Top Five .38 Special Self-Defense Rounds

Editor’s Note: The following is a post by Mark Kakkuri, a nationally published freelance writer who covers guns and gear, 2nd Amendment issues and the outdoors. His writing and photography have appeared in many firearms-related publications, including the USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @markkakkuri.

Read Mark’s previous articles in this “Top Five” series:

A .38 Special for self-defense? It’s not the fastest or most powerful round, but it is the best round if it meets two key criteria: It’s the one you’ll actually carry and you can shoot it accurately. So, yes, a .38 Special for self-defense.

By the way, have you noticed how there are more snub-nosed revolvers available today than ever? Clearly, the market thinks it is still a viable concealed carry gun – simple and effective, easily hidden, easily deployed. Yes, there are some wonderful auto-loading 9mm pistols and a wide range of choices in 9mm self-defense ammo today. If you’re a “slim 9” kind of person, no problem – 9mm is a great round that has enjoyed some significant technological advance in recent days. But so has .38 Special. In fact, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorites from over the years. And with that, here’s my top five to stay alive.

1. Black Hills 125-Grain JHP +P

Black Hills makes great ammo and, by that, I mean it’s clean and consistent in its performance. That’s certainly true of this .38 Special cartridge as it’s often found not only my gun’s five chambers but also in a speedloader or speed strip when I’m carrying.

I like this mid-weight bullet backed with some +P punch as a way to inch a little closer to .357 Magnum performance minus all the fireworks and drama.

These rounds fire at a velocity of 1,050 FPS, delivering 306 foot-pounds of energy. You can also get it in a 100-grain HoneyBadger +P (1,275 FPS velocity, 361 foot-pounds of energy) and a 148-grain Match HBWC (700 FPS velocity, 161 foot-pounds of energy).

To learn more visit Black-Hills.com.

2. Creedmoor 125-Grain XTP +P

You might be more familiar with Creedmoor’s rifle rounds, but the company also makes a .38 Special round in one of my favorite recipes: 125 grains and +P. These, too, see regular duty in my snub-nosed revolvers.

Just like the Black Hills Ammo, these rounds fire at a velocity of 1,050 FPS, delivering 306 foot-pounds of energy. That’s at the muzzle, of course. At 50 yards, the bullets will be at 977 FPS and 265 foot-pounds. And then at 100 yards (who shoots a .38 from a snubbie out to 100 yards?), the bullet is at 921 FPS with 236 foot-pounds of energy.

To learn more visit CreedmoorSports.com.

3. HPR HyperClean 158-Grain JHP

Unfortunately, the company that made HPR ammo has gone out of business. But there are still a few online outlets that are selling remaining stock in a few caliber choices. But who knows for how long?

Anyway, HPR’s .38 Special with the 158-grain JHP bullet is a classic load for snubbies. It packs a manageable punch that’s different from the lighter, faster +P rounds. In fact, when this heavier bullet hits a steel plate, you can hear it. HPR’s website is no more, but typical velocities for a round like this are between 700 and 900 FPS with energy around 200 to 270 foot-pounds.

4. Hornady Critical Defense Lite 90-Grain FTX

You might be tempted to dismiss this round offhand, but I don’t recommend you do so. At 1,200 FPS, it’s the fastest round of the bunch. And the round only slows to 938 FPS after 100 yards. So, if you prefer more velocity from your revolver, this might be a good round for you.

A 90-grain bullet is lighter than most, yes, and the result indeed is a lighter shooting round. But it delivers 288 foot-pounds of energy, which also ranks fairly high in this bunch. The key feature of this round is what Hornady refers to as a “soft polymer insert that delivers superior controlled expansion and large, deep wound cavities over a wide range of velocities.” That means the bullet will do its job all while resulting in less recoil and lower muzzle flash.

By the way, the pink tip and the pink ribbon signify Hornady’s commitment to donate a portion of the proceeds on the sale of this ammo to help fund breast cancer research.

To learn more visit Hornady.com.

5. Federal Hydra-Shok 129-Grain JHP

Federal Hydra-Shok ammo has been around and established itself as one of the top names in self-defense ammunition in a variety of calibers. Look into any Hydra-Shok bullet and you’ll see the familiar center-post, hollow-point design, which aids in penetration and expansion.

The .38 Special’s 129-grain bullet is an interesting weight, but it leaves the muzzle at 950 FPS and drops to 926 FPS after 25 yards. Energy at the muzzle is 258 foot-pounds, dropping to 246 after 25 yards. Few cartridges have the reputation of Hydra-Shoks and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

To learn more visitFederalPremium.com.

Here’s everything in a nice, tidy chart:

Conclusion

If you want maximum energy, go for a +P round, such as the Black Hills or Creedmoor. If you want maximum velocity and low-recoil, the Hornady Critical Defense Lite will do nicely. Like a heavier, slower bullet? HPR or any other manufacturer with a 158-grain bullet will do. And, if you just want a classic, Federal Hydra-Shok’s are hard to beat.

These aren’t the only .38 Special self-defense rounds available today. These are just my top five. If you carry a revolver and prefer to shoot .38 Special, what ammo do you choose and why?

Discover how you can join more than 200,000 responsibly armed Americans who already rely on the USCCA to protect their families, futures and freedoms: USCCA.com/gunsamerica.

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{ 34 comments… add one }
  • Gjoe November 26, 2019, 8:03 pm

    I myself like 2 rounds. One is the 38spl +p 110gr bullet. This is a small bullet running very fast. The next would be a Federal 158gr +p lswchp it worked in my 2in and my 4in barrel guns. Both work great from both guns. So this is my bullet info

  • Marcas Smith July 17, 2019, 8:02 pm

    Without expansion and penetration information and length of barrel in test firearm one cannot possibly evaluate for yourself and your particular firearm which round would work for you in any type of situation. Over penetration is as big an issue as penetration itself. Barrel length is a huge factor in expansion and terminal velocity.

  • Rick jordan February 19, 2019, 10:40 am

    No mention of Liberty Civil Defense
    50 grain HP, 1500FPS , 250 ft lbs.
    I use this for my SW 637 PC. Love this round !

  • best caliber for self defense June 29, 2018, 7:35 am

    Hey gun america your post was very informational. My younger sister needed a simple, reliable, lightweight handgun to carry as a professional real estate agent meeting customers out of normal work hours (some whom she had never met). We purchased a S&W scandium J-frame 5 shot with a minimal Bianchi IWB holster. Very small comfortable, concealable package. After many trips to the range shooting much ammo some identical to those listed here, she finally settled on a round she could shoot comfortably with breaking her wrist, standard Winchester target rounds. At an expected range of under 10 feet does anyone doubt this round will disable an attacker? Who goes to the range and shoots even a box of +P rounds through a sub nose?

  • Jon March 29, 2018, 6:42 pm

    Don’t understand why the author left out expansion performances of these rounds. Perhaps he is being paid for just pushing and marketing these rounds. I checked out the link someone else posted of expansion tests that were done on the luckygunner site and found some eye opening info.

    First, the author recommended the Federal HydraShok +P round. In the Luckygunner site, this round had NO EXPANSION when shot into ballistic gelatin with either a 2″ or 4″ revolver. Why would anyone depend on it?

    Of MAJOR interest are the loads from Remington and Winchester. The Golden Sabre round expanded to .62″ from a 2″ bbl and .59″ from a 4″ bbl. The Winchester 130 gr PDX Defender +P expanded to .63″ when fired from both 2″ and 4″ bbls. Why the author recommended his Top 5 Self-defense rounds with unknown terminal performances or poor terminal performances (a .35 bullet that does not expand is not good) for self-defense to his readers is irresponsible at best.
    Now, I do not know how accurate the tests Luckygunner reports on were, but I recall that the Golden Sabre and Winchester PDX Defender were among the top best performers in many other formal performance testings.

    If this site is merely one to push products because someone paid them to do so, it would be proper to admit that up front. If this is not the case, then recommending substandard performing products is totally irresponsible.

  • Brad March 24, 2018, 8:38 am

    Winchester Ranger 130 grain +P is one of the best when it comes to consistent expansion and penetration in ballistic gel. I know gel is not the same as a bad guy’s body, but it’s a better way to compare rounds than simply multiplying bullet weight x velocity or, worse still, accepting the manufacturer’s claims for muzzle energy. I carry a Kimber K6S with 3″ barrel. It’s chambered for .357, but the .38 +P makes quick, follow-up shots MUCH easier. I found the .357 to be all but uncontrollable for follow up shots out of anything lighter than an L frame, but that’s just me.

  • Mike Brennan March 23, 2018, 9:03 pm

    I found this article informative, but I would like to see another article about which brands of 38 Special ammo work best in a snubbie. I would also like the webmaster of this site to clean up the site. As a nation we have gone too far down the road to anonymous vulgarity.

  • Deadeye March 23, 2018, 12:55 pm

    My CCW issuing Sherif\’s department suggested I use the same thing they use, to prevent any lawyer drama should things ever get hairy. The Federal HST Micro is what I carry in my M&P 340. It works.

  • bjg March 23, 2018, 11:34 am

    Years ago I used a hand load in a Colt detective special A soft cast 200gr. bullet at around 600 fps. Blew large holes in water filled paint cans . Unstable 200 gr bullet would tumble when striking an object. Also fires some old (1950s) 200 gr super police
    They kicked terrible..

  • Norm Fishler March 23, 2018, 10:53 am

    I saw no mention of the old FBI load, the 158 grain +P LHPSWC. Perhaps 30 years ago I bought three cases of them, one each of Federal, W-W and R-P. I checked recently and found I was down to less than ten boxes. My EDC is a 642 and I have several .38s and .357s that I shoot that cartridge in. Yes, the recoil is a bit harsh, but it is a price I am willing to pay.

  • Matt in Alaska March 23, 2018, 10:45 am

    Fact is the .38 special is a perfectly good round for self defense in a revolver without trying to turn it into a .357 magnum. If the only option is +P rounds, get a .357 in the first place. Who actually cares what the bullet velocity is at 25 yards from a snub nose?

    My wife needed a simple, reliable, lightweight handgun to carry as a professional real estate agent meeting customers out of normal work hours (some whom she had never met). We purchased a S&W scandium J-frame 5 shot with a minimal Bianchi IWB holster. Very small comfortable, concealable package. After many trips to the range shooting much ammo some identical to those listed here, she finally settled on a round she could shoot comfortably with breaking her wrist, standard Winchester target rounds. At an expected range of under 10 feet does anyone doubt this round will disable an attacker? Who goes to the range and shoots even a box of +P rounds through a sub nose?

    +P rounds are not a requirement to make a .38 special a viable self defense carry handgun. Further, .38 special rounds are a great option in a full size .357 revolver for home defense for a wife or daughter.

    When we practice at the range with a full size L-frame .357, I load a couple magnum loads and bear loads for the wife or daughter to shoot to see how hard it kicks, then load it with .38 special so they can practice and get comfortable with a gun they can trust that won’t hurt their wrist at the range, in the home, or in the field.

  • Scott March 23, 2018, 9:44 am

    Look into the Dynamic Research Technology (DRT). Light, fast and exceedingly powerful.

  • lilbear68 March 23, 2018, 9:29 am

    non of the prefragmented rounds? my EDC and every hand gun in the house is loaded with Glaser Safety Slugs. the gel tests were pretty impressive to look at

    • Penrod March 23, 2018, 4:13 pm

      Glazers etc may be fine ammo, but places like Hawaii have banned them. Not a legal option here. Of course, carrying legally isn’t an option here either: carry permits are required, but not issued. For practical purposes the Hawaii Democratic Party -and it is the Democratic Party, not a single Republican state senator and fewer than half a dozen state reps- is firmly on the side of violent criminals. They disarm all potential victims and let the criminals run free. That isn’t going to change, either, as the voters like it that way. One of the many reasons we are leaving.

  • gerald clauson March 23, 2018, 9:24 am

    Federal Premium Personal Defense. 125gr Nyclad hollowpoint. The “chief’s special” load.

    • Michael Keim March 23, 2018, 12:01 pm

      Yep. Carried them in a Colt Cobra. Wish they still made them

  • Rangemaster11B March 23, 2018, 9:02 am

    How about DoubleTap & Corbon?

  • Jim March 23, 2018, 8:45 am

    My personal choice is the Federal HST Micro round in my S&W 337 (11 oz.) Reminds me of the “old school” 148 gr HBWC loaded backwards, but jacketed and low flash powder, but as I said…my choice.
    https://www.federalpremium.com/ammunition/handgun/family/premium-personal-defense/personal-defense-hst/p38hst1s

  • Olen P Biehl March 23, 2018, 8:19 am

    One never knows whst is best in their particular firearm until you have to utilize it. Then it just might be too late. I carry a Charter arms pug in 357 with 135gr +p hydra shock. I have seen first hand wgat this round will do. I trust my life to this round.

  • William Kotila March 23, 2018, 8:18 am

    You need to take a look at Black Hills Ammunition’s .38 Special Honey Badger round.

  • Alan Perla March 23, 2018, 7:31 am

    I’m a bit confused about the claims of all this Speed. Most snubbies have a 2″ or shorter barrel and normally don’t get any where near the advertised FPS claims. Also the flash and blast from a +P from a snub nosed S&W 36 fired when it is dark, i.e. in a house hallway at night can be blinding.

  • martianone March 23, 2018, 6:03 am

    Poor article, as author does not suggest performance criteria or experience with each load.
    I’ve had good luck with two loads at about 10 paces with a LCR.
    The Buffalo Bore wad cutter defensive load penetrates well and is effective, not sure it was my LCR’s favorite.
    Also good experience with Underwood +P Defense load, shot just right from thr LCR and made a good channel.
    Ps, for snakes and similar vermin- the CCI load with #4 shot worked great.

    • Ken March 23, 2018, 11:21 am

      Yes, I like the LCR as a CCW but hot loads will test your wrist strength and ability not to flinch on repeating shots. I’ve long been interested in the 135gr SB SPEER Gold Dot round but never see them on locally and their sketchy internet availability + shipping costs make them expensive simply to “test” with. Specifically “engineered” for short barreled revolvers, SPEER’s concept of a limited velocity / bullet composition (thinner jacket thickness? and maybe softer lead core?) is a sound idea when compared to their standard .38/.357 125gr Gold Dot rounds generally shot out of a 3″-4″ gun. I’ve found little write-ups though and they no longer seem to make these “Best” type lists given the many newer designs of the past 5-10 years. Anyone know pro/con on them first hand?

      • martianone March 23, 2018, 7:52 pm

        LCR load follow up.
        My primary deer gun is a large frame single action revolver in a magnum chambering, I practice a fair amount so recoil and muzzle blast are not much of an issue for me. My partner is challenged by both. Got her to try the Underwood Xtreme Defender load, 100 gr not +P. For a month or so, before live fire would have her hold the LCR and point it at things, just paying specific attention to the sight picture. Then For a month or so, we practiced once per week, just 5 shots at a time, at a distance of about 8-10 steps. She now can comfortably place those 5 shots inside of a 6″ paper plate at the 8 step distance. Late last summer, she plugged a rabid raccoon raiding the garbage can, 10 steps two holes, three cartridges still in the cylinder. It was a big confidence booster to actually be successful with “her” gun. She now “packs” the firearm in the pocket of her easy chair. Every now and then, she can be seen pointing the LCR at something in the house.
        Another person’s results may vary, consider this load ?

  • Nick March 23, 2018, 5:18 am

    You forgot to mention.
    You need a snub nose that will handle +p rounds.
    Don’t put a +p thru you classic Model 36/

    • Pjay March 23, 2018, 1:39 pm

      Will a S&W Model 60 handle +p loads?

      • Nolan Raborn March 23, 2018, 8:38 pm

        Not according to S&W!

  • Boomer March 23, 2018, 3:38 am

    The new HST
    Speer Gold 135 +p
    Rem Golden Saber 125
    Maybe Lehigh Or Underwood with cross top solid copper
    Outdoor woods; Buffalo 158+P gas checked

  • Bigatb March 21, 2018, 10:12 pm

    I like the Buffalo bore 158gr SWCHP, it replicates the old FBI 38 load. It can plug with denim but jean jackets aren’t in style these days.

  • Jim Hovater March 21, 2018, 7:03 pm

    A 158gr LSWCHP+P from any major manufacturer SHOULD be at the TOP of that list.

  • Random Dudewithaclue March 21, 2018, 6:59 pm

    Wow, you sir are a clueless simpleton. Please unfuck yourself, then go get some real information from reliable sources.

  • Matt Edgar March 21, 2018, 4:38 pm

    All those suck

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