Saturday, June 15, 2013

9mm versus .38 Special, women and guns, plus a little bit of history

The Daily Caller has an interesting story about what happened when a woman, one of their reporters, went shopping for a personal defense handgun. The story shows that several of the gun shops she visited did a good job, paid attention to what she wanted and what she would use it for, and talked with her about getting a gun that fits her hands and fits her needs. The recommendation from multiple sources: She should buy this or that high quality 9mm pistol.

The Caller editor remarked, and I agree, that it was surprising that not one shop mentioned the .38 Special as an alternative. I have seen an article somewhere or other, written by some woman or other, to the effect  that recommending revolvers to women is somehow condescending, as if women cannot learn to handle automatics properly. Maybe the salesmen in the shops read the same article. I think it more likely, though, that suggesting a revolver never entered their minds, because auto pistols are so much more popular these days. The gun stores keep some revolvers around in case an old timer like me comes in and asks for one.

The revolver is simpler to use, to clean and to inspect for correct operation. Some women struggle a bit to work the slide on an automatic, but most can manage to get the right judo on it and shuck in a round. My feeling, though, is that the revolver is a friendlier, more convenient piece of machinery, whether you are a man or a woman, and a good revolver is adequate to most self defense situations. I would have at least put the .38 forward as an option, if presented with the reporter's particular requirements.

My thinking on the matter goes back to the "wonder nine" craze of the nineteen seventies and eighties, in which many new pistols were introduced that held what then seemed like a whole lot of 9mm ammunition. My thinking has evolved only a little bit since. I now acknowledge that there are some situations in which you are actually safer for having thirteen or fifteen or seventeen shots in the gun as opposed to five or six. Such situations are, fortunately, infrequent. Do you plan around the worst case scenario or average requirements?  That is the key question. How you answer it will tell you whether you will feel comfortable carrying a revolver. Me, I'm comfortable.

Back in that long ago era, it was accepted wisdom that the best thing you can do to up your survival chances, whether you are packing a .38 or a wonder nine, is to make sure that your first shot is a hit. If you can do that, each remaining round is of diminishing importance.

Back then, the "New York reload" was a commonplace response to worries about having too little firepower. That consisted of a full sized .38 on the belt and a little snubnose .38 carried somewhere out of sight.

The .38 Special +P cartridge is an enduring favorite of mine. It has about as much power as I want to deal with in a small lightweight gun. In a full sized revolver it is easily controllable and quite accurate. It is not a bowl-em-over powerhouse but it is respectable.

One of the better loadings is a lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint 158-grain bullet over a +P powder charge, the old FBI load, which was used also by a number of police departments. It is still quite a good defensive round, with a long record of effectiveness. With a plentiful supply of these cartridges and a good revolver or two, I feel that my armament is most likely sufficient. This setup is not the latest thing but I see no reason why it wouldn't work as well now as it ever did.

The Caller article concludes without the reporter having made up her mind about which gun to buy, so I hope there will be a sequel. The gun stores that knew their business and listened to their customer gave her a lot of good and useful information. She did a good job of sorting out the wheat from the chaff. The story demystifies the key aspects of how to choose a gun. Pass the story on to those who are contemplating a first-time purchase.


  1. Hand strength is the largest determination as to which type of pistol to carry. My mother carries a 4 inch .38 special with +P's my cousin does as well. They have problems operating the slide of my .32 auto, my Tokarev or my 1911. So for them the .38 with +P loads and 2 speed loaders are best. My oldest daughter on the other hand prefers my 1911 or my Tokarev over any of my revolvers. And she is trying to wheedle me out of my FEG .32 ACP.

    1. Something that helps a lot of women, and men with hand strength issues, is to hold the slide between the fingers and the heel of the hand and push the pistol's handle forward, instead of pulling back on the slide. An article about it:

      Still... Though people who can barely work the slide can get the gun loaded okay, they may have undue problems running the auto pistol's stoppage drills, particularly clearing a double feed.

      Personally, I like the revolver's simple and intuitively obvious operation. To load, put cartridges in the holes. To unload and show clear, make sure all the holes are empty...