The 38 Special, especially when loaded to +P pressure, is a decent cartridge in terms of terminal ballistics: that is, of course, when fired from service size revolvers, typically ranging from four to six inches in barrel length. Drop down to a two inch barrel and things change dramatically. Namely, it becomes hard to find expanding hollow points that will reliably expand due to the loss of velocity that comes along with a two inch barrel. The common Smith and Wesson J Frame and the Ruger LCR actually clock in with a sub-two inch barrel of around 1.875 inches. However, the snub nose revolver is certainly the most common revolver variant carried today by people for personal protection. This has led to some significant improvements in 38 Special ammunition in the past decade or so.
When compared to the typical service calibers, namely 9mm, 40s&w and 45acp, 38 Special offers significantly less to choose from in terms of adequate defensive ammunition, especially for the short barrel. Even the best 38 loads do not compare to the good cartridges in these afore mentioned service chamberings. Carrying a snub revolver is usually acknowledged as a compromise. We compromise on capacity and overall capability, as well as power.
Based on my research and the gel tests I have seen the best performing round from a snubby seems to be the Remington 125 grain +P Golden Saber (ironic since it is an older round). The down side is that this load has excessive muzzle flash and has substantial recoil. The cartridge that seems to be paraded as the best is the Speer Gold Dot 135 grain +P Short Barrel load. It seems a good load but I have seen gel tests where it fails to expand at all. I think this load tends to get favoritism since it is the load of choice for a couple of large police departments. Despite many rather poor gel tests the Gold Dot round actually has some significant street credit and that means a lot.
Another option for short barreled snubs, believe it or not, is to use 148 grain lead wadcutters. The idea here is that the wadcutter does much better in flesh than a ball round OR a hollow point that fails to expand. The wadcutter actually cuts a more substantial hole than does a round nose bullet. Due to the consistent failure of hollow points to expand when fired from snubbys, I can’t argue with this logic. Therefore, what round can we actually rely on to perform well from a sub revolver? Actually, none. There is simply too little velocity to reliably open a hollow point. A good load may or may not expand, period. So, what should we use?
Here is my suggestion: use either wadcutters or one of the modern hollow points that seem to expand, at least sometimes, then determine what to use based on the most critical consideration when choosing ammo for your snub: point of impact. Fixed sight snub revolvers will shoot different bullet weights and different loads to dramatically different points of impact compared to the sights. For example, I use Hornady Critical Defense 110 grain +P in my Ruger LCR because it hits exactly to point of aim. The Critical Defense load is rather over-hyped and from the snub it does not expand consistently, but again, nothing really does. However, I know exactly where this load will go when fired from my gun. The heavier bullet weights of the good Speer or Federal loads don’t hit to point of aim, so I use the Hornady round that does.
That, my friends, is the most important consideration when choosing a load for your snub. Whether it be a given hollow point or just wadcutters, go with the round that hits to point of aim in your gun, that is what matters. Beyond that, train so that you can make hits with the small and ever-challenging snub.