The legendary lawman Wyatt Earp used to say, “fast is fine, but accuracy is final.” Being able to quickly get a shot off will mean little to nothing if that shot misses. Drawing on Earp for inspiration, I believe power is fine, but precision is final. Similar to the notion speed shouldn’t be the No. 1 consideration in your firearms training, power shouldn’t be your No. consideration in choosing a gun.

How Much Power Is Necessary?

If you can’t hit what you are shooting at, it doesn’t matter what the caliber, bullet weight or bullet construction is. If the gun you carry exceeds your ability to control, you won’t enjoy shooting it and are unlikely to carry or train for accurate shots with it. And inaccurately fired defensive bullets can go whistling past the intended target, endangering innocent bystanders many yards away. We are responsible for the rounds we fire. So we need to choose calibers, loads and handguns we can fire with precision.

There are many handgun cartridges and loads available that combine reduced recoil with decent capabilities for defensive shooting. The 9mm and the .38 Special in particular are two self-defense calibers that ammo companies have spent time and resources on to develop easier shooting loads that still function reliably.

The .30 Super Carry is a new cartridge that produces less recoil than the 9mm while providing increased magazine capacity. SIG Sauer designed the 365 practice and V-Crown defensive loads for micro-compact pistols available for some time now. Both loads use 115-grain bullets driven to a reduced 1,050 feet per second muzzle velocity. SIG’s 115-grain Standard V-Crown load comparably has 1,185 feet per second velocity. Yet the 365 V-Crown performed very well on a clay block test. Hornady also has reduced recoil .38 Special 90-grain and 9mm 100-grain Critical Defense. These lightweight bullets are driven to 1,125 and 1,200 feet per second, respectively. And Hornady’s bullet weight reduction without the velocity reduction reduces recoil.

How Low Can Defensive Loads Go?

However, for shooters who are recoil- or blast-shy, even these loads recoil too much. I recently worked with the .38 Special Subsonic Cowboy loads from Bang and Clang LLC and wanted to test them to see how effective subsonic lead bullet loads might be as a light-recoil alternative. The B&C .38 Specials have a muzzle velocity of 760 feet per second, with 203 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. In comparison, SIG’s .380 V-Crown load produces 192 foot-pounds of energy.

Using my all-steel Colt Night Cobra .38 Special revolver, I started from 30 feet, using Thompson Targets HALO Reactive XRAY Half-Size silhouettes. When fired from the 26-ounce Colt Night Cobra, the recoil from the subsonic .38 Specials Cowboy loads was a gentle push to the rear. There was a subdued muzzle blast and no noticeable muzzle flip. It was extremely pleasant shooting … and quite different from firing the Remington HTP +P 158-grain LSWCHP rounds that I normally carry in the Colt. My first six-shot group at 30 feet measured four inches. The next measured three inches. I moved to 21 feet and fired two six-shot groups that measured in the 2 ¼-inch range. Accuracy was good.

Clay Block Testing

I fired a single round into the center of the 25-pound block of Hobby Lobby moist modeling clay from 10 feet. The blunt-nosed flat point round hit with an audible slap and exited the 10-inch-long block.

The epoxy-coated lead slug (which shoots very cleanly) plowed a 1-inch diameter tubular channel straight through the block. It definitely penetrates deeply enough to cause lethal wounds. If the gentle level of recoil these Cowboy loads generate was all I could handle (and it might be someday), I would practice with them all I could to ensure precise hits.

Other .38 Special loads that provide similar performance are Remington’s Performance Wheelgun 158-grain Roundnose Lead load (traditional American police service load for 80 years) and Remington’s Performance Wheelgun 158-grain Lead Semi-Wadcutter (NYPD’s police service load through most of the 80s). For more folks than are willing to admit, using a lower-powered defensive handgun round may be a better choice for achieving precision over power. You may want to try some of these loads at your next range visit.


Bang and Clang Ammo:
SIG Sauer:
Hornady Ammo:
Thompson Target: