Skip to main content

Loaded For Bear: The 38 Special

The Taurus model 85 and a handful of cartridges loaded with the 200 grain Lyman bullet.

The Taurus model 85 and a handful of cartridges loaded with the 200 grain Lyman bullet.

38 Special Review

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 than 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 carries a Taurus model 85 snub nose in 38, and even though I've suggested and offered a bigger gun, she still carries 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 than 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 do 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, 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 the 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.

View of the full cylinder. This would be much more impressive looking with a flat nose bullet.

View of the full cylinder. This would be much more impressive looking with a flat nose bullet.

Test Fire Results

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 Fahrenheit 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.

5 rounds fired at 7 yards

5 rounds fired at 7 yards

Other Results

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 Remington 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.

From the top; Factory Remington Golden Saber, 200 grain handload, 200 grain bullet in wood block, unexpanded fired Golden Saber

From the top; Factory Remington Golden Saber, 200 grain handload, 200 grain bullet in wood block, unexpanded fired Golden Saber

Powder Charge

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.

Left to right; 125gn Hornady, 158gn Speer, 200gn Lyman and a loaded Golden Saber

Left to right; 125gn Hornady, 158gn Speer, 200gn Lyman and a loaded Golden Saber

Closing Thoughts

Out of curiosity I chronographed some of the other factory 38 special ammo I had on hand.

158 Grain UMC Lead RN
654 FPS

125 Grain Federal Nyclad (old)
809 FPS

125 Grain Remington Golden Sabor +P
948 FPS

The 210 bullet is giving almost 100 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.

© 2020 Daniel Congiolosi


Kelly Ann Christensen from Overland Park, Johnson County, Kansas on January 25, 2020:

The 38 special looks like a nice piece, but I think I would still prefer the 9 mm. Years ago they were teasing my late brother about seeing a black bear in these parts. That must have been around the time he was living at Smithville Lake camping. I guess that's what comes to mind in certain situations even though there are perpetrators at the lakes, too. You know, the old couples in the RVs in the Midwest half of the year, and in the South the other half (not all of them, thankfully), as well as others. They charge something like $22 a night just to park your car in a space on the campgrounds, which did have showers and laundry facilities. However, you could rent an apartment for that same monthly rate.