The problem of short barreled guns for self-defense

Short-barreled firearms are great for concealment and ease of carry;  but their short barrels don’t give much time for propellants to burn, and as a result, the muzzle velocity they produce (and, consequently, the muzzle energy imparted to the bullets they fire) is usually lower (sometimes much lower) than that imparted by longer barrels.

Tamara posted on her blog this morning about that effect in .38 Special snub-nose revolvers.  You should click over there to read the whole thing (it’s worth it), but briefly, here are the average muzzle velocities she recorded out of a Smith & Wesson revolver with a 2″ barrel for various brands of ammunition:

  • Remington 158gr LSWCHP +P:  852.2 feet per second average muzzle velocity, 255 foot-pounds average muzzle energy
  • Federal Hydra-Shok 147gr JHP +P+:  847.3 fps, 234 fpe
  • Federal Gold Medal Match 148gr wadcutter:  662.5 fps, 144 fpe
  • Federal HST 130gr. JHP +P:  782.9 fps, 177 fpe

None of those figures are terribly impressive, are they?  They illustrate just how much velocity and energy is lost when using a very-short-barreled firearm.

That’s the reason I have very specific recommendations for what to load into your small .380 ACP pistol, or your .38 Special or .357 Magnum snub-nose revolver.  I’ve used all of these rounds myself, and I know they work as advertised.  They’re not cheap, but you get what you pay for.

For small .380 ACP pistols such as the Ruger LCP (which I use) or Kel-Tec’s P3AT, and their ilk, I recommend the following (and I strongly endorse Buffalo Bore’s warning about the cartridge, which you’ll find at the links provided):

(I don’t recommend hollow-point ammunition in very small firearms chambered for the .380 ACP cartridge, as the velocity they’ll develop is too low to guarantee both penetration and expansion.  When that’s the case, it’s more important to be able to reach vital organs to shut down your attacker – so go for penetration, and don’t worry about expansion.  Frankly, I regard a small .380 ACP pistol as being a backup weapon for my primary handgun, which will be chambered for a more powerful cartridge.  I don’t regard the .380 ACP round as an adequate primary performer.)

For standard-pressure (i.e. not +P) .38 Special ammunition, required in older firearms not rated for higher pressures (and/or for shooters who aren’t comfortable with brisk recoil), I recommend one of the following loads:

For .38 Special +P ammunition, only in guns rated to handle the increased pressure:

For .357 Magnum snub-nose revolvers, I’ll usually load Buffalo Bore’s .38 Special +P round (listed above), since it works very well.  If I specifically want .357 Magnum levels of performance, I’ll choose one of these:

Just in case you were wondering, no, I’ve not been paid or otherwise compensated by any manufacturer to mention their products.  I’ve bought and used all of the above rounds, using my own money, and I entrust my own life to their performance.  That’s why I’m confident in recommending them to my readers.  In particular, I like Buffalo Bore’s practice of testing their rounds in actual firearms, rather than in vented test barrels, and publishing the actual velocities thus obtained.  This represents the way the ammo will perform in your gun, rather than under highly optimized, specialized laboratory conditions.  I wish more manufacturers would follow Buffalo Bore’s example.

Some will object that premium ammunition, such as that recommended above, is very expensive.  Yes, it is.  Clearly, one won’t use it for daily practice, as it would rapidly become unaffordable.  However, when the chips are down and you’re fighting for your life, you want the best tools you can get to help you stay alive.  It’s worth saving up for a few boxes of the ‘good stuff’, and reserving it for ‘social use’, particularly when carrying a small handgun that can’t offer the performance, or magazine capacity, or ease of use, of a larger weapon.

(I also recommend installing a lighter set of springs in your snubnose revolver, such as those offered by Wolff Gunsprings [available for revolvers from various manufacturers – see the list in the sidebar at the link] or Apex Tactical [available for Smith & Wesson snub-nose revolvers only].  They make the long double-action trigger pull a lot lighter, so that the gun is easier to control.  Make sure to fire at least a hundred trouble-free rounds through the gun after fitting them, to ensure reliable ignition of the primers.)

That’s my $0.02 worth, anyway.  YMMV, and all that sort of thing . . .



  1. Am I the only one that carries a .44 special with a 3" barrel?

    It may not be the latest and greatest, but I can hit what I aim for.

  2. @Anonymous at 6:30 PM: No, I carry one as well on occasion (Charter Arms Bulldog or, recently, the new .44 Special Ruger GP100. It's a very good choice, with the right ammunition (again, I use Buffalo Bore in mine).

    However, such revolvers are much larger and bulkier than a typical .38 Special snub-nose revolver or a small .380 ACP pistol; so, for a lot of people, concealing it is difficult in their usual everyday garb. For that reason, I reserve mine for carrying in the outer pocket of an overcoat or jacket during colder weather, where the bulk of the garment conceals the bulk of the gun. I also have one to hand at my desk, in case of need, because concealment isn't a factor there. For those uses, they're ideal.

  3. My father, an FBI agent, carried a S&W Chiefs Special with Peters wadcutters. He never in 28 years had to draw it. He had full confidence in it even after flying P-47s with 8 50s in combat. I used his revolver with snake shot in 2 cylinders while working in TN yard brush till recently. For self defense – well, better, much better than nothing. I EDC carry 16 rds of S&W 40. For the brush I now carry 45 Colt shot shells. I love to shoot 38 spl but prefer not to rely on it. If you need a very small carry gun, find a well made 9mm Luger with 6 or 7 rds of 9mm+P.

  4. Peter, I have a P-64 (9x18mm, of course) that I keep in the truck, & occasionally stick in a pocket of my overalls when working around the property, just 'cause it's convenient. Would I be amiss in thinking you'd suggest a similar round for that pistol? The 9×18 is, I believe, a bit hotter than the .380, but is certainly no Parabellum, & the P-64 does have a rather short barrel.
    I've been using a Hornady XTP in it, & they've worked well enough when I've tested them against lumber & such. I may look at a lead bullet. I already use wadcutters in my Charter Undercover, but it's just an old hang-around that I grab for convenience as I'm passing by the spot it stays in, on my way to the porch or similar.
    Thanks–good post!
    –Tennessee Budd

  5. " In particular, I like Buffalo Bore's practice of testing their rounds in actual firearms, rather than in vented test barrels"

    I quit using Sierra reloading data because of this. Due to the large differences in manufacturing tolerences in factory mass produced firearms, particularly the use of chambering reamers from new to 'bout worn out' you see a wide variance in velocities from otherwise identical firearms. As an Instrumentation Engineer I find this particularly objectionable and recommend you reconsider your faith in this practice. Using spec test barrels makes the velocities comparable between different manufacturers. Using factory guns makes the numbers useless between different manufacturers. Measuring velocities from your own firearms is the only way to get real data from your particular firearm…the rest is just (tenuous) comparisons.

  6. For .38 Spl +P, I've switched from the Speer Gold Dot 135HP to the Winchester Ranger Bonded 130HP +P, based on this testing by LuckyGunner Labs, which found it to be the most effective round (in FBI protocol gel tests) in 38Spl for both 2" and 4" barrels. BTW, they tested a wide variety of 38's and 357, and this recommended round is not one they even have available for sale, so it isn't a marketing ploy.

    Fortunately, CDNN currently has this ammo available for $15 per box of 50 rounds, an excellent price. I picked up 500 rounds:

  7. I'm no ballistician, but have reached these general conclusions:
    For various reasons,.38/.357 bullets from a snubbie may fail to expand. An acceptable alternate might be a heavy flatpoint or SJSP standard (not reduced) pressure load. Muzzle blast and flash may be significant, but ammo designed for short bbl guns is now available.

    In a semiauto, feeding reliability may be a more immediate concern than terminal effectiveness. My 3913 and my Kimber eat everything. But my PPK/s has distinct preferences, and hates Blazer alum.
    It seems hardball 9mm and .380 have a reputation for overpenetration. Flatpoint bullets should reduce this, and cause more tissue disruption as well.
    Do your research, and test for function.

    I find compact semiautos easier to conceal than J or K frame snubbies, and reload much quicker. Revolvers are arguably more reliable, at the cost of increased bulk and reduced capacity.
    A compact single-stack 9mm is not significantly larger than a small .380, and offers advantages in effectiveness and shootability.

    Other factors may come into play- some may be unable to manipulate the slide of a semiauto. Those might consider a revolver, or a tilt-barrel pistol.
    Carry options and holster choice will require some trial and error.

    Do not neglect training, testing and professional support.

    And don't believe everything you see on the internet.


  8. EDIT: The default bullet weight in the online calculator I use is 150 grains, and somehow I reported the 130gr HSTs as being 150gr bullets. This has been corrected in the text. My apologies. Thank you to Rich Grassi for catching the error; he let me know this morning, but correction had to wait until I got back to my laptop.

  9. "Revolvers are arguably more reliable…" They are also arguably LESS reliable than modern semi auto pistols. While I still love good revolvers, I am much less likely to rely on them for self defense – and has nothing to do with concealability. The malfunctions that occur in a revolver are likely to require too long to fix in a fight and many require tools. High primers locking up the cylinder, powder residue under the extractor star binding up the action, bent ejector rod binding up the gun, or extractor rod becoming unscrewed doing the same. Bullets jumping out under recoil, binding the gun. Old style hammer mounted firing pins breaking. Spent case getting hung up under the extractor star, locking up the gun. And the new revolver favorite, the idiot internal lock engaging spontaneously, and no key is available to unlock it. And too light a spring set causing failures to fire ("but I tested it with one lot of ammo and it worked just fine, guess the new lot had harder primers"). A great example of one is none and two is one. But all that said, I'll carry a good J Frame as backup or to go to the mailbox, and a .44 mag is still a good choice for bear country…

  10. @ Tom-
    I'm aware of possible revolver malfunctions, which is why I qualified my statement. As you noted those failures will render a wheelgun useless until corrected.
    I enjoy and respect my Smiths, all pre-lock. One of my favorites is the 640, which has been a traveling companion for many years. But due to its limited capacity and slow reloads it is now relegated to backup status. Another favorite is my 3" M65, which fills the niche between the J frame and the 4" 686. Neither of those are particularly concealable, and share the (arguable) drawbacks of all revolvers.
    I prefer a semiauto as a primary sidearm. My .45 ACP Kimber Compact is suitably customized and has proven trustworthy over 20 years and thousands of rounds.
    It is without a doubt what I will reach for when the chips are down.


  11. I've been carrying the Buffalo Bore 150-gr wadcutters in all of my snubs and have bought them for my daughter-in-law to sue in her SP 101. I'm a believer in those flying cookie-cutters.
    Boat Guy

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