Check out the Ellifritz study on buckeyefirearms.org.
Statistics from Greg Ellifritz's analysis of the .38 Special:
# of people shot - 199
# of hits - 373
% of hits that were fatal - 29%
Average number of rounds until incapacitation - 1.87
% of people who were not incapacitated - 17%
One-shot-stop % - 39%
Accuracy (head and torso hits) - 76%
% actually incapacitated by one shot (torso or head hit) - 55%
The .38 Special is an excellent cartridge for self-defense and training. I notice that I said in my comments on the .380 ACP that the .38 did not fare well in the Ellifritz study. I am not sure what I was thinking when I wrote that, but I was likely mixing up the .38 with the 9mm. While both the one-shot-stop percentage (39%) and the “actually incapacitated by one shot” (55%) are lower than the .357, the numbers are quite respectable. Also the .38 tops every caliber except the .45 ACP in terms of the number of people who have been shot with it. It is a very widely used round. Back in the 1980s during a brief and regrettable stint in a quasi-law enforcement capacity, I sometimes carried an ancient Smith & Wesson .38 Special M&P, also known, I believe as the Model 10. It had a 4-inch barrel, and I loaded it with 158-grain roundnose. Fortunately I never had occasion to use except for qualification. The DA trigger pull was slick and smooth. The old revolver shot quite well. I should have tried to buy from the government agency that employed me, but I had other priorities at the time.
I have a Rossi Model 68 (5-shot) with a two-inch barrel in .38 Special that I have hauled all over the country in my glovebox or console. I have slipped it in my back pocket to answer the door a few times. I have slept with it under my pillow in certain situations. It is a handy little gun, not exceptionally accurate, but about what a person would expect from a snub-nose. If I am serious about needing it for self-defense, I load it with Winchester 110-grain Silvertips. This is premium ammunition, but it is the only standard pressure round (non-+P) I have tried that expands reliably and penetrates sufficiently from a two-inch barrel. If your life is going to depend on it, it is worth the money.
Generally, it is better to go with a slightly larger weapon in .38. In fact the best choice is probably a .357. One could argue reasonably that all a person really needs is a .357 magnum revolver with a 4-inch or 6-inch barrel. Loaded with .38 Special rounds, it can be used for target practice and occasional, opportunistic small-game hunting. With .38 +P or .357 loads, it can be used for self-defense and hunting game up to the size of whitetails.
While the .357 has sharp and sometimes painful muzzle blast, the .38 Special generally speaks softly. It is an excellent choice for training new handgun shooters. Ammunition is common and usually widely available. Reloaders will not find it much of a chore to crank out a nice variety of good quality, reliable, and accurate handloads for the .38 revolver. I also like the fact that the .38 comes in revolvers. Some people object to the capacity issue, but we should note that “average number of rounds until incapacitation” for this round is only 1.87. Two or three shots properly placed shots will take down an attacker more often than not. While it might not be the perfect solution for dispatching hordes of zombies, a revolver is very reliable and endures neglect better than an autoloader which is more tolerant of abuse. Double-action revolvers in particular are somewhat more prone to wear and breakage if they get thrown around or stepped on by a cow or run over by a truck. But they will sit patiently in a dresser draw for years and function perfectly when taken out.
Because it is controllable in smaller revolvers, the .38 Special is good choice for concealed carry, if a person prefers a wheelgun over an autoloader – and there are valid reasons for such a preference. A good double-action shooter can fire a revolver faster than an autoloader can cycle. That person would not be me, but check out a Youtube of the inimitable Jerry Miculek..
Another nice feature of revolvers, at least for me, is there is no need to rack the slide. If your revolver is loaded, it is ready to fire. While I can carry my DA autoloader safely with a round in the chamber, I usually do not. If I am going out to check what the dog is barking at after dark, and grab a handgun, it is more likely to be a revolver for the simple reason that I don’t want to have to chamber a round unnecessarily before I go out. A revolver is not finicky about loads or bullet shapes or how the shooter holds it. It will generally go ‘bang’ about every time, and, even if it doesn’t, there is no need to clear a jam. It is simple, and sometimes simple is good.