Best 38 Special Ammo for Self Defense: Powering Up Your Revolver
I don’t know about you, but when I concealed carry a handgun, I typically go for my Glock. However, when you need deep concealment or if you simply prefer a wheelgun, you can’t go wrong with a 38 Special revolver.
Although it doesn’t have the power offered by its big brother, the 357 Magnum, the 38 Special remains one of the most popular handgun rounds on the market for target shooting, hunting, and self-defense. As the 38 Special has been on the market for over a century, it stands to reason that there are a lot of self-defense rounds available for shooters to choose from.
In this article, we are going to give you our top four 38 Special ammo choices for all your shooting needs as well as the best bulk 38 Special ammo available on the market today.
Our top 4 list is just one scroll down, however if you can’t wait, the overall best 38 Special ammo for self defense is Speer Gold Dot +P 125 gr JHP.
If you’re new to 38 Special ammunition and aren’t sure what kind you need, I’d highly recommend you read through our buyer’s guide by clicking HERE. However, if you just want to get to our top picks for the best 38 Special ammo, keep reading.
Best 38 Special Self-Defense Ammo Selections
1) Speer Gold Dot +P 125 gr JHP
2) Hornady Critical Defense 110 gr FTX
3) Underwood Ammo +P 125 gr XTP JHP
4) Federal Personal Defense 130 gr HST Micro
#1 - Speer Gold Dot +P 125 gr JHP
- Casing: Nickel-plated Brass
- Bullet Type: Jacketed Hollow Point
- Bullet Weight: 125 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 945 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 248 ft-lbs
- Proven performance from law enforcement
- Additional stopping power +P load
- Lowest price per round on our list
- Consistent, reliable hollow point expansion
- Nickel-plated cases can be problematic if you reload
Why We Chose It
When law enforcement needs consistent terminal performance in their revolver, they know to load their cylinder with Speer Gold Dot jacketed hollow point ammo. Designed with personal defense in mind, the Speer Gold Dot JHP has been the duty and carry ammo of choice for LEO and civilian CCW permit holders since its release in 1991.
The Gold Dot hollow point set the standard for performance with its revolutionary bonded jacket, which allows the bullet to retain nearly all its mass during expansion. The Gold Dot also passes all the FBI testing protocols for ideal penetration and expansion in ballistic gelatin at a varying distances and velocities.
The Gold Dot’s bullet design has been proven to minimize over-penetration, making it an excellent choice for home defense against anything that would go bump in the night.
Many shooters prefer the nickel-plated brass cases for their corrosion resistance, ease of visual identification, and slick feeding into and out of the cylinder. However, if you reload you’ll need to watch out for chipped or split cases after resizing due to the brittleness of the nickel plating.
Considering all the performance benefits the Speer Gold Dot offers, it comes in at the lowest price per round in our top 4 list, making it our top choice for the best 38 Special ammo for self-defense.
#2 – Hornady Critical Defense 110 gr FTX
- Casing: Brass
- Bullet Type: FTX Jacketed Hollow Point
- Bullet Weight: 110 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 1,010 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 249 ft-lbs
- Flex Tip prevents hollow point clogging
- Low recoil compared to Speer +P ammo
- Low flash powder ideal for indoor use or in a snub-nose revolver
- Slightly more expensive than Speer Gold Dots
Why We Chose It
Since 1949, Hornady Ammunition has been at the forefront of ballistic technology, and this is clearly demonstrated in their Critical Defense 110 grain FTX hollow point self-defense ammo.
One of the biggest detriments to traditional defensive ammunition is the hollow point getting clogged by debris or clothing. This prevents the bullet from expanding and creates a less devastating wound channel, decreasing the potential to stop the threat and increasing the probability of over-penetration.
To combat this, Hornady created their Flex Tip (FTX) hollow point bullets that have a polymer tip to protect the hollow point of the bullet. Upon impact, the FTX tip assists in initiating expansion, preventing the hollow point from becoming clogged.
One benefit of the Hornady Critical Defense 110 gr FTX 38 SPL load offers slightly lower recoil as it is a standard pressure load. Furthermore, the lower bullet weight helps reduce recoil when used in a snub-nose revolver (or snubbie for short).
Hornady has also specially formulated their powder composition to produce lower levels of muzzle flash even in revolvers with a two-inch barrel or less. This is ideal when having to fire indoors, as the muzzle flash can be distracting or ruin your night vision in a darker environment. Furthermore, the 110 grain bullet helps keep recoil low when comparing it to other + P rounds.
Although slightly more expensive than Speer Gold Dots, Hornady Critical Defense 38 Special ammunition makes an excellent low recoil alternative for your Ruger LCR or Smith & Wesson J-Frame snubbie.
#3 - Underwood Ammo +P 125 gr XTP JHP
- Casing: Nickel-plated Brass
- Bullet Type: XTP Jacketed Hollow Point
- Bullet Weight: 125 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 1,250 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 434 ft-lbs
- Higher kinetic energy
- Flat shooting
- Reliable expansion
- Higher recoil, not ideal for a snub-nose revolver
Why We Chose It
If you’re familiar with Underwood Ammo, then you’ll know that they like to load their ammunition hot! Designed to completely harness the full capabilities of a 38 Special + P load, the Underwood +P 125 gr XTP self-defense ammo has the highest muzzle velocity and kinetic energy of any factory load on our top 4 list.
The 125 grain Hornady eXtreme Terminal Performance (XTP) hollow point bullet is known for its consistent performance by target shooters and hunters alike. Underwood Ammo chose this hollow point for its reliable and symmetrical expansion which produces a wide wound channel to stop any would-be attacker.
For pure stopping power you simply can’t beat Underwood Ammo, however the only downside to hot loads is that they have higher recoil. In a larger revolver like a Ruger Blackhawk or Smith & Wesson Model 686 L-frame, slightly higher recoil is not as noticeable as it is in a snub-nose. Furthermore, the shorter barrel length means that you won’t get all the benefits of the added power of the Underwood load.
Therefore, the Underwood + P 125 gr XTP load for 38 Special is an excellent choice for home defense with a larger revolver, but less ideal for concealed carry.
#4 - Federal Personal Defense 130 gr +P HST Micro
- Casing: Nickel-plated Brass
- Bullet Type: HST Hollow Point
- Bullet Weight: 130 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 890 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 229 ft-lbs
- Excellent in both long and short barrel lengths
- Wide hollow point promotes massive expansion
- Innovative design
- Expensive compared to other defense ammunition
Why We Chose It
Federal Premium has always been a respected name in personal defense ammo. First, they introduced the revolutionary Hydra-Shok hollow point and more recently, the Federal HST. However, their development of the 38 Special Federal HST Micro represents the first major advancement in the round since Elmer Keith used it to invent the 357 Magnum.
As the 38 Special was originally developed as a black powder round, there is ample space in the case for powder. However, since smokeless powder has a higher burn rate, you don’t need as much powder in the case to achieve optimal pressures. This leaves a lot of empty space in the case, which can lead to uneven burn rates and more shot-to-shot variability.
Federal looked to remedy this issue by simply seating the bullet directly over the powder similar to traditional semi-auto rounds like the 9mm Luger and 45 ACP. Not only did this eliminate the empty space in the case, but it also allows for a wider hollow point.
The result is an extremely consistent powder burn that is effective in both snub-nose revolvers and longer barrel lengths. The wide hollow point channel provides massive expansion which aids in preventing over-penetration and meets the FBI ballistic gelatin testing requirements of 12-18” of penetration.
The only downside to the HST Micro is its higher cost per round, however it is the best choice if you want the absolute widest wound channel possible with a 38 Special.
Best of the Rest
There are so many different 38 Special factory loads that we couldn’t possibly get all of them on our top 4 list. However, here’s some excellent alternative options for self-defense and target 38 Special ammo options.
Alternative Self Defense Ammunition Options
Remington HTP 110 gr – Remington’s newer Hight Terminal Performance semi-jacketed hollow points are a good alternative to the company’s more expensive self-defense load, the Remington Golden Saber. The 110 grain JHP offers lower recoil even when fired from a 2 inch barrel and is an excellent choice when considering self-defense rounds.
Hornady Custom 158 gr XTP – If you want a heavier bullet with a lot of knockdown power, then make sure to check out the Hornady Custom 158 gr XTP defense ammo. A standard pressure round that’s excellent for home defense in a heavier revolver.
Federal Punch +P 120 gr JHP – Federal Punch is a new offering from Federal Premium that offers reliable terminal performance at a lower price point than Federal HST or Hydra-Shok ammo.
Winchester PDX1 +P 130 gr JHP – The Winchester PDX1 is the company’s newer jacketed hollow point design that touts expansion between 1-1.5x the original diameter of the bullet. The 130 grain JHP makes a great choice for home defense.
For more options, check out our Winchester 38 Special ammo page.
Federal Hydra-Shok 110 gr JHP – You can never go wrong with a classic. The Federal Hydra-Shok has a proven track record of exceptional terminal performance and was the basis for the more modern HST jacketed hollow point.
Best for the Range and Target Shooting
Below we have a list of our favorite practice and target 38 SPL ammo. Training at the range is an important part of self-defense, but you don’t need to blow all your expensive hollow points on paper when a semi-wadcutter or full metal jacket bullet will do.
When you’re ready to hit the range, make sure to grab some of these.
Prvi Partizan 158 gr LSWC – A lead semi-wadcutter (SWC) is a flat nose bullet that tapers down to a sharp shoulder that makes a clean hole in any paper target. Ideal for target practice, a lead SWC makes a great budget option for hours of fun and practice at the range.
Magtech 158gr LRN – Another great training ammo is the Magtech 158 grain lead round nose or LRN cartridge. As this ammo is inexpensive and can be purchased in bulk, it makes a great option for range practice or competitions.
PMC Bronze 132 gr FMJ – If the thought of shooting bare lead through your Colt Python or Smith & Wesson revolvers gives you the willies, then a full metal jacket (FMJ) is the right bullet for you. PMC makes excellent target ammo and the FMJ bullet makes for easy cleaning without having to worry about lead deposits in your barrel.
Winchester White Box 130 gr FMJ – The classic range ammo. Winchester White Box has been a staple in the shooting community for years and the 130 grain bullet makes a great analog to multiple self-defense rounds without the jacketed hollow point price.
How to Choose the Best 38 Special Ammunition
Selecting the right ammo for your 38 Special revolver comes down to a three-pronged decision tree. Heavy bullet or lightweight? Bare lead or jacketed bullets? Standard pressure or +P loads?
In this buyer’s guide, we will go down each decision tree to help you understand what’s going to work best for your revolver or intended purpose.
Bullet Weight – Heavy or Light?
Lightweight bullets often offer low recoil and higher muzzle velocity while heavier bullets offer deeper penetration at the cost of higher recoil.
Light weight bullets range between 90 and 110 grains. These bullets often work well when firing a snub-nose revolver as the lower recoil makes for a more pleasant shooting experience. In a medium frame revolver, these rounds are a joy to shoot as the added handgun weight helps reduce recoil further. However, lightweight bullets will often have lower penetration especially when fired from a 2 inch barrel snub-nose.
There are compromise bullets as well, typically weighing around 125 and 130 grains. These bullets offer a little more mass for deeper penetration at the cost of velocity or higher recoil.
Heavyweight 38 Special bullets are 158 grains in weight and have the heaviest recoil but deepest penetration.
Most self-defense ammo is loaded with 125 and 130 grain bullets as this offers the best compromise between penetration and recoil. However, if you plan to concealed carry an air weight revolver with an aluminum or Scandium frame, we highly recommend using lightweight ammo as this will help keep recoil down.
Heavyweight ammo makes a great choice for home defense in larger revolvers, as the added weight of the handgun will soak up the extra recoil.
Jacketed or Lead Bullets?
Lead bullets have been around since the dawn of firearms and make an excellent choice for work at the range or in competition. They are inexpensive and can be extremely accurate with proper loads. Sadly, shooting bare lead has its own issues, as some revolvers have a tendency for “leading”.
Leading is the process where lead is stripped from the bullet and deposited into the grooves of the rifling. If not properly removed, the accuracy of your handgun will suffer and there is the potential for a critical buildup of pressure that can damage the firearm and shooter.
If your barrel has issues shooting lead bullets or you generally don’t like the idea, then jacketed bullets are the way to go. These bullets have a lead core that is covered by a metal jacket that protects your rifling for lead deposits.
Although full metal jackets are the most common for practice ammo, they are more expensive to shoot than lead bullets. Buying bulk 38 Special ammo is a great way to save money if you need to shoot FMJ’s.
Self-defense JHP ammo, or jacketed hollow point, is also protected by a metal jacket. These bullets are mainly for use in concealed carry or home defense as they are the most expensive of the three options. Hollow point bullets are designed to open and expand when they contact soft tissue to prevent over-penetration and create a larger wound channel in the threat.
If you’re headed to the range for some practice, make sure to grab some lead or FMJ bullets. However, if you’re planning on carrying, then make sure your CCW revolver is loaded with hollow point ammo.
Standard Pressure vs +P
The 38 Special was designed in 1898 and was initially developed to utilize black powder. However, the development of faster burning smokeless powder meant that smaller powder charges could be used to obtain the same ballistic results. This means that there is a lot of empty space in a 38 Special case when loaded with smokeless powder.
As technology advanced and law enforcement required improved ballistic performance, the FBI developed a higher-pressure load that was designated “+P” (read as: plus P). +P ammo is simply loaded higher than standard pressure 38 SPL ammo.
It should be noted that +P ammo should NEVER be fired from a revolver that is not designed to handle the higher pressures that +P loads generate. Doing so could damage the firearm and/or shooter. Usually your handgun chambering will be engraved into the barrel, but if you are unsure if your revolver is rated for +P ammo you should consult a professional gunsmith or the manufacturer. Firing 38 Special + P ammo from a revolver chambered in 357 Magnum is completely safe.
When considering +P or standard pressure ammo, you need to consider what revolver you plan on shooting it from.
Firing + P ammo out of a snub-nose revolver is uncomfortable at best, painful at worst. The added pressure causes heavier recoil that can be difficult to control in a lightweight handgun. Furthermore, the added ballistic performance is lost when shot from a 2-inch barrel, as a longer 4-inch or 6-inch barrel is needed for all the ballistic benefits.
This means that if you plan to conceal a snub-nose and feel that you need to CCW with +P loads, you need to prepare yourself for high recoil with additional practice time at the range. Otherwise, standard pressure loads in your snubbie should work just fine for self-defense.
For home defense, a larger revolver can be used and +P ammo is a lot more enticing. A larger handgun means low felt recoil as the added weight of the firearm will soak up some of the extra recoil of +P ammo.
For range practice, standard pressure ammo is advisable. Shooting +P ammo for most of your range time can lead to bad habits such as jerking the trigger, anticipating recoil, and flinching. You should always practice with your defensive ammo, but most of your range time should be filled with inexpensive standard pressure bulk 38 Special ammo to keep your costs low and your shooting proficiency high.
Now that you have a better understanding of what you can use 38 SPCL for and what type of ammo you should be looking for, let’s get back to our Top 38 Special Ammunition Picks by clicking HERE.
Final Shots – Best 38 Special Ammo
The 38 Special is an incredibly versatile handgun cartridge that remains extremely popular over a century after its inception. It has an extensive catalog of self-defense ammo options that are customized to fit your needs for home defense or concealed carry.
We have plenty of 38 Special ammo in stock and ready to ship discretely to your door for all your defensive needs, and if you need range ammo make sure to check out our wide selection of bulk 38 Special ammo to save even more.
Regardless of which ammo you choose, make sure to get all of it here at Ammo.com and we’ll see you out on the range!
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