.38 Special vs. 9mm

What's the Difference?

The .38 Special and 9mm are both popular handgun cartridges known for their effectiveness and versatility. The .38 Special, developed in the late 19th century, has a larger bullet diameter of .357 inches, while the 9mm, introduced in the early 20th century, has a slightly smaller bullet diameter of .355 inches. The .38 Special typically has a slower muzzle velocity but delivers a heavier bullet, making it suitable for self-defense and law enforcement purposes. On the other hand, the 9mm offers higher muzzle velocity and capacity, making it a popular choice for military and civilian use. Both cartridges have their strengths and are widely used, with the choice often depending on personal preference and specific requirements.


Attribute.38 Special9mm
Caliber.38 inches9mm
OriginUnited StatesGermany
Bullet Weight110-158 grains115-147 grains
Velocity700-1000 fps1000-1400 fps
RecoilModerateLow to moderate
Magazine Capacity5-8 rounds10-19 rounds
Popular UseSelf-defense, target shootingLaw enforcement, military, self-defense

Further Detail


When it comes to choosing a handgun for self-defense or target shooting, two popular options that often come up are the .38 Special and the 9mm. Both cartridges have been widely used for decades and have their own unique attributes. In this article, we will delve into the various aspects of these two calibers, including their history, ballistics, recoil, availability, and suitability for different purposes.


The .38 Special, introduced in 1898 by Smith & Wesson, has a long and storied history. Originally designed for use in revolvers, it quickly gained popularity among law enforcement agencies due to its reliability and effectiveness. On the other hand, the 9mm, also known as the 9x19mm Parabellum, was developed by Georg Luger in 1902 for the German military. It gained widespread adoption and became the standard NATO cartridge due to its performance and versatility.


When comparing the ballistics of the .38 Special and the 9mm, it is important to consider factors such as muzzle velocity, energy, and bullet weight. The .38 Special typically fires bullets ranging from 110 to 158 grains, while the 9mm commonly uses bullets between 115 and 147 grains. In terms of muzzle velocity, the 9mm generally has a slight advantage, with velocities ranging from 1,000 to 1,200 feet per second, compared to the .38 Special's range of 700 to 900 feet per second.

When it comes to energy, the 9mm also tends to have the upper hand. Due to its higher muzzle velocity and larger bullet diameter, it delivers more kinetic energy upon impact. However, it is worth noting that the .38 Special, with its heavier bullets, can still provide sufficient stopping power, especially when using modern hollow point ammunition.


Recoil is an important consideration for many shooters, as it directly affects accuracy and ease of shooting. In general, the .38 Special has a milder recoil compared to the 9mm. This is primarily due to the fact that the .38 Special operates at lower pressures, resulting in less felt recoil. This characteristic makes it a popular choice for those who are sensitive to recoil or prefer a more manageable shooting experience.

On the other hand, the 9mm, with its higher pressures, tends to have a snappier recoil. While this may be a concern for some shooters, it can also be mitigated by using a properly weighted handgun, employing proper grip techniques, and practicing regularly to develop recoil management skills. Ultimately, the recoil experience is subjective and can vary depending on the individual shooter's preferences and physical attributes.

Ammunition Availability

One crucial aspect to consider when choosing a handgun caliber is the availability of ammunition. In this regard, the 9mm has a clear advantage. It is one of the most widely produced and used cartridges globally, making it readily available in a variety of bullet types and weights. This availability extends to both range practice ammunition and self-defense loads, ensuring that shooters can easily find suitable options for their needs.

While the .38 Special is also widely available, it may not have the same level of variety and availability as the 9mm. This is particularly true when it comes to self-defense ammunition, where the 9mm's popularity has led to a wider range of specialized loads designed for optimal performance in defensive scenarios. However, for those who primarily engage in target shooting or prefer the .38 Special's characteristics, finding suitable ammunition should not be a significant challenge.

Suitability for Different Purposes

Both the .38 Special and the 9mm have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to different purposes. The .38 Special, with its lower recoil and historical use in revolvers, is often favored by those seeking a reliable and easy-to-shoot handgun for self-defense. Its slower velocity can also be advantageous in close-quarters situations, as it reduces the risk of over-penetration.

On the other hand, the 9mm's higher capacity and superior ballistics make it a popular choice for law enforcement and military applications. Its higher muzzle velocity and energy provide better long-range performance, while its larger magazine capacity allows for more rounds to be carried without sacrificing stopping power. Additionally, the 9mm's availability and affordability make it an attractive option for those who engage in regular range practice.


In conclusion, the .38 Special and the 9mm are both excellent handgun calibers with their own unique attributes. The .38 Special, with its long history, mild recoil, and suitability for self-defense, remains a popular choice among many shooters. On the other hand, the 9mm's higher capacity, superior ballistics, and widespread availability make it a versatile and practical option for a wide range of applications.

Ultimately, the choice between these two calibers depends on individual preferences, intended use, and the specific firearm platform. It is recommended to try out different handguns chambered in each caliber, consider personal shooting abilities and needs, and seek professional advice before making a final decision. Regardless of the choice, proper training, regular practice, and adherence to safety protocols are essential for responsible firearm ownership.

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