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
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 type||Rimmed, 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 length||1.155 in|
|Overall length||1.550 in|
|Primer type||Small 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.
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 type||Rimless, 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 length||1.275 in|
|Primer type||Large size pistol|
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.
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.
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
When comparing the ballistics of the .38 Special and the .45 ACP, it's important to consider their respective advantages and applications.
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||135||JHP||860 fps||222 ft-lbs|
|Hornady Critical Defense||110||FTX||1,010 fps||249 ft-lbs|
|Federal Hydra-Shok||129||JHP||950 fps||258 ft-lbs|
|Winchester PDX1 Defender||130||JHP||950 fps||260 ft-lbs|
|Remington Golden Saber||125||JHP||975 fps||264 ft-lbs|
|Sellier & Bellot FMJ||158||FMJ||889 fps||277 ft-lbs|
Popular 45 ACP personal defense rounds and FMJ:
|45 ACP Loads||Bullet Grain||Bullet Style||Muzzle Velocity (fps)||Muzzle Energy (ft-lbs)|
|Federal Premium HST||230||Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP)||890||404|
|Speer Gold Dot||230||Gold Dot Hollow Point (GDHP)||890||404|
|Hornady Critical Duty||220||FlexLock||975||464|
|Winchester Ranger T-Series||230||Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP)||890||404|
|Remington Golden Saber||185||Brass Jacketed Hollow Point (BJHP)||1,015||423|
|Winchester White Box (FMJ)||230||Full Metal Jacket (FMJ)||835||356|
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.
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.
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:
- 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
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.
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.
- 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
- Smith Wesson Model 10
- Ruger LCR
- Smith Wesson Bodyguard 38
- Taurus 605
- Ruger SP101
Read related article: 38 special vs 380 ACP