.38 Wadcutters

Don’t Overlook This Bullseye Classic

By John Taffin

Just this past week a young woman who already carries concealed asked me to recommend a CCW revolver. Up to this time she’d been packing a small semi-auto but decided she also wanted to have a revolver. My advice? Go with an S&W J-Frame in either .38 Special or .357 Magnum.

My second suggestion was to start using it with .38 Special full wadcutter loads. The reasons are twofold. First, recoil is minimal with .38 Special WCs. Second, a full WC not only cuts easy-to-score holes in a bull’s-eye target, they can also serve well in a self-defense situation by delivering the full cross-sectional impact of a .38 caliber bullet.

John’s “Trail Masterpiece” — a 3″ M60 — handles a wide range of his WC handloads.
And those easy-to-see adjustable sights are great for older eyes.

Always a Competitor

When I first started shooting seriously in the mid-1950s, target shooting was the No. 1 handgun game. Serious competitors used a .22 semi-auto, a .38 Special Colt Officers Model or S&W K-38 Masterpiece and a tuned Colt .45 ACP Government Model.

It was about this time I bought my first magnum sixguns, namely a 4-5/8″ Ruger .357 Flat-Top Blackhawk and a 4″ Smith & Wesson .357 Highway Patrolman. Both arrived on the scene at about the same time. Back then it wasn’t very easy to locate .357 brass, but thanks to the target shooting game, .38 Special cases were cheap and abundant.

The standard target load at the time was a 148-gr. WC over 2.7 grains of Bullseye. With my two new .357s, I wasn’t too interested in target shooting, however, I did load thousands of rounds of .38 Specials using Elmer Keith’s recipe — 13.5 grains of #2400 under his 168-gr. long-nosed semi-wadcutter. This was — and is —a very powerful load, even today it’s stouter than some factory .357s.

Before there were effective hollowpoints available, shooters were loading hollow-base WCs upside down for self-defense.

John uses 148-grain WCs from Matt’s Bullets, Oregon Trail and Hornady — along with Redding
.38 Special/.357 Magnum dies for reloading WCs.

Back To The Future

Now in my later years I’ve rediscovered the joy of .38 Special target loads with full WCs. Several years ago I took part in a tournament with 60 shooters, each shooting four different handguns — .22, a centerfire semi-auto and both centerfire DA and SA revolvers. For my single action I chose a Freedom Arms Model 97 with .357 Magnum brass loaded with WCs to the old .38 Special/2.7 grains of Bullseye level. Of the 240 targets we shot, there was only one perfect score turned in by yours truly (who says SAs aren’t target guns?).

Lately I’ve been shooting lots of .38 WCs, especially in J- and K-Frame snubbies. My bullets of choice are the Oregon Trail DBWC (double-based wadcutter), Matt’s Bullets standard WC and the Hornady swaged-lead HBWC (hollow-base wadcutter).

At 7 yards, John’s WC handloads are right in this M60’s wheelhouse.

Select Recipes

For powders I use Alliant Bullseye, Unique and Red Dot as well as Winchester’s 231. The Hornady HBWC was utilized three different ways — loaded as normal with the hollow base over the powder charge, upside down with the hollow base serving as a large-cavity HP and also loaded over black powder for use in antique .38 S&W Top-Break revolvers. The .38 S&W is slightly larger in diameter both as to case and bullet than the more modern .38 Special. However, the hollow base in these soft swaged lead bullets allows them to swell out to the proper diameter.

For Smith J-Frame .38s using these same three bullets, 3.0 grains of Alliant Bullseye or Red Dot or Winchester’s 231 averaged 685 fps to 720 fps. At 7 yards most pocket snubbies will place four shots into well under 1″.

Switching to the 2-1/2″ S&W Model 66 and Model 19 .357 Magnums using .357 Magnum brass, 4.0 grains of W231 or Bullseye results in muzzle velocities of 735 to 785 fps with accuracy once again well under 1″. These loads are not only accurate from short-barreled sixguns, they also serve well for close-range varmints or small game. For the latter they cut a clean hole with very little meat damage.

One of my favorite little sixguns for these chores is a Smith & Wesson Model 60 with a full-underlug 3″ barrel and adjustable sights. Years ago my friend Terry Murbach dubbed this little revolver the “Trail Masterpiece.”

And that’s an excellent description as far as I’m concerned.


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One thought on “.38 Wadcutters

  1. James A. "Jim" Farmer

    .38 Special 148 grain lead target wad-cutter.

    In the 1972 movie “Godfather” Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) uses a 2″ snub-nosed .38 caliber revolver to
    gun down two rival gangsters in Louis’s Italian Restaurant inside the Bronx of New York City. Remember
    too Jack Ruby utilized a 2″ Colt Cobra .38 Special to murder Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas on
    November 24th, 1963. In contrast, lets look at the 2″ or 3″ barrel snub-nosed .38 Special revolver in it’s legitimate lawful and moral role. Whether a J-Frame Smith and Wesson Model 36, 37 Airweight, or Model 60 stainless, a Colt Detective Special, Cobra, or Agent (these are all based upon Colt’s D-Frame .38 Police Positive Special revolver), and Ruger’s SP-101 and LCR, and finally those produced in Brazil by Rossi and Taurus, a snub-nosed .38, or any other handgun for that matter, can remain highly useful, practical, and versatile for the private law abiding gun owner. And not just for the triple purposes of “self defense/house protection,concealed carry.” Consider the .38 Special 148 grain lead target wad-cutter for sporting use in the great outdoors. Next to a .22 or .32 revolver or semi-automatic pistol, the .38 Special 148 grain lead target wad-cutter remains practical for hunting small game: rabbit, squirrel, and grouse. Also for dispatching vermin such as raccoon, skunk, possum, etc. Even for butchering livestock on the farm or ranch. A properly placed shot from a .38 Special will drop a steer and thus prepare the carcass for being butchered for meat. And for venomous snakes such as rattlers, copperheads, water moccasins, or whatever a head shot from a .38 Special will kill any dangerous reptile worldwide. However, if shooting around rocks (along say a riparian zone, creek, river, brook) where a venomous snake might inhabit CCI’s classic shot or “snake load”: No. 9 shot is preferable to reduce the danger of ricochet. Too, a snub-nosed .38 Special revolver with 2″ or 3″ barrel is adoptable as a kit gun for the fisherman, camper, hiker, and should fit inside holstered in a tackle box. And of course for the lone stranded woman, single or married, who finds herself isolated and broken down in some remote region whether cell phone reception is available or not? Such a region would be the Gearhart Mountain Wilderness Region on the Winema/Fremont National Forest situated between Bly and Paisley, Oregon which straddles the Klamath/Lake County LIne. It gets “pitch black dark” and very lonely
    in this region after dark. A .38 caliber revolver: .38 Special or .357 Magnum (preferably the latter as it will chamber and fire the former) may be the only law, security, and protection for the individual, male or female, who ends up stranded, alone, isolated, and by themselves. No, the individual could do much worse than
    selecting and owning a .38 or .357, even if this is their only handgun. Finally, the .38 Special 148 grain lead target wad-cutter hits like a brick! It’s been under rated, under-appreciated, and ignored by way too many gun writers for way too long! Although the late Major George C. Nonte endorsed it in his writings, along with
    several sensible gun writers from the past.

    James A. “Jim” Farmer
    Merrill, Oregon (Klamath County)


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