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The Ultimate Reloading Manual
Wolfe Publishing Group
  • reloading manual
  • alliant reloading data
  • reloading brass
  • shotshell reloading
  • bullet reloading
The Ultimate Reloading Manual
load development

Heavyweight 38 Special Loads

Author: Bob Campbell / Wolfe Publishing Co.
Date: Aug 04 2014

The .38 Special Victory model gave good results with the heavy loads,
but the 200-grain bullet is best suited for short-barreled handguns.

A cartridge that benefits greatly from careful handloading is the .38 Special, a versatile round offering the advantages of light recoil and economical shooting. The .38 is ideal for introducing young shooters to centerfire shooting. It will do for small game and, when properly loaded, is a minimal defense cartridge. I prefer a .44 or .45, but when the lightweight, fasthandling and good accuracy of .38 Special revolvers is considered, they are an attractive package. I often carry a .38 “just in case,” or when I do not anticipate trouble. No one can guess the future, but the .38 Special is a reasonable compromise.

Part of the comfort factor concerning the .38 Special is the reliable handguns that shoot it. They are strong enough to take a lot of shooting, and even snub-nosed .38s are accurate enough to be useful. Buy quality, or buy twice.

I began handloading when the standard .38 Special factory load was the 158-grain RNL. Exiting a 4-inch barrel at about 750 fps, this load’s primary virtue is good accuracy and light recoil. The effect on target is poor. I experimented with practically everything and settled on a hard-cast SWC of 162 to 173 grains at 900 to 1,000 fps. They have been used on animals with good effect, particularly with raking shots on coyotes and the occasional marauding feral canine. Some years ago an acquaintance put out the lights of a particularly bad actor with one of these loads from a heavy-barreled Model 10. The 165-grain SWC exited the perpetrator and kept going through three or four walls in the dwelling. Perhaps a softer alloy or an expanding bullet would have been a better choice. On the other hand, I once arrived on the scene as a young officer to observe the aftereffects of a 110-grain JHP .38 Special to the middle of a forehead. The shootee regained consciousness and attempted to run! The bullet had completely flattened on the skull and not penetrated.

Recently I reread my dog-eared copy of Chic Gaylord’s The Handgunner’s Guide. For a city-bred shooter, Chic had his head on straight. He ran a shop in New York City that was frequented by the Broadway detectives. He sold guns and ammunition and invented and fabricated innovative holsters, many of which are far from outdated today. Chic was also a practiced exhibition shooter who appeared on television demonstrating the quick draw and other gun handling skills. His book is dated in some ways, but the basis for procedure is not. A surprising recommendation, which he alludes to on several occasions, is his endorsement of the 200-grain Super Police load in .38 Special.

Research on this load revealed next to nothing but a few tidbits. Skeeter Skeleton recommended the load for snub-nosed revolvers if you did not handload. Chief Parker of the LAPD resisted his officers’ requests for a better load or a magnum revolver on the grounds that one in five officers shot were shot with their own revolver, and you had a better chance of surviving if hit with the 200-grain .38 than with the magnum. The British adopted a .38 Smith & Wesson loading with a 200-grain bullet that is about the same as the Super Police load.

The British, according to Jeff Cooper, espoused an unusual theory. The .455 and .476 Webley cartridges do not exceed 700fps velocity with heavy bullets. The .38/200 was slow, and the short-lived .455 Webley auto cartridge was slower than the .45 ACP. The British felt that a heavier bullet at slower velocity worked over a target more thoroughly than a high-velocity bullet that penetrated quickly. The .38/200, then, was more likely to drop an enemy soldier more quickly than the faster-stepping 9mm Luger. (They did not account for penetrating web gear and heavy clothing.) This reading was interesting, but in the end I didn’t learn much that was useful. Since Chic Gaylord knew people who had gotten into difficulties and solved them with the Super Police load, I would give it a shot. Locating any Winchester swaged 200-grain hollowbase bullets was out of the question, as they are long out of production. The closest I was able to find were the Magnus cast bullets at 198 grains.

The top revolver is a Smith & Wesson Model 36 with a heavy barrel;
the bottom is an Airweight Model 12. Both shot well with the
heavyweight loads.

Common sense and experience collided concerning my expectations. You would think case capacity would be diminished with the heavier bullet, but the bullet is seated rather far out, making for a bulbous appearance. The bullet has plenty of bearing surface, which would seem to promote accuracy, but the heavy bullet has been criticized as not stabilizing very well. A nose-heavy bullet may tumble, which would be okay if the tumbling took place well into the target. Tumbling is also defined by the ballistic term procession in which the bullet base reverses and the bullet travels base first. With these facts in mind, well-worn and ancient .38 Special brass was collected. Some looked a little worn, with a few cannelures ironed out. New Starline brass was ordered to make up for this deficit.

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