Loaded For Bear: The 38 Special
The 38 special is well known as a capable self defense round, especially with today's advanced load and bullet offerings. However, if one were to face down anything more then about 200 pounds, I do believe that the lowly 38 special would make just about anyone feel under gunned. But how can we level the playing field against larger animals if the 38 special must be used?
My wife carrys a Taurus model 85 snub nose in 38, and eventhough I've suggested and offered a bigger gun, she still carrys it when out on walks here in rural Alaska. As most know, here in Alaska our main concern in self defense is not usually against human threats, but rather the heavy, large bones 4 legged critters. When it comes to having to put down a moose, I personally don't really think the 38 special is adequate with standard 38 special offerings. There are several +P offerings from manufacturers such as Buffalo bore, and Underwood ammo, although the offerings that I have seen seem to top out in the 158-160 grain weight range. I'm a fan of heavy for caliber bullets, and know that there used to be loadings back in the day for the 38 special with 200 grain bullets. So I decided to set out and see if I could make a heavy load that would penetrate better then the standard factory offerings.
Rummaging around on my bullet shelf I was able to come up with some bullets cast from the Lyman #358315 mold. Although a gas check is probably not necessary with the 38 special, it also won't hurt anything. A bullet with a bit of flat nose would probably be more ideal, something along the lines of the RCBS 35-200 FNGC, but I don't have any of those left and am not set up to cast at this time. For those who no not cast, both the Lyman bullet, and the RCBS design are available from The Bullshop custom cast bullets out of Dell Montana and can be ordered to any hardness and diameter desired.
Looking through various reloading manuals, about the heaviest data I was able to come up with was for a 170 grain bullet. The Hodgden #25 manual does show loads for a 200 grain bullet using HS6, Trap100 and HP38 powders. I finally settled on attempting to use Hodgden Universal powder for the first go, since it shows potential to give good velocity with the lighter 170 grain bullets. A starting load of 3.9 grains was decided on, and the first rounds were loaded up.
Because of the length of the cylinder on the small revolvers the bullet had to be seat fairly deep past the crimp groove for a total length of 1.565" which was the maximum I could get into the gun.
The first test rounds loaded with 3.9 grains showed that the pressure was not too high and the load was bumped up to 4.2 grains. Here in Alaska we are dark by about 4:30PM this time of year (mid November) so the first groups were fired at 7 yards using a head lamp to see the sights and target. Five shots fired at 7 yards at around 0 degrees farenheit in that manner were nothing to write home about, with a group of right around 2 inches. A couple of the holes did appear to be slightly out of round, and since the cases slid right out of the chambers I upped the powder charge to 4.5 grains. The Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook shows a max load of 4.5 grains for a 170gn bullet with 4.8 grains max as a "+P"
Early next morning I broke out the Chonograph while we had decent light and sent 5 rounds over it with the 4.5 grain charge and came up with a average velocity of 855 FPS. I then fired 5 rounds for group at 7 yards on paper. With good light, this Taurus pistol has surprised me many times with how well it shoots, and this group was no exception. 5 shots from a standing position measured in at a whopping .335" center to center.
Surprisingly, the long heavy bullet stayed point forward during penetration, shooting through almost exactly 5" of 2x6 that was stood on edge, with a charge of 4.5 grains of powder behind it, stopping in the forth board. The Factory Remingron Golden Saber 125 grain +P loads that my wife currently carrys in this gun only went through two boards just leaving a dent in the third
It should be noted that the factory load did not expand at all.
After further thinking, I decided to go ahead and increase the powder charge again. I think that is important to note that I am well past any max loads I could find in books. This is a small case and it does not take much powder to make a big difference in pressure. When working with any load near max, it is very import to know how to watch for pressure signs, both with the gun, and with the fired cases.
Powder charge was increased to 4.7 grains and five rounds were again fired in the dark using the headlamp. This group at 7 yards measured .94" which is more then acceptable for the kind of work these short barreled guns are used for. All of the holes appeared to be perfectly round. It this point cases were taking a bit of pressure to eject, although I could still do it with just my thumb, but I decided this was hot enough for the small framed gun.
With the 4.7 grain charge of Universal in PMC cases and a CCI #500 small pistol primer, my average velocity was 862 FPS, and a extreme spread of 15, if I cut out the one odd ball shot that went 896 FPS. Out of curiosity I did try this load using a CCI #550 small pistol magnum primer, and did not notice any difference in velocity or accuracy.
Accuracy proved to be very good, with most groups being right around the 1 inch mark at a 7 yard "working" distance. Stretching out to 40 yards groups opened up to just shy of 8 inches, but all holes were still round. At 40 yards I was hitting about 1 foot high of my point of aim.
If I am correct in my calculations, the 210 grain bullet at 862 FPS is running around 347 foot pounds of muzzle energy. Buffalo bore claims their 158gn Outdoorsman load at 989 FPS from a 2" barrel. They do not have a muzzle energy listed, but I am estimating it to be around 343 foot pounds. Unfortunately this ammo was too costly for me to get my hands on a box to try side by side with the heavy bullet, but I may try to duplicate the load in the future and do some further testing on this heavy 38 special concept.
Out of curiosity I chronographed some of the other factory 38 special ammo I had on hand.
158 Grain UMC Lead RN
125 Grain Federal Nyclad (old)
125 Grain Remington Golden Sabor +P
The 210 bullet is giving almost 100 ft.lb more energy then the hottest factory ammo I have on hand, and with nearly double the penetration through 2x6 lumber.
I do not recommend going after a moose with a 38 special, but if it is what is the hand and the need arises, I would feel much better with this heavy weight +P load over standard 38 special loads. Until next time, stay safe and don't shoot yourself in the foot.