A time proven axiom is that if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. This applies to the .38 Special revolver as a home defender. I have trained many shooters over the years to use the double action revolver well, and most, if not all have chosen a .38 Special as the baseline caliber.
The .38 Special is the most powerful cartridge the average shooter may handle with the minimal practice most are willing to undertake. We should all master a firearm as powerful as we can handle and then practice regularly. For many of us, the reality of commitment to the job, family, and other duties limits our range time. The double action revolver is simple enough to use well, although it should be thoroughly understood. Coupled with the .38 Special cartridge, the revolver is a good home defense handgun. It takes a great deal of time, money, and training to be appreciably better armed with a handgun.
I am often asked for my opinion on handguns. Some of the correspondents are well versed and others not. I don’t think anyone should buy a gun and put it in the drawer or at home ready without training—yet this isn’t rare. In my classes, there is always someone who has kept a pistol they have not fired for home defense. They have not been schooled on break-in periods or lubrication.
Others have followed disastrous advice and shown up at class with a .357 SIG or a .40 caliber compact and had a terrible experience with recoil and limp wrist malfunctions. The top shooter in a class a few years ago was a young law student. Her father had given her a compact .40 pistol that she hated. She convinced her father to let her bring his 2-inch barrel Smith and Wesson Model 36 square butt revolver to the class.
Shooting against Glocks, Springfields and Ruger self-loaders, she was the top shot in the class. It can be done, and Harley was just the young woman to prove it! Sure, the .38 doesn’t hit as hard as the .45 ACP, but it hits as hard as the 9mm with proper loads, and that is enough. There are many good loads to choose from depending on the weight and barrel length of the revolver.
Too often, shooters rely on skills they cannot demonstrate. There is more to handling a firearm than not shooting yourself and simply making the handgun go off! When I recommend the .38 Special as a house gun, some seem disappointed. They want something racy. One shooter that barely passed the marksmanship class with a .22 caliber handgun noted that he wanted to buy something that was ‘high speed low drag.’ I told him when he became a high-speed low-drag shooter, then he would be ready for a superior handgun—and not before.
The .38 Special revolver is the choice of many experienced shooters. A late friend who had seen both police and military service in Africa, before coming to the United States, preferred a four-inch barrel .38 Special revolver for home defense. An experienced instructor in a major northern agency clung to his four-inch .38 and a two-inch barrel hideout.
The revolver only requires that you open the cylinder and load each chamber. You then close the cylinder and make certain the cylinder locks in place. Maintain a good firing grip and press the trigger smoothly to the rear for each shot. The double action revolver is simple, and there are no surprises. It is as uncomplicated and fool proof as a handgun may be.
A double action revolver seldom has sharp edges that bite the hand which isn’t true of many self-loaders. Most full-size double action revolvers also have a single-action option. While fast and smooth, double-action fire is most useful for personal defense the single-action option is good to have during early training in marksmanship.
An often-touted advantage of the revolver is that it may be left at home ready indefinitely and come up shooting. There are no springs stressed when the revolver is at rest. While this isn’t ideal, the revolver is more likely to come out shooting after months of storage.
In the self-loader, magazine springs are under tension. A safe action pistol has the striker prepped. Many keep the self-loader chamber empty at home because they are uncomfortable keeping a pistol chamber loaded in the home. That is their choice, but they seldom practice unloading the automatic. It would be important to make it safe after racking the slide and not using the pistol. Readiness demands the handgun be immediately deployable with one hand.
The revolver isn’t ammunition sensitive. You may load light, target loads for practice, general purpose loads for home defense, and if you can handle the recoil, +P rated loads for personal and home defense. That isn’t true of self-loaders. They will seldom handle light loads well, and inexpensive self-loaders often malfunction with +P loads. The revolver simply makes sense.
As for the exact choice, I simply say get a good quality four-inch barrel double action revolver. Adjustable sights are not necessary for the ranges involved in home defense. Fixed sights are regulated well enough for close range work and do not lose the zero. Ruger, Taurus, and Smith and Wesson offer good choices.
Used police service revolvers are available but you must be aware of how to check for wear. It is best to purchase a new revolver and take advantage of the manufacturer’s generous warranty. A good choice is one of the many .357 Magnum revolvers available. They chamber the .38 Special perfectly. (The .357 Magnum cartridge is 1/10-inch longer and much more powerful with attendant flash blast and recoil.) With the heavier frame and barrel, .357 Magnum revolvers recoil less than the .38 with the same ammunition and often sport larger grips that make shooting even more comfortable. These revolvers are ideal for home defense use. Practice, and you will be well armed.
The two-inch barrel snubnose .38 Special is a viable choice that demands more practice. Loads that are manageable in the four-inch barrel, six-shot revolver become a bear in the five-shot two-inch barrel handgun. Steel frame and aluminum frame revolvers are useful in snub nose form. However, I would avoid the Ultra Light types. Even experienced revolver shooters have difficulty with these.
The Ruger SP101 is the heaviest of the snub nose revolvers with a 2.25-inch barrel. This revolver is easier to fire than most and offers good control. If the home defender is also the carry gun the snub .38 may be the best choice for a shooter on a budget. Be certain the revolver has ample grips for comfort and control. The snub nose revolver offers another advantage. In the case of a gun grab, and these things happen, an assailant will have less leverage when grasping the snubby barrel while the shooter will have the advantage of greater leverage with the longer grip frame.
The original .38 Special loading was a 158-grain round nose bullet at about 800 fps. Its effect on target was not impressive. Soon after its introduction, handloaders began developing bullets with a flat nose and sharp shoulder for better effect and also loaded heavier powder charges. Hollow point bullets were common even during the 1930s. These loads gave the .38 much needed authority. Today, we have modern, expanding-bullet loads that offer excellent wound potential.
A standout for a balance of expansion and penetration with low recoil is the Federal 130-grain HST. I once recommended the target-grade 148-grain wadcutter for the recoil shy as its flat nose gave it a better wound profile than RNL bullets. The new HST doesn’t recoil any more than the target load, per my perception, but offers outstanding wound potential.
The HST bullet is a modern jacketed hollow point with a lead core inside a copper jacket. The cartridge is unusual in that the bullet is loaded completely inside the cartridge case. This is done for good ballistic reasons. The .38 Special was originally a black powder cartridge. The case is longer than necessary for use with smokeless gun powder.
By loading the 130-grain HST bullet completely in the cartridge case a smaller charge of powder may be used as the pressure is higher than it would be with a bullet loaded normally. The result is high ballistic efficiency. This loading develops 880 fps in my four-inch barrel Smith and Wesson and 820 fps in my daily companion, a Smith and Wesson 442 two-inch barrel revolver.
The balance of expansion and penetration is excellent. I fired several into water and the bullet drives 14 inches and expands to an average of .62 caliber. That is outstanding for a snub nose .38 caliber revolver. The combination of low recoil and good ballistic performance is excellent. There are heavier loads well suited to the four-inch revolver such as the Federal 129-grain Hydra-Shok, but my 442 is loaded with the HST.
The .38 Special is a classic revolver and handguns become classics because they work. The revolver is simple to operate and may be used by every qualified member of the family. When planning for home defense be certain to include the .38 Special. It just may be the best front-line choice you can make.
A Gun For All Hands
If you are able to master the .45 automatic or .357 Magnum revolver, that is good. But what about your spouse, your responsible teens, or aging parents? The .38 Special revolver is a choice that all hands may use well with a minimum of acclimation. You may not be at home at all times and a quality revolver loaded with good defense loads will give you and your family peace of mind.
Are you a fan of the .38 Special? Which .38 Special or .357 Magnum revolver and cartridge are your favorite? Share your answers in the comment section.
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