.38 Special vs. .38 Super

We’ve been covering all the different types of ammunition out there and the specialties associated with them. So far, we’ve covered a variety of .22s, .45s, +P vs. +P+, and today we’re moving onto .38 Special, vs. .38 Super. Are they different, or is it like calling A Luger 9mm, Parabellum? What’s the difference between a .357 Magnum and a .38 Special? You’d be surprised how close they are. Keep reading to find out!

.38 Special

You’re probably pretty familiar with this type of .38 ammo. But, do you know how it got the name special in there? And if it’s actually a .357 Magnum, then why do we still call it a .38? Let’s start with a little history.

.38 special came about in 1898, so it’s been around (pun intended) for quite some time. Initially, it was supposed to be a replacement for the 38 Long Colt. Why? Because the military, which the replacement was intended for, wanted something with improved stopping power. 

Originally a low-pressure cartridge with a black powder load, .38 special has really come along. You can find pretty high-pressure loads, around 17,000 PSI.

38 Special
.38 Special revolver cartridge. SP bullet. Manufacturer: Sellier & Bellot. Photo Credit: Malis/Wikimedia Commons

+P .38 Ammo

And since we’re talking pressure, let me refer you back to one of our earlier blogs on +P ammo. There is +P .38 Special ammunition. This means you get more muzzle energy or kinetic energy, and that increases velocity to 20,000 PSI. Remember, though, every brand of ammunition is different, so while the manufacture may claim a certain velocity, it’s the potential velocity, and the quality and your environment can dictate the results.


+P+ .38 Ammo

If you think you want more than 20,000 PSI, there’s also +P+, overpressure .38 ammo, and that has you working with 22,000 PSI. Many guns can’t be used due to the dangers of 22,000 PSI in a small .38 barrel. We recommend always reading your manual or asking a gunsmith about your brand of the pistol before you try to load up some +P+ ammo. Too much pressure in a barrel of lesser quality could hurt or kill the shooter or anyone close to the shooter. 

Note: For those of you who haven’t read the +P vs. +P+ ammo blog, keep in mind, not all firearms can stand the internal pressure of this type of ammunition. If you have an older firearm, there’s a greater chance it can’t handle the load. Ensure you check your owner/user’s manual or call the firearm’s manufacturer to confirm if it’s safe to shoot +P or +P+ through your particular gun.

Liberty .38 Special Civil Defense

.357 Magnum

What’s so special about this particular round, though, it’s not just the improved stopping power; it’s in its diameter. .38 is a reference to the case’s diameter. And a .38, really a .357, can be chambered in more than one revolver; a .38 Short Colt and a .38 Long Colt can accept your .38 Special, and so can a .357 Magnum. The .357 Magnum can load more power to give it at least 35,000 PSI versus the 22,000 for the +P+ .38 Special. Anyone will tell you that firing a .357 Magnum hits like a ton of bricks versus the felt-recoil of a .38 Special. Make sure you decide what you want out of a bullet before choosing between a .38 Special and .357 Magnum. A .357 Magnum has double the stopping power of a .38 Special, but it also has double the kick and muzzle flip. 

.38 Special | Revolver and Semi-Auto Ammo

Most well-known is the .38 Special for the revolver. However, there are some semi-autos that chamber .38 Special. One thing .38 Special is not is interchangeable with .38 Super. If your pistol takes .38 Super, don’t try firing .38 Special through it and vice versa. It sounds like common sense, but it’s still a question many folks new to the gun/ammo community ask.

at Primary Arms
Prices accurate at time of writing

.38 Super

.38 Super, unlike .38 Special, wasn’t made for revolvers; it was made for ACP. .38 Super isn’t quite as old as Special, born about 25 years later in the 1920s, it’s a lightweight, accurate round with high energy, and it’s great for reducing recoil between its weight and compensator.

If you’re interested in learning more about ACP, make sure to read our blog, .45 Long Colt vs. 45 ACP Ammunition.

What’s so super about Super? Maybe that it has armor-piercing capabilities, that it can reach velocities between 1,215-1,440 fps? That’s higher than the velocity of .38 ACP, typically seen between 1,040 and 1,150 fps.

.38 Super Velocity and Performance

When it comes to performance, .38 super has it. Between the high energy and flat trajectory, it ends up leaving you with a pretty accurate round for shot placement. If you didn’t know it, the velocity, which helps with performance, can be greater in a .38 Super than some 9mm defense loads. And because of its performance, .38 super is often used in competition shoots, such as with the IPSC, and makes for a great self-defense round.

at Primary Arms
Prices accurate at time of writing

Table of Contents

  • .38 Special
  • +P .38 Ammo
  • +P+ .38 Ammo
  • .357 Magnum
  • .38 Special | Revolver and Semi-Auto Ammo
  • .38 Super
  • .38 Super Velocity and Performance

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