Fired a couple of different 38 Special short barrel self defense loads in a Ruger LCR and S&W 637-CT yesterday. The LCR in 38 Special has one sweet trigger that is superior to the S&W 637-CT (Laser Grips / single & double action) and shoots dead-on at 21' with Buffalo Bore's (BB) Standard Pressure 158-gr. FBI load.
Recoil, OTOH, was noticeably more on the LCR with the factory supplied Hogue-Tamer finger grooved grips because it weighs 15% less.
The Model #5401 LCR is a polymer framed unit and only weighs 13.5-oz. with a 1.875" barrel that retails for $525. The S&W 637-CT (aluminum stainless steel Airweight) weighs 16-oz. with Crimson Trace Laser Grips and 1.875" barrel (retails for $901), but recoil definitely felt about 15% +/- less.
I tried 3 different types of ammo in the LCR and each brand appeared to recoil the same, with the Buffalo Bore load yielding the tightest groups offhand at 1 1/2" by 2". The LCR was then put in a shooting vice and yielded the following results (after perfectly aligning the open sights and locking things down):
1. Federal Classic 38 Special +P 158-gr. LSWCHP (Item #C38G) grouped 4" low and 3" to the left at 21'.
2. Speer Short Barrel 38 Special +P 135-gr. Gold Dot (Item #23921) grouped 2" low and 2" to the left at 21'.
3. Buffalo Bore Short Barrel Standard Pressure 158-gr. LWC-HP (Item #20C) grouped dead-on left-to-right and 1/4" high (probably due to a warm barrel) at 21'.
For self defense, the wife uses the S&W 637-CT (small exposed hammer & laser) with Speer Gold Dot 135-gr. or Federal 158-gr. +P FBI load. I have used this setup with a laser to shoot 1 1/8" ragged groups 1/2 dozen times while braising myself. Federal's 158-gr. load shoots within 1/4" of Speer's short barrel load with the laser.
The LCR will be a BUG and naturally stoked with Buffalo Bore's Standard Pressure Short Barrel 158-gr. since this load shoots to Point of Aim (POA) with the factory sights. Basically, Buffalo Bore's #20C load pushes a 158-gr. HP at the same speed as Speer's 135-gr. HP (both at about 850 fps) with the same recoil.
Out of the 3 types of ammo, I have concluded that they're all suitable for self defense and I would not hesitate to go into the ammo supply in storage for either load in either revolver.
Note: Shooting 148-gr. wadcutters in both snubnose revolvers is much funner / manageable for extended shooting time. If you bring your spouse to the range, let her shoot a larger 38 Special with the potty mouth cat recoil. Wadcutters offer the lowest recoil, then FMJ, and etc., so there's no harm in letting them shoot lighter recoiling loads in a snubnose.
When your life is on the line, recoil won't be felt and it won't matter.