Better And Better

If you don't draw yours, I won't draw mine. A police officer, working in the small town that he lives in, focusing on family and shooting and coffee, and occasionally putting some people in jail.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Big time .38 Special loads.

Buffalo Bore has made a name for itself in providing high-end, very powerful, semi-custom production ammunition. I first became aware of it when people like friend Rich Lucibella was using it and Garrett .45-70 ammunition to shoot cape buffalo in Africa. [An interesting proposition-- using a 130 year old cartridge in a short carbine to knock down a 1.5 ton, highly aggressive (and not at all endangered, BTW) bull from under 100 yards, with iron sights.] Both Garrett and Buffalo Bore also make high-end .44 Magnum ammunition, as well.

But unfortunately, I'm not stalking through Africa for a big bull, and I'm not fly fishing in Alaska, amongst the big brown bears. When I need heavy .44 magnum ammo, I go to my dad's and handload some (or more likely pilfer some from the stash that he made with his own hands). And I don't even own a .45-70; I gave the only one I ever bought to my father for a birthday present a few years back.

My gun-toting is usually much, much more pedestrian. I tend to pick up a little pocket pistol on the way out the door, and drop it, strangely enough, in my pocket. No, it's usually not a brace of .45s on my hip[s]. I sometimes don't even carry a reload. But, I've got a gun, and more than once, that's given me peace of mind when I was out of uniform and going about my rather humdrum life. While that pocket pistol may well be a P3AT with its 7 rounds of raging .380 fury (rolleyes), it's as likely to be a little J-frame 2" Smith and Wesson revolver.

These little guys are hard to shoot well.
They're heavier and bulkier than a P3AT.
They have difficult sights.
They have decreased capacity. (5 rounds)
They look very unimpressive when drawn.

They are only .38 Special caliber, out of a not-quite-2" barrel.

Still, a .38 Special is a better stopping cartridge than a .380 acp, even with a shorter barrel reducing the velocity on the .38 (but then, have you looked at the length of a P3AT barrel, lately?). It's not just that you can start a much heavier bullet (typically 125g or 158g) at about the same velocity (~750 to 800fps out of short barrels). It's the type of bullet that you can launch.

A few years ago, I was carrying a small 9mm around with me. A handful of 124g 9mm seemed like just the ticket for off-duty use, until I discovered the sheer comfort of carrying a 2" J frame airweight with short boot stocks and a bobbed hammer. But I was bothered by what I was giving up-- my old agency demanded that I carry Gold Dot HP ammo, and all I could find in .38 Special at the time was 125g, in either +P or standard pressure ammo. Well, my little 9mm shot 124g Gold Dot HPs at about 1050 to 1100 fps, while my little J frame shot 125g Gold Dot HPs at about 800fps, if I used the +Ps. And the J frame held less than half of the 9mm's capacity.

I was delighted when Gold Dot came out with their 135g load, specifically designed for short-barreled revolvers. Using faster-burning powders, it achieved its maximum velocity in barrels under 4 inches. And, hey! 10 more grains of bullet weight!

But I have always felt that light and fast is utterly the WRONG road to take, with the .38 special. Instead, take advantage of the revolver's advantages. The revolver does not need to feed well, and a sleek ogive such as that found on the Gold Dot bullets is just not needed. Want to see the .38 Special perform out of its own league? Stick a semi-wadcutter (SWC) into it. Semi-wadcutters are bullets with sharp shoulders on them, which carve out full-diameter holes in targets that they are fired at, allowing the shooter to clearly see his grouping. They also are highly effective at carving permanent wound cavities in tissue. Want more? Well, make it a hollowpoint semi-wadcutter (HPSWC). Heck, make it of soft lead to guarantee expansion, and you've got a Lead HollowPoint Semi-Wadcutter (LHPSWC), or HP LSWC.

For the longest time, this load was made by Winchester, Remington, and Federal. It was called variously the "FBI load" and the "Chicago load," or just the "man stopper load" by many. It was loaded to +P (or above SAAMI specifications for standard .38 Special 158g loads) pressures. It is still carried by many, such as my father, and my friend Stephen Camp.

Photo by Stephen A Camp, Highpowers And Handguns.
See how it expands in wet newsprint? Well, a few years back, I shot a couple of javelinas with my 6" Officer's Model Special heavy barrel. Both of the little beasties, upon field dressing, were found to have lead nickels stretching the inside of their off-side hides, both of which looked almost exactly like the one you see above in Steve's picture. (They made mediocre green chile stew. I'm about done with Javelina as a delicacy.)

But that was a 6" revolver. I found, through testing, that it only gave about 890 fps with those +P loads. In a loose old 2" revolver, I was lucky to get anywhere close to 800 fps. Would they expand? Well, probably.

Last year, I performed some blood spatter experiments, in which I found myself shooting heavy sponges saturated with fake blood. I was surprised that a .40 Hydroshock not only fully expanded, but apparently remained stable. I was more surprised that a Federal Nyclad 158g SWCHP (basically the same thing as the FBI load, but with a blue nylon coating to protect the bore from leading) did NOT expand at all, and tumbled within 4 feet. Then I found that it tumbled within two feet.

Hm. More velocity. Softer bullet. Bigger hollowpoint. I began to be concerned about getting these things out of my little 2" revolver.

But I continued to carry either the Federal Nyclad load or the Remington +P load.

Two weeks ago, friend Peter came to visit north Texas, and my Dad, Holly, and LawDog all visited with him. Unfortunately, I had to work, and couldn't come visit. Peter came bearing gifts, too. He brought me some excellent Brenneke KO slugs, and a box of Buffalo Bore Heavy .38 Special +P loads.

These fall within my idea of what a .38 Special load should be, for short barreled revolvers. A heavy 158g bullet, with a sharp SWC shoulder on it, made of very soft lead (you can cut it with your fingernail), with a giant meplat that holds the biggest hollowpoint that I've ever seen in a .38 bullet. Look at the size of that hollowpoint, next to the Remington (left) and Federal SWCHPs that I pulled out of my revolvers and speedloaders:
See that little flat on the side of the Buffalo Bore load on the right? That's because I've been carrying it in my mom's M36 2" that I've been carrying the last couple of weeks. (A real man isn't ashamed to admit he carries his mama's guns.) It's soft, make no mistake.

Here's another look:

It looks like a wine glass next to a jigger. Heavens.

Check out the velocity that Buffalo Bore claims on the box:

One thousand feet per second, with a 158g LSWC. The guy at their website actually says that he achieved considerably higher velocities (1040 fps!) out of his 2" S&W revolver (M642).


It's expensive stuff. Over a dollar a round for a box of 20. It's packed in an interesting manner, with each round completely enclosed.

I'm thinking that I'm going to enclose mine with the 30 year old 5 shot cylinders of my (and my mama's) J-frame Smith & Wesson revolvers.

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At Monday, April 14, 2008 9:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, how I wish that I had the ability to test loads and see what worked well with what. I hope to find a way to do it some time soon, but for now... who knows. So far I have kept mine loaded with 40 S&W double-taps. They only do one .38, the 125 gr gold dots that they get to 1175 fps from a 4":

... but their 40 S&W are a gem.

200 gr (they use the Hornady XTP 10mm bullets) at 1050 fps from a 4".

Lots of fun, and they don't feel too bad in the .40 XD SC. Sure, at 3" I'm not getting over 1K fps, but hey, good enough for a 200 gr .40.

At Tuesday, April 15, 2008 2:00:00 AM, Blogger Hunter said...

Dang! Now I've got to get me a J-frame that will handle +P. My little M37 is not rated for it.

At Tuesday, April 15, 2008 1:53:00 PM, Blogger Rabbit said...

Safe in a M36, huh?


I'll blow through that Remington +P 125 grain and get a couple of boxes of this. Just as soon as I get those CT grips, I swear.


At Tuesday, April 15, 2008 9:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bet those sting on the firing end, too!


At Tuesday, April 15, 2008 11:11:00 PM, Blogger mdmnm said...

Re: javelina

One of my favorite wild meats. Don't shoot a big one, go for medium sized. Take the scent gland out of the back as soon as you get it down, don't pierce the gland. Dress it quickly. Debone and remove the silverskin- you'll end up with various sized chunks after a couple of hours of work. Marinate a short while in a bit of garlic, olive oil, oregano, black pepper, and salt. Grill until just pink on the inside- mild and fine!

At Wednesday, April 16, 2008 1:28:00 PM, Blogger Tam said...

I loves me some Buffalo Bore.

My .44 Special Model 21 Thunder Ranch is loaded up with their Elmer Keith Memorial 255gr SWC Rhino Rollers, and I keep my custom Model 57 stoked with their smokin' 265gr @ 1350fps hard-casts.

At Thursday, April 17, 2008 9:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, for anyone worried about shooting +Ps in an older revolver, Buffalo Bore also makes a standard velocity (850 fps) version of the "FBI Load."

Well, it's supposed to be standard velocity, anyway; when I tried it out in my S&W 638 Airweight, the recoil impulse didn't seem (to me) to be much different from Remington's +P version (which I also shot that range session). Although the BuffBore did have markedly less muzzle flash, IMHO.

Regardless, for five shots, I think I could handle either if I needed it...although I found that I could shoot Hornady's 140-grain XTP better than either of the above in my 638, and that's probably what I'll end up using for carry.

--Wes S.

At Thursday, April 17, 2008 5:58:00 PM, Blogger staghounds said...

Sheesh- at first I thought you said, "shot a couple of juveniles".

I've been in the children's court too long.

At Thursday, April 17, 2008 7:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK... Please educate me here... I've been looking at purchasing a snub-nosed S&W without the worm-hole lock. This sounds like just the ticket for carry ammo. But how does one know for sure if the old 38 Special S&W under the dealer's counter could safely handle these loads?

At Friday, April 18, 2008 4:54:00 AM, Blogger John B said...

I'm a gun nerd from age 7. That's when the State Trooper handed me a hollowpoint .357 round. I tried to bend the lead, with all my 7 year old strength, handed it back to him and told him. "that metal's too hard, the bullet won't expand." this was in a drive in that ALL the cops in town frequented. The story of the junior armorer spread far and wide. The trooper in question stopped laughing when he found out the only thing that would flatten those rounds was a hydraulic press. I like a soft lead round for both hollowpoint and round nose in a .38 I usually carry .38 in the .357 I bought. I will be running up a thousand or so as soon as I get the prop glass out of the garage. Anyone want to stage a fake bar fight, I'm your man....

At Friday, April 18, 2008 7:33:00 AM, Blogger Tam said...


You gotta watch out for them juveniles. They charge when they're wounded.

At Friday, April 18, 2008 7:34:00 AM, Blogger Tam said...


Any J-frame dated 1994 or later is rated for +P, IIRC.

At Sunday, April 20, 2008 5:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you tested the Buffalo Bore yet?

At Monday, April 28, 2008 5:32:00 PM, Blogger Matt G said...


At Friday, September 19, 2008 9:36:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For an experiment, try going the opposite way. I'm experimenting with a 200Gr. .38 Spl. load in my 2" S&W 5-shooter. I understand it used to be a very popular load and was the subject of a Gun Digest article several years ago. Low pressure, easy on the frame and lockwork, but works very much like the .45ACP - heavy and slow - and all energy stays in the target.

At Thursday, November 08, 2012 10:56:00 AM, Anonymous Middleton Hindershot said...

The Buffalo Bore #20C soft lead Standard Pressure Short Barrel Low Flash 158 grain SWC-HC is also a great load for 2 or 4 legged critters. It moves at 979 fps producing 336 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle from a four inch barrel. It has a twin bother,
the Buffalo Bore #20D Standard Pressure Short Barrel Low Flash 150grain Hard Case Flat Nose Wadcutter
(15 on the Brinnel Hardness Scale).
It moves at 1005 fps also producing 336 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle from a four inch barrel like its 158 grain brother. I alternation these two in the cylinder of my revoler.

At Friday, October 14, 2016 11:11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To my mind, the best "carry gun" is a simple .38, 2" hammerless, air-weight stub.
And just about every old time cop agrees with me.
And the load most use, is the 148 grain 38 target wadcutter.

Q: Why ? Why would retired cops use such anemic loads in a lightweight aluminum frame gun , when so many better loads are available ?
A: Because you will likely never use the gun anyway, so carry the lightest gun you can, with the most capable controllable ammo.

The problem is, capable ammo in a air-weight gun makes the recoil un controllable, And a bullet which misses it's target is rather worthless. So, old cops carry 38 wadcutters, and to good effect.

Me, I looked around for a good load in my 38 stub, and I found it at my own reloading bench. That load being a Lee double end wadcutter, cast hard from ww metal, ..... quenched. One lube groove hard lubed, and loaded over 5.5 grains of Unique.

That load gives about 900 fps, it's recoil controllable, and hits as hard as I will ever need.

I believe that I have found the best 38 stub self defense load and I'll not seek any other.

At Friday, October 14, 2016 1:05:00 PM, Blogger Matt G said...

There's certainly nothing wrong with that. I have carried 158g HCSWC over 5g of Unique, quite a bit. We found that it was about 900 out of a 2 inch on a warm day, over the Oehler. Be sure to make that roll crimp TIGHT, if you're shooting it out of an airweight.

But my PD wants me to carry factory loads in my carry pistols, and I've found that I can shoot Buffalo Bore pretty well. (It happens that I've got very large hands, which probably helps.)
An airweight J-frame with a 1 7/8" barrel is an expert's gun, to be sure. Far too many are carried without being practiced with.

I don't guess that I can call myself an "Old Time Cop" yet, but I'll accept the title of "Veteran Cop" and firearms instructor. :)

At Thursday, June 22, 2017 11:04:00 PM, Blogger Old Leo said...

Worked a homicide years ago. Thug walks in liquor store with a gun pointed at the owner. Liquor store owner got the drop on him and shot the thug between the eyes about 1.5" above the nose bridge. He was using a 2" Dick special with 148grn full wadcutters. Bullet expanded about the size of a half dollar, went ccw around his scull and stopped behind the right ear. Thug then shot the store owner thru the heart with a .25 Raven. Store owner was DRT. Thug was sitting on the curb fully conscious when we rolled up. Far as I know he is still with us. Bottom your full wadcutters for punching paper, not bad guys.


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