Loads For Short-Barrel Revolvers, Hunting
And Specialty Ammo.
The classic .38 Special “snubbie” revolver has been popular for concealed carry for decades, and is probably more popular now than ever. A good defensive load is a balancing act between bullet weight, reasonable velocity from a short barrel, controllable recoil, and gun durability.
Any of the premium defense loads listed, using .38 Special 125-grain JHP +P loads will work; provided, of course, your revolver is approved for +P ammunition and you can handle the recoil (which personally I don’t find too bad). Velocities will run around 900 to 1,000 fps, depending on the specific load.
More specifically, the Speer .38 Special 135-grain Gold Dot +P at around 900 fps is promoted as a short-barrel load. In my experience it gives excellent accuracy and expands fairly well in paraffin blocks. Winchester has a 130-grain +P PDX1 load at about 900 fps from a 2-inch barrel with a large hollowpoint and six segments for expansion even at moderate velocity.
I wouldn’t try to talk anyone out of using heavier bullet loads such as 158-grain standard or +P JHPs, or lead HPs. They do recoil a bit more and make the revolver a bit slower in recoil recovery and shot-to-shot time. I think the 125- to 135-grain loads provide a bit better balance, but really don’t have a problem with 150- or 158-grain bullets.
The .44 Special is loaded for all occasions. Black Hills Ammunition loads are excellent for plinking or cowboy action shooting with a 210-grain bullet at 700 fps. Three Buffalo Bore loads (left to right) include the hunting oriented 255-grain Keith bullet at 1,200 fps, and for defense, a 190-grain JHP load provides power with moderate recoil, and, if the law won’t allow you to have JHP bullets, the 200-grain full wadcutter bullets are a good alternative. Revolvers include a S&W M24 .44 Special (left) and M29 .44 Magnum.
For a bit less recoil, most of the companies listed have 110-grain loads. Hornady has two 110-grain FTX Critical Defense loads, one standard pressure and the other +P. In a 2-inch barrel the +P load will reach close to 1,000 fps, the standard load around 900 fps.
Buffalo Bore also has two levels of 110-grain loads for .38 Special, both using Barnes lead-free bullets. A +P load chronographs a little more than 1,100 fps. The standard pressure load with the same bullet delivers around 950 to 980 fps. These velocities are from 2-inch barrels.
Hornady recently announced a standard-pressure 90-grain FTX Critical Defense “Lite” load rated at 1,200 fps from a 4-inch barrel. I haven’t yet seen 2-inch barrel data but a reasonable estimate would be 1,075 to 1,100 fps.
When we get down to 90-grain bullets we’re into .380 ACP country. There are premium .380 loads from the companies listed, with bullet weights from 80 to 90 grains and muzzle velocities around 950 to 1,000 fps from typical .380 pistols with 3- to 3-1/2-inch barrels.
I’m a bit lukewarm about the .380 as a defensive round, though I realize others may draw the line differently. I hear people say, a hot .380 load is pretty close to your .38 Special snubbie which you think is just great. Well, it isn’t that close, and I don’t think a .38 snubbie is all that great, except as a backup. The 125-grain +P .38 Special from a snubbie is as fast or faster than a hot .380 load, and with a 50-percent heavier bullet.
For big-game hunting, .41 and .44 Magnum full-power loads are minimum in my view (talking true handgun rounds, not rifle rounds adapted to specialty handguns). I include full-power heavy-bullet loads for cartridges such as .44 Special and .45 Colt.
Handgunners such as Elmer Keith demonstrated decades ago, the way to kill big game with a handgun is to punch a large-diameter hole in one side and out the other.
For smaller, lighter game such as deer and antelope there’s nothing wrong with using light-for-caliber hollowpoint bullets. I killed an antelope at around 190 yards with a .460 S&W using, if I remember correctly, 200-grain bullets. I say “bullets” as it took more than one due to my bad shooting on the first shot. The point is, though, all bullets went completely through.
For all-around hunting use I’ll stick with Elmer’s wisdom, a heavy-for-caliber flatnose, hardcast lead bullet at around 1,200 to 1,400 fps. Such a load will go through a moose on a broadside shot, with tolerable recoil even in a “packable” revolver weighing 2-1/2 to 3 pounds.
Such loads were once available to handloaders only. Currently Buffalo Bore offers excellent hunting loads for a variety of cartridges. The one I’ve shot most is a 255-grain Keith bullet at close to 1,200 fps from a handy .44 Special.
A few other Buffalo Bore examples include the .41 Magnum, 230-grain Keith at 1,450 fps, .44 Magnum, 305-grain LFN at 1,325 fps, .45 Colt, 325-grain LFN at 1,325 fps, and the .500 S&W, 440-grain LFN at 1,325 fps. Buffalo Bore isn’t limited to hardcast lead bullets; they also offer a variety of loads with jacketed or lead-free bullets.
A new load in Hornady’s highly regarded Critical Defense lineup is the “Lite” .38 Special load with 90-grain bullet for reduced recoil. The pink theme seems to suggest Hornady wants to appeal to women shooters, however, less recoil and faster recoil recovery in lightweight revolvers should appeal to men as well.
Many indoor ranges, and for that matter many shooters, are demanding lead-free ammunition to reduce exposure to airborne lead. We tend to think lead comes only from the bullet, but in fact the biggest risk to the shooter comes from lead styphnate, which for decades has been used in primers. The volume of lead is small compared to the bullet, the difference is it is airborne and it is right in front of the shooter.
I remember the first time I examined a cartridge case fired with a lead-free primer. The interior looked so shiny and bright it might have been a new, unfired case. I always assumed the black interior of fired cases resulted from the powder. Not so, it’s partly from the lead styphnate.
Lead-free bullets are of two main types. One actually has a lead core, but is fully encapsulated with a jacket, usually copper-based. This differs from regular jacketed ammunition in which the lead core is exposed either at the front or back.
Encapsulated bullets are relatively inexpensive, the downside is they are also usually of roundnose configuration, best suited to training and plinking. Another approach is the monometal style in which no lead at all is used. With monometals the designer can use a hollowpoint of whatever size desired since there is no lead core to expose. Barnes bullets are an excellent example. The only downside is they tend to be more expensive. The solution is to practice with encapsulated lead-free loads and use the more expensive monometal lead-free ammunition for hunting or personal defense.
By Dave Anders
Black Hills Ammunition
3050 Eglin St.
Rapid City, SD 57703
Buffalo Bore Ammunition
P.O. Box 1480
St. Ignatius, MT 59865
2299 Snake River Ave.
Lewiston, ID 83501
1311 Industry Rd.
Sturgis, SD 57785
Federal Premium Ammunition
900 Ehlen Dr.
Anoka, MN 55303
P.O. Box 1848
Grand Island, NE 68802
870 Remington Dr.
Madison, NC 27025
600 Powder Mill Rd.
East Alton, IL 62024