorite type of gun or caliber. I shoot them to stay proficient and sometimes I do enjoy them. Not the same as a 1911 in my hands, but on occasion I enjoy them. The down side of them to me is lack of number of rounds, non-ease of reloading, even with a speed loader (I’m not Jerry Miculek, ok?) It really comes down to my personal preference. Much to my father-in-law’s non-surprise I love autoloaders.

Semper Paratus
Check 6