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Wicked Wadcutters?

September 24th, 2010 3

A defensive load you may not have considered.


Jacketed hollowpoints failed to expand at snubnose velocities when fired through gel or gel and plywood–acting almost like an FMJ (right).

SNUB-NOSED REVOLVERS HAVE BEEN popular as carry guns for a long time. Also, those who favor big main guns can be found packing a snubbie as a backup, but the short barrels that users favor for carry bring a price: lack of velocity.

That velocity loss means expanding bullets often don’t expand. If your high-tech hollowpoint fails to expand, it works no better than a traditional lead roundnose. Also, the rounded nose of a jacketed hollowpoint can glance off of hard things like bone. But if you increased velocity (and chamber pressure) until you get enough to cause expansion, recoil becomes ferocious in a lightweight snubbie.

So let’s go about this in a different direction. We all know placement matters more than expansion anyway. If a thug is about to punch your ticket, a lead roundnose through his sternum is much more favorable to your cause than an expanding bullet that only creases his stomach. Even if that bullet expands to the size of a five-gallon bucket, the poor placement means it is of little use.

So how about a bullet that works efficiently without expanding, that has good accuracy and whose soft recoil means easier shooting and practicing? What about full wadcutters?

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Tale Of The Tape

.38 Special Bullet Weight (gr.) Muzzle Velocity (fps) Penetrations Gel — Gel/Wood (in.) Average Group (in.)
Winchester FMJ 130 765 28 — 24 3.0
Black Hills Blue JHP 125 735 24 — 20 3.0
Remington HBWC 148 655 30 — 24 2.0
Oregon Trails DEWC 148 657 36 — 24 2.0
*Author’s handload
Notes: Accuracy tested off sandbags at 25 yards. Results are averages of three five-shot groups. Penetration is average of three shots, with gel surface 10 feet from the muzzle. Velocities measured with a CED M2 chronograph, screens centered 15 feet from the muzzle. Abbreviations: DEWC, double-end wadcutter; FMJ, full metal jacket; HBWC, hollow-base wadcutter; JHP, jacketed hollowpoint

Hear me out before you get all outraged. What are the advantages? Cast-lead bullet mavens from Elmer Keith to Veral Smith have demonstrated that the sharp edge of a bullet efficiently cuts in the wound track even without expanding. The late Jim Cirillo experimented with full wadcutter bullets when serving on the NYPD Stakeout Squad.

Where a rounded profile will shove vitals aside or glance off bone, the edge of a wadcutter or semi-wadcutter will slice or dig in. When I was shooting bowling pins, a popular bullet with revolver shooters was the “lead pencil”: a 230-grain .358-diameter full wadcutter. It did not glance off of bowling pins.

You can hardly argue with the accuracy of wadcutter bullets. Target shooters have both demonstrated the efficiency of the bullet (clean holes in paper) and its accuracy. PPC shooters use wadcutters despite the learning curve in reloading their blunt profiles into the cylinder. They use them for the simple reason that few other bullets will shoot such tight groups.

For those who wonder about accuracy at a distance, the 50-yard 10 ring on a PPC target is about half the size of a sheet of typing paper, and competitors who expect to win expect to hit it almost every time. The X ring is less than half that, and the serious shooters are aiming only at the X ring. In other words, wadcutters deliver accuracy as far as you can hit.

The relatively soft recoil helps. Where a 125-grain JHP in .38 Special is doing all it can to generate 900 fps out of a snubbie (and usually failing), the sedate 148-grain wadcutter can be counted on to deliver all of its 700 fps from a four-inch barrel and close to that in a two-incher. The low recoil and muzzle blast both encourage practice and allow someone under stress to deliver as much accuracy as their skills can generate.

Another advantage of the wadcutter is one you might not think about: penetration. The FBI ballistic gel protocols assume that a bullet must penetrate an absolute minimum of 12 inches of gelatin in order for it to be considered an effective defensive load. And more is better, until the penetration exceeds 18 inches, then the extra penetration is considered wasted energy. There, the wadcutter bullet actually demonstrates an embarrassment of riches; it will easily penetrate well past the 12-inch mark, and depending on how hard an alloy the bullet is made of, more than 20 inches is possible.


Wadcutters fired through the same media give identical shape but with less recoil and better accuracy.

So the benefits are accuracy, low recoil, deep penetration and low muzzle blast. What are the drawbacks?

First, factory ammunition is made with soft, swaged-lead bullets. Such bullets will dig in on curved obstacles, but they are thought to deform too easily for our needs.

The softness is seen to limit penetration on chance objects and hard structures.

An obstacle the miscreant is hiding behind, which would easily be “soft cover” (penetrable) to a high speed hollowpoint, is thought to become hard cover (impenetrable) to a soft wadcutter.

Also, if your shot happens to need to plow through the bad guy’s arm to reach vital organs, the hard bones of the upper arm can significantly slow a swaged wadcutter. However, if he’s hiding behind a sheet of plywood, it won’t help him much at all.

Second, shooters might have a lack of confidence in using “just a target load.” After all, it doesn’t have a lot of recoil, muzzle blast and flash. Me, I figure what happens downrange is important, not what happens at the end of my firearm.

To figure out if wadcutters have any promise at all, I tested a couple of them and some other .38 ammo in gelatin. My test gun was a Charter Arms Pink Lady, an alloy-framed five-shot snubbie–a definite “value for money” carry gun, and one that would be most un-fun to shoot with the most robust hollowpoint loads.

The Remington swaged wadcutter penetrated well, and the hard-cast Oregon Trails double-ended wadcutters shot through an impressive pile of gelatin. For the sedate velocities they posted, going more than two feet deep in gelatin is impressive.

I also tried a hollowpoint and a practice FMJ load, and the velocity of those loads was not encouraging. At an average 735 fps from the two-inch barrel, the 125-grain JHPs were barely expanding.

I tried all the loads through a sheet of half-inch plywood and found the penetration decreased but still more than sufficient.

Are wadcutter bullets good for defense? If the most robust hollowpoints are “too much” in recoil, a wadcutter is certainly better than a lead roundnose. You won’t lack for accuracy, and practice will not be onerous.

As for confidence in wadcutters as a defensive load, I have to go with the advice of a long-since retired Detroit police officer, who was commenting on his choice of the .32 ACP. “They’re all goners if you shoot them between the shirt pockets,” he said.

In the case of the .38 wadcutter load, I really don’t think, if you do as he said and plant your shots “between the pockets” on a bad guy that he’s going to be casually brushing his shirt and complaining “Hey, that hurts.” Placement is what counts.

  • MagBatt

    Really good information! As an older "Grammy" who was told by the Cty Mounty that I needed a firearm for my beach property, I have been lost in what to, how to, etc. Research sent me off to purchase a Luger LCR .38 spc+P w/laser. (Less recoil, trigger ease, and a buried hammer so I wouldn't blow my own leg off were the deciding factors) But now I'm lost as to what to load it with. I'm told that I need hollow point, but then see that hollow points may give a bigger kick (?) – and I'm already not that steady at my age. I'm told high pressure, but then read that it gives more recoil as well. I'm dizzy with opinions and information. The nice guys at the gun shop have varying opinions, based on what they shoot.
    Went to firing range to try out before purchasing, but they didn't have a Ruger LCR at the time. Shot a Ruger
    357 and wasn't at all comfortable with the recoil — but surprised my self with accuracy. I was shooting Magtech .38 spl 158gr. So here's where I am after reading your article – please correct or advise if wrong….
    "Wadcutters" give less recoil – which probably means better accuracy – are really for target practice, but will they do the job in defense if I place it well? I was told to get 158grain – does that fit? Is there something better for my use. The shop seemed to be limited in stock on hand, didn't have several of the brands/type I asked about after research. They sold me Hornady .38 spcl 158gr XTP. I have not shot the gun yet, and still not sure it's what I should have. Any advice much appreciated. Thanks, Maggie

    • Vegas Vick

      Howdy Maggie,

      I'll give you a few answers and then expose you to some ideas, as you're the final judge. First off, to the physics of your weapon:

      The only bullet that matters is the one that strikes exactly where you intend on your target.

      The force that the bullet strikes with is determined by the weight of the bullet, the amount of powder behind it, and the length of the barrel permitting the powder to burn. The shape, weight and material of the bullet determines how far it will penetrate, how much it will expand.

      On the back of a box of cartridges you'll see:
      BALLISTICS TABLE
      Muzzle 5 Yards 25 Yards
      Velocity 1350 1331 1262
      Energy 506 492 442

      The .357 you fired was a lot heavier than your gun. Recoil or "kick," was bad. The .38s you shot from it had 200 foot pounds of Muzzle Energy. In your much lighter gun, you have bullets that fire 199 foot pounds. When you shoot those bullets, it'll have worse kick than the .357.

      (The table above is from the ammunition I shoot from my carry gun, which weighs half an ounce more than yours. I can control it, so I shoot it. I also shoot a lot of .22 LR which has a tiny amount of muzzle energy.)

      When your life is on the line, you want the biggest bullet making the biggest hole flying as fast as you can regularly control. Putting those bullets repeatedly on target is what does the job.

      Fire twice, bullets are cheap. When you commit to training with your weapon, buy and use a quality speed loader for your five-shooter. Be as slow as you have to in order to be certain. The way you train is the way you fight. It will become second nature.

      The barrel of your weapon is 1.875 inches long. The Hornady Xtreme Terminal Performance requires a four inch barrel for it's hollow point to expand, so says Hornady.

      Feel free to openly ask for the least powerful rounds they carry. The cheap ones. Explain that you're going to be shooting a lot and getting very accurate and after that, quick. Those are the words that express that your gun is a tool and not a magic talisman to ward off evil. You will be the judge of what works for you. Get used to firing accurately at indoor distances.

      The gun store guys are salemen first, maybe shooters second. They have a lot of fine opinions and some of them are correct. Notice how I crunched the math on muzzle energy between your two bullets to give you an estimation? You need less than 200 Foot Pounds of energy. You've carefully chosen an EXCELLENT weapon for you, and the bullets they put in it are probably for me.

      Buy those cheap bullets and shoot the box. Notice they're easier to shoot? After you've put 500+ cheap bullets through your gun at short to medium ranges over some time, try those bullets again. Can you fire them as accurately AND as rapidly? You're just learning a new sport. Start easy. Again, the weapon and it's power are the tools, you just have to practice a lot with them. Power is great in a bullet, being able to fire them accurately and rapidly is what works.

      "You can't shoot fast enough to make up for a miss."

      A word on defending your life and/or property from those who would take them. If you are in bed or your home and your weapon is handy, do not move further. Breathe slowly and calmly and pay attention to the places where someone might emerge from. If you have one likely location, aim your pistol at a man's chest height in the center of the space. Do not activate the laser on your weapon or someone cunning will know where you are. People reckless enough to enter your home are too dangerous to be scared off.

      Let them come to you. It is important to stay relaxed because the person coming to you might be a friend or might not be. If a friend, they have just learned to respect your home. If they are not, you are relaxed and will not panic as you fire repeatedly upon them, aiming at the center of their mass- which is the center of their chest. You will be still and calm and the target will be surprised and not expecting you or the violence of your action. Now is not the time to speak. Speaking will distract you from saving your own life. It is your violence of action, in the few perilous moments which assures your survival.

      "Age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill."

      • Carl

        Very well said Vegas Vick, well said. I'm an old guy and that's the advice I'd give from my own experience.

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