A hot topic among serious personal-defense shooters is ammunition for the handguns that we really carry. It is fine to consider the ballistic differences between all calibers, but when it gets to brass tacks, the snubnose 38 Special revolver is a handgun that all of us know and use. The 38 snub is still the most popular backup handgun and the one that makes the most sense. While the 38 Special may be a backup for armed professionals, the 38 is a primary handgun for shopkeeps and armed citizens. The 38 is a particularly good choice for female shooters. When the assailant is at bad-breath range and the action becomes intimate, the only answer is to press the handgun against the attacker’s body and press the trigger. A self-loader would jam after the first shot. A peace officer who is defending against a gun grab would be in much the same situation.
The 38 Special snubnose revolver is often criticized as being inaccurate and difficult to handle, but it is all in indoctrination. We think that sometimes the shooter attempts to go too light. A steel-frame handgun is by no means too heavy if proper attention is given to concealment leather. A good-quality holster that properly conceals the snub 38 and keeps it in place will take care of the characteristic sag of a heavy handgun. When you put a steel-frame revolver in the pocket, the pocket droops. The pocket also droops with a lightweight handgun, only less. With the steel-frame revolver and practice, good shooting may be done. The 38 Special is simply too good a choice to ignore.
When it comes to ammunition choices, there are many, and the choice is very important. Conventional wisdom holds that the traditional 158-grain roundnose lead 38 Special factory loading is a widow maker, often producing little effect on the target. Historical documents and common wisdom agree. But some of the fixes were no better. Jacketed hollowpoints that do not expand are no help. Hollowpoints that open too quickly are about as bad. One of our raters arrived on the scene of a shooting some years ago in which a perpetrator had been shot in the middle of the forehead with a 110-grain 38 Special. He went out like a light. While the arriving officers milled around, the subject recovered his senses, sat up, and then ran away! It was later discovered that the bullet had penetrated the skull cap and expanded to 1 inch or more on the occipital ridge of the skull and stopped. The skull was not cracked. On another occasion, one of our raters shot a robber in the leg with the 38 Special, and the man did not realize he had been shot until he noticed the blood trickling down his leg. He sat down and rolled his pants legs up in disbelief! On the other hand, we have on hand a number of cases in which the 38 Special performed superbly in the hands of good men and women. The point is, the 38 Special is all of the cartridge the occasional shooter is willing to handle, particularly in pint-sized handguns. The smaller cartridges are not enough and the larger cartridges are often too much to control. If we carefully maximize load selection, the 38 Special should get us through the night.
There are conflicting viewpoints on the 38 snub and ammunition selection. Some advocate non-expanding loads. For several generations writers and other authorities have recommended the 148-grain target wadcutter for personal defense. The line of reasoning is that the flat nose will hit harder than the round nose loading, and cut tissue rather than push it aside. The wadcutter loads are very controllable. But low velocity is an issue, as these loads barely break 650 fps from a full-size handgun. Another line of reasoning was to use a heavy bullet. The late Chick Gaylord, an influential writer in his time, recommended the Super Police 200-grain load. One of our raters relies upon a handload using a 200-grain hard-cast bullet at 850 fps from a 2-inch barrel. While either line of reasoning has merit, we recommend only factory-fresh ammunition for personal defense.
This test program was a little different than others. As a rule the ammunition is tested for ballistic effect and not for the recoil factor in different handguns, although we consider power factor important. However, since so many shooters use ultra-light 38s and others rely upon steel-frame handguns, we tested a representative sample of each load in both steel-frame and aluminum-frame handguns. Let’s face it, some loads are controllable in a steel-frame handgun but over the edge in the light frames. Then there is another drawback — the ultralight handguns are prohibited from using lead bullets. Why? Because the recoil is so great that a lead bullet could strip the crimp and move forward to tie the handgun up. The factory knows what they are recommending. The prohibition against lead loads should be respected.
Another consideration: In the past, most expanding-bullet loads were designed with service-length barrels in mind. A load that clocked 900 fps from a 4-inch-barrel revolver might perform well. When the same load clocked 780 fps from a 2-inch-barrel revolver, it may expand and it may not. A bullet designed to expand at 780 fps from a snubnose revolver might fly apart when fired from a 4-inch barrel. Today, we have special loads designed primarily for 2-inch barrels.
With these criteria in mind, we fired the loads into water jugs and recorded the average penetration and expansion. We then studied the results and held a roundtable discussion on the merits of each, including penetration, expansion, and accuracy. Accuracy testing was another matter. We are simply not up to firing perfect groups or even good groups with a concealed hammer double-action-only 16-ounce 38. Just the same, accuracy testing is a legitimate measure of a cartridge’s efficiency. There have been rather long shots taken with the 38 that proved to be life-saving shots. Accuracy is important. We used a long-serving and proven revolver that belongs to one of our raters, a 2-inch Rossi 357 Magnum. This is his house gun that all of the family members are familiar with. With this handgun on the range, a Colt Detective Special became the family’s ready gun — that is how highly the Rossi revolver is valued. This revolver features hand-filling grips that are superbly comfortable. The grips offset the hand from the revolver’s steel frame. The sights are excellent sights of the type, giving a good clear sight picture.
The results demonstrate the potential of the cartridge. Expansion and penetration data was obtained by firing tests with a Smith & Wesson Model 60 2-inch-barrel revolver, largely because most of the handguns actually have a 17⁄8-inch barrel. Thus, the Model 60 represented the most common barrel length and gave the proper average results you too should get with your snubbie S&W.
Also, we fired at least a cylinder full of each load in both an aluminum-frame Smith & Wesson Model 442 and a steel-frame Smith & Wesson Model 60. None of our raters own anything lighter, and these are some big boys. Most of the loads fell into a rather narrow subjective perception of recoil. The Black Hills 125-grain JHP, the Buffalo Bore 125-grain JHP, the Remington 125-grain JHP, and the Federal 135-grain JHP were all rated as a little snappier than the standard-pressure 158-grain RNL load, but controllable. The same went for the 110-grain bullet loads. The 158-grain Winchester lead hollowpoint had more jolt due to its heavy bullet, but was not considered uncomfortable. The Glaser Safety Slug, despite its high velocity, offered very light recoil. The heavy bruiser of the bunch was the Buffalo Bore 158-grain +P. Frankly, we think this one is too much for an aluminum-frame revolver. This load is a bear to control in a Model 60 steel-frame revolver and the like. The Buffalo Bore load might be ideal for use in a Model 19 with 2.5-inch barrel or a 2-inch barrel Model 10, but only an experienced shooter need apply for use in a snub-nose revolver.
Gun Tests Grade A 38 Special Snubbie Loads Cor-Bon’s DPX Self Defense +P 110-grain DPX HP DPX38110/20, $25.80/20 (CTD #2-CORDPX38110). This is a top performer with an excellent balance of expansion and penetration. This load used the all-copper Barnes bullet, the advantages of which have been proven in heavier calibers. The all-copper bullet, it is claimed, is soft in the nose for expansion while the shank holds together for penetration. It was troubling that the petals on about one in five DPX bullets would not unfold, but then this is 17⁄8-inch-barrel performance. The DPX is not only reliable in expansion with a power factor of 114, this load is controllable. For our use, the raters seemed split among the X bullets — the Cor-Bon DPX and the Hornady FTX. But one just laughed and patted his well-worn 3-inch-barrel Model 36. He will deploy the Winchester FBI load for the foreseeable future.
Winchester Super-X Ammunition 158-grain Lead Hollow Point Semi-Wadcutter +P X38SPD $38.99/50 (MidwayUSA #765718). This load is among the most respected personal defense loads in 38 Special. The soft lead hollowpoint often expands well, even when fired from a short barrel, and generally the load has never received the complaints other 38 Special loads sometimes do. This load was once the standard issue of dozens of agencies, including the FBI. The soft lead hollowpoint is not always the most accurate loading, but it usually expands well, and our water tests bore this out. It is not loaded too heavy for good control, and the round is accurate enough for personal defense. This load remains a solid choice well worth its price. The total wound value as the FBI calls it, with the soft lead bullet traveling 15 inches and expanding to .66 inches, is impressive.
Cor-Bon Self-Defense +P JHP 110-grain 38110, $18.69/20 (CTD # 2-COR38110). This was another case of the Gold Dot bullet giving excellent performance. Of course, the way the bullet is loaded and the powder charge mean a lot. Actually bumping a bullet up to over 1,000 fps in a 2-inch barrel takes some doing. The balance of expansion and penetration in this loading is ideal, with 12 inches penetration and .64-inch expansion.
Buffalo Bore Standard Pressure Short Barrel 125-grain Gold Dot HP, $22.64/20 (CTD #82107). This load is made possible by the availability of the Speer Gold Dot short-barrel jacketed hollowpoint bullet. The bullet is loaded to higher velocity than most (factory velocity of 900 fps), and it expanded at 38 snubnose velocity. It exhibited both low flash and high velocity, even though it isn’t rated as a +P. This Buffalo Bore load offered an excellent balance of expansion and penetration with 13 inches of penetration and .62 inch expansion.
Speer Gold Dot Short-Barrel 135-grain JHP +P 23921, $21.57/20 (CTD #2-CCI23921). This load provides a quality jacketed hollowpoint for the new breed of lightweight handguns that could not use the lead hollowpoint. We liked this load a lot. While the performance of the load mirrors some of the 110- and 125-grain bullets, the 135-grain bullet offers greater mass. Produced 13 inches of penetration and .62-inch expansion. This load and the Buffalo Bore 125 are practically identical in performance.
Black Hills Ammunition 125-grain JHP +P M38N2 $33.86/50 (MidwayUSA #659687). Black Hills chose the Hornady XTP bullet for this load. The XTP demonstrates a good balance of expansion and penetration, but penetration is always favored. This was among the most economical loads tested. The Black Hills load was the most accurate loading tested. Also had the greatest penetration among the 100- to 125-grain JHPs and the least expansion. Expansion was less than the other loads, but the bullet did expand reliably. Shooting control was good because it was not loaded as hot as the others. This would be a good choice for those areas in which attackers might be bundled up for the winter.
Hornady Critical Defense 110-grain FTX JHP 90310, $17.45/25 (CTD #2-H90310). The Critical Defense bullet is designed to expand even after hitting heavy clothing or thick outer garments. This was the newest design tested, and it gave surprising performance. This was the single most consistent loading as far as expansion, with every bullet landing in exactly the same place in the jugs, time after time. The polymer cap was often pushed into the neck of the water jug, which was interesting. One of our raters made an interesting comment: Why push the bullet 100 fps faster with more recoil and blast, when the FTX will plump up this well at just over 900 fps? A solid choice.Remington UMC 125-grain JHP L38S2, $16.42/50 (CTD #6-0307969). This load has been around long enough to earn a good reputation. Not as hot as some of the others, the bullet expands well and penetration is in the ideal range. While some of the other loads demonstrate more penetration and more velocity, this is a solid choice. We have seen this load available in 100-round bulk packs at Academy Sports, which makes the load very attractive.
Gun Tests Grade B 38 Special Snubbie Loads Cor-Bon Pow’RBall 100-grain JHP +P PB38100 $19.74/20 (CTD #2-CORPB38100). The Pow’RBall bullet features a cavernous hollow nose filled with a polymer ball. The claim to fame in revolver loads is that the polymer ball will keep the bullet expanding whatever resistances is met. In our tests, the Pow’RBall fragmented early, leaving parts of the jacket in the first jug and coming to rest in the bottom of the second jug. This is the design window of the bullet, and it was intended to offer less penetration and to expand even if meeting intermediate obstacles. Just the same, we prefer the heavier bullets.
Buffalo Bore Lead SWC Hollow Cavity Bullet 158-grain +P, $22.64/20 (CTD #80751). Several generations ago the lead hollowpoint was developed to allow consistent expansion with the 38 Special. When properly cast, lead HPs expanded well. But if cast too brittle, they broke up. If cast too hard, they did not expand. This Buffalo Bore load uses a lead bullet that does not have to defeat a gilding metal jacket to expand. I am certain someone will question our B rating, but here is the logic. This round kicked too much for most of us to use well in a snubnose revolver. It is safe, loaded to acceptable pressure, quite accurate, and performs as advertised. While the bullet penetrated to the greatest depth, the bullet nose blew off at some point. This is common with cast hollowpoints. This load would be ideal for general-purpose use in a steel-frame 4-inch-barrel 38 Special, but for most of us, this load was simply is too much.
Glaser Blue Safety Slug +P 80-grain, $12.79/6 (CTD #2-GSS02400). This is the original frangible personal defense load. While controversial, its performance was well worth a hard look. The Glaser did what it is designed to do, fragmented in a few inches of resistance. This is a true safety slug, with excellent safety features in that regard. But this is not the load you wish to have in your revolver when the perp is bundled in a heavy quilted jacket.
Written and photographed by Bob Campbell, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers. GT