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9mm vs. 38 special


It is strange how myth and legend can somehow evolve into fact. Truth is, 92% of statistics are made up on the spot. The only reliable statistics are those that have been proven and recorded. Sure one can assume that because something is larger it must be superior. One can also assume that if an item costs more, it must also be superior as well. While this may have some merit, it is not always accurate.

Lets clear this up first and foremost. The 9mm is not puny. Compared to a 50 Cal.? Sure, but compared to a .38 Special? Nope. The .38 Special and 9mm are the same size bullet as far as I am concerned. Yes, the same size. They are within two thousandths of an inch of each other. The .38 Special measures .357" in diameter. The 9mm measures .355" in diameter. The slight difference in diameter is not relevant to any degree worth debating.

The .38 Special was introduced in 1898, and began as a Black powder round. Black powder is not a very efficient propellant, it is actually classified as an explosive. Because of the impurities in Black Powder it is slower burning, and less efficient. Much of the powder is wasted upon explosion, therefore more powder is needed to propel the projectile. Thus the longer case length of the 38 special. Within a year, after its debut, smokeless powders were introduced and used in the .38 Special. The maximum pressure for a standard load is 17,000PSI. Standard +P loading would be around 20,000PSI. Common weights for the .38 Special round will vary from about 110 to 158 Grains. The height of a loaded cartridge is 1.55 inches (39 mm).

The 9mm round was introduced in 1902 by George Luger. Thus the term 9mm Luger. Which is also known as 9mm Parabellum or 9x19. This cartridge was designed to use the more volatile, higher pressure smokeless powder, thus the shorter case length. The maximum pressure for a standard load is 35,000PSI. Standard +P loading would be around 38,500PSI. Common weights for the round will vary from about 115 to 147 Grains. The height of a loaded cartridge is 1.169 inches (29.69 mm).

Now pause a minute, lets stop right here. Both bullets are equal in bullet diameter, the 9mm case is about 3/8 of an inch shorter than the .38 Special but boasts double the pressure. Lets apply some common sense to simple physics and see what the ballistic charts look like. I will only compare rounds that are approximately the same weight. Mathematically the differences between the two cartridges would remain consistent if the weights of both projectiles are evenly increased.

Buffalo Bore Ammunition Ballistics

Round Type Weight Muzzle Energy ft·lb Muzzle Velocity ft/sec.
9mm +p FMJFN 124 465 1300
.38 +p LV JHP 125 306 1050

Cor-Bon Ammunition Ballistics

Round Type Weight Muzzle Energy ft·lb Muzzle Velocity ft/sec.
9mm +p JHP 125 434 1250
.38 +p JHP 125 251 950
** Glaser Safety Slug **
9mm +p SS 80 399 1500
.38 +p SS 80 278 1250

Double Tap Ammunition Ballistics

Round Type Weight Muzzle Energy ft·lb Muzzle Velocity ft/sec.
9mm +p BJHP 124 473 1310
.38 +p BJHP 125 383 1175

Federal Ammunition Ballistics

Round Type Weight Muzzle Energy ft·lb Muzzle Velocity ft/sec.
9mm FMJ 124 364 1150
.38 NHP 125 191 830

Fiocchi Ammunition Ballistics

Round Type Weight Muzzle Energy ft·lb Muzzle Velocity ft/sec.
9mm FMJTC 124 396 1200
.38 SJSP 125 261 970

As we can see from the charts above, the 9mm at double the pressure, translates to near double the amount of muzzle energy. Does that mean that it is a better man stopper? Not necessarily, although it certainly has more power, dead is dead. I do not know anyone willing to stand down range and catch lead from either. What I do know is that heavier bullets mean greater penetration, and penetration is crucial to stopping an attack. While the 9mm does look better on paper, its heavy weight load tops out at 147 grains, while the 38 Special tops out at 158 gains. Yes the .38 Special would be moving slower, but heavier loads should penetrate better. This is not to say that a 158 grain .38 Special is more effective than a 147 grain 9mm. I point this out solely because it is the only valid defense the .38 Special round can argue. As far as weight of projectile, the .38 has the edge.

FBI recommends that between 12 to 15 inches of penetration is needed for a good self defense cartridge. So, the question is, can the 9mm meet that requirement? The answer is, yes it can with any weight bullet in its class. Most premium hollow points have what is know as, "Controlled Expansion." This means that the bullet has been engineered to expand at a controlled rate so that it can meet the penetration needed, without over penetrating. Even the lightest 9mm load can meet the penetration requirement and moreover, pack a better punch while doing it. Is the 11 grain weight advantage of the .38 Special even relevant?

This depends on what the use is for each tool. If the shooter can do his part, either round will perform. Both calibers are a fine choice, and each has it's advantages. In a gun fight, the greatest advantage any firearm could possibly encompass, would be 100% no questions asked simplicity and reliability. Well, without any doubt, that advantage belongs to the revolver. Let's face it. Less moving parts + simple design = extreme reliability and easy operation. The revolver will not jam, will not fail to eject a spent cartridge and is far from an "ammo snob". Should you need to call upon your revolver, it will oblige and command immediate respect. If I was to recommend a firearm to someone with little to moderate knowledge, it would without question be a revolver.

So what about the Nine? Lets let the 9mm flaunt it's glitter. The main advantage for starters is the greater energy and velocity of the round. The 9mm is neither puny, weak, or anyone's ugly step sister. It is the most widely used round in the world, and for good reason. While the revolver claims a mere 5 or 6 round capacity, many modern 9mm's sport a hefty 15-18 round capacity. More ammo is definitely an advantage. Another clear advantage is how quickly a magazine can be changed, vs loading a wheel gun. This is excellent leverage when seconds count. Especially when you consider that by the time you spend your 18 rounds, the wheel gun would have been reloaded 3 times. What about reliability? I think we can all agree that there are some pretty damn reliable semi-auto's on the market today. Glock, Sig Sauer, Springfield, Smith & Wesson, CZ just to name a few.

With that in mind, for me personally, I would trade the 11 grain advantage of the .38 Special for greater energy and 18 rounds of ammo any day. I feel that the extra 11 grain weight the .38 Special boasts is moot. There are 9mm loads in every weight that penetrate plenty, so I see no value in the heavier bullet. I am very familiar with semi-auto's and feel quite confident with the ones I own. I have taken the time to work out any hiccups, and find ammo that works effortlessly. (This is a crucial responsibility should you choose a semi-auto). This is not to claim that everyone feels the same. To each their own.

Another issue I should point out just to be fair is this, I would not typically buy a .38 Special for one simple reason, .357 Magnum! Why would I buy a .38 Special when I can have the higher power .357 Magnum and the .38 Special in the same gun? We know there are far better rounds than 9mm or .38 Special but these rounds do have their niche and do excel in those departments. But... if you bring a new variable into the equation, such as 357 Magnum, maybe, just maybe, I might choose the Cowboy Canon over the 9mm.

The old misconception that the .38 Special is the King of Kings, and the 9mm is weak and puny, is a farce. Mere hogwash. While I feel either is sufficient to get the job done, the 9mm boasts a much better advantage. The 9mm has 3x the ammo capacity and produces near double the energy. Let's not forget to mention that in todays market, many 9mm weapons are smaller and easier to carry than a snub nose revolver. Technology has evolved.

These are the facts. You can curse about it and if you feel so inclined you may call me a liar. One thing you can not do is debate the undeniable facts of physics and engineering. Go to the batting cage and get pegged with a ball moving at 40MPH. Now stand in the cage with the ball moving 70MPH. (actually don't do that, you get the idea.) Sometimes things are not always how we perceive them. When technology is introduced, the stories our Grandfathers told us may no longer apply. But if they did... our cars would have been flying since the year 2000.

- Jeff | ballistics101

what are your thoughts?

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