After ruling the Philippines for almost half a millennium, Spain ceded control to the United States. The result? By 1899, the U.S. military was facing an armed rebellion in the Philippines that lead to the development of the .38 Special cartridge (and .45 ACP).
Thanks to this, we now have one of the most popular and versatile rounds ever made. But how did all this happen? First, here’s an infographic that summarizes the .38 Special timeline.
.38 Special Origins
Manufactured by Colt, the .38 Long Colt and the related pistol line were insanely popular. In fact, it was so popular that rival manufacturers such as Winchester offered its firearms chambered in the .38 Long Colt. However, there was one problem with the .38 Long Colt: It lacked velocity.
During the Philippine War, American soldiers would fire several .38 Long Colt bullets to take down ONE Moro Jihadi (the enemy). Seriously… the round was that weak. If they had any hope to compete on the world stage, the U.S. military would have to do something drastic. It would have to create a new cartridge. A round that would fire faster, hit harder, and penetrate further.
A Lethal Design
In 1898, the U.S. military developed and introduced the .38 Special cartridge, which was designed to overcome the underwhelming limitations of the .38 Long Colt. The resulting design was a miraculous round for the time — capable of fitting not only the old .38 Long (and .38 Short) Colt weapons, but the new .38 Special cartridge could be fired from the Navy’s old cap-and-ball revolvers and the soon-to-come .357 Magnum.
This ability to fit and fire in so many different firearms led the .38 Special to become massively popular among service members and the decision to create the versatile .38 Special cartridge revolutionized the military. By 1907 however, multiple innovations made by John Browning and Colt would make the .38 Special cartridge’s time short-lived in widespread military service.
Soon, the U.S. military would employ the very same program that brought the .38 Special into existence to replace the round with the .45 ACP. The love affair with the .38 Special, however, would continue in America for the thousands upon thousands of servicemen who fired it, setting the base for a long-lasting love affair with the .38 Special cartridge.
Law Enforcement’s Best Friend
By the 1920s, a nation full of police officers was looking to replace their outdated, single-action revolvers with something new and more effective. Prohibition helped fuel an organized crime wave and many police officers found themselves routinely outgunned with their standard-issue, single-action revolvers.
Like the soldiers in the Philippines 30 years before them, police forces were looking for a more powerful round, and found a solution with the .38 Special cartridge. Eventually, the round would become so popular among U.S. police forces that it would be used for almost a century in departments across the country. The success did not go unnoticed.
Taking advantage of the ingenious design of the .38 Special cartridge, the FBI introduced the “FBI Load” in 1972 — known to most of us as the “+P” bullet. Loaded with more powder, more penetration, and more stopping power, this variation of the .38 Special round became the standard load for federal, state, and local law enforcement entities for decades — until more popular semi-automatic pistols began to replace the older-style revolvers.
Many, however, objected to the .38 Special cartridge. The reason? Some believed that since the .357 Magnum — a more powerful cartridge — existed, why not use that? There were a host of benefits to using a smaller cartridge, but first people had to understand it.
.38 SPL vs. .357 Mag
To start, the .357 Magnum is a larger, more powerful round, but that’s about where the advantages end, and where your difficulties are going to begin. If quickly grabbing an easy-to-wield pistol is your main concern, the .357 Magnum is not what you are looking for. The magnum round is very large. The pistols chambered for .357 Magnum are big and heavy. If you need the gun in a hurry, the difference in size is going to leave you struggling to handle the weapon when you need it the most.
With the .38 Special and the newer loads, you could get the best of both worlds. They could provide comparable stopping power and penetration to a .357 Magnum round, and the pistols that fire .38 Special are smaller and much easier to access. These advantages over the large, heavy, and often unwieldy .357 Magnum pistols have led to one burning question that must be answered.
The Most Popular Round in the World?
This cartridge is a uniquely American creation that has stood the test of time to remain one of the most popular pistol loads ever created. While that’s already saying a lot, the fact that it saw wide use by the police, military, and FBI is a testament to how practical, capable, and popular the .38 Special cartridge was — and still is today. It should be looked at as a champion example of design and engineering. The .38 Special is a utilitarian, all-in-one option round for target shooters, hand loaders, and home defense alike.
Have you ever fired a .38 Special cartridge? If so, what are your thoughts on it? Let us know in the comment section.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in April of 2020. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.