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.38 Special vs. 9mm — What's the Difference?

By Tayyaba Rehman & Urooj Arif — Published on February 16, 2024
The .38 Special is a rimmed, centerfire cartridge often used in revolvers, known for moderate recoil. The 9mm, or 9mm Luger, is a rimless cartridge widely used in semi-automatic pistols, favored for its higher capacity and versatility.
.38 Special vs. 9mm — What's the Difference?

Difference Between .38 Special and 9mm


Key Differences

The .38 Special and 9mm are two of the most popular cartridges used in handguns. The .38 Special cartridge has a long history, developed by Smith & Wesson in 1898. It is known for its accuracy and manageable recoil, making it a favorite among recreational shooters and for self-defense. Traditionally, .38 Special has been used in revolvers, though it can also be found in some semi-automatic models. The cartridge is versatile, capable of firing a range of bullet weights and types, making it suitable for target shooting and hunting small game.
The 9mm cartridge, officially known as the 9mm Luger or 9x19mm Parabellum, was designed by Georg Luger in 1902. It has become one of the most widely used handgun cartridges globally, favored by military and police forces as well as civilian shooters. The 9mm offers a good balance of size, power, and capacity, allowing for a higher number of rounds to be carried in the magazine of a semi-automatic pistol compared to the .38 Special in a revolver. It is known for its effectiveness in self-defense situations and is available in various bullet designs to suit different shooting needs.
One of the key differences between the two cartridges is the design; the .38 Special is rimmed, making it well-suited for use in revolvers where the rim aids in cartridge extraction. In contrast, the 9mm is rimless, facilitating reliable feeding from a magazine in semi-automatic pistols. Additionally, the 9mm generally operates at a higher pressure than the .38 Special, contributing to its higher velocity and energy.
In terms of performance, both cartridges are effective for self-defense, though the 9mm's higher capacity and lighter recoil in a semi-automatic platform make it a more popular choice in modern tactical and self-defense scenarios. However, the .38 Special remains a reliable option, especially in situations where a revolver's simplicity and reliability are preferred.

Comparison Chart


Rimmed, for revolvers
Rimless, for semi-automatics


Generally lighter

Magazine Capacity

Limited by revolver design
Higher, due to use in semi-automatics


Lower than 9mm
Higher than .38 Special

Use Case

Self-defense, target shooting
Self-defense, military, police

Compare with Definitions

.38 Special

Popular among recreational shooters.
Many at the shooting range favor the .38 Special for its accuracy.


Operates at a higher pressure for increased velocity.
The 9mm's power makes it effective for law enforcement use.

.38 Special

Suitable for revolvers and some semi-automatic pistols.
My revolver is chambered for both .38 Special and .357 Magnum rounds.


Preferred for modern tactical and self-defense scenarios.
For home defense, many recommend a 9mm semi-automatic pistol.

.38 Special

A rimmed cartridge designed for revolvers.
The .38 Special is a classic choice for personal defense.


Available in various bullet designs for different purposes.
I chose hollow-point 9mm rounds for better self-defense performance.

.38 Special

Known for its manageable recoil.
I prefer the .38 Special for its smooth shooting experience.


A rimless cartridge widely used in semi-automatic pistols.
The 9mm is the standard caliber for NATO forces.

.38 Special

Versatile in bullet types and loads.
I use different .38 Special loads for target practice and self-defense.


Favored for its high capacity and versatility.
I carry a 9mm pistol because it holds more rounds.

Common Curiosities

Is the 9mm more accurate than the .38 Special?

Accuracy depends more on the shooter and firearm, though both cartridges are capable of high precision.

Can I use 9mm ammunition in a .38 Special firearm?

No, 9mm and .38 Special are not interchangeable.

Which is more powerful, .38 Special or 9mm?

The 9mm typically offers higher velocity and energy.

Can I use .38 Special ammunition in a .357 Magnum revolver?

Yes, .38 Special can be safely fired in a .357 Magnum revolver.

Which has more recoil, .38 Special or 9mm?

Recoil is subjective, but 9mm pistols often have lighter perceived recoil.

Which is better for beginners, .38 Special or 9mm?

Both can be suitable; the 9mm might be easier due to lighter recoil in semi-automatics.

How do law enforcement agencies view .38 Special vs. 9mm?

Many agencies have transitioned to 9mm for its capacity and performance.

How does the magazine capacity compare between .38 Special revolvers and 9mm pistols?

9mm pistols typically offer higher capacity.

Can I practice with .38 Special and carry .357 Magnum for self-defense in the same revolver?

Yes, this is a common practice due to the compatibility and reduced recoil of .38 Special for training.

What is the price difference between .38 Special and 9mm ammo?

9mm ammunition is generally more affordable and widely available.

Which is better for self-defense, .38 Special or 9mm?

Both are effective; the choice may depend on personal preference and firearm type.

Is there a significant difference in stopping power between .38 Special and 9mm?

Both can be effective; modern 9mm defensive rounds offer excellent performance.

Which is more suitable for concealed carry, .38 Special or 9mm?

Many opt for 9mm due to higher capacity and smaller, lighter pistols.

Which cartridge has a wider variety of ammunition available?

The 9mm has a wider variety of available loads, catering to different shooting

Are there any safety concerns with using either caliber for home defense?

Proper training and understanding of over-penetration risks are important for both.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Tayyaba Rehman
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.
Co-written by
Urooj Arif
Urooj is a skilled content writer at Ask Difference, known for her exceptional ability to simplify complex topics into engaging and informative content. With a passion for research and a flair for clear, concise writing, she consistently delivers articles that resonate with our diverse audience.

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