The terminal ballistics of the .38 special is nothing to sneeze at, but when coupled with a 2 inch barrel it can become pretty marginal. This lose of velocity is of course, is contributed to not having enough barrel to full burn the powder charge, you get muzzle flash and noise neither which is awesome for you in the middle of the night without hearing protection.
When an ammo manufacture tell you the velocity, but not the length of the test barrel, don’t assume you will get that from your J-frame. The great thing is with the concealed carry revolution, there has been renewed interest in the lowly .38 Special that was all but dead in the mid-90s, as most police departments moved to semi-automatics like the Glock 19. The market is now providing a great variety of .38 special loads of all types, ranging between 90 and 158 grains, some even made specifically for short barrels.
What do you want the bullet to do it the first questions we have to ask. First it needs to reach the vital bits of the human anatomy that will stop the attacker, and then ideally expand to the largest diameter possible while reaching that depth help speed the cessation of hostilities. This all has to be done while going through leather jackets, denim and other materials that can cause some hollow point projectiles to not function properly, add a windshield in the mix and you have a tall order for anything shot from a snubby.
The FBI created a ammunition protocol of what a defensive pistol rounds needs to be capable of after the Miami Shootout in 1986.
If our little snubby can complete the first 2 tests, with 12 inches of penetration we should consider it a viable rounds for typical citizen self-defense. Also, note that too much penetration puts others down range at greater risk. this is why the 4th safety rule is, “Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.”, in a gun fight this might be harder then expected.
Test 1 is simply shooting bare gelatin at 10 ft, the second is heavy clothing at 10 ft. (T-shirt, flannel shirt, 10 oz. down, cotton denim).
There are some rounds that have “real world experience”, but we have to make sure that it’s data for the 2 inch, not the 4 inch barrels. The other way we compare ammunition is by shooting a simulation for flesh and bone. This simulation is done by a shooting a gel material, many will argue that the “jello shooters” prove nothing of how it will act in the real world, but it does seem like the only viable method to at least compare rounds to each other in a controlled way.
Let’s look at some .38 special ammunition options, by weight. All the links are videos to the tests.
- Test 1 (2 t-shirts): 9 inches with moderate expansion (.438)
- Test 2 (4 layers denim) 16+ inches no expansion
- Here is an article that specifically address the issue with the light weigh projectile.
110 Grain +P Hornady Critical Defense (note there is a non +p, which might offer better bare gel penetration with lower expansion)
- Test 1 (2 t-shirts): 9.5 inches with good expansion (.493)
- Test 2 (4 layers denim) 14.5 inches no expansion
125 Grain Federal 38 Special Nyclad (not made anymore)
- Test 1 (4 layers denim): 10.5 inches with good expansion (.541)
- Test 2 (Tool Leather & 2 layers denim) 13.9 inches no expansion
- Test 1 (bare gel ): 12.75 inches with awesome expansion (.60)
- Test 2 (4 layers denim) 16.25 inches good expansion (.556)
135 Grain Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel (there was at least some released with low velocities)
- Test 1 (bare gel ): 12.5 inches with great expansion (.573)
- Test 2 (2 layers denim) 12.5 inches good expansion (.551)
158 Grain Remington 38 Special +P (run in 2 separate tests)
- Test 1 (bare gel): 11 inches with great expansion (.582)
- Test 2 (4 layers denim): 12.5 inches no expansion
- Test 1 (2 layers of denim) 18.25 inches with good expansion (.526) (over penetration)
158 Grain Buffalo Bore LSWCHP +P (classic load)
- Test 1 (bare gel): 12.1 inches with awesome expansion (.599-.695)
- Test 2: not done, I suspect it does not expand and over penetrates as the hollow point clogs
I have chosen to carry the J-frame with a cylinder full of Nyclad’s and a reload of 110gr +p Hornady Critical Defense. My logic for Hornady, is they are very easy to reload do to their pointed profile, and work well with a speed loader, this might be less of an issue if you are using speed strips and only trying to align 2 pegs with 2 holes verse 5 pegs and 5 holes.
I do think the cream of the crop is the 130 grain Ranger Bonded +P by Winchester which is really just a re-marketing of the famous (or infamous) black talon (this is also the PDX1 Defender in non-LEO packaging)
50 round boxes of the Ranger +P can be found at SGammo for $19.95 per box which is an great price (as of 7/23/2016)
Handgun Magazine did a review and based on their data, I would conclude that the PDX1 +p, Critical Defense 110gr +p and the 135gr gold Dot are all capable options.