Not long ago, the go-to firearm for law enforcement & self-defense was a revolver. However, times have changed and there are now a variety of other firearms available. .38 Special and 9mm have been the two most popular choices for defensive handguns for almost a century. But in recent times, 9mm has become increasingly preferred to the former. It’s thus pertinent to compare the two cartridges and understand which one might suit your specific requirements better.

An interesting aspect of the .38 Special and 9mm rounds is that they both entered the shooting world within a decade of each other. The .38 Special ammunition was developed in response to the U.S. Army’s experience with the shorter .38 Long Colt cartridge in the Spanish-American War where it had limited success against the Mora tribe in the Philippines. This prompted them to search for a more suitable replacement for their sidearm. Indeed, the .45 ACP round and the 1911 handgun were adopted by the US Army in 1911. But other military forces still had a need for revolvers due to their longevity, versatility and accuracy. Hence, they were still widely used back then.


In 1899, the Military & Police revolver was introduced by Smith and Wesson, which featured the .38 Special cartridge. Two years later, Georg Luger improved it further by creating the 9x19mm cartridge – commonly known as a ‘9 mil’ today. The introduction of the “wonder nine” revolutionized the 9mm round, making it the de facto caliber for law enforcement agencies and surpassing the .38 Special round in popularity.

caliber of choice for law enforcement agencies. 

Recently, though, there’s been a renewed interest in revolvers, especially when used as a pocket pistol or in deep concealment situations. There are advantages to using a wheelgun for pocket carry. The lumpy shape of a revolver means your pistol won’t scream “gun”  as it rests inside a holster in your pocket. The operation of a revolver isn’t affected if it makes contact with your clothing or the bad guy when fired, a useful feature in a pocket gun. Lastly, the lower round count of a revolver isn’t that big of a deal in a gun that’s meant to be used as a backup or in extreme situations. 

All of these factors have sparked a renewed interest in .38 Special and the advantages of .38 Special vs. 9mm. Let’s begin by looking at some of the upfront differences between .38 Special vs 9mm.


9mm is quickly becoming one of the most popular centerfire cartridges due to its affordability and ease of use. While .38 Special is still widely used, 9mm offers an impressive range of capabilities for less money, making it an ideal choice for shooters who are looking to save money while still maintaining their practice regimen. With fewer rounds needed per session, shooting 9mm can make your practice time more efficient and effective.


Granted, it’s a bit harder to find 9mm ammo since the Walmart ammo ban of 2019, but you get the idea. Every self-respecting gun shop is going to have some sort of 9mm ammo on their shelves, and there’s a wide variety of bullet sizes, weights and types for sale on our site as I type this. .38 Special is very popular as well. However, the sheer demand for 9mm ammo means that you’ll see fewer varieties of .38 Special vs 9mm either online or in-person.


Did you know that 9mm revolvers are quite common in competitive shooting, such as USPSA and IDPA? It’s a great choice for recreational and competitive shooters alike.For both sports, there is a minimum power requirement for handguns, and the typical 115 grain 9mm FMJ meets that criterion.Contrary to this, the standard 130 or 135 grain FMJ round of .38 Special is not enough; hence, competitors tend to use +P ammunition, switch their revolver to something in .357 Magnum or shoot using a 9mm revolver and reload it with moon clips.

We won’t try to distinguish between carbines and rifles for now, so let’s leave that debate for another time. AR-pattern guns chambered in 9mm are the de facto standard in the  Pistol Caliber Carbine (PCC) division of USPSA, and lever-action rifles chambered in .38 Special are very common in the sport of Cowboy Action Shooting. 


Two service guns and two small carry guns, one of each is chambered in 38 Special and 9mm

.38 Special stopped many a felon in its day, and 9mm is the current defensive round of choice for armed citizens, law enforcement and the military. But is 9mm that much better? To find out the effectiveness of .38 Special vs 9mm as a defensive round, we’ll shoot five rounds each from four different guns into blocks of clear ballistics gel. 

We will be testing with Speer Gold Dots, a popular choice when it comes to defensive rounds. The .38 Special will be loaded with 130 grain ammunition and the 9mm guns with 147 grain bullets. Today, the .38 Special is a very common bullet used in snub-nosed revolvers, as well as guns with longer barrels. To test this assertion, we’ll use a Ruger LCR (1.87 inch barrel) and compare it to the Sccy CPX-2 (3.1 inch barrel). To compare performance, we will be using the same ammunition from both Smith & Wesson M&P and Glock 19 handguns with 4-inch & 4.02-inch barrels respectively– the standard sizes for service pistols.


Barrel LengthAvg Vel (FPS)Muzzle Energy (ft/lbs)Avg Penetration (in)Bullet Width (inches)
.38 Special Ruger LCR1.8785420213.80.46
.38 Special S&W M+P490922913.5.047
9mm Sccy CPX-33.190226614.50.58
9mm Glock 194.0299232116.90.56
During our testing of the .38 Special vs 9mm defense ammunition, two major contrasts were observed: the expansion of the round when it entered the medium and the penetration into its target. It’s evident that all the rounds we tested met or exceeded the standard penetration depth of 12 inches set by FBI in gel. All of them are excellent options as a defensive pistol. The 9mm ammo may have gone deeper, but it still came under the required minimum limit mandated by FBI.

While the expansion of bullets may vary between .38 Special and 9mm, the 147 grain 9mm rounds usually expanding an extra 0.1 inch more than 130 grain .38 Special rounds on average.With a larger expansion, each bullet has a much higher potential to cause extensive tissue damage as it travels through the body, reaching the vital parts that can put an end to the threat. Although it is helpful to have the extra damage, research has shown that shots targeting the eye or chest region are usually more effective at disabling a threat. Ultimately, while bullet expansion is beneficial, accuracy and shot placement are key. but expansion that doesn’t have sufficient penetration won’t be enough to stop a threat to your life. This could have been a problem with the lower-powered .38 Special cartridge, but all the rounds in our test passed the penetration test, at the expense of their overall expansion


Both 9mm and .38 Special have proven their effectiveness over the years and are reliable rounds. Ultimately, choosing between them comes down to the gun they are used in rather than their own characteristics. If you’re comfortable with semi-automatics, going for a 9mm makes more sense. For those who prefer simplicity of a revolver and can accept fewer rounds, they should stick with the .38 Special and confidently carry it around. Leveraging the power of contemporary firearms and the precision of modern ammunition, you will have a gun and ammo combination ready to serve you when you need it most. This formidable ‘1-2 punch’ is what every shooter should have in their arsenals.

Author: admin