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.38 Special vs 9mm: The Ultimate Showdown for Handgun Enthusiasts preview image
Jul 31 2023
8 min read

.38 Special vs 9mm: The Ultimate Showdown for Handgun Enthusiasts


When it comes to handguns, particularly everyday carry pistols, the debate of “.38 special vs. 9mm” never seems to get old or cool off.

As someone with considerable shooting experience and years of gun ownership, I’ve heard this debate argued any way you could possibly spin it. Here we’re going to dig into just which one is better by looking at all of the key differences and unique pros and cons.

Overview of .38 Special

38 special ammo

38 Special For Sale

Federal Premium American Eagle Handgun 38 Special

The Classic Wheelgun Workhorse

The .38 special is a rimmed, centerfire cartridge that was designed in 1898 by Smith & Wesson.

Over the decades, it’s gained a spotless reputation as the classic wheelgun workhorse. It’s a reliable and versatile cartridge that has been a favorite of countless law enforcement agencies, military personnel, and civilian shooters for its power, accuracy, and relatively mild recoil.

While the .38 special has seemingly been slowly replaced by more modern calibers, it remains a wildly popular choice for both self-defense and target shooting, particularly among lovers of revolvers.

With prominence in many pieces of pop culture media, from detective yarns to classic westerns, the .38 special has an enduring charm.

Overview of 9mm

9mm ammo

9mm Ammo For Sale


The World’s Most Popular Handgun Cartridge

The 9mm, also known as the 9×19 Parabellum or 9mm Luger, was created in 1902, and since then, has become the most popular handgun cartridge caliber in the world. It was initially designed for the Luger semi-auto pistol, but it gained widespread adoption by military and law enforcement agencies quickly.

This widespread adoption is what helped solidify its reputation as being reliable, versatile, and effective.

One of the reasons the 9mm is so popular is that it has relatively low recoil, accommodates high-capacity magazines, and performs excellently.

Today you can find the 9mm cartridge available in an incredibly wide range of bullet types, loads, and ballistic characteristics. The countless 9mm pistols and rifles available virtually guarantee that the 9mm round isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Specification Chart for .38 special and 9mm

Specifications/Model.38 special9mm
Bullet Diameter.357 inches.355 inches
Case Length1.155 inches0.754 inches
Overall Length1.55 inches1.169 inches
Bullet Weight110-158 grains115-147 grains
Muzzle Velocity675-980 fps950-1300 fps
Muzzle Energy200-300 ft-lbs300-450 ft-lbs

Key Differences Between .38 special and 9mm

Recoil Management

One of the very significant differences between the .38 special and the 9mm is the recoil felt by the shooter. The recoil from the .38 special is considered easier to manage, especially when used in revolvers that have larger, heavier frames with greater inertia.

The lower recoil makes it a much better option for new shooters or those with weaker hand strength since it is less likely to induce flinching or cause poor shooting habits.

Moreover, better recoil management can lead to improved shot placement and more accurate follow-up shots, both of which are essential in self-defense and target shooting applications.

Ammunition Capacity

When comparing revolvers chambered in .38 special to semi-auto pistols in 9mm, the 9mm will frequently offer a greater ammo capacity.

Revolvers are usually limited to a cylinder capacity of five or six rounds, whereas 9mm pistols typically hold anywhere from 7 to more than 20 rounds, depending on the firearm and the magazine.

In self-defense scenarios, a higher ammo capacity can be crucial since it gives the user more rounds to engage threats with, before the need to commit to reloading.

Platform Compatibility

Platform compatibility is another critical factor that sets the .38 special apart from the 9mm. The .38 special is very predominantly chambered in revolvers, while the 9mm is almost exclusively found in semi-automatic pistols and the occasional semi-auto rifle.

Revolvers offer the advantage of being far simpler, mechanically, than semi-auto pistols and more reliable under adverse conditions. They can also chamber and fire other compatible cartridges, like the more powerful .357 Magnum. However, generally speaking, revolvers have a far lower ammo capacity than the average 9mm pistol, slower reloading speed, and bulkier profile.

9mm pistols tend to be lighter, more compact, and slimmer, making them more attractive for concealed carry. They also offer higher capacities, and quicker reloading in most cases. They can be found in a wide range of sizes, from compact models meant for concealed carry to full-size models intended for competition.

Additionally, the 9mm platform compatibility even extends to carbines and submachine guns, making it much more versatile.

Size and Weight

9mm ammo

Handguns chambered in 9mm are more frequently lighter and more compact than their .38 special cousins. This can make 9mm pistols more comfortable for daily carry and much easier to conceal. When it comes to concealed carry, handguns that are smaller and lighter are generally preferred since they are much less likely to show through clothing and are also less likely to cause discomfort during extended wearing.

The increased portability of 9mm pistols makes them suitable for a wider range of users also, such as those with smaller hands, weaker hands, or a general preference for more lightweight firearms.

Even with many .38 special revolvers available in compact configurations or variants, they are generally limited by the requirement of the thickness of the cylinder, making them a greater challenge to conceal compared to slimmer 9mm semi-autos.


When comparing the ballistics of a .38 special to a 9mm round, the 9mm will generally have a higher calculated muzzle velocity and energy compared to the .38 special. This not only contributes to greater accuracy over distance but a better performance of terminal ballistics as well, meaning more effectiveness in self-defense and hunting applications.

With modern hollow point ammo, the 9mm has proven to be a powerful self-defense cartridge, offering significant expansion and penetration characteristics.

The .38 special can also be effective for self-defense, particularly when using +P loads or other specialized ammunition. However, the superior ballistics of the 9mm tend to give it an edge in many situations where stopping power or peak terminal performance is needed.

Reloading Speed

Semi-automatic 9mm pistols offer far faster reloading than a .38 special revolver, assuming the user has a full magazine accessible. With a semi-automatic pistol, you only need to hit the magazine release and insert another, while the revolver user needs to open the cylinder, eject the casings, and manually load the next round of bullets.

A speedloader can help mitigate this advantage, however, and carrying multiple speedloaders can allow an experienced .38 special revolver user to compete relatively evenly with a 9mm user.

However, in high-stress or self-defense situations, the faster you can reload, the better, no matter how it’s done.


The versatility of the 9mm, in terms of available firearm styles, bullet types, and loadings, gives it a distinct advantage over the .38 special. There is a far wider range of 9mm handguns and ammunition available on the market, which cater to nearly every shooting preference and need.

There are mid-size frames for open carry, compact varieties for concealed carry, full-sized competition behemoths, and everything in between. The 9mm platform covers a broad spectrum of shooters and uses. The galaxy of ammo choices allows shooters to pick their exact bullet weights, styles, and power levels to match their exact tasks or shooting conditions.

In stark contrast, the .38 special platform has an extremely limited firearm and ammunition selection, most of which are limited to revolvers, while the ammo has a smaller variance of bullets and loadings. Even though the .38 special is a highly effective cartridge, it lacks the extreme versatility that 9mm has, which can limit its accessibility to some shooters.

Price and Availability

Another key difference between the .38 special and the 9mm is their respective price and availability. Generally, 9mm ammo is going to be much more widely available and affordable when compared to .38 special ammo. This is partially due to the 9mm’s widespread popularity among military, law enforcement, and civilian shooters.

The consistently high demand has led to constant mass production, which in turn drives down the average cost per round. This makes the 9mm more attractive for budget shooters, or those who train or practice frequently. In other words, if you go through a lot of ammo, 9mm is going to be much easier on the wallet.

.38 special ammo, on the other hand, will be more expensive on average and can be difficult to find, particularly in times of high demand or supply chain issues.

.38 Special Pros & Cons

  • Manageable recoil
  • Proven reliability
  • Excellent accuracy
  • Limited ammo capacity
  • Slower reloading
  • Less versatility compared to 9mm

9mm Pros & Cons

  • Higher ammo capacity
  • Faster reloading
  • Wide range of options available
  • More felt recoil than .38 special
  • Slightly less accurate in some cases

Other Alternatives to Consider

Even though the .38 special and the 9mm are great cartridges, you may still be looking for other options. That’s ok. A good gun collection is a diverse gun collection.

Viable alternatives to these will include the .357 Magnum, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and 10mm. Each has unique advantages and disadvantages, so it’s essential to research and hopefully, even test various options before making any final calls. Many people underestimate the power of renting a few different guns at the range, but by doing that, you can feel critical aspects like recoil before you ever fill out firearm purchase paperwork.


Which is stronger, 9mm or .38 Special?

Comparing the two in terms of muzzle energy and velocity, the 9mm comes out ahead in most cases.

Are 9mm and .38 Super the same?

No, the 9mm and the .38 super are different cartridges and cannot be used interchangeably. The .38 super is much higher pressure and travels at a higher velocity than the 9mm.

What is a .38 Special equivalent to?

There is no direct equivalent, but the closest alternative would likely be the .357 Magnum, which can also be fired from many .38 special revolvers. The .357 Magnum is more powerful than the .38 special.


As you can see, both the .38 Special and the 9mm have their strengths and weaknesses. The .38 special creates very manageable recoil, excellent accuracy, and time-tested reliability, making it ideal for self-defense and target shooting. The 9mm, however, offers a higher ammo capacity, faster reloading, and a higher degree of versatility in firearms and ammo choices.

What it really comes down to, though, is what your needs, preferences, and intended use are. If you can, try out your potential choices at a nearby range to see which one seems to fit your needs better.

Brady Kirkpatrick photo Brady Kirkpatrick is the founder of, the #1 online gun search engine. Recognizing the challenges of finding the right firearm at the right price, Brady built a platform to simplify the process, comparing prices across hundreds of online dealers and providing valuable content from trustworthy bloggers. His commitment to user-centricity and innovation has shaped into a comprehensive resource for gun enthusiasts. In addition to Gun Made, Brady has also lent his firearm expertise to an array of renowned publications, such as The Truth About Guns, CrossBreed Holsters, Cheaper than Dirt, 19FortyFive, We Are The Mighty, and many others.


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