Introduced in 1898, the .38 Special — more correctly termed the “.38 Smith & Wesson Special” — can easily be crowned the greatest revolver cartridge of all time. However, the .38 S&W Special was not actually an original cartridge. Like so many other handgun cartridges, it was an improvement on an existing medium-bore round that was developed by Colt for military use: the .38 Long Colt.
Originally a black-powder cartridge, Colt introduced the .38 Long Colt in 187. It featured a 150-grain .357-inch-diameter bullet. It was easy to shoot and was the caliber of choice for the Colt M1892 double-action, six-shot revolver. But the .38 Long Colt offered a velocity of only 705 feet per second. It delivered 166 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle.
Despite the power increase over the .38 Long Colt, the .38 Special was easier to control, which enhanced the intrinsic accuracy the cartridge seemed to possess.
This proved to be a problem for the U.S. Army during the guerrilla war fought in the Philippines around the turn of the century. The low energy level of the .38 Long Colt cartridge resulted in a number of U.S. troops struggling to stop charging Moro tribesmen. I won’t belabor the point here, but this was the first major failure of an American military cartridge in combat. This led the U.S. Army to determine that only a .45-caliber cartridge would suffice as the official round for this nation’s first semi-automatic military pistol.
Still, this failure in the Philippines didn’t deter Smith & Wesson from further developing the .38 Long Colt.
Birth of the .38 Special
Smith & Wesson had also entered the double-action combat-revolver fray with its medium-frame “M&P” designed for military and police use. That M&P was later developed into the Model 10 revolver and spawned a large number of other variants.
However, because of the .38 Long Colt’s abysmal failure, Smith & Wesson couldn’t chamber its new revolver in that cartridge. The company decided to lengthen the Long Colt’s case a tenth of an inch (so it wouldn’t chamber in .38 Long Colt revolvers) and added three more grains of black powder, bringing the charge up to 21 grains. It also nominally increased the bullet weight to 158 grains. The powder increase boosted velocity by about 100 to 150 feet per second (depending on barrel length). This boosted the muzzle energy to around 225 foot-pounds at the muzzle. Thus, the .38 Special was born.
Make no mistake, the new .38 Special cartridge was no giant-killer. And it was never tested against the feared Moros of the Philippines. But had it been, the increase in velocity would have certainly made the new round more effective in combat compared to the .38 Long Colt.
.38 Special Becomes Popular
The .38 Special’s popularity only increased when modern smokeless powder replaced black powder as the primary propellant. Improvements in metallurgy over the years increased the velocity, along with the muzzle energy. Today’s 158-grain +P .38s are capable of velocities of 890 feet per second from 4-inch barrels. Those deliver a more substantial 278 foot-pounds of energy.
Even though the .38 Special never became a primary military-combat cartridge, it quickly took off among civilians — especially after being adopted by American police forces. The .38 Special cartridge is adequately powerful as a defensive cartridge. Compared to the .32 New Police, the .38 Special was a major power upgrade; the .32 New Police had a 90-grain bullet that only delivered 117 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.
Despite the power increase over the .38 Long Colt, the .38 Special was easier to control, which enhanced the intrinsic accuracy the cartridge seemed to possess. The recoil in the all-steel M&P (especially in variants with 5- or 6-inch barrels) was low, as was the muzzle blast. Further, cartridges were cheaper than the older, larger rounds such as the .45 Colt or .44-40, which were also used by police at the time — albeit in much heavier and larger handguns. Interestingly, my 1970s-vintage copy of Small Arms of the World refers to the .38 Special round as being “very” and “ultra” powerful in the section on revolver development.
.38 Special: An Officer’s Gun
To put it simply, the .38 Special six-shooter could do a lot of things quite well. And the qualities that endeared it to police officers soon endeared it to private citizens as well. If someone wanted the ultimate home-defense handgun, he or she needed a .38 Special revolver. But this revolver was more than just a self-defense and law enforcement tool.
Two years ago, I snagged several issues of American Rifleman from the 1940s, including the December 1941 issue. The main handgun used in target competition back then was — you guessed it — the .38 Special revolver as produced by both Smith & Wesson and Colt. The .38 Special Target revolver continued to be the dominant force in shooting competitions throughout the 1990s. Its low recoil and muzzle blast also meant it became a popular training load for use in .357 Magnum revolvers since both cartridges use the same nominal .357-inch-diameter bullets. The .357 Magnum case is 0.1 inches longer than the .38 Special to prevent the disastrous results that could occur if a .357 Magnum were to be fired in a revolver chambered for .38 Special.
Snubby .38 Special
More importantly to the members of the U.S. Concealed Carry Association is the role of the .38 Smith & Wesson Special cartridge in the snub-nosed revolver. The snubby really helped establish the .38 Special’s dominance as the most popular centerfire handgun cartridge of the 20th century.
Built on smaller frames, the early snubs proved to be very popular for concealed carry in areas where such things were permitted. Originally chambered in low-pressure cartridges such as the .32 Smith & Wesson, .the 32 Smith & Wesson Long and the less powerful .38 Smith & Wesson cartridge (which had a .380 bore diameter and less power than the .38 Special), the popularity of snub-nosed revolvers skyrocketed and ushered in what can only be called the “modern era” of concealed carry once they were chambered for the .38 Special.
Prior to the advent of “shall-issue” carry permits toward the end of the 20th century, the snub-nosed .38 Special revolver found its greatest popularity in off-duty and plainclothes law enforcement use. This was reflected by Smith & Wesson naming its .38 snubby the “Chief’s Special.” Colt gave its snub-nosed guns names like the “Detective Special” and “Agent.” Names like that not only sold guns to law enforcement officers but also to private citizens in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, when cop, detective and private investigator TV shows were popular.
Despite the fact that it has been a “semi-auto” defensive-pistol world since the 1990s, snub-nosed .38 Special revolvers are still popular, with various models being offered not only by Smith & Wesson and Colt but also by other firms such as Ruger, Taurus and Charter Arms. While snub-nosed .38s are still in demand, the available selection of full-sized .38 Special revolvers has been greatly reduced. The .38 Special revolver no longer reigns supreme among defensive shooters.
Rise of the 9mm
Austrian-born Georg Johann Luger introduced the 9mm Luger (or 9mm Parabellum) in 1902. Luger was a retired army lieutenant and employee of Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM). Like the .38 Special, the 9mm Luger was also a modification of an existing cartridge that was originally designed for military use: the .30 Luger. The .30 Luger was originally chambered for the Borchardt-Luger 1898 semi-automatic pistol. (DWM tasked Luger with improving the Borchardt C93, hence the addition of his name.) While the .30 Luger (7.65x21mm) was a high-velocity cartridge for its day, the German military wanted a cartridge with a larger and heavier projectile. In order to accomplish this, Luger expanded the bottlenecked shoulder of the .30 Luger cartridge case and fitted a 9mm (.355-inch-diameter) bullet into the case. He called the new cartridge the “9mm Luger.”
The 9mm Luger was the first smokeless-powder defensive-pistol cartridge with a serious level of power to see widespread use — especially in Europe. It propels a 115- to 124-grain bullet to velocities ranging between 1,100 and 1,200 feet per second and generating between 309 and 397 foot-pounds of energy (depending on the cartridge manufacturer and barrel length). The modern 9mm can be seen as somewhat superior to the .38 Special cartridge. But unlike the .38 Special, the 9mm took longer to reach the level of popularity that the .38 Special developed almost overnight in the U.S. There were several reasons why.
The 9mm Luger was the first smokeless-powder defensive-pistol cartridge with a serious level of power to see widespread use — especially in Europe.
9mm Faces an Upward Climb
First, Germany used the 9mm, a European cartridge, against the U.S. during the First and Second World Wars. The fact that it wasn’t an American cartridge gave it a major disadvantage in the commercial firearms market that followed. Also, it was mostly available in the 9mm Luger P08 pistol that, while an intriguing design recognized by most people who have even a passing interest in firearms, possessed a number of quirks (including an oddly placed safety lever) that inhibited speed and safety of operation. The later Walther P38 did help to conventionalize the 9mm a bit.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the 9mm Luger was competing against the battle-proven 1911 .45 ACP used by the Americans during both World Wars. Against the 1911 .45, the 9mm Luger stood a much lower chance of success. The 9mm also had to compete against the all-American .38 Super. The .38 Super produced superior ballistics and performance when using the FMJ ammo of the day.
A Bad Rap in the ’80s
As if these historic issues weren’t enough to slow the acceptance of the 9mm as a defensive load by cops and average Joes in the U.S., there was also the issue of defensive-ammunition availability. The soft-lead bullets used in the .38 Special cartridge were available in different profiles and types that could possibly help enhance “stopping power.” (Examples include the 200-grain “blunt-nose” Winchester-Western “Super Police” load or the Keith lead “semi-wadcutter” load.) But the 9mm Luger was limited to rather pointy FMJ loads. These penetrated well but left a bit to be desired in the area of terminal performance.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Remember the failure of the .38 Long Colt to stop the Moros in the Philippines? The 9mm Luger had its own notorious yet smaller-scale “failure” that trashed its popularity for a number of years.
Prior to this incident, the 9mm was making inroads into the world of law enforcement. In 1971, the Ohio State University Police became the first Ohio agency to adopt a semi-automatic pistol — the 9mm Smith & Wesson Model 39 — as its official duty pistol. But acceptance of the 9mm was still slow. By the time I attended my second police academy in 1984, only one of the 50 officers from around Ohio carried a 9mm semi-auto (a Beretta 92). The rest carried .38s. Two years later, more manufacturers were producing 9mm soft-point and hollow-point ammunition. And the FBI authorized the use of 9mm pistols for some of its agents.
The American public came to realize that the 9mm possessed many of the attributes of the .38 Special. Its recoil was low, it was accurate, it was inexpensive, and it was more than adequately effective for self-defense.
Becoming a Scapegoat
Any chance of the 9mm being adopted on a large scale in the U.S. screeched to a halt with the infamous 1986 shootout in Miami. U.S. Special Agent Jerry Dove, who was carrying a 9mm Smith & Wesson 459 loaded with Winchester’s Silvertip load, shot one of the bank robbers in the chest, inflicting a non-survivable wound, with the bullet coming to rest near the assailant’s heart. Though the suspect’s lung collapsed, he kept fighting and killed Dove. By the end of the gunfight, two FBI agents were killed and five others were wounded by the two heavily armed criminals.
The 9mm cartridge — rather than the FBI’s poor tactics — became the scapegoat for the shootout’s disastrous outcome. This perceived lack of 9mm stopping power prompted the FBI to issue 10mm Smith & Wesson Model 1076 pistols to its agents. As it turned out, the 1076s were too big for many agents and recoiled too heavily for accurate control. Therefore, the FBI worked with the Federal Cartridge Company to develop a “10mm Lite” load with less recoil. This led to the development of the .40 Smith & Wesson round, which was adopted as the official duty load of the FBI in 1990.
The 9mm Is Redeemed
The introduction of the .40 Smith & Wesson pushed the 9mm to the back burner. It seemed as if all law enforcement officers simply had to have .40 Smith & Wesson pistols as they transitioned from revolvers. The 9mm wouldn’t do.
But the 9mm made a comeback, making steady progress as an acceptable self-defense round since the early 2000s for several reasons. First, the American public came to realize that the 9mm possessed many of the attributes of the .38 Special. Its recoil was low, it was accurate, it was inexpensive, and it was more than adequately effective for self-defense. The 9mm ended up benefiting from the FBI ballistic-gelatin testing protocols that were developed to improve the .40 Smith & Wesson round. Then something rather strange happened.
In October 2016, the FBI announced that based on its ballistic testing, the 9mm with the right ammunition was just as effective in self-defense as the .40 Smith & Wesson or .45 ACP — without the recoil, blast and wear and tear on weapons. The 9mm was simply much easier to use when it came to training new recruits. Magazine capacity was also higher by a few rounds. Law enforcement agencies couldn’t trade in .40s for 9mms fast enough. If it wasn’t for the events of 2020, you almost wouldn’t be able to give away a .40.
The other big boost for the 9mm Luger becoming the 21st century’s .38 Special was the development of the compact and micro 9mms. These pistols really took off with the introduction of the SIG Sauer P365 (and other models). Their light weight, low recoil and proper cycling endeared the 9mm to concealed carry permit holders.
Securing Its Legacy
It has truly been a long journey for the 9×19 to become the 21st century’s .38 Special. It’s an outstanding cartridge that combines all the excellent handling, shooting and self-defense characteristics of the .38 Special into a modern semi-auto pistol (and carbine) platform. The 9mm is loaded into a wide variety of configurations and velocity ranges. So it can be better tailored to individual shooters and pistols than it’s ever been. While the .38 Special won’t be disappearing anytime soon, it certainly doesn’t hold the same level of prominence it once did. But it isn’t all bad, since its replacement is more than up to the task.
Georg Johann Luger’s Grave
Legendary firearms inventor Georg Johann Luger died on Dec. 22, 1923, and was buried in the Friedensaue Cemetery in Schöneiche outside Berlin. Two decades later, his remains were dug up to make room for a mass grave during World War II. In 2018, donators from around the world contributed the funds to erect a memorial to honor the iconic firearms inventor. They purchased a flat tablet and had his name, birth and death dates and the words, “A world-famous designer of the beginning industrial age” inscribed on it.
A black granite headstone shaped like the toggle of one of Luger’s pistols was the most impressive addition. The gun manufacturer’s grandson, Freie Universität Berlin professor Peter Luger (inorganic chemistry); Stephen A. Petroni of the Foundation for European Societies of Arms Collectors (FESAC); author and Borchardt\Luger expert Geoffrey L. Sturgess; and others attended the ceremony at the site after the two markers were placed.
— Frank Jastrzembski, Associate Editor