If you quickly glance at 38 Special and 357 Magnum ammo, you might not notice any differences and think they were the same round. Although they are almost identical in their case dimensions, the 38 Special and 357 Magnum are extremely different.
Both revolver rounds are superb choices for concealed carry and self-defense, as they were used by multiple law enforcement agencies well into the 1990s and have proven their efficacy on the streets time and time again.
Let’s take a deeper dive into these two legendary revolver cartridges and discover what’s so great about wheel guns!
What’s the Difference Between 357 and 38?
If you’re familiar with handgun caliber nomenclature, you’d understand that the caliber is often listed in the cartridge name. For example, the 45 ACP fires a 45-caliber bullet while the 40 Smith & Wesson fires a 40-caliber bullet.
This is not the case when it comes to 38 Special and 357 Magnum. You’d think by the name that they fire different caliber bullets, however, they both fire an identical .357” bullet diameter.
The “38” in 38 Special comes from the diameter of the cartridge case, which is .379” wide, while 357 Magnum is named via the standard caliber method.
These two revolver cartridges are identical in their case dimensions except for length, where the 357 Magnum is 1/8 of an inch longer, which brings A LOT of new shooters to the question:
Can a 38 Special revolver shoot 357 Magnum rounds?
NO! You should NEVER shoot a 357 Magnum round out of a 38 Special revolver or carbine.
A 38 Special revolver is NOT rated to handle the higher pressure 357 Magnum loads produce. However, you can safely shoot 38 Special from any 357 Magnum revolver you own since 38 Special loads create considerably less pressure.
Looking at the spec chart, you’ll notice that the 357 Mag and the 38 Special are almost identical except for two major dimensions. The case length of the 357 Magnum is 1/8 of an inch longer and has a maximum pressure that is twice that of 38 Special. This is the reason that you should never fire a 357 Mag out of a 38 Special revolver because the chamber pressure of the 357 can cause a catastrophic failure that could damage the firearm and/or the shooter.
To prevent this from happening, Smith and Wesson elongated the 357 Magnum case so that it would not chamber in a 38 Special cylinder or in a 38 Special lever-action carbine.
As both cartridge headspace off the rim, you can load 38 Special into a 357 Magnum revolver without issue.
The amount of recoil a shooter’s wrists will have to endure will be dependent upon several criteria: handgun weight, muzzle velocity (FPS), and bullet weight.
As the 38 Special and 357 Mag fire the same bullet diameter, the bullet weight that each fire will be the same. Handgun weight is up to the personal choice of the shooter, as a lightweight Taurus 856 snubnose will have more felt recoil than a Smith and Wesson Model 629 6-inch barreled steel hunting revolver.
Therefore, the determining factor when it comes to recoil will be the muzzle velocity. And when it comes to being the King of FPS, the 357 Magnum takes the crown.
Modern 357 Magnum ammo is designed to fire a 158-grain bullet at a muzzle velocity of 1,235 FPS and a target thumping 535 ft-lbs of muzzle energy. Compare that to the 38 Special, which fires the same bullet weight at 755 FPS and has a muzzle energy of 200 ft-lbs, which is less than a 45 ACP.
The ballistics numbers simply don’t lie, 357 Magnum loads are high velocity and will have considerably more recoil than a 38 Special.
Because of this, many shooters opt to practice using the 38 Special cartridge as it has less recoil and is more comfortable to shoot and load up for personal defense with jacketed hollow point (JHP) 357 magnum rounds.
Before we get into the topic of stopping power, it is important to acknowledge the special loads of the 38 Special that have been developed to improve its ballistics and home defense capability. These high-velocity variants were developed to push the limits of the 38 Special cartridge.
38 Special Hi-Speed (.38/44): Developed by Smith & Wesson, the 38 Hi Speed was designed to be fired out of the stronger and larger N-Frame revolver. Only 3 bullet weights were offered: 110 gr, 150 gr, and 158 gr. To compare this to standard 158 grain weight 38 Special, the Hi Speed variant travels at 1,125 FPS, an increase of 370 FPS or almost 50%.
38 Special +P: The 38 Special +P is perhaps the most widely used 38 Special round for self-defense and concealed carry. Developed out of necessity as law enforcement officers in the 1960’s were reporting lackluster terminal performance of standard loads, the 38 Special +P was designed to increase the stopping power of the 38 Special round. The +P designation refers to higher pressure. 38 Special +P is rated at a maximum pressure of 20,000 psi (14% increase) and increases average muzzle velocity to 1,000 FPS (32% increase)
The FBI Load: The FBI developed its own special version of the 38 Special +P in 1972. This variant utilized a bear lead semi-wadcutter hollow point (LSWCHP) instead of traditional jacketed hollow point ammo. Ballistic gel test results were impressive, and this round was credited with increasing the “one-shot stops” reported by field agents.
38 Special +P+ (AKA the Treasury Load): The Treasury Load was a joint operation between Winchester and Federal to meet the demands of the Treasury Department. The Treasury Department likes to push the limits on handgun cartridges as well as modern monetary theory, as the Treasury Load features a max pressure of 22,500 psi (28% increase over standard) and can push a 110-grain bullet at 1,200 fps from a 4-inch barrel or 1,100 fps from a snubnose with a 2-inch barrel. Don’t even consider using an aluminum or scandium framed revolver for these rounds as a full steel frame is required to handle the higher pressures of +P+ ammo.
Stopping power is always a subjective subject as it cannot be quantified. And if you want to talk about controversy, look no further than firearms forums and do a handgun caliber search. You’ll find proponents of each caliber who are willing to come to digital blows to defend their favorite handgun cartridge.
However, when it comes to 357 Magnum vs 38 Special, the ballistics numbers tell the tale. Although it’s not double, 357 Magnum loads simply outperform 38 Special in every category…and it does so by a country mile.
38 Special +P ammo does help close the gap, but even then, it’s still not even close to coming to the raw, unadulterated power offered by the 357 Mag. The 357 simply has more muzzle velocity, energy, and better terminal ballistics compared to the 38 Special.
Does that mean the 38 Special is ineffective? Definitely not!
As mentioned before, 38 Special +P is an excellent personal defense round and it will stop the bad guy so long as you do your part.
However, the 357 Mag will just do it a bit better, so it gets the nod for stopping power.
Trajectory is not something that we often discuss when comparing handgun rounds. However, as the 357 Magnum can be used for longer-range shots, it’s something that should be discussed. As the 357 Magnum has higher muzzle velocity, it has a flatter trajectory compared to 38 Special.
The high velocity allows the bullet to reach its target faster, reducing the amount of time gravity has to pull the projectile towards the earth. This makes 357 Magnum a potent hunting round.
The 357 Magnum is an extremely capable hunting round, regardless of if it’s fired from a revolver or a rifle.
It is more than powerful enough to take down a whitetail and even a black bear (though I’d prefer a 44 Magnum for this) with proper shot placement and bullet selection. If your state allows it, you can take your 357 Magnum revolver out into the woods for a different kind of whitetail hunt than you’re used to.
As always, do your research on the ideal hunting round as you want excellent penetration and expansion to ensure a clean kill.
Self-Defense and Concealed Carry
In my experience, home defense and concealed carry are two very distinct talking points so we will address them separately.
When it comes to carrying a handgun concealed for personal defense, there are many aspects to consider. Ease of carriage, accuracy, effective terminal ballistics (sorry .22 LR), and reliability. Many shooters will rank those categories in different orders, however, I believe the most important thing you should consider is that you want to have a handgun that you will actually EDC consistently. Herein lies the problem many shooters don’t like to discuss: the relationship between handgun weight and ease of concealed carry.
And trust me, I get it.
It sure is comfortable to do some target shooting with your Smith and Wesson 4-inch 686 loaded up with some wadcutter 38 Special ammo. Even shooting 357 Magnum loads out of it is not too oppressive to the wrists, but are you really going EDC a nearly 40 oz stainless steel revolver (that’s heavier than a 1911 if you were wondering)?
I’m sure there are some hardcore revolver CCW permit holders out there who carry a medium to full-size revolver every day, and to that, I salute you. But it takes a lot of planning in terms of your wardrobe and carry system to handle all that weight and not print when you bend over or sit down.
However, many concealed carry permit holders are going to favor a snubnose revolver over a full size for the ease of carrying a lighter and smaller gun. Your average snubnose runs about 16 oz, about 60% lighter than the Model 686.
But that lightweight build comes with its own tradeoffs, it’s a breeze to carry but the recoil is considerable.
Now, I understand that during a personal defense situation it is unlikely you will care how hard your revolver recoils as the adrenaline dump will numb you to pain. However, you will not have this luxury when you are practicing, and you should ALWAYS shoot at least one cylinder’s worth of your preferred JHP defense round every time you are at the range. Not only does this confirm function, but it prepares you for what it’s like to shoot real magnum loads.
After shooting a cylinder or two of hollow point ammo through your snubnose, many shooters feel that it is not worth the added pain to carry 357 Mag ammo and favor 38 Special +P instead. From a ballistic standpoint, it’s clear that 357 Magnum is superior to 38 Special +P. However, the 38 Special +P round has proven itself to be an effective defense round many times over.
Although I believe the proper choice would be to carry 357 Magnum ammo, if you can’t hit the broadside of a barn due to developing a subconscious trigger jerk from recoil anticipation, then it clearly isn’t the best choice.
The simple answer is that you need to be honest with yourself about your marksmanship skills and trigger discipline when shooting a magnum load vs a 38 +P. If you are more accurate with the +P load and don’t have the confidence in your skills to handle a full power 357 Mag, then carry 38 Special +P confidently and trust that if you do your part, the 38 Special +P will do the rest.
Now home defense is another matter entirely. Unlike concealed carry, handgun weight is simply not a factor to consider. I would suggest that a heavier gun will be more ideal for home defense due to it having less recoil and allowing for faster follow-up shots.
For home defense I thoroughly endorse using a 357 Magnum. Because when my family’s life is threatened, I want as much power as I can handle to stop the threat as quickly as possible.
Some naysayers might contest that the 357 Magnum has a propensity to over-penetrate, and this would be true with lead round nose, FMJ, or semi-wadcutter ammo. However, with premium hollow point ammo such as Winchester PDX1, Remington Golden Saber, or Speer Gold Dots you should not experience overpenetration.
A 38 Special +P is also a fine choice for home defense as its lower recoil will allow for faster follow-up shots, but for me I’m picking the 357 Magnum because I want that raw stopping power in a confined space like a home.
Cost and Availability
When it comes to price, 38 Special will typically always be less expensive than 357 Mag. This applies to both handguns and ammo.
For 38 Special practice ammo, such as lead round nose or wadcutters, you should expect to pay about $0.60/round while premium hollow point ammo will run around $1.50/round and up at the time of writing. 357 Magnum prices will be about 50-75% higher if not double that of 38 Special.
This trend is consistent with handgun prices as well. Typically, 38 Special revolvers will be about 50% cheaper as they have lighter construction because the 38 is a lower pressure round. In contrast, the high pressure 357 Mag requires rigid construction and a stronger frame to handle the excess pressure and recoil generated by the magnum round.
In terms of availability, any handgun manufacturer which produces revolvers will have offering in both calibers. The 38 Special and 357 Mag are the two most popular revolver calibers and as such, you will not lack for options when it comes to handguns.
Smith and Wesson, Colt, and Ruger are two of the premier revolver manufacturers, and their prices reflect this heritage. For more budget friendly revolvers, you can look to firearm companies like Taurus, EAA, and Charter Arms.
As for ammo, every manufacturer has multiple lines of 38 Special and 357 Magnum. You will not lack for options when it comes to factory loads for either cartridge.