The .38/.357 Wadcutter
by Mike Cumpston
Its uses, its occasional misuses and related esoterica.
The .38 Special Midrange Target wadcutter has been around throughout most of the 20th century and has one specific and specialized reason for being. It is designed to punch cookie-cutter holes in paper targets thus making the targets easy to score. Further, the bevel base on the solid based version of these bullets came about to make them easier to load in the early Star Machine progressive loaders. It militates against the prevailing wisdom that flat-based lead bullets are the most accurate. Never mind that a more ballistically inefficient bullet cannot be found outside of the round ball, it manages to provide ten-ring accuracy out to 50 yards. By any criteria, the aerodynamic features of the bullet are unimpressive. This is a flat profile bullet with a ballistic coefficient ranging from .050 to .053. I recently clocked the Winchester-Western standard flush-seated WC load at 753 feet per second from the archetypal target revolver- a post war K-38. This gives it an on-target velocity of 667 fps at fifty yards with a drop of 8" from the muzzle. It takes the bullet only .212 fractions of a second to proceed from the muzzle to the 50 -yard bull. In the real world, not many adverse consequences of the laws of physics occur to a bullet in two tenths of a single second regardless of its overall lack of ballistic goodness.
With 186 foot pounds of energy on tap, the wadcutter is a frail reed relative to the popular combat and hunting loads. Nevertheless, it virtually apes the nominal performance of the old .38 S&W factory load, exceeds the nominal performance of the 380 acp and provides roughly double the energy of the .22 long rifle high speed from a field sized hunting revolver. Arguably, the totally truncated bullet is a more efficient energy transmitter than any ball load or jhp of like diameter or ballistic feature that fails to expand on impact. From a practical standpoint, the wadcutter tends to anchor the smallest of game with the same level of efficiency as the .22 Long Rifle High speed hollow point while causing less tissue damage and loss of edible meat. The wadcutter is frequently recommended as a load of choice for the recoil sensitive defensive shooter. Little or no data regarding its effectiveness in this role is available. It is confirmed by observation, that the traditionally loaded Wadcutter requires very precise bullet placement to be effective on all but the smallest of small game.
While the factory load utilizes a flush seated bullet of the nominal weight, a number of other options are available to the reloader. These include beveled solid or hollow-based versions from Speer, Hornady or the Lyman 35891 and similar molds and an interesting hard swaged, hollow based version from Meister that presents about 1/3rd of the bullet beyond the case neck. The traditional .38 Special loading 2.7-2.8 grains of Alliant Bullseye, closely approximates the factory loading. My loading of the bevel-based variety of this bullet clocked 768 fps from the magnum length chamber of a 6" Ruger Security Six while the same load averaged 784 from a 6" M&P of tighter.38 Special chambering. Flush seated HB Wadcutters, due to the extra powder space afforded by the hollow base, generally produce velocities in the mid to low 700fps range in the same revolvers.
Recently, I ran some tests in my 4" Ruger GP 100 using a version of the wadcutter that possesses a number of features thought to be conducive to best accuracy. The Meister Bullet Company variation is swaged of hard alloy lead, is hollow based with the diameter of the skirts and major bullet body sized to .357. The bullet has a crimp grove 1/3 rd of the way down with the portion of the bullet seated out of the case sized to .352. It combines the obturation potential of the hollow base with a full diameter body and a lead sized to enter the forcing cone smoothly and ride the lands of the rifling during its trip down the barrel. Additionally, it has a point-heavy aspect that proves beneficial in stabilizing such things as Foster Rifled Slugs and shuttlecocks. Range results looked like this:
38 Special Cases
Charge Bullseye Velocity (ten rounds) Energy Spread Std Dev. Groups Average
2.8 Grains WW Mag
Primer mixed Cases 694 158 42 21 2.25, 1.6 1.4 1.9"
2.8 Grains CCI 500
Standard Primer once 739 179 34 8 1.75 1.75 2.0 1.83
Once-Fired WW cases
Average accuracy .38 cases 1.85"
.357 Magnum Cases
2.8 Bullseye WW Mag 689 156 57 19 1.73 1.67 1.7
3.3 Bullseye WW mag
Primers 811 216 39 11 1.6 2.1 1.4 1.7
Average accuracy .357 cases 1.7"
Overall average for 11 five round groups at 25 yards 1.83"
Obviously, there are quite a few uncontrolled variables in the above results. Past experience generally gives the accuracy edge to wadcutters loaded in Magnum cases with greater shot to shot consistency occurring with the .38 Special Case loads. The first tendency is usually explained by the shorter jump to the chamber throats when using magnum length cases and second by the smaller combustion chamber of the .38s. In general, .38 special loads seem to provide slightly more velocity in .38 chambers than when the same loads are shot from Magnums.
Taken as a whole, the variations shown in the above table have little or no significance in regard to accuracy or the overall suitability of the load type for practical applications.
In the above results, the Magnum caseloads demonstrate a slight accuracy edge while the selection of components seem to have the most significant effect on consistency. I noted that most of the groups consisted of four rounds ranging from well under an inch to slightly over the one inch mark with one outlier slightly out. This could reasonably point to one or two chambers being slightly out of register with the barrel. Notably however, on those handguns that allow mounting of optical sights, I frequently see the stray shots I make with open irons disappear into the main group.
Bullet strikes on paper at fifty yards clearly indicated that a number of the bullets were wobbling in flight. I have also observed this while shooting turkey silhouette practice targets with wadcutters at 75 yards. As I recall the extent of the slightly oblong bullet signature was no greater at that range than at the 50-yard mark. I suspect that the bullet wobble is not uncommon in the broad spectrum of pistol bullets but is simply easier to see on target with the crisp holes produced by the full wc meplat. In any case, loads using wadcutter bullets produced consistent hits on the NRA Pistol Sized Turkey targets.
Standard wadcutter loads are clearly useful for target shooting, and hunting small game. Operating pressures run from 8500 to 10,000 psi and are conducive to long gun life.
Some time back, Mr. Terry Murbach went into print with a treatise on loading wadcutter bullets to the same level of performance as the standard service type 38 Special rounds. He reasoned that the full meplat of the wc would be particularly efficient in getting the most on-target thump from a round that operates below the velocity threshold of expansion for most expanding type bullets. Inspired by his example, I loaded up a few boxes of 148 gr bevel based wadcutters over 5.5 / Unique in Magnum Cases. Ten of these went down on paper as follows:
Velocity Energy Extreme Spread Standard Deviation Groups Average
1010fps 341 73 21. 2.6 2.4 2.05 2.35 at 25
I sent a single five round group into a 50 yard target clumping 4 into 2.1" with the inevitable outlier stretching the group to 4.2" None of the bullet prints showed any tendency to yaw as mentioned above. The ballistic calculator gives it a flight time of .162 second to the 50-yard mark and a bullet drop from the muzzle of 4.8". This produces a Taylor Knock Out value of 7.8 and the ballistics program makes the somewhat far-fetched prediction that is a good deer load at 100 yards and adequate for Bobcat at 300. In any event the load falls right between .44 Special and 230 grain ACP ball in the energy department and may be argued to produce a larger permanent crush wound than either.
Another atypical use I have found for the various wadcutters is that of a " walking around load" for my 3" target sighted Smith and Wesson J. A Hollow Based wadcutter over 2.8 Bullseye will get 598 fps from a 2"Colt Cobra and is up to 618 from the 3". This produces best quality 25-yard groups from my mid-bore kit gun and has smacked down a handful of cottontails at close range.
Turned around hollow base foremost over the same powder charge, velocity in the two inch is up to 722fps and rises to 733 in the longer tube. Fired into a pork rib cage and captured in wet pack, the hollow based job expanded to a consistent fifty-three caliber and continued to travel expanded point-forward until coming to a stop. Against all reasonable expectations, this load is highly accurate. I recall a 1.4" five round group at 25 yards fired with the Hornady version of this bullet. All in all, this is a good standard pressure loading for the small .38. The velocity could probably be boosted considerably as the danger of bullet distortion as mentioned in the loading books should not be a factor with the thin-skirted base pointed forward. Back in the late Ď60s, we had a Lyman mold that threw a hollow based 160-gr wadcutter. Inspired by Dean Grinell, we loaded these backward over a stiff charge of 2400. One of these loads bifurcated a grapefruit and landed the separated halves about 75 feet apart. One of our dudes blew a hole through a turkey buzzard that would have provided a slip fit for a coke can from one side to the other. The vulture died instantly.
No longer a staple of the NRA matches, the old and obsolescent wadcutter continues to provide a number of possibilities for the handgun enthusiast looking for a small game or defensive load or simply bored with the ordinary. It may even, contrary to all reasonable expectation, provide the most accurate load for a given revolver.
Thatís what goofing around with revolver loads is all about.
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