There are dozens of modern .38 special and .357 magnum self-defense loads available that have been specifically designed with the snub nose revolver in mind. With all of those choices, it may be difficult to believe that a bullet as simple as the lead wadcutter may be the most effective round under some circumstances. The video below has the details, or you can just read the transcript…


Right now, along with some of the other guys from the Lucky Gunner team, I am preparing for another round of our self-defense ammo ballistic gelatin testing. This time, we’re going to be testing a few dozen .38 special and .357 magnum loads and we’re planning to have those results ready for you guys to see early next year. While we’re doing the actual testing over the next few weeks, we might not be able to put out as many videos and blog posts and we would like. So I apologize in advance if we’re a little light on content, but we’ve got some really interesting stuff in the works and it is definitely going to be worth the wait.

In the meantime, today I want to give a little background on just one of the rounds that we’re going to be testing and that is the lead wadcutter, also called a full wadcutter. A couple of years ago, I did a short video about what a wadcutter bullet is, but I didn’t offer much detail on using the wadcutter as a self-defense round.

If you didn’t catch that earlier video, a wadcutter is a roughly cylinder-shaped bullet that is designed to be used in revolvers. Wadcutters are seated in the case so that the face of the bullet is flush with the case mouth. These were originally intended for bullseye type competition because the wadcutters leave a clean, round hole in a paper targets making them easier to score. They are also typically loaded to travel at relatively low velocities, so they have very little recoil compared to just about any other centerfire handgun load.

wadcutter-target

So, why anyone would want to use a non-expanding, slow-moving bullet for self-defense? Well, the low recoil is usually what attracts people to that option. A small alloy-framed snub nose might be painful for somebody to shoot with conventional self-defense ammo, but with wadcutters, they can become very manageable. Even more experienced shooters using a steel frame revolver will typically find that they can get accurate follow-up shots much quicker with wadcutters than with most other loads.

Wadcutters also have the potential for surprisingly effective wound ballistics out of a small revolver compared to conventional self-defense ammo. Most hollow-points will only expand if they get up to a certain velocity, and sometimes the little 2-inch snubby barrels don’t launch those bullets fast enough to reach that velocity. When a hollow point fails to expand in soft tissue, it basically acts like a round nose or full metal jacket. It makes a hole, but it kind of pushes its way through tissue like the hull of a boat moving through the water. It doesn’t create a large wound channel and it just isn’t as effective at stopping threats when it doesn’t expand.

wadcutter-bullets

A wadcutter, on the other hand, because of the flat front and hard right angle, it does to soft tissue kind of what it does to paper — it punches a sharp hole that’s a lot more disruptive than a round nose. Even though the wadcutter doesn’t actually expand, it tends to penetrate soft tissue very reliably. Penetration is really the most important thing we want to see in a good self-defense round, so when you combine that with light recoil, a .38 special wadcutter is actually a pretty formidable self-defense round.

The catch is that most snub nose revolvers have fixed sights and sometimes wadcutters are going to hit a few inches higher or lower than what the sights are regulated for. Also, thanks to their shape, it’s difficult to reload with wadcutters in any kind of hurry. A lot of guys that load their carry gun with wadcutters will use something different for their reload, like a speed strip with Gold Dots, for example.

Most major ammo manufacturers produce some kind of 148 grain .38 special wadcutter load but they can have pretty drastically different velocities from one brand to the next. I did some chronograph testing with wadcutters from six different ammo makers and took the average velocity of 10 shots fired from a 2-inch barreled revolver.

The Winchester load was the fastest at a little over 700 feet per second. The Federal, Remington, and Magtech loads were within 50 feet per second of that and then there’s a big jump down to the Sellier and Bellot load at close to 600 and then another massive decrease to 530 for the Fiocchi load. So there’s nearly a 180 foot per second spread between these six loads — that’s a 25% decrease in velocity from the fastest load to the slowest.

wadcutter-velocity

All of these loads still have very mild recoil, but if I was choosing one for self-defense, I would want one of the faster loads out of this batch just to make sure I get that penetration we’re looking for. The Winchester, Federal, or Remington would all be good choices. The Magtech velocity is also decent, but Magtech ammo tends to have tough primers which can lead to light primer strikes in some revolvers. You can find much higher velocity wadcutter loads from some of the smaller boutique ammo companies, but you start running into diminishing returns with those. When you get up to numbers like 850 feet per second with a wadcutter, there’s no real increase in performance over the more standard loads but you do end up with snappier recoil, so it’s not really worth the trade-off.

We’re going to be using the Winchester wadcutter in our gelatin tests, so we’ll see how that compares to the jacketed hollow-point loads. But even if some of those hollow points expand out of a 2-inch barrel, none of them are going to be as easy to shoot as the wadcutter, so for recoil sensitive shooters and super lightweight revolvers, do not overlook the humble lead wadcutter load.


If you want more of that sweet revolver goodness, be sure to check out the archives of our Wheel Gun Wednesday series!


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  • Dave Leach

    I look forward to your testing results. Years ago we found that the semi-wadcutter in I think the 156 grain .38/.357 2″ – 4″ barrels produced excellent results with mushrooms from .750″ – 1.500″, energy dissipation was almost unbelievable. Even the Feds were using these rounds for combat entry teams, at the time they were very concerned with close quarters shooting and excessive penetration.

    My PD started casting some of own training bullets, we found softer lead gave best expansion results but also required more frequent barrel cleaning. We didn’t have gelatin blocks but we had clay blocks, it really showed cavitation.

    I think Lyman produced the best data that was very well tested. I know I was able to get the same or greater cavitation with .38’s verse .357’s. But that was the old days and old ways I’m sure all this new technology is better today.

  • If you turn that 148 Grain Hollow Base wadcutter around, it makes one hell of a hollowpoint!

    • Some of the earliest commercial Hydra-Shok ammunition was based on this concept. This was years before Federal bought the patent rights from Tom Burczynski.

    • Jon

      You want to fill that reverse hollow base wadcutter with Vaseline though. I have seen a some tests where they don’t expand through denim, but the Vaseline increases the hydrostatic expansion reliability and they perform dramatically.

  • Speaking of low recoil wadcutters, I rather miss 3D Ammunition’s old 100gr wadcutter load designed for indoor PPC leagues. It was a delight to shoot through my Colt Detective Special, and completely unfair out of anything larger. Given the excessive penetration of Buffalo Bore’s 100gr hardcast .380 ACP load, I suspect that the old 3D load could have easily achieved the FBI 12″ minimum. I think it would be interesting to work up a low-recoil load for one of the commercial hardcast 100gr DEWC with Trail Boss just to see what it could do.

  • Emma D.

    You might want to consider Atomic ammunition as well. They sell a wad cutter marketing it for self defense and the reviews so far are very promising.

  • FMarion

    Chris:
    This is an excellent piece. Informative but concise with the important velocity data in one place for easy review.

    You are doing very good work with your writings and those of your guest authors and might want to start thinking about how to compile all those pieces in one place.

    • Thanks, glad you’ve found it helpful. How about Lucky Gunner Lounge: The Motion Picture?

      • Five

        I second FMarion. The Blog entries are great and the ballistic gel tests are incredibly helpful, it was a huge help in selecting what loads to test and choose for my self defense load.

        In return, y’all aways get first crack at my ammo dollars.

      • Arnaldo Bach Carvalho

        I agree it was very informative! Congrats, LG Chris…

        A friend of mine reloads wadcutters UPSIDE DOWN to use bith in his .38 snub and his 4″ barrel, with the purpose of defense… His reasoning is that either it will work as a normal wadcutter, which is good enough, or it will be even better, by acting as a wadcutter AND expanding a little bit. He said his “ballistic tests” (amateur ones) showed great promise…

        Do you ever heard of something like that… Or can you say a word or two about how effective do you think such ammo could be?

        • Loading wadcutters backwards was once a very popular practice. It is my understanding that you lose a lot of accuracy because the bullets often tumble in flight, and terminal ballistic effectiveness is inconsistent, at best. I have not tested it myself, but this is what I have been told by a couple of folks who know far more than I do about handgun ballistics.

          • Arnaldo Bach Carvalho

            Indeed, the loss of accuracy makes sense… Still, if that’s the problem, he can keep using it, as normally personal defense around here occurs at point blank distance…

            Me… I think I’ll just stick to my standard plated wadcutters. Thank you, man! 🙂

  • Nick Wong

    Definitely wanting to see the ballistics gel test results!

  • Fred

    I agree. It was a well written and informative article. Buffalo Bore sells a wad cutter defensive load for the .44Special. I carry it, but fortunately have not had to use it for self defense.

    • James Gillett

      they make this for the Charter Arms Bulldog too

  • whaddacrock

    Well…another closely held belief shattered. Wadcutters are only for revolvers…guess I’ll have to develop some other load for my S&W Model 52…not!

    • I said they were *designed to be used* in revolvers. The fact that there is a semi-auto that was built specifically to work with wadcutters doesn’t change that. I’m well aware of the S&W 52 and I actually devoted a paragraph to it in my earlier post about wadcutters, but it was not relevant for the topic of using wadcutters for self-defense: http://www.luckygunner.com/lounge/wadcutter-bullet/

  • Rod De Leon

    Thanks! This is exactly the kind of thing I’d like to know; what might be acceptable in a standard-pressure load for this caliber? I miss the old Federal Nyclad, but with today’s powder coating technology and modern polymers, a less expensive to manufacture alternative could be made to work, especially since Federal is already using this (Syn)tech for range ammo. Now, for the real question: when do we get to see a test of the Kimber K6S you’re holding?

  • RMP52

    Roll your own. Wadcutters and semi-wadcutters can make great defensive loads. and by loading your own you can tailor the load to your handgun.

    • RBR

      Inverted hollow base wadcutters had an almost cult like following years ago.

  • Gerald

    Chris;We really appreciate the effort you put into these tests.Some folks are concerned about over penetration with the target wadcutter.Sounds strange but these little guys keep on traveling.It will be interesting to see your results.Thanks for all you guys do!!!
    Gerald

  • sully v

    Reversing a 148gr. wad-cutter as is what Skeeter Shelton of Shooting Times used to write about. He thought it would be very effective… I think looking at a non-+P for SD is an interesting proposition–me likes it–thank you

  • ke4sk

    Back in the day the factories used to load “full charge wadcutters” which used the same nominal powder charge as 158-grain LRN service ammo (about 3.5 grains of Bullseye versus 2.8 grains for target ammo), which were used by NYPD and others for training and practice ammo, to more closely simulate the recoil of service loads then used (1960s). Buffalo Bore makes a full charge wadcutter available today, or you could load your own with the Remington component HBWC bullet and be as well equipped as “The Prince of the City” was in the bad old days of the NYPD stakeout unit!

  • Matt Matteson

    I love your work, Mr. Baker, but good grief: wad-cutters? There’s a purpose for everything, and I’ll grant that the recoil averse stuck with an airweight or hollowpoint-prohibited have a great choice here. That said… experienced shooters? Why on earth should they use something other than a lightweight or underpowered hollowpoint? Seriously Chris! Even if it doesn’t expand beyond its initial diameter, a quality (wide-mouth) JHP is a wadcutter with a sharper edge that deforms more readily on impact with bone. You know better than this! Defend your honor! How can you recommend a wadcutter to anyone other than explicitly, clearly, & heavily qualified “rare-case” shooters in good conscience?

    • A JHP that fails to expand will generally behave much like a round nose or FMJ. It won’t create a full diameter wound channel the way a wadcutter does. This has been observed and documented by leading wound ballistics researchers like Dr. Martin Fackler and Dr. Gary Roberts. The effectiveness of wadcutters has also been noted by training industry guys with LE experience investigating shootings like Chuck Haggard and Tom Givens.

      Additionally, I wouldn’t want to underestimate the advantage of the light recoil of the wadcutters when using a lightweight snub, even for competent shooters. If I can get off 5 accurate hits with wadcutters in the same amount of time I can fire 3-4 slightly less accurate shots with a JHP that may or may not expand, I’ll take the wadcutters.

      With a 3+ inch barrel, I think JHP ammo is the way to go, but reliable expansion is really tough to get out of a 2-inch barrel. A wadcutter simply has better wounding effects than other non-expanding bullets with the bonus of minimal recoil.

      Personally, when I carry a steel frame snubby, it’s usually loaded with Speer Gold Dot 135 gr .38 +P. For the LCR that I sometimes carry, I’ll use SGD if I’ve had plenty of recent trigger time on the gun, but if it’s been a while since I’ve had it at the range and I’m not feeling quite as confident, I have no qualms about loading up the wadcutters.

      • Matt Matteson

        Mr. Baker, thanks for the reply! Consider your honor tentatively defended.

        Again, I do not question the value of sharp edges among equals. I do not question that many of the hollowpoints – designed for autos and stuck in 38 cases – plug up easily without much velocity, penetrating just like round-nosed fmj. I also don’t deny that the shots come faster with low power loads. Amen brother!

        That said, a plugged wide mouth hollowpoint concieved for the revolver looks pretty close to wadcutter ammunition. Only it’s better in every other way.

        Here’s why I took exception to bits of your article. A plugged LSWHP, SJHP, Speer GDSB, or powderpuff reversed HBWC (hard to come by, but there are a few commercial loads out there) accomplish everything you hope for in a factory fresh LWC load.

        Ah, but there’s more! If a plugged LSWHP hits bone, it has a good chance to deform, tumble, etc. in a far more dramatic fashion than your LWC, denim and all.

        Aha! There’s more still! Some of those underpowered hollowpoints may still expand in soft tissues, transferring more energy, disrupting more tissue, and reducing prospects for over-penetration. Hollowpoint expansion is tremendously important for “stopping power”, shot placement notwithstanding; the 158 RNL wasn’t called the widowmaker for nothing. You’re either delivering everything your cartridge can offer or sending it out the back.

        To this, I’m only hearing two objections on your end: light loads speed up follow-up shots and are uniquely suited to airweights.

        On speed, I have four responses. First, if speed is your driving concern, you should have bought an auto; 380s will exceed the performance of the light loads you’re advocating with less felt recoil, better sights, decent JHPs, and faster reloads. Second, come on, we’re talking revolvers! You only get five shots before an impractical reload! You’re telling readers to trust their lives to five mediocre rounds vs. five potentially effective hollow-points. Third, if your snub becomes a belly gun, you can run five 125gr SJHP magnums as fast as five rounds of Simmunitions. Finally, my point still stands: buy some reverse HBWC!

        On weight, I have one response: buy a new gun. If you dont have the fortitude to run a titanium snub with real defensive ammunition, you either need an auto of similar weight or a heavier revolver with a better grip. On a good day, you can buy two P3ATs for the price of one plain-jane aluminum smith. For $50 and a few ounces more, you could run reasonably mild .38+P JHPs through an LCR 357 with Hogue Tamer Grip. Under no circumstances should you seek ballistic blessing for needlessly inferior hardware!

        Put differently, young man, if you haven’t put the requisite trigger time in to your revolver, perhaps you should stick with an auto. 😉

        So Chris, once more I challenge your honor! Sweet, innocent gun people will read your post, confusing adequacy with excellence! How can you have “no qualms” with adequate-at-best wadcutter?

        Most cordially yours,

        Matt Matteson

        • I think you might be close to committing the common error of over-thinking your ammunition choice. Shot placement is king, and the lead wadcutter makes good shot placement easier. That alone makes it a load worth considering. But it’s also been demonstrated that .38 LWCs have ideal penetration and create a full caliber wound channel regardless of clothing barriers. They’re accurate, and easy to shoot from 2″ lightweight revolvers. And on top of that, they have an admirable track record in real world shootings and have been given the thumbs up by leading ballistics researchers. You will not find any .380 load with the same resume, nor a plugged hollow point .38 spl.

          Reverse HBWCs are known to yaw in flight, negatively impacting accuracy and failing to expand.

          The low recoil benefit is not just a matter of speed (though I would challenge your suggestion that the average shooter can crank off 5 magnum loads from a snubby at the same speed as 5 simunitions, even if the target is at contact distance). Small guns are difficult to control, especially if the shooter is in a compromised position. Firing the revolver from a retention position, from inside a coat pocket, or one-handed after being knocked on the ground are all potential concerns to consider. Maintaining an adequate grip to fire multiple shots is an easier prospect with light recoiling ammo.

          As to the P3AT… I would certainly put more faith in the wound ballistics of a lead wadcutter than in the quality control standards of the KT factory. But again, you’re unlikely to find a .380 load fired from a short barrel that consistently outperforms a good .38 LWC, so it’s a moot point.

          Again, I’m not advocating LWC ammo as the be-all, end-all defensive load, but they offer some advantages you don’t find with other loads, and are worth considering as a serious option. If there’s another load you prefer, then have at it. 95% of people I’ve seen running a J-frame (alloy or otherwise) have a tough time keeping rounds on paper with everyday FMJ ammo, so carrying wadcutters may at least give them a fighting chance to hit what they’re aiming at.

          • Mikial

            Well stated.

          • Matt Matteson

            Well put, Mr. Baker. I’m with you about 90% of the way, and the rest can wait for the results of your commendable labors.

            You are 100% correct on the import of shot placement, especially for low-volume shooters. May I pose a few last questions?

            I still wonder why, given loads meeting FBI protocols, 165fpe (x5) and no expansion at best beats 230fpe (x7) with modest expansion, less felt recoil, and feasible reloads in a more easily concealed G42. A lowly LCP or KT offers a similar challenge. Given that excellent 380 is increasingly available and STB410’s ammo quest videos stand as an excellent guide, who, precisely, is better served by .38 LWC?

            Furthermore, one gets the impression that a decision to carry a snub is practically the decision to trust your live and those of your loved ones to five and only five rounds. Old Wyatt’s counsel was to shoot slow fast. We prepare for multiple assailants. Assuming one has made the informed decision to carry a revolver, especially if the snub is not a BUG, why settle for anything less than a functional 38 +P?

            Frankly, this is what I’m hung up on. Many of your viewers are packing a single gun. While I love snubbies and think they are the only pistol that truly belongs in a pants pocket, they have serious limitations, chiefly lousy sights to begin with enhanced by half the radius of a comparable auto. So, in summary…

            I just can’t envision a scenario where a truly crippling Airweight TI belongs in the hands of the undisciplined. I would also never recommend a low volume shooter carry an aluminum snub of less than 2.5″ without a padded grip and a laser, period. If my mother wanted a snub, I’d buy her nothing less than a steel LCR with .38+Ps or light 9s; it would still have a padded grip and Ruger’s abominable attempt at J-frame sights demands a laser! Even here, I’d have her try a smorgasbord of .380 and 9mm autos before blessing her soon to be neglected purchase. What am I missing here?

            Put differently, who’s your target audience? BUG pocket carriers?

            Thank you for your responses: you’re a class act Chris!

            Regards,

            Matt M.

  • Mikial

    Great article.

    I understand the benefit for dedicated self defense ammo, and it has its place in many situations. But people need to consider a lot more than the characteristics of the ammo. As the article points out, there’s the characteristics of the gun itself, but there are also the skill of the shooter, experience, size and strength of the shooter, and all the unique situational parameters of any given self defense event.

    Bottom line, shoot what you as a shooter are most capable with.

  • AK Dancebot

    As almost useless as the 32S&W and 32S&W Long calibers may be in terms of modern day defensive rounds. There is potential, just like mentioned above (“lighter” recoil and more expansive capabilites) than the traditional cast bullet. Often they can be found somewhat-fairly easily at gun shops due to the Long in wadcutter being popular for competition target shooters.

  • A different Chris

    Another great article. I have a question though: Would a semi-wadcutter have the same benefits as a full wadcutter? If not, why?

    I’m hoping a semi-wadcutter will be in your tests.

    • Dennis Charles

      I just looked at my wadcutters and compared them to my semi-wadcutters. Looking at the front of the bullets you can see where the wadcutter would cut a bigger hole than the semi-wadcutter and looks like it would cut a bigger wound channel IMHO.

  • rustyknight17

    Well Chris, I guess I must be one of the other 5%.3 disclaimers. Shot placement is king and my only snubby thus far was a ported Taurus . So your point about recoil doesn’t apply in my case. Nor would it apply for a heavy snubby such as the EAA Weihrauch Windicator. Nor your point about follow-up shots.
    One problem with lead bullets is they produce a lot of fouling, which in some revolvers, such as the Windicator, can be a issue (unless they’re cleaned religiously.).
    Finally, your case for the WCs relies heavily on JHPs not expanding reliably, true for most out of a snubby barrel. But not all . Hornady (XTP) makes one. If I’m not mistaken , so do Remington ( Golden Saber) and Speer ( Gold Dot ). Perhaps the Winchester SXT but don’t quote me on that.

  • James Gillett

    Redo the report with hardcast Buffalo Bore rounds for better reporting.

  • RBR

    What about including some hard cast semi-wadcutter loads in the testing?

  • ke4sk

    In the 1970s both Remington at Bridgeport, and Winchester at New Haven, CT loaded “full charge” wadcutters which were originally intended as training and practice ammunition by the NYPD. The rationale, according to Frank McGee who headed the firearms unit back in the day, was that they didn’t want cops practicing with “light target loads” but wanted the wadcutter bullet assembled into the case using the same powder charge then common for 158-grain LRN service ammo, so that the recoil would be similar. Velocity was about 800 fps from a 4″ S&W Model 10 or Colt Police Positive, blue square-butt .38 Special “cop gun” which was then issued.

    The story told to me by Bill Allard, was that Jim Cirillo and others in the Stakeout Unit realized a good thing when they saw it and took this new practice ammo to the street, where it performed much better than the “official” LRN service ammo. When questioned by the shooting review board, to a man they stuck with their story, “we came from the range and the wadcutter ammo was what we had with us” and the rest is history.

    Check Grant Cunningham’s blog for loading recipes courtesy of former NRA Tech Staffer Ed Harris, who got the story from the horse’s mouth.

  • ke4sk

    Buffalo Bore has a non+P, but “full charge” wadcutter at 850 fps which should give some interesting results.
    I’ve been handloading essentially the same thing for years, using a double-end, bevel-based wadcutter such as the Saeco #348, with 3.5 grains of Bullseye, and it is certainly effective on small game and large varmints.