Each and every cop movie I’ve seen has had at least one .38. This isn’t surprising considering the reliability of these guns.
In pursuit of the best .38 revolver, this article is going to go over these top five choices, starting with some extra info to help you make an educated choice.
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About .38 Revolvers
More than 120 years ago, Smith & Wesson was the first to introduce the .38 Special. It was then a significant upgrade to the US Military’s firepower.
Fast forward to today and the caliber is still among the most popular. But what is the allure of the .38 Special?
The Advantages of the Best .38 Revolver
There are those who believe the .38 ammunition to be a bit outdated. And indeed, the round has been around for a while, but it’s not dated by any standard.
To give you a better idea, let’s compare the .38 to the 9mm.
The two rounds are roughly the same size, but the .38 has a greater mass. This means it’s a bit slower than the 9mm and the .38 might not have as much of a punch. However, this doesn’t make the caliber inferior, just different.
The reason people love the .38 is that it’s a revolver round. Compared to semi-automatic pistols, revolvers don’t have that many moving parts. Consequently, fewer things can go wrong and the weapon is more reliable.
This is also the reason many police forces used a .38 standard issue, at least until semi-automatic pistols got good enough.
With this in mind, most .38s today have five or six-cartridge cylinders (there are also models that take eight bullets). But if you pull your .38 out of necessity and aim to maim, six bullets are more than enough to cause deadly damages.
How to Choose the Best .38 Revolver
In this day and age, the characteristics to look for are build quality, dimensions (size and weight), and price.
As the .38 grew in popularity, so did the makes and models of revolvers. Some of them are just better engineered than others. But how do you discern one from the other?
If you are new to revolvers, the safe route is to go with the big names. Manufacturers such as S&W and Ruger have a history of making exceptional weapons.
Once you get your hands on one, it should have really tight clearances and a great finish. Although many enthusiasts believe that a specific finish makes the gun more resistant, this might be up for debate.
Anyway, the revolver needs to be precision-machined inside and out.
It’s no secret that most people choose a .38 for self-defense and prefer to have it as a concealed carry. Therefore, the revolver needs to be lightweight, relatively small, and easy to strap to your belt.
When it comes to the overall length, the compact .38s are usually 6.5” to 8” in length. But there are models that go up to 11”. On the low side, you can expect a weight of about 14oz. But a lot of models are in the 25 oz. range, give or take.
We’ve accounted for this when choosing the best .38 revolver for this article. In fact, all of the selected models have a good balance of features — both Dirty Harry and any regular folk should be able to find something.
There is one thing you should know, however. The trigger weight of most dual-action .38s is about 12 lbs. and this can be problematic for those with weaker hands.
.38 revolvers aren’t expensive, as a really good model should only run a few hundred dollars.
Most users don’t need fancy materials and a bunch of features. However, everybody needs a reliable gun, and this comes from the engineering and manufacture.
The great thing is that these attributes might not come with a superior price tag, not when they come off an assembly line. And there are extras like friction-reducing cams that don’t add to the price but improve the usability.
Best .38 Revolvers
The S&W 586 takes its design cues from some of the most collectible and valuable revolvers the company has made, and there are plenty of upgrades to bring the gun forward to contemporary users.
This .38 measures 11.3” and the barrel is 6”. The cylinder and barrel are made of carbon steel, while the frame is carbon alloy. The overall size and construction add some weight to it, and the gun comes in at 46.3 oz.
The S&W allows for both single and double-action. And despite its robust nature, it’s surprisingly easy to cock and fire. The trigger action is crisp and it doesn’t feel that you need to work hard to fire a bullet.
There are two sights — the rear one is an adjustable white outline and the front one is a red ramp. Speaking of which, this is one of the most accurate and consistent .38 we’ve tested.
For example, you should be able to shoot really tight clusters (no more than an inch apart) at 25 yards away. This is with the standard .38 Special ammo, and assuming that you have some shooting experience. But even for a complete novice, the mechanical accuracy of this S&W will surely make the job easier.
- Great accuracy
- Single and dual-action
- Blued frame and wooden grip
For quite some time, the Cobra hadn’t been on the market. It’s back at last and stands out as one of the best options for a concealed carry.
The overall length of the gun is 7.25” and the barrel is only 2”. At 24.96 oz., it’s among the lightest models you can find. You also get a six-shot cylinder and steel construction. The Cobra has an exposed hammer that’s easy to cock for a single-action shot. Should you want dual-action, just squeeze the trigger all the way.
The revolver comes with a rubber grip that reduces the recoil and makes the gun comfortable to shoot. This should work in your favor when firing multiple rounds and allow for tighter clusters. But of course, the user’s skill and experience may be even more important.
Unlike the original Cobra, the current production doesn’t have a polished exterior. Colt has gone for a brushed finish this time. This doesn’t affect the revolver’s appeal, but some gun-lovers cherished the deep bluing of the original.
Finally, the new Cobra is not a revolver that’s going to burn a hole in your pocket. And courtesy of its size and firepower, it’s one of the best for everyday carry.
- Lightweight and compact
- Six-shot cylinder
- Minimal recoil
- No bluing in the current production
It’s the aesthetics that originally drew me to this revolver. The SP101 has a sculpted wooden grip with a checkered pattern and finger grooves. Besides catching the eye, this improves your grip as well. Then, there is the polished stainless steel finish.
The revolver features a 4.4” barrel and a five-shot cylinder. To better your aim, there is an adjustable rear sight and the one on the front is fiber-optic. Like all other .38s, the SP101 is a single and dual-action and it’s easy to shoot either way.
The model tested is 30 oz., which is about the median weight for the caliber. However, Ruger produces six different models of the SP101 and some weigh around 26 oz. Most likely, this is because they feature the rubber grip and plastic inserts.
As for the accuracy and recoil, this revolver performs as expected. There’s not too much recoil and retargeting for tight clusters is a breeze. Of course, this is with the standard .38 ammo.
Overall, this model could work okay as a concealed carry even though it’s not as compact as some. But with the right holster, you should be just fine.
- Great finish
- Fiber optic front sight
- Six models to choose from
- One of the bigger .38s
The Brazilian-made Taurus 608 is a genuine cannon with enough firepower to stop a rhino. It might not be as popular as the 605 from the same company, but this revolver’s designed to leave an impression.
The last digit in the number reveals that the gun holds eight rounds, and you can use .38SPL or .357 ammo. To add more power, Taurus engineered the 608 on a beefier frame. The grip is also quite big and those with smaller hands might struggle to hold the gun.
The revolver comes with a 4” or 6.5” barrel and either option is factory-ported. You get an adjustable rear sight. At 52 oz., this is the heaviest .38 reviewed and it’s not something you can easily conceal. But while the 608 lacks in compactness, it makes up for its accuracy and build quality.
The ports do an excellent job of minimizing the recoil if the retargeting takes some practice. That said, the mechanical accuracy is on par with models from most well-known brands.
In addition, this is one of the most economical 357 Magnums you can find. The clearances are really tight, and the matte stainless steel finish is timeless.
- Eight-shot cylinder
- Holds .38SPL or .357
- Great firepower
- Factory-ported barrel
- Tricky to conceal
If you’re looking for a great combination of price, compactness, and firepower, the Ruger LCR might hit the bullseye for you.
At only 6.6” long, this LCR is one of the shortest on this list. The barrel is 1.87” long and the entire revolver weighs 13.5 oz. Yes, this is a gun you could conceal in your sock, if that’s what it’s called for.
The .38 LCR is only one variation of the model. Ruger manufactures the LCR in other calibers as well. The only difference is the weight.
For example, the 9mm and .357 Magnum LCRs are about 15% heavier. Nevertheless, this doesn’t make them tricky to hide. And I forgot to mention that the standard LCR has a hidden hammer.
Other highlights include the manageable recoil and the very smooth trigger. The LCR incorporates a patent-pending housing for fire control. Without going into all the technicalities, this engineering solution is responsible for its minimal recoil and weight.
The cylinder takes five bullets and there is a friction-reducing cam to ensure a smooth trigger action. The frame is stainless steel and it features black hard coat to better the gun’s resistance to the elements.
The grip is rubber and it has tiny specs to improve the hold and handling. The interesting thing is that the grip is available in purple, perhaps to attract some of the female gun enthusiasts?
- Super lightweight and compact
- Unique fire control housing
- Available in different calibers
- Features friction-reducing cam
What is the best .38 revolver for the money? The answer depends on how you intend to use the gun. If it’s for protection and casual target practice, the S&W 586 wins by a landslide.
The 586 is among the most balanced handguns. It’s fun to use despite the weight and size, plus the engineering, accuracy, and finish are hard to rival.
Should you want something easy to conceal, the Ruger LCR would be the best choice. It has the firepower of much bigger models and it’s easy to carry on your waist.