5 Best .38 Special Revolvers: Now 100 plus years after its invention, the .38 Special – though not as ubiquitous in uniformed duty police holsters as it was prior to the rise of the “Wondernines” back in the 1980s – remains one of the most popular revolver cartridges in the world of recreational target shooting, formal target competition, personal defense, and small-game hunting.
Though I myself have fired plenty of .38 Special ammo through my .357 Magnum revolvers over the decades, I don’t own any guns chambered exclusively for the .38 Spl, as I prefer to have the flexibility of its more powerful descendant. As to why it’s called a .38 when it’s really a .357, that’s a long story in and of itself.
That said, let’s opine on the Top Five .38 caliber revolvers.
5 Best .38 Special Revolvers – Smith & Wesson (S&W) Model 10
Also called the S&W Military & Police (M&P), this is where it all began. First released in 1899 as the Hand Ejector, this was the patriarch of the S&W .38 Spl, family – particularly the medium-sized so-called K-series – establishing a reputation for smoothness, dependability, and accuracy. A reputation that explains why the M10 remains in production to this very day.
5 Best .38 Special Revolvers – Ruger SP-101
Now, as our ballistics-savvy readers will already know, the .38 Spl. had a bad reputation as a “widow maker” for American cops when using the standard-pressure 158-grain roundnose lead (RNL) loading. Hence the development of the so-called “FBI Load,” aka “Chicago Load,” aka “Metro Load,” the 158-grain +P lead semiwadcutter hollowpoint (LSWCHP), which expanded reliably at subsonic velocities even when fired from shorter barrels, and definitely improved stopping power … but at the price of wear and tear on the guns.
- Ruger SP101. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Enter the Ruger SP-101 with its solid steel sidewalls. Initially built around the .357 Magnum cartridge, the .38 Spl-only version of the SP-101 will have precisely zero problems standing up to the operating pressures of the +P FBI loads. What’s more, the ergonomically friendly factory rubber grip helps take a lot of the bite of the recoil of the higher-pressure rounds. I myself used to own a .357 Ruger snubby and I put my fair share of Specials through it as well as full-house Maggie loads; while I don’t consider any snubnose wheelie to be “fun” or “pleasant” to shoot, the SP-101 comes closer to meriting those descriptors than any other competitor … including the next entry on this list.
5 Best .38 Special Revolvers – S&W J-Frame Series
As I hinted at in the preceding paragraph, S&W J-frame snubbies are not fun to shoot, especially the older-school versions with the thin, stubby wood grips; hell, they’re downright painful IMHO, and I actually find Smith’s N-frame M57 .41 Magnum to be a more enjoyable shooting experience! Aftermarket rubber grips help somewhat, but still not as well as on the Ruger SP-101, thanks to the Smiths’ thinner construction.
But then again, as the saying goes, “Snubnoses are meant to be carried a lot and shot a little.” They’re certainly amazingly compact and concealable as well as reliable and durable (as long as you don’t go overboard with an excessive diet of those aforementioned +Ps). They’re simpler and more maintenance-friendly than autopistols in “pocket pistol” calibers such as .32 ACP and .380 ACP. And they come in a long veritable laundry list of options, including the Ladysmith and the Model 36 Chief’s Special.
In short (no pun intended), plenty of desirable features explain why the J-frame series has remained in production since 1950.
5 Best .38 Special Revolvers – Colt Detective Special
Arguably every bit as famous a moniker and phrase in the handgun world as “Colt .45,” this is what put the “.38 snubby” on the proverbial mental map of the shooting public. First introduced in 1927, the gun went through three separate initial production runs before being mind-numbingly discontinued in 1986. But it was a glorious 59-year run. As the NRA’s American Rifleman staff put it, “The Colt Detective Special became a favorite carry option for law enforcement as well as armed citizens.”
Luckily for fans of modern classics, Colt came to its senses and resurrected the Detective Special from 1993 to 1996, and today it’s produced in a slightly tweaked version called the Colt Cobra.
5 Best .38 Special Revolvers – Colt Official Police
Shooting Times Magazine writer Paul Scarlata puts it better than I can: “Unless you are a complete newbie to firearms, or have been living on top of a mountain in Tibet for the last century, you are aware that from the 1870s until the middle of the 20th century the terms ‘Colt’ and “revolver” were synonymous in the police world. Colt revolvers were the most popular law enforcement sidearms in the world, and no Colt product personified the law enforcement handgun better than the Official Police Revolver.”
The Official Police model was the go-to-gun of American police departments for a third of a century before Colt eventually lost that market share to S&W in the post-WWII era. But the Colt had one helluva run along the way. To quote Mr. Scarlata one more time: “With total production topping 400,000 units by 1970, however, the Official Police ranks as one of the most popular U.S.-produced handguns in history.”
Bonus Photo Essay: Meet the Glock 19X
Christian D. Orr has 33 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011. In his spare time, he enjoys (besides shooting, obviously) dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.