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  • Post last modified:April 9, 2023

In this 38 Special VS 45 ACP article, lets discuss talk about these two popular calibers that have stood the test of time in terms of ballistic performance, penetration capabilities, recoil management, and overall effectiveness for various applications.

History of the 38 Special and 45 ACP

38 Special

38 special personal defense low recoil 110 grain hydra shok

he .38 Special, a versatile and popular cartridge, was developed by Smith & Wesson in 1898 as an improvement over the .38 Long Colt. It gained popularity quickly for its accuracy, shootability, manageable recoil, and effective ballistics.

Parent case.38 Long Colt
Case typeRimmed, straight
Bullet diameter.357 in
Land diameter.346 in
Neck diameter.379 in
Base diameter.379 in
Rim diameter.44 in
Rim thickness.058 in
Case length1.155 in
Overall length1.550 in
Primer typeSmall pistol

The .38 Special has a long service history with various military and law enforcement agencies and is still used today for everyday carry and home defense.

The cartridge was developed in response to the inadequacy of the .38 Long Colt in the Philippines against the Moros, who were using shields that the Long Colt could not penetrate.

The .38 Special is 9x29mmR with a straight-walled, center-fired case, and it originally had a case capacity of 23.4 grains.

It was designed to launch a medium-weight projectile at a medium speed, with the average range round moving at about 700 feet per second.

45 ACP

45 acp pistol ammo

The history of the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) cartridge dates back to the late 1800s and is closely associated with John Moses Browning's 1911 pistol. This cartridge was developed due to a perceived need for a more powerful handgun caliber to combat Moro tribesmen in the Philippine jungles.

Case typeRimless, straight
Bullet diameter.452 in
Land diameter.442 in
Neck diameter.473 in
Base diameter.476 in
Rim diameter.480 in
Rim thickness.049 in
Case length.898 in
Overall length1.275 in
Primer typeLarge size pistol
john moses browning 1911

The U.S. Army commissioned a study, led by John Thompson and a surgeon partner named Lagarde, to determine the most effective caliber for stopping human threats. The study involved shooting live cows, horses, and human cadavers to measure the impact of various calibers.

45 ACP

Based on the study, the .45 caliber was deemed the minimum required to neutralize a human threat. This led to the development of the .45 ACP cartridge, which gained popularity during World War I.

Despite being a powerful and effective bullet at close range, the .45 ACP has some inherent flaws when compared to the .40 Smith & Wesson and the 10mm cartridge.

hk USP 45 tactical streamlight tlr 1 hl

The .45 ACP has a slower velocity and lower energy output than the .40 S&W and 10mm cartridges. While it was once considered one of the most powerful handgun calibers available, newer options now surpass it in terms of ballistic performance.

The .45 ACP's popularity is primarily due to its association with the 1911 pistol, rather than any superior stopping power.

38 Special VS 45 ACP - Ballistic Characteristics

38 special vs 45 acp

When comparing the ballistics of the .38 Special and the .45 ACP, it's important to consider their respective advantages and applications.

38 special expansion

Here is a brief comparison chart for all popular 38 special and 45 ACP rounds:

38 Special Load
Bullet Grain
Bullet Style
Muzzle Velocity
Muzzle Energy
Speer Gold Dot
860 fps
222 ft-lbs
Hornady Critical Defense
1,010 fps
249 ft-lbs
Federal Hydra-Shok
950 fps
258 ft-lbs
Winchester PDX1 Defender
950 fps
260 ft-lbs
Remington Golden Saber
975 fps
264 ft-lbs
Sellier & Bellot FMJ
889 fps
277 ft-lbs

Popular 45 ACP personal defense rounds and FMJ:

45 ACP LoadsBullet GrainBullet StyleMuzzle Velocity (fps)Muzzle Energy (ft-lbs)
Federal Premium HST230Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP)890404
Speer Gold Dot230Gold Dot Hollow Point (GDHP)890404
Hornady Critical Duty220FlexLock975464
Winchester Ranger T-Series230Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP)890404
Remington Golden Saber185Brass Jacketed Hollow Point (BJHP)1,015423
Winchester White Box (FMJ)230Full Metal Jacket (FMJ)835356

The .38 Special, a low-pressure handgun round with a medium-weight bullet and slow muzzle velocity, is a popular choice for self-defense. However, some shooters prefer overpressure rounds for their defensive needs.

More affordable and less powerful than the .357 Magnum, the .38 Special is compatible with firearms chambered for the larger cartridge. Its accuracy and manageable recoil make it ideal for personal protection, casual target shooting, and small game hunting.

holosun 507c red dot pov

On the other hand, the .45 ACP boasts a .451" diameter bullet that creates a devastatingly wide wound channel, even with non-expanding FMJs. Its 230-grain bullet offers the mass necessary for deep penetration through soft tissue.

Ballistically, the .45 ACP's relatively low 830 fps muzzle velocity allows for manageable recoil and muzzle blast for experienced shooters (It's a push like recoil sensation), leading to accurate but slow paced firing. Its low chamber pressure helps prevent excessive wear on a weapon, crucial for those who may rely on the same firearm for extended periods.

Bullet Weight 

The most common grain weights for 38 special are:

  • 95 grains (lighter bullet)
  • 110 grains
  • 125 grains
  • 130 grains
  • 148 grains
  • 158 grains (most common)
  • 200 grains (heavier bullet)

The most common grain weights for 45 ACP are:

federal 45 acp 230 grain
  • 165 grains (lighter bullet)
  • 185 grains
  • 200 grains
  • 230 grains (most common)
  • 255 grains (heavier bullet)

45 ACP VS 38 Special - Bullet Velocity

The .45 ACP, being a heavier and slower round, often exhibits greater penetration, particularly when it comes to misses that only pass through drywall.

Defensive hollow point 185 grain 45 ACP bullet at around 936 - 1000 ft/s is designed to expand upon impact can still struggle to lose their momentum when they merely make contact with drywall.

A Speer Gold Dot 125 grain 38 special JHP at around 945 ft/s is similar to a defensive 45 ACP round with less overall penetration. Its light bullet weight can yield reduced barrier penetration inside a home.

45 ACP VS 38 Special - Accuracy & Range

uspsa target

The effective range of the .45 ACP, when fired from a 5-inch barrel, is approximately 120 yards. At this distance, the bullet experiences its most significant drop, impacting both accuracy and terminal performance. This caliber is often used in full-sized handguns, such as the classic 5" barrel 1911 pistol.

On the other hand, the .38 Special, when fired from a 4-inch barrel revolver like the Ruger GP100, demonstrates a reliable effective range of around 25 yards. Within this range, shooters can achieve a consistent 3-inch shot group, making it an ideal choice for personal defensive revolver.

38 Special VS 45 ACP Recoil Performance

A standard 185 gr 38 special recoil feels like a 9mm on a full steel frame pistol and revolver. It doesn't have any slap to the hand sensation like a 40 SW or a push sensation.

A standard 230 grain 45 ACP feels like a slow push on a full frame handgun. It kicks, but it kicks way less than a 40SW.

On a subcompact 45 gun like the Glock 36, the recoil and hand slap sensation will be much more noticeable.


ammo prices

Just like most calibers have different loads. Different loads cost differently.

On average 230 grain 45 ACP FMJ ball ammo costs about $0.4 - $0.54/round

Higher end personal defense 45 ACP like the 185 gr Hornady FTX critical defense costs about $1 - 1.15/ round

On the other hand, a standard 125 gr 38 special cost about $0.5 - $0.56 / round.

On the 38 special personal defense ammo category,  it's about $1 / round

In addition, both calibers can be reloaded. However, 45 ACP empty shells are much easier to spot and collect at any indoor and outdoor range due to its mass popularity across the country.

Popular Firearms

45 ACP

fn 545 fde
  • Glock 21 and 36
  • Kimber 1911 and different variants of 1911
  • HK USP 45 Tactical
  • FN 545
  • FNX 45 Tactical
  • Springfield XDS 45
  • Smith Wesson M&P 45 Shield

38 Special

smith wesson bodyguard 380
  • Smith Wesson Model 10
  • Ruger LCR
  • Smith Wesson Bodyguard 38
  • Taurus 605
  • Ruger SP101

Read related article: 38 special vs 380 ACP