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

By Tayyaba Rehman — Published on January 23, 2024
".38" often refers to the caliber of a bullet, while ".38 Special" is a specific cartridge designed for revolvers, known for its accuracy and manageable recoil.
38 vs. 38 Special — What's the Difference?

Difference Between 38 and 38 Special


Key Differences

The term ".38" generally refers to the diameter of a bullet in inches, which is 0.38 inches. It's a common caliber size used in various firearms. The ".38 Special," on the other hand, is a specific cartridge that was introduced by Smith & Wesson in 1898. It is one of the most popular revolver cartridges and is specifically designed to be fired from a revolver.
In terms of specifications, a ".38" bullet can be part of various cartridges, each with different dimensions and gunpowder loads. The ".38 Special" cartridge, however, has a standardized design and size, with a case length of 1.155 inches and a bullet diameter of 0.357 inches. This standardization makes the .38 Special known for its consistency and reliability.
The performance of a ".38" caliber bullet can vary significantly based on the cartridge it is a part of. In contrast, the ".38 Special" cartridge is known for its manageable recoil and accuracy, making it a popular choice for both self-defense and target shooting.
In terms of usage, the ".38" caliber is used in a variety of firearms, from revolvers to semi-automatic pistols. The ".38 Special," however, is most commonly used in revolvers, particularly those designed for concealed carry and personal defense.
When it comes to historical and cultural significance, the ".38 Special" has a storied history, having been widely used by police and military forces, as well as in sport shooting. The general ".38" caliber has also been popular, but without the specific association to a particular cartridge type like the ".38 Special."

Comparison Chart


Refers to bullet diameter
A specific revolver cartridge


Varies with different cartridges
Standardized dimensions and load


Depends on the cartridge type
Known for accuracy and manageable recoil

Common Usage

Used in various firearms, including pistols
Primarily used in revolvers

Historical Significance

Popular caliber size
Storied history in law enforcement and sport shooting

Compare with Definitions


.38 caliber is used in a variety of firearms.
The .38 caliber is versatile for different shooting purposes.

38 Special

.38 Special was originally designed for law enforcement.
The .38 Special was widely used by police departments in the past.


.38 can vary in power and size depending on the cartridge.
The .38 rounds for his revolver had different specifications than his rifle's.

38 Special

.38 Special has a standard bullet diameter of 0.357 inches.
The .38 Special cartridges are a perfect fit for his revolver.


.38 is a common size for personal defense weapons.
For home defense, many choose a .38 caliber firearm.

38 Special

.38 Special offers manageable recoil.
Beginners often start with a .38 Special due to its easy handling.


.38 refers to the diameter of a bullet in inches.
He purchased a pistol that uses .38 caliber bullets.

38 Special

.38 Special is a specific type of revolver cartridge.
The .38 Special is her preferred choice for target practice.


.38 caliber has been used historically in various guns.
The old western movies often featured .38 caliber revolvers.

38 Special

.38 Special is known for its reliability and accuracy.
The police officer relied on his .38 Special for its consistent performance.

Common Curiosities

Is ".38" specific to one type of ammunition?

No, it's a caliber size used in various ammunition types.

What makes the .38 Special unique?

Its standardized size, lower recoil, and historical use in revolvers.

Is .38 Special suitable for beginners?

Yes, due to its manageable recoil and accuracy.

Can .38 Special be used in any .38 caliber firearm?

It should be used in firearms specifically chambered for .38 Special.

Are .38 and .38 Special interchangeable?

Only if the firearm is specifically chambered to accommodate both.

How does recoil compare between .38 and .38 Special?

The .38 Special generally has more manageable recoil.

What does ".38" signify in firearms?

It refers to the bullet diameter of approximately 0.38 inches.

How does the size of .38 and .38 Special bullets affect stopping power?

Stopping power is influenced by bullet design and velocity; .38 Special rounds, especially in defense loads, can be quite effective.

Are .38 caliber bullets expensive?

The price varies based on the specific cartridge type and brand.

Is the .38 Special good for self-defense?

Yes, it's a popular choice for personal defense.

What is the effective range of a .38 Special?

The effective range is typically around 50 to 100 yards, but this can vary based on the firearm and ammunition.

Are there low-recoil options available in .38 Special?

Yes, some manufacturers produce low-recoil .38 Special rounds for easier handling.

What are common misconceptions about the .38 and .38 Special?

A common misconception is that they lack power; however, with modern defense loads, they are quite effective.

Why do police prefer the .38 Special?

Historically, for its reliability and effectiveness in self-defense situations.

Can I use .38 Special for hunting?

It's possible, but there are more suitable calibers for hunting.

What's the difference in bullet speed between .38 and .38 Special?

It varies based on the specific load and cartridge; .38 Special typically has a standard velocity range.

Is .38 caliber ammunition suitable for competitive shooting?

Yes, particularly the .38 Special, which is used in various revolver shooting sports.

How has the use of .38 and .38 Special evolved over time?

While their popularity in law enforcement has decreased, they remain popular for personal defense, target shooting, and as backup guns.

Is there a significant difference in accuracy?

The .38 Special is generally known for its superior accuracy, especially in revolvers.

Can .38 Special rounds be reloaded?

Yes, they are a popular choice among handloaders due to their versatility.

Is the .38 Special effective against barriers?

It can be, especially with specific bullet types designed for barrier penetration.

How does the barrel length of a revolver affect .38 and .38 Special performance?

Longer barrels generally provide higher bullet velocity and improved accuracy.

Can .38 Special cartridges be used in all revolvers?

They should be used in revolvers that are specifically chambered for .38 Special.

Are there different types of .38 Special ammunition?

Yes, including hollow point and full metal jacket variations, each designed for specific uses.

What should I consider when choosing between .38 and .38 Special for personal defense?

Consider factors like firearm compatibility, recoil tolerance, and specific self-defense needs.

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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.

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