Getting Serious About Fifty Yard Results in the .38 Special

© 2014 - Ed Harris


My two previous articles on loading accurate .38 Special ammunition gave background on my loading methods, and what sort of accuracy to expect when testing .38 Special ammo indoors at 25 yards.  As interesting as that preliminary data may have seemed, it was a mere tease leading up to the real test.  Anyone serious about testing ammo knows that nothing else matters other than how well the ammunition shoots outdoors in the real world of field and target shooting, which starts at FIFTY yards.  Anything else is as Frank Marshall would say, is just “fooling around.”


Recapping Col. E.H. Harrison’s conclusions in the NRA Hand loader’s Guide, so you don’t have to go back and look them up… To be called among “the best,” .38 wad cutters in the golden days of 1960s Bullseye competition had to be capable of grouping 3 minutes of angle, or about 1-1/2” at fifty yards, in a minimum series of five consecutive 5-shot groups.  “Good” hand loads using factory swaged, hollow-based wad cutter bullets of match quality should approach this, averaging about 3.5 minutes of angle, or slightly less than two inches at 50 yards.  Anything averaging larger than two inches at 50 yards isn’t capable of a shooting perfect score with concurrent high X-count needed to win a National or Olympic competition.  But, practical shooters know that handgun ammo which will consistently average two inches or less at fifty yards is still entirely satisfactory for field use, because that is far better than most people can shoot. 


When practical shooters seek dual-use ammo to feed both their cowboy or single-shot rifle and a wheel gun, accuracy takes on a somewhat different dimension.  You want all the accuracy possible, and that same ammo must be far more accurate than you can shoot with 58 year-old eyes and iron sights from either gun.


Wad cutters are the accepted accuracy standard for paper punching, but beyond 50 yards their gyroscopic stability and accuracy suffers, regardless of what firearm you use them in.  “Traditional” .38 Special ammunition loaded with lead round nose, lead flat nose, or semi-wad cutter bullets feeds more smoothly from the lever guns and “carries’ up” better beyond 50 yards than target wad cutters.

So, I tested four factory .38 Special loads as benchmarks, then an assortment   of factory swaged and cast wad cutter, lead round nose, lead flat nose and semi wad cutter bullets at 50 yards to see where they shook out.


The factory load benchmarks were a good lot of better than average 158-gr. Lead round nose and three different batches of wad cutters, one oldie, but goodie, and two new boxes, one cheap, one expensive.  The box of historical interest was “the last” of what the late LTC Ellis Lea described as “the best wad cutter Bridgeport ever made,” a souvenir from the 1960 Olympic Games.  This 46+year-old ammo with Rem-UMC head stamp averaged 1.16” at 50 yards from the scoped BSA Cadet Martini.


The 158-grain lead, round nosed ammo I tested was a batch loaded by Norma in Sweden dating from my Ruger days in the mid 1980s. .  I still have most of a thousand round case of paper boxes of this, It performed exactly as expected from long experience, giving about 800 f.p.s. from a 6” revolver and just under 1000 f.p.s. from the Cadet Martini while shooting round groups which averaged 1.6” at 50 yards.  That told me that everything was working as it should.


The new and expensive ($18) box of Winchester wad cutter from Midway was disappointing, one group containing a keyhole which enlarged it to almost six inches, the best group was just under two inches and five targets averaged of over three inches.  Cheaper Than Dirt’s imported Czech bargain-basement $9 stuff shot surprisingly well, averaging about two inches.


Of the factory swaged hollow based wad cutters only Remington’s averaged less than 2” at fifty yards.  The often recommended 2.8 grain charge of Bullseye averaged 1.8”, exactly was Col. Harrison’s article said it should, but increasing the charge slightly to 3 grains shrunk the average to an inch and a half.  The Remington 158-gr. Lead SWC flat base of .358 diameter loaded to 1.45” overall with 3.5 grains of Bullseye was also pleasant surprise which averaged about an inch and a half, as well as good wad cutter reloads.  Speer’s 158-gr. Lead Round nose with 3.5 grains of Bullseye was also a pleasant surprise, shooting as well as my prized lot of Norma LRN.


So, knowing what the factory loads and hand loads with swaged bullets do, I tested traditional lead .38 Special loads with cast bullets so see how they measured up.  Cast bullet loads included the Saeco #348 double-end, bevel-based wad cutter, my favorite hunting bullet, the NEI #161A 190-gr. Flat nose; and bullets cast from a newly purchased NEI #161A four-cavity, which was shortened to remove the base band, producing a 150-grain  flat nosed cowboy slug.


The Saeco #348 double-ender shot, loaded unsized, and crimped in the crimp groove over 3.5 grains of Bullseye averaged 1.87”, which agreed perfectly with Col. Harrison’s conclusions.  Both 190-grain and 150-grain versions of the NEI #161A, loaded with 3.5 grains of Bullseye averaged about an inch and a half at 50 yards, actually slightly better than the wad cutter.  Since a couple shot holes with the 190-grain version showed slight yaw at 50 yards, I decided to increase the charge slightly to see if it would improve stability.  A charge of 4.2 grains of Bullseye, crimping in the top lubricating groove at 1.55” overall length averaged 0.87” with the largest group 1.07” and the smallest 0.61! @~&*%  Now THAT got my attention!


I decided it was time to try some .357 Magnum brass.  Seating the 190-gr. NEI #161A in the normal crimp groove using .357 brass the cartridge OAL is 1.58”.

4 grains of Bullseye gave about 1000 f.p.s. from the BSA and averaged under an inch and a half.  Increasing the charge to 4.3 grains enlarged the average slightly, but it was still less than two inches.  Increasing the charge still more to 4.5 grains enlarged groups further. It was time to try a harder alloy.


Midway’s online catalog showed a 190gr. LFN bullet from Hunter’s Supply which looked like a dead ringer to the #161A, but cast from a harder 92Pb-6Sb-2Sn alloy.  So I bought some and while waiting for them to arrive I loaded some Winchester 158-grain jacketed hollow points in new virgin Winchester cases, with WSP primers and 14.5 grains of #2400.  It was time for a .357 benchmark.


Next trip to West Virginia was rewarding.  The Hunter’s Supply hard cast .358” diameter 190 LFNs with 4.3 grains of Bullseye averaged under an inch at 50 yards.  Increasing the charge to 4.5 grains the harder alloy averaged 1.26”, almost exactly half what my cast wheel weight metal bullets did when overdriven.  My hand loaded Winchester JHPs also averaged an inch at fifty yards.


Hmmm, what will these things do at 100 yards?  Stay tuned…