The best 38 Special ammo for self defense is actually a list of several options. All ammo is not created equally, and more than that, all ammunition serves a different purpose. In this round-up of high quality ammunition, we are exploring the different types of ammunition you may come across when shopping for something to put into your favorite revolver.
We took all the different types of ammunition we could think of that you might want for your .38 Special revolver and chose the best of the best from among the different use cases. What resulted was a select list of premium ammunition that serves every kind of need on any kind of a budget; it’s just up to you to determine which use case you see yourself in need of currently.
The .38 Special has been around since 1898, and while it started as a black powder round, it was eventually (about a year and a half later), re-released in a smokeless powder format that went on to become one of the most popular cartridges of all time, both by volume of production and shooter choice. It served as the de facto standard for law enforcement duty firearms for more than 60 years in the United States, and it is still a very popular cartridge for all types of scenarios.
Best 38 Special Ammo for Self Defense Comparison & Reviews
PDX 1 Bonded JHP
Hornady Critical Defense Handgun Ammo
Probably the best mix and balance of any defense-oriented ammunition throughout an entire lineup, this is a particularly good choice for the .38 Special +P round. It is not the fastest and doesn’t have the most static energy available for transfer; it doesn’t have the deepest penetration but given all the characteristics that are desirable for a .38 Special, combined with excellent quality control and excellent component parts, this is about the best balance you can find for reliable performance in a self-defense setting. NOTE: THIS IS A +P LOADING.
- Optimized for human targets
This is best for:
Self defense and concealed carry when you need a potent round.
Magtech Clean Range
This is the eco-friendly ammunition that still has a very good user functionality. The lack of lead particulate matter from either the primer (lead free) or the (fully enclosed) bullet base (cannot come in contact with the burning powder to put off airborne lead particulate) makes this much better for the shooter.
- Great shooting experience for range use, especially for indoors shooting
- Cleaner shooting ammunition than most of the rest of mainstream offerings
- Much more expensive than the cheapest range quality ammunition
This is best for:
Range use when you don’t want to be sitting in a cloud of smoke, and you don’t want to have the risk of coming into contact with more dangerous amounts of lead.
Inceptor Preferred Defense Ammo
Frangible rounds are sometimes seen as a gimmick. The reason is, that they tend to not have the same long-term energy transfer effect and the longer wound channel. This is not the case with most modern frangible rounds. They break up, but they break up on impact with harder surfaces. Until then, they offer a similar effect to normal engineered bullets. This one tends to penetrate better than most competitor frangible rounds. Penetration is one of the most important factors in FBI ballistic testing protocols.
- Great design
- Low grain weight is good for safety benefits of a frangible round, but not as good for ultimate stopping power
This is best for:
Close urban environments where you want to limit overpenetration concerns.
IMPORTANT NOTE: This is a very specific use case and your normal engagement area should be evaluated extensively before you make a determination to use a frangible of any type. Frangible rounds may not be the ideal choice when barriers may be involved like windshields or car doors, etc.
Winchester Bonded PDX1 Handgun Ammunition
Winchester has been doing this for a long time. This round is about at the apex of what they can offer at this time with the given ionnovation in technology, materials and engineering when it comes to personal defense ammunition. NOTE: THIS IS A +P LOADING.
- Well balanced and performs extremely well
- Fit and finish and quality control for this line are second to none.
This is best for:
Home Defense and Personal Defense in a Carry situation, when you need the ultimate in stopping power and need ultimate reliability and are aware of the surroundings.
Sellier & Bellot Ammo
Sellier & Bellot offers some of the finest mainstream production ammunition in the world. They are also one of the largest ammunition producers by volume in the world. Their full metal jacket .38 Special is about the best range ammunition you can find, and still offers a very decent price point.
- Premium reliability
- It has a Single use-case – range and target ammunition
This is best for:
Cheap range and target shooting and plinking for those who don’t want to spend a lot of money practicing.
Hornady Critical Defense Lite
For those that need a non +P load, for the lightweight revolvers or for those who don’t appreciate the nuances of excess recoil, this load is an excellent choice. As an added bonus, it supports breast cancer research and has a novel pink plug in the end of the projectile. If you can forgive Hornady for jumping on the bandwagon of the “pink tax” marketing campaign, this is an excellent round for many users of lightweight revolvers for concealed carry, or gasp! – a purse gun.
- Fast, and hard hitting given the loads limitations
- Lower recoil for better performance
- Pink tax is annoying; oddly gender specific marketing campaigns can at times be annoying
- Low projectile weight – which can be seen as either a PRO or a CON depending on your perspective
This is best for:
Small defensive revolvers, with lightweight frames that cannot accommodate +P loadouts. Also, this is excellent for those that need low recoil and good performance.
This is a very specific load that’s good for wilderness killing of small game where a .38 Special will be too much gun. It is also a great snake round to allow better chances of hitting the long skinny snake, that may be a danger to you/loved ones or pets/horses/livestock.
- Great to kill small game or snakes in a pinch, regardless of where you are
- Very specific use case – regardless of how good they are to have around with you.
This is best for:
Shooting snakes on a trail. Great for killing small game in a survival or camping type scenario where the full projectile would be too much to use on a smaller animal.
Is the .38 Special even relevant now?
The .38 Special cartridge is as relevant as ever, but just not for the same things as it once was.
That sentence is somewhat misleading. The .38 Special was always a potent self-defense and duty choice. It just doesn’t see as much use in the broad market as that type of cartridge anymore. It still sees some very heavy niche and sub market uses in the personal defense and law enforcement arenas, but it simply has been moved from a main market appeal to a sub market appeal. The appeal still exists.
It is every bit as popular as it ever was, but it is used in different ways now.
The .38 Special as a Personal Defense cartridge
From a personal defense perspective, the .38 Special is a great choice. It’s simply not as potent a shot stopper as it once was – relative to other offerings on the market – but that is a great place to start the discussion. It probably sells as much by volume as it did in its heyday, it’s just not the focal point for law enforcement like it once was. That title probably goes to the 9mm, .40 S&W and .357 Sig; .45 ACP and others are popular as well.
Contemporaneously, the .38 Special is a specialty performer for lack of a better term. Most notably, it is one of the favored cartridges for use in high end concealed carry, sub compact revolvers. There are myriad reasons for this. We discuss them in the below section “The .38 Special as a general use ammunition for mass market appeal”. These tiny revolvers offer a very strong argument as one of the best backup guns on the market, and more recently as a perfectly good standalone personal defense firearm with the proper ammunition.
The mass market offerings for these types of revolvers are higher than ever. So-called “snub nosed” revolvers are exceptionally popular, especially in ultra-lightweight configurations, made with polymer, aluminum or titanium as a frame material to keep the weight down. There are dozens of premium versions of this type of firearm.
The .38 Special as a general use ammunition for mass market appeal
The .38 Special is also a great partner for your .357, to mitigate some of the recoil and discomfort during long shooting sessions. The mild recoil profile and the cheaper price point make this an ideal replacement in the cylinder of the .357 Magnum revolvers on the market. The .38 Special has always been able to be chambered in the .357 Magnum cylinders.
The low recoil and easy to shoot and understand rimmed cartridges are ideal for those just learning to shoot. The round is cheaper than most others at the same size, and it offers a very good choice for those who shoot a lot and want to enjoy the range time instead of flinch at difficult to handle recoil. The massive volumes that .38 Special cartridges are consumed at makes to clear that it is as popular as ever for the broad market, especially for range use.
Types of .38 Special Ammunition
.38 Special Range or Target and Plinking ammunition
These are generally full metal jacket or lead round nosed or flat nosed loads. They are simple, provide less value as a threat stopper and they are inexpensive and less powerful than more specific ammunition types.
.38 Special Defense ammunition
The .38 Special is still a very good cartridge for self-defense. It offers a strong stopping power potential, but it isn’t the strongest in the market like it used to be for mainstream usage. The energy that the .38 Special can deliver is anemic compared to some of the more modern cartridges available. That doesn’t mean it can’t be effective for stopping a threat. It is used widely in small framed revolvers daily, especially for those that want a backup gun or for those who use it as a primary gun because of the mild recoil and extra potency compared to smaller cartridges.
Many of the .38 Special ammos for self defense and concealed carry are made to an overpressure standard, which is denoted with an industry name of .38 Special +P.
A note about .38 Special +P ammunition
Over pressure or “+P” ammunition is a very strong ammunition choice. So strong in fact, that it can be dangerous if the firearm is not built to handle the excess pressures. This is particularly true for firearms that don’t use steel as a frame material, or for those steel frames that are lightened on purpose. The other options for frames are not as resilient or tough as steel. And cannot handle the pressures, generally speaking.
Those wanting to shoot the +P variants need to ensure their firearm can handle the pressure. Your owner’s manual can tell you this. If you don’t have the manual, or it isn’t clear, then consulting with a firearms expert can easily tell you if your firearm can handle it. An extensive search online may also help to determine your firearm’s suitability for the +P loads.
.38 Special - Specialty Ammunition
This is a great trail gun load, especially in the back country where pests exist, or where you may come across a small game animal that is suitable for dinner, but don’t want to overdo it on the projectile. It is also the preeminent snake killing round for aggressive rattlesnakes, especially in horse country.
This is a good choice for those that need to be sure that there is low risk for overpenetration. This could be for those who carry in busy public places as a civilian (risk of being sued after an active shooting event) or for those who have loved ones in neighboring rooms. This may be an effective choice for those in an urban apartment setting too. Frangible ammunition is good for range practice as well, with steel backstops - to avoid deflection and ricochet.
Frangible ammunition breaks up into pieces and parts at impact and reduces the lethality of each small part enough to make it safer in case the round carries on further than the intended target.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE: you should never base a decision solely on the chance of being sued. Particularly: you should be looking for the best threat stopping potential for the self-defense round and look into extensive training on tactical shooting and concealed carry laws, legalities and shooting techniques. This is a much more effective choice than simply opting for a frangible or reduced risk cartridge.
Now that you know the types of ammunition that are covered in this assortment, the list of top quality ammunition choices will be easy to navigate and you’ll be able to find a suitable ammo for your given needs. What follows is a list of the best .38 Special cartridges for a variety of uses in real world scenarios.
The .38 Special is a valuable piece of the shooting landscape from range use to personal defense. What load is the best .38 Special ammo for you will be dependent on what you like to do when you shoot, or what you have identified as your most important needs from a shooting perspective. While it isn’t as powerful a threat stopper relative to other market offerings like it once was historically, it is still more powerful than it ever has been, and it has a legacy of stopping threats that offers it one of the best self-defense and duty based resumes in the industry.
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