The Problem With Short Barrel .38 Specials

This is a guest post by Andrew BettsSnub nosed revolvers

Your Snubby Could Get You Killed

Snub nosed revolvers are still wildly popular for concealed carry and for good reason. They are very compact and lightweight and they are reliable and safe. While they are difficult to master, they are exceedingly easy to operate. The fixed barrel means that if you find yourself in a tangled pile with some foul smelling miscreant, you don’t have to worry that the gun will to fire if it is pressed into flesh. Most of all, it is very convenient to slip an alloy frame revolver and a speed strip in a pocket and go about your day.

These short barrel revolvers are probably most often chambered in .38 special. The .38 spl was a substantial improvement over .38 S&W but it still wanders along at relatively low velocity, when compared to more modern cartridges that were designed for smokeless powder. Even with Snub nosed revolversmodern powders and strong revolvers rated for +P ammunition, the cartridge is right on the ragged edge of performance. It’s a good thing that we have modern, high tech jacketed hollow point bullets available for it, right?

One of the most highly regarded self defense loads for 2” revolvers is the Speer Gold Dot 135 gr +P short barrel. It was specifically designed to get the most velocity out of that short barrel and uses a bullet that is optimized for expansion at lower velocity. When I tested this load in calibrated 10% ballistic gelatin a couple years ago, I expected that the test would simply confirm the data available from ATK. That’s not what happened at all, though. I was surprised to discover that the bullet did not expand at all. Nothing.

125 & 135 gr Gold Dot

Neither did the 125 gr +P Gold Dot that I tested on the same day. How could this be? Had I done something wrong? This is some of the best ammunition available from one of the best ammunition manufacturers. The weather on the day I tested was about 40 degrees and both the ammunition and the revolver had been in a range bag in the back of my truck on the way out to our top secret test site.

Cold powder doesn’t generate as much pressure as warm powder and this is seen in the velocities from that test. The 135 gr load impacted at 783 fps, which was substantially slower than it was when I retested the ammo on a warmer day. In that test, it produced 880 fps. I thought it might have just been a fluke, that with more shots fired it might be able to perform better, so I retested it on a warmer day but left the revolver and ammo in the refrigerator overnight and in the cooler until immediately before testing. This time I fired two shots from the cold revolver into the gelatin and both failed to expand.

After leaving the gun and ammo in my hot little pocket to warm up, the ammo performed better, but the expansion still wasn’t perfect from the short barrel. It did just fine out of a 4” revolver but this was supposed to be specifically designed for 2” revolvers and it still wasn’t really doing the trick.

Snub nosed revolvers

Knowing that even top of the line .38 spl ammunition might fail when it is cold, when I tested Winchester’s PDX1 .38 spl load, I decided that it would be important to test it with cold ammunition. I was not surprised at all that it failed to expand when it was cold did surprise me was that it completely failed to expand when it was warm. It, too only functioned properly when it was fired from a longer barrel. This was getting to be a little disturbing.

Snub nosed revolvers

There is some good news, though, and it might surprise you. Sometimes “new” doesn’t necessarily mean “improved.” Buffalo Bore produces a very old school 158 gr LSWCHP +P. That long string of letters stands for “lead semi wad cutter hollow point”. It is an amped up version of the famous “FBI load”. It has a gas check on the base, a very substantial crimp, and a nice deep, wide cavity. It doesn’t look cool or tactical and it doesn’t even have holograms on the box, but it gets the job done.

When I tested it I put the revolver and the ammo in a Ziploc sandwich bag and stuck it in the ice water at the bottom of the cooler to be sure to that it had no unfair temperature advantage over the other .38 spl loads I tested. This accidentally produced a sort of inclement weather test as well, because the water leaked into the bag and both ammunition and revolver were soaked. Despite being colder, wetter, and more miserable than the ammo in previous tests, this load expanded perfectly. It produced 960 fps, which is substantially faster than either the 135 gr Speer or the 130 gr Winchester, even though the Buffalo Bore load is much heavier. Snub nosed revolvers

It does have fairly strong recoil for a .38 spl, but as a wise man once said, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” It may not be a good idea to shoot these in your revolver regularly, either. They have to be pretty hard on the gun.

It’s important to make a few notes here. The first is that even if ammunition doesn’t expand, it doesn’t turn into Nerf darts, either. While JHP that fails to expand is not as effective and is likely to take longer to incapacitate, it will still air out a bad guy.

It’s also important to remember that these tests represent a worst case scenario. If you carry a revolver inside the waistband, the gun and ammo will always be around 90°F and should function normally. If you carry that revolver in a jacket pocket or purse, as many do, or if you leave it in a center console or glove box in your car, you may want to reconsider your ammunition choices.

Lastly, my testing should not be confused with proper laboratory testing. I make every attempt to follow the same protocols as the professionals as closely as I can manage in field conditions but I have neither the time nor the resources to control conditions as well as they do. I also have not conducted the tests with a statistically relevant sample size. Lastly, this is in no way a comprehensive accounting of every defense oriented .38 spl load on the market. I do hope it has provided some food for thought.


Andrew Betts served with the Arizona National Guard for over 12 years, including a tour to Afghanistan.  Visit his YouTube Channel for more great shooting information.

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