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.38 Super vs. .38 Special: Which One Is the Better Choice?

38 Super vs 38 Special

Nowadays, thanks to the advance in technology and technique, there is a wide range of excellent ammunition 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 which you can find being used for target shooting, personal defense, and hunting small games.

If you want to learn more about these cartridges, then you’ve come to the right place. This article shall provide you with detailed specifications and characteristics of .38 Super and .38 Special.

It’s hard to decide the winner between the 38 Super vs. 38 Special since there is a diversity of personal preferences and people’s 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 into the selection process.

Depending on the purpose, one of the cartridges could prove to be the better choice. And of course, your shooting skills are important factors to consider as well.


38 super and 38 special comparison with other bullets

First appearing 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 time of its introduction, the .38 Super was capable of piercing through body armor and automobiles.

To improve feeding reliability, the original semi-rimmed case can be replaced by a nearly rimless one.

Introduced in 1898, the .38 Special was supposed to be a replacement for the military 38 Long Colt due to the latter’s inadequate stopping power in combat. It initially utilized black powder but the manufacturer promptly offered a smokeless loading within a year of its release.

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 without any problems.

Dimensions and Pressure

Colt .38 Super

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

.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 results in a high muzzle velocity. In fact, the velocity potential of the .38 Super is even better than the famous 9×19mm Parabellum for 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 a flat trajectory.

In competitions hosted by IPSC, the.38 Super is one of the dominant calibers. With one hand with on this kind of gun, 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 at around 17,000 Pounds per square inch.

There are new 38 Special ammunition that can increase the muzzle energy but not all revolvers can use them. The 38 Special +P with a 20,000 Pounds per square inch pressure load delivers a 20% rise in velocity.

If you want something stronger, then the 38 Special +P+ with 22,000 Pounds per square inch pressure load can achieve a 1,100 Feet Per Second velocity. Again, 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 just be careful.

Application and Interchangeability

As stated above, the .38 Super is usually found on pistols, while the .38 Special is mostly employed by revolvers. However, there are indeed some semi-automatic pistols chambered in .38 Special on the market.

In terms 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’re not designed for.

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


Having much more controllable recoil compare to the .45 ACP, the .38 Super is a favorite caliber for competitive shootings. A combination of a lightweight bullet grain and compensator greatly reduces the recoil. This helps the shooter deliver follow-up shots accurately.

The restriction of military-grade cartridges like the .45 ACP in some regions of the world significantly enhances the popularity of the .38 Super. Thanks to the introduction of the improved ammunitions, the .38 Super can achieve some parity with later rounds such as the .357 SIG.

The .38 Special is well-liked by shooters that prefer hand-loaded ammunitions over factory-loaded ones. The excellent availability of case, straight wall, and ability to be fired through .357 Magnum firearms 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.


And that is most of what you should know about these cartridges, not too hard to take in, right?

The 38 Super vs. 38 Special’s qualities make it quite hard to decide which one is more suitable for you, especially when considering your shooting style and other preferences.

But we still hope that the information above has helped you have a better understanding of the cartridges.

Compare their characteristics to your preferences and you shall know what round you need.

FINAL TIP: If you’re interested in more reviews, we also have a comparison review about the 6.5 Creedmoor and 7mm-09 Remington.



September 23, 2021 - Updated article images
September 14, 2021 - Reviewed and updated article links

About the author

Christopher Wade

Christopher Wade is a true outdoorsman. After spending most of his career as a firearms expert and instructor in Nebraska, he retreated to the great outdoors to enjoy retirement.

Christopher’s expertise in handling firearms and hunting gear are what propelled him to create the Shooting Mystery blog. He hopes for all readers to gain useful and practical knowledge for enjoying their time outdoors.