Today, we’ll be comparing the .38 Special to the 9mm Luger caliber. It might seem like an easy comparison on the surface. Yet, in reality, it can get very complicated, as you shall see. So to keep this as simple as possible, here is how we broke down this comparison.
.Comparing 9mm to .38 Special at the Cartridge Level
Before we get started comparing these two calibers from a round perspective, we need to address the white elephant in the room. There are a few variables that we cannot objectively measure when analyzing .38 Special and 9mm. Therefore, we will not use them to compare these two calibers. These variables are stopping power, accuracy, and recoil.
Stopping Power of 38 Special & 9mm
Stopping power cannot be clearly defined objectively. So we will not use it as a variable to compare these two calibers. Factors that influence stopping power outside of the caliber itself are:
- Your intended target. There is a different amount of stopping power needed between a deer and a rabbit. Likewise, there is a difference in the amount of stopping force needed to take a large buck down compared to a young doe.
- Shot placement on the target. A headshot from most calibers will be enough to stop most targets faster than hitting the same target in the foot even with some of the largest calibers
Don’t agree with omitting stopping power as a variable? Then we suggest you take it up with the FBI.
Accuracy (from the round perspective)
Trying to compare the accuracy of these calibers from a cartridge perspective is next to impossible. There are too many other variables involved. However, it can be roughly used to compare the calibers from a gun’s perspective.
Even going this route though still has many variables affecting accuracy Some variables that contribute to accuracy are the design of the projectile (bullet), length of the gun barrel, the rifling of the gun barrel, and the person shooting the round.
There is sound reasoning for not using recoil. The fact of the matter is that the recoil you feel when you shoot is called felt recoil and is purely subjective and can vary from person to person.
However, most people in the gun community unanimously agree that both the .38 Special and 9 mm have a minimum to moderate felt recoil. It should be noted that SAAMI does have a formula you can use to determine the free recoil of caliber, but this is different from felt recoil.
Great, so what can we actually compare from the cartridge perspective objectively for each caliber?
- Bullet diameter – Normally used to determine the caliber of a cartridge. It does have some effects on muzzle energy, but this is very minimal.
- Bullet Weight – A variable that affects muzzle energy
- Velocity – A variable that affects muzzle energy
- Muzzle Energy – Roughly a measurement of the destructive force of a round The two main factors that influence muzzle energy is bullet weight and velocity as shown above
Now to the fun part. Below are specifications for each round outlined in Cartridges of the World by W. Todd Woodard
38 Special and 38 Special +P Stats
- Bullet diameter: .358 inches
- Typical Bullet Weight Range: 95-158 gr
- Typical Velocity Range: 710-1250 fps
- Typical Muzzle Energy: 132-548 ft-lbs
9mm & 9 mm +P Stats
- Bullet diameter-.355 inches
- Typical Bullet Weight Range: 70-147 gr
- Typical Velocity Range: 950-1650 fps
- Typical Muzzle Energy Range: 309-423 ft-lbs
9mm vs. 38 Special, Which is Better, Based On The Data?
So….what do we do with this information? Why study it, of course!
Based on our studies, we found some interesting information. The first item that we observed was how similar the .38 special and 9mm are in bullet diameter and bullet weight.
The other observations we made was the broader range of muzzle energy seen for .38 special compared to 9mm Luger.
We have often heard that the 9mm, on average, had the highest velocity of the two and, therefore, the most significant muzzle energy (power) of the two calibers. But from our initial look at the data, it appeared the .38 Special was winning. So we decided to drill down into this to see what in the world is going on. After creating the chart below, it is clear to see what is actually going on.
As you can see, the .38 Special has a boarder range of velocity and muzzle energy. This is primarily due to the .38 Special (+P) outlier round noted below. If we removed this outlier, then 9mm clearly has the highest velocity as a whole compared to the .38 Special.
This translates into slightly better penetration of the target by 9mm and slightly better expansion inside the target by 9mm hollow points. However, how much will this matter in the real world?
9mm vs. 38 Special Cartridge, Which is Better in the Real World?
The keyword is SLIGHTLY better and that in the real world, this does not make much difference. You can see an excellent visual representation of this on Paul Harrell’s Youtube Channel.
So our overall conclusion is that while the majority of 9mm rounds do have higher velocity and more considerable muzzle energy, it is not enough to say that 9mm rounds are vastly superior to the .38 Special cartridges and would be an advantage in the real world. Clear as mud? Great, glad we could help! Now let’s look at these two calibers from the gun prospective.
Comparing 9mm and 38 Special at the Gun Level
We just want to warn you while this area of the comparison is a little more black and white, there still is not enough evidence to calm either the 9mm or 38 Special as the superior caliber. With that out of the way, let’s move on.
.38 Special Standard Revolver Caliber & 9mm Standard Semi-Auto Caliber
The .38 Special almost always comes in a revolver configuration and is considered the standard revolver caliber. Many gun owners cannot stand revolvers, though. Then you have the 9mm, which is regarded as the standard 9mm semi-auto caliber. Many people view the 9x19mm semi-auto light years ahead of the .38 Special revolver. So let’s drill down on why so many people think this way about both calibers.
Some calm that the .38 Special is not as accurate as 9 mm because the revolvers have a longer trigger pull compared to a semi-auto. Like we have said earlier in this article, many factors must be taken into account when it comes to accuracy, so we cannot tell if this statement has any merit.
However, it should be noted that most experts state that the majority of gunfights happen within 10 feet. So even if a .38 Special is slightly less accurate, the distance to your target is little that it would not be much of a factor.
The Number of Rounds Held
Many people do not like .38 Special because revolvers can typically only hold 5 to 6 shots. In contrast, a 9mm semi-auto pistol usually can hold 10-15 shots in a magazine. .38 Special/revolver haters really cling to this data to back up their stance. What they fail to mention is that the average number of shots fired in an altercation is usually 2 to 4 shots.
Yes, Hollywood has it wrong, you will not be ducking behind walls emptying 5 magazines if you ever find yourself in a situation where you must defend your life most likely. Typical after a few shots, the altercation will be over. So while the .38 Special revolvers do carry fewer rounds than the 9 mm semi-autos, you most likely will not need those extra rounds.
An area many people do not think about when comparing the .38 Special and 9 mm semi-auto is the reliability of each configuration. While semi-auto pistols are very reliable, they still are not as dependable as revolvers. If you think about it, this should not be a surprise.
Semi-auto pistols have more parts that must move correctly to fire a round and to bring a new cartridge into the chamber. On the other hand, revolvers are much more straightforward with fewer moving parts when firing and to rotate the next round into position. As a result, revolvers might not be as sexy as semi-autos, but they are reliable when you need them.
So which caliber is better based on our data? The simple answer is neither one. Both the .38 Special and 9 mm are both excellent calibers that offer great protection for personal defense. So while our data cannot tell you which caliber is better, it does give critical information about each of them.
It is up to you to take this information and determine which would be best for your circumstances. Just remember whichever caliber you choose, you must practice with it a lot. So until next time, stay safe and stay protected.