Handloading for Medium and Large Frame .38 Specials

Hot as you dare

It happened way too many years ago to even try to count now. A middle-aged man made himself comfortable in his modest Midwestern home preparing to watch an evening of television. He had just settled down when an invader kicked down the door and entered brandishing a weapon. He made the wrong choice of homes to attack. The homeowner happened to have his .38 Special at hand and fired on the intruder with finality. The police were called and they assured the homeowner he was not at fault and was not expected to be charged with anything.

A few days later he received a call from the Chief of Police reiterating the fact there would be no charges filed. The homeowner still felt very bad about taking a life, however he was convinced he had no choice and at least the threat of him being charged with anything had been removed. About four days later there was a knock on the door and two detectives showed up brandishing their identification. The homeowner became immediately worried and blurted out the fact he thought there were to be no charges fired. “Oh no, that is not what we’re here for.”

What had spurred their visit was how impressed they were the way his .38 Special had performed and performed very quickly. “We just like to know what ammunition you were using, as our duty ammo is nowhere near as effective and has actually failed several times.” That was a terrific relief for the homeowner and he was happy to share what he was using. He did have handloads in his .38 Special consisting of a 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter over 5.0 grains of Unique.

The standard barrel .38 Special M&P and targets fired with 5.0
grains of Unique and three different Lyman bullets.

The .38 Special M&P in standard barrel or heavy barrel
form is still a viable sixgun for self-defense.

Loading The .38

I have been loading for the .38 Special since 1956/57. In those early years my sixguns were a Ruger .357 Blackhawk 4-5/8″ Flat-Top and a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum Highway Patrolman 4″, both of which saw mostly .38 Specials as .357 Magnum brass was so hard to find.

My load of choice was Elmer Keith’s .38 Special Heavy load, consisting of Keith’s Lyman #358429 semi-wadcutter bullet weighing 168–173 grains depending upon the alloy over 13.5 grains of #2400. This is an exceptionally heavy loading, actually hotter than some .357 Magnum loads today. My bullets were cast one at a time using a single cavity mold and a cast-iron pot on my mother’s kitchen stove, then loaded one round at a time using the Lyman #310 Tool.

Looking back I’m thankful I had the pair of .357 Magnum sixguns to shoot this load and do not believe a medium-framed .38 Special such as the M&P or K-38 would have held up very long with such a load. Keith came up with this load long before the .357 Magnum became available. Even though it was introduced in 1935 it was years, in some parts of the country not till after WWII, before it was readily available.

Keith recommended his .38 load only for use in heavy frame sixguns, which at the time were the Single Action Army and New Service from Colt and the .38/44 Heavy Duty and Outdoorsman from Smith & Wesson. Today, we can add a few more to this list including the Great Western .38 Special Single Actions and also the USFA Single Actions. All of these guns are found only on the used gun market and I know of no production heavy-framed .38 Specials being offered today. Medium-framed .38 Specials include the above-mentioned M&P and K-38 as well as the Colt Official Police and Officers Model.

I have used the Keith Heavy .38 Special load in the .38/44 Smith & Wesson sixguns with no problems, however, it seems to be too heavy for the Great Western and USFA Single Actions. Actually it is now a moot point as it is a heavier load than I care to use and I have dropped back to 12.0 grains sporadically while using 11.0 grains for most of my #2400 loads with the Keith cast bullet. I still use the 13.5 grains of #2400 load, however, I have changed my bullet of choice.

Now I mostly use the Lyman Ray Thompson-designed gas-check bullet. This weighs around 158 grains, however, it has two crimping grooves. Thompson originally designed it so the top groove would be used when loading in .357 Magnum brass while the bottom groove was for use in .38 Specials, allowing more powder space. What it does with this particular load is tone it down a bit, reducing the muzzle velocity, blast and recoil. Most sixgunners know the .38 Special Keith Load uses a bullet over 13.5 grains of #2400 and the Skeeter Load uses the same charge with the Thompson bullet crimped in the bottom crimping groove.

The S&W Outdoorsman (above) preceded the .357 Magnum by five years and is a fine sixgun in its own right.

The USFA Single Action, payment for a debt, is beautiful and shoots
extremely well; grips are by Roy Fishpaw.

Powder It Up

My other powders of choice are Unique in the above-mentioned 5.0 grain charge and also 12.0-12.5 grains of #4227. All of my heavy-frame sixguns have no problem with any of these loads, however, I reserve the #2400 loads for use in heavy framed guns while concentrating mostly on 5.0 grains of Unique for the medium-frames Smith & Wesson K-Frames and the Colt Official Police/Officers Model. The Colts with the Official Police frame are slightly larger than the Smith & Wesson K-Frames so I do use them from time to time with the 11.0 grains of #2400 load.

My bullets of choice for all of these powders and sixguns are home-cast bullets dropped from Lyman and RCBS molds. I’m very thankful to be well past single cavity molds. My Lyman bullets of choice are, of course, Keith’s #358429, 168-grain bullet; #358477, 158-grain bullet, which is very close in design to the original .357 Magnum bullet; and the standard #358311, which is a 158-grain round-nosed design. From RCBS comes the #38-150KT bullet, which weighs right at 158 grains with a large grease groove and crimping groove.

With any of these bullets and 5.0 grains of Unique, muzzle velocities run from around 925 fps to 1,000+ fps depending upon the gun being used. This velocity is duplicated using 12.0 grains of #4227. Upping the charge to 12.5 grains of #4227 gets us over 1,000 fps. My personal heavy load of 11.0 grains of #2400 gets us up into the 1,100+ fps range. In the Colt New Service .38 Special, the heaviest-framed .38 Special I have ever encountered, this load clocks out at 1,200+ fps with five shots in 1-3/8″ at 20 yards.

With a 5-1/2″ USFA .38 Special this latter load does 1,165 fps and puts five shots in 1-1/8″ at 20 yards. This is a relatively rare sixgun and came to me in quite an unusual way — it came into the office of the now long gone SHOOT! Magazine in payment for advertising. No one there had any use for a .38 Special Single Action and you can bet it’s now one of my prized possessions!

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