What are good defensive ammo options in .38SPL?

A friend with a revolver was asking for defensive ammo options and unfortunately I don’t know anything about that caliber, i’m a semi-auto kinda guy.

Can anyone recommend what are the quality options for defensive ammo in .38Special? Just plain .38spl, no +P or anything like that. And definitely no .357, magnum or otherwise. The user is physically very recoil sensitive (not a mental thing they can get over with training). The revolver is a full-size, I can’t recall if it’s 4" or 6" but it’s definitely not a snubby. The revolver is a S&W 686 with a 6" barrel.

I’ll collect the suggestions and do some more research and, perhaps more importantly, see what is available for sale.

Thanks in advance!


Hornady is a brand I trust for self-defense rounds.


I’m pretty familiar with .38 speical rounds, as I’ve tried a few dozen of them and I daily carry a .38.

If you can get your friend to step up to +P it will make a huge difference in effectiveness, as you’ll get plenty of velocity for JHP to work right. Personally, I’ve settled on Underwood 128 grain JHP +P. These things are very stout, and you do feel it in your hand, but tests show consistent, deep penetration and full expansion out of snubby 2" barrels. They’re getting velocities that put them well above 300 ft-lbs of energy with a 2" barrel.

For non +P, a lot of guys seem to like basic wadcutters. Standard velocity .38 Special could have a hard time opening a JHP, especially with a short barrel concealed carry gun, so something that stays intact, penetrates deeply, and doesn’t over-penetrate is good. That’s where the wadcutters do well. Regular round nose FMJ could likely just go straight through with minimal damage, and, therefore, less likelyhood of stopping an attack.

I don’t know if Underwood makes a non +P cartridge, but their ammo is top quality.

Having said all that, you might give the Remington 158 grain lead hollowpoint +P a try. It’s the old “FBI load” and good for small revolvers. I carried it for a long time and shot a lot of it. In my “palm of the hand” tests it doesn’t seem to recoil much more than standard 158 grain FMJ target loads like Federal or PMC. Its a little dirty firing, but I like the nickel cases and its not a bad SD load.


All of Underwood offerings, standard pressure. :+1:
I am a fan of Underwood Ammo. :slightly_smiling_face:

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Good old 158gr LSWC

I’m a fan of underwood for revolvers but if recoil is that big of an issue, even their standard pressure is proceed with caution

Try the FBI load referenced above. And if recoil is that big of an issue, consider a heavier gun


Keep the suggestions coming!

The revolver is a full-size, I can’t recall if it’s 4" or 6" but it’s definitely not a snubby.

@Nathan57 what is “LSWC”? stand for?


Lead Semi-Wad Cutter. Hollow Point.


So far, the two I would rely on after my own research and availability checks, are Hornady critical defense, and the Winchesters PDX1 (a +P offering) for an alternate in a full size revolver. The real trick seems to be expansion vs penetration, with expansion able to so slow a lower power round enough that it becomes a detriment, causing a failure to adequately penetrate.

An example would be that 380’s often fail to penetrate if the bullet is built to reliably expand, so recommendations often are to choose a bullet that will penetrate deeply enough, as opposed to getting good expansion without penetration.

For some one-stop shopping of test results you might look to Lucky Gunner’s website, you will get a pretty good idea of some of the different offerings and how they compare to standards, as well as how they compare to other rounds.


If recoil is the biggest issue, try “Match” 148gr LHBWC. Next up, standard velocity 158gr LSWC from Federal, Winchester or PPU (but definitely NOT Remington!)
The 158 gr. LSWC was a standard police load for decades, and considered an improvement over the 158gr LRN “widow makers”


LSWC= Lead Semi Wad Cutter
LHBWC= Lead Hollow Base Wad Cutter


Don’t waste any time on 130gr FMJ (full metal jacket)
They were worthless when the Air Force issued them in SE Asia.
They’re still worthless.


Well, before I would suggest +P ammo, I would want to know what the MAKE and MODEL of .38 Special revolver he had. Also, barrel length could be a factor, so also important info. I have a Colt Diamondback .38Special and a S&W .38Special revolver in approx. the same barrel lengths: +/-2 1/2". What I might feel comfortable in the one, might put me on edge in the other. So, really, more information would help…a LOT!


So, basically, Make and Model, plus barrel length would allow us to give some “GOOD”, reliable information. How old it is might help as well.

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Good points. I had made the assumption the revolver in question was a .357, because his saying no .357 implied to me that it was an option, but you’re 100% correct, we need to know if it’s +P capable. We know what happens when one ASSumes. My fail.


Looking at that chart seems to show you need +p velocities and a well designed bullet to get reliable penetration and expansion from .38 special rounds.

My only experience with .38 is through a large frame .357. +p rounds have very controllable recoil from my heavy revolver. I actually use a medium .357 load as my self defense round in it but before I finally found one I liked I used the Remington Golden Sabre .38+p which despite being an older bullet still looks pretty decent on this chart performance wise. It’s actually the only Remington ammo I have never had any issues with.

Reading this chart and assuming the revolver can use +p ammo (only because I know @Harvey is thorough enough to double check that it is before trying it:) I would give the Federal HST Micro a try if I could find it. It has one of the lower velocities of the +p ammo on the chart and with the somewhat lighter weight bullet I would expect the recoil to be fairly manageable from a mid size or larger revolver. It also has acceptable penetration and very good and reliable expansion as most HST bullets in other calibers do.


Just a thought but with a .38spl and a recoil sensitive shooter I’d concentrate more on the shooter abilities than the actual ammo. Highly unlikely that a single .38 spl shot will be instantly disabling so they’ll need to be able to send multiple bullets to the target QUICKLY and accurately, and most recoil shy shooters can’t do that. If they can’t hit the gooey center repeatedly in seconds no bullet will be a magic pill.


There are lots of options for 38 special. Pick a few and shoot them. My favorites are those that use a Lehigh or ARX bullet as you don’t have to rely on bullet speed for terminal performance as is true with many hollow points.

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How could I forget LuckyGunner! I’ll definitely check that out! (thanks @Nathan57 for the link)

I updated the OP, but it is a S&W 686 with a 6" barrel. It can definitely handle +P and also .357 magnum. The issue is the USER cannot handle anything “spicy” so what are the best options we can get in a tame .38special, understanding that the results may not be as good as a +P or .357.

That may be worth a try, penetration looks good and the beautiful HST “flower” they are known for.

Thank you Enzo, this is precisely the issue. The firearm itself is capable of +P and .357 but the shooter is not. We know there will be a trade off in terminal effectiveness due to shooting just .38special, so we’re just looking for the “most” we can get in that power range which will allow the shooter to confidently place accurate shots, follow up shots, and even train regularly with it.


Federal Punch is always an option or SIG VCrown. They both shoot accurately out of my j frames and won’t break the bank.