.38 Special LSWCHP +P: Still a Top Load?

Despite improvements in popular defense calibers like 9mm and .45 ACP as well as some new ones such as .40 S&W, .357 SIG, and .45 GAP, the .38 Special continues to sell as a self-protection round. With the police move to autos in the '80's, the "shakers and movers" in this caliber are now the snub revolvers. This is probably due to the concealed handgun licensing laws allowing private citizens to legally carry. In police circles, the .38 Special fills but a few duty holsters these days, just the opposite of a few decades ago. It still serves in the role of back up for more than a few lawmen.

Just as was the case 30 years ago, the .38 Special just didn't "shine" as a top "stopper" in any barrel length. The traditional 158-gr. LRN bullet loped along at some 800 ft/sec from the usual 4" barrel and the picture grew bleaker when using short-barreled revolvers.

Super Vel sought to change this with a hot 110-gr. JHP and eventually other ammunition manufacturers began doing the same. Commercial ammo used bullets from 90 to 158 grains with the most popular seeming to be in the 110 to 125-gr. weight range. It seems that some improvement in "stopping power" was observed over the old 158-gr. solids as well as the pitifully slow 200-gr. "Super Police" round nose load that was becoming almost nonexistent.

A popular defense load for the .38 Special appeared during this same time frame. It has been referred to as "The FBI Load" or "The Chicago Load" and I've seen it called "The Dallas Load" a few times. Whatever it was called, the round consisted of a lead SWC with a deep hollow cavity loaded to +P pressure.

It seemed to hit closer to point of aim in the fixed sight revolvers common at that time and field reports indicated that it was fairly effective. It is a safe statement that this load became quite popular whether offered from Remington, Federal, or Winchester. I do not recall which came out with it first.

Today, it still remains the top choice for some people, but is being challenged by some "new technology" bullets said to work more reliably over more varied conditions. Corbon has a light-for-caliber X-bullet, which penetrates more deeply than might be expected, and Speer is offering a mid-weight 135-gr. Gold Dot designed especially for use in shorter barrel lengths. Both are also loaded to SAAMI +P pressure levels and a myriad of 110 and 125-gr. JHP's are available as well.

Here are three cartridges for the .38 Special. From left to right: 130-gr. FMJFP, standard velocity 125-gr. Federal Nyclad hollow point, and a Remington 158-gr. LSWCHP +P. The FMJ is almost always used for practice while the other two were designed to expand in soft targets. The Nyclad was originally a SWC design intended for indoor target work. They were offered in both standard and +P loads, but neither is available from Federal today for use by private citizens. Both these hollow points would be considered "old technology."

Though most attempted to up the .38 snub's "stopping power" with higher velocities and better bullet design, one school suggests using the old 148-gr. full wadcutter, citing that many expanding designs simply don't after passing through 4-layers of denim before striking 10% ballistic gelatin. They cite sufficient penetration and low recoil being characteristic of this load. After all, if the expanding bullets don't after passing through the denim, why not go with the lighter, easier to shoot wadcutter?

Here we see the LSWCHP next to one of the latest entries, the homogeneous copper alloy Corbon DPX. At the bottom is the aggressive expanding JHP loaded to +P+ pressures. All are above standard pressure levels and approach enhancing "stopping power" differently. The "old technology" LSWCHP might be thought of as a homogeneous bullet like the DPX. It has no copper or jacket while the DPX has no lead. The LSWCHP is in the traditional weight and moves between 800 and about 900 ft/sec depending upon barrel length. The DPX is lighter and averages just under 1100 ft/sec from my snubs. The hot Corbon 115-gr. +P+ is no longer sold. This one exceeds 1180 ft/sec from a 1 7/8" barrel! Frankly, I'm hesitant to shoot it in my personal revolvers for fear of possibly cracking the thin forcing cone walls.

Thus, we see different approaches to a common problem and different criteria by which to judge effectiveness. Though kinetic energy figures were very commonly used to describe stopping power in the past, it is considered almost sacrilege to do so today. Some continue to go for higher than normal velocities with superbly designed expanding bullets while others go with a lighter recoiling flat solid, but the LSWCHP +P continues to sell and remains a very popular choice.

Why is this so?

Where the 158-gr. LSWCHP seems to fall from favor is when it is fired from 2" revolvers through 4-layers of denim before impacting 10% ballistic gelatin. This protocol is described by its supporters as a "worst case scenario" and not necessarily realistic. They opine that if a bullet will expand after punching the denim, it will usually do so for real and under most circumstances. (Note: This doesn't seem to be a problem when the LSWCHP is fired from 3" or longer barrels.) For this reason, the group supporting the denim test usually suggests using the 148-gr. wadcutter in the snub .38 revolver. They cite that it gets plenty of penetration, has low recoil, and does as good as an expanding bullet that doesn't expand.

Some of this makes sense to me. The wadcutter does kick less. It does penetrate sufficiently, at least in gelatin, but having chronographed some from an S&W snub at a "blazing" 541 ft/sec, I somehow don't think that this is quite as wise a choice as some might imply. Before I retired as a police officer, I spoke with a young man who'd been shot but a moment before with a .38 Special snub. He was sitting on the curb and looked like he wasn't feeling very good, but he could easily have pulled a trigger had he a gun and the inclination. It turns out that he died four minutes later in the ambulance I called.

He'd been shot through the heart with a .38 Special 148-gr. wadcutter.

I spoke with two officers from other agencies that had been forced to use their snubs against felons. Each was using the 158-gr. LSWCHP +P, but I don't remember which brand. Each decked an opponent with a single shot each to the chest. If memory serves, one of the crooks died, but both stopped and dropped when shot. I'm sure that there have been failures as well, but often wonder how much of this might be due to less than good shot placement because the little snubs can be difficult to shoot accurately if one is not practiced with them.

These bullets were fired into water from 2" .38 Special revolvers. The bullet at the left is from Remington and is softer than the deformed, flattened one on the right, which is from Winchester. (I am not sure where the Federal version falls in lead composition.) To me, the Remington is the better choice if a snub is being used. The Winchester sort of morphed into a wadcutter, but is traveling significantly faster so I'd pick either before I'd go with a target wadcutter as is sometimes suggested. When fired through the dreaded 4-layers of denim, the Remington acts about like the Winchester when the latter is fired directly into water. To me this still beats the wadcutter.

Again we see the expanded Remington (left) and Winchester 158-gr. LSWCHP +P's after being fired into water. This time there is less dramatic differences in expansion. That's because they were fired from 4" barrels. If my revolvers had barrels no shorter than 3", it wouldn't make me a lick of difference which was used. I'd probably go with whichever grouped best or cost less. In the snub, I definitely prefer Remington.

Though I've not tested them yet, the Speer 135-gr. Gold Dot "Short Barrel Load" appears to be very promising. It has a soft jacket with more copper content than traditional gilding metal and the bullet is reportedly designed to expand well at .38 snub velocities and to do so after passing through 4-layers of denim. (The DPX is said to do this as well.)

From a 2" vented test barrel, Speer reports that the 135-gr. Gold Dot +P averages 860 ft/sec. From my "slowest" barrel Model 642, Remington's 158-gr. LSWCHP +P hits 800 ft/sec with monotonous regularity.

With the Speer we have 7.5% more velocity, but trade 14.6% bullet weight to get it. Until I get a chance to really look at how this stuff performs, I believe I'll just stick with the old style LSWCHP.

From left to right we have an unfired 45-caliber 200-gr. SWC, an expanded Remington 158-gr. LSWCHP +P, and an unfired 38-caliber 158-gr. SWC. At reasonably similar velocities which appears to be capable of leaving the largest diameter permanent cavity? The LSWCHP normally penetrates between 14 and 16" of 10% ballistic gelatin. The one I saw recovered from a previously wounded deer expanded in a fashion similar to the one in the picture, but was more uneven. It was fired from a 1 7/8" S&W Model 60.

Can we make the .38 Special a more potent load? Yes, I think we can, assuming that bullet placement remains in the equation, but I just don't think that it will ever be the "stopper" that some other calibers are. I try and pick what I believe to be a "good" load and then concentrate on practice. The 158-gr. LSWCHP +P from a snub S&W revolver is about as low on the ballistic totem pole as I care to go.

Here we see the Remington 158-gr. LSWCHP +P (center) compared to some other popular defense loads in other calibers. All were fired into water. Top Left: 9mm 127-gr. Winchester Ranger fired from a Browning Hi Power. Top Right: .45 ACP 230-gr. Ranger fired from 5" Kimber. Bottom Left: Hornady 90-gr. XTP fired from a Bersa. Bottom Right: Corbon .357 Magnum 125-gr. DPX fired from 2 1/2" S&W Model 19. I suspect that the 9mm, .357, and .45 loads are more likely to incapacitate quicker than the .38 LSWCHP +P, but still submit that this load is worthy of consideration in a snub. Its effectiveness is no doubt better in a 3 or 4" barrel revolver.

Some report problems with leading, but I've not seen this in any S&W, Colt, or Ruger revolver that I've fired this ammunition through. I have seldom fired more than 50 shots at a time, however, and I reckon it is possible if firing more than that between cleanings or in a rough bore.

Until I get the chance to personally try more of the latest loads for the .38 Special and see how they are performing in the real world, I'll just stay with this old load.

For those interested, here are some average 10-shot velocities for this Remington round:

S&W Model 642 with 1 7/8" bbl: 800 ft/sec

S&W Model 19 with 2 1/2" bbl: 860 ft/sec

S&W Model 64 with 3" bbl: 883 ft/sec

Ruger GP100 with 3" bbl: 894 ft/sec

Ruger SP101 with 3 1/16" bbl: 906 ft/sec

S&W Model 10 with 4" bbl: 888 ft/sec

I cannot say if the newer attempts to increase the .38 revolver's "stopping power" are better, worse, or about the same as the old lead hollow point; they just have not had time to produce a track record. In the meantime, I'll stay with the LSWCHP +P in my .38 Special revolvers…but I'll be looking at the new stuff, too!