Four High-Performance .38 Special Handloads

This is a discussion on Four High-Performance .38 Special Handloads within the Reloading forums, part of the Defensive Ammunition & Ballistics category; I ran the .38 Special revolvers through the wringer a few weeks ago, working up and testing some performance handloads. The tests concentrated on four ...

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Thread: Four High-Performance .38 Special Handloads

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    Four High-Performance .38 Special Handloads

    I ran the .38 Special revolvers through the wringer a few weeks ago, working up and testing some performance handloads. The tests concentrated on four different loads, all using 158 grain lead SWC bullets. As always, the same four revolvers were used, 2 of which have been used for many years for all .38 Special chronograph testing.



    Smith & Wesson Model 10 2-inch



    Smith & Wesson Model 10 Heavy Barrel 4-inch



    Smith & Wesson Model 27 .357 Magnum 6-inch (since no 6-inch Smith & Wesson 38 Special revolver was on hand)



    Smith & Wesson Model 14 8 3/8-inch

    The other tests from this .38 Special epic may be accessed here:
    Some .38 Special Velocity Tests
    Three .38 Special Handloads


    The bullets tested a couple of weeks ago were from a batch I cast perhaps 20-25 years ago using the Lyman No. 358156 mould. They actually weighed 159-160 grains. They were well-formed with nice sharp shoulders and bases. They were made from straight wheel weights with some range lead thrown in as I recall (not very scientific I'll admit). They were lubed with stick Alox. I was a bit concerned that the lube would be dried out but the bullets didn't seem to lead too badly despite being abused with heavy handloads. At the conclusion of the tests the revolvers scrubbed up easily with no sterner measures required to "get the lead out."

    Loads tested

    The loads tested were published loads from "back in the day." Loading manuals are more mild mannered these days.

    5.4 grains of Unique
    This was published as maximum by Lyman for many years. A friend has nicknamed it the "Texas FBI Load" and it does make a good substitute for the factory +P 158 grain lead SWC load. The latest formulation of Unique was used for the tests. Unique seems to be "jazzed up" a bit from that used in tests 30 years ago. I first noticed this when testing Unique earlier this year. (1980 velocity tests using 5.4 grains of Unique with the lead 158 grain bullet: 2-inch-847 fps, 4-inch-935 fps, 6-inch 1021 fps, 8 3/8-inch 1007 fps).

    5.0 grains of Herco
    This was prepared on a whim, just to see what it could do. 5.0 grains seems to be around maximum in most data sources though the infamous Speer No. 8 shows a maximum of 6.5 grains of Herco. It was decided not to take Herco that high.

    11.5 grains of 2400
    This also was a published maximum by Lyman for many years. Some folks considered this to be a .38-44 equivalent handload for the .38 Special. The latest formulation of 2400 was used. I'd tested this load many years ago but the data didn't get recorded for some reason so a retest was needed. I was curious about the performance level of 2400 with the 158 grain lead SWC in the .38 Special.

    8.0 grains of SR 4756
    "The Load" It's bigger! it's better! It'll give all the performance one can squeeze out of the .38 Special. This is the starting load for this powder as published in the Speer No. 8 guide. I'd hate to try to work this one up to the maximum listed charge weight which is only one grain higher. Whether it is advisable to use even the listed starting load is subject to debate. Probably not. The Speer No. 8 was compiled in the late 1960s. Maybe they were smoking "cigarettes and all kinds of things" while working up loads in their lab back then.

    Since we'd already tested 5.1 grains of Unique earlier this year we didn't bother to work up to maximum with it. With the other loads the effort was made to work from arbitrary lower levels in .2 grain increments toward the goal charge weights. Herco was worked up from 4.6 grains. 2400 was worked up from 10.5 grains and SR 4756 was worked up from 7.5 grains.

    Working up the three loads in three different .38 Special revolvers was a bit tedious and, frankly I'm not certain that much may be determined by doing this in the .38 Special given its normal operating pressure levels. I wonder if any of the assumed pressure "signs" can be reached until one is operating fully within .357 Magnum territory which is far beyond .38 Special levels. Only the SR 4756 load showed a dab of cratering and that was in my old favorite 4-inch Model 10. Cases for all 4 loads gave normal ejection in all revolvers. Of course both "The Load" and the max. 2400 load could be straying closer to .357 Magnum pressure levels.

    Some limited range time was spent shooting these loads at paper to see what sort of accuracy may be expected of them. I'm thinking that the .38 Special revolvers were grateful to see the backside of these tests.

    158 Grain Lead SWC/5.4 Grains of Unique

    2-inch Barrel
    MV 964 fps
    ME 326 ft./lbs
    ES 75 fps
    SD 33 fps

    4-inch Barrel
    MV 1026 fps
    ME 369 ft/lbs.
    ES 31 fps
    SD 13.4 fps

    6-inch Barrel
    MV 1047 fps
    ME 385 ft./lbs.
    ES 43 fps
    SD 16.6 fps

    8 3/8-inch Barrel
    MV 1149 fps
    ME 463 ft./lbs.
    ES 56 fps
    SD 23.3 fps


    158 Grain Lead SWC/5.0 Grains Herco

    2-inch Barrel
    MV 912 fps
    ME 292 ft./lbs.
    ES 38 fps
    SD 14.3 fps

    4-inch Barrel
    MV 964 fps
    ME 326 ft./lbs.
    ES 34 fps
    SD 14.5 fps

    6-inch Barrel
    MV 976 fps
    ME 334 ft./lbs.
    ES 64 fps
    SD 23.7 fps

    8 3/8-inch Barrel
    MV 1069 fps
    ME 401 ft./lbs.
    ES 83 fps
    SD 33.1 fps


    158 Grain Lead SWC/11.5 Grains 2400

    2-inch Barrel
    MV 1037 fps
    ME 377 ft./lbs.
    ES 71 fps
    SD 30.2 fps

    4-inch Barrel
    MV 1150 fps
    ME 464 ft./lbs.
    ES 50 fps
    SD 26.8

    6-inch Barrel
    MV 1162 fps
    ME 474 ft./lbs.
    ES 58 fps
    SD 22.2 fps

    8 3/8-inch Barrel
    MV 1102 fps
    ME 426 ft./lbs.
    ES 67 fps
    SD 24.0 fps


    158 Grain Lead SWC/8.0 Grains SR 4756

    2-inch Barrel
    MV 1150 fps
    ME 464 ft./lbs.
    ES 51 fps
    SD 26.5 fps

    4-inch Barrel
    MV 1234 fps
    ME 534 ft./lbs.
    ES 23 fps
    SD 12.3

    6-inch Barrel
    MV 1251 fps
    ME 549 ft./lbs.
    ES 23 fps
    SD 8.9 fps

    8 3/8-inch Barrel
    MV 1173 fps
    ME 483 ft./lbs.
    ES 18 fps
    SD 7.7 fps


    It will be noted that the slower powders still register the highest velocities in the short barrel.

    During this test it was surprising to find that both 2400 and SR 4756 gave higher velocities when fired out of the 4-inch and the 6-inch barrels rather than when fired out of the 8 3/8-inch barrel. This has never occurred before and I can't explain it.

    It appears that the 2400 load can duplicate the performance of the Buffalo Bore +P 158 grain lead SWC factory load and that "The Load" can whip the Buffalo Bore factory load except in the 8 3/8-inch barrel of the Model 14. Buffalo Bore was the velocity champion in that barrel with the 158 grain bullet weight, strange as it may seem.

    How stressful these handloads are compared to the Buffalo Bore load is hard to say. All are probably high pressure with "The Load" likely winning the prize. No primers pierced or flowed and a hint of cratering was only observed on a few, but not all of the primers in the Model 10 Heavy Barrel when used with "The Load." All cases dribbled out of cylinders when started with the ejector rod.

    Recoil was brisk but very manageable in the two Model 10s. In the Model 27 and the long-barreled Model 14 recoil doesn't amount to much. All gave a snappy report and "The Load" seemed to give a particularly evil crack. Perhaps it's all in my head though.

    "The Load" damaged one my spinning quail discs. I was using the top of a disc for an aiming reference for chronographing and a round fired from the 6-inch Model 27 went high, smacking a quail right on it's narrow welded base, nearly tearing it off the target frame. It has already been mended.

    So ends the .38 Special test epic. It only lacked two days taking a year to accomplish the handload testing goals. There are always more factory loads to try and I still have to get some of that pesky W231 so I'll be testing .38 Special some more in future. I don't see any other interesting propellent powders to try when testing really heavy handloads in the .38 Special so will probably not venture into that phase again.

    I was hoping to shoot off a couple of the F A '26 .45 ACP cartridges I recently picked up, being able to say that they still gave a good performance over the chronograph screens after all these years, but several tries on two of the three were a bust. They were duds. I saved the best looking one for the collection.


    This particular effort centered around handloading the .38 Special for performance using older yet recognized published data. Do not anticipate the same results by using the same loads in your own revolvers. Carefully work up to any load. Take any handloading information found on internet forums with a grain of salt.

    This means you!
    OD*, Rigrat, grouse and 3 others like this.
    “No possible rapidity of fire can atone for habitual carelessness of aim with the first shot.”

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    Some mediocre results from efforts to put the loads on paper, burning up the remainder of the test loads. While it was very windy at the range, these targets represent the best of an embarrassing lot. The rest were best forgotten.

    The 2-inch Model 10 and 5.4 grains of Unique. Shot the left target at 10 yards in single action mode . Also showing a spontaneous 25 yard effort, also shot single action. It was the only revolver that was unlimbered at 25 yards. I'd thought to make a bit longer effort with the snub in order to show it off. Didn't work out and there wasn't enough ammo for a second attempt. This was a 6-shot attempt. Note the merest hit of a bullet clip on the right side of the target.


    Here's the 4-inch Model 10 HB with "The Load." 10 yards, both single action and double action.



    The 8 3/8-inch and a single action group (group you say?) at 10 yards with the 2400 load.



    It's a sure bet that these weren't target handloads. The revolvers didn't seem to be excessively leaded by visual examination and didn't prove to be difficult to clean.

    It is possible to equal the Buffalo Bore +P 158 grain factory loads by reaching back to data in older handloading manuals but I'd be sorely tempted to load with Buffalo Bore for self defense purposes since such handloads can't be pressure tested. These loads were worked up but they still could be too much of a good thing for any type of long term use.

    Perhaps these loads would have some hunting application but it would be easier to leave the .38 Special at home and just go with the .357 Magnum.


    Rock and Glock and Rigrat like this.
    “No possible rapidity of fire can atone for habitual carelessness of aim with the first shot.”

    Theodore Roosevelt, The Wilderness Hunter, 1893

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    Several years ago I inherited hundreds of Frankford Arsenal .45 ACP cartridges from 1931 (headstamp of FA 31). Like you, the primers in many had gone bad. I pulled the bullets and reloaded them in other cases. The trick is to break the lacquer seal on the bullet before pulling. Use a seating die, dial it down a half turn after contact, and use it to push the bullet in just enough to break the seal. Then pull the bullet normally. I broke a kinetic puller before I figured out this trick. Also, the FA 31 cases had slightly smaller-than-standard large primer pockets, and not even the RCBS punch-type decrimper would make them the right size. I crushed several primers before common sense took over. The cases were also very brittle and split easily, so I ended up tossing them...

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    bcmc, as I'm just getting launched with reloading your post is timely. Been loading .45 ACP for the steel matches, but .38 Special will be next.

    Question: did any of those hot loads result in any leading in the barrels?

    FWIW, I buy from a local bullet supplier (Billy Bullets) whose bullets are all moly-coated, and they leave zero leading. I ran some comparable commercial 200 gr SWC reloads (uncoated) recently, and didn't realize how good I had it with the moly bullets - normally a quick dry brushing is all my barrel needs, but after the commercial reloads I needed to work at getting the leading out... annoying.
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    Hi Smitty;

    No, surprisingly enough the shadow of leading seen in the rifling just ahead of the forcing cones just brushed out with a bronze brush and Hoppe's No. 9. Each handgun had fired about 70-80 rounds between: working up loads, 10-rounds of each of the 4 loads chronographed, and the minimal target work. The old Lyman stick Alox hung in there for me. I didn't clean the revolvers between the day I shot them over the chronograph and the day I shot them for group. I did get right on cleaning them after returning home from the target session.

    It was hot by then. Perhaps the lead just melted out of the bore and was wiped away. While cleaning them in the 102F shade I began to wonder if I couldn't just stuff some scrap lead in some bullet molds and place them out on the driveway in the sun and make "sun bullets." I mean...after all, folks make sun tea.

    Seriously, I think that leading problems may be minimized to some extent by cleaning in between each and every shooting session. Well-fitting bullets, properly lubed helps. Getting away from the popular notion that one must have hard cast bullets may have some merit but I'm not certain about that. Getting right on the task of cleaning may also help. I admit to cleaning a firearm whether it was fired 400 times in an afternoon or one time at a skunk.

    I don't often have leading problems in modern handguns with smooth bores. Now, the oldies with frosted, pitted bores are something else again. Even with them rapid attention seems to help.
    “No possible rapidity of fire can atone for habitual carelessness of aim with the first shot.”

    Theodore Roosevelt, The Wilderness Hunter, 1893

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    OD*
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    Fantastic thread, Bryan!
    "The pistol, learn it well, carry it always ..." ~ Jeff Cooper

    "Diligentia Vis Celeritas"

    "There is very little new, and the forgotten is constantly being rediscovered."
    ~ Tiger McKee

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    Bryan, thanks for a gret and imformative thread that I can really get into. Not only is the 38 spl one of the most versatile but one of the most reloadable cartridges out there.

    I think for my purposes, the Unique will be a main stay though.
    Ignorance is a long way from stupid, but left unchecked, can get there real fast.

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    Good info, thanks for posting it.
    "I do what I do." Cpl 'coach' Bowden, "Southern Comfort".

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    "I think for my purposes, the Unique will be a main stay though."


    It's sure hard to argue with that. When all is said and done, Unique is the one single powder I'd use if I could have only one powder for all handgun use. It does a competent job with everything from .25 ACP to .45 Colt and really useful loads may be assembled for both cartridges along with absolutely everything in between. Can't really say that with Bulls-Eye and certainly not with H110. Dirty? Bah! Clean the guns when finished with them and don't fret about it.

    It's also difficult to argue with 900 fps or better and 300 ft./lbs of energy or better from the Unique-fueled handload with a 158 grain bullet from a .38 Special with a 2-inch barrel and one doesn't have to go all the way to to 5.4 grains to obtain that level of performance.
    “No possible rapidity of fire can atone for habitual carelessness of aim with the first shot.”

    Theodore Roosevelt, The Wilderness Hunter, 1893

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    Great post.

    The Model 10 4" heavy barrel was my uniform carry gun beginning in 1969 as it updated our old Colt Offical Police weapons.

    The Model 10 2" was my first carry gun when I went into the DB in 1970.

    Thanks for taking the time to do your research.
    "Violence is seldom the answer, but when it is the answer it is the only answer".

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    VIP Member Array glockman10mm's Avatar
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    Agreed on all points. A handloader who knows his beans can do just about anything, and I believe the grand ole 38spl is even better today than ever as a viable real world defensive cartridge.

    Another great round that is begging for some attention at the reloading bench is the 44 spl. Although Elmer did much of the work for us, there is more to do, as the " new improved Unique" is not the same animal it was back then.

    My affection towards " working handguns" has lead me into some of the same type of testing with the 41 magnum. Have you got around to that one yet? Here's a tip for ya, with the new Unique, start at about 7 grains. Forget Elmers 9 grains for this one if using a 210 weight swc.

    I really appriciate your effort, as it gives me all I need to know.
    Ignorance is a long way from stupid, but left unchecked, can get there real fast.

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    Hey thanks Glockman10mm;

    I can use the advice about the .41 Magnum as I keep stumping my toe on the box of 500 210 grain lead SWCs I have on the floor by the loading bench. I've been vacillating on how to approach a Unique-fueled load with the bullet in the .41 Magnum. I would like to come up with a combination that gives 900 to 950 fps.

    Yeah, I need to get to work on the grand ol' .44 Special too. My data is dated (sad to have dated data) on .44 Special. Unique is a favorite for it but seems the formulation has changed. I have used and continue to use the .38 Special more than any other center fire handgun cartridge but have always thought that I was a .44 Special kind of guy. If the revolvers weren't quite so large...

    Hey OldSchool;

    Then your revolvers weren't so far off from the age of that 4-inch Model 10 Heavy Barrel shown which lettered to have been shipped in June of 1971. I didn't get it however until 1975.
    “No possible rapidity of fire can atone for habitual carelessness of aim with the first shot.”

    Theodore Roosevelt, The Wilderness Hunter, 1893

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    7 to 7.5 of the new stuff will get you there Bryan. My 4 5/8 inch BH is spitting it out at 920fps with a WLP primer and Winchester brass. 5 inch 5 shot groups are the 50 yard off bench norm.
    I like this load because it's easy shooting and a great all round load for about anything. With 9 grains it starts to get mean and vicious, but not bad, clocking 1150 plus fps.
    bmcgilvray likes this.
    Ignorance is a long way from stupid, but left unchecked, can get there real fast.

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    Quote Originally Posted by bmcgilvray View Post
    My data is dated (sad to have dated data) on .44 Special.
    As a numbers guy, I can agree.. day to day it's sad to have dated data. Say that to yourself 10 times (while I duck and run...)
    bmcgilvray likes this.
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    I know that this will be more than what your looking for in the .41 magnum but 8.5gr of Unique does really well in my Ruger BH. It gets close to 1100fps out of the 4 5/8" barrel of my BH so it is no weak sister in the power department and it's acurate and clean to boot. This load seems to do well for other folks revolvers as well. It seems that 8.5gr of Unique seems to hit that sweet spot for clean burning and accuracy. I can't comment however on the 7.0gr and 7.5gr loads as I haven't tried them. The more I use Unique the more and more I like using it, for full power loads I use 2400.

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