Wonderful Wadcutters

Soft Shooting, Accurate... Just Don't Try To Figure Out Why
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In Petty's competition days, .38 HBWC ammo produced a lot of tight groups and resulting smiles.

If you shoot a .38 Special and want the single most accurate load you can find, there is only one choice of bullet: The 148-grain, lead, hollow-base wadcutter. If you’re a handloader, there are several powders that will shoot well, but that’s the bullet to use. Looking at the humble hollow-base wadcutter, they are as aerodynamic as a brick and don’t look like there’s a chance of accuracy. But that matters not at all.

Everyone has his own idea of accuracy, but in its purest form, the goal is to put bullet after bullet through the same hole. And there will always be someone who wants to do better… someone like me.


Design Origin

The first thing you notice about a loaded .38 Special wad-cutter round, is that it’s seated flush with the case mouth. The main objective of the wadcutter design is to cut a nice clean hole in a paper target. This makes scoring ever so much easier. The reason for seating them so much deeper than normal dates back to the black powder origins of the .38 Special.

While the nice crisp holes of the wadcutter were desirable for target shooters, the manufacturers found that better accuracy was achieved with the bullet seated to occupy much of the excess space not needed with smokeless powders.

But there was also a different reason for development of wadcutter style bullets. Not without some logic, it was considered that the wide flat bullet would be an efficient “manstopper.” In Johnson and Haven’s 1943 book Ammunition, the authors report the wadcutter was developed by Himmelwright in 1900 and became commercially available in 1910.

The development resulted in a mid-range target load with a 148-grain wadcutter at 770 fps. This is very much like the load we have today. However, there was also a “full charge” load that used the same bullet at 870 fps and was intended for defensive use.

Over the years, there were many variations of the basic wadcutter design, and you can see all sorts of different configurations of the nose. There were big bumps and little ones, but the basic shape remained cylindrical. The design we know today is little changed from that used in the “Police Match” ammo of the 1930s.


Heel-Bullet Remnant

You may think the hollow base originated with the wadcutter, but actually, it goes all the way back to the earliest revolver cartridges that used a heel seated bullet. The only surviving example of this construction is today’s .22 rimfire. Like the lowly .22, these early cartridges used a bullet with a smaller diameter “heel” segment that was seated within the case. The remainder of the bullet was the same diameter as the outside of the cartridge case.

This explains why we call it the “.38” Special, even though everybody knows the bullet measures only .357 inch. But if you measure the outside diameter of a .38 Special case, you’ll find it close to .38 inch, which would have been the diameter of the old heeled bullet. The hollow base of old was intended to expand to seal the bore. And we still see smaller cup-type bases on many modern lead factory bullets.

It is unclear why the wadcutter’s hollow base was made so much deeper, but it seems to have two beneficial effects. Obviously it provides a good seal and long bearing surface— but it’s also thought that the hollow base shifts the center of gravity slightly forward and helps stabilize the bullet.


Not Just For Wheelguns

My first exposure to super-accurate .38s was as a young gunsmith in the Air Force. In the late 1950s, revolvers were going the way of the dinosaur in bullseye pistol competition with the exception of the .38 Special, which was often used in the centerfire portion of the match. But gunsmiths such as the late Jim Clark experimented with conversions of the .38 Super Colt Government Model to shoot the .38 Special wadcutter. This was no small feat.

By this time, the method for accurizing the Government Model .45 was well developed and would form the basis for what we called a Super Conversion… or more commonly just “Super.” Everyone knew what you meant. But it was not just a simple matter of cutting a new chamber, and you couldn’t call up Brownells and order a barrel.

The .38 Super cartridge is larger in diameter than the .38 Special, so the first efforts involved reaming out the chamber area and making a sleeve that was silver soldered in place. The insert could then be chambered. Another approach was to take an old G.I. barrel and cut the tube off just forward of the locking lugs. The remaining piece was then reamed out and a straight piece of barrel blank turned to fit and soldered in place. This had the additional advantage of allowing the outside diameter of the barrel to be the same as that of a .45 barrel, so normal bushings would work. It also added a little weight.

During my Air Force training, I watched as 1911 pistols were tested in a machine rest and tried to correlate differences in accuracy from one gun to the next with things I could see. Errors in fitting were pretty obvious, but sometimes a gun that looked just fine simply wouldn’t shoot well. I soon learned the guns would maliciously make you look bad if you feed them ammo they didn’t like. .22s are the absolute worst for this, but any gun can do it.

The .38 Special conversions, and later the S&W Model 52, were designed to work only with wadcutters seated flush with the case mouth. Of course revolvers were not so restricted. Shooters worried — and still do — whether or not the long jump through the chamber before contacting the rifling had a negative effect on accuracy.

The same question is sometimes raised about shooting wadcutters in a .357 revolver. The skirt of the hollow base wadcutter very effectively seals the chamber, and my experience tells me this long jump matters not at all. I’ve often observed the same ammunition fired in both pistols and revolvers, and I’ve seen equal or better accuracy from the six-shooter. The extra .1 inch or so of a .357 Magnum chamber doesn’t matter either.


Vintage and current .38 Special wadcutter ammunition.

Competition Experience

As a bullseye shooter, the bullets in my 25-yard ammo came from a lovely Hensley and Gibbs mold, but the pro-jectiles I used at the critical 50-yard line came from Speer or Remington. Years ago, you could buy a wooden crate that contained 3,500 of Remington’s black beauties. That was a sizeable chunk of cash for this kid, so they were used sparingly. There was no difference in the load, and only the smallest change in the seating die on the Star tool was needed.

When my skills improved to the point I thought it mat-tered, I changed the game plan a bit. I shot handloads with HBWCs at 25 yards, but my 50-yard stuff came from the factory — whether it was Federal, Remington or Winchester. When I moved on to PPC shooting, the same rules applied.

There was a time when the huge majority of .38 Special ammo consumed was the mid-range wadcutter load. Back then, almost all law enforcement officers carried .38s and training was done with wadcutters. Of course the duty loads were either 158- or 200-grain lead round nose, so that wasn’t much of a problem. But when jacketed bullets at higher velocities came into favor, somebody concluded that training should be done with the same ammo used for duty. Sales of wadcutters went down.

Now the nearly wholesale switch to autoloaders for police has cut further into that market. Sources say the drop in .38 wadcutter sales could be as much as 80 to 90 percent. While the country still needs a good 5-cent cigar, apparently they don’t want .38 wadcutters. More’s the pity.


This vintage 5-screw K-38 is happiest when digesting factory wadcutters.

The Old Standards

Few things are as pleasant as sliding open a box of fac-tory wadcutters, but handloaders can duplicate the accuracy of factory ammo with relative ease. Not too long ago, I did a lengthy test of .38 Special reloads using Speer’s 148-grain HBWC. For a long time now, the standard target load with that type of bullet has been either 2.7 grains of Bullseye, or 3.0 grains of WW231.

This got me to thinking that there are a whole bunch of new powders available, so I developed loads with a number of them such that the velocities were all the same as the old stan-dard loads. Careful accuracy testing showed that sometimes the old ways really are best, because none of these new loads quite equaled the oldies. In fact, the WW231 load emerged slightly ahead of everything else.


Ransom Rest testing is the only way to really proof revolver and ammo.

Testing Plan

Perhaps it’s a fatal flaw, but I really like accuracy testing so it wasn’t too hard to design a test. I had factory wad-cutter ammo from Federal, Remington and Winchester. I chose a vintage K-38 that was made in the early ’60s and fired it in the Ransom Rest at 25 yards. One secret to measuring revolver accuracy is to eliminate the inevitable variability from one charge hole to another. To accommodate for this, I arbitrarily marked one chamber for exclusion and used only the other five. As a control, I used some Remington 158-grain round nose lead and Winchester 158-grain semi-wadcutters. All groups consisted of 10 shots.

Someone had wondered if a conventional semi-wadcutter would behave better if it were flatter in front, so I painstakingly set up the milling machine and cut off the nose to leave just a slight amount of lead above the crimp. The resulting bullet weighed 116.5 grains… and wouldn’t shoot for beans.

Aaccuracy results are 10 shot groups from Ransom Rest at 25 yards Velocity is the instrumental average of 30 shots as measured by a PACT chronograph.

Small Game Too

While almost everyone thinks of the wad-cutter as making nice, clean, easy-to-score, holes in targets, there’s more. One of the most important factors in on-game performance for any low velocity bullet is the frontal area known as the meplat. Well, the wadcutter’s is as big as you can get without going to larger diameter bullets, so for small game or varmints at close range it would be quite effective.

Some even suggest it for personal defense and I’m sure that, properly placed, it would be adequate in that role, but it would be my choice only as a last resort. Years ago, handloaders seated hollow base wadcutters backwards in the belief — which was com-pletely wrong by the way — that the huge hole ensured expansion. Others have tried to hotrod it and discovered more grief than they ever imagined.

The hollow skirt that does so much good at slow speeds turns into a devil at high velocities. As it crosses the barrel cylinder gap at high pressure, the skirt blows out and then must squeeze right down again to fit the forcing cone. The result is sometimes sepa-ration of the skirt, which can either result in awful accuracy or — even worse — a major league bore obstruction.


Expert Opinion

The last question to answer is why the wadcutters shoot as well as they do. So I sought the wise counsel of Wm. C. Davis, Ballistics Editor of The American Rifleman and the most knowledgeable man I know in the science of guns and ammunition. We had a great chat covering many of the topics I’ve already mentioned. He reminded me that the aerodynamic shape was not an issue at the slow velocities involved, but his final answer to the reasons for the wadcutter’s sterling performance was, “I’m not sure.”

Personally, that’s good enough for me. I’m going to quit trying to figure out the good ’ol wadcutter, and simply continue to enjoy it.

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