.38 Super vs .38 Special

.38 Super vs .38 Special: Which One To Choose and Why?

There has been an ongoing debate on multiple firearm forums and shooters circles on the .38 Super vs .38 Special topic.

Different shooters and firearms experts have aired their opinions and views regarding the use of the two rounds and their applications. However, most people still find themselves at crossroads since the info given on these cartridges is minimal.

To lay this matter to rest once and for all, we decided to conduct comprehensive research on the .38 Super and .38 Special rounds. In the following guide, we’ll take you through an in-depth analysis of the two to help you decide which one suits your needs.

Quick overview:

(i) .38 Super

The .38 (also referred to as .38 Super Auto) is simply a pistol cartridge used to fire the 9.04mm bullet. It was introduced in the 1920s as an improvement (with higher pressure loading) over the old .38 ACP. Unlike the old .38 ACP, which propelled a 130-grain bullet at 320.0 m/s, this new, improved cartridge could do it at 390.1 m/s.


Fast forward, the .38 Super has become the caliber of choice for most pistol match competitions, including the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC).

(ii) .38 Special

The .38 Special (also referred to as .38spc or .38spl) is a rimmed, centerfire cartridge that’s commonly used in revolvers. It was designed by Smith & Wesson in 1898 as a replacement for the .38 Long Colt as it had better penetration power. Though named .38, this cartridge’s precise caliber is the .357 (it gets its name “.38” from its approx. case diameter).


Fast forward, the cartridge enjoys a spot on the list of the most popular revolver cartridge due to its manageable recoil and accuracy. It enjoys extensive usage in target shooting, target competition, hunting small game, and even self-defense.


We have listed the specifications of the two cartridges in table form below to help you easily compare them.

Specifications .38 Super .38 Special
Parent case 38 ACP / Auto .38 long colt
Case type semi-rimmed or rimless, straight Rimmed, straight
Case length 0.900 inch 1.155 inches
Case capacity 1.14 cubic cm 1.53 cubic cm
Overall length 1.280 inches 1.55 inches
Bullet diameter 0.356 inches 0.357 inches
Neck diameter 0.384 inches 0.379 inches
Base diameter 0.384 inches 0.370 inches
Rim diameter 0.406 inches 0.44 inches
Rim thickness 0.050 inches 0.058 inches
Maximum pressure 36,500 psi 22,000 psi


(i) .38 Super

Because .38 super comes with a large case volume, it holds a good amount of smokeless powder, which translates to high muzzle velocity. You’d be surprised to know that it performs even better than the 9×19mm Parabellum in some defense loadings.

Overall, .38 Super is considered to be a well-balanced cartridge that packs pretty high muzzle energy, remarkable accuracy, and flat trajectory. This explains why it’s one of the dominant calibers in IPSC competitions.

(ii) .38 Special

As you can see from our specifications table above, the .38 Special is a low-pressure cartridge. This is due to its original black powder loading. The lowest .38 spc pressure in common use today is the 17,000psi, which propels medium-sized bullets at a really lower speed compared to .38 ACP and 9x19mm parabellum.

A higher pressure version of this cartridge loads at 22,000 psi and delivers up to a 20% increase in muzzle energy than the standard pressure loads. In comparison, it sits between .38 ACP and the 9×19 Parabellum. Keep in mind that these loads are NOT recommended for use with the older revolvers or those not specially rated as “+P.”


(i) .38 Super

As we mentioned earlier on, the .38 Super is a pistol cartridge while the .38 Special is for revolvers.


The .38 Super has gained a lot of popularity as the top caliber in most of the top pistol competitions because it comes with a more controllable recoil.

It’s even used in the planet’s second-largest shooting sport—the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC)!

The restriction of the use of .38 Super in some parts of the globe

(ii) .38 Special

.38 Special remains a popular choice for target shooting as well as formal target competition, hunting small game. It’s also a top choice for civilian revolvers, concealed carry (for folks with CWW permit), and home defense.


Though the .38 Special caliber enjoyed extensive usage in police departments in the US, very few of them now issue it as a standard-duty weapon. In most cases, you’ll find it as the popular choice for police offers for use with short-barreled revolvers when doing undercover investigations or when off-duty.


Interchangeability doesn’t apply when it comes to .38 super and .38 special. This means that you should NOT use a .38 Special on a .38 Super firearm and vice versa.

Even if you find that the profile fits perfectly, it’s dangerous to use certain ammo on firearms they’re not designed for.

As we mentioned earlier on, the two cartridges have significant pressure differences, and interchanging them will only lead to shooting failures and putting unnecessary risks to you as well as your gun.

Our Verdict

That’s all you need to know about .38 Super vs .38 Special. We have analyzed the two calibers in terms of performance, applications, and interchangeability.

We have seen that the two calibers register significant pressure differences, with the .38 super being on the higher end. The .38 has higher muzzle energy, flat trajectory, and better accuracy.

Regarding application, the .38 super is ideal for use in shooting competitions due to its manageable recoil. The .38 special is suitable for concealed carry, hunting small game, target shooting, and home defense.

Remember that you should never use the .38 cartridge in a .38 Special gun. The two are just NOT interchangeable. Their significant pressure differences can not only result in firearm failure but also impends a great risk to the shooter.

After reading this guide, you should have an easy time choosing which cartridge to use for your shooting.

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