A special kind of conversation occurs when you debate the differences between the .357 Magnum and the .38 Special. The reason there seems to be some ambiguity between the two rounds is that there is some ambiguity between the two rounds. A .357 Magnum revolver can chamber and shoot a .38 Special safely. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. For those who know, it’s easy to understand the relationship between the two cartridges.

In this article we aim to explain the nuances between the two different cartridges. In our .38 Special vs. .357 Magnum article you will learn everything you need to know about the differences and similarities between the two cartridges as well as the use cases that favor the .38 Special and those that favor the .357 Magnum. After reading this article you’ll be in the know about the cartridges.

If you are already an experienced user of the cartridges, this article will introduce you to some spectacular rounds for the guns that have very specific use cases. It’s worth the read for that alone.

.38 Special vs. .357

General Information about the .38 Special 

The .38 Special was America’s police cartridge (The FBI used them too) for the better part of 70 years. And by better part, we mean a couple years shy of 70 years. In fact, there are still cops out there that probably carry a .38 Special as a primary duty weapon. We KNOW there are cops out there who use it daily and for off duty as a backup weapon or a primary concealed carry gun.

The .38 Special is still potent enough to outdo a lot of smaller guns ballistically. It is still able to effectively be carried as a concealed carry weapon. Though, admittedly, it is not as potent compared to some of the other cartridges that exist in the world of self-defense shooting. It is used to shoot out of ultra-compact revolvers for dedicated self defense concealed carry.

The average range for the ballistics of a .38 Special as stated (static ballistics) is about: 775-950 feet per second and 190-275 pound feet of energy out of the standard loads. For the +P models it’s a range of about 975-1175 fps and 275-350 pound feet of energy at the muzzle. It’s not as anemic as some people would have you believe but it’s also not on the same tier as some dedicated threat stopping duty and personal defense rounds.

General Information about the .357 Magnum  

The .357 Magnum was introduced in 1934 and has ever since, been a potent handgun caliber for hunting, police and law enforcement duty weapons and self-defense type scenarios. That said, they were not always considered as often in police issued weapons due to the harder to handle recoil and the substantial power of the round. That isn’t to say that the .357 Magnum isn’t clearly a better threat stopper than .38 Special – it most certainly is.

There are many aspects that go into choosing a duty cartridge for the law enforcement agency, and the officer’s comfort level and ability to handle the weapon, while stopping threats and not causing legal liability are a couple of those standards for comparison.  

While it wasn’t the perfect choice for all the law enforcement agencies in the United States, it has served as one of the most popular rounds in the last 80 years. The massive credentials the cartridge has makes it still, to this day, one of the most impressive “bang for the buck” rounds for pure ballistics performance.  

Generally, one can expect the following static ballistic delivery from the .357 Magnum:  The velocity ranges from about 1200-1625 feet per second and the muzzle energy is between 400-725 ft. lbs. The numbers are quite impressive.

Compared to the .38 special it becomes clear that the .357 Magnum has some advantages to the .38.

.38 Special vs. .357-comparison

Why choose the .357 Magnum over the .38 Special?

You would ordinarily favor the .357 Magnum load over the .38 Special in a use case that required, faster shooting, more penetration; better terminal ballistics or further accurate shooting. Furthermore, the .357 Magnum has the capability of being used very effectively out of a lever gun for hunting and general shooting.

So, the following use cases make more sense for a .357 Magnum than for a .38 Special:

  • Hunting of intermediate or large game animals
  • Personal or home defense
  • Duty weapons
  • Longer range target work (past 50 yards)

Why Choose the .38 Special over the .357 Magnum?

You would ordinarily favor the .38 Special over the .357 Magnum in a use case that needed lower recoil profile, a faster follow up shot, or better handling for those who are small framed or lack grip integrity. You might also favor a .38 Special for times when the frame or component parts of the gun are not compatible with +P or Magnum loads, so you can shoot standard ammunition.

Such is the case with many of the ultra-lightweight; ultra-concealable .38 Special revolvers that cost a half or two-thirds of what a comparably sized .357 Magnum costs.

.38 Special does have some specialty rounds, that can be used in either a .357 Magnum or a .38 Special firearm, but the choice of ammunition would be in .38 Special for some of these rounds.

Use the .38 Special when you want:

  • Cheaper shooting ammo
  • Less recoil
  • Adequate target performance but not the other aspects of the .357
  • An old familiar shooting experience

A note about Magnum and +P cartridges

An over pressure load is designated by a “+P” designation – denoting “+ Pressure”. These rounds are significantly higher in pressure at the chamber/breech/forcing cone, and they can be dangerous if they are used in a gun that is not rated for use with +P ammunition.

Specifically, this affects the small framed revolvers that are chambered for the .38 Special. Many shooters feel the .38 Special is a weak round; they prefer to shoot the +P version, but not all of the small framed revolvers chambered for the .38 Special are adequately built to handle that additional pressure.

You can verify that your firearm is capable (or is not capable) of shooting the +P rounds by looking in your owner’s manual. If it is not in the manual or you are unsure, consulting with a firearms expert will help you determine the viability of your gun to shoot the ammunition.

The best .38 Special ammunition and .357 Magnum ammunition

In the following list we will select several top-quality options for shooters of each of the two calibers, so they can be introduced to some very good choices for ammunition if they aren’t already familiar with it.

1. Hornady Critical Defense Handgun Ammo

Hornady Critical Defense Handgun Ammo

Probably the best mix and balance of any defense-oriented ammunition throughout an entire lineup, this is a particularly good choice for the .38 Special +P round. It is not the fastest and doesn’t have the most static energy available for transfer; it doesn’t have the deepest penetration but given all the characteristics that are desirable for a .38 Special, combined with excellent quality control and excellent component parts, this is about the best balance you can find for reliable performance in a self-defense setting. NOTE: THIS IS A +P LOADING.

Pros:

  • Optimized for human targets

Cons:

  • Expensive

This is best for:

Self Defense and Concealed carry for shooting when you need a potent round.


2. Hornady Critical Defense Lite

​Hornady Critical Defense Lite

For those that need a non +P load, for the lightweight revolvers or for those who don’t appreciate the nuances of excess recoil, this load is an excellent choice. As an added bonus, it supports breast cancer research and has a novel pink plug in the end of the projectile. If you can forgive Hornady for jumping on the bandwagon of the “pink tax” marketing campaign, this is an excellent round for many users of lightweight revolvers for concealed carry, or gasp! – a purse gun.

Pros:

  • Fast, and hard hitting given the loads limitations
  • Lower recoil for better performance

Cons:

  • Pink tax is annoying; oddly gender specific marketing campaigns can at times be annoying
  • Low projectile weight – which can be seen as either a PRO or a CON depending on your perspective

This is best for:

Small defensive revolvers, with lightweight frames that cannot accommodate +P loadouts. Also, this is excellent for those that need low recoil and good performance.


3. Winchester Bonded PDX1 Handgun Ammunition

Winchester Bonded PDX1 Handgun Ammunition

This is the culmination of 150+ years of experience in developing self-defense and duty ammunition and Winchester has pulled out all the stops to deliver a product that is super premium, with a performance that most other cartridges are jealous of. Yes, there are other loads that can do well in concealed carry, but none of them are as well put together as this cartridge when you look at all facets of design and performance.

Pros:

  • Well balanced and performs extremely well
  • Fit and finish and quality control for this line are second to none.

Cons:

  • Expensive

This is best for:

Home Defense and Personal Defense in a Carry situation, when you need the ultimate in stopping power and need ultimate reliability and are aware of the surroundings.


4. Barnes VOR-TX

Barnes VOR-TX

An all copper projectile retains the most weight of any projectile type, while offering excellent penetration through the bones, heavy muscle and thick hides of tough game like hogs, and other intermediate sized game. The fast velocity and lightweight bullet offer significant penetration, while the exceptionally uniform expansion creates a wide wound channel for maximum blood loss.

The hard-hitting copper bullet still offers maximum stopping power despite being lighter weight than some competing projectiles. Satisfies most jurisdictional regulations for larger game hunting with the hollow point, all copper projectile and power/ballistics.

Pros:

  • All copper projectile
  • Heavy energy transfer and excellent penetration in tough animals

Cons:

  • Pricey

This is best for:

Intermediate and large game hunting for the .357 magnum out of a revolver. This is a contender for the best 357 Magnum ammo for hunting of tough animals at moderate ranges due to the penetration potential and the hard copper projectile that offers extreme reliability in the mushrooming and diameter expansion.


Conclusion

The differences between the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum can be subtle, but they can also be pronounced, depending on your perspective on the matter. In the end it’s not a case of the .38 Special vs. .357 Magnum, rather it’s about which one makes sense at the time you need it. We could find many reasons to ONLY buy a .38 Special firearm.

We could also easily convince ourselves that the only revolver worth having between the two calibers is a .357 Magnum, because it can fit both rounds and gives you more versatility, but it’s not that cut and dry.

Many shooters own both a .38 Special and a .357 Magnum, and they bring them both to the range at the same time to shoot together. Someone somewhere may be getting anxiety about that sentence. But it’s true, they are both unique, fun to shoot and useful in many ways. There is something special about the .38 Special, and it’s not just the fact that a lot of people used to use it to throw on their hips while they were hunting bad guys.

The same can be said about .357 magnum. It’s got this certain thing about it. It’s muscular and powerful and yet, reassuring and comfortable for shooters. It’s a performance-based cartridge that has always just been awesome. Forget that now a .357 Sig or 10mm exists that basically matches the same performance out of a shorter cartridge, that’s not the point.

The case could be made for either cartridge and when you put them up against each other it’s kind of like a boxing match you wish turns out as a draw.

The .357 Magnum makes sense when you need more power, more penetration or more stopping power. The .38 Special makes sense when you need milder recoil, easy shooting and more fun just playing around shooting targets. They are substantially similar, and yet so distinctly different.