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.38 Special vs .357 Magnum: The Basics and Differences

.38 Special vs .357 Magnum: The Basics and Differences

A guest post written by Richard Douglas, founder of Scopes Field.

The .38 Special and .357 Magnum are two iconic calibers for handguns. They have stood side-
by-side for ages.

Although they have a lot of shared history, there are some huge differences between the two.
These differences will help you decide which is right for you.

Before diving into this comparison, let’s go over the basics of each.

The .38 Special

This cartridge gets its name from the diameter of the brass casing (which is .379 inches).

It was used for 70+ years by American law enforcement. It is ideal for short revolvers and self-
defense.

A .38 Special travels at 975-1175 feet per second and has a lighter muzzle energy of 275-350
pounds per foot. This means it has lighter recoil and is easier to handle, especially out of short
barrels.

There are special rounds called +P. This means ‘plus pressure’ and gives the .38 Special a little
more kick. Before using these, make sure your gun is rated to take +P loads.

On top of having less recoil, the .38 Special guns chambered in that caliber are cheaper.

The .357 Magnum

The .357 Magnum is named after the diameter of the bullet (.357 inches). This is ironic as the
bullet diameter is the same for the .38 Special but they each need a name.

A .357 Magnum round is an 1/8th of an inch longer so you can tell it apart from the .38 Special.
Even though they are similar sizes, the .357 Magnum has much more power.

The bullet has a muzzle energy of 400-725 pounds per foot and flies at 1200-1625 feet per
second. This added power means more penetration and more recoil.

Although some police carry .357 Magnums, it is also popular for hunting, self-defense, and long-
range target shooting.

(Fun side note: Revolvers chambered in .357 Magnum can also use .38 Special ammo as well.)

The Differences

.38 Special Pros:

  • Cheaper Ammo
  • Cheaper Firearms
  • Less Recoil

.38 Special Cons:

  • Lacks Stopping Power
  • Limited Application
  • +P Rating Needed for .38 Special +P Loads

With less recoil, the .38 Special is easier to handle and take follow-up shots with. Because it has
less stopping power, over-penetration is not a concern. This is what makes it ideal for self-
defense or novice shooters.

.357 Magnum Pros:

  • More Diverse Uses
  • Firearms can also use .38 Special
  • More Penetrating/Stopping Power

.357 Magnum Cons:

  • Lots of Recoil
  • Expensive Ammo
  • Expensive Firearms

The .357 Magnum has the additional kick but comes with more recoil and a heftier price per
round. Since it is more powerful, it can be used for hunting and long-range shooting.
Many people use it for self-defense too. You just need to be careful because they can over-
penetrate and go through your target.

That said, both rounds are similar but also have their own unique qualities. Your skill level,
needs, and preferences will be the deciding factors for which one to pick.