.38 Super vs. .38 Special: Which one is the better choice?

Nowadays, thanks to the advance of technology and technique, there is a wide range of excellent ammunitions available for purchase. The performance and quality of the modern rounds are often superior to the old ones. However, some classic cartridges still remain in popular use long after their introduction. Among them are 38 Super and 38 Special, you can find them in target shooting, personal defense, hunting small games and so on. In the case that you want to learn more about these cartridges then you come to the right place. This article shall provide you with detailed specifications and characteristics of .38 Super and .38 Special

38 Super vs. 38 Special, it’s hard to decide the winner since there is a diversity of personal preferences and people tastes. Even the application of the cartridges is not exactly similar. The 38 Super is often used in pistols while the .38 Special is commonly employed in revolvers. Therefore, in order to make a logical decision, you have to incorporate your needs and requirements to the selection process. Depend on the purpose, one of the cartridges could prove to be the better choice. Of course, your shooting skill is an important factor to consider as well. Besides, by using some bipods and scopes, the performance also will be affected.


Appeared in the late 1920s, the .38 Super retains the profile of the 38 ACP / Auto albeit with a higher pressure loading. Using the latest ammunitions, the .38 ACP / Auto velocity can reach roughly 1,040 – 1,150 Feet Per Second. On the other hand, the .38 Super is able to push the velocity to around 1,215 – 1,450 Feet Per Second. At the times of its introduction, the .38 Super is capable of piercing body armor and automobiles.  To improve the feeding reliability, the original semi-rimmed case can be replaced by the nearly rimless one.

Introduced in 1898, the .38 Special is supposed to be a replacement for the military 38 Long Colt due to the latter inadequate stopping power in combat. It initially utilizes black powder but the manufacturer promptly offers a smokeless loading within a year of its birth. Though its name is .38, the precise caliber of the 38 Special is .357. The “.38” is actually referring to the case approximate diameter. Because of the round dimensions, revolvers chambered in .357 Magnum, .38 Short Colt and .38 Long Colt can accept the .38 Special no problem.

Dimensions and pressure

Colt .38 Super

  • Parent case: .38 ACP / Auto
  • Case type: Semi-rimmed or nearly rimless, straight
  • Case length: 0.900 Inch
  • Case capacity: 1.14 Cubic Centimeters
  • Overall length: 1.280 Inches
  • Bullet diameter: 0.356 Inch
  • Neck diameter: 0.384 Inch
  • Base diameter: 0.384 Inch
  • Rim diameter: 0.406 Inch
  • Rim thickness: 0.050 Inch
  • Maximum pressure: 36,500 Pounds per square inch

.38 Smith & Wesson Special

  • Parent case: .38 Long Colt
  • Case type: Rimmed, straight
  • Case length: 1.155 Inches
  • Case capacity: 1.52 Cubic Centimeters
  • Overall length: 1.55 Inches
  • Bullet diameter: 0.357 Inch
  • Neck diameter: 0.379 Inch
  • Base diameter: 0.379 Inch
  • Rim diameter: 0.44 Inch
  • Rim thickness: 0.058 Inch
  • Maximum pressure: 22,000 Pounds per square inch


Due to the large case volume, the .38 Super packs a good amount of smokeless which result in a high muzzle velocity. In fact, the velocity potential of the .38 Super is even better than the famous 9×19mm Parabellum in certain defense loadings. Nonetheless, the approved pressure loading Para is still higher than the .38 Super. As a whole, the .38 Super is considered to be a good, all around cartridge with high energy, nice accuracy and flat trajectory. In competitions hosted by IPSC, the.38 Super is one of the dominant calibers. One hand with this kind of gun and 1 hand with a flashlight, you could well defend yourself.

The .38 Special is often perceived as a low-pressure cartridge because of its original black powder loading. Nowadays, its pressure is among the lowest around at 17,000 Pounds per square inch. There are new 38 Special ammunitions which can increase the muzzle energy though not all revolvers can use them. The 38 Special +P with a 20,000 Pounds per square inch pressure load deliver a 20% rise in velocity. In the case that you want something stronger, the 38 Special +P+ with 22,000 Pounds per square inch pressure load can achieve a 1,100 Feet Per Second velocity. Again, do make sure that your revolver is able to handle them. Attempting to fire these ammunitions in old or “P+” rated guns is greatly discouraged so be careful.

Application and interchangeability

As stated above, the .38 Super is usually found on pistols while .38 Special is mostly employed by revolvers. However, there are indeed some semi-automatic pistols chambered in .38 Special on the market. In term of interchangeability, it’s advised not to use the .38 Super on a 38 Special firearm and vice versa.  While the profile may fit, it’s nonetheless dangerous to use certain ammunitions on guns that they are not designed for.

The difference in the cartridges pressure load can easily lead to a variety of shooting failures so you must use the right round at all times. The shooting of incorrect ammunition shall expose your and your gun to unnecessary risks.


Having much more controllable recoil compare to the .45 ACP, the .38 Super becomes a favorite caliber in competitive shootings. A combination of lightweight bullet and compensator greatly reduced the recoil, therefore, the shooter can quickly deliver follow up shots accurately. The restriction of military grade cartridges like the .45 ACP in some regions of the worlds significantly enhances the popularity of the .38 Super. Thanks to the introduction of the improved ammunitions, The .38 Super can achieve somewhat parity with the later rounds such as the .357 SIG.

The .38 Special is well liked by shooters that prefer handloading ammunitions than factory loaded ones.  Excellent availability of case, straight wall and able to be fired through .357 Magnum firearms, they all add to the popularity of the .38 Special to handloaders. The case of the 38 Special is capable of supporting a variety of powders from Hercules 2400 to Alliant Bullseye. With plenty of powder choices, handloaders can customize the velocity and energy of the rounds to better match individual demands. Go hunting with a good flashlight at night is a great idea for anyone who love outdoor activities.


And that is most of what you should know about these cartridges, not too hard to take in, right? 38 Super vs. 38 Special, it’s not easy to say which one is more suitable for you without considering your shooting style and associated issues. But with the information above, now you should have a good understanding of the cartridges. Compare their characteristics to your preferences and you shall know what round you need.