.38 Special: What I’ve Learned After Over 20,000 Rounds

by Tommy Grant

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I make a habit of counting the number of reloads I make by keeping a tally of primer and bullet boxes. I’m not a hoarder and I don’t keep them, but I am detailed in my process. I reached an interesting number the other day. I realized that I had hit a very special count for a very special cartridge: 20,000 rounds of .38 Special.

I’ve done the majority of shooting in .38 Special in my Smith & Wesson 642. The gun has appeared here before and has remained unchanged as far as accessories. Unlike many other guns I’ve owned and carried, this little snubby really can’t be modified much beyond factory configuration. As a result, I’ve been able to spend far more time practicing with it rather than fussing with it.

But this piece isn’t about the gun, but rather the cartridge. I never really set my sights, in a manner of speaking, on the .38 cartridge like I did other rounds. There have been guns I’ve bought for the caliber, but the .38 wasn’t one of those. I wanted a good carry gun that was light and reliable, so I decided that the .38 would fit and I just went with it. Reloading for it came next and it has since become my favorite pistol cartridge.

The stuff you learn shooting 20,000 reloads (on top of thousands of rounds of factory ammo) can be pretty interesting and I feel that I’ve got a very good picture of what the .38 Special. looks like today.

The reason I love the .38 SPL so much is because it’s so elastic in function. Most people have one general power level for their semi-autos due to the fact that the guns won’t function with ammo that’s not energetic enough to cycle the slide. A revolver shooting .38 SPL only requires the power of your finger to make it fire and can thus be loaded with ammo that is extremely mild or hotter than hot.

1.)   The majority of my shooting with .38 has taken place with soft lead bullets. In my time with the cartridge, I have come to appreciate the mid to low end of the power spectrum and thus have made extensive use of Trail Boss powder and bullets such as Hornady’s .358” 158gr SWC. I load these bullets to the edge of the shoulder and use anywhere from 3-4 grains of TB. This produces about 550-650fps from a 1 7/8” barrel and feels like shooting a very powerful .22LR.

2.)   Over 20,000 rounds, I’ve found that there’s rarely a wrong way to do .38 SPL. I have used everything from simple lead to the most advanced machined copper bullets and found them all to be extraordinarily easy to load and shoot. When I say that there’s rarely a wrong way to do it, I really mean it. If you can follow simple instructions, you can safely load this cartridge.

3.)   When I teach other people the basics of reloading, I teach them on the .38 SPL. The cases are large enough that they can be easily manipulated by inexperienced hands and yet small enough to not require much force in the sizing stage.

4.)   The powder charges used for .38 are forgiving. Because we have no action to cycle, the novice reloader can afford to be off a bit if they have an entry-level scale or powder dispenser. Most modern revolvers chambered for .38 SPL are rated to +P, so there is room for error, but care must still be taken.

5.)   Anything goes with bullets. I routinely use only two powders: Trail Boss and Titegroup. These two can cover the entire performance spectrum up to .38+P. I really enjoy Trail Boss and use it extensively for plain lead and plated bullets. I have tested lots and lots of different bullet and found them all to be great. The beauty of shooting a .38 is that you can easily practice at the ranges you’d fight at using basically any cheap bullet at minimal expense.

6.)   Case life is excellent, especially for mild loads. I have tested both brass and nickel-plated cases using mild loadings and have not yet worn out a case. I have one that has been loaded about sixty times and it is still in use today. Using higher pressure loads will wear brass out faster and it will become brittle with time.

7.)   Bullet seating depth is very forgiving. Since we are working with a gun that doesn’t have a magazine, we can afford to mess with this dimension at will. I’ve loaded some wadcutters to the point of being flush with the case mouth and big lead bullets almost to the front of the cylinder.

8.)   Brass collection is easy since it doesn’t eject. The best part about this is that not only do you never really lose your fired cases, but you they are always in great condition. I don’t bother polishing my .38 brass because I just don’t let it fall in the mud or dirt.

9.)  Beginners to shooting can use a full size revolver or their carry gun with light to mild loads to become confident and familiar with marksmanship and trigger control. I love a nice, full-size .357 Magnum on the range because it is so easy to train new shooters on. There is almost no recoil and the student can increase power level when they feel ready using the same gun.

10.) Lastly, the .38 SPL has a very large following and materials can be had readily. It’s easy to load in progressive presses and has commercially available options from virtually all modern manufacturers. Reloading supplies and load recipes are available everywhere.

If you haven’t taken a look at what the .38 Special offers, you’re selling yourself short. The cartridge offers a great deal of zest and has thousands of possible load combinations.

In my time spent with the .38, I’ve come to greatly appreciate it for what it is and does. Despite being well over one hundred years old, it still has perfect relevance for today’s shooters, both novice and advanced.



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