When I found out that SIG Sauer was going to add the .38 Special to their fine line of V-Crown defensive ammo, I felt that it might be a good opportunity to compare apples to apples.
For many years, I’ve read the claim that self-defense capabilities of the .38 Special suffer greatly when ammo that performed reasonably well out of a 4-inch-barreled revolver was fired from a 2-inch-barreled revolver. While I realize there will always be some velocity loss when the same loads are fired from two different barrel lengths, I wasn’t sure what effect the velocity loss would have on terminal impact.
History of .38 Special
First introduced in 1898 as an improved version of the .38 Long Colt (which failed miserably during the Philippine Insurrection phase of the Spanish American War), the .38 Special never became a primary military cartridge. (That honor was given to the .45 Automatic.) However, the .38 Special was used secondarily throughout WWII, Korea, and Vietnam in the Smith & Wesson .38 Special Victory Model revolver. I think the most fascinating use of that combo was by the famed “Tunnel Rats” of the Vietnam War. While the .38 Special was never the primary military cartridge, it soon became American law enforcement’s standard cartridge from the 1900s through the 1990s. Today, it still finds favor with cops and civilians who desire small and reasonably powerful revolvers for backup or primary concealed carry.
What the original .38 Special 158-grain round-nose lead bullet (traveling around 800 feet per second) lacked in stopping power, it made up for with over-penetration and overall inconsistent performance. On the one hand, Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald (I saw that live on TV back in the day) with one shot from a snub-nosed .38 revolver. That 158-grain RNL bullet pierced nearly every vital organ in Oswald’s body, knocking him unconscious. He died two hours later.
On the other hand, a former partner of mine shot a suspect who had just fired at him with a 158-grain .38 Special from a 4-inch revolver. The suspect stopped shooting, but did not appear to be affected by anything more than a chipped tooth. A hospital examination revealed that the 158-grain RNL .38 had entered the suspect’s mouth. It hit the back of his throat and followed the curvature of his throat and ended up in his stomach, doing little damage. It was eliminated naturally, shall we say.
Because of inconsistent and sometimes lackluster performance, improved .38 Special loadings started appearing in the 1960s. Lee Jurras, founder of Super Vel, loaded lightweight jacketed hollow-point bullets (new at the time) with an increased velocity and effectiveness over standard loads.
Eventually the Super Vel company went under, but the concepts Lee Jurras pioneered didn’t. The SIG Sauer .38 Special Elite Performance V-Crown is one of the inheritors of the original Super Vel concept.
Loaded with a 125-grain V-Crown JHP bullet tailored to .38 Special ballistics and loaded to +P pressure, SIG’s published velocity figures gives this .38 Special a muzzle velocity of 965 feet per second with 258 FPE.
Testing at the Shooting Range
I headed to the shooting range with my 2-inch Smith & Wesson 642 .38 and my 4-inch-barreled Smith & Wesson Model 67 “Combat Masterpiece” stainless steel K-frame .38 Special revolver. Also accompanying me were two 25-pound blocks of modeling clay and my chronograph.
The first test of the load was at 30 feet for point of aim and accuracy on a silhouette target. I started the testing with the Combat Masterpiece. Even though it was sighted in for 158-grain +P ammo, the 125-grain load shot to the point of aim, producing a group of around 3 inches for six shots. Recoil was easily controlled.
Firing the same load in the 642 produced a somewhat larger group (3.5 inches) and somewhat more noticeable recoil, but certainly nothing that approached “uncontrollable.” Again the grouping was dead on to the point of aim.
The Model 67 posted an average velocity of 957 feet per second and 254 FPE—dead on with SIG’s published ballistics. Very consistent performance, indeed.
The Model 642 gave me a lower but consistent average velocity of 820 feet per second and 187 FPE at the muzzle. While the velocity reduction was significant, how would the reduction look in modeling clay?
I fired the first round into the test block from the Model 642. The 25-pound clay block moved slightly but the sides did not bulge; there simply wasn’t enough velocity to create much hydrostatic shock. Sectioning the block revealed a cone-shaped cavity that measured 3 inches in maximum diameter and tapered down to about ½ inch. The V-Crown bullet had fragmented, and a portion of the bullet exited the 10.5-inch block at what appeared to be a leisurely velocity.
Firing the V-Crown from the Model 67 resulted in some bulging of the block on the side from the higher velocity. Sectioning the block revealed an interesting result: the wound channel left in the clay was the same cone shape that was found inside the first block, but with a 4-inch diameter. Again, there was bullet fragmentation and the exit of a portion of the slug from the 10.5-inch block. This shows real design excellence in the construction of the V-Crown bullet.
With older hollow-point designs, a velocity difference of 157 feet per second could mean either failure to expand with over-penetration or extreme expansion with inadequate penetration. The V-Crown gives consistent (and darn near ideal) performance across a wide range of velocities. I doubt there would be any noticeable performance difference in an actual shooting whether the V-Crown was fired from a 2- or 4-inch barrel.
For more information, visit to www.sigsauer.com.