Best 38 Special Ammo For Target Practice Precision Shooting
The venerable .38 Special (also known as .38 Spl and .38 S&W Special) has been around for well over a hundred years, but it’s still going strong at the range.
Since its introduction back in 1898, it has gained a noted reputation as a versatile, accurate cartridge that can hold its own.
It has very light recoil, especially when fired out of a .357 Magnum revolver. It is a great option for everything from casual target shooting and plinking to serious handgun competition shooting. The best 38 Special ammo for target practice is still a popular option for certain IDPA, USPSA, Steel Challenge, and Cowboy Action events.
It’s been fielded by major law enforcement offices and the FBI. You can find everyone from serious pros to casual backyard shooters using this round due to its accuracy and ease of shooting.
- Readily available in a wide variety of loadings
- Compatible with .357 Magnum guns
- Also suitable for self-defense
- Great beginner reloading caliber
- Mostly a revolver cartridge, with a few carbine options out there
- Under-powered compared to some modern cartridges like 9mm Luger and .45 ACP
- Few surplus/bulk options available
- Ammo Inc 125gr TMJ
- Fiocchi .38 Special 130gr FMJ
- Speer Lawman .38 Special 125 Grain TMJ
- Winchester .38 Special 130 Grain FMJ
- Casing: Brass
- Bullet Type: Total Metal Jacket
- Bullet Weight: 125gr
- Muzzle Velocity: 947 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 249 ft-lbs
Our top recommendation is Ammo Inc 125gr TMJ or Total Metal Jacket. This round uses a soft lead projectile completely wrapped in a copper jacket. This improves the overall ballistic trajectory of the round because of its uniform nature and also means less lead in your barrel.
This is a fairly high-velocity round for .38 Special. Still, the projectile is on the lighter end, making for a very soft and controllable recoil, even when firing smaller revolvers quickly. Out of a lever-action carbine, you might as well be shooting a .22 for all you’ll feel at the shoulder.
The ammo is made to very high standards and features high-quality brass cases that are a dream to reload (or can be sold to those that do). It’s also available in bulk quantities that significantly reduce the cost per round, which is excellent for high-volume target shooters and competitors who want low recoil and high quality.
- Casing: Brass
- Bullet Type: Full Metal Jacket
- Bullet Weight: 130gr
- Muzzle Velocity: 950 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 260 ft-lbs
Our next pick for target shooting, plinking, and casual competition is Fiocchi 38 Special ammo 130gr FMJ.
This is a reliable, accurate round that has proven itself in the field of competition and is much beloved by plinkers. It’s ideally suited for everything from casual target shooting to training for self-defense.
It has a relatively high velocity of 950fps, making it a great option for even the longest of reasonable ranges for a .38 Special. It performs exceptionally well out of carbines as well.
For high-performance target shooting, this is an excellent option for anyone looking to get the most out of their ammo without breaking the bank, especially if you’re buying Fiocchi 38 Special ammo to avoid shooting up all your more expensive .357 magnum ammo.
- Casing: Brass
- Bullet Type: Full Metal Jacket
- Bullet Weight: 125gr
- Muzzle Velocity: 865 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 208 ft-lbs
If you want something even lighter in the recoil department, Speer Lawman is a great option in 125gr TMJ. All Speer ammo is known for being extremely high-quality, and the Lawman line is no exception.
This ammo is explicitly optimized for training and features a total metal jacket projectile that keeps your lead exposure to a minimum, and makes cleaning your gun less of a hassle, both of which are big bonuses for high-volume shooters.
Recoil is light, allowing you to focus on your trigger control and sight alignment, and the ammo is affordable enough to shoot it all day without hurting your wallet too terribly. As anyone familiar with Speer ammo knows, the cases are immaculate and excellent for reloading.
- Casing: Brass
- Bullet Type: Full Metal Jacket
- Bullet Weight: 130gr
- Muzzle Velocity: 800 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 185 ft-lbs
Lastly, no list of the best target ammo for the .38 Special (or any other caliber, for that matter) would be complete without including good old Winchester White Box. This time-tested and much-beloved ammo isn’t the most accurate or the most powerful stuff around.
What it is is some of the most affordable ammo that’s still reliable. It’s perfect for training, plinking, and just having fun at the range. It's so easy to get caught up in a game of number chasing where you hunt the ammo with the best this or the best that.
And sometimes, that’s exactly what you need to do. But other times, you need an affordable, readily available ammo option that you can pick up when you want to blast coke cans off a berm. Standard Winchester FMJ, in that iconic white packaging, is one of the best choices for that kind of shooting, and I’ll always recommend it.
For more options, check out our Winchester 38 Special ammo page!
When it comes to projectile types, there are a large number of options out there for the .38 Special. So many, in fact, that it can be a bit difficult to choose the best ones for your target shooting needs.
For example, the actual projectile choice doesn't matter as much if you’re shooting at steel targets for something like Steel Challenge.
For something like Cowboy Action or other events where your exact shot placement and distance from the center are sometimes measured, something like a wadcutter round that leaves nice clean holes in paper targets might be preferred.
Below, you’ll find a breakdown of common bullet types and their best uses.
Most common. Very affordable, standard lead ammo with a copper jacket.
Plinking, target shooting
Lead projectile entirely surrounded by a copper coating.
Target shooting, shooting older guns, lead-sensitive environments
Soft lead ball round, very inexpensive.
Plinking, target shooting
A flat-nose, heavy projectile great for general use, especially out of short barrel, snub nose revolvers.
Close-range target shooting, cowboy action, and similar events, shooting snubbies with a 2-inch barrel
Heaviest style of bullets, generally used for plinking or knocking over steel targets.
Close-range target shooting, cowboy action, and similar events
They are designed for maximum expansion, the most expensive option. Too expensive for plinking.
Self-Defense, home defense, concealed carry
There are three main case types for all ammunition, 38 Special included. These are steel, brass, and nickel-plated brass, with the last two being the most common.
Steel is the cheapest option and the one with the most downsides. For one, it can’t be readily reloaded at home, which is a bummer for such a reloadable cartridge like the .38 Special. It also generates the most friction, making removing fired cases a pain.
Lastly, if it’s not well-coated, it’s the most prone to corrosion which causes even more issues.
Brass is the most common option and the one we recommend for most target shooting. It provides a low coefficient of friction (though not the lowest), so even high-pressure +P ammo usually extracts without hammering your ejector rod. It is also easily reloaded at home with a basic setup.
Nickel-Plated Brass is another option and the most expensive by a decent margin. Nickel is pricey, as is the electroplating process that deposits it on the outside of a brass casing, but it also has the lowest coefficient of friction.
This makes nickel-plated brass the go-to option for self-defense ammo and high-end competition/target ammo. Still, it’s a bit overkill for casual target shooting or plinking and is more finicky to reload as well. We have a whole breakdown of nickel vs brass casings if you want to know more.
Of course, accuracy is a must when it comes to target ammo, especially if you’re doing any competition or serious training. Fortunately, modern ammo manufacturing has advanced to such a degree that even cheap ammo can be relied on to hit what you’re aiming at.
That said, some ammo will be more accurate than others, and while you’ll pay for that difference, it can definitely be worth it if you need the extra performance.
Speaking of performance, the actual ballistic performance of your ammo does matter here. Sure, you’re probably just punching holes in paper or ringing steel, but if you have to reach out to any kind of range or hit with enough force to knock over a steel target, it's something to think about.
In general, most .38 Special ammo will be a bit underpowered compared to 9mm and definitely underpowered compared to any caliber that starts with a “.4”. That said, +P rounds that offer more energy and velocity are an option.
Target shooting, in particular, is an area where the price of ammo is something to consider seriously. If you’re hunting or planning to defend yourself with a specific round, it's best not to skimp. On the other hand, for general target shooting and plinking, you can reach for the more affordable options.
Since we are talking about pricing, don't forget to check out some of our top rated PMC 38 Special ammo for more options.
Again, most modern .38 Special ammo from reputable brands will be more accurate than the average shooter firing it, so you don’t have to worry. Unless you’re Wyatt Earp (in which case you’re probably looking for a .38 Long Colt, not .38 Special), you can have faith that most target ammo will be accurate enough for you.
Of course, good ammo can be rarer than hen's teeth at times, so if you’re committing to an off-the-shelf loading for serious target shooting, it's best to go with something readily available.
Otherwise, you could have to shoot ammo your gun isn’t sighted for, which can make the difference between a win and a loss during a competition, or throw off your mojo during some casual plinking or range practice.
The quality of the powder, bullet, casing, and primer all play a role in how well your ammo will perform at the range. Better casing materials feed and extract better; the higher-quality powder will burn cleaner with more power, and quality primers will ignite on the first strike every time.
If you are still unsure, reading customer reviews online can be a great way to narrow your choices down. I recommend checking not just a manufacturer’s website but other general gun forums as well, as these are often where you’ll find the most in-depth and unbiased reviews.
In some cases, you will need to consider where you’ll be shooting when you’re picking up ammo.
For example, many shooting ranges on public lands, as well as quite a few private ranges, are banning lead ammunition. You may need a jacketed round instead of LRN or lead wadcutter rounds, or you might need lead-free ammo entirely.
Check your local regulations and the regs of the range you’re going to before you shoot to find out exactly what you need.
Beyond that, you’ll probably want to tailor your ammo choice to the type of shooting you’ll be doing more than the location.
Most .38 Special guns are revolvers or lever actions, and these old-school guns can be a bit temperamental when it comes to maintenance, so there are a few things to keep in mind.
On the revolver side of things, regular chamber cleanings can help with extraction issues, especially if you’re shooting cheaper steel-cased ammo. There’s nothing wrong with this budget ammo, and it won’t damage your gun, but the casings cause more friction than their brass counterparts.
This can make extracting fired rounds difficult, slows down your reloads, is unfun at best, and is downright dangerous in a life-or-death situation.
Of course, no matter what ammo you’re using, it's essential to store it properly and to check it carefully before you shoot. Any excessive tarnishing, corrosion, or improperly-seated bullet means the round should be set aside and not fired.
A dehumidifier or, at the very least, some silica gel packets will go a long way towards keeping your ammo corrosion free and as slick as possible which will aid feeding and extraction no matter what type of shooting you’re doing.
An airtight container with silica packets inside is usually plenty, especially if you shoot a lot.
And, of course, there are basic things like ensuring your revolver's timing is correct and everything is indexing properly. Revolvers rarely go wrong, but when they do, they can cause serious issues, so ensuring the chamber is aligned correctly with the barrel is a good step.
Unless you’re training for competition or defense, it’s generally best to use affordable full-metal jacket (FMJ) ammo for general target shooting. For carry or competition, you should try to train with something as close as possible to the ammo you plan to carry or compete with.
Buffalo Bore makes a wide variety of ammo, usually high-powered hunting and defensive loads. Buffalo Bore is a solid option if your .38 Special is rated for the pressures of the ammo in question. They also make some of the only lead-free options that are readily available.
Generally, target ammo will be FMJ or "ball" ammo that doesn't expand when it strikes a soft target. This makes it a considerably worse option than purpose-built defense ammo, which will feature an expanding hollow point projectile.
Yes! Full-metal jacket ammo around 125-130 grain typically offers outstanding characteristics for target shooting, and heavier 158-grain lead round nose and lead wadcutter rounds are extremely popular as well.
You can, but it will get expensive quickly. While there's no reason you can’t use bonded-core ammo like Speer Gold Dots for target practice, it's a bit overkill for putting holes in paper or ringing steel. The exception will be if you’re carrying this type of ammo for self-defense.
In that case, you'll probably want to become comfortable with its shooting characteristics. However, you probably won't want to have the majority of your training with expensive, purpose-built defensive ammo like Gold Dots.
Most defensive loads will be a 125gr Jacketed Hollow Point round, as this gives a good balance of penetration and expansion and relatively tame felt recoil.
For target shooting, it will come down to preference, but 130gr FMJ and 158gr Wadcutter rounds are popular, affordable, and very effective.
Absolutely. The venerable .38 Special is a time-tested, field-proven defensive round for stopping a human threat or medium-sized animal. Modern defensive loadings, with advanced powder and Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP) projectile designs, have only increased its effectiveness in this realm.
These self-defense rounds will have more "stopping power" than the non-expanding .38 special rounds we've gone over today, so be sure to check out our list of the best .38 special self-defense rounds if you’re looking for something with better terminal performance than standard pressure ball ammo.
Spoiler: Hornady XTP and Remington Golden Saber will do much better than anything on this list at stopping an attacker.
For more ammo options, don't forget to check our Remington 38 Special ammo page.
While a .38 Special can travel more than a mile if fired at or around a 45-degree angle, its real-world effectiveness is much less than that. For defensive use, most people will find that the effective range of a .38 Special is about 50 yards.
Now that you know what the best 38 Special ammo for target shooting is, be sure to check out our wide-selection of .38 Spl ammunition at Ammo.com.
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