Is the .38 special more powerful than the 9mm?

Bigger is better right? That’s what you might think at first glance when comparing a 9mm to a .38 special cartridge, but you’d be making a big mistake with an assumption like that. Is the 9mm more powerful than the .38 Special?

A 9mm is about 45% more powerful than a .38 special. The average 124gr bullet produces 465 ft-lbs of energy. In comparison, the equivalent .38 special bullet only produces 306 ft-lbs. 9mm and .38 are essentially the same bullets, but what makes the 9mm more powerful is the higher pressure producing a higher velocity.

This boggles the mind of many and is counterintuitive when comparing the two cartridges side by side. You are not alone if you assumed that the .38 Special is more potent than the 9mm, and I have made this same mistake myself.

Let’s dig deeper to figure out why the .38 Special isn’t more powerful than the 9mm. Let’s also consider the firearms that they are shot from and determine the advantages of each cartridge. Lastly, I want to establish if all this information makes the good ole .38 Special obsolete.

Why is 9mm more powerful than the .38 Special?

The .38 Special was designed to be used with black powder, which was slower burning and required more power to propel the bullet. This is why the .38 Special has a longer case length. The design of the case was limited by the powder that was being used at that time. While modern .38 Special cartridges are loaded with modern smokeless powder, the design of the .38 Special case is still limited to the same pressure of 17,000 PSI.

The 9mm was specifically designed to be loaded with modern smokeless powder and with cases that are safe to use at pressures almost double that of the .38 Special at around 34,000 PSI. This is the main contributing factor to why the 9mm has more stopping power than the .38 Special. 

The only advantage that the .38 Special has over the 9mm is that it can shoot a slightly heavier bullet of 158 grains. A 9mm is limited to a bullet weight of 147 grains. However, this advantage is short-lived because the extra 11 grains of bullet weight barely make up the energy difference gained by the 9mm from its superior velocity.

Is the 9mm better than the .38 Special?

The “9mm vs. .38 Special” debate has more to do with the guns they are fired out of than the actual cartridges themselves. For the most part, 9mm’s represent semi-automatic pistols and are the most commonly carried self-defense weapons today. On the other hand, a .38 Special almost always refers to a revolver. With that in mind, I want to look at the advantages of each platform and try to determine if the 9mm is better than the .38 Special.

Modern-day 9mm’s offer many advantages over .38 Special revolvers. The 9mm round has more stopping power than the .38 Special. In addition, 9mm pistols have a much higher capacity, are faster to reload, and follow-up shots are quicker and easier. Recoil is also dampened by the moving slide. There are more options, upgrades, and accessories available for 9mm pistols than for .38 revolvers. 

9mm Pistols.38 Special Revolvers
High CapacityBetter reliability
Faster to reloadSimple operation
Easier and faster follow up shots*Cool factor
More options, accessories, and upgrades

Having said that, for many, simplicity and inherent reliablity is too appealing to overlook.

Is the .38 Special Obsolete?

It’s difficult to compete with a smaller cartridge, packs more of a punch, and is designed to be used in pistols that shoot and reload faster. But does that make the .38 Special obsolete?

While there is nothing “Special” about the .38 Special when it comes to ballistics, the .38 Special is not obsolete. The cartridge packs more than enough stopping power to be used for self-defense. Being a predominantly revolver cartridge, it offers a platform that’s easy to use and is much more reliable most pistols out there. 

Revolvers do not need recoil to operate, and they have no slides that need to be racked and are not prone to malfunctions like pistols are. For thousands, this makes a .38 Special revolver far more appealing than a 9mm pistol, even though a revolver is limited to 5 rounds and takes longer to reload.

Do I need to mention the cool factor that a .38 Special revolver offers? Enough said…


While the .38 Special cartridge certainly looks more impressive, it is nowhere near as powerful as the 9mm. In fact, the 9mm packs around 45% more of a punch than a .38 Special. The .38 Special was designed to be used with black powder, which burns less efficiently than modern-day smokeless propellant. The less efficient powder meant that more powder was needed, hence the longer case.

Due to the lower efficiency of powder in those days, the .38 Special cases were only designed to withstand 17,000 PSI, a lot lower than a modern 9mm case which can withstand 14,000 PSI. That means more propellant can be loaded into the 9mm case, creating more pressure and producing more velocity from the same bullet.

Is that the only factor to consider when choosing between a 9mm and .38 Special? Of course not. The 9mm vs. .38 Special debate has more to do with the guns they are shot from than the actual cartridges themselves.

A .38 Special is certainly not obsolete, and it has more than enough stopping power to be used in self-defense. But one can’t overlook the many advantages the 9mm pistol has over the .38 special revolver. 9mm pistols offer higher capacity magazines that are faster to reload and quicker to shoot. They take advantage of many modern-day upgrades such as lights, lasers, and red dots that are mostly unavailable for revolvers.

However, a revolver still makes sense for many people who want a platform that is easier to use and inherently more reliable than a pistol.

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