It’s no secret that a huge amount of interest has been generated in small and highly concealable handguns for personal protection. Gun companies such as Smith & Wesson sell J-frame revolvers like Ford sells F150 trucks, and the recent introductions of the Ruger LCR and S&W Bodyguard revolvers have proven tremendously popular.
These small revolvers are marginally powerful guns, usually in .38 Special, with two- to three-inch barrels that people can carry in almost any environment because they’re so concealable. The guns are shot little but carried a lot, and while they don’t possess the firepower of similarly sized subcompact auto pistols, they provide their owners with five to six opportunities to curtail a violent threat.
However, velocity loss is quite significant with a two-inch barrel, and as velocity diminishes, bullet expansion decreases and penetration increases. Therefore, the most important question for the pocket revolver owner is, Just how good, terminally speaking, is the fodder occupying the cylinder?
I selected five .38 Special high-performance revolver rounds and tested them for penetration in “lightly clothed” (field jacket and T-shirt) Perma-Gel as well as measuring accuracy and velocity.
Snub revolvers in the right hands can be surprisingly accurate at ranges well beyond their intended combat envelopes. Fist-size handguns do their best work inside 10 yards–where a defensive handgun is most needed–but I added five yards just to get a better feel for the gun/ammo combination’s combat accuracy potential.
The test platform was a Crimson Trace laser grip-equipped S&W Model 49 Bodyguard. I engaged one m.o.a. dots at 15 yards, the Crimson Trace laser providing maximum feedback on my hold. These ergonomic grips also significantly increased control on the gun, which is no small matter when you’re shooting +P fodder out of a snubby.
For the penetration tests, I fired one round into the lightly clothed Perma-Gel. Now, that may not be a significantly significant test (the FBI fires 40 rounds of a load to measure wound potential), but a single shot can give us a general idea of how one round compares to another in terminal performance when it departs the muzzle of a typical snubby.
Perma-Gel ballistic test media and the industry standard of 10 percent ballistic gelatin are close to each other in results generated from bullet penetration and expansion tests, with slightly larger projectile disruption occurring in gelatin.
However, hollowpoint bullets retrieved from cadavers have compared favorably with similar bullets fired into Perma-Gel, which is attractive because it requires no refrigeration, has a broad operational temperature range, is crystal clear for observation and photography, and is easily reconstituted for repeatable use.
The FBI performance standard for penetration is 12 to 18 inches. Even at the risk of overpenetration, the FBI favors deep penetration but acknowledges that a balance between bullet expansion–which creates larger wound channels but frequently less penetration–and penetration must be pursued.
When it comes to small arms ballistics, many of us are velocity freaks. Our mantra is “faster is better,” and we like our handgun ammo pushed to the max in pursuit of rifle-like velocities. While enhanced velocities give us flatter trajectories, increased range and contributes to bullet upset, it is not the only factor involved in projectile expansion or fragmentation.
Lighter .38 Special bullets, such as those of the 110-grain genre, will surpass 1,000 fps from snubnose revolvers. However, if bullet design is less than optimum, some of these offerings do not expand and instead act like full-metal-jacket ammunition–particularly when passing through clothing–and occasionally will overpenetrate. Therefore it’s important for snubby owners to do their homework to determine if the ammunition they’ve selected will perform like they want it to.
I don’t know what Remington is using for this .38 Special +P load, but the 125-grain Ultimate Home Defense bonded jacketed hollowpoint round lights up the range and announces its presence with real gusto. The Perma-Gel tests were conducted at three yards, and the Remington was one of the rounds running so hot that it seared the field jacket that covered the Perma-Gel and generated a brief puff of smoke from the fabric. The bullet itself blossomed to 0.54 inch and came to rest sideways 15 inches into the test medium.
International’s standard-pressure 100-grain hollowpoint posted a high test velocity of 958 fps and was the most pleasant to shoot from the S&W. It was the only totally “green” round in the test and is designed to fragment in tissue like a high velocity varmint round.
International’s bullet started to fragment within 11/2 inches of entry, and it penetrated 61/2 inches–producing a cone-like pattern of fragments that radiated four inches from the primary wound channel, creating numerous secondary wound channels. A .37 caliber chunk of the bullet penetrated 113/4 inches in a straight line.
Winchester’s 130-grain PDX1 +P exhibited superb accuracy and just made the FBI’s minimum penetration criteria while toppi
ng the group in expansion. A nice temporary stretch cavity occurred at three inches. The bullet expanded to 0.66 and came to rest sideways at the 12-inch mark.
Speer’s +P 135-grain Gold Dot hollowpoint vied with the Remington load for the most fireworks. It penetrated 141/2 inches and expanded to 0.51. Although the Speer was level at rest, it showed evidence of yawing during its last few inches of travel as it created a 4×11/2-inch temporary stretch cavity in the Perma-Gel. The recovered bullet had fabric from the T-shirt lodged in its hollowpoint cavity.
Because of its excellent standard pressure performance that approached its +P siblings, Hornady’s Critical Defense FTX load deserves special mention. High velocity was 922 fps, and Hornady’s quality control was evident as it produced the smallest average group at 0.82 inch and had a standard deviation of just 2.9. The round punched through 153/4 inches of Perma-Gel–the deepest penetration of the test–and opened up to .45 inch.
All the ammunition tested performed as advertised through light clothing, which was gratifying. With a balance between penetration and expansion in mind, Remington’s Ultimate Home Defense round appears to have come closer to that ballistic Holy Grail than the others. While its accuracy was not stellar, it is more than adequate for close quarters.
|.38 Special Performance Results|
|.38 Special||Bullet Weight (gr.)||Muzzle Velocity (fps)||Standard Deviation||Avg. Group (inches)||Penetration Depth (inches)||Expansion Size (inches)|
|Remington Ultimate Home Defense||125||904||14.3||1.55||15.0||0.54|
|Winchester PDX1 +P||130||865||14.5||0.89||12.0||0.66|
|Speer Gold Dot +P||135||855||25.3||1.24||14.5||0.51|
|Hornady Critical Defense FTX||110||901||2.9||0.82||15.8||0.45|
|WARNING: The loads shown here are safe only in the guns for which they were developed. Neither the author nor InterMedia Outdoors, Inc. assumes any liability for accidents or injury resulting from the use or misuse of this data. NOTES: *Largest fragment. Accuracy results are averages of five-shot groups at 15 yards from a handheld padded rest. Velocity figures are five-shot averages recorded on a CED M2 chronograph, 12 feet from muzzle. Perma-Gel penetration and expansion data through light clothing obtained three yards from the muzzle, 80-degree ambient temperature.|