Sensible Special-ization

Revolving Results: Having a 3-Gun
Workout With A Trio Of Standard-Pressure
.38 Special Defensive Loads Is
An Educational Experience

More than a half-century ago, when Jeff Cooper pretty much kick-started the Great .45 ACP Revival, one of his major concerns—if not a precipitating factor—was the .38 Special’s relative lack of stopping power, at least in comparison to Browning’s 1911. In this regard, the .38 Special—in particular its 158-grain lead RN configuration—was the target of a lot of bad press.

Although the 9mm eventually became the Colonel’s main whipping boy, it’s worth remembering in those early days, the 9mm was nowhere nearly as popular stateside as it eventually became. For every 1st Generation S&W Model 39 or 59 auto, there were a seeming bazillion S&W and Colt .38 revolvers serving as LE duty guns or sitting on some homeowner’s nightstand.

Different schools of thought arose as to how to power-up the old .38 to avoid resorting to the “bright lights and blast” of the more penetrative and difficult-to-control .357 Magnum. Many turned to loads featuring a lightweight JHP at high speeds, such as the Super-Vel 110-grain (introduced in 1963), which clocked around 1,200 fps from a 4-inch barrel. Handloads featuring heavier 146- to 160-grain jacketed or lead Keith-style bullets driven in excess of 1,000 fps (and usually from 6-inch barrels) had their adherents as well.

Commercially, the legendary “Treasury” or “FBI” load” consisting of a 158-grain +P lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint was offered by Federal, Remington and Winchester, and usually clocked around 900 fps from a 4-inch gun. And, of course, most of those same manufacturers offered 125-grain +P JHP loads as well.

Today, of course, the .38 Special is primarily relegated (from a defensive standpoint) to small, lightweight revolvers. In light of this, several companies are offering standard-pressure personal defense loads, often tailored for low flash and low recoil. Another key element is the fact makers have taken full advantage of advances in bullet technology (which can offer a lower velocity “window” for expansion) for more reliable terminal performance. Many of those who rely on .38 revolvers are relatively “non-gunny” types as well as peace officers (uniformed and otherwise) who still prefer the point-and-shoot simplicity of a backup snubbie.

For those folks, we’ve dug up a trio of controllable loads from Winchester, Hornady and Buffalo Bore. Two feature a JHP bullet—Winchester’s Train & Defend bonded 130-grain load and Hornady’s American Gunner 125-grain XTP (both factory-rated at 900 fps). The third is what Buffalo Bore refers to as a “Standard Pressure Short Barrel Low Flash Heavy 150-grain HC Wadcutter.” This interesting little number is rated at 850 fps.

Thomas Mackie lines up his 2-inch S&W Model 36. This classic little steel J-Frame
acquitted itself well offhand (despite the two lone flyers) at 10 yards with Buffalo Bore 150-grain
Hard-Cast WC (inset, left) and Hornady American Gunner 125-grain XTP loads (below).

The Guns

We dug up an appropriate trio of revolvers to try them in. A vintage 6-inch barreled S&W Model 14, Ruger’s new 4-inch barreled GP100 Match Champion (to be featured in depth in a future issue) and, of course, the quintessential J-Frame, 2-inch snubbie, S&W’s Model 36 Chiefs Special. In the interests of full and fair disclosure, it should be noted, however, that the barrel length of the Match Champion is actually 4.2 inches and the barrel of the Chief’s Special is really 1-7/8—an admittedly infinitesimal “rounding” discrepancy.

Our objective wasn’t very mysterious. We wanted to check the velocity gain/loss figures from all three barrel lengths. In addition, we wanted to get an admittedly subjective feel for the recoil characteristics in guns ranging in weight from 19-1/2 to 38 ounces.

And, of course, we also wanted to get an idea as to how they grouped from each particular gun. To get an idea, we decided to group the 6-inch M14 and the 4-inch Ruger GP100 Match Champion at 25 yards from a sandbagged rest. For the S&W M36, we decided to bring the target in to a more “snubbie friendly” 10 yards.

Our 4-inch revolver just happened to be Ruger’s new GP100 Match Champion, which turned in a
very respectable 25-yard group with Winchester’s Train & Defend 130-grain bonded JHP load.
Recoil, as might be expected from the 39-ounce Ruger, was negligible.

In terms of low-recoil and controllability, all of these loads—in all three guns—lived up to their “standard pressure” billing. From the K-Frame Model 14 and the beefy Ruger-GP100 Match Champion, recoil was negligible—virtually no difference between the lighter Winchester and Hornady offerings, and only a slightly heavier bump from the Buffalo Bore.

From the little steel-frame 19-1/2-ounce M36, the recoil from the lighter pair was slightly more noticeable, but definitely not in +P class. Despite the “Heavy” designation, the Buffalo Bore 150-grain load felt about like a standard-pressure, 158-grain .38 Special. It made its presence known in a slightly less polite fashion (and would be even bumpier from an alloy J-Frame weighing roughly 5 ounces less), but it was nothing even a casual shooter couldn’t handle.

Shooting Facilities provided by:
Angeles Shooting Ranges, 12651
Little Tujunga Road, San Fernando, CA 91342
(800) 499-4486,

Our trio of very manageable .38 Special defensive loads included left to right):
Buffalo Bore 150-grain Hard-Cast WC, Winchester Train & Defend
130-grain JHP and Hornady American Gunner 125-grain XTP.

.38 Special Factory Ammo Performance

Gun: S&W M14, 6-inch barrel
Load Velocity Extreme Spread Group Size
(brand, bullet weight, type) (fps) (fps) (inches)
Winchester T&D 130 JHP 862 73 3.5
Hornady American Gunner 125 JHP 904 58 2.50
Buffalo Bore 150 Hard-Cast WC 968 62 3.0

Gun: Ruger GP100 Match Champion, 4.2-inch barrel

Load Velocity Extreme Spread Group Size
(brand, bullet weight, type) (fps) (fps) (inches)
Winchester 130 T&D JHP 831 65 2.00
Hornady 125 American Gunner JHP 861 54 2.75
Buffalo Bore 150 Hard-Cast WC 944 23 4.0
GUN: S&W M36, 2-inch barrel*
Load Velocity Extreme Spread Group Size
(brand, bullet weight, type) (fps) (fps) (inches)
Winchester T&D 130 JHP 724 39 2.00
Hornady American Gunner 125 JHP 760 65 2.25
Buffalo Bore 150 Hard-Cast WC 882 9 1.75

Notes: *Groups fired offhand at 10 yards with the S&W M36. S&W M14 and Ruger GP100 groups fired from a sandbagged rest at 25 yards.

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